Memory and the Magic of Music
A few years ago I was relaxing on the Saturday night before Easter. The sermon had been written and rehearsed, the service was all set to go, and I could just sit back for the evening and take it easy. I had the public radio station on, and as I was sitting there, I heard the familiar strains of the overture to Jesus Christ Superstar. I had not heard that in years, decades. But suddenly I was transported back the early 1970s, when Superstar was all the rage, and to my high school youth groups, and especially to a church camp I attended, where we used the soundtrack as background for a skit we did for the final night. I found myself singing along, remembering every word of the whole rock opera.
Have you ever had that experience? Where you hear a song, and it brings you back top another time? Its funny how music can do that. Since I listen to a lot of music, that happens a lot to me. A song will evoke strong memories of high school or college, of people, of places, of things I was thinking and feeling at the time. I hear Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, and I am back in 11th grade, trying to figure things out. I hear Steely Dan’s Countdown to Ecstasy, and I am in an old Ford Fairlane with Jimmy Fredrickson and Charlie Elberson, running around town. I hear Grooving by the Young Rascals, and I am back in the summer of fourth grade, lying by Bolton pool on a hot summer afternoon. I hear Amy Grant’s version of O Little Town of Bethlehem, and I am back in Germany, cooking the kitchen of our dorm, talking about Christmas traditions in America and Germany with friends.
Music evokes many memories, almost all of them very good memories.
Sometimes, when I feel down, I’ll put on some music from a particularly happy period in my life, and more often than not, I feel better.
The Psalms and Memories
In the Psalm we heard today, the Psalmist is doing the same thing. He feels down.
1I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, that he may hear me.
2In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
Like the author of last week’s psalm, this guy has the blues. He is downcast, and tired. He has troubles.
But we are not going to focus on his troubles this week. We are not going to focus on how badly his life is messed up. We are not going to focus on what has him down and why. We are going to look at what he does to deal with his difficulties. What does he do?
Memory. He remembers.
11 I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD;
I will remember your wonders of old.
12I will meditate on all your work,
and muse on your mighty deeds.
He knows that he is down and out, but that God is a great God. He may feel that he is cornered by adversity, but he knows that God always roams free. He may feel that he is powerless, but he knows that God is powerful.
The more he looks at the world around him, the more depressed he gets. The more he looks at God, the more hope he has. When he looks around, or when he looks the future, he feels afraid, but when he looks to the past, to what God has done, he feels confident.
14You are the God who works wonders;
you have displayed your might among the peoples.
15With your strong arm you redeemed your people,
The Psalmist remembers how God called Abraham, how God led the children of Israel out of bondage, out of the slavery in Egypt. He remembers the times when God acted in a powerful and decisive way, and when he remembers that, he knows that God can act again.
Remember the Story
There are other Psalms like this, and many of them, after recounting their woes, immediately recount the mighty acts of God. In fact, that is why we have most of the books of the Bible. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy are all mostly stories–stories about God and how God interacts with the Hebrews. If the legal parts, what you have to do to maintain favor with God, were all that were important, then why have the other stuff? Why the stories of Abraham, or Moses? Why the stories of Samuel, Elijah and Elisha? Why the stories of David, Saul, Solomon, and the other kings of Judah and Israel? We don’t need those, do we?
Of course we do. Think back on how these stories have been important to people over the years. African-Americans, ripped from their homelands, enslaved, often in brutal conditions, read the stories of the Hebrew children enslaved by the Pharaohs, and they know they are not alone. They read of Moses liberating the people, and they have hope. When Martin Luther was seeing what his platform for reform was doing to the church, setting Christian against Christian, he read the story of Abraham, who answered God’s call, even in adversity and he was comforted by God’s continual faithfulness to Abraham. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was standing up almost alone against Hitler in Germany, he was able to take comfort in the story of Elijah, who thought he was standing alone as a prophet of God, but who learned that there were multitudes who stood for truth and justice, and he was not alone.
When churches go through hard times, when they feel they are out in a desert, wandering around, not making any progress, they can remember the children of God in the Sinai, who were also wandering, who were also a bit lost, who were not where they wanted to be. And they can take comfort that God was with the Hebrews in the desert, and they can know that God is with them as the wander in the desert of the modern world.
When people today feel the brunt of oppression, they too can read the story of Moses, and they can hope that God will hear their cries, and will deliver them from the brunt of poverty, from homelessness, from depression, from illnesses, from grief, from loneliness, from overwhelming doubt.
The Psalmist knew that we all go through through hard times, and wisely called the people to reflect on God’s gracious acts in the past, as they struggle with the adversity of the present. They encourage to look at what God has done, so we can hope in what God will do.
Communion and Memory
It is too bad that this text comes this Sunday in the lectionary and not next week, because next week is communion. Every month when we gather around the table, we do this, we repeat the words of Jesus, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Again, we are called to remember. Again, we are encouraged to think back as we look ahead. Again, we are called to consider what God has done, as we look ahead to what we hope God will do. But this calls us to look specifically at Jesus, and more specifically at Jesus sitting with the disciples the night he was arrested, the night before he was crucified.
Remember. Remember that Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, Jesus, the Word of God, Jesus, the full revelation of God in human flesh, the King of Kings, the prince of peace, this Jesus suffered too. Jesus suffers with us. Early in his life, Jesus was a refugee, having to move to Egypt because of political repression under Herod in Bethlehem. By the time Jesus was in his thirties, he lost his father. He was an itinerant preacher, who, as he said, had no real place to lay his head. His closest followers were constantly misunderstanding his mission and message. On a couple of occasions, his preaching caused him to lose followers, and few times, his listeners tried to kill him. He lost a good friend, Lazarus, and wept at his death. (OK, he also raised him from the dead, but he still shed tears before hand.) Finally his most trusted adviser betrayed him, and all of his followers deserted him. He was brutally whipped, and then executed with the most brutal form of execution known to human beings.
And remember that God raised Jesus from the dead. Remember that God did not leave him in the tomb. Remember that the third day God glorified Jesus, he vindicated his death, not by punishing the people who had him killed, but by raising him from the dead, and then offering that new life to all his followers. Remember that he was left for died, is risen to new life. Remember that while he was alive, Jesus taught us a new way of being, a new way of living, a way based on love and service, based on a radical connection that we all have with our fellow human beings, a new way based on God’s never ending love for us.
In My Life
And remember what God has done in your life. The works of God did not end when the last words of the Bible were written–they continue today. God is at work in this church. I think of changed lives, I think of countless little acts of grace, I think of worship, and how God connects with us through the Holy Spirit, and how that connects us to God. I think of the baptisms that have occurred here, those I did, and those that happened before I got here, where we formally recognize that someone is a child of God. I think of communion, where we gather around a table, a common table, eat from a common loaf, drink from a common cup, in recognition that we are all bound together in love by God.
I think of the mission of the church, this church, how we reach out to a wide variety of people, from the homeless to receive food, and acceptance here, to the visitors who happen to wander in here on any given Sunday morning, to Jazz lovers, who appear here on Sunday evenings, to each and every one of you have who made this your church home.
And remember what God has done in your lives, how God has changed you over the years, how God has touched you, how God has intervened in your lives. God is not a distant being who dwells in a galaxy far, far away. God, the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, dwells with us here. God is here with us, in the building, at this time. God is with you as you drive home today. God is in your homes. God is in your hearts.
I was at Presbytery this weekend in Ashland. I saw a lot of people I have not seen in a while, and of course when you see someone like that, you ask, “How’s it going?” I had a hard time answering that. If I had been truthful, I would have said, “It’s actually been kind of hard. It started when our dishwasher leaked all over our kitchen floor, and now we are in an unplanned remodeling project. Then I ended up in the hospital for a couple of days, under observation. The day I got out, one of our cars had to go the shop with transmission problems. After we took care that, I sat down to write a sermon, and my computer died. Dead. Totally. I got a new computer, but the hard drive was smaller, so they could not put all music on it. I have a very significant music library on my computer, one that I have been working on for twenty years, and while I was connecting my external hard drive to the computer so I could play music, I accidentally deleted it. All of it.
At one point I was feeling sorry for myself, when my wife intervened. “Look at what you have! Yes, you were in the hospital, but it turned out to be not as serious as it could have been, and you were released with a clean bill of health. The car is under warranty. Insurance is covering part of the kitchen remodel. And you can afford a new computer. Do you think God has abandoned you?”
She was right. As it turned out, the computer people were able to recover all my music. God has blessed me in so many ways. I have the natural ability to do the work I love doing, and God led me here, a town I love, and a church I love. God led me to a wife I love, and who loves me. I look back on my life, and I realize just how blessed I am. A song rises in my heart. Several songs.
Joyful, Joyful, we adore, God of Glory, Lord of love.
Hearts unfold like flowers before thee
Opening to the sun above
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive the dark of doubt away.
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day!