Over the last few weeks, the media has been abuzz with the news of Park 51, a proposed Muslim cultural center and mosque just a few blocks from ‘Ground Zero’ the site of the national catastrophe of September 11, 2001. The planned mosque has been met with a firestorm of opposition. Demonstrators have gathered along the proposed site to guard the memory of a national tragedy. The demonstrators frequently invoke Ground Zero as sacred ground and chant their protests while holding signs asking ‘Have you forgotten?’
Others have argued that those who would use the mosque have a right to public prayer and worship and that allowing Park 51 to go forward would be a celebration of freedom and thus an appropriate memorial for those who died in the 9/11 attacks. For our purposes, choosing a side is not as important as recognizing what both groups seem to have understood, namely, that memory matters.
As the subscription of the book of Jeremiah (Jer. 1.1-3) tells us, Jeremiah was engaged in his prophetic work from the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah (627 B.C.E.) to shortly after the Babylonian exile and destruction of the Temple (587 B.C.E.). These were tumultuous times for the southern kingdom of Judah. This time period takes us through Judah’s first conflict with Babylon, into the first exile (597 B.C.E.) and through the destruction of the Temple.
Jeremiah’s prophetic work was carried out into and through a time of national crisis. Jeremiah 2.4-13 falls within a larger section which works to show that these events were not strictly the result of political forces but were rather acts of judgment carried out against God’s people by God (Jer. 2.1-6.30).
When we turn to the text of Jer. 2.4-13 we find that part of God’s judgment stems from a failure of memory. Verses 4 and 5 open with a generalized statement of Israel’s apostasy as “they went far from me and went after worthless things.” In verse 6 the nature of Israel’s unfaithfulness is stated more directly as “They did not say ‘Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt…’.” With this Jeremiah invokes the memory of the Exodus events and God’s mighty deeds of the past.
This line of judgment continues in verses 7 and 8 where we find that God’s people failed to recall the God who lead them through the wilderness, through “a land of deserts and pits.” Further, the failed to remember the God who gave them a “plentiful land” and the priests failed to recall the gift of the Law.
In their essay, “Memory, Community, and the Reasons for Living: Reflections on Suicide and Euthanasia,” Stanley Hauerwas and Richard Bondi point to the findings of historians of religion that “in primitive cultures, the greatest transgressions a person can make are those that challenge or deny the sustaining story of their community.” This is especially true when to deny the story is to deny the God whose story it is.
This is precisely what has happened in the forgetfulness of God’s people. The Exodus event (along with other key events named by Jeremiah such as the wilderness wanderings and the gift of the Law) are determinative for both the character of God and God’s people. A failure to recall the mighty deeds of God serves as an outright denial of God, one that leaves his people liable to judgment. Further, such forgetfulness deprives them of the very resource they need in order to be sustained through the time of judgment-the memory of God’s salvific actions on their behalf.
Hauerwas and Bondi go on to say that a thick account of memory differs from simply remembering past events. “The kind of memory that truly shapes and guides a community is the kind that keeps past events in mind in a way that draws guidance from them for the future.” This is exactly what we find in this week’s readings from Jeremiah and Psalm 81. In both texts the memory of God’s actions in the Exodus events are called to mind to serve as judgment for the present and the promise of restoration for the future. Thus Jeremiah’s words of judgment also serve as a means of grace to God’s people in as much as they help God’s people remember “the LORD your God who…” has worked so hard to bless them.
In times of crisis, our memories matter. There is a reason that nearly every funeral visitation will find friends and family sharing memories of the deceased and finding comfort therein. In the same way, birthdays and anniversaries are about much more than cake and ice cream. Our memories help us to remember who we are and how we got to where we are. More importantly, they can help us remember the God who has claimed us.
This is certainly the sense in which both Jeremiah and Psalm 81 call to mind God’s mighty deeds of the past. This week the preacher will help the church remember “The LORD your God who…” has intervened in the lives of each of the parishioners personally as well as acting in the life of the congregation as a whole. Most importantly, the preacher will help the congregation discern the way that God’s mighty deeds culminate in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and continue in the on-going work of the Holy Spirit.