Today’s Gospel is the Earliest Memory of a verse of Scripture I have. I am four, playing in the desert sand outside a military base housing unit in Las Vegas. It is hot and hotter. The wind blows through the yard and sand, stinging the face and eyes. I am displeased that something built has been blown down. I hear my mother’s voice: ‘A wise man…’
You should Memorize. Memorize: the 10 Commandments, the Books of Bible, the Beatitudes, the Apostles Creed, Psalms (2), Romans 12: 9-13, Hymns (2), Lord’s Prayer.
Both imperatives like this and personal memories like these are verboten for some good reason in preaching text books. The indicative of God’s grace should precede and eclipse any imperative to human behavior, like the command to memorize. The personal illustration threatens to split the consciousness of the hearer, as the Gospel is announced. Mea culpa. It is good that we have the Eucharist today, for the sins of the preacher, in imperative and memory, to be cleansed.
Memories of breakfast are rare in the Holy Scripture. Famously the Gospel of John is concluded by breakfast with Jesus. The Psalmist exclaims that joy will come with the morning, which tarries through the night, but there is no morning meal mentioned in Psalm 33. Jesus shares meals, but they tend to be evening meals, as in a borrowed upper room, or luncheon meals, as with Zaccheus, or midday feasts, as in the 5000 feedings. It would be unfair to declare that the Bible dislikes breakfast, and yet breakfast does not appear to be a major biblical theme.
William Sloane Coffin once described the breakfast this way: ‘the worst hour of the day, the worst time of the day, the worst meal of the day, and everybody at their worst’. (Riverside Sermons, pamphlet) He presumably wrote this sour accolade early in the day. Maybe at the breakfast table.
I happen to like the breakfast hour. Coffee and a real paper newspaper and a time to think about the day. Yet I must admit to and accept the reigning judgment, biblical and experiential, that breakfast is a wholly unholy hour for many.
At age 13, on June 5, 1968, I can dimly remember breakfast. Siblings scraping at the elbow sharpen any memory, like iron sharpens iron. June and its examinations sharpen the memory, for of the writing of books and exams there is no end. A swirl of energy, cacophony, juice and cereal settles the memory of that morning. It was Proust, in THE REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST, who best taught us to measure and mingle memory with taste….
And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea. (RDTP, 113)
So much recollection from a little cookie! So maybe breakfast has something memorable to offer.
That June 5 1968 breakfast, though, carries another valence. The phone rang amid pancakes and juice, sometime close to 7am. My dad was traveling that week, attending a conference in Chicago. He would call sometimes from the road, usually to talk to my mother. It was then a surprise to have the phone passed down to me.
“I know how much Bobby Kennedy has meant to you. So I wanted to make sure you heard, and heard from me so that we could talk, that he was shot last night. This is a terrible tragedy, a tragedy set among others. It will take many years for us to absorb its significance, and more to still to understand it, if we ever do understand it. Life will go on, under the aspect of a changed world. We can talk more when I get home.”
There is remembrance of things past which illumines and magnifies our current experience. We live out of the unforeseen, and we understand out of the unknown.
Thursday we played a recording, for the high school students of the Boston University Academy, RFK’s impromptu speech on the evening of MLKing’s death, a brief speech torn out of Kennedy’s personal reading and experience. You can ‘google’ it so I need not repeat it, except its key lines:
For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.
But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: “Even in our
sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
We come to the table of empowerment, belonging and meaning, the table of remembrance of things past. Take and eat. An imperative to be sure. Do this in remembrance. Personal experience to be sure.