I read a story recently about a woman named Jill who has the first diagnosed case of hyperthymestic syndrome. This is the continuous, automatic, autobiographical recall of every single day of her life since she was 14 years old. She is now nearly 50. For some reason yet unknown, her brain has been cataloguing each and every day for more than thirty years now, storing information that can be recalled either by date or by event. November 14, 1981, she’ll tell you was a Saturday, her dad's 45th birthday, and that night she was initiated into a group that she was joining at school. July 18, 1984 was a Wednesday: a quiet summer day, when she picked up the book Helter Skelter and read it for the second time.
Ask her about a particular event and she can tell you not only the date on which it occurred, but also the day of the week it happened to be. The end of the FBI siege on the Branch Davidian compound: Monday, April 19, 1993. The final episode of MASH: Monday, February 28, 1983 a rainy day in L.A.; the next day while she was driving her car, the windshield wipers stopped working.
She says her memories are like scenes from home movies, constantly playing in her head, relentlessly flashing forward and backward through the years. The emotion of them isn't dialed down as she recalls them, either; they are exceptionally vivid. It's as though she’s actually living through the events again, she says. I wonder how such remembering in fact shapes Jill’s life and her actions.
Memory and remembering, are both blessing and curse. There are days when I could wish for a memory like Jill’s. Instead I’m stuck with a memory that is contrary. It often fails to recall details I’d like to or need to recall, while at the same time refusing to allow me to shake the memory of some things I long to forget.
For example, I have been known to miss a meeting or an appointment because I misremembered or plumb forgot where I needed to be or when I needed to be there. Earlier this week I drove an hour to a meeting only to arrive to find the building empty. I had forgotten that the meeting had been moved to another venue, in another town altogether. And the busier I am with “life” the more likely I am to let things slip the bounds of my memory.
I find that the older I get the more I struggle to remember things that I used to know like the back of my hand. Yet I vividly remember some things I’d much rather forget. Like mistakes I’ve made, things I’ve done wrong, people I’ve hurt, injury I’ve received from other people, losses I’ve suffered. Some embarrassments stay with me and memories of traumatic events still elicit many of the same emotions as they initially did. Is it the same for you?
Memory can soften over time, which is sometimes a good thing, and yet for those for whom it slowly leaks out and disappears, and for their loved ones, grief of the loss of memory is profound.
Remembrance is important in all kinds of ways and there is ample evidence that something about remembrance is at the core of faith. Remembering, in fact, is noted throughout the gospel of Luke. At the very beginning of the gospel in both Mary’s song and Zechariah’s, God remembering God’s promise of mercy and of salvation are embraced – not only does God remember God’s promises, but God acts on those promises. Later, in the parables of Jesus, Abraham tells the rich man who hoarded his riches to remember how he had lived. Following the crucifixion, when the women carried spices to the tomb and found it empty, two men in dazzling clothes stood before them and told them to remember how, when Jesus was with them in Galilee he had foretold not only his death but also told them that he would rise from the dead. The women indeed remembered and they ran to tell the disciples what had happened. Remembrance involves first seeing the picture and then acting out an appropriate response.
In our gospel text for today, we hear these words from one of the criminals, the second one to speak: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” With those words this man, who confesses that he himself belongs up there hanging to death on a cross for he has done things in his life, has in fact earned his place there, at the same time, confesses that Jesus is Lord. He confesses that the ultimate kingdom is one in which Jesus reigns. Yet Jesus is hanging on a cross just like him, suffering just like him.
The criminal isn’t asking Jesus to remember that he was a bad man, or even to remember him as a person at all. He wants Jesus to remember his confession. He wants Jesus to remember his faith, as late in the day as it may have come. Still, sinner that I am, remember, Jesus, I believed. Jesus, as you come into your kingdom, as you come into your reign, remember me. I doubt very much that the criminal really understood what it was he was asking. But he recognized that Jesus had the power not only to remember him in paradise, but to act on that memory.
Isn’t it what we all want?
We celebrate Christ the King Sunday today, the last Sunday of the “church year” and on the surface we might question why, on a Sunday that is supposed to point to the kingship of Christ, we would read this gospel account. Look around – we celebrate this day as a festival Sunday! Yet in our gospel for this day, no one except this lone criminal seems to get it, no one else seems to understand that Jesus has any power. After all he is hanging on a cross! This gospel doesn’t mention kingship, it is a Good Friday reading – it speaks to death! That certainly doesn’t illustrate “power” in any credible way, does it?
In Luke’s gospel, as Jesus hangs there, what is happening around him? The people stand and watch; the leaders scoff at him; the soldiers mock him; the first criminal derides him. Like Satan once did in the wilderness, they all seem to be saying “save yourself” if you can. Indeed, if any of those witnesses had any inkling that some of what they had heard about Jesus was at all true, they are standing around most likely waiting for the show to begin. Because surely, if Jesus is the Son of God, if Jesus has come to reign, then he is not about to actually suffer the pain and humiliation and scandal of dying like a criminal alongside criminals on this device of torture. Because that is not godly. That is not evidence of power, but just the opposite.
And yet, this king, this Messiah, has done nothing according to any human script, has he? His birth in a stable was about as humble as it can get. He stirred up trouble wherever he went, he ate with tax collectors and sinners, he preached about a God who loves the whole world and not just a few chosen people, he healed the sick and embraced the poor, (on the Sabbath, yet) and proclaimed resurrection of the dead would come through him, to all who would believe.
Christ does indeed reign as king, in an entirely new realm and new world order, initiated through his death on the cross and his rising again. We know that through his death on the cross Jesus indeed had the last word, because that death could not hold him, the grave could not hold him, the stone was rolled back and with it the veil of death was torn in two and new life began.
In this text we observe that as Jesus hung on the cross, in his agony, he did two things: He forgave, and He offered salvation. Jesus looked this man in the eye. He regarded him and accepted him for who he was, he remembered God’s promises to him, and he acted on that memory and gave him a second chance. Jesus assured him his place in Paradise. Because that is how the realm of Jesus works.
In the realm of the kingdom of God, in the power and authority of Christ the King, there is new life, hope and grace. Above all, in the realm of Christ our King, there is the kind of love that never gets tired of giving second chances.
In the kingdom of God there is remembrance for each of us. Jesus himself told us it is true. As Jesus looks us in the eye, and loves us, accepts us, and forgives us, he embodies God’s promise of redemption for each and every one of us, no matter what. The ultimate judgment of the world happens at the Cross, where Jesus, through his suffering and death has earned our salvation. At the cross, Jesus gave each of us new life.
Remembrance is important, and it is formative. As people of faith, and as the Body of Christ, we remember that Christ is King, who bought for us an eternal kingdom through his dying and rising again.
Each time we gather in this place, we remember all that God has done for us and we remember the stories of our faith that never fail to have import for today. As we gather at the table we remember the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and we remember our own deliverance from sin through the power of the cross. At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples that whenever we partake of the precious body and blood of our savior, we do this in remembrance of him. And that remembrance shapes our faith and provokes us to action on behalf of the kingdom of God.
What might our lives look like if they were always living out the prayer, “Jesus remember me”? What would our lives look like if we began each day acknowledging Christ as reigning over our lives and then praying that prayer? How would each day be shaped if we intentionally remembered Christ’s power and grace, and then acted on it?