Divine Amnesia

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, October 2, 2016

Jer 31:27-34; Luke 18:1-8

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

How many times have you wished for a delete button in life? An insensitive comment you wish you could grab and take back, a careless accident that could have been diverted if only you’d been more mindful of the moment? It could simply be an embarrassing moment, such as a couple of Sundays ago after the choir sang its beautiful introit drawing all of us into the mystery of the sacred. I began to step toward the mike to carry that sacred moment into prayer when my headset control fell out of my pocket, tangling me up in the wire. In that moment I was wishing for a take 2 so that choir could once again invoke the sacred without my bungling interruption.

I was visiting someone in a care home awhile ago. Her sweater was half off and she was cold, so I reached over to help her pull her sweater around her shoulders and she exploded at me. I have since learned that she doesn’t appreciate touch. I should have known better. She asked me to leave and I did so as graciously as possible, although inwardly upset that I had upset her. The one saving grace with dementia is that the person is unlikely to remember when you’ve screwed up, giving you another chance. The next time I visited her, she was delighted to have company.

Memory can be both a blessing and a curse. We are taught to forgive when we have been wronged and it is possible, no matter how serious the offence. It may have to be practiced over and over, but with God’s grace we can forgive. Forgetting is a whole other matter. We still remember the offence and the pain it caused. If only we could remember just the good things and allow the painful memories to slip away. Is this possible?

The end of our passage from Jeremiah assures us of what Bruce Boak calls “divine amnesia”.[1] In a new covenant God is making with us, God not only forgives our sins, but also remembers them no more. The delete button is pressed: phooom—our slate is wiped clean. At least someone forgets our mistakes!

That, to me, is what grace is all about. Grace doesn’t say, “It doesn’t matter,” when people have been hurt. It does matter. Grace accepts this with its consequences. But grace then allows us to say, “I will still practice forgiving and will move towards forgetting.” Moving towards forgetting means to stop replaying the story of hurt over and over again in our minds or even in our speech. The less we relive the hurt, the easier it will be for the memory to fade in its intensity; the easier it will be to live into the grace of divine amnesia.

Jeremiah bases this grace on the covenant of the heart. Heart, in the Old Testament, meant not the place of feelings but the centre of our will and values. It is in the bowels where the Old Testament placed the feelings that come and go. When you think about it, the bowels seem a rather appropriate symbol of feelings held or released. The covenant of the heart means a covenant based on the values of our faith to which we assent.

Presbyterian minister, Laurence DeWolfe, likens God imprinting the covenant on our hearts to a tattoo.[2] It is both permanent and painful. Sometimes it takes rather painful lessons to learn the depth of faithfulness and compassion. But when we’ve passed through these difficult times, we will never forget what we’ve learned. God inks under our skin a permanent reminder of God’s forgiveness. Even more amazing for me, this tattooed covenant of the heart reminds us of God’s forgetfulness—God remembers our sin no more. We live in God’s grace and because of that, we learn compassion for others who are also going through difficult lessons of life.

I was speaking with someone the other day who is a member of AA. To me, he is the epitome of grace. He’s kind, compassionate and wise. His faith is strong. He reminded me the other day that he is also an alcoholic—recovering mind you, but he knows that he will always retain this shadow-side of himself. Perhaps that’s what keeps him humble and approachable. In fact, he said that if I know of anyone who is struggling with addictions, he would be glad to speak with them as an equal who also struggles with addictions. This man has a permanent, painful tattoo of God’s covenant inked on his heart. He knows that his only hope lies in God’s forgiveness and forgetfulness. In other words, his only hope lies in God’s grace.

No matter how big a legacy we leave in our wake, no matter how good a person we are, our only hope also lies in God’s grace, for grace is the great equalizer of humanity. None of us can measure up to the depth of Christ’s compassionate love. We can do our best, but ultimately it is only through God’s grace that we can emerge a new creature in Christ with a new heart inked by God’s love.

Jeremiah addressed his words to the exiled leaders of Israel, at the time of Jerusalem’s destruction in 586 BCE. These were a people without hope, living in a desperate time. In the midst of their darkness, Jeremiah shone a light of hope.

On this World Communion Sunday, Jeremiah’s words remind me of Bishop Youannes of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt. At the World Council of Churches’ meeting in South Korea 3 years ago, Bishop Youannes stood with others from his church and led the assembly in one of the most joyous prayers I have experienced. They chant their prayers, accompanied by bells & cymbals. I was amazed, because at that very moment, many of his churches and seminaries were being torched. Some of the sisters were taken away. They were suffering unbelievable torment and yet, they still found hope, even joy, in their faith. Bishop Youannes looked at me with a twinkle in his eye as he sang the prayers with gusto. On his heart was inked the covenant of God that could bring him through the fires of hell into God’s grace.

Connie Fife, a Cree poet, captures the hope of a new dawn for her people who are also going through untold suffering:

…These are dangerous times

to live without love

to exist without beauty in our eyes.

These are times of hard loving,

the calling forward of regard

untangling of uncertainty

the time of light, star people and beginnings…[3]

The brave persistence of people of faith from various traditions who are facing unbelievable suffering encourages us, too, to be star people of light. May we offer our hearts to God, that they might be permanently inked with God’s grace of both forgiveness and forgetfulness.

[1] Bruce Boak, “Jeremiah 31:27-34: Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010): 170.

[2] http://presbyterianrecord.ca/2012/03/01/an-affair-of-the-heart/

[3] Connie Fife, “The Call,” Poems for a New World (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2001): 12.