SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV'D DAPHNE B. NOYES AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
MAY 17, 2015, THE SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
In his Autobiography, Mark Twain wrote, “I am grown old and my memory is not as active as it used to be. When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened. It is sad to go to pieces like this, but we all have to do it.”
Human memory is a tricky, slippery entity. The memories we wish to erase can be tenacious, holding us in their relentless grip. The things we want or need to remember can slip away to a secret, inaccessible place –names, dates, user names and passwords…. This is not simply a matter of inconvenience, or a personal quirk: Memory loss can be devastating. It can obliterate the qualities we have grown to love in someone. It can frustrate the one with memory loss as the known world and personal identity slowly blur and eventually become unrecognizable.
What do we want to be remembered for? I suspect that above all else it is our values. Everyone wants to be remembered– a fundamental desire that springs from the awareness that our lives on earth are not going to last forever.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus offers a prayer that touches on the essential aspects of his ministry – the things he wants to be remembered for. This is part of a lengthy portion of John’s Gospel called the High Priestly prayer, reminiscent of the farewell discourse of Moses, and Jacob’s dying words to his sons. We might call these a person’s last words -- only they are paragraphs, even pages – as elders speak to those w ho will carry on the tradition. They impart their wisdom, instruct them, and conclude by blessing them.
This is what I want you to remember. This is what I want you to do. This is how I want to be remembered. Or, as Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
In our time, ethical wills -- documents that pass on heartfelt wisdom to future generations —could be considered the contemporary version of the farewell discourse. Ethical wills are traced back to early medieval times. For example, in the 14th century, Asher, the son of Yechiel , wrote: “Do not obey the Law for reward, nor avoid sin from fear of punishment, but serve God from love.”
In a recent book, the author explains the ethical will “should be a love letter from the heart so people can share who they are.” Less tangibly, ethical wills can also deepen our own lives, he says. “Putting together an ethical will early on helps you live life with more intention.” That way, life can be richer, he notes: "We’re built for story and narrative.”(1)
We are here today, as many other days, to remember what is essential to our spiritual lives. One way we remember is through recalling past events. In the Eucharist, the words “Do this in remembrance of me” transport us to another time and place, and enable us to hear clearly the voice and commandment of Jesus. We also remember and recognize our baptism, when we dip our fingers into the holy water at the doorway and make the sign of the cross. Those who were baptized as infants -- like Lorenzo, this morning -- will not remember the occasion, but it is as much a part of them as any event they will be able to recall.
During Sundays in Eastertide we heard a series of readings from the Gospel of John in which Jesus conveys to his disciples what he wants them to remember after he is gone. Today is the final installment. Here’s a recap, a sort of mélange of his words:
“As the Father has sent me, even so I send you ... (2) “[R]epentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in my name to all nations. You are witnesses of these things.(3) I know my own, and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father.(4) If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”(5) This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”(6)
Let’s step back and look at the time and place of the words we hear today. The last supper has concluded, the trial and conviction not yet begun. It is a liminal, in-between place between now and not-yet. Jesus prays in the presence of his disciples, summarizing the ministry he has accomplished with them, reminding God: “I kept them in my name…I have guarded them…I have given them thy word…I have sent them into the world.” One might say, Mission accomplished.
It is a prayer for his disciples in his heartfelt request for their protection. “Keep them in thy name…keep them from the evil one.”
We commonly think of the last words of Jesus as those delivered from the cross – fragments of psalms, desperate pleas, entrusting Mary to John, commending John to Mary, and his spirit to God. These are indeed rich phrases, but equally rich, and more complex, are the cadences and content of his farewell discourse.
How ironic that our series of Easter readings from John leads us right up to the Passion – the place we began on Palm Sunday.
If you were to follow the example of Jesus by offering God a summary, a précis, of your life, your ministry, how would it read? And what prayer would be interwoven, or would emerge from it – especially if you knew these were your parting words?
In the remembering of things that happened, and of things that never happened, we touch on an essential human need: to be remembered.
Writing about the Victorian custom of memorializing departed ones through mourning jewelry made with elaborately woven hair, Deborah Lutz muses, “I wish I had saved a lock of my sister-in-law’s long black hair. Not just because I loved her, but also because I am selfish. Will someone feel the same about me? Isn’t that what we all want: to be remembered? And not just as a disembodied soul, but as a breathing being who once walked the earth?”(7)
To be remembered. How true. Jesus, nearing death, heard the last words, brief final discourse, of one who died with him: “Jesus, remember me.” Could these be the last words Jesus heard in his life on this earth? These words, uttered by a sinful, repentant mortal to the Son of God, are also our prayer: “Jesus, remember me.” Amen.
(1) The Ethical Will, an Ancient Concept, Is Revamped for the Tech Age. Constance Gutske. The New York Times, October 31, 2014
(2) Second Sunday of Easter
(3) Third Sunday of Easter
(4) Fourth Sunday of Easter
(5) Fifth Sunday of Easter
(6) Sixth Sunday of Easter
(7) See Death as Triumph, Not Failure. The New York Times Sunday Review, 10 May 2015.