“Re-membering, Montgomery, and National Funerals”
Sermon for B Pentecost 15 September 2, 2018 Based on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Today I do not speak with the Gospel text, though I move with Jesus to something deeper than the sanitation policies of 1st century Judaism, about which of course, the Pharisees and Scribes were correct. We must go more to the theme of sanitary souls. Indeed, I am compelled to speak about re-membering. There has much re-membering these past days. These past days the nation has remembered much. Over a week ago, with my dear colleagues Rabbi Oren Hayon, Fr. Neil Willard, and Pr. Michael Dunn, I had a profound experience of re-membering in our Pilgrimage of Lament to the so-called Lynching Museum in Montgomery, AL. The meaning of much of it came together for me when reminded that this past Tuesday was the feast day of St. Augustine. Augustine is one of the four great “doctors” of the early church, and in whose legacy we are deeply shaped as students of an Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther. Augustine shaped us spiritually in many ways, one of those most importantly being on the matter of re-membering.
Maybe you’ve read Augustine’s first masterpiece, The Confessions. It is his memoir. Readers who are grappling with their humanity take delicious delight when they read of his early life as a sex addict and wannabe Stoic. It is as if he were an early version of a reality TV show in which we could take some comfort and say, “wow, if him, then maybe I’m not so bad after all.” But at the 10th chapter, the reader often falls asleep or tosses the book, because from there on Augustine goes deep, with much careful abstraction, he also honestly confronts his deepest flaws. He muses on the centrality of true memory for the healthy soul. In so doing, he finally confesses the impossibility of self-justification and his utter dependence God’s grace.
It is a hard turn of page and mental focus for the reader. But here disciplined attention just might mean new and deeper understanding of one’s self and the human condition. The “power of memory is great, very great, my God,” Augustine writes. “It is a vast and infinite profundity. Who has plumbed its bottom?…The mind so dishonorably wishes to hide…Yet even thus, in its miserable condition, [memory] prefers to find joy in true rather than in false things.” [i] So it is for the soul that knows still its need for health. This drive is natural and healthy in us. So it is that we inescapably religious humans find liberation when true memory is regained, when our connections to God and the beloved community are re-membered.
This is the compelling spiritual force, I believe, that led my inter-religious colleagues and me quickly to agree to go together to the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. Immediately on entering we met a steely representation of a family taken into slavery. It was the common beginning to the over 4000 stories there that ended in silence. Then we entered the pavilion. It is a large quadrangle, of several levels, with metal columns hanging from the ceiling bearing names cut out of the steel, each column representing a county identifying (as far as records allow) the victims. In that orchard of strange fruit—designed to reference Billy Holiday’s lament–one eventually realizes that the differently shaded columns of brown iron leak still their bloody rust onto the ground below. I tracked along in that iron orchard as if lost in a spiritual labyrinth. I spiraled downward and to and fro amongst the ever thicker hanging fruit of names, looking for “my own” history and turf county by county. At the deepest point, I passed by vast and quiet waters falling down cleansed stone. One could not but hear Amos cry out (5:24) “Let justice roll down like waters!”
After the darkest point of the descent into truth, into re-membering, I was led, as in ascension, to a grassy knoll below a blue sky in the middle of the quadrangle. There, it was like I was both on trial in a courtroom surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and on a mountain top where I could see and soon enter the Promised Land. There the voices of the thousands of columned names asked me, “Will you remember? Will you re-member? Will you take our forgotten humanity into yourself and be the baptized anointed of God who walks with us in the great arc back toward the healing and holiness of humanity?”
This was my spiritual experience in our Pilgrimage of Lament. After that we four went to The Legacy Museum of Slavery for an educational component of re-membering. I can’t communicate now all I learned there. But two images capture much. One was the letter of a 12 year old child describing how his new owner slammed an iron gate shut, separating him forever from the goodbye embrace of his mother. The other was a early 20th century store sign saying “[The plural N-word] and Apes not welcome here.”
Full healing requires true re-membering. Christians of the Cross know what exposure of sin means. Only truth sets one free indeed from the evil exposed and for the joy to be lived now. This heart of the matter is what Jesus was saying to the religious authorities. Because of their pretensions, they blockaded God-seekers from whom they sought and their own healing. The sick soul that willfully ignores the true, that unwell soul is the same soul that holds perverse human biases above the commandment of God to love. The same sick and partial soul that separates children from parents at the 19th century slaver’s gate locks brown children in cages today. The soul that lynched reinvents Jim Crow today. It is the same soul, however un-self-aware, that told me I could not have my 7th grade friend stay overnight once it was realized he was black. The same sick soul pits the Israeli against the Palestinian. The same soul calcifies identity politics and partisanship against the common good. The same soul pretends ignorance of the meaning of every long-rehearsed racist dog whistle. The same soul proves Augustine’s diagnosis: that when the task of memory itself is abandoned, human arrogance puts itself above divine command and removes itself from God’s humanizing grace.
But what of the well soul? Mere memory fails, but re-membering, the reconnecting with and to God and one another, this is God’s soul work and our soul work before and since Augustine’s confession. In the witnesses of the Franklin and McCain funerals, for example, we heard testimony again to the values that made them great because they always humbled themselves before those great abiding values of nation and God. There was great difference between the two funerals, of course. That’s because the wondrous breadth and depth of life in God to which they gave themselves is such a huge story. God’s huge story calls for us always to re-member others’ parts, and to write our parts, for all of us to re-member as best we can by the Spirit’s inspiration and by gladly yielding to God’s overwhelming grace. Bp. T.D. Jakes spoke for Aretha of how the Bible at its core is a love story and how her life at the core was a relationship, a loving connection, with Jesus. President Bush spoke of Sen. McCain as impatient with bigotry and swagger, because at his core he knew the forgiving power and freedom of humility, which connected–re-membered him–to pride of his country and love of God.
Every person’s life is a testimony to some degree of Christ’s grace in him or her. Indeed, if there are eulogies to be said someday, we write them ourselves. Every day we write and re-write. Someone else then speaks them, as Leonard Pitts so wisely wrote this past week. And God takes not just our eulogies, but our true selves, re-members us, makes us whole, and gives them, as with this holy communion to come, gives them—gives us, the real us—to each other; and all that along with Arethas and McCains and Augustines and souls from Montgomery and our close loved ones and the whole cloud of witnesses, it is all gift to us so that we are truly and fully re-membered, made more human, more holy.
In these days of travail and beauty and promise, in these days when it can be hard to turn the page from a shallow reality show to life-giving words, God promises us and gives us deeper life. Therefore, therefore, God calls us to love harder.
Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church Houston, TX
[i] Pete Candler, Memories Full of Bullet Holes: On Emmet Till and Saint Augustine.” August 28, 2018; https://www.candler.ink/2018/08/28/emmett-till-and-saint-augustine/. I am deeply indebted to Candler for inspiring this sermon. Augustine quotes are redacted from him.