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A Community Of Memory

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Where were you when you heard that the United States had launched the air war on Iraq? Or, where were you when you heard that President Kennedy had been shot, or Martin Luther King? Or, where were you when you first heard, or said, the words, "I love you", or "Will you marry me?"
If we had time today, each of you could probably tell us a story triggered in your memory by one or more of those questions.
What are the sounds that cause photographs to develop in your memory—pictures of some wonderful, or terrible, time or place? Is it the wistful sound of a train whistle in the distance, or the patter of raindrops on a tin roof, or the crack of gunshot in the woods? Is it the cooing of a baby, or the uncontrollable sobbing of a person in grief, or a cry of pain, or the crunching of car tires on a gravel drive?
Or maybe for you it is some certain aroma: the fragrance of red roses, perhaps, or the smell of chicken frying, or of a wood fire burning.
Memory is a strange and wonderful human faculty. Vladimir Nabokov says of it, "I think it is all a matter of love—the more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is." And Willa Cather wrote that "some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again."
The Old Testament lesson today is the account of a special event that happened in Jerusalem five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, and that triggered the corporate memory of the people. It is a remarkable story, but one with which most of us are unfamiliar.
For seventy years the Jewish people had been in captivity in Babylon, a kingdom that included most of what is now Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. All of the educated and trained people had been taken away in defeat; only the unskilled, untaught and unemployable ones were left behind. The Temple had been destroyed, and the walls around Jerusalem torn down. Over the decades of neglect and pillage the once magnificent city had been reduced to ruins.
Cyrus the Great appointed Nehemiah governor of Judah, and gave him and a priest named Ezra permission to return and rebuild the city. With an act of grace, the Persian ruler permitted or commissioned a Jewish leader to lead his fellow Jews back to Palestine from exile. Details are sketchy and confused, so it is almost impossible to reconstruct exactly what happened and who was responsible. What is clear is that these two men—Nehemiah and the Priest, Ezra—were the prime movers behind the reconstruction.
Now Ezra somehow had come into possession of what seems to be the only surviving copy of the Torah—the Law of Moses. Whether he brought it with him from Babylon, or whether he discovered it after returning to Israel is unclear. But word got around that he had the scroll, and the people asked him to read it to them. The passage we have read today recounts this first reading of the Word of God in Jerusalem in more than 70 years.
What memories do you suppose this occasion stirred in the minds of the people who heard this reading? The older people among them might have remembered hearing the scriptures read amid the glory of the Temple now in ruins. The young adults would have known about the Law of God only from hearing their parents or grandparents talk about it. For most, this was their very first direct exposure to the Book of the Law—their first hearing of the commandments of God—and the emotional impact was just too much for them. "For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law."
The rest of the story is beyond our reading. On subsequent days they asked that more be read, and then they set out to restore the Temple and to re-institute the worship of God at Jerusalem in accord with the laws of God. Hearing the word of God, they were inspired to reclaim their heritage.
There is a lesson there for us. How much of the heritage of the faith do you know and understand? How much of it do you know only because someone else has told you of it—parents, perhaps, or grandparents? Do the children among us know the stories that convey the lessons of the faith?
If we do not know the stories of the faith—if we do not hear them and if we do not tell them to one another—how can we expect to maintain contact with our heritage?
On the other hand, when we take care to share the reality of the faith—to tell each other how God has worked with us and for us throughout the long history of the race—then, in those stories, we have a powerful resource for courageous and faithful living.
Because, you see, the Christian faith is not a system of philosophy; it is not just a set of dry propositions: it is, in its essence, a story—the long and wonderful story of a creator God who makes us in the very image of God; who sets us free upon the earth, to subdue and protect it; who loves us enough even to let us abuse our freedom and turn away from God to pursue our own way; and who, even then, seeks our welfare and our salvation. To show us the way back to salvation, God calls to himself a special people and deals with them in ways of mercy and justice. He accomplishes this by and through the life and faith of specific people: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Miriam, Moses, Solomon, David, Isaiah, Ruth.
Finally he gave us his own son, Jesus, who called people to himself and sent them on their way to continue to tell the story: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Mary, Martha, Paul, Cloe. And every one of those lives is a story of faith. Hearing their names can spark in our minds and souls a rehearsal of their faithfulness—if you know their stories.
Jesus came one day to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. There, according to St. Luke, the revelation of God was affirmed through the Word of God which was read in the assembly of believers. The act of reading and hearing the Word of revelation sparks a reminder that God promises good news to the poor, release to those who are in bondage and freedom to those who are oppressed. When that promise comes alive in the minds and hearts of believers, we know and can never forget that God is for us and with us in all the circumstances of our lives.
These two passages of scripture hold out both strength and hope to people like us, so many of whom are technological gypsies whose lives have only a very few anchors. When proximity to family, friends, communities, and the support systems that proximity represents, change every two years for the average American, church and faith—the stories of faith—can keep us connected to who we really are. Just as those ancient exiles found some of their lost selves in the reading of the Word of God, so we can be empowered to discover our story in God's story. We need the stories of faith; without them we are in danger of losing not just our bearings, but our very selves. As Rollo May says in his book Man's Search for Himself, "Memory is not just the imprint of the past upon us; it, is the keeper of what is meaningful for our deepest hopes and fears."
How have the ancient stories touched and renewed your life? What potential do they have for helping you cope with the dislocation and alienation that each of us knows in the darkest and coldest places of the soul?
"And all the people bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. ... and they wept when they heard the words of the law of God....And the people went on their way rejoicing because they had understood the words that were declared to them."
John C. Bush Grace Presbyterian Church Madison, AL
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