What if the power of Easter, the point of Easter is more about our past than about our future?
What if Easter, and the gospel of resurrection, means more to us about our remembrance than about our expectation, more about our recollection than our anticipation, more about whence than whither, more about what God has done than about what God will do?
You may find this an odd, or contrarian point of view. After all, you rightly reason, the promise of Easter is the promise of new life, eternal life, resurrection life, hope, joy, and peace in Christ whom God raises from the dead. All, seemingly, in the future. Fair enough. But consider, for a brief few minutes this morning, Easter remembrance. Consider, if you will, what Easter means for what has been, what Easter means for your remembrance.
So many people can live chained to a broken remembrance, to a mistaken remembrance, to a Lenten remembrance. (Lent is good discipline, but life is not meant for Lent. Life is meant for Easter.) So many can live caught in a bear trap of implacable memory, trauma, or hurt. So many live haunted by ghosts of days and nights and people and harm from the past. Easter comes around once a year to free us from the past, not in forgetfulness but in resurrection, not in a futile attempt to change the facts, but in a spiritual discipline of right remembrance.
Proust and Memory
As some of you know, in the summer of 2003 I went with a friend to a country book store, and for 25cents bought the first 1200 page half of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. About six years later I spent another quarter at the same shop for the second 1200 page half, of which I have now read 500 pages. Proust tests memory. He probes our habits and deceits and perspectives with regard to remembrance. It is detailed, lively, and exhausting to read, for me, about 3 pages or so a couple of times a week. That is plenty. But the project itself is life long, and may take in my case a lifetime of reading. Proust wrote: But sometimes the future is latent in us without our knowledge and our words which we suppose to be false forecast an imminent reality (II, 31).
The author of the Gospel of John is also, and mightily, engaged in remembrance. Imagine a home, in Ephesus, 60 years after Golgotha, at night, candle lit, with forty people present. Prayer, singing, a shared meal, and quiet all precede a moment of speaking. Then in remembrance, somewhere near the year 90ad, 60 years after the first Easter, a preacher stands in the room and speaks. He speaks for Jesus. He speaks in the Spirit. His voice is that of the Risen One. He says, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’. And in that utterance, that prophetic utterance, a new remembrance is born. The community of the beloved disciple determined that their original memory of Jesus was wrong, or not right enough, or not big enough to describe what He had meant for them, become for them, revealed to them. They loved him and they remembered him and–they worshipped him. His personal presence, I AM THE—Way, Truth, Life, Shepherd, Door, Resurrection, Bread of Life, all—gave them a new way to remember, a better, truer, clearer memory.
I wonder, this Easter tide, as you think of the Good Shepherd watching over his beloved in love, as we too are to do with each other and for each other, though not to each other, I wonder if there is some maturation in memory, your memory, emerging for you? What is back there holding you back? What is rattling around loose in the back of your mind that needs minding, or mending? Is there something you want to leave behind, to let go? Or something you want to restore, to reclaim, to recast? Sometimes our hoarding of things is minor compared to our needless and useless hoarding of cluttered, disordered, mistaken memories. And sometimes our memories need a spring cleaning or two. It is not a matter of forgetting. It is a matter of placing things in an Easter light.
How? In a morning quiet prayer. In an honest chat with a trusted friend. In a private moment of pastoral conversation. In a more formal, planned hour of counseling, of therapy, of spiritual grief work. In worship, come Sunday.
Martyn on Minear
Some years ago one of my teachers did so, as he remembered one of his own teachers. He shared the memory with me in 2007. Sometimes, when I remember to, I take it out and look it over again. This is J L Martyn preaching at Yale at the funeral of Paul Minear. (Memorial Service for Paul S. Minear, 3/24/07;A Personal Word of Thanksgiving (J. Louis Martyn))
In Paul Minear’s testimony there was no
pious escapism from every-day life.
There was in fact a stark realism.
But it was emphatically a double realism.
A disturbing realism about the multiple forces that choke the life
out of huge numbers of God’s children,
and a daring realism about the power of God
to bless those who mourn,
and to make even the paralytic stand up and walk.
Let me give one example.
As he was teaching us to read the Bible,
he spoke to us in unforgettable terms about time.
Time was clearly a Biblical subject that fascinated Paul, and
his fascination with that subject proved to be contagious.
How are past, present, and future related to one another?
We often think about our present as the child of our past.
And to some degree the past is the generative parent of the present.
But what, then, do we actually mean,
when in churches such as this one
we speak to God in the Lord’s Prayer,
saying “Let thy kingdom come”?
Could it be that when we pray the Lord’s prayer,
with that clause — “Let thy Kingdom come” –
we confess the power of God’s grace in a new way?
Is God’s grace evident precisely in its coming toward us from the future?
Are we, in God’s grace, led to sense that
the ultimately determining parent of our present is not our past
but rather God’s future? Could it be that
we bear witness to that fact when Sunday by Sunday we say to God,
“Let thy kingdom come”?
A good number of you will remember the period in which
Rudolf Bultmann was in Germany – in fact, in Europe –
the scholar who had pointed out that
the New Testament documents reflect what many moderns call
a mythological world view.
When we read the New Testament, we encounter angels
who speak and act among human beings on earth.
We hear of demons who take up residence in certain tormented people.
We find references to Satan, to principalities and powers,
and to “the god of this world” as a powerful actor in human affairs.
Recognizing these so-called mythological elements
in the New Testament,
Bultmann devised an interpretive method
that involved what was called “demythologization.”
When this highly respected colleague came from Germany to Boston,
the local Christian theologians arranged a meeting for general discussion,
and they selected one of their own number to provide
a final focus to the conversation. That climax came, then,
when Minear said with deep respect:
“There is between us, Mr. Bultmann, much in common.
And, as is always the case, what we have in common
makes plain the major difference between us.
You have as one of your chief concerns
to demythologize the New Testament,
while I have as one of my chief concerns
that the New Testament demythologize us.”
It was a respectful comment.
It was also a telling summary,
for in Minear’s work
the New Testament does demythologize us,
doing so in part by
its Golgotha earthquake,
that is by moving the ground under our feet
in unsettling ways,
in order to open up to us a new world,
the utterly real world,
bringing, in fact, the dawn of what the Apostle calls
God’s New Creation in Christ.
We are not afterward the same.
After 35 Years
Our experience, our own experience, is what we have, and in one sense all we have. Your experience is meant to be honored, respected, cherished, trusted, and then given over to an Easter Remembrance.
A few weeks ago, speaking of remembrance, a note came from the church we served in Ithaca NY, beginning in 1979. They are rehearsing their history at their 100th anniversary. The writer is a Cornell professor’s spouse, who came into the community at that time. They are giving a vignette in worship each week, a remembrance of things past. My own memory of those busy years of young adulthood focuses on work, worship, activities, children born, things to do and do. In some ways, those years stand out for overly active but not necessarily fruitful service. But her recollection, jarring, and difficult, in its difference from my own, is an Easter remembrance, and a lesson, or a warning, about what lasts, in memory:
#12, April 19: The Chapel was served by part time ministers until its 64th year, when Bob Hill, newly graduated from seminary, served as our very first full time minister from 1979-81. (Bob was, young, full of the most wonderful enthusiasm, rode his bike around the neighborhood (according to Sue Cotton), drew a young congregation and the Chapel thrived.) Today he is Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. I especially remember him for something only related to his ministry here, namely his presence at a performance of Brahm’s German Requiem, given by the Ithaca Community Chorus in 1981. He stood quietly in the back of the concert hall, and wept when he heard these words: “Behold, all flesh is as the grass, and all the goodliness of man is as the flower of grass. For lo, the grass withers, and the flower decays. Now therefore, be patient O my brethren unto the coming, the coming of the Lord. See how the husbandman waits for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience, till he receive the early rain and the later rain. So be YE patient also.” (Elizabeth Mount)
Last night, here in Marsh Chapel, as the choir and collegium finished THEODORA with magnificent and mellifluous duets, with orchestral and choral flourishes, I thought again of that different memory, that different perspective in memory. Just what are we doing here? It may be, Marsh Chapel, that your presence, your standing presence, your presence in weeping and rejoicing, your musical and beautiful presence, here, in Easter Remembrance at least, is what matters, lasts, counts, and has meaning.
Easter invades our past, or our sense of the past, or our partial understanding of the past.
What is Easter and its mysterious power doing in your life this year? Does this Easter tide bring a rearrangement in remembrance for you? A willingness to let the Good Shepherd help you to let something go? A recognition of a dimension in memory partly neglected? An honesty about trauma but also about grace? Has God’s future in the Easter gospel somehow invaded your past, and offered another reading, another angle of vision, another perspective? A saving one?
It would not be the first time. At Easter, Peter remembered his cowardice, but remembered it with courage, on which the church then was built. Paul remembered his falsehood, but did so with a confidence in grace, on which the church was then built. Mary remembered her blindness in the garden, but did so with a keen sight, on which a vision of a different kind of church then was built. And you? And you and your remembrance? And you like old Citizen Kane clutching his snow sled Rosebud? Are you ready, right now, just now, in this here and now, to bask in the light of an Easter Remembrance? Bask gently. Emily Dickinson wrote:
By a departing light
We see acuter quite,
Than by a wick that stays.
There’s something in the flight
That clarifies the sight
And decks the rays…
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –
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