The following sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago during “Welcome Week,” the school’s new student orientation. Worship services this week centered on the sacraments, with this service emphasizing the eucharist. Audio of this sermon being delivered can be found here.
Preachers, you ever have that sermon illustration in search of a sermon that you’ve been holding on to, waiting for the moment you can use it to clarify some bit of biblical or theological obscurity? I suspect we all have. Often the reason those illustrations struggle to find a home in one of our sermons is that, in order to make them fit, we have to do some little bit of violence to the text — either the text of the illustration, or the text they’re meant to illustrate, like Cinderella’s step-sisters trying to cram their feet into her shoes by lopping off their toes or parts of their heels. That’s not the sermon illustration I want to share, just a metaphorical warm-up.
No, the sermon illustration I’ve been aching to use and — what the hell, let’s go for it — comes from deep within the heart of my childhood, from a source so early it is almost mythic in its significance. I’m talking about the seminal 1979 Jim Henson classic, The Muppet Movie. The reason it’s been on my mind, begging for airtime in a sermon, is that I got to see it outside earlier this month as part of this summer’s Millennium Park film series downtown with Dr. Wagner. We took a couple of lawn chairs, packed some melon balls and prosciutto, wine and cheese, and I promised her a movie simultaneously entertaining and saturated with rich theological meaning. In particular, I told her, you’ve got to watch for this scene in that back half of the movie set in the desert of the American West. It comes at a moment when all hope seems lost, when our heroes are worn down from their efforts to escape the nefarious Doc Hopper who’s been trying to get Kermit to abandon his dreams and take a self-hating job as the face of a chain of restaurants selling frog legs. The muppets are all camped out in the desert on a dark night around a small campfire under a bright moon when Gonzo — Gonzo! that weirdest of all the muppets — begins to sing:
This looks familiar, vaguely familiar.
Almost unreal, yet, it’s too soon to feel yet.
Close to my soul and yet so far away.
I’m going to go back there someday.
Sun rises, night falls, sometimes the sky calls.
Is that a song there, and do I belong there?
I’ve never been there, but I know the way.
I’m going to go back there someday.
This is a song of amazing depth, hiding out in a children’s movie, a song about the power of memory and imagination to help us bridge the distance between past, present, and future as a resource for enduring the profound anxieties of human life. “I’ve never been there, but I know the way. I’m going to go back there someday.”
We’re halfway through welcome week, a brief season in the cyclical life of the school during which we welcome into our community a new set of students who, in no time at all, will become a part of the fabric of our life together — so much so that, in a few short years it will feel as though they’ve always been here. But right now they are newly arrived, and they are trying to figure out how to fit the contents of the life they’ve known into the odd confines of this new place without damaging either of them. How to squeeze their particular set of cherished experiences and accumulated belongings into a new apartment, a new city, a new group of people, a new life.
Add to the list of all that’s new a new vocabulary, one of the many gifts of a seminary education. All the Greek words waiting to be learned, all the -ologies: theologies, soteriologies, epistemologies, eschatologies. Here’s a Greek word for you, not an -ology, but relevant to today’s texts: anamnesis. Anamnesis means something like “reminiscence.” As a philosophical concept, it’s first connected to Plato’s theory of knowledge (epistemology) in which he posits that human beings possess innate knowledge from before their birth and that learning is actually the process of rediscovering what we have already previously known. A few centuries later the concept gains new meaning as it gets picked up by the early Christians to refer to the “memorial sacrifice” at the heart of the eucharistic liturgy, the words we hear in both Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and Luke’s gospel account of the last supper when Jesus takes the loaf of bread, breaks it and distributes it to the community that has gathered around him, worn down and anxious about the dual powers of the Roman empire and the Temple establishment that have been chasing them, after Jesus has predicted his death on multiple occasions and hope seems thin. There, around that ancient imagined campfire, Jesus says, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Friends, I have to confess to you that when I first selected these texts for today, I was drawn to the ugly parts of the story. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we catch the apostle in a full-on scold, “Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” The community has taken the love meal of Jesus and perverted its fundamental significance as a means of grace by repeating the same injustices that characterize the sinful state of our social existence. The church in Corinth has been showing up to worship, each bringing their own food and drink, and then not sharing all things in common, not distributing from each according to their means to each according to their need. Instead, Paul says, “when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.” The poor in their midst go hungry, repeating the patterns of humiliation experienced in the wider world and making the gospel of life and love and liberation into a lie.
Likewise, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus moves immediately from what we have come to know as the words of institution to observe that “the one who betrays me is with me, and their hand is on the table.” Understandably the disciples are alarmed to hear this, so they begin “to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.”
That dynamic also looks familiar, strangely familiar. It seems to be a part of our human nature that we not only routinely betray our own highest hopes and ideals, but that we cluster together and project our own fears, guilt, shame, and insecurity onto one another, asking who in this community it could be who would do this; who in this community has fallen short of the ideal; who has betrayed God’s preferred future with words or actions that are ignorant, or malicious, or violent, or oppressive. Who could it be? Not me, I hope. Let’s keep looking. Elsewhere.
This is what I am compulsively drawn to, what I think we are all perhaps drawn to, the obsessive memory of all that has hurt us and the repression of and forgetfulness about all that we have done to hurt others. But this is not what Jesus asks us to remember. Instead, in each of these stories which include truth-telling about the persistent nature of human sinfulness, about our own participation in the humiliating structures of injustice and our own betrayals of God’s beloved children, we are asked to remember God’s body broken for us, God’s life poured out for us. For us. For people like us. For forgetful people like us. For imperfect and scared and fearful and jealous and violent and hurting people like us. All of us.
In his book, Anamnesis as Dangerous Memory: Political and Liturgical Theology in Dialogue, Bruce Morrill contrasts anamnesis with another Greek word referring to memory, mnemosunon (mnay-MOS’-oo-non). Mnemosunon, as he describes it, refers to memories with “a certain intrinsic continuing, abiding permanency about them, unless and until they are deliberately destroyed or consumed or blotted out.” Anamnesis, on the other hand, refers to the recollection of things forgotten, carrying with it the connotation of renewal and return to what was once known. Like Plato’s idea that all learning is actually remembering.
The disruptive quality of anamnesis, the recovery of what has been lost, is what makes it dangerous to the established order and the status quo. Because it is disruptive to remember God’s abundance in a world of manufactured scarcity in which some go hungry while others hoard food and water and other forms of wealth. It is disruptive to remember God’s welcome in a world that spurns refugees, separates families, and cages children. It is disruptive to remember God’s love in a world that tells us who to love and how to hate. It is disruptive to remember God’s justice in a world that scapegoats individuals and whole communities while ignoring the structural violence that is the backdrop of our entire social lives. It is dangerous to tell the story of God’s salvation history to people who have lost hope, because they might believe it. It might change them. They might find common cause in one another. They might learn again what they have always known, that they were created in love, by love, for love. They might live their lives as if it were true, and then how would the world sell them its goods, its illusions, its rationalizations and justifications for all the harm we do to ourselves and others, all our betrayals of self and other.
In direct defiance of the death-dealing powers of this world, the church asserts that by means of our memory of what God has done in the past, we are joined to that work in the present and enter into the reality of God’s gracious reign which is both here and now and not yet. Anamnesis is the memory of the past that creates the conditions for a renewed present and different future — and, in a more technical, liturgical sense, it is the portion of the eucharistic prayer that comes after the words of institution. In this way, each time we eat this meal together and hear the words of Jesus, who commands us to do all this in remembrance of him, we then immediately do as we have been told, and we remember him, we tell the story of his living and teaching, his dying and rising, his promise to come again to save the world and set it free and this memory, like something we’ve always known but keep forgetting, propels us forward so that we can once again with confidence proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. All three tenses collapsed into one; the past, the present, and the future coming together to disrupt the sinful status quo of our lives and of the world. The chance to become new people and a new creation.
For those of you who are joining the seminary community this week, for whom this may be your first sharing of the Lord’s Supper in this place, it might feel as if you’re having this meal for the first time — but that’s almost certainly untrue. It’s far more likely that you have already had some experience of the Lord’s Supper that has fed you, pushed you or propelled you toward this moment. Now, here in this place, we will have some more of those moments together — there may be baptisms or baccalaureates, there may be funerals or other farewells. As we share our lives with one another, we are becoming a part of one another’s future memories.
That’s what Jesus seems to be saying as well in Luke’s gospel as he instructs the disciples in the use and the meaning of this meal. It’s as if he is already remembering the future, telling them that he won’t eat this meal again until they share this meal in the future; as though the very act of those who love him and follow him, sharing this meal with its command to remember, will bring Jesus into their future present, truly present and alive to them, and with them, and in them. In this way, we are all — every one of us — alive to each other forever. Our memory forming a solid bridge from the past to the present to the future.
There will surely be days ahead when you will feel betrayed by this community or members of it — perhaps there will be days when you will become aware of the ways that you have betrayed it, or the wider, more expansive body of Christ to which we belong. What will you do then? What can you do when you have been betrayed, when you have betrayed?
Jesus could have said, “Remember, you can’t trust anyone.” But he didn’t. Instead, he said this: my body, for you. My life, a covenant, a promise, with you and with all people. Remember that.
That is the world I long to live in. A place I keep finding and forgetting. It is the memory of the possibility of that place that was promised to me when I was baptized and I am going to go back there someday. Today. Amen.