Remembrance of Things Past


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

April 26, 2020

Texts: Jeremiah 31:31–34; Luke 24:13–35

        Several years ago a young woman sat in front of me and began telling me about her husband’s death. A licensed electrician, he had always been careful to turn off the power. He thought the power had been turned off in his mother’s house, but when he touched the live wire, he was electrocuted. 

       The children had heard a thump in the attic and the youngest ran upstairs to find his father dead on the floor. “I don’t know what to say to Billy,” Ellie said about the four-year old. “He keeps asking when his daddy will get out of the box and come home. I tell him that daddy’s in heaven with God, but he doesn’t understand.”

       My mind shot back to another time, one that seems so long ago and yet so close when I was trying to explain to my children why their father was not coming home. I could feel my eyes well up. Somehow it just never seems to go away, remembering. 

       April, a month of beauty when the earth opens up and we feel the warmth of the sun emerge from its winter sequestration, is also a month of terrible memory for so many. In April 1915 the Armenian genocide began with the arrest of some 250 intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople; they were forced to walk through the desert into what is now Syria.                   Following their deaths, over a million and a half Armenians were deported and massacred. Just as with later genocides, women were systematically raped so that if they did survive, their children would not be ethnically “pure.”  The Serbs used the same strategy in Bosnia in the 1990s. 

        The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began on April 19, 1943, when German soldiers entered the ghetto to begin the last of the mass deportations with its attendant murders and rapes. It ended with the last pocket of resistance when the ghetto was nearly leveled less than a month later on May 16. Of the original 300,000 to 400,000 Jews packed into the ghetto, only 200 survived, many by fleeing into the forest. 

        Other genocides of our own time have begun during April as well:  Rwanda in 1994 and Bosnia in 1992. Although the conflict in Darfur began in February 2003, it did not really escalate until the Janjaweed began its methodical policy of attacking villages, raping women and killing the men. The children, of course, were just left to starve. The massacre known as the Rape of Nanking that began in December 1937 throws the April calendar off, of course, but it seems to be an anomaly. 

        Of course, we could catalogue horror after horror, the result of the desire for power, hatred of the other, those who are different, but the real question remains: how does our remembrance of things past affect our behavior in the future?

After the Holocaust, we all said “Never again,” but with each succeeding genocide, we as well as other world powers have found excuses not to intervene. Rwanda was not considered to be a security interest. Finally, after three years and goaded by the horror of what had happened in Rwanda, the Western powers finally intervened in the Balkans and put an end to the wholesale massacres of Bosnians. 

       And in spite of all the rallies here and in Europe, the condemnation of Bashir as a war criminal, there was still a total lack of international will about Darfur. Syria, however, presented a different issue because of the overwhelming number of refugees streaming into Europe. It almost seemed like another Muslim invasion. 

       And although we were jarred by the photo of the Syrian child lying on the Greek beach, we went on with our lives because, in the end, power politics won out. That’s so far away, we thought, but then there was the photo of the drowned father holding onto his drowned child at our own border forcing us to look at the reality of refugees, those brown people struggling to get to the United States, the America of their dreams. 

       We’re tired. We’re upset that so many of our troops got diverted to a war that has actually fanned extremism rather than going after its heart. Our memories of 9-11 are fading and we want to put all of this aside. We just want to fix the economy and get back to living the way we used to live—or think we used to live. We long for peace, we long for memories that help us heal rather than tear into our souls. Speak, memory, speak of halcyon days gone by. Speak. 

        Cleopas and his friend walking on the road to Emmaus must have felt much the same way. They had memories of being with Jesus, listening to him declare that this was a time for a new beginning of relationships between people, a restructuring of the world as the Kingdom of God. 

         And then, all of it dashed with Jesus’ arrest, his crucifixion, the fear of the authorities coming after them. And then, of course, they heard the absolutely unbelievable story from a group of women who found the tomb empty that they had seen a vision of angels telling them that Jesus was not dead but alive. “Some of us went there and found it as they had told us.”  

        As our memories become jumbled with our experiences, they meld into each other and sometimes we have a hard time distinguishing between the two. Our ability to conjure up long-gone episodes of our lives are both familiar and puzzling. 

         Sometimes our memory of experiences and events are so strong that they seem to be happening now. True memory is different from imagination but sometimes we think we remember events that did not actually occur. Remembering is often suffused with emotion. It is an essential part of much reasoning. It is connected in obscure ways with dreaming. Some memories are shaped by language, others by imagery. 

         Much of our moral life depends on the peculiar ways in which we are embedded in time. Memory can also go wrong in mundane and minor, or in dramatic and disastrous ways.

Post-traumatic stress is a way that people sometimes want to not remember terrible events that have occurred. Although we usually connect it with war, people who have experienced hurricanes, such as Katrina in 2005 or Sandy in 2012, shut out their memories of people drowning, houses collapsing, and, in that way, try to conqueror their own internal terror. 

        Post-traumatic stress also occurs when a person has a terrible experience individually, such as when a woman is battered or raped. But isn’t all memory individual? Individuals do not have collective memories. The Holocaust, the massacres in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur affect people individually. Those of us who are not directly affected by these events look at them collectively, making them less threatening to us personally.

         So here we have Cleopas and his friend. They had personally experienced the loss of their leader, the one as Cleopas said, people had hoped would redeem Israel. Their memories of Jesus were seared into their souls and they were caught between despair and fear. 

         We usually don’t think of the Easter story as one of fear, but it is. Imagine that you had personally heard this far-fetched story by a group of women who told you that they had seen a young man or two in dazzling white telling you that Jesus had been raised from the dead. 

         Two thousand years later we hear the story of Easter as a story of hope, but at that time it must have been a story of fear. As the writers of Mark and Luke tell us, the women were terrified. The memories of those who personally experienced the risen Christ combined with the collective memory we call tradition giving us our perspective on the Christ event.

         Speak, memory, speak to us now. Bring us into our memory of resurrection so that we can live in faith and bring hope to the world. Speak, memory, speak to us now.

         God of memory, we pray, create in us the remembrance that enables us to live your promise of hope to the world. May we remember the past to create a future which reflects your call for justice and peace. In the name of him who lives in us, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.