A Day of Remembrance

(Exodus 12:1-14) J G White

Sunday, Sept 10, 2017, UBC Digby

Our world is in a stormy state of affairs.  The hurricanes south of us continue to threaten and destroy.  The monsoons in India, Bangladesh and Nepal killed more than 1,200, by the end of August.  Not to mention the storms of politics and powers.  

[Remembering] Of course, we are at a time of year in the west when the work and sacrifice of emergency responders is remembered.  Today in Canada is National Firefighters Memorial Day.  It seems to me that remembering and honouring has become a stronger urge in so many people in the past sixteen years.  

Around September 11th each year the one thing I am inclined to see again is the 2002 documentary simply called “9/11”, by French filmmakers, Jules & Gedeon Naudet, about Fire Battalion 1, NYC…

This one way I remember September 11, 2001.

We read from Exodus 12, the Passover in ancient Israel.  A special remembering.  A Day of Remembering.  “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months.”  Some events are so important, so traumatic, so dramatic, so formative in a nation that they are remembered forever.  Many of us, from childhood, have know the stories of Moses and the ‘Children of Israel’ escaping from slavery in Egypt and finding their way to a Promised Land.  There is great beauty in this story, great violence, great miracles, great humanity.  For ancient Israel the exodus was the big saving moment for them, among the other rescues in their history.  So the annual ceremony of Passover was instituted.  To tell the story again and again; to act it out; to pass it on to each generation. Never forget.

This kind of community remembering has such power.  At its best it includes looking back with fresh eyes, seeing new things, learning new lessons from our shared past.

[Remembering anew, looking back]

Terry LeBlanc spoke at Oasis in August, up in Moncton.  A first nations/acadian man, his work is with NAIITS, and indigenous learning community, across North America.  At the university level, he is an indigenous educator.  He told us a story of a grandfather’s advice, when getting out into the wilderness, along an unclear trail: look back often, watch for the landmarks…

And we look back in history, in Canadian history in this 150 year.  And looking back we see things differently.  We keep learning.  History gets retold from different perspectives.  We had forgotten how we got here. We are learning anew.

So it can be for us in many circumstances, in any of the paths we take.  When a long-term relationship is getting old, look back together, look deeply.  When a job – paying or volunteer – is wearying or wearing you down, look back and review what you have done, or how it all started.  When a hardship or sadness continues to haunt you, do the therapeutic work of looking back, and find new healing.

We continue our Remembering theme with Jesus at the Lord’s Table.  Like Passover for the Jews, Holy Communion for the Christian community is a ritual meal that is about remembering is a special way.  A way that bring into the present what was real in the past.  

We postponed our monthly communion this month.  We have such freedom to do whatever we want; not always on the first Sunday.  Back at the start of the Passovers, I find it so compelling they are told, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months.” A somber celebration so important, it becomes their New Year.  Indeed, it was a new beginning for this giant clan of slaves.  Really, they become a nation when they get free, and spend forty trying years headed to their Promised Land.  

Communion: the life of God, poured out so we can live.  Does it seem to you like a ceremony of new beginning?  True belonging?  Fresh identity?  Invigorated life?

All day long today, I will try to remember to eat well and drink lots of fluids. Why?  Tomorrow, while many of you are eating supper, I will be lying down to donate blood, at a clinic in Saulnierville.  One sometimes wonders where the blood will go, what sort of person in what kind of trouble will get that transfusion.  That transfusion that is life-giving.  Of course, one never ever will know.  

Christ our passover is sacrificed for us; therefore, let us keep the feast… 1 Corinthians 5:7.  With our very simple, Baptist communion service, we keep the feast, the ritual part of it.  Keeping on living with the life of Jesus in us, the rest of the month, that is the real feast of life!  

How idealistic we preachers always are.  And maybe that is fine… how all sermons should be: motivating and pointing to things far better than we have yet reached.

We can need prompting to remember our spiritual progress in this life.  Because we forget.  The highlights, the mountaintop experiences, the seasons of spiritual progress, can all get lost in the drudgery of the present.  Remembering Jesus from the standpoint of a devoted disciple is a refresher that even monthly communion services can help us do.  

Remember your first love. Christ.  Revelation 2:4, in a Letter to the Church at Ephesus, warns that the people of that congregation had abandoned their first love, their connection with Jesus.

Remember your best steps as a disciple of Jesus.  Do you remember?  My penchant for quoting lyrics for every occasion tempts me to sing now:
Do you remember the kind of September
when life was slow and oh so mellow?

So how do we rewrite it for our walk of faith?  
Do you remember the kind of Saviour when life was… what? What was your life like when Christ drew near?

My experience of God, in Jesus, has certainly changed through the years.  It’s to be expected.  Some moments are so vivid. Once, in my apartment on King Street in Windsor, I sat alone in the front room, trying to be prayerful.  At one point I imagined Jesus coming into the room.  I wanted to see Him as He might have been in Galilee.  Not a tall, pale, european Jesus from a painting or stained-glass window.  But a shorter, darker, Middle-Eastern Man.  

And so I saw Him that way. He had a very serious face. He came in the door, and stayed facing at an angle away from me.  But He saw me.  

And I saw Him.  I shall always remember that prayerful imagining with Him.  And when I remember, I am reminded, encouraged, to seek Him more.

Today may be a day of remembrance, for more than one thing.  And tomorrow too.  And the next day.  May we find a feast for the soul on many days of our lives, and get from the gift of remembering some grace from God.

God Will Keep You

Lent 2 (Ps 121; Ex 12:1-4a; Mtt 8:23-27)
March 12, 2017 – UBC Digby – J G White

Back in school days, I must have read Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. (1903)  The one scene I remember in the whole saga about Buck the dog, is in chapter 6, at a point when Buck has deeply bonded with his new master, John Thornton.  As strong a love as possible between dog and man existed between Buck and Thornton. Let Jack London tell the scene…

Nothing was too great for Buck to do, when Thornton commanded.  One day… the men and dogs were sitting on the crest of a cliff which fell away, straight down, to naked bedrock three hundred feet below.  John Thornton was sitting near the edge, Buck at his shoulder.  A thoughtless whim seized Thornton, and he drew the attention of Hans and Pete to the experiment he had in mind. “Jump, Buck!” he commanded, sweeping his arm out and over the chasm.  The next instant he was grappling with Buck on the extreme edge, while Hans and Pete were dragging them back into safety.  (p. 83)
Absolute love and trust.  

Life with God, in the will of God, hearing from God, is a life of love and trust.  Confidence in the One we are joined to.  Sure that we are being ‘kept,’ kept safe, kept forever. Only when we know the Master so well are we free from fear and ready to obey any and every command.

We looked back, way back, this morning, to Abram and Sarai, ancient Hebrews, we might call them. They lived in one part of the Middle East.  They were told to go… move on.  By God.  What do they do?  They go.  They just go.  Not even being told where they are going, they go.  They step out in faith.   They were confident in the One who spoke, and in the message.

But many of us falter at the critical step of hearing commands from our Master.  How do I get guidance from Christ?  Do I get guidance from Him?  Is there not much being said, or am I just not hearing or seeing a whole lot that is being said all around me?

Though I think of myself as an optimist, I am also a skeptic.  Skeptical about miracles, signs & wonders, angels and ghosts and near-death experiences.   If you listen closely to what I don’t say, you may notice I don’t often say, “God told me to…” or “Christ healed so-and-so,” or “That turned out the way it was meant to be.”  I tend to experience the voice of God as a subtle, silent, rare thing.  My feeling or sense of the Holy Spirit being present is seldom.

Years ago, in one of my Celtic devotional books, this quotation caught my attention.  It seemed so beautiful.  It seemed so true to me.  It seems so dangerous.  Maybe it’s wrong?

The more a human being advances in the Christian faith, the more they live the presence of God as an absence, the more they accept to die to the idea of becoming aware of God, of fathoming Him.  For they have learned, while advancing, that God is unfathomable. [And from then on the presence of God assumed value in their eyes only against the backdrop of absence.] The mystic, in his long and complicated pilgrimage, experiences alternately the presence and absence of God.  By, by degrees, the absence of God is felt more and more and the mystic understands that this absence is now [normal] the norm.  Thus the mystic is someone who has had a long-term confrontation with God, like Jacob in the struggle that he waged all through the night, someone who does not cease to confront God.  God always precedes us, we see Him only from behind, He walks ahead, He is ahead of us. What the mystic experiences – and every Christian is a mystic because it is not the great illuminations that are the mark of the mystic but the night, an everyday night – is a kind of distancing from God in proportion to advances in the deepening of their faith.  
(Jean Francois Six, Is God Endangered by Believers, 1983)

How shall I know my Saviour so well, as a Friend, if hearing the Master’s voice is so hidden and absent?
Hearing from God, knowing the Master’s voice, is a matter of confidence.  Having faith and trust in our God.  Who this Holy God is, who is also called Love.

Abram and Sarai went as the LORD had told them, with other family members, toward an unknown future.  Abraham is commended for his faith, at various times in scripture.  Faith in who this God was and faithfulness in doing what the divine guidance told them to do.  Later on, you may know, when they finally have a child of their own, Abraham is to take young Isaac out in the wild for a sacrifice. Isaac is to be the human sacrifice!  But at the last moment, God’s angel stops Abraham and points out a nearby animal that can be slaughtered.
Sounds a bit to me like Thornton and his dog, Buck, at the cliff edge.  A dangerous test of training and relationship.

Another Bible story today also could be a test, of sorts.  Jesus stills the storm.  Of course, all the men in the little boat must face the storm on the Sea of Galilee.  Notice, Jesus was sleeping in the boat, while His friends were panicking.  They had nothing to fear: Jesus knew this; the disciples did not.

Dallas Willard said many times that we humans are perfectly safe in this life within the Kingdom of God.  Even if you are being destroyed and killed, you are safe in the arms of God.  Jesus knew this, on the storm-tossed boat, that day.

There is something to be said for being able to rest and to sleep.  Or simply to relax when going through life’s stresses and challenges.  Walking with Christ, living in the Kingdom now, gives a peace over and above the pains and problems and fears of everyday life.  Psalm 127 says,
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he give sleep to his beloved.
We can be at ease, because our God is always alert.  

Today’s Psalm, 121, says, he who watches over… will neither slumber nor sleep.  The LORD watches over you– by day… by night.  Our timeless God is present and alert, always. God will keep you, the Psalm says.  God will keep your life.  God never slumbers, so we can. We can be still, when all around is the rough sea.

This is the Supreme Being we worship here.  This is the One we seek to hear.  To see.  To know.  To befriend.  To obey.  To serve with.  To love.  ‘Hearing from God’ is about this God, who is present, even when all seems lost, even when God seems lost to us.

Years ago, author and pastor Richard Foster was working in a family counselling centre, and was becoming interested in how prayers of healing worked with emotional needs.  
A man came to him who had lived in constant fear and bitterness for twenty-eight years.  He would wake up at night, screaming and in a cold sweat. He lived in constant depression, so much so that his wife said that he had not laughed for many years.

The man told Foster the story of what had happened those many years before that had caused such a deep sadness to hang over him.  He was in Italy during the Second World War and was in charge of a mission of thirty-three men.  They became trapped by enemy gunfire.  With deep sorrow in his eyes, this man related how he had prayed desperately that God would get them out of that mess. It was not to be.  He had to send his men out two by two and watch them get killed.  Finally in the early hours of the morning he was able to escape with six men – four seriously wounded.  He had only a flesh wound.  He said that the experience turned him into an atheist.  Certainly, his heart was filled with rage, bitterness, and guilt.

His counsellor, Foster, said, ‘Don’t you know that Jesus Christ, the Son of God who lives in the eternal now, can enter that old painful memory and heal it so that it will no longer control you?’  He did not know this was possible.  Foster asked if he would mind if he prayed for him – never might that he was an atheist; he would have faith for him.  He nodded his consent.  Sitting beside him with his hand on the man’s shoulder, Richard Foster invited the Lord Jesus to go back those twenty-eight years and walk through that day with this good man.  ‘Please Lord,’ Foster asked, ‘draw out the hurt and the hate and the sorrow and set him free.’  Almost as an afterthought, he asked for peaceful sleep to be one of the evidences of this healing work, for the fellow had not slept well for all those years.  ‘Amen.’

The next week he came up to the counsellor with a sparkle in his eyes and a brightness on his face…  ‘Every night I have slept soundly and each morning I have awakened with a hymn on my mind.  And I am happy… happy for the first time in twenty-eight years.’ …That was many years ago, and the wonderful thing is that although this man… had the normal ups and downs of life since then, the old sorrows… never returned.  (Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, 1992, pp. 218-19)

Perfect love casts out fear, says scripture.(1 Jn 4:18)  This testimony of a man about freedom from the past is but one example, and you have your own stories to tell.  You know this already.  God will keep you.  Even when there is silence.  When God seems not even to be there, to exist.  One poet prayed:

In Your presence there is an absence
silencing my greatest fear.
It is with You that I know the essence
of what is life, now that You’re near.

It is in the absence of Your presence
that I rekindle my desire;
and it is when I am without You
That I burn, an inextinguishable fire.

In Your presence there is an absence
of all that preys upon my mind;
for my heart’s desire’s before me,
and I leave all else behind.

It is in the absence of Your presence
that I have learned to be apart.
It is without You that I am with You;
for You are Joy within my heart.

  • Janet Rimmer

Then, when the hidden God says, “Go,” we may go, confidently.  Then, when the Cosmic Christ says, “I will go back in your life and be there for you,” we find freedom from our past.  Then, when the Spirit of Truth speaks ever so quietly, we will recognize and understand.  God will keep your life.  

Next Sunday we will explore some factors of God’s still, small voice that help us recognize it as the voice of the Master.