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Whenever my family got together, we invariably turned our time together into story time. The older members of our family reminisced about the good old days. The younger ones added their bit of sharing to the stories and a good time was had by all.
It saddens me to think that over time I have forgotten so many details that provided a window into my culture and heritage. Sadly, the people who could provide those pieces are gone.
Remember. What might that mean for us? Does this mean that we receive and file information into some imaginary file in our brain? In today's lesson we are called to remember. I specifically call your attention to the words, "Remember those who are in prison."
In 1987 I visited St. Jacobus Lutheran Church in Woodside, New York. I had never been to a Lutheran church, but what brought me to the doors of this church was the insistence of one of my daughter's teachers that I take my child to church. I had enrolled her in a Lutheran school and had promised to visit a church. I was basically unchurched, visiting congregations here and there but not really relating to any.
Part of the reason for this was that I had experienced a brush with the law and felt too ashamed to really let anyone know me. I was miserable. I felt lonely. Most of all, I ached for a relationship with God but did not know how to make my way back. I soon learned that he would make his way to me.
As I continued visiting the congregation, I would sit in the back hoping no one would notice me. One day I could contain myself no more and asked to speak with the pastor. Meeting in his office, I tearfully confessed my situation and my shame. I was sure that he would ask me to leave. To my surprise, he spoke about God's grace and how, close to 2000 years ago, God had already forgiven me.
"You have been completely and totally forgiven, Lori," he gently reminded me. "Try to forgive yourself. Nothing is required of you because it was already done for you when Jesus went to the cross for your sins and mine."
I went home not fully understanding this gift of grace but feeling much relief. Over the months and years ahead, I stayed busy. First, there was the matter of picking up the pieces of my life, finding suitable work and reconciling myself to the changes in the circumstances of my life.
My family and I became members of the congregation not long after my conversation with the pastor. Slowly, a step at a time, I became involved in different aspects of ministry in my new congregation. I especially enjoyed assisting with communion.
"Remember....do this in memory of me," I would hear each Sunday as I approached the table of the Lord. Head bowed, hands extended, and eyes tightly shut, I received the Lord's body and blood. I tried to remember the pastor's words: "You have been forgiven."
What nagged at me most was this sense that I could smell the stench of prison on me and I was sure others could too.
One Christmas, as the congregation met after services for fellowship hour, I was approached by a lady I know as Dawn. In her hands was a small package wrapped in Christmas paper.
"Merry Christmas," she said in a very cheerful voice.
I blinked in surprise and accepted the gift with a rather uncomfortable smile. At home I unwrapped the gift and discovered a small bottle of perfume. I knew it was expensive. I remembered something. I remembered reading about a woman who had anointed Jesus with expensive and precious oils.
With this kind and simple gesture to a stranger, Dawn had stirred a memory for me. The God who calls me to remember has remembered me. It was as if he were telling me, "There, I have washed you clean."
We have a habit of drawing lines of distinction between the justly and the unjustly imprisoned. Not long ago, we were making that distinction between the two thieves at the cross with Jesus calling one good and the other bad. I can sort of understand that. Prisoners do not conjure up warm and sympathetic feelings in us, do they? And, yet, we are exhorted to remember those in prison as though we were there with them. Wouldn't it be easier to remember them far away--like a bad memory? Who wants to imagine themselves in prison? That's for bad people. We're not criminals!
The late Gerhard E. Frost, Bible teacher, seminary professor and author of "Journey of the Heart," said, "When we deceive ourselves into thinking that remembering means reciting or lecturing, we lose sight of the fact that remembering really means receiving."
So when Jesus calls us to remember at the table, we are being invited to receive him. In the same way, when we are called to remember those in prison, we are called to receive them as well. Together with Jesus at the table, you, the prisoner and I are brought by him into a relationship that breaks down all divisions of status, race and gender.
We remember that we, too, are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. If we don't know that we are slaves to sin, how can the one who is the way, the truth and life make a difference?
We come to the table remembering our common expectations and experiences, our scars and losses, joys and sorrows. Every bit of our life that is wrought is brought ... and we remember.
At the table we remember the cross, marked on our foreheads, reminder of our mortality, and before which we stand in community beyond all boundaries and divisions. Then we can look at our brothers and sisters, receiving them in the spirit of Christ in whom there is no east or west, no free or slave, no man or woman.
More importantly, we remember those with whom Jesus stands in solidarity, those he called my brothers and sisters: the alien, the afflicted, and the prisoner. Transformed by the power of the Spirit that descended at Pentecost and descends upon us today, we step out perfected in love and justice.
The good news of Jesus Christ calls us to share his peace with all people, in all places and at all times. We can only remember those in prison as Jesus would have us remember them when we open ourselves to the Spirit's guidance.
Then, then the God, who blocks out our transgressions and remembers our sins no more and has remembered us today yet again, fills us with his peace.
Let us pray.
Lord, you call us to love all people. Sometimes it is hard to remember that you desire to draw all people to you. Our memories conveniently remember your people in the desert, but we forget our neighbors in prisons throughout our land and in the world. We have forgotten that we too were once prisoners of sin. We forget that you freed us from our own self-built prisons of indifference, racism, prejudice and injustice. Free us from all that would inhibit us from witnessing your liberating power. We pray in the name of the One who broke down all barriers, tore down all walls, Jesus our Lord. Amen.
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