A sermon preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 2013.Remember!
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “Much of what the Bible demands can be summed up in one imperative: Remember!”
This remembering we are commanded to is not misty nostalgia; it is remembering with great power. It is the remembering of the Passover. Not just fondly looking back, but remembering with such force that the past literally becomes present. This is the night. As if the events of the past were happening to us right here, right now.
Remember as an imperative. Remember – exclamation point!
In our reading from Deuteronomy this morning, Moses is giving this commandment to the people. They are not yet in the promised land. In fact, they have been wandering in the desert for so long that for many of them slavery in Egypt is just a story told by their parents and grandparents. And the promised land is just a story, too. A hope they cling to in deep faith that a better day and a better place is coming.
But the journey is almost over. They are about to cross the Jordan into Canaan, and though Moses will not make that journey with them, he knows that when they do, things will get better. The promise will be fulfilled. The people will get comfortable. And he knows that when we get comfortable, we forget.
And so in some of his final words to the people he has led for forty years of wandering, he relays God’s instructions to them for when things do get comfortable. And those instructions can be summed up in one word:
When you till the land and it produces abundance, remember! Remember that it is not just your toil and skill that caused it. Your toil and skill would be nothing without the land God has given you. So remember. Remember and give the first fruits of the land back to God in thanksgiving.
When you possess the land and become people of power and privilege, remember! Remember that you were and are refugees. Remember that a wandering Aramean was your ancestor. Remember that you were once afflicted and oppressed, and God’s response to you was compassion and deliverance. Remember and bring the oppressed, the aliens who reside among you, to your table to share together in all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.
To quote Sly Stone, the word Moses gives to the people then and to us now is “Remember who you are.”
Remember when we are tempted to think too highly of what we have accomplished that we stand on the shoulders of others and of God.
Remember when society gives us privilege because of our race that if you go back six million years or so, we’re all Africans anyway.
Remember that being born on third base doesn’t mean you just hit a triple.
150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Thanksgiving Proclamation, and for 150 years, we have observed this fourth Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving to God. It is a call to remember to look around and to notice, in Lincoln’s words that
“The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”
In many ways, Lincoln is our nation’s Moses. In fact, if you look at this window above me, you can see that our ancestors here at Christ Church Cathedral saw fit to put them side by side in stained glass – Moses leading the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt and Lincoln freeing the slaves.
And Lincoln’s call to us as an American people today is the same as Moses’ words to the people of Israel once they crossed the Jordan.
Remember that everything you have comes from God.
Remember that no matter how impressive our toil and skill, the primary sources from which these blessings come is the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.
But just as Moses said his words to a people still in the wilderness, Lincoln said these words to a nation that was still divided. It would be more than a year and a half before the Civil War would end and the painful work of reconstruction would begin. And like Moses, Lincoln would be granted a glimpse of that reconstructed Union but he would not get there himself.
As Americans, our founding document talks of us forming a more perfect Union. When Lincoln made this proclamation, the Union was about as imperfect as it could be. But even today, it a work that has not yet been completed. And as in Lincoln’s day, it remains a work that belongs not just to a few but a work that belongs to us all. And like President Lincoln’s call to a national day of Thanksgiving, it is a work that has its roots in Moses’ call to remember.
To form a more perfect union, we must remember. And so on this National Day of Thanksgiving, that is what we do.
On this day, we remember that we were sojourners, aliens in a strange land and we were taken in with hospitality … and as long as there is one sojourner and alien among us, we still are that sojourner and alien today.
On this day, we remember that we were homeless and at the mercy of the elements, and we suffered and died because we had no place to take shelter from the cold … and as long as there is one person struggling with homelessness among us, as long as there is one person sleeping on the streets , we all are that person today.
On this day, we remember that we were kicked out of other nations, that we were kidnapped from our homes and put into slave ships, that we were herded onto reservations and made to walk the trail of tears. That we had these things happen to us and we inflicted these things on one another. And that as long as one person is oppressed among us, we are that victim of oppression today.
On this day, we remember. We remember that our ancestors, all of our ancestors, were wandering Arameans. That the “us and them” language we use to describe each other – “the homeless,” “the business owners,” “the city,” “the county,” “the blacks,” “the whites,” that all that language only serves to help us forget our common ancestry and our common destiny.
On this day, we remember God’s dream for us is not us being a people where some have privilege and some have not. We remember that God’s dream for us is painted clearly in Moses’ words this morning:
Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.
God’s dream for us is to remember.
To remember that as we have power and privilege our joy is to use it not to increase the bounty of the powerful and privileged but to show the same compassion and hospitality to the aliens and oppressed among us.
To remember that we can be that more perfect union of which our ancestors dreamed and for which so many have given that last full measure of devotion, but only if, in the words of one Passover haggadah, we remember that “the story of freedom begins when we join together with all the needy and oppressed.” Only if we remember that “our redemption is bound up with the deliverance from bondage of people everywhere.”
Much of what the Bible demands can be summed up in one imperative: Remember!
Remember who we are. Remember where we came from. Remember that all we have comes from God and remember that our ancestor was a wandering Aramean.
Remember that in God’s Kingdom there is no us and them. That we have not only a common ancestry but a common destiny. That together we shall all celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD our God has given to us and to our house. AMEN.