Maundy Thursday at Fordham Lutheran • Tobias Haller BSGMemory is a very important part of human life. Think of all the popular songs that feature it: from “Try to Remember that time in September” through “Memories are made of this,” and the rather directive “You must remember this” and on to that somewhat annoying and hard to get out of your head hit song from the musical Cats that goes by the simple name, “Memory.” Memory is not only important for the world of popular culture, however — it is an important element in all culture: for without memory, without the ability to pass along what we’ve learned and experienced, we would be no different from the creatures of the field that live only that day-by-day existence and then pass from the scene, gone and forgotten. Memory, and the ability to transmit it, is part of what makes us human, and certainly a key to the fact of human culture. But memory is not only important for culture in general, but especially for that part of it that we call “the faith” as well.
Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
We began our Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday, when we heard those words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Then last Sunday we heard Luke’s version of the Passion, in which the thief on the cross cried out to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Finally, earlier this evening we took part in a recreation of the Jewish Passover Seder — we as Christians as guests at someone else’s meal: for the Seder is ultimately the Jewish people’s celebration of their corporate memory. That is why it follows a somewhat school-bookish or classroom approach — strange in what is essentially a celebration built around a family meal.
But maybe it isn’t so strange, after all. I mean, isn’t it true when your family gathers for a meal in the evening that you ask, What did you do today? For the Jews, the Passover meal is the chance to ask those questions, not just about the day that is past, but about the ancient times of this people, and the formative tale of their great deliverance by the hand of God himself — deliverance from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke, as they fled that cursed land riddled with ten plagues, and then passed on dry foot through the parted waters of the Red Sea. And the memory of that great event was passed down from year to year, to be recalled again and again, so that each person who heard the story could feel that it was as if he or she had been there to experience those mighty works.
As I say, earlier this evening we shared in the story of our spiritual ancestors, the children of Israel. And now that we have come up into this sacred space we begin to reflect on how we share in the story that is more properly ours — the story of the central mystery of the Christian faith, as we join in remembering Jesus’ own transformation of the Passover feast into the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Communion that he commanded his disciples to continue to celebrate, with bread and wine, in remembrance of him. Through baptism we have become a new people — as if we had passed through our own version of the Red Sea; and through this holy meal we are reconstituted into the Body of Christ, who is, as Saint Paul called him, our Passover. And we do this through the power of memory — and of the storytelling to which it gives rise.
How does memory do its amazing work — and what are the signs that it is working among us? The first sign of the power of memory is community, for as we share the story memory calls us together, or rather back together: re-collecting us and re-membering us so that we can remember God. Unlike rare souls such as the desert hermits, most of us will not find God in solitude on top of a pillar, but gathered in community. God does appear to isolated spiritual athletes like Moses or Elijah in a burning bush or a still small voice. But usually God seems to favor the public assembly over the private audience. The disciples were gathered with Jesus in that upper room when he committed his memory to their care. They were not pursuing personal holiness, but praying together — for and with each other — when Jesus issued those startling commands to break bread that had become his flesh, to drink wine that was his blood.
It is in community — from the most intimate community of a loving couple, to the community of the church — that memory is multiplied as one voice takes up the story after another, correcting, adding, expanding the memory and revealing Christ in our midst.
And in that gathering, Christ is revealed foremost as one who serves, who before his death washes the feet of his friends, and afterward responds to their betrayal and lack of belief with words of peace, who forgives so that they may forgive in turn. This service and forgiveness find their natural home in community — and grow out of the memory and the story that is shared. For while one can remember on ones own, to tell a story implies at the very least one other with whom to share it. Just as it takes two to tango, it takes at least two to tell the story, and two to serve, two to forgive. Service and forgiveness flow from community as naturally as the dance flows from the music, as naturally as the story-telling flows from the powerful memory. So the ministry of hospitality, which combines service and mercy, is a sign of the power of the memory and the truth of the story: “see how they love one another” is Christ’s identity badge for the church, and a sign that we’ve got the story right.
Hospitality takes many forms, in a supper such as the one we just shared, or in a hospital visit; in an act as simple as an outstretched hand to help someone to their seat in church, or as formal as baptism itself. We welcome each newly baptized person through their own miniature Red Sea — there it is right over there! — “into the household of God” — a dwelling place for memory and story-telling, whose building-stones are the church’s members. Do you remember the children’s game: here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors, and see all the little people? The outside of a church looks like a building, but when the doors are opened the living, human construction is revealed — as a community. So hospitality is the beginning of the community we call the church.
The wonderful thing about this growing community is that just as the memory and the story call the community together, the community then empowers further story-telling — for each person has his or her own story to tell. The children of Israel knew this, and were always telling their story to each other, not just at Passover! Their story sustained them through exile and captivity in Babylon; and through and beyond the destruction of the Second Temple. It sustained and sustains them even up to this day, through and beyond the Holocaust — the most terrible and single-minded effort to exterminate them. The church’s story is added to theirs, and each of us has a story, too, like footnotes and annotations expanding the history of salvation — so that the whole world could not contain the books that might be written.
If the world even cared! “The world” that confronts us today, is a world where community is shattered, a world that doesn’t know how to serve, a world that has forgotten its own story. I mean the world out there — right out on Walton Avenue — a world of noise without meaning, of sound and fury signifying nothing; chattering endlessly thanks to the ever-present cell phones — but isn’t it as if each user were locked in his or her own “cell” as they toddle through the streets proclaiming the details of their lives to the public? Endless talk, and no message, and the world will not stop talking long enough to hear the gracious possibility offered to it, to be reminded of its true story.
Well, the world needs a wake up call. And the responsibility to give that call falls on us, the members of the church, the Body of Christ: to tell the story of salvation to the world. If we in the church faithfully proclaim that story, the world may stop its chatter for a moment and hear what is truly important. People who have forgotten that they are God’s children, in the midst of this very city, might suddenly hear a voice speaking a language they haven’t heard for a long, long time, but which they recognize at once: a language from home, reminding them who, and whose, they are. And their story will enlarge our story,
Memory, then, reveals Jesus’ presence in community, and in the telling of the greatest story ever told. But memory also reveals Jesus to us through a sign unlike any other: in broken bread and a cup of wine. These are the means committed to us from his hand, to call us back together, to remind us who we are and who he is, and what we share. In this great work of memory, in the eucharistic feast the servant reveals himself as the bridegroom, and the story takes a classic turn: like Richard the Lionheart casting off his pilgrim’s cloak, revealing the king’s bright red cross on his chest to an astonished Robin Hood. And suddenly, everyone kneels. The King has returned. Suddenly, we are back in the upper room with him, sitting at the table as he breaks the bread and passes round the cup. Suddenly the Holy Spirit descends upon us and upon those gifts of bread and wine and we remember and are re-membered into the Body of Christ.
Once one Passover, Christ gathered the apostles together like a harvest of grain once scattered on the hillside. And after his rising again, he sent them forth, and together they served, and proclaimed, and feasted: in fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in prayer. We, their successors, can do no less. So let us hear once more the song of remembrance sung by the Spirit and the Lamb, addressed to us and to the forgetful world:
Come home, my scattered children!
Here's bread to break
and wine to drink.
Sit down and eat,
and I will wash your feet.
Remember, remember —
Sit still, my noisy children!
I'll speak the prayer
and sing the song
that tells of glory.
Listen to the story.
Look at my hands, my children,
Look at my side:
I am your friend
no longer dead
but known in broken bread.+