‘My father was a wandering Aramean
who went down to Egypt with a small household
and lived there as an alien. (Deut. 6:5)
"Now I think of it, Axl, there may be something in what you're always saying. It's queer the way the world's forgetting people and things from only yesterday and the day before that. Like a sickness come over us all..."
"I see for myself what you are saying is true...how it's a shameful thing we can't receive a stranger with kindness any more." (both quotes are from The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.)
On Sunday I have this awkward feeling about taking a note or two during the liturgy of the word. Where I sit in the community feels exposed, but I'm at the opposite end of the sanctuary from where the readings are being proclaimed, so I suppose most of the being exposed is just in my head. Trusting my memory, or being Mary-like and "pondering these things in my heart" until later, would be the same as pouring water through a sieve. So I make a few notes on my phone and look at them later, trying to see if I can make sense of them.
You see above the lines from Deuteronomy that struck me when I heard them on Sunday, and I believe it was during my second mass that I wrote them down. It was this sense of remembering, of "keeping in mind," that I kept hearing. And not just us, right? The psalm is a cry out that God remember us, "Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble." Remembering makes things happen. Remembering is re-connecting with something true in us. By the time Deuteronomy was written before and after the Babylonian captivity, Moses had been dead for centuries, but in the crisis of exile and its aftermath, remembering the Torah was critical for the identity and unity of Israel. Hear, Israel, the Lord your God is one. Deuteronomy spells out in practice what that means to Israel. In Sunday's first reading from chapter 26, it tells Israel, once the land is possessed and things are good, to remember where they came from, and whose loving-kindness had made their new life possible. They are to remember and celebrate that memory with both kinsman and resident aliens.
It seems to me that remembering was also implicitly a part of the gospel drama in the desert. Here, the Tempter is trying to suggest to Jesus what it might mean to be the Son of God, the messiah. Now, Jesus, at his baptism, had already heard a voice telling him who he is and what that means: "you are my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased." The words from the Holy One are laden with memory, echoing out of Isaiah, where it is the "servant" who is loved and who pleases God, and upon whom God places "spirit" (Is. 42:1). So the Tempter says something to the effect of, "Son of God, act like a Son of God: stones to bread, rule the nations, be superman." But it's like Jesus doesn't even hear him, he already knows that to be like God, to be God's son, is to be for others, to live in love, in solidarity; not to rule, but to serve. Jesus has been elected and submitted to his "role model," the subject of his desire is the desire of the Father, to which he submits with generosity and joy.
Jesus is remembering where he comes from, whatever that might mean. I'm not suggesting he remembers "being God," but rather, like a true son of the Torah, he remembers that he is a child of a God who has led Israel from the beginning, who holds Israel in an unshakeable covenant love, who is able to bring "something out of nothing," the creator and liberator. All of the verses of Torah that Jesus quotes to the Tempter in the story are from within a few verses of the sh'ma in Deuteronomy 6, they explain what it means to be faithful, to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength," and to "be careful not to forget the Lord," that is, to remember.
So while I'm hearing these things, I'm also in the middle of reading Kazuo Ishiguro's newish novel, The Buried Giant, and loving its language, characters, and strange extended metaphors and ruminations. Among these are thoughts about remembering and forgetting, two of which I've quoted above. There seems to be an epidemic of forgetting going on in (early medieval) England, and it is causing people to act in unpredictable and undesirable ways. They aren't acting in a Christian, way, the protagonists muse. "We can't receive a stranger with kindness any more." As they continue on the journey to visit a son, a journey that makes the novel's structure, they imagine even more dangerous forgetting: "...(I)t might be God himself had forgotten much from our pasts, events far distant, events of the same day. And if a thing is not in God's mind, then what chance of it remaining in this of mortal men?...We're each of us his dear child. Would God really forget what we have done and what's happened to us?"
It's a lovely magical book, but it brings me to my takeaway from Sunday, about remembering and forgetting, about being "God's dear child," God's chosen, like Jesus, God's elect, and what that means and doesn't mean. It doesn't mean privilege and pride of place. Jesus absolutely rejects that in the desert. It means remembering who we are and where we came from: My father was a refugee Aramean who went down to Egypt and lived there as a resident alien. It's like a soundbite from tomorrow's newscast, an interview with any of millions of people around the world, where we swap out "Aramean" and "Egypt" for dozens of other nations. Then the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying power, with signs and wonders, and brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. The proper response to this memory is hospitality and care for the other. As I like to tell people at concerts, "That whole 'do unto others' thing in the Sermon on the Mount? God's been doing that for a long time." To open ourselves to God's desire for the world is to tear down walls of privilege and segregation, and invite a new world into being in which people live as the sons and daughters of the God of rescue, and the sisters and brothers of Jesus "who welcomed sinners and ate with them."
This Sunday, the second Sunday of Lent, may well be a story of God remembering Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem, and blessing him with a memory of the remembered, of Moses and Elijah who had also been filled with the spirit of God and surrendered to God's seemingly impossible will for confrontation with the powers of the world. God's project might require my surrender, too, our surrender, to a future that we will not see ourselves. But the "punch line" is that we will be held through any failure or disaster by the love of One for whom death is nothing, and who carries memory for us with such utter reality that past, present, and future are as a single moment.
My community at St. Anne is blessed that this weekend Bishop Joseph Tyson of Yakima, WA, is speaking at all the masses about his diocese's ministry to migrant obreros. He and his staff bring the church to the fields from which the laborers cannot be dismissed on Sunday, and they offer worship and formation, as well as faith-informed communal celebration, to them. He will ask us for our help in doing this ministry, and our Lenten almsgiving is going to him this year. You who read this will hear similar calls, and respond with similar generosity. Let it come from a heart that remembers who you are, and to whom you belong, children of foreign refugees, saved from disaster for this day, for this opportunity to take what God has given you, and offer it back as a memory into the future of people you may never know, but each one a sister or brother of Christ, and of you, all the beloved children of God.