Sacred Memory (Sermon)

Sacred Memory

Psalm 66:8-20

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


8Bless our God, O peoples,

let the sound of his praise be heard,

9who has kept us among the living,

and has not let our feet slip.

10For you, O God, have tested us;

you have tried us as silver is tried.

11You brought us into the net;

you laid burdens on our backs;

12you let people ride over our heads;

we went through fire and through water;

yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.

13I will come into your house with burnt offerings;

I will pay you my vows,

14those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised

when I was in trouble.

15I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,

with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;

I will make an offering of bulls and goats.

16Come and hear, all you who fear God,

and I will tell what he has done for me.

17I cried aloud to him,

and he was extolled with my tongue.

18If I had cherished iniquity in my heart,

the Lord would not have listened.

19But truly God has listened;

he has given heed to the words of my prayer.

20Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer

or removed his steadfast love from me. (NRSV)

         I’m a PC(USA) Presbyterian through-and-through, and gratefully so. We’re known for decency and order in our ecclesiology and rigor in our reformed theology. The downside of our reputation is evidenced in our tongue-in-cheek label: The Frozen Chosen. And indeed, we could afford to embrace certain spiritual practices a little more warmly—testimony, for example. Presbyterians often dodge that word like we might dodge a snake, and we lose something of value when we do. Living in a storytelling atmosphere, though, Jonesborough Presbyterians may have a slight edge because at its heart, testimony is storytelling.

         Like much of the storytelling heard at the International Storytelling Center next door, and at the National Storytelling Festival each October, testimony is more than entertainment. Testimony shares intimate memories of God’s active presence in the world and in our lives.

         Here’s the rub, though: Testimony is a biased memory. As a library of oral and written testimonies dating back more than four millennia, Christian scriptures are the collective spiritual memory of generations of people who claim to have experienced God through all manner of heroes and villains, joys and sorrows, teachings and dreams, and through interpretations that many people dismiss, and rationally so perhaps, as wishful thinking, superstition, or even neuroses. And honestly, testimonies can no more be proved than disproved. They’re faith statements, and sharing a personal memory in which we claim to have experienced the transforming presence and love of God can leave us vulnerable to both self-doubt and ridicule. One gift of the psalms is affirmation for those who claim sacred memories. This anthology of ancient poetry encourages us to keep our hearts and minds open to God’s often-hidden but ever-faithful ways.

         The poet behind Psalm 66 praises God for faithfulness and goodness to the Hebrews during slavery in Egypt and through the Exodus, and he testifies to how painfully and continually real those experiences are. As a resource for coping with trauma and exile, Psalm 66 is a gift handed down from generation to generation.

         Let’s remember something important here: It was common in the psalmist’s context to connect human suffering with God’s judgment. “You…have tested us…You brought us into the net…you let people ride over our heads.” What was real to him we dare not judge. Jesus helps us to remember differently, though. As Emmanuel, God With Us, Jesus reveals God’s heart as a suffering-with-us heart. God prepares for us and accompanies us to a “spacious place,” an oasis of redemption and peace where we find faith strengthened even in hardship.

         While the psalmist may have the Exodus in mind, he writes in generalities that invite all readers to remember their own tests and burdens. None of us need reminding that life includes suffering, but sacred memories remind people of faith that we stand with our feet in two realities—the here-and-now and the kingdom of God. Faith is the lens through which we perceive and proclaim God’s kingdom even when all we feel or remember feeling is the world’s arbitrary spite and turmoil. That makes lament and praise two sides of the same coin.

         Richard Hendrick is a Capuchin Franciscan friar living in Ireland. About two months ago he wrote a poem entitled “Lockdown” and published it on his blog. Like Covid-19 itself, the poem has gone viral. In it, Brother Hendrick expresses with heartfelt compassion and unvarnished candor both the lament and the praise humankind is feeling in and through our shared experience of pandemic. Listen to Brother Hendrick’s testimony to his grief and to his awareness of God’s ongoing presence.

Yes there is fear.

Yes there is isolation.

Yes there is panic buying.

Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
You can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
The sky is no longer thick with fumes
But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know
is busy spreading fliers with her number
through the neighbourhood
So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary.
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
To Love.
So we pray and we remember that
Yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul
Yes there is even death.
But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Today, breathe.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic
The birds are singing again
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
to touch across the empty square,

         With concrete images, Brother Hendrick’s sacred memory illustrates what the psalmist means by “a spacious place.” The New International Version translates it: “a place of abundance.” In The Message it’s “a well-watered place.” However one translates it, God’s “spacious place” is the kingdom itself, the even-now-available realm of compassion, mercy, justice, and love. And scripture is consistent: We discover and enter that spacious place not when “God is in the heavens and all is right with the world,” but when we join hands and hearts as, together, we pass through burdens, nets, fire and water, and viruses. The redeeming Nonetheless of faith creates the stories that become our sacred memories, stories that we are called to share as testimonies celebrating God’s faithful presence in the Creation’s suffering and struggle.

         We’re not celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper today, but the table before us is always set with the bread and the cup, with reminders of the foretaste of God’s most spacious, abundant, and well-watered place.

         This table, which is not confined to this sanctuary, is a place of sacred memory, a place of lament and praise. Here we remember Resurrection so that beyond these walls we might, in Christ’s name, re-enact Resurrection.



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