“The Power of Story and Memory To Heal”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
September 11, 2016
Exodus 32:7-14 & Luke 15:1-10
I was in Mrs. Haupt’s eleventh-grade English class, second period of the day. We liked Mrs. Haupt because she was a little on the strange side, very eccentric and very passionate about teaching great literature to developing minds. She was late to class that day, 10 minutes or so, which was unusual. It didn’t bother us, though, because we had reading and writing and gossiping to do. When Mrs. Haupt entered the room that day, she appeared to be shocked and horrified, and she didn’t say a word…I’ll never forget the look on her face. None of us thought too much about it, because a few weeks earlier she had hobbled into the room, bent over and grasping a cain, and recited Hamlet’s desperate soliloquy—“To be or not to be…”—from Shakespeare’s play, by memory. She did stuff like that. But this time it was different: she did not launch into a soliloquy or monologue; she simply walked to the opposite side of the room and turned on the TV.
I didn’t know how to react to what I was seeing. I didn’t play many video games as a teenager, but I did watch a lot of ‘end of the world’-type movies like The Terminator and The Day After Tomorrow. What was being displayed on the TV that day was more like one of those movies than it was something that could take place in real life; it was as if I was watching the work of a good screenwriter and brilliant director more than the work criminals and religious fanatics. My classmates and I were utterly captivated by what we were seeing…Mrs. Haupt wept. New York City was familiar to most of us, just three hours north by train. In fact, I had been there in the spring of that year on a field trip with the school choir to see Saturday Night Fever on Broadway. When the cameras suddenly cut away from New York City to go to Washington, D.C., we saw another familiar place, but this time it was mangled and burning. Washington, D.C., was a place I went for field trips almost every year I was in school. We all shifted awkwardly seeing the pictures of the Pentagon; I guess it was then, in a place less than an hour away, that we realized this wasn’t a movie, it wasn’t something imagined, it wasn’t something we’d ever forget. Sitting there, glued to the TV, I fidgeted with my high school class ring that I had picked up that same morning.
School let out early that day. When the buses arrived to take us home, some still had elementary school students on board who had never made it to school. I don’t remember the bus ride or walking home from the bus stop, but I remember that my mom was vacuuming when I got to the house. Looking back, I guess we turn to the things that are mundane and ordinary when the world is collapsing in around us. I tossed my book bag on the kitchen counter and sat on the sofa. The TV was on and by that point both towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed and there was word that a plane had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. The pictures were unimaginable, of people running and screaming and covered in blood and dust. It was absolute chaos and I sat in front of the TV for many hours…Mom wept. By 5:30pm my Dad and my brother were home from work and the four of us silently milled around the house, not interested in eating, not interested in talking, not interested in even trying to make sense of how the world had changed in about eight hours.
I stayed up late that night because there wasn’t going to be school for a while. What I remember most about that night, mixed in with the horrible pictures and computer recreations and speculation, was the image of groups on groups of firefighters and police officers and civilians descending on the pile of rumble in lower Manhattan. It was like I was watching the internal reaction of the human body to an injury, when all the cells and enzymes rush to the cut or the break to start the healing process. Those brave men and women, like the brave men and women who rushed in before the towers collapsed, scaled the ruble looking for life, looking for survivors, looking for anything. It touched me then and it still touches me now that the helpers risk their own lives on the sole conviction that someone might need to be saved. Some unknown person planted a big American flag in the wreckage that night and the last image I saw of horrible day, right before I closed my eyes to sleep, was that flag waving back and forth in the smoke and the rain and the confusion.
I was only 15 on September 11, 2001, so I was really not able to grasp the effects that day would have on the world. But almost immediately I noticed some changes. When school opened again the following week, there were police officers stationed at every entrance, randomly picking students from the crowd for book bad inspections and scans with metal detectors. That week three students at my school, two boys and a girl, were cornered in a stairway and beaten so badly that one almost didn’t survive. The attackers said they were going after Muslims, but the victims were Hispanic. They were not attacked because of their faith—they were attacked because the color of their skin was similar to the hijacker’s whose pictures were all over the news. Mom and Dad only let us watch the news for a little while each night, likely because it was just yelling at about what could have been done and what needed to be done. My grandmother, who was alive at the time, said to my Mom that she was sad that she and my Dad had to raise children in a world like this. The microcosm of the weeks and months following September 11, unbeknownst to me and to the world, was just a shadow of what was come in the last fifteen years.
Like me, you have a story from that day. It is likely that you remember what you were doing, what you were wearing, maybe even who you were with. I’m sure you remember trying to explain to your children what had happened, unsure what to say because it didn’t make sense in your own mind. I know you remember watching the news and the memorial services and the parades, and the small comforts that they brought, and you remember perhaps how from that day forward you held your loved one a little tighter, told them you loved them a little more often. I know you remember watching our elected leaders take stands against terrorism and fear and extremism and the images of tens-of-thousands of uniformed men and women descending on the Middle East. You remember, I’m sure, the first time you had to strip nearly naked to get on a plane, or the first time you were stopped and inspected or asked to open your bag or purse at a school or a concert or sporting event. And I’m sure, even if you don’t remember these things, you remember feeling fear, uncertainty, rage, and maybe even hopelessness that our world had come to this.
A lot will be said today on the 15th anniversary of September 11, 2001: by the talking heads on TV, by politicians and pundits, even by the talking heads in church pulpits across the nation. Most of it will be partisan, fueled by fear, and lacking in hope; some of the talk will be for more arms, more military power, more patriotism and less inclusion and diversity. But that’s not what we need today; we don’t need more fear, we don’t need more weapons, and we don’t need more hostility. What we need today is healing, and when it comes to healing from tragedy and suffering, story and memory have great power.
You see, story and memory have the power to heal because they gather up the pieces of a broken life or tragic situation and piece them back together. Fear and tragedy are destructive, they break apart our sense of security or happiness or hope, our faith. Like the towers that could not withstand their injury, just as the building in Oklahoma City could not withstand its injury, fear and tragedy chip away at our very foundation until we collapse under our own weight. Memory, and the ability to tell the story, to say what we were doing, what we were wearing, how we felt and what we witnessed—these push tragedy and suffering and pain and hatred back to a place where they cannot threaten the structure of our very lives.
Story-telling and memory are important to the human family, particularly to people of faith. Christians are story-tellers, remember-ers. The very center of our faith, the thing we turn to to learn about God, about ourselves, and about the world is one long story, a collection of the memories of God’s people. The Scriptures are the written story of how God has interacted with us throughout time, how God calls us over and over to come back to the right way, and how God saved us, and continues to save us, through Jesus Christ. Our worship each week tells that story, in song and sermon and prayer, and we remember God’s mighty acts in sacraments and service to the world. These stories that we tell of our faith, these memories of how God has acted and continues to act in the world, have the power to turn darkness and fear away and piece together all the broken parts of our lives.
From the book of Exodus today we heard the story of how God’s anger burned against the people of Israel because they had turned from God to worship a golden calf; God’s anger is so enflamed that God contemplates destroying everyone except for Moses. But Moses pleaded with the Lord, to remember how God had brought the people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and had saved them from slavery by making fools out of the Egyptians. Moses pleaded with the Lord to remember Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, God’s servants who were good and kind and faithful. Moses told God a story, of how God saved the Israelites because of God’s great love, and in remembering, God’s mind was changed and the people were saved.
From the gospel of Luke today we heard two stories from Jesus about who is in and who is out and about God’s great love for us all. Like a shepherd who has lost one of his sheep, or like a woman who has lost a tenth of her wealth, God is not satisfied when something or someone goes missing. In fact, God is so concerned with the wholeness of everything and everyone that God is willing to leave the 99 sheep and the nine coins behind to find the one sheep and the one coin that is lost. God is the shepherd, and God is the woman; we are the sheep and the coins. When one of us wanders off, or rolls off the table and lands under the china cabinet, God comes and looks for us until we are found. And when God finds us, God takes us back and calls for a great celebration because the one matters just that much. On the other side of this, sometimes we are the 99 sheep or 9 coins, the faithful folks who never wander off or get lost. Still, when the one sheep is brought back, when the one coin is found, we are called to celebrate the broad and amazing power of God’s love.
These Scriptures exhibit the power of story and memory. In one, the power of memory has the ability to change God’s mind, from destruction to grace. In the other, story has the power to convey the beautiful truth, that in God’s estimation of things, there is no such thing as ‘in’ and ‘out’, no such thing as ‘the 99’ and ‘the one.’ Moses used memory throughout his ministry in Israel to call the people to repentance, to teach the ways of charity, to turn them to God. Jesus did nothing but tell stories; we call them parables, but that’s just a fancy word for ‘story,’ He told stories about farmers who placed their trust in God, about a father who unconditionally welcomed his wayward son home, of a king who gave a banquet not for the wealthy and powerful, but for the humble and meek. And these brought about healing; they diverted disaster, brought hope to people who were hopeless, blanketed the world in God’s love when there was nothing but fear and hatred all around. The ultimate power of story and memory to heal is in their ability to bring us back to God, back to the power that gives us life and breath, to the place where we are safe and secure.
Today is a day to remember and to tell stories. It is not a day to wax philosophical about the presence of evil in the world; it is not a day to strengthen our fear of others or look for a place to put the blame. It is not a day to hide away in fear and it is not a day to pretend as if nothing is wrong. It is a day to remember and tell stories. Today is a day to tell the story of what you were doing, what you were wearing, and who you were with when the towers fell; it is a day to tell the story of what you were doing, what you were wearing, and who you were with when the Murrah Building collapsed, or when the Sandy Hook children were murdered, or when some other senseless tragedy tried to break the world apart. Today is a day to remember all the men and women, of every race and every faith, who run to the scene of a tragedy fueled by the belief that the living matter, even if only one living person can be found. It is a day to remember that our ability to worship here in safety and security is a gift, one that comes at a great price. It is a day to remember that fear and death and evil lurk not in ‘those people’ or in certain countries or in certain traditions of faith, but in the hearts of us all, and to remember that by God’s power we have the ability to silence them and send them back to the pits of hell from whence they came. Today is a day to remember the helpers and look for the helpers in the world right now. Today is a day to remember that though there will always be fear and death and hatred, life is more powerful death and love and forgiveness will always triumph over fear and hatred.
And most importantly of all, today is a day to tell the story of and remember the deep, deep love of God. This love formed us from the dust of the earth, and breathed the breath of life into our lungs. This love gave us talents and gifts and skills that are to be used for God’s glory in this world. This love brought us together into community, to a safe place to worship and learn and serve and grow. This love took on flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth, teaching us to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. This love shouldered a cross, endured pain and suffering and insults, and was crucified on a hill between two criminals. This love was buried, but in three days rose again, trampling death beneath his wounded feet as he walked out of the tomb. This love destroyed the dividing wall of hostility that stands between us and God, between us and everyone else, with a call to recognize that all people are created in the image of God and worthy of peace, joy, and love. This love is still with us today, pushing us and moving us to creativity, intelligence, and energy as we take part in God’s constant renewal of the world.
And this love speaks to us over and over, today and every day, the message of faith that was spoken to Abraham and Sarah, Ruth and Naomi, Isaiah and Jeremiah, the shepherds outside Bethlehem, the expectant Mary and her unsure husband, the Apostle Paul as he sat in prison, and the persecuted faithful whose lives were threatened by the beast rising from the sea: “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Tell your story. Remember. And by God’s grace you and I, and the world, we will be healed. Amen.