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First Sunday in Advent, 12/02/2007

Sermon on Psalm 119:49 + 55, by David Zersen


Remember your word to your servant, for you have given me hope;

In the night I remember your name, O Lord, and I will keep your commandments. (NIV)


One hundred-year anniversaries are more for the mature than for the young. Obviously, they have much more to remember at a senior age. However, the gift of reflection is given primarily to those who have a number of years behind them. It is a positive joy for many to be able to go back and relive cherished moments as if they were a part of a present life. I can remember my grandmother Zersen at the age of 86 sitting in her favorite chair and coming out of a daydream just long enough to tell me, "I am always with Pa on the mission field in North Dakota." Those were impressionable years in her young life, and she loved to savor both the tragedies and the triumphs of those times.

Sometimes the moments are really funny. I remember her retelling the story of how she and her husband, alone on the prairie, tried to butcher a pig and make sausage-something they had never done before. The pig ran away and even after they caught it, they overboiled the meat and most of it was lost. And she would laugh and laugh as she tried to tell this story. However, there were troubling times as she tried to help impoverished German-Russian immigrant women give birth in sod houses and sometimes lose the baby because the surroundings were so unsanitary and there was little help with a breach birth or other natal problems.

Remembering evil because it comforts us

Our text from Psalm 119 recalls a time when the Psalmist is reflecting on his knowledge that God in fact remembers him, giving him hope, and he, in turn, remembers God and tries to keep his commandments. It's a lovely picture, especially because it shows the Psalmist doing this on his bed when he falls asleep at night-or perhaps when he lies awake unable to sleep. Would that our dreams and night reflections could be so positive! Would that we could remember God's name so meaningfully at night!

Unfortunately, we humans often use such and other times to remember the bad things-things done to us, or things we have done-which we just can't let go of. It's a very human characteristic to dwell on the negative. In some ways it comforts us. We tell ourselves over and over that we should not have been treated in a certain way, or we plot imaginary approaches to revenge. William Shakespeare caught this trait in Brutus' speech at Caesar's death: "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." In other words, because we are human, we find it difficult to free ourselves from the negative in people or past events.

This happens not only at a personal but also at national levels. Americans find it difficult to free themselves from their anger and their desire for revenge after 9/11. Even though it has been proven that Iraq had nothing to do with this event, we still find people saying, "We can't let them get away with what they did to us." And the Chinese find it very difficult to free themselves from the way they were treated by the Japanese in WWII. And people in India can never forgot the brutalities that happened between Hindus and Muslims at the founding of the Pakistani State. It's how we are: We love to dwell on hate.

A relatively recent book called Hotel Bolivia remembers the way in which Bolivia hosted some 30,000 Jewish refugees in the 1930s when the U.S. and other countries were not interested in helping the victims of persecution in Germany. There are legitimate reasons why we should have holocaust museums and books on the subject to help us remember the atrocities of which the human spirit is capable. However, it is also true that implicit in these negative memories is some desire for retribution, for revenge, and this is very difficult to let go of. Finally, it emaciates us and depreciates us because we are incapable of freeing ourselves to move forward and become and new and emancipated people.

Just as dangerous as holding on to negative memory for the sake of nurturing our need to have justice done in our case is the matter of sublimating evils as a way of pretending that they didn't take place. This is the other side of the coin. In recent years as president of Concordia University Texas I became aware of the story of  the first black student to have been admitted to the university, some 30 years earlier. I called him on the telephone and talked to him, now an FBI agent, about his experiences. He told me, as one story, that he had gone to the local Lutheran church with students one Sunday morning, but the ushers wouldn't let him come in. Later in the service, the president of the college missed him and went outside to find him. He explained what had happened and the president brought him in and escorted him to the front pew. The president said to the congregation, "This is so and so, and from now on he will always be his seat." I told this story in an article I wrote, and the pastor and the elders of the church called me and asked me to apologize to the congregation. They said that this story, which had taken place 30 years earlier under a different pastor, could not have been true. Sometimes the evil does not live on because we are too afraid to talk about. And that can be even worse for us, because such repressed or sublimated thoughts can have their effect on us in even more unfortunate ways.

Perhaps there are negative memories and sublimated memories here at St. Luke's. On a day that remembers the past 100 years, you surely know there are people who left the church in anger for things done or left undone. There are people here today who were hurt by unkind words or the failure to have kind words said at an opportune time. What if we could go back and erase those unkind words and deeds, those failures to speak hopefully and positively when such words were needed. What if we weren't stuck with the need to rehash our angers, to relive the negative aspects of our common or personal memory?

From a human standpoint, it would be good news to discover that there is a way to do just that.

From a human standpoint, we would pay money to cure ourselves from the need to seek revenge.

Some, in fact, do that very thing. Some pay a lot of money for it. They have famous doctors with well-known names. Perhaps we could get some of those names.

Remembering God because he frees us

I suspect the Psalmist in our text had every reason to think this way. The fact is that the Psalms provide very transparent access to an author's thoughts. We know that in the case of David, there were many things that disturbed him: His own son's attempt to kill him, his adultery with Bathsheba, his plots against foreign powers. Lying on his bed at night, he could think of many things, including revenge. But these words help us to understand that David was never imprisoned by his past. Rather he was enabled by his love for God to move into new futures daily. He remembers the covenant relationship with God-God loves him, remembers him-though he is but dust. And he can't help focusing on this knowledge. It is too "high" for him. It lifts him to new levels of understanding in which revenge has no place.

How can you and I move into such an understanding as we reflect on the past? How at the celebration of a 100th Anniversary can you assure yourselves that personally and collectively you are people who remember primarily the good and you await the assurance of God's tomorrows.

Archbishop Tutu from South Africa tells this wonderful story about a women who helps us understand how to do this. It was a time after the end of Apartheid in South Africa when Nelson Mandela, the new president, had appointed a Truth and Reconciliation Committee to help the country deal with the negatives in its past. At a court hearing held by this Committee, a police sergeant was confronted with some atrocities in which he had participated. In one circumstance, he had taken a black man into captivity and shot him, point blank, in the presence of his wife. In another circumstance, the sergeant captured this wife's only son, killed him and roasted him on a spit like a pig, while the officers drank themselves silly. The sergeant admitted to the court that he had done this. Then the wife and mother who was present was asked what she wanted in this situation. She said, "I want three things. First, I want the sergeant to know that God forgives him, and so do I. Second, I want him to come to my house one day each week and sit with me because I no longer have anyone for a family. And third, I want to come forward now and hug the sergeant to prove that my love is real." The sergeant fainted-and the courtroom began quietly to sing, "Amazing Grace."

I told this story last fall when I was preaching at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Accra, Ghana. When I got to the second wish of the woman, the congregation was on its feet, clapping, shouting and singing. They knew something of these evils, and they understood why it was important to be free of them. They understood how free this woman felt by throwing aside her need for revenge and accepting God's forgiveness as a gift to be passed on.

Is it possible that we know this too? Is it possible that at night when we lay on our pillow, like David, we too can remember that God remembers us through his grace in Jesus Christ? Is it possible that when we approach the table of the Lord, doing this in memory of him, that we understand how his forgiveness claims us and embraces those next to us?

Last week on 60 Minutes the story of George Melendez was told. He had been hurt in an accident and was in a vegetative state for five years. Through the use of Ambien, he came out of this vegetative state, remembering nothing of those years, but showing promise to be able to function consciously again. Of course, during those years he remembered nothing of his suffering, of the anguish of his mother, of the struggles of the doctors and nurses. Wouldn't it be remarkable is we had something like a spiritual Ambien, something to free us from the negatives of our past and help to walk boldly into tomorrow?

Perhaps something like it will be invented? It would be great to have for a 100th Anniversary!

On the other hand, perhaps we already have it. 

May be we could get in touch with the woman from South Africa?

Did we get her name?



Prof. Dr. Dr. President Emeritus David Zersen
Concordia University Texas
Austin, Texas

E-Mail: Djzersen@aol.com