"Use the Past or Lose the Past"

Psalm 111; Luke 22:14-19

The First Congregational Church, Columbus

November 10, 2002 -- 25th Sunday after Pentecost -- Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching

From time to time everyone has a bit of writer's block. Even a prolific composer like Irving Berlin had his moments when the words just didn't seem to flow. Such was the time when he was writing a love ballad which he titled "Remember." He had it all written except for the last line, but just couldn't seem to turn the right phrase to end it. Try as he might he wasn't able to put the finishing touch to it. Here's as far as he got when he got stuck

One little kiss, a moment of bliss, then hours of deep regret

One little smile, and after a while, a longing to forget

One little heartache left as a token

One little plaything carelessly broken

Remember the night

The night you said, "I love you"

Remember?


Remember you vowed

By all the stars above you

Remember?


Remember we found a lonely spot

And after I learned to care a lot

You promised that you'd forget me not…

And that's as far as Berlin could make it go. He needed just the right expression to complete his thoughts, but he couldn't seem to come up with it. Since he was used to getting his songs down on paper fairly quickly, this delay was very frustrating. He was stalled in this one spot for weeks. "And after I learned to care a lot, you promised that you'd forget me not, and... and..." but nothing he thought of really fit.

He was just about ready to give up when the right words finally came to him.

"Remember we found a lovely spot and after I learned to care a lot, you promised that you'd forget me not, and… you forgot to remember."

"...and you forgot to remember." Those words expressed what he was struggling to say. Moreover, they fitted exactly the space he had to work with. That song written in the 1920's went on to be a very popular one of the day, and even now it's still being recorded.

It's an interesting line of Berlin's for it puts two opposites next to each other. "...and you forgot to remember." In the song what is forgotten is all the promises made by one person to another. Most successful songs are ones that are true to life, and this one would seem to be one of them. We've all probably been disappointed in love somewhere in our past. We can identify with its sentiments.

"...and you forgot to remember." The implication is that you can know about something and, without forgetting, simply not bring it to mind. Sometimes bad memories fall into this category.

There are some things we find painful and so just push them from our memory. For about six months after my father died I tried not to think about him. Then little by little I allowed my mind to go backward in time and bring him back into my consciousness.

I don't think it's always bad to suppress our memories, for there is a natural time for everything. Sometimes you just have to let things come forward when the time is right and you can better handle them. Yet, often, we are benefited when others push us a bit to deal with certain memories sooner rather than later.

It's not just difficult memories which get forgotten; it's also those which are convenient to forget. Like that ticket you got for going 45 in a 35 zone. Sometimes we forget about things, though, because we do not take the time or trouble to consciously bring them to mind. We let a certain portion of history, ours or others, escape our minds when we just don't make the effort to recall.

Anniversaries are a good time for remembering. This fall we've thought a lot about our 150 years as a congregation and such recollections do us good. They keep our story alive and pass down information to those who more recently joined our fellowship. Moreover, it gives our children insights into our collective past and the inheritance we leave for them.

As it applies to our faith, remembering is different from just recalling persons, experiences, or events that involve us directly. There is a deeper meaning at work here also. People of faith have a special memory, one which extends from the ancient stories of the Old Testament right down through what is happening today. There is an awareness of God at work within the world.

The psalm reading this morning cites the praiseworthy acts of the Lord and takes special pleasure in remembering them. What are some of those things to recall with gratitude? The Lord is gracious and merciful. The Lord provides food for humanity. The Lord made a covenant with us which is not forgotten. The Lord has brought redemption and restoration. These are some of the things to be grateful for, says the psalmist, and ones which are worth remembering. True to his intention, the writer has left us with a scriptural recollection several thousand years old. It's part of our heritage, too, at First Church.

Memories are important, for without them we lose much of what makes us human. Maybe that's why we love photo albums: they stir our memories and keep us from forgetting. Have you ever noticed how our children can look at family albums over and over again and never get tired? They are astounded that the fellow with the long sideburns and bell-bottom pants is daddy; and that mommy once had long straight hair. They love to see grandma and grandpa when they were young and active. And they are fascinated with themselves when they were smaller and marvel at their own growth. When looking at pictures, the past has a way of being connected closely with the present. Time gone by and time now are both expressions of the same reality.

Back some years ago I wrote a column for "The Catholic Times" of Columbus. On once instance I reminisced about going through my old bank records. Deposit slip and activity sheets weren't of much interest, but cancelled checks were another matter. They were more than just financial transactions; they were part of the story of my life.

"Here," I wrote, "is old number 101, the first check written on the account after I moved to Columbus. It was a rent payment to my 90-year old landlord who came to collect the first Saturday of each month, wearing bib overalls almost as ancient as he.

"H'm. has it been that long since I bought my stereo amplifier? It must be. It was just after the big blizzard.

"Here's a five-dollar check I sent off to protect whales. Guess it must have helped some. At least I haven't heard where they've become extinct as yet.

"And the first mortgage payment on the first house I've ever owned. I should frame this one some day." Well, so I wrote.

Almost anything can become part of our history. We're pack rats, partly because we don't want to get rid of anything that might be the least useful, but also because things we've held onto for a while have become a little part of us. They're reminders of our past.

As a congregation we've been looking over many of our own albums recently. They're filled with pictures and words, people and events, activities and advice. They tell us a lot about where we've been and many extend back beyond the personal memory of any of us here.

The history of our church goes back as far as 1852 and as recent as the Gladden Lecture here on Friday. It's about a congregation trying to make sense of the Civil War or about the terrorist acts on September 11 of last year. It's about a people daring to act on their conviction that slavery is wrong and then a hundred years later seeing the need for continued involvement in the civil rights struggle. It's about the first group of people to join the church and about the last group to take their membership vows. History is a continuum from the first day to this day.

Our past is not unrelated to our current situation because it grounds us to where we are. It is the collective memory of all that has gone before us and the seedbed out of which everything will come after us. How do we gain insight for where we go next without looking back to where we've come from.? And the heritage in our church is a particularly rich one. It's filled with people of strong faith and compassionate action. Still, we can't "forget to remember "or our past is lost to us. We have to determine we will use it or it else will be put on a shelf to gather dust.

A special kind of remembering took place here last week and it happens every time we celebrate the Lord's Supper together. As he shared a meal with his disciples for the last time, Jesus told them to continue to break bread and to drink the cup in remembrance of him. Ever since, when Christians have done this in their places of worship, that meal comes back to life. Old Jerusalem at Passover is also here and now when we accept the invitation to the table.

In the very act of remembering we participate with the original disciples, and with the faithful across the generations, who have remembered what God did through Christ. By not forgetting to remember, we experience anew the living presence of Jesus. He continues to bring meaning and power to all who recognize him and welcome him into their hearts.

Remembrance is vital for people of faith. It's an important part of why we gather each Sunday, and why we read the ancient texts, and sings some of the old songs, and participate in familiar liturgies. Not to put the past on a pedestal to admire, but to bring it alive so that it can tell us about where we are today and possibly where we're going tomorrow.

There's another song that goes through my mind this morning. It's from the musical "The Fantastiks" and has an expressive lyric attached to a haunting melody.

Deep in December it's nice to remember,

Although you know the snow will follow,

Deep in December it's nice to remember

Without a hurt the heart is hollow.

Deep in December it's nice to remember

The fires of September that made us mellow.

Deep in December our hearts will remember--

And follow... follow... follow.

What we remember, we're more likely to follow. We're more likely to make our past work for us rather than to lose it out of inattention. When we remember the difference it makes to be a follower of Jesus, and in fellowship with all those who have gone before us, and even those who will succeed us, we tend not to forget we have a place in life and a mission to do.

The 150th anniversary celebration been a wonderful couple of months with a succession of great events and memorable worship. This Sunday is the first one following all these planned activities. We've been actively recalling our history; now we get back to the business of living our history. The last century and a half has been a grand adventure, but now it's time to create the future. God has led us in the past; God will lead us tomorrow and beyond.

Aren't you just a bit curious as to how we'll be remembered at the 200th anniversary? Well, what we say and do from here on will determine what will be said of us. Let it be that we dared to be the church that God would have us be.

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