People like to assert the timeworn axiom that hindsight is 20-20. More than most axioms, that truism is dead wrong. Few among us see the past any more clearly than we see the present or future. If hindsight were 20-20, historians wouldn’t spend years developing the skills necessary to interpret the past, and even the most astute historian occasionally misunderstands what has already happened. How much more the popular mind misconstrues much of what it thinks it remembers!
The popular mindset, for example, remembers Union General Sherman’s march through the South near the end of the Civil War as a campaign of unrelenting pillage and plunder. The truth is more complex. I learned that years ago when I was part of a group that was honoring prominent South Carolina philanthropist Sam Tennenbaum. This was not long after the horror September 11, 2001, and Tennenbaum had the acute desire to replace one of the many firetrucks that New York City had lost on that fateful day. To his amazement, he learned that a group of South Carolina school children shared the same vision. The project really took off when a historian came to the fore and shared with Mr. Tanenbaum and others an extraordinary story. Again, those of us reared in the South remember Sherman’s march through the South as an event of utter destruction. But the historian noted that when Columbia, South Carolina was occupied by Union troops from New York City, those troops realized that the city of Columbia had been so prostrated by the rigors of war that it no longer had a functional fire truck. The historian noted that those Yankee soldiers pooled their lowly wages to purchase the city of Columbia a fire truck. The South Carolina official on hand to receive the gift of the fire truck was so moved by their act of generosity that he made an improbable, rhetorical promise. He declared, “One day, my friends, the time will come when New York City will need a fire truck, and when it does, the people of South Carolina will come together and rise to meet the challenge.” Who would have thought that debt of gratitude would have ever been remembered? Who would have thought that debt of gratitude would have ever been repaid? But Sam Tenenbaum and the school children of South Carolina pooled their resources to pay the high price of remembering a past kindness and making good on an old debt, presenting New York City with a brand new firetruck.
Paul admits to the church in Rome that he has allowed his life’s agenda to be shaped by the high cost of remembering. He yearns to take the Gospel to places where it has never been heard. He, at long last, wants to visit the Roman church, then answer the call of his heart to take the Gospel to Spain, which has heretofore been ignorant of God’s Good News and the name of Jesus Christ. But Paul feels that he has an obligation. He feels that he and the Gentile churches have a debt to pay. The Jerusalem Christian church, the original mother church of the Christian faith, was now struggling for survival in the throes of famine, poverty and persecution. Paul believed that the Gentile churches bore responsibility for coming to that church’s rescue.
The odd thing is, the Gentile churches could have looked back upon that Jerusalem church with pointed misunderstanding. They could have regarded that Jerusalem church with lingering resentment and disdain, remembering that those Jewish Jerusalem Christians originally didn’t think they were worthy of the Gospel, didn’t think Gentiles should be accepted as full Christians among their ranks unless they were willing to accept the rites, rituals, diet and heritage of the Jewish tradition. Even Paul could have looked back in anger at the way the Jewish Christian leadership originally shunned and snubbed him, accepting him only after Barnabas interceded on his behalf. But Paul’s spiritual vision of the past was 20-20. The Jerusalem church may have had initial doubts about his theological vision and missional ambition, but Paul knew that everything he had accomplished, everything he had become, could be traced to that Jerusalem church’s blessing and endorsement. The string of Gentile churches that lay like a beautiful necklace of faith around the Mediterranean Sea bore a debt to that Jerusalem church that first conceived the vision of sending the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Who would have thought a few years back that the Jerusalem church, with its star-studded cast of Peter, James, John, and other luminaries, would have ever needed the help of the Gentile churches? Who could have imagined that? Who would have imagined that when they gave Paul and Barnabas leave to preach the Gospel to Gentiles that Jerusalem church was actually sowing the seeds of her own deliverance? But such was the case. So Paul had called the Gentile churches to shoulder the high cost of remembering and take up a great offering for the relief of the impoverished Jerusalem church.
One of the great faults of religious people is a tendency to misappropriate their heritage, to turn the act of remembering into something sentimental, banal, even destructive. Jeremiah realized that the Jews of his day had looked back to the glory days when Isaiah was a prophet and focused on the many times when Jerusalem had miraculously escaped military conquest. Reflecting upon their rich past, the Jews had come to conclude that because they were God’s chosen people, because Jerusalem was the apple of God’s eye, because the Temple was the site of God’s special presence, they were thus inviolate and invincible. In response, Jeremiah preached a sermon that reverberates to this day. He said to his people, “You run around repeating ‘The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord,’ reciting that phrase like a good-luck charm. You have gleaned the wrong lesson from your history. You have tried to use the past as a security blanket to delude yourselves into thinking that you will escape the consequences of stubbornness. Your memory is false, your history illusory. The high cost of remembering our heritage requires from us acts of obedience and contrition. The high cost of remembering calls forth from us a humility that entails submission to divine judgment.” Jeremiah’s hearers wanted to kill him because he called them to pay the high cost of truly remembering and honoring their past. But he was challenging them to understand their history rightly.
So, too, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached in Berlin during those dark days when Hitler had come to power, and many Lutheran Christians were trying to accommodate the Fuhrer’s dark demands. Bonhoeffer, preaching on a Reformation Day Sunday like this one, said in essence, “We won’t let the old Reformer die in peace. We trot him out once a year, and in pulpits across Germany preachers will be saying, ‘Here I stand! I can do no other!’ Their word will be a lie. In point of fact, nobody is taking a stand. Nobody is affirming a conviction. Nobody is planting their two feet upon an eternal truth. Nobody is calling pure moral evil what it is. Nobody acknowledges the sovereignty of God and takes a stand against a popular but ruthless Nazi movement. Everyone is saying, ‘Here I stand,’ invoking the memory of Luther, but in fact such recollections are turning one man’s courageous conviction into a frivolous act of homage.” To remember Luther truly, said Bonhoeffer, is to recognize that you owe a great debt to a man’s moral and spiritual courage. To truly remember Luther, said Bonhoeffer, is to pay the high cost of taking a courageous stand yourself. To do otherwise is to turn one’s heritage into something facile, sentimental, vain and destructive. To truly remember Luther is to embrace the high cost of discipleship in the manner one lives one’s own faith.
On this day when we celebrate All Saints and Reformation Day, we should recognize that it is easy for us to identify ourselves as the true heirs and descendents of those who have preceded us in faith in this place. One of the former churches that I pastored dedicated the opening of its new sanctuary in 1929, just prior to the Stock Market Crash that preceded the Great Depression. It was an inauspicious time to start retiring a building debt. But a core group of members decided that they would not let the church default on the loan. They parked their cars and contributed the saved gas money to the church. They pledged to tithe fully a tenth of their incomes to keep the church afloat. Their faithfulness, financial and otherwise, saved that congregation. I am sure that the saints who kept this church alive during the Great Depression embraced similar sacrifices. Yet, to remember the faithfulness of the saints of old is also to acknowledge that we live under an enormous obligation. To honor the saints who came before us is take our stand to ensure that the tradition and heritage of this church flourishes for generations to come. Can we truly say that we live with such commitment? The high cost of remembering what others have done in laying the foundation of this church does not allow us to pay them superficial homage by simply recounting well-worn stories of past sacrifices. Only when a memory calls forth from us a sacrificial stewardship of our time and our talents and our resources, only when the power of a memory has the power to orient our lives around the values of Christ and this community, that is when the act of remembering is truly not a dead tradition but a living vibrant force within our lives!
Truth be told, Paul does not want to go to Jerusalem, bearing a hunger offering for the church! Paul wants to go to Rome, visiting a fellowship whose company he has yet to enjoy, then go on to Spain, to preach the Gospel in places that have never heard God’s Good Word. Yet Paul understands the high cost of remembering and the importance of honoring the impact others have had on him, even when he knows that such an act of remembrance is supremely dangerous. That’s why he writes to his friends in Rome, “Pray for me. Pray that I will be delivered from the hands of the unbelievers in Jerusalem.” He knows full well what a pariah he is even in the eyes of his own family. He knows the urban legends that swirl around him. He is aware of the fake news rumors that he plans to defile the Temple by taking a Gentile into forbidden areas. He knows that any trip back to Jerusalem will be fraught with tension and danger. But the high cost of remembering his debt to his friends in Jerusalem means that he has to go back into the lion’s den. He knows what he wants to do. But he also knows what he must do! He must pay the high cost of remembering.
My friends, here is where the water hits the wheel in living our Christian faith. You will find many times in your life when you want to do one thing, only to find that the call of Christ summons you to do another. The call of Christ will tug you in directions that you do not naturally want to go. Yet we also know that there have been times in our lives when we experienced a great darkness of soul, and into that darkness God brought us a great and guiding light. There have been times when we experienced life as a dead-end, and God came and created a way out of no way. There have been times when we could not accept ourselves, and God blessed us with a love that we did not earn, a gift that liberated our lives. To honor that God is to live under obligation to the high cost of remembering. Yes, there are times when we want to spend our time and our money and our talents according to our own desires, times when we want to do what we want to do, but the high cost of remembering what Christ has done for us necessarily changes the way we live. We know that the only way to honor God is to give ourselves completely to our Lord in gratitude and thanks. When we celebrate our Reformation heritage, when we read the roll call of those saints who have departed from us, we remind ourselves that we only enjoy our blessings because of a foundation of faith that has been laid by others. When we search our spiritual pilgrimage, we find that out of our memory emerge the faces of bygone friends, mentors, teachers, coaches, parents and grandparents — we see those who reached out to us in love and whose sponsorship of us placed us in their debt, whose investment of blessing in us created a debt we cannot pay back, we can only pay forward. Every one of us has been shaped by the love and support and encouragement of people whom we cannot pay back. The high cost of remembering our debt to such people calls us to pay our homage forward into the lives of those around us who live in need.
How intertwined are the stories of our lives! When Mother Teresa won the Nobel Prize for Peace, I could not help but note how deliciously strange it was that this little servant who spent her career in poverty tending to the destitute in Calcutta would now forever be linked with the wealthy man who invented dynamite, Alfred Nobel. Alfred Nobel had the strange privilege of reading his own obituary, when his brother died and the newspaper printed Alfred’s death notice by mistake. Reading his obit, Nobel realized that his name would be remembered only as the inventor of an instrument of destruction, so he resolved to put his vast fortune to a more positive use, endowing prizes that awarded advances in literature, economics, medicine, science and peace. It was an expensive investment, but Alfred Nobel realized that such an expense was necessary to alter the nature of his legacy and change the way he would be remembered.
Occasionally I feel the acute need to retreat to some quiet place to fast, meditate, pray and work without interruptions. Some years ago I had engaged in such a retreat in the mountains of western North Carolina for several days, and was returning home very early one lovely fall morning. I crested Saluda Mountain on Interstate 26, just before dawn. The entire eastern horizon was Halloween orange, and that orange glow formed the backdrop for a dark, panoramic mountain range and the black silhouette of the trees. I noted the sprinkled dots of lights, like faint stars, in the vast valley below, save for the hollows where thick fog nestled deep like a soft, gray comforter. It was a scene of utter serenity, peace and beauty. In that moment words came to me, words from the pen of that genius Christian poet Isaac Watts:
“When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride. . . .
Were the whole realm of Nature mine, that were a present far too small.
Love, so amazing, so divine: demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Isaac Watts offered us the testimony of a man who appreciated the high cost of remembering what God has done for us. May we do likewise.