NEW MEMORIES AND OLD
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
July 1, 2018
Texts: Psalm 33; Isaiah 51:1-16
Holidays evoke memories, some for which we are grateful and others we would rather forget. There’s not a celebration that isn’t connected to our memories – whether individual or collective, whether good or bad. Early in our Nation’s history, the Fourth was a time of not just celebra-tion but sadness as well. The new nation was not a unified whole, but a disparate set of states drawn and forced together by necessity. Families had been torn asunder during the struggle and war for independence, as they were fourscore and seven years later at the time of the Civil War. The Constitution wasn’t written until 1787.
The new states all had separate currencies; the Continental Congress issued paper money that was worth-less; soldiers who had returned from the fighting were struggling to begin their lives anew – as soldiers do in so many of our wars. Some, perhaps even many, wondered if the whole project had been worth the effort – there had been so much loss, so much death, and for what?
A hope, a dream, a promise of something totally new on the face of the earth – a Nation drawn together by allegiance to a national ideal of freedom rather than one based on religion, or national origin. The dreams of some – African slaves, women, and Native Americans – were only dreams for many years to come. But even with its limita-tions, the new Nation was a new creature – one unheard of before in Western civilization.
Holidays evoke mixed feelings. Rather than times of celebration, for some they only exacerbate the emptiness we feel. They remind us of times past, when we think things were better, happier. Memories float into our con-sciousness without much of an attempt to recollect what had actually happened; memories are the unconscious or subconscious, floating just beneath the surface, whereas recollection is an attempt to organize our memories into manageable chunks or orderly fashion.
Some memories, of course, always stay beneath the surface and can become grudges against particular persons, or groups (name your victim here). Psychologists tell us that for most people, bad memories are more likely to fade than good ones. That’s because we have an inherent bias to view our experiences in a positive light and because most of our experiences are good ones, outweighing the bad. In addition, our memories change over time. Remember when you were a child, how large a house seemed to be or how old an adult was? My first-grade teacher Miss Johnson had a photo of her World War I sweetheart who had been killed in France. Now, when I was six and even for some time after that, I saw her as really, really old, but when I thought about this as an adult, many years later, I realized that in 1948, she was probably in her early fifties – max!
The Psalmist reminds us that kings are not saved by their power or are warriors delivered by their strength, but that the fear of the Lord is our means of deliverance. The phrase “fear of the Lord” has several meanings here and in other places in Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew word trans-lated as “fear” does not mean being afraid of God as we would be afraid of some bad event occurring. The word encompasses a mixture of reverence, awe, acknow-ledgment of God’s supremacy, adoration, and honor. In that way, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, as it says in Proverbs.
As the Psalmist reminds us here, nations and governments may conspire to rule the earth; they may attempt to diminish our rights and our God-given heritage, but their plans will be frustrated. The ancients believed that God could and would directly intervene in their lives and chart the course of their history. Those beliefs carried forth into the establishment of this Nation.
The founders believed in something they called Providence, a concept broader than traditional views of God because it embodied reason and civility, the recog-nition that not all persons shared the same view. They used the words of this and other Psalms as a framework in their attempts to create a nation where people could live unbridled by despotism.
Toward the end of the musical 1776, John Adams sings of the future of the new Nation being created: I see fireworks. I see Americans, all Americans free!” Of course, all Americans weren’t free: half a million souls, as Adams charges, were still held in bondage, to be freed through a terrible and bloody Civil War that pitted members of the same family against each other.
And on this very day in 1863 the Battle of Gettys-burg began, lasting a full three days, ending in the defeat of Lee’s army, forcing it to withdraw, a major turning point. Certainly the holiday we celebrate, the Fourth, was tinged with a mixture of sadness at the loss of lives. Memories were certainly mixed then.
And our memories are mixed now as we enter another year for the holiday. We will have fireworks and pageantry as Adams predicted but we also have many concerns which impinge on the good memories we hope to have as we celebrate another year of independence.
As a Nation that has made its power known in the world and continues to flex its power, albeit in ways that violate the very principles on which we claim to have been established, we should take a note of caution from this Psalm. We may not believe that God directly intervenes in the relationships between nations as did many of our ancestors, but as people who profess to follow the One who called us to care for the poor and dispossessed, we must recognize that we are judged by our lack of care for those who seek our help.
What will our memories be of this year, of this time in our history? Will they be of our concern as a Nation for those cast aside by our national leadership? Or will those memories be of an inward looking and selfish people who do not care for the principles we as a Nation claim to believe?
We all have memories of past celebrations of the glorious Fourth. Some of those old cherished memories are of celebrations we had with people we loved and who have since died. Other old memories involve our children and the first time they saw fireworks; they were usually terrified.
I remember going to D.C. for the bicentennial – my parents lived in College Park and so I packed up my boys, 9 and 6 at that time, and went down for the Fourth. We went to the Washington Memorial with my dad who loved fireworks. The show was pretty incredible.
As we look at what will become our new memories, we all know that a new memory can never duplicate an old one as much as we may want it to. Wishing it so becomes nostalgia, or memory not based on facts but on desire. That is the power of nostalgia – wanting something that never was. Demagogues know how to exploit our nostalgic desires for there are very few people who do not yearn for a return to an imagined time.
The Psalmist speaks to our nostalgic desires as he warns us that a king is not saved by a surfeit of might nor the warrior through a surfeit of power for neither of these can compare to the might and power of the Lord who breathed and spoke and the world was created from the chaos o the deep.
We say that our memories play tricks on us, but it is the way we have of healing our many griefs. It is the way that we are internally wired to emotionally and spiritually survive. During this Fourth of July, we will remember past Fourths. Some were in times of peace; others in times of terrible conflicts and wars. But in the midst of it all, what sticks in our memory is the courage that a small band of people had to take on an Empire. The result was a new creation the purpose of which cannot be forgotten – to offer refuge to all who seek freedom, opportunity to those who seek a better life, and to be a voice for liberty and justice in the world.
Let us pray: God of our ancestors and God of our progeny, we pray that you teach us wisdom from our memories, that you grant us discernment in the challenges that face us, and that above all, you guide us as we seek to live as your people in this world. Amen.