Remember. Our faculty of recall is the one characteristic essential to a full humanity.
That is why Alzheimer’s Disease is so devastating. It robs its victims of what makes life precious and worthwhile. Literally it takes the joy out of living, erasing precious memories. Not only is it a tragedy for the afflicted, but for surviving family and friends as well.
But humans are not the only living beings possessing memory. It seems to be present up and down the tree of life. All species have some capacity for remembrance. Even the simplest organisms can learn to navigate primitive avoidance challenges. They remember.
Anyone possessing a pet knows that higher order animals are smart. Look how our cats learn to train us human beings. Get out the leash and our dog knew what was up, as Big B would jump up and down with excitement, tail wagging.
“Ned and Sunny stretch out together on the warm sand. He rests his head on her back, and every so often he might give her an affectionate nudge with his nose. The pair is quiet and, like many long-term couples, they seem perfectly content just to be in each other’s presence.”
What sets them apart from what you might have been assuming is, they’re lizards and they’ve been together for a good number of years, longer than some human couples last.
Shingleback lizards meet to mate with the same partner over many years, one studied couple still making magic over twenty-seven years and going strong. They remember who loves ‘em.
One of the most poignant scenes of Holy Week is a request for remembrance. When one thief asks another condemned if he might be remembered in paradise. “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And in that moment, he is enfolded into the blessed memory of the Eternal.
Here we have the Exalted One casting aside all privilege as he is dying in agony, and promising to hold another condemned in memory. A very strange “King of the Jews” who for us of low account, he sets aside his crown, as the hymn puts it. Truly, a bitter sweet moment on Calvary’s hill.
Memory and longing are sometimes the only forms of sacramental presence of the love of a lost one left to us. Through memory all living flesh is bound together in one seamless garment of life – past and present. Through memory hope is renewed.
As we gather around Thanksgiving tables in a few days, moments of joy will come to life as family stories are brought to memory and retold. Retold to laughter and to tears.
In our family, the remembered story that always brought laughter was an incident in our living room when I was in the second grade. I had persuaded my mom to help me with this cut-out western village on the back of a Cheerios box. Each box featured a different structure for the village. This one was a cabin of some sort.
Mom wouldn’t do it for me, she made me cut it off the back of the box, and she would fold the buildings and put the correct tabs into the appropriate slots. She began folding and I noticed she wasn’t reading the directions. “Mother! I scolded. “You’re not following the directions,” to which she answered, “Only an idiot would need these directions.”
As she continued to fuss with the building, she finally asked, “Where are those directions?” To which I haughtily replied, “Mother, you said ‘only an idiot would need these directions.’”
And at virtually every family gathering thereafter we would regale all with a retelling, and mother would laugh as hard as any.
In my mind’s eye I still picture her fussing in frustration with the parts of that paper Cheerios building. ¡Presente!
We call this Sunday, “Christ the King Sunday”. In our progressive day, the title seems somehow politically incorrect. This strange king came with no armament, no hoard of soldiers, not to conquer by force.
All prerogatives he set aside. Along the highways he traveled over those days with us – as one of us — he stooped to the lowliest, embraced the sickest, and I suspect, he remembered each from the cross.
He remembered that lad who shared his picnic lunch that fed hundreds. He remembered a shamed woman at a Sumerian well. He remembered the one leprous man healed. And he remembered the other nine who, in their frail humanity failed to show gratitude. And held all ten in compassionate memory. He remembered a desperate old woman who grasped at his garment that she might be healed, and a woman of great faith who returned home to find her daughter healed.
He remembered those of that faithful band of followers who had been with him over that brief span of years. Those dense guys who never quite got the mission, and that precious woman who would anoint his feet, a foretaste of an anointing for burial. And that faithful clutch of women who gathered at the foot of his cross in his dying moments. Probably the last vision of his dimmed eyes before they closed in death.
Memory can be painful, damaging. I definitely remembered after touching the hot stove not to do that again.
The memory of failure and past mistakes, while needing healing, can be instructive. “Though your sin be as scarlet, I will wash it away.” It’s about confession and redemption – sometimes a life-long process, making amends and providing reparations. Without the visible acts of contrition, healing remains elusive. Remember and forsake thy foolish, destructive ways. Choose Life!
History is our collective memory. It’s not about dates and battles, or even the towering figures of the moment.
David W. Blight’s book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, narrates the failure of Reconstruction after that conflict. As the years progressed, those memories became politicized, North, South, white and Black.
Those wounds remain raw and open, memory selective. When I was young private, stationed in San Antonio, Texas, I encountered an entirely different memory of our national schism. Not the Civil War but the War of Northern Aggression. It was said to be all about states’ rights, not so much about slavery.
Those freedmen and freedwomen of the South had their own counter narrative to the mythology of a “Lost Cause.” And a precious, healing memory it is. Hear the story of redemption of starvation and death, the story of liberation at a racetrack in Charleston, South Carolina.
After the fall of Charleston, memory bore an incredible burden. At a race track, Planters Race Course, hundreds of Union prisoners of war had been held in the most inhumane conditions. Many died of exposure and disease, having been kept outside in freezing conditions without tents or other shelter. Over 257 had died.
The dead were just unceremoniously dumped in unmarked graves behind the judges’ stand.
Black Charlestonians who witnessed this brutal treatment, the death and disease, remembered. After the capture of the city, they organized to honor those who had sacrificed so much for their freedom — those honored dead, who with their blood had procured their rebirth – slaves no longer but now, free American citizens.
On May Day, 1865, they planned the first Decoration Day at the graveyard of those 257 Union dead, labeled the “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
This is the retelling of that of that bittersweet day of remembrance as narrated by a New York Tribune reporter:
“’The ‘First Decoration Day,’ as this event came to be recognized in some cities in the North, involved an estimated ten thousand people, most of them black former slaves. During April, twenty-eight black men from one of the local churches built a suitable enclosure for the burial ground at the Race Course.”
“At nine o’clock in the morning on May 1, the procession to this special cemetery began as three thousand black schoolchildren (newly enrolled in freedmen’s schools) marched around the Race Course, each with an armload of roses and singing ‘John Brown’s Body.’”
“The children were followed by three hundred black women representing the Patriotic Association, a group organized to distribute clothing and other goods among the freedpeople. The women carried baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses to the burial ground. The Mutual Aid Society, a benevolent association of black men, next marched in cadence around the track and into the cemetery, followed by crowds of black and white citizens…
“When all had left, the holy mounds, the tops the sides, and spaces between them – were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen…and as the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them, outside and beyond…there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy.’
“While the adults marched around the graves, the children were gathered in a nearby grove where they sang ‘America,’ ‘We’ll Rally around the Flag,’ and ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’”
After the dedication, some thirty orations were given by Union officers and local black ministers. As picnics were broken out on the grass, “a full brigade of Union infantry, including the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts and the Thirty-fifth and 104th U.S. Colored troops, marched in double column around the martyrs’ graves.”
Remember. Days of sacrifice; days of sweet freedom, days of gratitude – all held together in precious memory.
As Jesus from the cross enfolded the condemned, the desperate, the abandoned in loving memory, we celebrate One who casts aside the prerogatives of divinity to stoop in “Servant Leadership” to enfold us in the same gracious remembrance. Emmanuel, God with us. God in us and we in God. A very strange king, indeed, who hangs from the cross.
In precious memory all flesh is bound together in one “seamless garment of destiny.” — an ever-flowing stream of life. Memory is the sacramental presence of God’s enfolding of all creation unto Godself. Memory, the stuff of pure unadulterated Grace. The sacramental presence of all life wrapped up into the heart of God. You, too, Ned and Sunny. Blessed be!
Might it also be that even the most horrific things we do to one another and to creation find redemption in the memory of God? All restored? I pray so. You know the hymn: “And when from death I’m free I’ll sing and joyful be, and through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on, and through eternity I’ll sing on.” – all being folded into the great stream of the Mind of God. Amen.
 Hannah Tomasy, “Who Knew Reptiles Could be Such Romantics?” New York Times, Science Section, October 28, 2022.
 David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001).
 Ibid, 69-70.
 Ibid, 70.
November 20, 2022, Christ the King Sunday
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43