Date: Sunday July 10, 2016
Scripture: Genesis 6:5-9:17
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Sea turtles go back to the beach where they were born to lay their eggs. Salmon go back up the stream they came from to spawn. Butterflies repeat migration patterns year after year after year as do birds. These impulses in nature come from some kind of mixture of instinct and memory.
The animal we associate most strongly with remembering is the elephant. We say, “An elephant never forgets.” As it turns out, the elephant actually does have an amazing memory.
Jenny was a resident elephant at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. When a new elephant, Shirley, arrived, Jenny became anxious and excited. Shirley, too, showed signs of excitement. The two elephants could hardly be contained.
As the animals investigated each other with their trunks, they became more and more animated. Carol Buckley, founder of the sanctuary, says, “Shirley started bellowing, and then Jenny did, too. Both trunks were checking out each other’s scars. I’ve never experienced anything that intense without it being aggression.” It turns out, the meeting was an emotional reunion. Buckley knew that Jenny had been part of the Carson and Barnes Circus before coming to the sanctuary. But she didn’t know much about Shirley. She did some investigating and found out that Shirley had been with the same circus for a few months – 23 years earlier! So the elephants had crossed paths. And they remembered each other even after all of those years! [Fact or Fiction: Elephants Never Forget: Do elephants really have steel-trap memories? Scientific American, James Ritchie, January 12, 2009 http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/elephants-never-forget/%5D
In thinking about the memory power of animals, we are reminded of how important memory is. It is important to relationships – don’t forget to pick your child up after school or they will never let you forget it! Memory is important to survival to being safe and healthy. For instance, we need to remember to brush our teeth and be careful with electricity around water. And memory is important to human development for us as individuals as well as communities and as a species. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. [Attributed to George Santayana and others]
Our ability to remember is key to our development as individuals and as a species. As a history major in college, I am astounded by the lack of a sense of history that I see in many younger people today. There seems to be less of a focus on history in the public education system. Maybe history has been pushed out by the concentration on STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math. I am not against those subjects. I am married to a physics teacher. But without a good foundation in history there is no context for understanding life as it is today. Looking at history we can see our place in the wider scheme of things. We can see how relationships between countries stem from many past experiences. One example is the Middle East. We see the problems there and we look back, and back, and back, to ancient times, to Bible times, and we see the roots of the problems and the complexities which still influence today’s situations. In many areas of the world, for instance, the Balkans, what happened hundreds of years ago is still directly influencing what is going on today.
In a book I am reading, the writer is discussing certain religious figures in India. One chapter focuses on a Buddhist monk and it shows the importance of history. The monk reflects: “We Buddhists believe in karma, and in cause and effect. An action has consequences; we are the consequences of our acts. Perhaps because there was a time in the seventh century when we Tibetans invaded China and tortured the Chinese, so we are suffering this torture now. It is our turn to suffer for what we did in previous lives.” [Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, William Dalrymple, p. 163] While we may not resonate with the theology we can relate to the need to think about how history is influencing events that are taking place today.
Remembering, a sense of the past, can help us to find understanding and healing. As people grow older, there is an important process of remembering that takes place. There is much to look back on. I often hear from older people about the past. As they talk about the past, the experiences often take on a different meaning looking back. Patterns emerge that could not have been seen earlier. Additional factors come to light over the years and things take on new meaning. It is very important to attend to that kind of reflection to come to terms with one’s life as well as to learn and grow wise and share that wisdom with others. A long life gives the opportunity to glean a rich harvest from the past.
Memory gives us context. It is a resource. It facilitates our survival and our growth. To me, the past is like a mirror, an encyclopedia, a self help book, a Bible, really. And, actually when we think about the Bible, it is a book of stories and teachings that convey how people experienced the presence of God in their lives and in their world. They wrote the stories down to remember. This helps us to know how to look for God in our lives and our world.
The story that we heard this morning is well known to most people in and out of the church. The animals and the ark. The catastrophic flood. And a new beginning from the remnants of the old. This basic schema has been used for many post apocalyptic movies which shows that the themes continue to resonate today. In the story of Noah, we think of the ark, the animals, the rains and flooding, then the dove, and finally dry land, the rainbow, and a new beginning. It makes for a great children’s book with pictures of all the animals though it is hard to get around explaining why all the other animals and people die. How do you explain to children that the world was being destroyed because the people were violent without planting seeds of fear in the child? But tucked into the story is a lesson about remembering. The ark is built and Noah and company are on board. The rains persist until the water has risen higher than the mountains. All the animals and people not on the ark are dead. “Every living thing that was on the face of the ground.” And the waters keep rising for 150 days. The way the story is told, God sets things in motion and the rains come, and the mission is accomplished in terms of destroying almost all life.
Then there is this verse: “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark.” God remembered Noah. What? God could have forgotten Noah? God may not have remembered Noah? From our human perspective, Noah and the people and animals on the boat are unforgettable. Noah is the main event. But maybe for the God of the story, the God of creation, the God of all the planets and galaxies, the God of the cosmos, there were many other pressing concerns. Or maybe God was tired and worn down after finding Noah, seeing to the ark, and sending the flood. Maybe God was taking a good long nap. But – God remembered Noah. That one little phrase reminds us that the story could have gone another way. God could have forgotten Noah. But God remembered. The God of the story did not forget. And that makes all the difference.
Then once the ark perches on dry ground, we have the ending of the tale with rainbow. And what is the rainbow? It’s a reminder. The rainbow is intended to remind God of the covenant God has made with humanity never to destroy the earth again. In the story, God tells Noah, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” The rainbow is God’s reminder. It’s like tying a string on your finger to remember something. The rainbow will remind God not to abandon humanity and the earth.
This story implies a God that has the capacity to remember and to forget, just like people. God has memory and remembering helps God to do the right thing, just like with people.
We need to remember. We need to remember the bad things that happen: The evil of which we are capable. The horrors of history. So that we do not repeat them. This was the life mission of Elie Wiesel, the holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate who died recently. Apparently that message was truly taken to heart in Germany. I’ve read that most cities and towns have some kind of holocaust memorial. They want to make sure that everyone knows about the holocaust and that it is remembered so that it will never be repeated.
I wonder if things would be different here in the US if every city and town had a memorial to the Indians who lived here before the coming of the Europeans? What if every city and town had a memorial to slavery to help us to remember the horrors that occurred?
Remembering the past, and the awful things that have occurred, is important, not so we wallow in it, but so we learn from it and move forward in a different direction.
This is part of the recovery process for those who are addicts. They remember how awful it is to be active in an addiction to help prevent them from going back there and to help motivate them toward a more positive future.
Remembering is also important when it comes to the good that people do. We need to remember the wonderful accomplishments of humanity. It is important to recognize those who have done great things, helped others in important ways, engaged in acts of selfless heroism and justice. It is important to remind ourselves that we are capable of great good. We have the potential to be noble. We can accomplish great things. Remembering the eradication of polio, or the mission to the moon, or the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa remind us to aim high. When we remember our finest accomplishments we are inspired to bring forth our best.
Remembering also helps us to see what is and isn’t working and what change is needed. When we look back we see, for instance, that the US economy really isn’t improving. Things really aren’t getting better for most people. There is still a huge underclass at the bottom and an inordinately high concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. When we look back, we see that this goes on year after year, decade after decade. This shows us that major change is needed. This tells us that a new economic vision, a new model for doing business, a new set of goals for the economy is needed. Leaving things as they are is going to perpetuate the same result. But if we don’t look back and see the continued failure of the current system then we will keep doing what we are doing hoping for change. Maybe there’s a reason why the government wants education to focus on science, technology, engineering and math. Maybe they don’t want people to study history and see the patterns and demand change. Who knows? Are the politicians that smart? Many certainly are that self-interested, I know that.
Remembering is powerful. By remembering, God saves Noah, his family, the animals, and the world. By remembering, God has not destroyed the earth again. We may destroy the earth as we know it, but it won’t be God.
Remember. As Jesus comes to the end of his life, what does he tell his disciples? Remember. As they eat the Passover meal, a meal instituted so that the Jews remember God delivering them from slavery in Egypt, Jesus tells his friends to remember. When they drink the wine and eat the bread, they are to remember him.
If we truly remember Jesus, what will we remember? Was Jesus known for hate? Was he known for violence? Was he known for greed? Was he known for treating some people as less than? Was he known for revenge? Was he known for being mean and selfish? Let’s remember. No. He was not known for any of these things.
When we remember Jesus, and we have the gospels and the New Testament to help us, what do we see? We see love. We see generosity. We see empathy. We see forgiveness. We see community. We see peace. We see healing. We see equality. This is what we are to remember. I think it is very important for us to remember Jesus, the historical Jesus, his context, and the stories that were told about him because that shows us what we are to remember. That shows us the good, the highest good, of which humanity is capable. That is what we are to remember so that we can call that good forth from ourselves, one another, and the world.
In recent days, we have heard about how certain individuals have done awful things – killing 49 people in a night club, killing a man during a traffic stop with his girlfriend and child in the car, killing 5 police officers. These things and many more heinous actions should be remembered so that we name them as unacceptable, despicable, and wrong. By remembering, we can work together to make sure that these kinds of acts are not repeated. Never again.
But it is not enough to simply decry evil. We must also call forth the good, the best, the most noble impulses of which we are capable. We must call forth the highest good, from ourselves, from one another, and from the community around us. To do this, we must remember the good of those have gone before us. We must look to leaders, activists, and artists, who serve the public good with the highest moral intentions. And for us, as Christians, we must look to and remember Jesus. He is our best model, our deepest inspiration, the clearest embodiment of what is good and true. We must do all that we can to remember him.
Now in olden days, when people went on a religious pilgrimage, they put a sprig of rosemary in their shoe for remembrance. Rosemary was used at funerals to help people remember the one who had died. Rosemary for remembrance is mentioned in Ophelia’s speech in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Well, in recent years, scientists have been doing studies of rosemary. They have found that the scent of rosemary actually does help to improve the memory. So we have rosemary on the altar and you are welcome to take a sprig home with you to help you remember Jesus so that you will be inspired by him. [What does rosemary do to the brain? http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33519453%5D
And let’s not sell our memory capacity short. As a species, we have amazing memory powers. And in this day of memory cards and chips and drives and disks, scientists tell us that the best way to store the most information is on a strand of DNA. It is the perfect medium for copious data storage. So volumes of human knowledge and history are being downloaded onto DNA, the most efficient and effective way to store our collective memory. [Jacob Aron, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22530084-300-glassed-in-dna-makes-the-ultimate-time-capsule/#.VOK6M7DLdA8?ref=curiositydotcom%5D
God remembered Noah. God did not forget. Created in God’s image, humans have an extraordinary capability to remember and when we don’t use it we suffer for it. With our incredible capacity for memory, may we always and constantly remember Jesus, the way of life. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.