A sermon preached by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL, Dean of Salisbury
Sunday 26 February 2017
Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9
As you heard in the welcome to our service Lent begins this week and I very much hope those of you who can will join us on Wednesday for our launching of Lent at our Ash Wednesday Eucharist at 5.30pm. It’s now we turn our faces to the suffering and death of Christ. It’s not easy to do that but if we’re going to live as real Christians, loving reality as God loves reality, then a holy Lent will help us find resources we need to face a suffering world and our own pains within it.
And with that in mind the Cathedral is offering a different kind of opportunity for our visitors to pray during this season of Lent. Memory and identity is a special theme of the Cathedral all through this year and soon in our Morning Chapel there’ll be a place for people to pray for the healing of their memories. We know that amongst our many visitors there’ll always be some who’ve been abused or neglected, those who would say their memories ‘haunt’ them, and those who would like to forget memories which make a disproportionate impact on their lives. With the help of our gospel reading this morning let me tell you what we hope our focus of prayer will do for those people.
We live in a society which is very keen on remembering. Maybe it was always the case but we don’t seem to give ourselves much opportunity for reflection before we work out how to memorialize things. Do you recall how, only a very few days after the 9/11 atrocities, there were discussions beginning about how to memorialise the events and those lost at Ground Zero in New York? So we have no problem being convinced about the need to remember but do we remember things rightly?
The people who shared Jesus’ life had to answer exactly the same question about how they dealt with their painful memories. Yes, they might be living as witnesses to the resurrection but they were also dealing with the enduring memories of Jesus rejection, torture and death. As we listened to what we describe as ‘the Transfiguration’ notice that Matthew planted it right inside the context of Jesus telling his disciples that he was about to suffer abuse and agony. The introduction to the Transfiguration really begins in the previous chapter with this:
“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering … and Peter took him aside … saying ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’”
They were remembering bad things: the memory of Christ’s suffering and Passion still needed dealing with. And all the evidence is that they had to find ways of coping with what had happened to them – with their guilt and shame, regrets and bewilderments - just as we have to cope with our difficult memories.
When we invite our visitors to pray in this place during Lent this year we’re consciously giving them an opportunity to acknowledge the broken or toxic memories they are carrying with them, painful, even scarring memories, ways they are having to live with their past. We want to help them know how to do that.
In inviting people to seek the healing of memory I’ll be surprised if someone doesn’t bring the memory of the Holocaust with them. It’s one of our great wounds of recent memory in European history. And Ellie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz, was one of the fiercest advocates of remembering what happened there. But it’s important to note why he thought we should face up to our memories. On the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht he spoke to the Reichstag, the German Parliament, and he talked of how, despite its past and horrors, the world is worthy of salvation; ‘and salvation can be found only in memory’.
Memories can restore our health and dignity. They can acknowledge what has happened and show solidarity with any victims. They can protect us from further wrongdoing. But they can also be poisonous in their effect. And if memories are going to be tools of our salvation rather than poisonous then we have to invite one another to remember well, to remember rightly.
So in trying to remember well what happened to them the disciples of Jesus turned to the story of the Transfiguration. Here are two things it points to which might help our visitors as they pray in the presence of their own memories.
If we’re to remember well we have to remember truthfully. Truthfulness is an obligation we owe to ourselves and to our sense of justice. It isn’t always easy to get back to the accuracy of what has happened, especially when time and different perceptions works over our recollections. There usually isn’t only one truth about a series of events though nor does that mean that every memory is equally valid.
In recounting their experience on that mountain side Peter, James and John are agreed about two things which truthfully reflected their state as the suffering of Jesus awaits them. One is that they were afraid:
“The disciples …fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus touched them, saying ‘Get up, and do not be afraid.’” (v6-7)
And the other is that they really wanted to avoid what lay ahead of them. Peter wanted to stay apart on the mountain and would rather have turned away from the way of the cross.
“Lord, it is good for us to be here; … I will make three dwellings…”
Fear and avoidance. Both of these reactions have the ring of authenticity to them. Remembering truthfully also told the disciples that in their fear and wish to withdraw from pain Jesus remained compassionately with them, urging them not to be afraid and drawing them back to God’s purposes for them.
More than that, if we’re to remember well we have to remember so as to heal.
Some memories which people will bring to our chapel will take a lifetime, maybe even an eternity to heal. Those who have been sexually abused testify to the impact of that memory throughout their adulthood: ruining their innocence, depriving them of confidence and robbing them of a hopeful future. It would be dishonest and glib to think that a single encounter of prayer could do much to help in that long journey but it can stand as a witness to the difference Jesus Christ can make in any life.
Painful memories, particularly those which involve the wrongdoing of others can come to define us and we take on distorted identities. We are a child of a broken marriage. We are a rape victim. We have been betrayed or we have been unloved.
Do you see how we’re capable of being defined by our memories? Whereas one of the things Christ offers us is a chance of a more profound identity. At his points of decision: at his baptism, and again here as he sets forth to Jerusalem and the cross, he’s told that above all else he is a child of God. If we know that more essential identity then other things will lose their power over us. Yes, we may suffer pain but we are more than what we’ve suffered. Instead we integrate our memories into that much larger life story of our belonging to God. There may be parts of our past where we simply can’t find any meaning, where we circle around the absence of meaning, but at the deepest points of our self we can know that he calls us by our name and claims us as his own.
Of course, what is true for our visitors is true for all of us this Lent. If the blade of memory keeps opening up old wounds for you then let me invite you to visit this place of prayer, or your own place of prayer at home, and to hear Jesus say to you ‘Get up, and do not be afraid.’
A holy Lent for you may mean facing up in a fresh way to what you remember but remembering it well: remembering it truthfully, remembering it so that it may heal. In the love of Christ.