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Rivers of Shared Memory

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Aug 11

Hebrews 11:1 - 12:2

In 1995, the great Toni Morrison wrote an essay called “The Site of Memory.” Hear her words about how writers seek to harness the powers of memory and imagination:


“You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. "Floods" is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory - what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our "flooding." 


For flooding her readers hearts and mind with prose, with memory, with imagination, language, characters, and stories that have offered solace, hope, life-saving and course-altering empowerment to countless people, I give God deepest thanks for the precious gifts of Toni Morrison who died earlier this week.


I was thinking of that flooding rush of imagination and memory when considering our text for today from Hebrews. The text is most often attributed to Paul though scholars disagree who actually wrote it.  Whoever it was, it strikes me that his process was also one of memory and imagination seeking its way back to an original place. Especially in chapter 11, whether read in full or excerpted, there is wave after wave, memory after memory of spiritual forebears. And the writer makes no effort to straighten out the sometimes torturous and violent bends.  Instead we see a flood of stories of faithful and courageous response to repeated challenges. By faith Abel. By faith Enoch. By faith Noah (talk about a flood). By faith Abraham and Sarah. By faith Moses. By faith Rahab. By faith Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthat, David, Samuel. By faith women. By faith those who were stoned to death and sawn in two. From generation to generation, the writer of Hebrews announces this so-called roll call of the saints. In so doing, he sets Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, and all who would follow him, in the midst of a wide and ever flowing stream of faithful response to God’s unfailing love.  Let us run with perseverance the race indeed. Let us follow the course of that mighty river to its and our true beginning and ending.  


Like all water, that river has a perfect memory!  And its trying to get back to where it was, to a sense of a where it and where we belong. Judging from our text, writers and people of faith share this instinct in common - to remember where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place.   As Morrison says, “It is emotional memory - what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared.”


The writer of Hebrews is trying to recall how our faith appeared, first for the figures in the Hebrew bible, then for Jesus and his followers.  It appears in story. It appears in our mind’s eye of a God who created the foundations of our world, and who builds a beloved community of belonging, upon those foundations. We may not be able to see it, but therein lies of conviction of things unseen!  Morrison never saw nor had first experience of the truth that seers through the pages of her masterwork, Beloved. Yet that truth sets her and her characters and her readers at once back and forth to taste freedom and love. The same could be said of our scripture. With these stories told in Hebrews and elsewhere, we inherit a wider memory, a wider family, a wider household of faith that is constantly drawing us, flooding us with grace upon grace, calling us back and forth to where we belong. 


Can we recognize our faith as part of our a larger stream of Christians and Christian communities, flowing through the generations, coming upon us in each new waves, new moments when we too proclaim that we have it, or that we want to have it?  After all, faith is an attitude, a posture of grateful response and trust that God is good, that creation is good, that humanity is good despite evidence to the contrary! Faith is an openness and an earnest desire to belong, to be part of that great river of conversation, of questions and doubts, of stories and values.  By faith, that entire roll of characters acted in courageous ways, seeking to follow God, to find a way of freedom and justice and love despite challenges, despite grief and loss, despite persecutions and torture and death. What a remarkable flood of imagination and memory! And it flows into us and over us even now. To be sure, it can be overwhelming at times but I love Morrison’s idea that this flooding is seeking an origin.


In one of this week’s many tributes, the novelist Zadie Smith celebrates Morrison’s brilliance by pointing to the generations of writers and readers that Morrison has and will continue to touch.  She references a first compilation of writing by over 200 prominent women of African descent, called Daughters of Africa, of which Morrison was one, not surprisingly. The editor recently published a second volume of Daughters of Africa, equally large. Smith makes the case that “many of the writers are not only daughters of Africa but also, metaphorically speaking, daughters of Morrison—a category in which Smith includes herself.’ Smith continues “She enriched our literary inheritance, and now every school child, whatever their background, can inherit Morrison as a literary forebear, a great American writer, who is as available to them—as ‘universal’—as any other writer in the canon. All readers and writers are indebted to her for the space she created.”


Indeed, we are immensely indebted to Morrison for the space she created, particularly those sites of memory of those beloved children of God who were enslaved and oppressed. Gratefully, her writing floods over and restists our forebears tendencies to straighten things out.  I’m also today, grateful for our covenant, grateful to our forebears in the faith who enriched our spiritual inheritance and created spaces that we call church.  Consider how many people have stood in one of our six meetinghouses over the last four hundred years and shared the covenant that we just shared, expressing their faith? The church as its best is a channel for those deep waters of God’s love, a channel for that assurance of things hoped for, a channel of hope that we can yet one day, with floods of memory or rememory as Morrison might say, find that route back to our original place, to our first identities as children of God, all of us.  


Of course, we must continue to acknowledge the grave sins of our founders, against Native Americans, against African slaves, against women and so called heretics.  And, despite failure after failure of this congregation to live out the gospel, some of which persist to this day, we can hear throughout our history an earnest effort, a striving to receive and share God’s grace, to ‘let more light and truth break forth from Gods word,’  to forge a congregation of gathered souls and to build a community that was and is bound by covenantal love. 


Hear again or for the first time how Thomas Shepherd described our covenantal ties in 1636:


But the Lord’s heart is so full of love ...that it cannot be contained so long with the bound of secrecy but it must aforehand overflow and break out into the many streams of a blessed Covenant.  The Lord can never get near enough to HIS people, and thinks He can never get them near enough unto Himself, and therefore unites and binds and fastens them close to Himself and Himself unto them, by the bonds of a Covenant. …Oh! The depth of God’s grace herein…that [even] when [we] deserve nothing else but separation from God, and to be driven up and down the world as a vagabond,...yet the Almighty God …must make himself to us, and us to Himself, more sure and near than ever before.  Is not this Covenant then ...worth thy looking into and searching after? 


For Shepard and his congregation, without covenant, there was no original place in which to be held by God’s unconditional love, nor was there a public commitment or original way to hold one’s neighbor in mutual love and mutual respect, and in mutual responsibility and mutual accountability. Without covenant, there were no ties of memory or community, exclusive and elitist as that community sometimes was and is. Without covenant, there was no church.


In a country where civic institutions are in decline , we can’t underestimate the power of this innovation, especially when we consider that these bonds were and are intended to be voluntarily.  The very word, religion, from re-ligare, which means “to bind” finds an at once ancient and new meaning in this form. We bind ourselves to walk in all our ways according to the rule of the gospel.  If only, but what an ambition for such a time as then, and for such as time as this, when we so desperately need communities like this one that draws us out of our selves, that resist our nation’s rampant if not rancid me-first individualism, amnesia and presentism, that teaches us shared values of compassion and mercy and justice, where we hold each other’s welfare as sacred as our own. It’s what reminds us that we are all in this life together, that we need each other, that we are ever reliant on God’s grace to see us through the brokenness of our lives and our world.  Such is our inheritance, from the days of biblical covenants to the first covenants formed on these shores.


And now hear how William Newell, an early minister of our sibling congregation, First Parish Cambridge, describes it in 1846:


It is good for us from time to time to visit the Mount Auburn of memory, to stand by the tombs of departed sages and prophets, and to read again upon the sunken monuments the moss-covered inscriptions which tell us of their labors and merits. We need not deny, and we need not forget, their faults. We will remember them as warnings and beacons…


But in thus contemplating the changes which have taken place since their time in the scenes around us, I remembered that the great essential features of the landscape still remain the same. One generation, passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth…The same river, which winded its way along the fields of the Pilgrims, and by a defensive palisade, still winds its way by the cultivated and thick-settled villages of their descendants...We stand in their places. They have committed the torch of freedom and truth to our hands. We must bear it aloft in their spirit, if not with their creed. “Contend earnestly for the faith as it was once delivered to the saints" was their motto..  and should be the motto of this church still… 


In the communal pain and even desperation of these present times, can we remember our history of faith and will we contend earnestly for it?  Later in that essay I quoted earlier, Morrison shares about her own writing “…like water, I remember where I was before I was “straightened out.”  Thanks be to God! And what an invitation and a profoundly spiritual question to us all. Can we remember where we were before we were straightened out, if only by our own parents or ancestors? If not, then let the floods of memory and imagination come, and let the roll calls of saints and heroes resound!  Let them come. And find strength and solace there, in the stories of challenges and persecutions past, in the resilience therein, in the constancy of God’s love for all, in the commitment to a shared covenant that courses through each generation.  We are inheritors of a great legacy -- of faith, covenant and community.  We give thanks for all the saints, from Abraham and Sarah, to the writer of Hebrews, to Thomas Shepherd and William Newell, to Toni Morrison and all her blessed daughters for flooding our straightened shores and exposing a still more perfect path, to our newest members, Emmanuel and Marilyn, and to the generations of first church searchers and seekers to come. By faith, may we too help each other find the route back to our original place of longing and belonging and connection, so that by faith, may we go forth and be the church the world needs today. Amen.


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