(Psalms 77: 1-20; Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15)
I want to begin this morning by reading to you words penned by a Trinity favorite, Frederick Buechner. Listen:
Every once in awhile, if you’re like me you have a dream that wakes you up. Sometimes it’s a bad dream – a dream in which the shadows become so menacing that your heart skips a beat. Sometimes it’s a sad dream – a dream sad enough to bring real tears to your sleeping eyes. Or there are dreams that take a turn so absurd that you wake up laughing. Rarest of all is the dream that wakes you with what I can only call its truth.
Several years ago I had such a dream. I dreamt I was staying in a hotel somewhere and that the room I was given was a room that I loved. I no longer have any clear picture of what the room looked like, and even in the dream itself I think it wasn’t so much the way the room looked that pleased me as it was the way it made me feel. It was a room where I felt happy and at peace, where everything seemed the way it should be and everything about myself seemed the way it should be too.
Then, as the dream went on, I wandered off to other places and did other things and finally, after many adventures, ended back at the same hotel again. Only this time I was given a different room which I didn’t feel comfortable in at all. So I made my way down to the man at the desk and told him about this marvelous room I’d had on an earlier visit and how I’d very much like if possible to have it again; only that I hadn’t kept track of where the room was and didn’t know how to find it or ask for it. The clerk was very understanding. He said he knew exactly the room I meant and I could have it anytime I wanted. All I had to do, he said, was ask for it by its name. So then, of course, I asked him what the name of the room was. The name of the room, he said, was Remember.
Seems to me that Buechner hits the proverbial nail on the head here with this holy excursion of remembering. A meandering thought from the past: a person, a memory, a smell or taste, jumps into our consciousness, if only for a moment. But there it is: the past re-experienced, re-membered all over again; the past made present.
But what happens when we cannot remember? What happens when we forget, in the same way Buechner forgets where to find that first room in his dream? Maybe we do it consciously, because the memories are too painful to revisit. Or maybe we get so lost in the here and how, so absorbed in the moment, that we actually lose the ability to recall what once was. To forget, it seems, is to lose the ability to remember.
Our two scriptures today draw us into this back-and-forth of remembering and forgetting. The writer of the 77th psalm is wrestling mightily with one of those forgetful instances; imprisoned by the moment he finds himself in, so paralyzed by it that he cannot recall all there is to remember. We can almost picture him sitting alone with his head in his hands. It’s dark, because it’s nighttime; and nighttime is always when your struggles seem to carry a little more weight to them; when the remembering is harder.
I read some of his more tortured lines: My soul refuses to be comforted – as if his insides are literally at war with himself. I am so troubled I cannot speak – you ever been so bent out of shape about something that the words won’t even come? How about this – You keep my eyelids from closing. I remember in college and seminary, back when I was dealing with anxiety, lying awake all night because the stress over whatever I faced in that moment literally would not let my body do what it was longing to do. There is no more hopeless feeling in the dead of night, is there, than the inability to fall asleep.
The Psalmist is totally engulfed in his suffering. We don’t know what that suffering is, but that is not the point. That’s not our concern. Our concern is to be made aware of his deep pain, as real and raw as it comes. It is a pain that paralyzes him.
But not forever. There’s this subtle shift about mid-way through; this ever-so-slight change in tone that brings our Psalmist to a different place. And not because his fortunes have suddenly changed – there’s nothing to suggest his struggle has ended. What has changed is the psalmist himself – a move, it appears, from desperation to hope.
And it’s interesting – around the time we notice this “shift,” we also notice him talking less about himself and more about the others around him. Less “I” and more “we.” It is almost as if he remembers that he is not alone, but part of something bigger than himself. And that particular memory is what gives him hope.
It does not give him hope because, as the old adage suggests, “misery loves company.” This is not comfort in numbers. This is something more. This “we” he speaks of is more than simply a group of people bound together by the same catastrophe. This is a community of which he is part; a community rooted in God – a God who, for thousands of years, has made a habit of intervening in human history.
In fact, as the Psalmist himself recounts, it’s a God who chooses to intervene in his people’s greatest hour of need at the shore of the Red Sea. God’s people liberated from bondage in Egypt, now pinned in by the sea with the enemy fast approaching. And with all hope seemingly lost, the people’s God pushes the waters aside so they can walk to safety. Those same waters would later come crashing down on the enemy; a definitive moment when God intervened in the life of the people.
Now that event, of course, took place thousands of years before the Psalmist was even born. But here, it is as real to him as it was to those Israelites whose sandals touched the dry sand of an ocean bed. It is not a memory of his own, but a memory of his people. And he holds onto that memory as he confronts his own pain, his own Egyptian army. That is the power of remembering.
And get this – remembering doesn’t have to be about just about looking back. In fact, the prophet Jeremiah might claim that the most powerful memories are the ones that look forward. In our second reading today, we find the prophet and all of Israel on the cusp of utter destruction. The Babylonian army is fast approaching, and in their sights they have set the total annihilation of Jerusalem. It is not a question of “if” but “when.”
And it is in this moment when all hope seems lost that God calls Jeremiah to do something that on the surface seems to go against every human instinct, every modicum of common sense. His cousin Hanamel has a field in Anathoth for sale – a field just to the northeast of Jerusalem, right in the path of the descending Babylonian army; a field that will soon be one of the first set ablaze.
And Jeremiah buys it from him, despite the better advice of his real estate agent. The scripture recounts the details of the transaction, as if to assure us that it did, in fact, happen. He buys it, even though it’s the last thing any sane person would do, even though that very land would soon bear the boots of tens of thousands of foreign soldiers.
But Jeremiah buys the land nevertheless – and not because of what will soon happen, but what will happen much later. God’s people will return home, he says. We will live here again. This transaction is, for the prophet, an act of defiance. Of hope, remembered forward.
Sometimes, I believe, there are ideas so commanding, so relentless in their pursuit of us, that they take on a life of their own and outlive even themselves. And their memory is, in effect, passed on from one to the next, year after year, century after century; because the memory of them takes hold in places we are not fully aware of. And unlike most things we encounter in life, things we’re able to engage and use and manipulate, these memories come to us all on their own. They are the ones that grab a hold of us.
I think of things like freedom and liberty and justice for all and how they grabbed a hold of people like Abraham Lincoln, Oscar Romero, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. I think of things like holy community and the fellowship of the church as opposed to the institution of the church, and how they grabbed Phyllis Tickle, Marcus Borg, Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Weber.
I think of the late German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in one of his final writings as he faced death in a Nazi prison cell, and while meditating on this Jeremiah passage, offered up this memory:
What remains for us is the very narrow path, sometimes barely discernible, of taking each day as if it were the last and yet living it faithfully as if there were a great future. Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land, Jeremiah is told to proclaim – just before the destruction of the holy city; in light of the utter deprivation of any future, those words were a divine sign and a pledge of a great, new future.
Memory shapes us. Memory can tear us down with fear and pain, or build us up with promise and hope. And if the writer of the 77th Psalm or the prophet Jeremiah helps us remember anything, it is that we are people of hope because we are the people of God. Faith is certainly no guarantee against the possibility of despair – but even in the midst of that despair, the faithful remember that God has been their help in ages past, and will be their hope in years to come.
Memory grants us hope, and not cheap hope, not simply a positive outlook. Dr. Michael Lindvall is pastor of Brick Church in Manhattan but perhaps better known to us as the father of Madeline, Ben, and Grace. And in a recent sermon of his, he talked about how optimism is essentially a “human attitude.” Hope, on the other hand, is not so much in me as it is trust in God and what God will do. Hope is the confidence that a loving God presides over the long arc of both history and my life. Hope trusts that there’s a purpose which transcends my plans and desires. Hope trusts that even though things may not work out my way, they will ultimately unfold in a way that, by the grace of God, will be blessing-shaped.
Which brings us back to Buechner’s book, and something he says at the very end of his chapter:
At last we see what hope is and where it comes from, hope as the driving power and outermost edge of faith. Hope stands up to its knees in the past and keeps its eyes on the future. There has never been a time past when God wasn’t with us as the strength beyond our strength, the wisdom beyond our wisdom, as whatever it is in our hearts – whether we believe in God or not – that keeps us human enough at least to get by despite everything in our lives that tends to wither the heart and make us less human. To remember the past is to see that we are here today by grace, that we have survived as a gift, and that we can live out our lives.
Let me ask you something: what does your “Remember room” look like? Does it look like a place of hope – whatever hope looks like to you? Does it speak to you and help you remember in the midst of your despair? Is it, by design, a single room, room enough for just one? Or is there room in that room for the whole community of faith – past, present and future – everyone standing together, leaning on each other and helping each other remember when the memory matters most?
See, that’s what gave the Psalmist his perspective; that’s what gave the prophet a capacity for hope. May it be our hope as well.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 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.
 Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1984), 1-3.
 Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life Of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), 342.
http://www.brickchurch.org/Customized/Uploads/ByDate/2016/September_2016/September_27th_2016/0925201634920.pdf, visited on 2.15.2017.
 Buechner, A Room Called Remember, 11.