Leviticus 26.42-46

II Timothy 2.8-13

Remembering the Future

Trinity Sunday

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow / between the crosses row on row, / that mark our place, and in the sky /the larks, still bravely singing, fly / scarce heard amid the guns below.”

These are the opening lines of John McCrae’s revered poem about the First World War, once called The Great War, or, wishfully-thinking, The War to End All Wars; the poem is called simply, “In Flanders Fields.” The poppies that grow among the crosses in the Flanders region of Belgium are the inspiration to the troops of the American Legion you have no doubt seen in front of stores this weekend, handing out the paper poppies like the ones I just gave our children.

            I read something rather surprising about World War I the other day in The New Yorker.   For all of the attention we give to our armed services on days like Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day, there is currently no memorial in all of Washington DC honoring those who fought in the First World War. There is one honoring veterans of the Vietnam War, one for World War II and one for the Korean War, but none for World War I. Two sculptors have been commissioned to design one, so there is one in the pipeline. So in the meanwhile, on this Memorial Day weekend, a pop-up memorial has just been constructed, made entirely of poppies - more than 645,000 poppies – to honor the roughly 645,00 American lives lost since the start of World War I. They are arranged in a translucent structure 133 feet wide and 8 ½ feet tall. It is only temporary, but will serve as the WW I Memorial this Memorial Day weekend.

            The idea of memorial looms large in the scriptures, in the Old Testament in particular. Moses built an altar of stones in Exodus 12 as a way of commemorating and memorializing God’s covenant with Israel. Joshua built a memorial of twelve single stones taken from the Jordan River, one for each of the twelve families of Israel. And of course, the idea of the temple as a remembrance of God’s covenant and deliverance has a major role in the history and faith of Israel. But there is more than one kind of memorial. The ones we have been talking about so far, the poppies, the war monuments, the altars and stones and temples of Israel’s history are one way to remember the past, to honor days gone by. But this morning’s readings from the scriptures point us in a different direction; they call us, not to remember the past, but to remember the future.

            Just before I graduated from college, longer ago than I care to remember, some close friends and I made a pact for the future. We vowed that whenever we got together in the years to come, for reunions or weddings or what have you, we would not spend a lot of time sitting around reminiscing about our college days. “Hey, remember the time we put Dave Grunden’s Volkswagen on top of the Student Union?” “Yeah, that was almost as good as the time we took all Peter’s furniture out of his house and set it up on his front lawn.” You know how it goes: while some of life’s best memories are worth retelling, you can’t spend your entire life retelling them, otherwise you’ll find yourself, say, twenty-five years down the road, with nothing left to remember but all the times you sat around remembering. “Hey, remember back in ’95 when we sat around Steve’s place all weekend and reminisced? Wasn’t that a lot of fun!” The past does possess a tremendous amount of meaning and value to us – remember George Santayana’s well-worn adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – but while it has a great deal of meaning, and a great deal to teach us, the past is not a healthy place to live. Or as George Bernard Shaw once observed, “Reminiscences make one feel so deliciously aged – and sad.”

            Now, having said this, there are times that a little looking backward is beneficial for us, and Memorial Day weekend is one of those times when the value of our remembering the past is really brought home to us. The whole notion of remembering, and of celebrating those whose lives we remember, is a very special one. We do this in the civic arena today and tomorrow on Main Streets and village greens across the country, and many churches follow suit today during Memorial Sunday worship, when in word and song and prayer we remember those who made tremendous sacrifices so that you and I, among many other things, might worship God freely.  

The story is told of the little girl who came into church on Memorial Day Sunday and gazed wide-eyed at the impressive bronze plaque in the narthex which was engraved with a list of names. “What’s this?” she asked the pastor before worship. “Why, that is the list of all those members of our congregation who died in the service,” came the pastor’s proud reply. The little girl thought about that one and asked, “The 9:00 service or the 11:00 service?”

            Still, memory is a funny thing. It is not enough simply to leave memory to the past. Abandoned to times gone by, memories will fade and die. Who wants to reminisce about reminiscing? It is a paradox, that in certain respects, remembering is only partially a looking back; it must also be a looking ahead. Memories are only edifying for us if they in some way point us to the future. In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the Queen of Hearts made a telling point when she declared to Alice, “It is a poor sort of memory that looks only backwards.” It is a poor sort of memory that looks only backwards. More often than not, Carroll is able to make more sense out of seeming nonsense than the rest of us do when we are being straightforward. It is a poor sort of memory that looks only backwards.

            Consider the covenant God established through Moses with Israel, which we heard in our reading from Leviticus today. God spoke of remembering the covenant, but notice this is not a remembrance which looks to the past: “I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac, and [I will remember] my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.” The fulfillment of the covenant between God and God’s people is a remembrance which looks to the future. It opens up new possibilities, it preempts any temporary disappointments along the way, and it is a remembrance guaranteed for generations to come. It is a poor sort of memory that looks only backwards.

            This way of looking ahead by looking back, is not an isolated instance in Leviticus either. When God placed the bow in the cloud as a promise to Noah, what God spoke again had more to do with the future than with the past: “I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” The book of Deuteronomy frequently repeats the admonition, “You shall remember.” And in Isaiah, the prophet points to the days to come as he speaks the word of the Lord: “Remember not former things, nor things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing.” The command to remember, then, does not linger long over a well-loved, distant past, mired in memories of days gone by. The command to remember, rather, looks ahead, it imparts its own value to what life and experience have yet to bring, for it looks steadily forward: it remembers the future. As Albert Einstein once observed, “The distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, however persistent.”

            I think in ways similar to this scriptural method of memory, our celebration of Memorial Day retains this same sense of propelling memory into the future. We do not honor our veterans, living or dead, if we fail to learn from the wars they fought. We as a nation, we as a people, may not ignore the lessons of racism and classism and nationalism which lay at the root of the Civil War and the two World Wars and Korea and Vietnam and Iraq, nor the protracted and proxy wars in which we are currently engaged in Afghanistan and the Middle East. You and I know far too well that such tiny spots on the map as Antietam and Sarajevo and Dien Bien Phu and Kandahar Province and the Gaza Strip are capable of shaking our world’s complacency and obliterating any sense of simplistic self-confidence or nationalistic hubris. The values of humanity’s life-styles must be weighed and measured against the value of all human life. Memorial Day is a day for remembering the past, yes – to the extent that it helps us to remember the future.

            And so Timothy, a young pastor of a Christian church in Thessaloniki, receives these words of advice from the apostle Paul, “Remember Jesus Christ.” Remember Jesus Christ. Now, these words will not make a whole lot of sense if all they mean is that this minister of the gospel is supposed to look back into the past, at the life of Jesus every now and then. No, in light of what we have been considering this morning, “Remember Jesus Christ” is a word of promise, words which open up to us the enigmatic saying with which the passage closes: “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself.” If we are faithless, yet he remains faithful. Remembering Jesus Christ has power for the future. It has the power to carry us with confidence through this age, and with certainty into the age to come. “If we are faithless, yet he remains faithful.” Whether or not we do remember Jesus Christ, that power is there, and if we are faithful, that power belongs to us, both now and in the future. Remember Jesus Christ.

            Remembering is more than an exercise which recalls a distant past. Constructively applied, remembering also ushers us into the future informed, prepared, and supported by a memory which still burns and lives within us. Remembering those who served in the armed forces will help us evaluate whether the next battle is worth the cost in human lives – our own and our enemy’s. Remembering church members of old equips us to do today’s and tomorrow’s work, both by their memory and also by the institution of the church they have vouchsafed to us. Remembering Jesus’ words, “Do this, as often as you eat and drink, for the remembrance of me,” transforms our observance of a meal from the past into a promise of a feast for the future. And remembering Jesus Christ is a remembrance before which every other remembrance pales, but which gives character and meaning to all our rememberings, past, present and future.

            Amen.

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