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Forgetting and Remembering

When my daughter, Rebecca, was at that stage in life, which father's love and which Freud called the Electra Complex, she was not only competing with her mother for my undivided attention. She was competing with everybody. She became quite skillful in the process, but not always subtle in her efforts. She came to my office one day with a framed copy of her elementary school picture, and she said to me, "Daddy, I want you to put this picture on your desk so you can see it and think about me all the time." And I did.

One day the church receptionist informed me that my daughter was in the outer office and needed to ask me a question. When Becca walked through the door, she had a puzzled look on her face, and she said, "Daddy, I have forgotten what I was going to ask you!" And I said, "Becca, it must not have been very important or you would not have forgotten." And with an air of disgust for my crisp tone, she came back as quick as a flash. "Oh, Daddy, don't you know that people sometimes forget some of the most important things in the world?"

Well, Becca was right. We do have a way of forgetting some of the most important things in the world. That's what I want to talk about today, forgetting and remembering.

A proper caveat for the main point of this sermon is that forgetting and our obvious capacity to forget is not always a negative component in our mental makeup. Some things should be forgotten so that we can move on without the emotional baggage of unnecessary negative memory.

When some negative feeling or attitude is hurting us or hurting someone we love, it is good religion and good mental health to intentionally toss it into the wastebasket of forgetfulness. That's not always easy, but it is possible. People who learn to do this are usually able to keep their lives in manageable units. Conversely, those who cannot or will not are often the source of great misery to themselves and to others.

When a painful broken relationship is over, it is very important to be able to forget the details and the hatred and the resentment it has generated and to remember only the lesson learned.

Well, even God forgets some things. The Bible says that God forgets our forgiven sins and remembers them against us no more. "As far as the East is from the West--so far has he removed our transgressions from us."

There are some things that we wish we could forget if we just knew how, but it's not all that easy even when it feels necessary. There's a poem called The Land of Beginning Again, which begins and ends with this stanza:

I wish there was some wonderful place
called the Land of Beginning Again.
Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches
and all our poor selfish grief
could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door
and never be put on again.

Some things should be forgotten.

Each of the four Gospels tell an identical story of a painful event of forgetting and remembering in the life of the Apostle Peter. This is what happened. When Jesus and the disciples were leaving the Upper Room where they had shared the Passover meal, Jesus told the disciples that the end of his life was near but that he would be raised from the dead. He predicted that they would all run away, but when it was over, he said he would meet them in Galilee. Ignoring the profound statement of resurrection, Peter picked up on Jesus' prediction of their cowardice. And he said to Jesus, "Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away." And Jesus said to Peter, "Truly I say to you, this very night before the cock crows twice, you will have denied me three times." Peter insisted that this could never happen. The disciples said, "The same goes for all of us."

When Jesus was taken prisoner true to his prediction, they all headed for tall timber, that is, except Peter. He was obviously frightened, but he didn't run. In the course of the evening, Peter was recognized on three separate occasions, and each time he denied knowing Jesus. As he denied Jesus the third time, he heard the cock crow in the distance, and suddenly he remembered what Jesus had said. "Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times." And Peter broke down and wept.

Is it not strange how we forget and what we forget and why we forget? But the strangest thing of all is what cock crows to remind us. And we have all heard that cock crow at some time in our lives. We've all experienced embarrassment and pain because we forgot something important we had pledged to remember.

I want to suggest two things we should remember.

We need to be reminded not to forget God. It hardly seems possible that we would forget God, but for reasons too numerous and too complicated to recite, we do forget God. We forget how we got here. We forget why we are here. We forget that we are mortal. We forget that the margin of our ability to handle things alone is slight at best and it narrows exponentially with each year that we live.

It's easy to forget God when we do not need him at the moment. And there are ages and stages in our lives in which we fancy ourselves to be quite self-sufficient. We're golden. We feel as if we have the world by the tail with a downhill drag. But watch out! That's an illusion, and illusions are short-lived except as they exist in the lives of people who suffer serious mental illnesses.

There is a tendency in our crassly materialistic society to spend our lives trying to make ourselves independent and bullet-proof, immune to the slings and arrows of misfortune which strike everyone else. That's a fatal mistake. Study life. Observe how things are. Watch what happens to people. Do you fancy yourself to be exempt from the process? Things inevitably happen from which neither our money, our education, our power, our influence, or anything that we have can save us. I don't want to recite all the things that can shatter your illusions and cause your life to fall in shambles at your feet. I don't even know them all, and I certainly do not know what they are for you. But I know that they are there. The storms of life indiscriminately strike everybody--the good, the bad, the enlightened, and the ignorant, the rich and the poor, those who forget and those who remember--No Exceptions. Get ready. When the storms of life come, you cannot handle it alone. Do not forget God.

Most of my ministry I have tried to spend as much time as I could with people who are not religious in traditional ways. It is obvious to anyone who studies the matter that the church is not the exclusive repository of spiritual wisdom and insight. I've learned a lot from people who never attend church, not that I think not attending church is a particular virtue. If I remember correctly, an old friend of ours two thousand years ago was roundly criticized for hanging out with sinners, people who were not traditionally religious. He found these people to be refreshingly open to his teachings, in fact, in ways in which traditionally religious people were not. You may think these people have forgotten God more than those of us who hang around the church or who at least come to church at Christmas and Easter. I don't think so. When the bottom drops out of life and when we are in over our heads, we all call upon the same God. When something happens that money cannot fix and all our virtues cannot prevent, when life becomes dark at noonday, then the God that we forgot or dimly remember or thought to be irrelevant or non-existent, becomes the object of a fervent search. When power won't work and humans can't help, we all speak the same language no matter how different our philosophical understanding of reality may be. There are things that can make an atheist pray, an agnostic believe, and a mossy-back Methodist humble, and the most enlightened among us admit that we do not have all the answers to everything. When life splits open at the seams, we all speak the same language. We wonder why the God that we did or did not believe in let this happen. We start saying things like "Pray for me," "God help me", "Dear God, where are you?" You know the drill. We all know the drill because if we've lived long enough, we've been there. And if perchance you have not been there, don't think for a moment that you will never be there. You will be.

Remember God. God remembers you.

Human beings seem to have a deep need to be remembered, and we usually experience some degree of disappointment when we are forgotten at some important point or by someone whose recognition is important to us. I always wince a little bit when someone asks me at the door on Sunday morning after the service, "Do you know who I am?" Some Sunday mornings I scarcely can recall my own name. Even though I do not like to be put on the spot about knowing someone when they show up unannounced from the past, I do realize that the question reflects a deep human need to be remembered, and I am often embarrassed to disappoint someone who wanted me to remember and I did not remember.

If you are depressed and weary today, if someone important to you did not recognize you or remember your name, I have good news for you. The Bible teaches us that God knows us by name. God promises, "I will not forget you. Look, I have graven you in the palms of my hands." In a world where it is so easy to be forgotten or ignored, it feels good to know that we are not God-forsaken. God remembers us. He has carved our names in the palms of his hands. Do not forget God.

Next, do not forget to recognize the rights and feelings of other human beings. In the hustle and bustle of life, it is all too easy to ignore the people around us and to turn inward until we are a tight ball of narcissistic concerns, which is not a nice thing to have happen to a human being.

Even our perfunctory niceties like "Good morning" and "Have a nice day" often have the feeling squeezed out of them for when our words to not relate to our actions, compassion is absent.

When Joe Garagiola, baseball's finest, was co-host of NBC's Today Show, he told of an experience he had in a drugstore in New York City. He said he had filled his little shopping basket with a bottle of extra-strength Tylenol, 12 ounces of Kaopectate, an elastic knee support, a supply of corn plasters, Dristan, a vaporizer, a remedy for sore gums, and a tube of Preparation H. He said that after the clerk checked him out and took his money, he could not believe his ears when the clerk handed him the little plastic sack and said, "Have a nice day!" Those are such easy words to say when we can close our eyes to all the obvious reasons why that person is not going to have a nice day. Our polite gestures usually do not amount to compassion unless they cost us something.

When the inimitable PeeWee Reese, that diminutive Brooklyn Dodger who was more heart than anything else, died last year, National Public Radio did an interesting and a moving piece on his life. The commentator said that Reese would be remembered more than anything else, not for his hits, runs, and defensive plays, but for what he did the first day Jackie Robinson played in a game for the Dodgers. Robinson was the first African-American to play big-league baseball. That first day, when the names of the players were called and they lined up on the field, the fans booed and yelled insults at Jackie Robinson as he came on the field. PeeWee Reese stepped out of line and went to Jackie Robinson and put his arm around his shoulders. That's caring that counts. Remember the rights and feelings of people. You will brush elbows almost everyday with some person whose brokenness is such that an encouraging word, a gesture of kindness, or a listening ear could make all the difference in the world.

A few years ago, Erma Bombeck began one of her columns: "It was one of those days in which I wanted my own apartment--unlisted! I was not in the mood for small talk, however, it was on that day that my son chose to describe down to the very last detail a movie he had just seen and punctuated his monologue with a constant flow of 'you know.'" Later, on the way to the airport, she was forced to listen to still another monologue. This time it was the taxi driver talking about his son who was away in college. Finally, at the airport, she realized that she had thirty beautiful minutes before her plane took off, leaving her time to be alone and to begin reading the novel that she brought. As she opened her book, a voice next to her belonging to an elderly woman said, "I'll bet it's cold today in Chicago." Stone faced, Erma Bombeck replied, "It's likely." The woman persisted, "I've not been to Chicago for nearly three years. My son lives there, you know.'" "That's nice," said Bombeck, with her eyes intent on her book. And again the elderly woman spoke, "My husband's body is on this plane. We've been married for 53 years. I don't drive, and when he died, a nun drove me home from the hospital. The funeral director let me come to the airport with him." Erma Bombeck wrote, "I don't think I've ever detested myself more than I did at that moment. Another human being was screaming to be heard, and in desperation had turned to a cold stranger, who was more interested in the novel in her hand than in the real-life drama at her elbow. The woman needed no advice or money or assistance, all she needed was someone to listen. She talked numbly and steadily until time to board the plane." Erma said, "As I put my things in the overhead compartment, I saw her sitting three rows back and I heard her plaintive voice say to her new seat companion, 'I'll bet it's cold today in Chicago.' And I prayed, 'Please, God, let that stranger listen. Listen.'"

Do not forget to recognize the rights and feelings of other human beings. It's a Godly thing to do.

Well, when did you last hear a rooster crow? You probably cannot even remember. I had not heard a cock crow for many years until I moved to Monroeville, Alabama, and my neighbor up the street decided to raise some chickens, and there was a rooster in the flock. Every now and then in the early morning hours or in the middle of the night, I hear the rooster crow. I don't know what the neighbors think about Sam's chickens, but I rather like the rooster. He is a meaningful symbol of being reminded of something we need to remember.

The cock crows for each of us from time to time.

No one can ever really measure the effect of the cock crow on the life of Peter, but doubtless it made him sensitive to those built-in signals that give directions in a confusing world. History does not record the last chapter of Peter's life. Legend gives us our only hint about how life ended for him. This is one of the legends.

Peter was an old man. His hair was long and white and his back was bent with age. He was preaching with such power that he converted the concubines of Albinus, a friend of the Emperor. This so angered the Emperor that a door-to-door search was made for Peter. The leaders of the embattled church pleaded with Peter to leave Rome. They did not feel that they could afford to lose him. Peter finally agreed. With ambivalent feelings tearing at him, he began to walk through the night back to Jerusalem. And, suddenly, there appeared before him a vision of the Lord Jesus walking toward Rome. And Peter cried out, "Domine, Quo Vadis," "Lord, whither goest Thou?" And Jesus answered, "To Rome to be crucified again." "To be crucified again?" asked Peter. "Yes," said Jesus, "to be crucified again." It was as if the cock crowed again, and Peter turned around and walked straight back to Rome. He had denied him once, but he was determined not to betray him this time. Peter was taken by the Romans and crucified, at his request, upside down because he did not feel worthy to die as Jesus died.

Strange the things we forget and stranger still what cock crows to remind us of what we have forgotten. Listen. Listen.

Let us pray.

Dear God, we know that you have given us the precious gift of love. Forgive us when we have diminished the gift with unnecessary baggage. Forgive us for hanging on to things and thoughts we should have long since forgotten. Teach us, O Lord, how to keep a meaningful balance between forgetting and remembering. Help us to remember that the quickest way into your presence is through the lives of people around us. We pray that in times of health and success we will not forget you, and in moments of doubt and dread when we have reached the margins of our tolerance and outcomes are unsure, remind us, remind us that faith is a gift of grace. Amen.