shaped by remembrance

Final sermon in the Gospel and the Gazette series…

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This morning we are thinking about the act of remembrance – about an intentional looking back into the past. More specifically this morning, we are thinking about an intentional looking into the past by which we are shaped as the children of God here and now. This morning we are reminded that while the past is over and done with, the past is not done with us. The past is and can become a source of renewal and transformation by which we are shaped as the children of God here and now.

So we begin this morning by looking at words that we read together in our responsive Psalm – Psalm 105. Psalm 105 is a Psalm of praise and thankfulness to God. It begins with these words: “O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples…” And then it continues in verse 5 with these important words: “…remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles and the judgments he uttered.”

Psalm 105 is a Psalm in which the people of God remember, in which they bring to mind, in which they rehearse, what God has done for them in the past. Psalm 105 is rather a long Psalm – we only read a small part of it. It speaks of God’s history with his people.

Remember how God called Abraham to a new land.

Remember how God used Joseph to save our people from famine.

Remember how God sent plagues on the Egyptians.

Remember how God saved us from slavery.

Remember all of this.

Don’t forget it.  Remember – and sings praises to God, says Psalm 105.

The past is over and done with.  But in the most positive sense possible, the past is not done with us.  God has acted in the past, and what God has done in the past makes us who we are. Indeed, if the Hebrew people forgot what God had done in the past, if the Hebrew people failed to remember what God had done for them, then in a powerful sense they could not be God’s people. If the Hebrew people failed to remember how God had chosen them, how God had saved them, how God had blessed them, they would lose touch with who they were – the beloved children of God.

Here is another significant realization we take from Psalm 105 – if the people don’t remember, they lose their joy, their song. As women and men we are created for the worship of God. And a vital part of our song and our joy is the praise we offer for God’s past actions. As we remember what God has done for us, a song springs to our lips. Each of us could find very personal remembrances of what God has done for us. Each of us can speak of how

God has encouraged and helped us in the past,

how God has touched our lives with moments of grace,

how God has worked in our families and friendships,

how God has carried us through difficult times.

“O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name… remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles and the judgments he uttered.”  The Psalm gives us words of praise we might speak as we join in the song of praise to God.

But now we want to pick up quite a different theme.

Not only are we by definition a people of remembrance.

And not only does this act of remembrance make us a people of joy.

But this act of remembrance also has an impact on how we live in the world. I would put it like this: our acts of remembrance have political and ethical implications. Here we turn to our other Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy 24, a chapter in which God’s law is related to different areas of human life. Chapter 24 of Deuteronomy deals with everything from marriage and divorce, to loans and interest, to the punishment of kidnappers. But then in verses16 – 22 (verses we read today), it also deals with how the Hebrew people were to treat those who were most vulnerable in their culture – orphans, widows, and aliens living in the land. And what we discover is that the laws dealing with treatment of the vulnerable, are tied very closely to the act of remembrance.

We read in verse seventeen: “You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice.”  (repeat) Quite straightforward. This command reflects the fact that orphans and strangers in the land were vulnerable to mistreatment in the courts. Orphans and refugees lacked a family network to protect them. They could easily be exploited. And in view of this vulnerability, the law of God stands up for the orphan and the resident alien, announcing that they are not to be exploited in the courts – they are to receive fair treatment.

But what is particularly interesting for us this morning is the reason that is given for the law.  “You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice.”  Why?  Well, we read on: “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I give you this law.”  The Hebrew people were slaves to the Egyptians.  They were vulnerable and exploited. They knew what it is to be taken advantage of. They also knew what it means to be set free. And the remembrance of all of this is to shape how they treat the vulnerable in their midst. God says to them – don’t deprive the resident alien of justice, as you were deprived of justice.  Don’t exploit the orphans, as you were exploited.  God says, remember that in mercy I set you free from slavery and injustice, and you are called on now to extend the same mercy to others.

Some of us may be able to relate very closely to those who are immigrants or refugees to this country – for we may have walked through a similar experience.  Some of us can relate very personally to the experience of God’s people held in bondage in Egypt – longing for freedom and finding it by the mercy and grace of God.

But in a general sense, each us can relate to this experience, for it speaks to who we all are. The essence of our New Testament faith is that there has been a fundamental brokenness in our world and a fundamental brokenness in our relationship to God. And Christ comes, the truly human one, the Son of God, a to set things right – to draw us back into intimacy with God – to draw us back into relationships of forgiveness and healing and goodness with one another. The New Testament describes this transformation that has taken place in Christ in a variety of ways:

It is a movement from darkness to light.

It is a movement from slavery to freedom.

It is a movement from sin to forgiveness.

It is a movement from death to life.

            It is a movement from fear to joy.

Ours may not be an experience of moving from bondage and oppression of the kind experienced by the Hebrew people – but ours is nevertheless an experience of movement into the freedom and joy of Christ. Remember, what God has done for us.

But what does this act of remembrance have to do with us? I said at the outset that our acts of remembrance have an ethical and political dimension. Well, this morning consider a story from the Montreal Gazette this past Thursday. As I mentioned, this is our last sermon in our series The Gospel and the Gazette – in which we have drawn together different stories from the newspaper or the Gazette website with reflection on our faith in Christ. So, back to the story from Thursday’s Gazette.

The headline was as follows: “Abused woman faces deportation.” The article tells the story of a woman named Paola Ortiz, a woman originally from Mexico who fled to Montreal in 2006. What was she fleeing from? From an abusive husband – a husband who beat her and abused her emotionally – a husband who is also a police officer and who therefore has power and influence. When she arrived in Montreal in 2006, Paola immediately applied for refugee status. Since that time she has been treated by a psychiatrist for anxiety and depression. She has also remarried here in Montreal and has two young children.

Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board refused her initial refugee application the year after she arrived in Canada – their conclusion was that Mexico has adequate services for victims of conjugal violence – a claim that is strongly contested by Paola and her lawyer. After her original application for refugee status was denied, Paola reapplied on humanitarian grounds – aside from her own challenges, her children have significant health needs. Last January, after four more years in Canada, her application was refused. This past Thursday, Paola was to have another immigration hearing – I checked this morning, and at that hearing she was ordered deported from the country this weekend. She may have an opportunity to appeal to the Federal court, but that is uncertain.

How do we respond to such a scenario – such a story in the Montreal Gazette. In the case of Paola and her family, it may be too late. But this isn’t the first or last time such situations will arise. So how do we respond?

Do we respond only as those with a soft spot for those who have suffered – with a general response of compassion? Or perhaps we respond as those who have little room for those bleeding heart liberals. We can’t take in everyone. If we let in everyone, we’ll become the destination of choice for every refugee – our society and social benefits will collapse.

As we think about such issues as immigration and refugee policy, do we perhaps accept the widespread assumption that religious convictions have nothing to do with political processes? Do we accept the common view that religious convictions should be kept out of the mix of politics and social policy? Church and state must be kept apart.

In response to all of these questions – and some of them are terribly complicated questions – we must take our beginning from our faith in Jesus Christ – a faith that is expressed and described and comes to life in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament.

O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name… remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles and the judgments he uttered.”

Remember how God brought you out of slavery into freedom.

Remember how God brought you from darkness to light.

Remember how God brought you from alienation into community.

Remember how God brought you from sin to forgiveness.

Remember how God brought you from brokenness to wholeness.

These are not merely pious, private, religious sentiments. They are powerful ethical and political declarations of what is true and most real in Jesus Christ. And if we do not let these faith-inspired declarations come to expression ethically and politically, then we are not the people of remembrance that God has called us to be – we are not fully God’s children.

Listen to God’s law: “You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a salve in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.”

Remember what I have done for you, and then act accordingly.

Paola Ortiz may or may not have been deported this weekend. But what are we to make of her situation – how are we to respond, more broadly, to the Canadian immigration system, that would lead to such a conclusion. Our starting point in all of this must not be mere sympathy for Paola. Our starting point must not be mere hard-headed social calculation. Our starting point must be the call to justice, rooted in remembrance. Remember what God has done for you – and let that faith-inspired remembrance shape how you live – let it shape your social policy – let it shape your immigration policy – let it shape your actions. Let it shape what you demand from your politicians.

In all of this reflection there is of course room for that instinctive compassion. There is room for some hard-headed political and policy thinking. But our starting point is neither of these. Our starting point is reflection on God’s love enacted for us in Jesus Christ. Our starting point is the law of God, rooted in the compassion of God.

Here’s what the reporter concludes the story of Paola Ortiz: “Ortiz’s predicament is just one among many cases that seem to be decided more on the basis of meeting government quotas on refugees than on humanitarian grounds,” said Daniel Vernon of Solidarity Across Borders. “She’s one of the lucky ones who has a support group and found a good lawyer and where the media picked it up because it is an interesting case,” Vernon said. “There are many, many more who are just returned in silence.

Oh give thanks to the Lord, call on his name….remember the wonderful works that he has done, his miracles and the judgments he has uttered. Sing praises to him.

“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.”

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