The Sacred Work of Remembrance – Br. Keith Nelson
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Genesis 6:5-8; 7:1-5,10
Mark 8: 14-21
All of the world’s major Story traditions contain epic cycles of creation, the flourishing of life, decline, death, and renewal. Myths – stories that resound with the ring of Truth, whether or not they are based on factual events – mirror the processes of nature and the work of time. These stories enlarge what is small but also condense what is vast. This process allows the storyteller and the story-listener to make meaning of the cycle – which would otherwise remain too large to handle. The portion that is visible to us at any one moment – birth, growth, suffering, or death – would overwhelm us with its magnitude. Stories sift, sort, and distill until symbols cohere from the chaos: the waters of a great flood; a boat designed by God; a bit of yeast; a single loaf of bread.
When decline and death become the predominant experience of a culture or group, these stories become vital life-lines to a sacred past. “We have been here before,” the people can confidently say. “Let us remember; let our remembering bear us forward.” Some of the Psalms are almost entirely sustained acts of remembrance. Foundational memories recorded elsewhere in the Torah are set to psalmody not to be redundant, but to place them in the mouths of each praying generation. Including ours.
For the people of Israel, there is a power, a force, a God outside of nature and time. “The LORD sits enthroned abovethe flood,” the Psalmist sings. The Holy One is transcendent.
But God is nonetheless active within nature and time, drawing his people to participate, again and again, in the renewal of the world. The paradox of God’s simultaneous beyondness andnearness takes concrete flesh for us in the person of Jesus – God’s storyteller, God’s Story made human. God is not only enthroned above the flood, but a fellow passenger in the boat.
For the earliest Christian teachers and thinkers, the ship became a central metaphor for the Church. As a visual sign on catacomb walls it allowed Christians to avoid suspicion – since a cross and a ship’s mast are virtually identical. For our spiritual ancestors, the group of disciples gathered in the boat with Jesus bore more than simply a passing resemblance to the faithful remnant gathered into Noah’s ark. In each, they saw a ragged band of travelers chosen by God. God’s dream of a renewed world depended upon the total participation of these small, hapless humans navigating a sea voyage with precious cargo. The fulfillment of their strange and lonely calling was tied to the salvation of the cosmos. It was the work of the Church to re-member Chrirst, to continuously bring Christ into fresh, embodied being, and to let this remembering bear God’s dream forward on the tides of time.
Our gospel lesson this evening pivots upon the sacred work of remembrance. By the eighth chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus has multiplied loaves to feed the people not just once, but twice – and each time, there has been more than enough to spare. In the hands of Jesus, bread is clearly becoming more than bread. It enlarges what is small, and condenses what is vast. In just the two chapters prior, the word “bread” has appeared sixteen times! The single loaf that the disciples remembered to bring with them in the boat is the last mention in the sequence. Bread does not appear again in Mark’s gospel until Jesus takes up another, solitary loaf and says, “Take; this is my body.” In all of these moments, it is as if the most important thing Jesus is trying to drive home to the heart of those watching, listening, and ultimately eating, is: “Remember. Remember. Let this remembering bear you forward over the perilous waters to come.”
So there is a deep pathos and deafening irony when Jesus says, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?”
In Psalm 137, the Psalmist cries, ‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. / Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, / if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.” For the people of Israel, to forget what God had done, to forget one’s homeland in the heart of God, was as good as spiritual death. For an oral culture, to forget the life-giving words of God meant losing the capacity for all meaningful communication.
Having seen absolutely unbelievable, miraculously life-giving acts manifested by God through Jesus, how on earth, we might ask, did the disciples forget so swiftly and so thoroughly?
But before we are too harsh, we must remember that there are many layers to the work of remembrance. Jesus was crafting a strange new world for his first followers, a world whose landmarks could be profoundly disorienting. Becoming a citizen of this world – a citizen of the kingdom – also required the active work of forgetting old ways of acting and seeing reality. To behold five loaves and two fish feed five thousand people was one matter. But to “perceive and understand” – in the biblical sense of receiving an intimate, life- changing knowledge – was a process that required time, persistence, and love.
Here is where the subtle symbolism of the sea journey gives us an interpretive key. After the first multiplication of loaves, Jesus makes his disciples get into boats immediately and journey across the sea of Galilee. He comes to join them, walking on the water. Mark tells us “[T]hey were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, and their hearts were hardened.” After the second multiplication of loaves, Jesus immediately gets into the boat with his disciples for another sea voyage. When they land, a brief incident follows: The Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign. Jesus “sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.’” Finally, “he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side.” A third sea voyage.
On one level, getting into boats and crossing what is essentially a large lake was a fairly routine experience for second-century Galilean fisherman. But in the symbolic world of the gospels, nothing is incidental, and the sea is more than the sea. This is a sea that enlarges what is small and condenses what is vast. The sea in scripture participates in the watery chaos at the beginning of creation. Any contact with such water threatens to undo the order of life, to destroy, to erase prior meaning, and most deadly of all, to bring those who would cross it to the brink of forgetfulness: a dissolving of interior order. A sea crossing was dangerous, not primarily because your body could drown, but because one might forget all the reasons to hope and endure gathered on along the pilgrimage across dry land.
This puts Jesus’s remarks about the “yeast of the Pharisees” in our passage in context. Mark leaves the nature of this symbolic “yeast” open-ended. Perhaps the yeast of the Pharisees represents a form of perversely self-willed forgetting, an extreme repression or denial of the threatening, spiritual reality unfolding before their eyes. A sign? What, precisely, were they expecting a sign to look like? If they had not yet witnessed a sign in Jesus’s presence yet, they never would.
Brought to the edge of sustenance, and confused by Jesus’s cryptic, gradual manner of disclosing Truth, the disciples a bit forgetful, a bit undone, a bit preoccupied with what they believe they lack. They seem to blame themselves, but also to exaggerate the situation – “It is because we have no bread.” But one loaf is not the same as “no bread,” and if Jesus can work with five loaves, he can work with one.
In the sea voyages of life, it is easy to forget, or to choose not to remember. Whether sealed, like Noah, in the cramped and crowded stench of the ark or struggling to navigate more familar waters, the passage between seasons of gracious sustenance can feel equally perilous. Where is the sun? Where is the wind? Will I have enough food? Will the waters ever recede? Will I see dry land again? Where am I going? Where is my God?
Each time such questions beckon or seduce, God bids us to the work of remembrance.
And so we remember: God is not only enthroned above the flood, but a fellow passenger in the boat. And we remember: we ferry precious cargo that others need to survive. And we remember: The fulfillment of this strange and sometimes lonely calling is tied to the salvation of the cosmos.
If you’re a follower of Jesus, you’re bound to be at least a little strange… and a little lonely in a world intent on shaking off the weight of Truth. But however strange or lonely we feel, we remember: the one in whom we are made one Body, the One who can neither forget nor forsake us, and to let his remembering in usbear the dream of God forward on the tides of time.
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Thank you for this poignant sermon. As a young child, my summer camp director would say “Tell me what you need, and I will tell you what you can do without.” Those words rang true with a sense then that as an adult with more complicated issues, I sometimes forget. What we need is right in front of us and within us. Thank you for reminding me.
Feeling a little strange, a little lonely, but finding strength in this sermon, in remembering to remember. Thank you, Brother Keith, for all your good work.
Thank you, Br. Keith. Your message in this truth denying time makes us feel less lonely. Dag Hammarskjold once said, and I loosely quote, that what people want “is to be needed.” We picture Jesus walking briskly ahead on the beach saying “Follow Me”….and giving the listeners an exciting purpose in a new future.
Remember, remember. How easy and yet so often lost in the every day. Thank you for the reminder. Mary
Nearly 3 years later and this is still so timely and needed. Thank you!
Thank you, Brother Keith. A very profound message, and exactly what I needed today.
Brother Keith, your words never fail to move me deeply. I am grateful for your depth and beautiful writing.
Though now 81 years old and in my first year as a not-very-merry widow, this homily helps to confirm my understanding that God isn’t finished with my earthly being yet. I still carry this great Treasure in my heart as I have known since my very earliest memories. True, this Treasure of Jesus in my heart can cause me to feel “strange and lonely” at times. But I’m thankful to you for the reminder that I am still a living member of that Body, in that Boat, sharing that precious cargo, focusing on that heavenly dream.
I am so very thankful to you and to all the brothers of SSJE.
Louise. This 80 year old not so merry widow, as well, loved and identified with your comment. Thank you for sharing and reminding me that I am not alone. Bless you Dear Louise.
PS. Onto my 3rd listening to Brother Keith. What a blessing he is.
Beautiful sensitivity in this homily. Grateful for your awareness of the journey with Jesus
Thanks Br . Keith! Lots to think about! Blessings Chaplain Tom Chapman FSJ/ SSJE