An Invitation to the Table
for World Communion Sunday
I had a weird experience this week. It’s kind of unique to me, I think, because I have my own way of dealing with telemarketers. They used to just make me angry… and they still do when I get a recording. But when it’s a real person, I’ve moved on. Now, that’s not to say that the telemarketer doesn’t get angry at me, because sometimes they do. But usually it’s a draw. That’s because when a live person tries to sell me something by calling me on the phone, I want to talk to them. But not about whatever it is they’re selling. I just want to be friends with them.
This is actually difficult for me, because I’m a natural introvert. And so I’m not very good at it. It just seems like a more “Christian” strategy than just hanging up or yelling at somebody who’s just trying to put bread on the table. I have to say I haven’t made a single friend. Some people are bemused, some are patient, but some (ironically enough) just get downright angry at me for wasting their time. But the other day I feel like my strategy finally paid off.
He said it as though it was an admission, but I said, “Oh, where in India?” And he said Mumbai.
“Is that your hometown?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “I’ve been here about five years.”
“So where are you from?” I asked.
“Manipur,” he said, “in the northeastern part of the country.
“Oh, that’s really interesting,” I said. “Aren’t some states in that part of the country mostly Baptist?”
He was quiet for a second, then he told me that he was Baptist, so I told him I was a pastor. He didn’t seem too disappointed when I told him I was Congregational. Instead he told me about his baptism. Then he gave me a little bit of the history of Christianity in that part of India, how a man named William Pettigrew came from the United States over a century ago and preached the gospel. “Victor” hoped to establish himself financially in the big city and return home to help his family and do church work.
The (very out of context) biblical phrase that was going on in my head at this point was from the 42nd Psalm: “Deep calls to deep.”  Across the oceans, two holy callings recognized each other, and grace in him that had been given in Christ Jesus before the ages began spoke to that same grace in me.
Victor gave me his email address and we’ve exchanged a couple of lines. He told him his real name. It’s a difficult one for me. But a chance meeting with an Indian brother in Christ a few days before World Communion Sunday reminded me that Christ is the meeting place of all Christians. In Christ we recognize one another. In Christ we have communion with one another.
That last part’s important. There’s something God-given in us that didn’t appear the hour we first believed, nor was it planted in us at or baptism or birth, nor was it passed down to us from our ancestors. It’s been there since the beginning—not our beginning, but the world’s beginning. And just as it is God-given, it is also called forth by God. It’s that part of us that responds when we encounter the word. And it’s the part that responds—perhaps with budding curiosity, or maybe even excitement, when the news of God’s love, the promise of God’s forgiveness, the invitation to the beloved community are first heard.
We are each of us the meeting-place where the call of God which is only lately heard meets up with the grace of God which was implanted within us before the ages. You and I are where God’s call to us meets God’s intention for us. Christ is where you and I recognize in each other our response to that call. And this table is where all this is acknowledged, in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup.
We don’t really believe here that there’s a physical transformation in the bread and the wine. But just because it’s spiritual doesn’t make the transformation any less real. In most cases, our bodies don’t really respond to the grain of the field and the fruit of the vine in such small quantities. And so those who come to the table expecting a miraculous change based on what we eat and drink are usually disappointed. When Christ spoke to the crowds about eating his body and drinking his blood, those who understood it physically couldn’t get away from him fast enough, so shocking were his words. But those who stayed, those were the ones who knew that Jesus was speaking about the word. Their spirits responded to his Spirit when he told them the truth of the ages.
So this morning we’re thinking about what it means to be a meeting-place:
So come to yourself; come to Christ; and come to the table. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, God will meet you there, and you’re welcome here, where we can all meet God together.
—©2016 Sam L. Greening, Jr.
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.
—1 Tim. 6:6
Introduction: Why Bother?
Christians are very often our own worst enemies. I might go so far as to say that the most effective argument against the practice of Christianity is the way Christianity is practiced. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then perhaps it might do to sit back and compare the life of Christ to the lives of most of us Christians. Christ was kind and understanding, and he knew just when to get mad. His followers are too seldom kind and too often angry. Christ appears to have had no home, but went from town to town trusting that God—through other people—would take care of his needs. We place too little trust in God, and too much trust in possessions. Christ was courageous, speaking the truth to power, and refusing—even in the face of certain death—to mislead people about who he was and what he was about. We are often too afraid to speak up when we could witness for our faith, or even when we hear a comment that denigrates a sister or a brother.
These are just a few of the examples of how we don’t measure up to Christ. And since this has always been the case with disciples of Christ, you’d think that the movement begun by Christ would’ve been condemned from the beginning. And if we are tempted to think that, there’s obviously something we’re forgetting—something that trumps all the negatives and shortcomings of the people who call ourselves Christian. And that is forgiveness and grace. In the history of religion—unless there is a religion somewhere that preaches mediocrity, cowardice, and hypocrisy—there has never been a group of adherents who live up to the ideals of their religion. But the Christian faith bases our obedience to Christ’s ideals not on the fact that we must do them in order to be accepted by God, but that because we are accepted by God, we respond by being obedient. That’s because ours is a faith based not on legalism and judgment, but on forgiveness and grace.
I. An Exposé
And there are many occasions in our own lives and even in the history of the church when we must be forgiving. And a reading of the sixth chapter of 1 Timothy is one of those occasions. If you paid attention to the New Testament reading this morning, you’re probably wondering what I’m talking about. It was actually a beautiful reading, and it even included one of our favorite (if most misquoted) verses—or at least partial verses. Though we often hear people (maybe even say ourselves) say that “money is the root of all evil,” 1 Timothy 6:10 actually says that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
Stern preaching, but what’s the problem?
Well, the problem is context. The teaching in the First Letter to Timothy that led up to that saying was actually directed toward people who were held as slaves, telling them to serve their masters with respect—especially if their masters are fellow believers. Though I know that slavery in the first century Mediterranean world bore little resemblance to what developed in North America in the not so distant past, but I still wish that I could do more to distance myself from a religion that endorsed any kind of slavery than to simply omit verses from the Bible that refer to it. Because that’s what just happened here. Whoever formulated the common lectionary went to great pains to omit verses that we find distasteful today. But I think it’s only being honest to point out that when we hear the writer of this letter telling us that “there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment” [6:6], the comment was actually addressed to “all who are under the yoke of slavery” [6:1].
The Bible’s grand narrative is all about ever-broadening acceptance and ever-greater freedom, but there are still many references that send us back into a past when Israel was still in slavery, and women were still denied their rights. I’ve always felt that it is best to be honest about what’s in the Bible. Because if we’re ignorant of it, there’s going to be somebody who’s more than willing to remind us of it—either a believer who wants to bring judgment on others, or a non-believer who wants to expose the side of our scriptures that we’d like to hide.
And it’s not like the connection here had no consequences. The Reformers often maintained that the state people were born into was God’s will for them, and that they weren’t to have ambition. Maybe this was intended simply to make lives easier, since all the ambition in the world wouldn’t have turn the peasant into nobility in those days. But we live in a country which has always been opposed to that idea, and so encouraging people to be content with their lot in life seems rather cruel to us. Let people dream, let them have ambition, let them move up in life!
But is that all there is? Blind ambition and unmitigated greed are a great combination for getting ahead in the world. But is getting ahead in the world what people really need… or even what they really want?
There are, no doubt, some lost souls who are willing to do anything to get ahead. They’ll lie, cheat, and steal their way to the top. This doesn’t characterize everybody who is successful. Nor is this to say that everybody who’s ambitious and greedy are successful. There are plenty of people of good character in government and in the board rooms, just as there are plenty of greedy people who are poor or justly imprisoned. So a desire to get ahead isn’t necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. It’s really just a human instinct. Some of us have more of it, some of us have less of it.
And so just as the desire to get ahead isn’t necessarily good or bad, neither is contentment. There are many spiritual people who are contented with where they are, and being around them encourages us to move forward. But there are also many contented people who aren’t spiritual at all. Being around them doesn’t inspire us at all. We’re simply bored by them and their complete lack of interest in anything beyond where they are.
III. Eὐσέβεια and Aὐταρκείας
And so when we read 1 Timothy 6, we need to keep two contexts in mind. The first being that we might not like where the writer was coming from if we get really specific about what he was saying and to whom. But the second is that if we want to generalize what’s being said here, then let’s not forget that we profit not from simple contentment, but with the combination of what the New Testament calls εὐσέβεια and αὐταρκείας—godliness combined with contentment in our translation.
Our translation is indeed adequate. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. Godliness is a word that I think we might picture to associate too much with outward behavior. Dana Carvey’s character the Church Lady is what I picture in my own mind when I hear it. But the people who first heard it in Greek probably weren’t led to look at outward behavior, but more at a person’s inner response to God. Piety and godliness have gotten a bad rap in our day and age—probably because we associate them too much with people who are holier-than-thou.
And then there’s that other word—the one we’re referring to as contentment. But we can almost see the original meaning even if we don’t speak Greek. That’s because words that start with auto- are common in our language, and that auto- prefix speaks to us of independence. Something that’s automatic moves independently, as does an automobile. Autonomy is actually another word for independence. An autocrat can rule independently—that is, without having to get permission from others.
And so the word we read as contentment actually means self-sufficient. Just as εὐσέβεια looks within, so does αὐταρκείας. It’s not talking about dependence on one’s self, as though God weren’t part of the picture. Quite the opposite. It refers to the spiritual reality of having Christ dwelling within.
And so to say that there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment sounds like we’re talking about something we can measure from the outside. But the word godliness really refers to our inner response to God. And the word contentment is actually talking about looking within ourselves to dependent upon the Spirit of God.
Conclusion: ‘The Art of Divine Contentment’
A few years ago, I talked about one of my favorite books in a sermon on this text. The book is from the 1600’s and it was written by a minister named Thomas Watson. It’s called The Art of Divine Contentment, and it addresses the subject in just the way I’ve been talking about it: Godliness being not outward piety, but our inner response to God; and contentment being our dependence on the indwelling Spirit of God.
Though I’d like to just spend the rest of this sermon quoting Thomas Watson to you (I think I actually did do that the last time I preached on this text), I’ll just conclude with one point he made that I think gets to the heart of the subject: “Discontent,” said Watson, “is a spider that sucks the poison of unthankfulness from the sweetest flower of God’s blessings, and by a devilish chemistry extracts dross out of the most refined gold. The discontented person thinks everything [they do] for God too much, and everything God [does] for [them] too little.”
Gratitude gets at the real meaning of both godliness and contentment. Both gratitude and ingratitude are cumulative. They’re responses that seldom occur in isolation. Gratitude creates more gratitude, but ingratitude creates more ingratitude. And so to experience the great gain that occurs when godliness is combined with contentment is to have an attitude of gratitude. For what is godliness, but an inner feeling of gratitude toward God? And what is contentedness but a thankful dependence on the Spirit of Christ dwelling within?
Sometimes I think Christians in our place and time have it rough. We have to walk a tightrope between not coming across as holier-than-thou, while having an inner attitude of gratitude toward God. We need to be content with the Spirit of God within us, even as we go for pay raises and promotions. It sounds difficult, but ours isn’t the first generation of Christians that’s had to be both genuine and pious, and both content and good providers.
What seems different is that there are fewer and fewer people who even try to acknowledge God in their lives. Yes, that can be challenging to be in the minority. But when you think about it, it changes nothing in us—unless it’s to make us as individuals and as a people more intentional about our religion, more thoughtful in our gratitude.
Gratitude is the key. We can always be thankful toward God, even as we question God. And the people we are around need not be believers in order for us to show gratitude toward them. Both gratitude and ingratitude are cumulative. Let’s be thankful toward God, toward one another, and toward those around us, for, of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.
—©2016 Sam L. Greening, Jr.
There were ninety and nine that safely lay
in the shelter of the fold;
but one was out on the hills away,
far off from the gates of gold—
away on the mountains wild and bare;
away from the tender Shepherd’s care.
“Lord, thou hast here thy ninety and nine;
are they not enough for thee?”
But the Shepherd made answer: “This of mine
has wandered away from me.
And although the road be rough and steep,
I go to the desert to find my sheep.”
But none of the ransomed ever knew
how deep were the waters crossed;
nor how dark was the night the Lord passed through
ere he found his sheep that was lost.
Out in the desert he heard its cry;
’twas sick and helpless and ready to die.
“Lord, whence are those blood-drops all the way,
that mark out the mountain’s track?”
“They were shed for one who had gone astray
ere the Shepherd could bring him back.”
“Lord, whence are thy hands so rent and torn?”
“They’re pierced tonight by many a thorn.”
And all through the mountains, thunder-riv’n,
and up from the rocky steep,
there arose a glad cry to the gate of heav’n,
“Rejoice! I have found my sheep!”
And the angels echoed around the throne,
“Rejoice, for the Lord brings back His own!” 
Most of you have heard my September 11 story a million times, and probably don’t wish to hear it again. But September 11 falls on a Sunday this year, and I think the story fits. I was on an overnight flight from Germany just about to enter U.S. airspace when the little plane on the flight progress screen turned north suddenly, just before the screen went blank. I doubt many people were watching it at the moment, and I just assumed there was some malfunction, but a few minutes later the pilot announced to us that U.S. airspace had been closed, and we were landing not at JFK, but in Gander. I’ve always loved geography, and so I knew that Gander was in Newfoundland, Canada. I was probably one of the few passengers who did know that. But nobody was thinking about geography. We were wondering what was going on. But nobody told us. We flew a couple more hours and then circled the airport for a while before finally landing around noon. Taxiing not to a gate, but to something akin to an angled parking space in a grocery store parking lot, we passed dozens of other jumbo jets from seemingly every country in the world. Thousands of people—over seven thousand, as it turned out—had descended on a town of about five thousand inhabitants.
It’s fine and well for us to read the parable of the lost sheep as though it’s about a one-on-one relationship with Jesus. But there are a hundred sheep in the story, and I don’t think we’re supposed to believe that the other 99 had no relationship with Jesus. In the end, it’s a story about wholeness—wholeness, yes, for the one that was lost. But even more importantly, wholeness for the flock that would never be complete without the one that was missing.
There ain’t no room
for the hopeless sinner
who would hurt all mankind [sic]
just to save his own.
Have pity on those
whose chances grow thinner,
’cause there’s no hiding place
from the Kingdom’s throne. 
We used to love today’s Jeremiah passage. The image of the potter and clay was an easy one to understand if we wanted a picture of God and God’s people. Later, we’ll even sing an old hymn that mentions this stanza in the first stanza. And it’s a hymn that pretty much proves my point—it’s one that’s very well known to me, but it’s not in our hymnal. To me it’s an old standard, but apparently the people who put together the Glory to God hymnal thought it was too old and not quite standard enough. Or maybe it was the theology that they thought was too old. Potter and clay. Have thine own way.
Sermon by CCLJ Pastor Emeritus, John Benbow
Sean Carroll, The Big Picture, and Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air.
In the news from the world of science this past week there were stories about two new maps. One of the maps depicts the entirety of the known universe. It locates more than a million of its hundreds of billion galaxies, among which our own Milky Way (with its hundreds of billion stars and its still uncounted planets) is almost insignificant in size. Our own sun and its solar system, on this new map, are like a dust-mote in the vast reaches of space.
The other new map is of the cerebral cortex, the layer of the brain that makes us human. Part of an ongoing project called the Connectome, it is a map of the functions of the various parts of the brain—vision, speech, movement, abstract thought, and so on. In its “geography” of a hundred billion neurons, the map comprises all that is human: experience, memory, thought, speech and feeling.
The universe, and the human brain; outer space and inner space; the cosmos and our consciousness. I thought of those two maps as I began to assemble the sermon this week. It may be that what we do in church is also a kind of map, more like the smaller map than the larger one. It is a way of locating ourselves and our world, a way of reflecting on our physical location on a planet near a star in a galaxy among the galaxies; and of locating our inner selves, our minds and hearts and spirits, not just in our individual brains but in the life and faith we share. Whatever else our worship is, it is a way of tracing our steps on our maps of human consciousness and of the universe of space and time. Whatever else we do together when we gather here in church, we are on a kind of inward and outward journey—sometimes among familiar landmarks, and sometimes in uncharted territory.
My summer reading has included two books that reflect a part of that journey. I’d like to have you join me on a journey of discovery, following the maps of these two books.
One of the books, the biggest one (weighing in at 450 densely-packed pages) is titled The Big Picture. It’s like a map of time and space, and it has the subtitle “On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself.” Written by Sean Carroll, a renowned physicist at Cal Tech, it literally explores all of physical reality, everything from the known universe to the tiniest bits of matter that can be seen or imagined. All living things on earth, including our human species, emerge and evolve from that physical reality, Carroll says. Even our human minds and our capacity for consciousness emerge from matter; which is to say that meaning must also emerge from (or at least be closely related to) the physics of matter.
The other book, much smaller in scale and scope, describes one man’s experience of living and dying. It is titled When Breath Becomes Air. It was written by Paul Kalanithi, who was a Stanford resident in neurosurgery when he was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer of the lung. As the book’s jacket liner tells us, “One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next day he was a patient struggling to live.” One day he was a surgeon and a scientist, exploring the intimate landscapes of human identity in the passageways of the brain; the next he had to confront his own mortality, his own pathway through what was left of his life. And that pathway included the decision he and his wife made after his diagnosis of cancer, to conceive and give birth to a child. He had to ask the question, “What makes life worth living in the face of death?” He came to the end of his life before he could finish the book, and his widow Lucy (herself also a doctor) assembled it with the help of an editor. After long months of cancer treatment and hospice care, he died in a hospital room just a few hundred yards from the room where their daughter was born just a few months before.
Two books. Two maps. But they form a single journey, not only a journey through time and space, but also a journey in search of meaning. Both Paul Kalanithi and Sean Carroll each seek to answer the biggest questions humans can ever ask: What is this life? What does it mean? What makes life worth living in the face of death? And if we are merely matter, then what does it matter what we are? Or what we think and feel? Or how we live and die?
It is these questions, I believe, that make us human; and it is asking them, not answering them, that is our human journey—yours and mine, whatever our age and stage of living, whatever the maps we draw to guide us. They constitute our quest for meaning, a quest that will belong to each one of us for as long as we live.
What I want to do this morning is to bring Sean Carroll and Paul Kalanithi into an imagined conversation with each other, to see how their individual searches for meaning meet and mesh with each other. I want to go right to the heart of each man’s quest, and see if their maps of meaning can be matched. To do that, let’s look first at The Big Picture, and especially at a chapter near the end of the book. Listen to Sean Carroll’s words:
“Ideas like ‘meaning’ and ‘morality’ and ‘purpose’ are nowhere to be found [in the theories of physics]. They aren’t built into the architecture of the universe; they emerge as ways of talking about our human environment….The source of these values isn’t the outside world; it’s inside us.” Later he makes that distinction even clearer: “Neither God nor the universe is going help us attach significance to our actions.”
Carroll acknowledges that his own conclusion is atheistic; and yet he believes that there is room for what he calls “poetic naturalism,” a way of describing the human quest for meaning and purpose as a kind of parallel to the plain naturalism of physics. “It’s up to you, me, and every other person to create meaning and purpose for ourselves,” he writes. “The construction of meaning is a fundamentally individual, subjective, creative enterprise, and an intimidating responsibility.” Raised as a church-going Episcopalian, Carroll abandoned his belief in God as he grew into his life as a scientist. But he does not consider himself the enemy of people who do believe. “The important distinction,” he says, “is not between [believers and unbelievers in God]; it’s between people who care enough about the universe to make a good-faith effort to understand it, and those who…simply take it for granted.”
And then he tells two stories about the nature of the world. In the first, “the universe is a miracle. It was created by God as a unique act of love. The splendor of the cosmos…culminated in the appearance of human beings here on earth…conscious, aware creatures, unions of mind and body, capable of appreciating and returning God’s love.”
Carroll’s second story about the nature of the world is a different story. In it, “the universe is not a miracle. It simply is, unguided and unsustained, manifesting the patterns of nature with scrupulous regularity. Over billions of years it has evolved naturally…. We are the miracle, we human beings….a miracle that is wondrous and amazing….Our lives are finite, unpredictable, and immeasurably precious. Our emergence has brought meaning and mattering into the world.”
Each of these, Carroll says, is “a darn good story.” But are they really opposite ways of considering our life in the universe? Or are they perhaps like the poles of a magnet, drawing us now one way and now the other, kept in tension by the theistic and nontheistic maps of our life and our world? Each map is a way of conceiving the universe as a place of meaning, a place we can choose to give significance, a place we can cause to matter to us and even to the universe itself.
It is here that I’d like to bring Carroll’s maps of the universe into conversation with Paul Kalanithi’s. Listen to some of Kalanithi’s words:
“Like most scientific types, [I] came to believe in…a material conception of reality, an ultimately scientific worldview that would grant a complete metaphysics, minus outmoded concepts like souls [and] God…. Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical…data, but its power to do so [depends upon] its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate,…striving, suffering, virtue.”
Faced with his own death, with so much of what he thought would be his life now coming to an early end, Kalanithi says, “I returned to the central values of Christianity—sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness—because I found them so compelling…. About God I could say nothing definitive, of course, but the basic reality of human life stands compellingly against blind determinism.”
We cannot live only in terms of physics; we need a meta-physics, a set of metaphors and stories that leads us beyond what we know and see and experience. For Kalanithi, as for many of us, those metaphors and stories are religious and often specifically Christian. For me, as for many of you, the Christian story (a loving God, a caring Christ, a sustaining spirit) is a way of asking (and occasionally resolving) the questions that make us human—a way of drawing the maps that guide us on our inner and outer journeys of life.
And finally, in what were nearly his last words, Kalanithi writes what seems to me almost a direct response to Carroll’s “big picture” of the universe:
“In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete. And Truth comes somewhere above all of them.”
Before he could finish the book he was trying to write, Paul Kalanithi died. His wife Lucy, during days of caring for their infant daughter, wrote the Epilogue, a kind of epitaph for him: “Paul faced each stage of his illness with grace—not with bravado or a misguided faith that he would ‘overcome’ or ‘beat’ cancer but with an authenticity that allowed him to grieve the loss of the future he had planned and forge a new one….Even while terminally ill, Paul was fully alive; despite physical collapse, he remained vigorous, open, full of hope…for days that were full of purpose and meaning.”
Two books. Two maps of the universe and of our inner human world. Two visions of how we give and receive purpose and meaning in our lives. These two books (and especially the small and beautiful When Breath Becomes Air) offer a guide to our singular journey. They guide our hand as we draw our own map of our outer and inner world, and lead us to trace our own journey through uncharted territory, the landscape of our living and our dying. May it be for us a journey of wonder, hope and joy!
—©2016 John Benbow
An Invitation to the Table
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. —Heb. 11:1
Today’s reading from Luke ended with the words, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The things of this world can never be part of us—at least not permanently. But the more closely we identify with them, the harder it is for us to be separated from them, as someday we must. But there are other treasures—ones which can indeed become an integral part of who we are.
This bread and wine represent the greatest treasure on earth, for when we take it we remember all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ—in eating and drinking we receive heaven in our hearts. And if heaven is in our hearts, we are in heaven, and nothing can change that. So don’t be afraid, little flock: The table is set, God’s future is your future, and your future is in God.
A Story for the Church’s 100th Anniversary, by CCLJ Pastor Emeritus John Benbow
Miss Marple, who retired from her profession as a reference librarian an astonishing 35 years ago, is rapidly approaching what she calls her “triple-digit life.” She’ll be a hundred years old in just a few months. A hundred years old! Good heavens! Before long, she’d have to stop thinking of herself as middle-aged.
By a strange sort of coincidence—the sort that only happens in stories—Miss Marple’s hundredth birthday would come in the same year as the hundredth anniversary of the church she attended. She had belonged to the church for nearly half of that time, sharing with its members and its ministers in its common life.
As the church planned its observance of its first century of life, it seemed obvious to everyone that our old friend should be asked to say a few words. She tried to decline on the grounds that no one needed to hear from a superannuated relic, but the plan had already taken root. So she set about her task as any retired reference librarian would—turning to Google, Wikipedia and the internet generally for help and inspiration. And of course the more she surfed, the harder it seemed for her to come up with the few words she had promised to say for the church’s centennial celebration.
Before she knew it, the celebration was only a few days away. What do you say to a congregation (or for that matter, any person) about to become a hundred years old? Congratulations on your survival? (Which is to say, on not having died yet?) Or, you don’t look a day over 90? Or, it’s amazing you haven’t quite lost your mind or your memory?
Memory. Somehow, that was the key to it. What did the church (or she herself, for that matter) remember of the hundred years now nearly past? How would the church (or she herself) make use of those memories in the years ahead? Knowing that the years ahead of her were now few in number made the question even more acute. How do our memories sustain us and send us ahead into our future? And how do our individual memories (her own, for example) somehow get woven into a community of memory, a community that sustains and generates its own future?
As she began to ask those questions, Miss Marple’s mind and memory seemed suddenly flooded with the thousands of events and occurrences of the past hundred years: a “war to end all wars” that only set the nations up for another world war; the nuclear age, with its threat of ending not war but the world itself; the rise and fall of democracies and dictatorships, revolutions and counter-revolutions; the boom and bust of economies; the explosion of populations; inflation, recession, depression; racial strife, ideological conflict, genocides, terrorism, environmental catastrophe. All of those things, and a thousand more.
But it was too easy to remember only the harsh and the horrible, the screaming headlines of the century behind us. It was also, in many ways, a century of unparalleled progress: diseases conquered, prosperity shared, wars sometimes ended, genocides overcome; a growing world population able to feed itself; life-spans increasing dramatically; health and well-being expanding globally.
Sometimes it seemed to Miss Marple that the world was making its way across a tightrope tethered on one end to the past and on the other to the future—making its way unsteadily above the chasms of destruction and despair that yawned below it, inch by inch approaching God knows what lay ahead of it. Making its way, sometimes gaining and sometimes losing, step by step out of the past and toward the future.
And somehow memory, remembering, calling to consciousness the journey now behind us, lay at the heart of looking ahead to the road as yet untraveled, the future still unknown.
At this point in her thought process, four simple words came into Miss Marple’s mind. She tried to dismiss them as trivial and irrelevant, but the words seemed to insist on staying. Something out of her past, maybe the title of a book? A movie? It must have been the title of a song, because the words seemed to fit a melody of some sort. “You must remember this…”
Now that she allowed the four words and six musical notes to come into her consciousness, she couldn’t hold back the memories they awakened. They were not a song title, but just part of a song. “You must remember this, a kiss is but a kiss, the fundamental things apply…” And then came the song title, As Time Goes By.
And the movie? Of course! Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and…who? Greta Garbo? No, Ingrid Bergman. World War II. Morocco. Sam the piano player… “Here’s looking at you, kid.” The prop plane on the runway; the fog; “The End” that was not an end, but only a beginning.
Now a whole world of memory flooded over her. She could remember as if it were yesterday the first time she saw the movie. And the person she saw it with. And the glorious black and white depiction of a tiny corner of a world at war. The spies, the French resistance, Peter Lorre, the overhead fan turning slowly, slowly, like the world on its axis.
Oddly enough, the four little words “You must remember this” had brought it all to her mind: the smell of movie popcorn, the fake butter added because of the war effort, the scent of perfume and shaving lotion from the people around her, all of them (like Miss Marple herself) in the early years of their lives, facing a future surely as uncertain as the future ever has been.
“You must remember this…” What did all of that have to do with here and now, her own impending hundredth birthday and the anniversary of the church? She was amused at herself and the wanderings of her mind—perhaps old age really was creeping up on her after all—until it occurred to her how important the four words were. In her own life, in the life of the church, it is the things we remember (indeed, the things we must remember) that send us forward into the future. Memory is not about nostalgia for the past, but about preparation for the future. It is not about the years behind us, but the ones ahead of us.
Only then did Miss Marple connect the words “You must remember this” to the simple phrase the church repeats at every service of Communion: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Eat this bread, drink from this cup, remembering a common past even as you move into an uncertain future. Do this remembering Jesus; remembering the disciples who remembered Jesus; remembering the church down through the ages, always remembering, always drawing on its past to create its future. Remember the hundred years of this congregation’s past not in order to re-live the past but to pre-live the future. Eat the bread and drink the cup not for the sake of nostalgia, but nutrition: for it is the food of the future, the nourishment for the days ahead, the uncertainty and hopefulness, the love and the laughter of the years yet to come.
Now Miss Marple could finish the task she had taken on, and compose the few words she would say on the church’s hundredth anniversary. She knew now exactly how she’d begin her brief talk:
“You must remember this…”
—©2016 John Benbow
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