The following my Lenten sermon from March 16: a reflection on Psalm 103.
Psalm 103: 1-5
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
2 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits—
3 who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
5 who satisfies you with good as long as you live[a]
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
Do not forget.
Memory is a fascinating thing. I’m beyond intrigued by the human brain, by the ways in which chemicals signal neurons to fire, creating a network of reactions that activate the visual or auditory cortex or our emotional processing centers or our language centers. To create a memory is a mysterious multisensory process involving not only the perception of everything happening around us in a given moment, but also in the connecting to previous information about people, places, and events already stored in our brains. Although I really don’t understand just how this all works, I am grateful that it does, for in many ways, individual and collective memories tell us who we are: from our own individual journeys of life and vocation to the shared family stories passed down every year at Thanksgiving; from the stories of our nation’s history to the grand sweeping narratives of our faith. These stories and memories provide us with a rootedness and sense of identity. Memory is important. Our psalmist this evening seems to know this.
As many of you know, I recently returned from a trip to Israel-Palestine, a holy land that is in many ways centered on this idea of not forgetting. Dedicated pilgrims from around the world flock to this small piece of land in the Middle East to touch, to see, and to remember these shared narratives of faith and to remember what God has done.
Pilgrims remember what God has done by visiting the cathedrals, both large and small, simple and ornate that have been constructed all across Israel and the West Bank to commemorate the sites where Jesus is believed to have walked. Some groups of pilgrims gather in these cathedrals to lift up their voices in familiar hymns in a myriad of languages to remember what God has done through song. Dedicated travelers come from across the globe to touch the rock of Golgotha inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, to kiss the anointing stone outside of the tomb, to step into what is believed to be the empty tomb itself and fall to their knees in front of the spot that commemorates where Jesus lay. Pilgrims make their way to the banks of the muddy Jordan River, some immersing themselves all the way under the water, others (like my own group of Lutherans) rolling up their jeans to step their feet into the gently moving current, to mark each other with the sign of the cross and to remember not only the baptism of Jesus but also how God’s bountiful grace and love that washes over each of us as well.
Travelers remember what God has done by simply being present: by soaking in and taking note of the Galilean hillside, the cobblestone Bethlehem streets, the rocky, barren desert in the Dead Sea region, the breathtaking view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. As one visits the Mount of the Beatitudes, the shores of the Sea of Galilee, or the ancient ruins of Caesarea Philippi or Capernaum, one may pass groups of Christian pilgrims remembering their story, our story, by reading familiar passages from Scripture as their feet are firmly planted in the Galilean soil as the breeze rustles the leaves from the olive trees or as the waves of the Sea gently lap against the rocky shoreline.
For many people who live in Israel-Palestine, remembering what God has done is at the very core of their being, truly taking “all that is within them.” In a land that knows too well the reality of violence, oppression, and occupation, in the Palestinian West Bank where people are denied basic rights on a daily basis, in the midst of a political and religious situation so complicated and overwhelming that peace seems nothing more than a far off hope, “not forgetting” is of utmost importance. People of faith cling desperately to the God who promises to forgive iniquity, to heal diseases, to redeem life from the Pit, to crown with steadfast love and mercy and to renew one’s youth. For Palestinian Christians in particular, this hope, this promise, this memory is what sustains them.
The Holy Land is a place in which one can’t help but to remember the complex and interwoven narrative of peoples of faith. But, I do not think one has to hop on the next flight to Tel Aviv to resonate with our psalm this evening. For it turns out our God seems to be in the habit of making ordinary things holy. We come together to remember what God has done as we meet at the altar for bread and for wine, and we celebrate together at the baptismal font as God’s promises are renewed in the waters of holy baptism. Like many pilgrims in the Holy Land, we too remember what God has done through story and song, through the reading of Scripture and by sharing our own stories in the midst of God’s story. We remember God’s glory in the vibrant orange and subtle purple of the early morning sunrise, in the fellowship with our families around the dinner table (or the laughter over pizza in the youth room), in the life’s simple joys that catch us by surprise each day. However, we too are called to remember all that God has done and continues to do even when we are in the Pit of disease and injustice, of grief and in doubt, in those moments where our life takes an unexpected turn and nothing seems to make sense. The extraordinary events that took place in the little town of Bethlehem, in the region of the Galilee, and a hill outside of Jerusalem continue to transform our reality here and now, inviting us into new life and renewal. For we have a God who crowns us with love and mercy, who names us Beloved, calls us into community, and invites us into abundant life.
This is good news indeed. So, with the psalmist, let all that is within me cry, Bless the Lord, oh my soul. And thanks be to God.