(Leviticus 23: 39-43)
There’s a movie called Memento – a post-modern mystery thriller that centers on a man named Leonard who has anterograde amnesia. If you don’t know what that is, don’t feel bad, I had to look it up myself. Anterograde amnesia is the inability to form and hold on to new memories. You know who you are and a few details of your life, but that’s about it.
So to counter this, Leonard has created an elaborate Post-It note system in his apartment – it takes up an entire bedroom wall. It is strewn with hundreds of people’s names, events, reminders, facts – all linked in an interconnected web, tying together the narrative of his life. Without it, daily living would be untethered chaos.
I want to invite you to hold on to that image as I read a section from A.J.’s book, The Year of Living Biblically. You’ll recall that A.J. is on a quest to try and follow all 613 laws of the Bible as literally as possible. Listen:
The Bible commands, once a year, to build a hut and dwell in it for a week so that we may be reminded of the huts used by the ancient Hebrews when they wandered the desert for forty years. It’s a major biblical holiday called the Feast of Ingathering—or Sukkoth—and is still practiced by Jews today.
Now frankly, the idea of building a large three-dimensional structure gives me a stomachache. I am no handyman. Put it this way: When I watch Bob the Builder with my son Jasper, I always learn something.
I dive in and tackle the first issue: Where to build my hut? The roof of our Manhattan condo seems logical. I call our building’s manager and explain my plan. He says I can’t do it – liability issues.
So I go to my backup plan: our living room. This is not ideal for a number of reasons; the primary one being that it’s a hut in our living room. But it’s the only real option I have.
My day starts with a trek down to the hardware store to pick up a dozen two-by-fours, a handful of cinder blocks, and some canvas. I begin to feel better about the project. There’s something satisfying about buying lumber. It makes me feel like a guy who builds porches and rec rooms and uses words like “drywall.”
Next I sling my duffel bag over my shoulder and hike to Riverside Park. The Bible instructs us to get “the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook.” As I walk through New York’s version of nature, I stuff my bag full of leafy boughs and willows. It feels good. I’m accomplishing something. I’m sweating.
At 11am, back in my apartment, I begin hammering crossbeams and holding nails in my mouth and sweating more. Three hours later, I actually have the skeleton of a bona fide hut. Which promptly collapses and smashes into the wall. I start again, adding extra struts, and this time it stays up.
My wife Julie, who has been gone all this time, arrives home. “Oh my,” she says.
I ask her if she’s annoyed.
“A little. But more stunned that you actually built something. It’s enormous.”
The Bible says to dwell in the hut, so I plan to dwell as much as possible—eat my meals in my hut, read my books in my hut, sleep in my hut. I invite Julie along, but she says she’ll let me “fly solo on this one.”
So that night, at eleven-thirty, I spread three blankets on the wood floor. I lie down, put my hands behind my head, stare at the draped canvas, breathe in the citrus and willows, and try to figure out what I’m feeling.
First, I realize I’m still on a high from building the hut. I put the thing up myself. My elation is tainted with guilt, though. This sukkah is way too comfortable. This is supposed to remind me of the ancient huts in the desert, but here I am in a climate-controlled apartment—no sand, no wind, and no lack of food. I don’t have to worry about the freezing nights or blistering days or plagues, which killed forty thousand of the six hundred thousand Israelites.
But that guilt, in turn, is relieved by this epiphany: God, if God exists, is ordering everyone—not just those with a book contract—to travel back in time and try to experience the world of the ancient Middle East. And this was critical for the Israelites – because only in knowing where you come from can you truly know who you are and where you are going.
“Only in knowing where you come from can you truly know who you are and where you are going.” If you read his book you learn that A.J.’s Jewish heritage is not exactly front and center in his life – as he likes to put it, he is Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian. And yet here he is, eating and sleeping and reading in his booth, palpably aware of a history that lies deep within, a history he had not engaged much at all until now.
It’s rare we are tuned in to that story, isn’t it? The story of what preceded us? We’re much more engaged in the narrative we’re writing ourselves, right now. But that doesn’t change the fact that our story does go back, and that it is very much a part of us.
Case in point: growing up in Raleigh. I went to Sherwood Bates Elementary School for 4th and 5th grade. I would’ve gone to Daniels Middle School right next door, had the school system not shifted boundaries and sent me to rival Martin Middle instead. For years I knew Daniels as the school I didn’t go to, the school where some of my best friends went, the school with which we had some of the most anticipated football and basketball games of the year. And I knew that it was named after some guy named Josephus Daniels, and I was peripherally aware that he had long before been the founder and editor of the local newspaper; a paper my Mom and Dad read every day.
But nowhere in my eighteen years of schooling did anyone tell me that Josephus Daniels had been a self-professed and unabashed white supremacist, who used his power and platform at the largest paper in the state to overtly stoke racial tensions and unrest in North Carolina, and particularly in the city of Wilmington; which led to the 1898 Wilmington Massacre, where white supremacists murdered sixty men of color and took over an integrated city government to force all-white rule.
Somehow, that little detail in the story I am part of had been left out, until I read about it two weeks ago in one of the books we’re reading for the “Doing The Work” initiative.
Who tells your story? George Washington gives this advice to a young Alexander Hamilton in the blockbuster musical: he sings, Let me tell you what I wish I’d known / When I was young and dreamed of glory / You have no control / Who lives, who dies, who tells your story. It’s like those booths in our scripture reading and the one A.J. built in his living room – it’s important that we learn about the story we are part of, even if we had nothing to do with writing it, even if there are parts of that story we’re not proud of. Otherwise, we develop our own anterograde amnesia, standing before a wall of post-it notes, trying to make sense of it all.
You know, ever since the pandemic hit, scientists have talked about the toll a radically-altered lifestyle has on our emotional health and our brains. If you’ve found yourself forgetting things more, if you’ve felt as if you are floating around on an unanchored boat, perpetual discombobulation, you are not alone. We are literally struggling to remember and hold on to things in the course of days that seem to blend from one into the other.
And I wonder if that is why our new ways of worshipping at Trinity has meant so much to so many. When we first started Zoom worship back in March, we weren’t sure how it would be received – would people tune in? Would they scoff at worship that wasn’t happening in our lovely sanctuary? Week after week, though, people kept tuning in. In fact, they told us they loved it. And when we began outdoor worship a few weeks ago, the same thing – some of you have remarked about how you hope we’ll do this as long as we can, even do it next summer when, God willing, we’re not being dictated to by a virus.
It’s not that I think our church has suddenly grown some deep affinity for worshipping on a computer or worshipping outdoors. I think it’s that, with life around us in perpetual discombobulation, this is what anchors us. This is our booth in a global pandemic. This reminds us where we come from, so we know who we are, so we know where we need to go.
So what is our story, Trinity Presbyterian? What is our collective narrative – the one we are writing now, as a continuation of the one written by those who came before us? What do we want to tell the world about us?
More and more I am convinced that the most critical role the church plays in society today, the most critical role our church plays in our community, is to embrace and live into the one thing that helps us remember; the one thing that reminds us where we come from and who we are and where we need to go. The scripture says:
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord,
plans for your welfare and not for harm,
to give you a future with hope.
Do you know the story that was being written when God spoke those words through the prophet Jeremiah? The city of Jerusalem was under attack. The Babylonians were on the cusp of ripping the Israelites from their homeland. It was an all-out attempt to erase the story of the people of God forever. And in the midst that, the prophet says to the people: God has plans for you. Plans to give you a future. Plans to give you hope.
Hope is our story, friends – past, present and future. Hope is the narrative that reminds us where we come from so we always know who we are and where we are going. And it is Jesus who tells that story, and is constantly inviting us to be part of it.
Let’s keep the story going. Let’s keep building our collective booth here and everywhere.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
Featured image from https://jcscc.org/sukkot-3/