Right Remembering: "Not everyone who says Lord, Lord"

Memorial Day weekend

Everyone who hears these words and acts on them…

  • Genesis 6:9-22 “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight…”
  • Psalm 46: 1-11 “God is our refuge and strength…”
  • Romans 1:16-17 “I am not ashamed of the gospel…righteous live by faith”
  • Matthew 7:21-29 “kingdom of heaven…only one who does will of God”

Remember Who You Are

I will always remember one of our beloved former SMC members, Betti Erb telling how well she remembers growing up having her mother remind her whenever she left the house, “remember who you are!”

Likely most of us have experienced a similar admonition from our parents in our wild and carefree youth. And just as likely we didn’t appreciate it. How many of you heard some version of “Remember who you are” from your parents? How many you were grateful to hear your mom or dad remind warn you to, “Remember who you are?”

Nevertheless, it is a good reminder not only when we are teenagers but for all times. We do well to remember who we are and whose we are . Our remembering makes a great difference not only in our lives but in the world.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a day of remembering. Memorial Day invokes two related memories. First we remember those who died fighting wars. Memorial Day honors those who died presumably as a sacrifice for us and for our country. A second remembering follows from the first, which is to remember the wars in which they fought and died.

Many churches will make much of this remembering wars and war dead in worship today without considering how our memorializing dishonors Jesus and violates our faith. In our Memorial Day remembering a forgotten question has to do with who we are forgetting.

As a Mennonite pacifist Christian, I confess that I do not have family members who died fighting wars to remember on Memorial Day. I also confess that my primary Memorial Day remembering is “the greatest spectacle in racing” — the Indianapolis 500! As you can see I am here at worship with you this morning rather than watching the Indy 500 live J While I can’t tell you about deaths in war that have affected me, I could tell you about a few tragic deaths in racing that have affected me.

Far more important than wars and races is the question of who and what is remembered? In a world and even in a church where people are too often dis-membered rather than re-membered in one way or another, it is imperative that we remember rightly .

Remembering Rightly as Biblical People

Our act of worship is to help us remember rightly. Our right remembering is rooted in the biblical story.

Women of Mary Magdalene remember

Yesterday several of us joined Beth and the women of the Church of Mary Magdalene for worship. You may recall the Sunday last winter when Beth brought several of these amazing women here to lead us in worship and adult study. The women of the Church of Mary Magdalene are women who are homeless and know adversity intimately. They remember without pretension. They remember not only their own lives but the lives of others who suffer. They remember from the underside of history. Yesterday was Beth’s last Sunday as one of their pastors in her ministry internship for the past 9 months. These women remembered Beth with gracious gratitude and genuine love. What a gift! Beth will not be forgotten!

Most of all their remembering brings them to amazing memories of God and their utter dependence on God. The Gospel was from Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount telling us to not be anxious and to trust God.

In her sermon Beth reminded us that the righteousness Jesus speaks of in the Beatitudes that begin the Sermon on the Mount is a righteousness that seeks to live a God-pleasing right relationship with God . To be righteous is to be in God-pleasing right relationship with God, God’s creation, and all God’s people. Our commitment to God-pleasing right relationship helps us remember rightly.

Genesis 6: 9-22 God finds Noah righteous

Our first biblical story comes from early in the first book of the Bible, Genesis 6. It poses for us an early sign of righteousness and right remembering in the face of a world where people have already turned to wrong remembering forgetting who they are.

Wickedness – that is wrong remembering – is running rampant among the people. “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and filled with violence” (6:11). Corruption and violence grows out of and leads to wrong remembering. Is this not a description of our age as much as an ancient biblical era?

But right remembering is possible. Somebody remembers rightly against the grain of the universe. The Genesis writer continues the story to help us remember, “Noah was a righteous man…[who] walked with God” (v. 9). So God promised to establish a new covenant with the one person who remembered rightly. We know the story of Noah’s ark and the flood. We are not unpacking here the peril and the promise of the flood that pose some problems for us about a God who wipes out wrong remembering with a flood.

Right Remembering and True Peace

During the past weeks as I was looking ahead to this Sunday I encountered many situations that juxtapose right and wrong remembering. As recently as last Tuesday, our Jewish Christian Dialogue group had a vigorous conversation what we remember and what difference it makes. For the past year right and wrong remembering has been the focus of our conversation based on Miraslav Wolf’s recent book The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World.

It is to another book having everything to do with right and wrong remembering that I want to direct our attention to this Memorial Day Sunday. I am reading Jim Douglass’ new book JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Matters . For abut 15 years Jim has been exploring the 1960s assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy and how they are connected and to whom or what they are connected. A couple of times over the past 10 years I have heard Jim speak about the disturbing revelations of his research. Despite having great respect for Jim I have been skeptical. Nevertheless, in just beginning to read this first of 4 volumes about these four lives, I am no longer skeptical in the same way.

I want to share a glimpse from Jim’s revelation this morning in the context of Memorial Day and the difficulty of right remembering. In part this came from a reference to Noah’s Ark as an unexpected operative image for President Kennedy. And in part it draws on a long forgotten presidential speech as revelatory as Martin Luther King’s April 4, 1967, Riverside Church sermon on Vietnam. Six months later the president was dead and one year later King was dead. Both had died from an assassin’s bullet leaving a legacy of unanswered questions about whether the one who pulled he trigger is the real assassin.

It was the early sixties when the world faced of the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation from an arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States as the cauldron of the Cold War reaching its boiling point. In the heat of this Cold War, President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev established a personal communication outside diplomatic channels, including an exchange of 21 letters. Remember this was a pre- internet world when people actually wrote letters!

Remarkably the Communist Khrushchev, in his first letter in 1961 (a 26 page letter!), appealed to the Christian Kennedy as a fellow passenger on Noah’s Ark and called for the two of them to keep the ark afloat so that all people could find sanctuary. Two years later, Kennedy and Khrushchev negotiated a Limited Test Ban Treaty on nuclear weapons, in the face of fear-mongering opposition from their respective country’s military and political leaders. (Doug Pritchard, CPT review of JFK book, e-mail 5/15/08).

‘The Unspeakable’ in Jim’s title for the book is a term Thomas Merton coined during the heat of the 1960s after Kennedy’s assassination and in the midst of the escalating war in Vietnam and the nuclear arms race, and the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. In each of those soul-shaking events Merton sensed an evil whose depths and deceit seemed to go beyond the capacity of words to describe.

“One of the awful facts of our age,” Merton wrote, “is the evidence that [the world] is stricken to the very core of its being by the presence of ‘ the Unspeakable .'” Merton spoke of the Unspeakable as a void…a kind of systemic evil that defies speech (xv).

Thomas Merton and Jim Douglass dare to give voice to the Unspeakable that is even more true today than it was in the1960s. The tragedy and sin of wrong-remembering is as rampant today as it was in Noah’s day and in America of the 1960s! That is what we need to remember rightly on this Memorial Day 2008. But right remembering calls us to make an intentional decision to refuse to live by the violence and sin of wrong remembering.

One particularly heinous manifestation of the Unspeakable wrong-remembering is torture as the modus operandi of the war on terror which replaces the nuclear terror of the Cold War. Errol Morris, America’s most provocative documentary filmmaker, shows the tragedy of wrong-remembering in a new film called “Standard Operating Procedure” about Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. In an interview this week, Morris spoke a word that should help us rightly remember the scope of wrong remembering running through US policy from the White House to the Pentagon to Capitol Hill to Foggy Bottom to Langley and even to the homes and churches of American voters. Of the now infamous photographs of Lynndie England taken by her boyfriend Charles Graner, in the Abu Ghraib prison, Morris said, “I’ve often imagined, when Graner was taking pictures of his girlfriend holding that leash [around the neck of a] prisoner, that in some very deep sense he was re-enacting American foreign policy.” ( Seattle PI interview, /22/08).

To remember rightly today we will have to remember the truth that this is not just “one bad apple.” It is US foreign policy wrongly wrought in our name and in God’s name.

Torture is wrong. Torture is a moral matter. Torture defies human rights, the US Constitution and law, international law, and all sense of humanity and decency and even sanity. There is an effort to get congregations to clearly say that “torture is wrong” and publicly display banners with that message. I call us today to join our voice with other faith communities with this message that “Torture is wrong!” I have just received information on how to do that and hope that on this Memorial Day we can do so.

Forty Five years ago an astonishing and forgotten presidential address tried to re-orient our nation’s remembering so it wouldn’t come to a war this terror and torture. Jim Douglass helps us remember President Kennedy’s Commencement address to American University on June 10, 1963, and includes the whole address as an appendix. Let me share only a few brief quotes from that address.

I have chosen this time and place to discuss…the most important topic on earth: peace…Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war….I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life worth living…not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace for all time. I speak of peace because of the new face of war…every citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward, by examining [their] own attitude towards the possibilities of peace…(383)

Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. Peace is a process – a way of solving problems…Peace need not be impractical, and war need not be inevitable…No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. (384).

So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct our attention to our common interests…Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we all are mortal. (385).

The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. We do not want war…We shall do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid we must labor on – not towards a strategy of annihilation but towards a strategy of peace. (388).

It is not surprising that this presidential address is forgotten. It is incumbent on us to remember it and to remember that less than six months later JFK was dead. JFK’s assassination is no more disconnected from this vision for a new world peace than is Martin Luther King’s assassination disconnected from his Vietnam sermon.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and Right Remembering

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is a comprehensive teaching on right remembering. Indeed as Christians we cannot remember rightly unless we let this sermon shape our lives and memories. Jesus tells us who is blessed and why and how we must be grounded in love of God, neighbor, and self, a commandment that now includes love of enemy. Jesus’ great sermon gives us ears and eyes, mind and heart to remember rightly.

Jesus begins this final teaching of this sermon a strong warning, “Not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter God’s reign on earth as in heaven.” Who will remember and enter the kingdom of heaven? Those who do God’s will. Yet many will declare, “We are God’s chosen people. We have the right doctrine. We live in the right country. We are the moral agents of the world. We’ll make history come out right.” And even, “We’re doing this for you, God.” To anyone making those claims, Jesus says loud and clear, “Not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord,’ is really on God’s side remembering rightly!”

Jesus sums up the Sermon on the Mount with the image that those who hear these words and live them are like the wise person who built a house on rock rather than sand. When the rain waters of scorn come down and the floodwaters of persecution come up, we are to be steadfast in right remembering with Jesus in God’s reign on earth as in heaven rather than being caught up in the rampant wrong remembering violence and corruption of the emperor’s reign.

“Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the [people] were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority…” (Matthew 7:28-29). This authority in Jesus will help us remember rightly today and always. Amen. Even so come Lord Jesus!