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Remember Not To Forget – 2/5/2012

I remember my grandfather’s voice. I remember the time I fell out of the bunk bed in the middle of the night, and had to get stitches in my lip. I remember my wedding, and I remember the hard work that went into planning it. I remember all of the words to all of the songs from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I remember just a few of the really great sermons I’ve heard in my life, and all of the ones that I passionately disagreed with. I remember state capitals and the Pythagorean Theorem and the rules to obscure board games. But still, sometimes I forget things.

Sometimes I forget where I left my keys or my cell phone. Some weeks – alright, most weeks, I forget to take out the garbage. I forget birthdays; that’s why I write them in my calendar. I forget phone numbers, because I have them saved in my phone. Every once in a while I forget to put my glasses on before I leave the house, but much worse than any of these things, sometimes I forget myself.

I forget myself when I am harsh or unkind towards someone I care about. I forget myself when I turn away from someone else’s suffering, and pretend not to see it. I forget myself whenever I give in to despair. I forget myself whenever I act with anything less than the courage and compassion that I, and every other human being, am capable of.

There’s a Robert Redford movie in which he plays a candidate for the US Senate. The character is an idealist who doesn’t think much of politics, and the incumbent is so popular, no one else is interested in running against him. Redford’s character enters the race with no hope of winning, in order to raise his issues and get some public attention for the causes he cares about. And to get a little more of that attention, he says a few things he doesn’t fully believe. And to raise the profile of his cause a bit more, he makes a political ad he isn’t entirely proud of. And when he sees the polls predicting just how badly he’ll lose the election, he decides to moderate his positions a bit. By now, he’s become a public representation of the principles and values that he stands for, and he doesn’t want to tarnish them with the embarrassment of such a one-sided loss. So bit by bit, he gives more and more of what he stands for until, quite unexpectedly he wins. In the final scene of the film, Robert Redford’s character is left dazed by the outcome, and turns to his pragmatic, cynical campaign manager to ask, “What do we do now?”[i]

It is the privilege and the responsibility of every person to know what the purpose of their living is, and to follow that purpose. But it is also a fact of life that it is all too easy to lose sight of – to forget – that purpose. And when that happens we end up like Robert Redford’s confused Senate candidate: adrift and rudderless. Like an unmoored boat with unfurled sails, we simply follow the prevailing wind, rather than the course that is written in our hearts. Because it is so easy to forget, we need to practice remembering, again and again.

This past Friday, Muslims all over the world celebrated Mawlid al-Nabi, the birthday of the prophet Muhammad. It is a bright and joyful celebration, marked in many places by feasts and colorful decorations, and the telling of stories about Muhammad’s life. As a group, we Unitarian Universalists tend to be less familiar with the stories and observances of Islam than we are with Christianity or Judaism or even Buddhism. But we are connected, in our history and in our values, to the religion Muhammad founded. Some of our earliest ancestors were called heretics by Christian authorities because, although they revered Jesus and sought to follow his teachings, they did not believe that Jesus was God. When those same Christian authorities first encountered Muslims, they applied the same stigma and the same persecution to this new religion.

Islam reveres Jesus as a prophet, and endorses his teachings, so the people who drew the arbitrary lines of orthodoxy viewed it as just another manifestation of an old heresy. And once the orthodox had gotten used to arguing and sometimes fighting with Muslims on a regular basis, they labeled and attacked some of our later Unitarian ancestors for being ‘secret Muslims’. While our two groups didn’t overlap or work closely together, some of our legacy comes to us because certain European Christians exchanged ideas with their Muslim neighbors, or were simply willing to read books written by Muslims, even when it was a criminal offense. This is one of the ways that idea that God is One, which is in the bedrock of Judaism and Islam but gets a little fuzzy in Trinitarian Christianity, first came into the hearts and minds of the people who would eventually be called Unitarians. So in our present time, when it has become seemingly acceptable to denigrate Muslims, to profile them as terrorists, and to call a person a Muslim as a means of character assassination, we need to remember that there have been places and times where we were put in the same boat together.

The Hebrew Bible instructs the reader both to remember, and not to forget, a number of things: the experience of slavery in Egypt, the sovereignty of God, the words and teachings of the Bible itself. Other passages petition God to remember the plight and suffering of human beings, and to come to their aid. In the Christian scriptures, also, readers are told to remember certain stories and teachings especially, to underline their importance. When Muhammad brought his message to the table of monotheism, he continued that theme of memory. He was, in many ways, calling on people to remember something that they had forgotten.

When Muhammad was born in 570, in what is now Saudi Arabia, his society was in crisis. For hundreds of years, the people of that place, the Arabs, had lived as nomads. A life spent travelling in the desert was harsh, and rarely fair. There was very little of anything. So their society was built on the tribe, the extended family group: all people, and especially all of the leaders and those with the most power and resources, were expected to protect and look out for the other members of their tribe. It wasn’t a comfortable or an ideal way of life, but it made taking care of and looking after people other than just yourself into leading virtues.

But Muhammad was born in the city of Mecca, at a time when it had become a center of trade. Without the ample space and dangers of the desert, and with a dramatic increase in the amount of wealth in the society, the old virtues were being forgotten. The successful were growing focused on gaining more and more, and had stopped following their obligation to look after the less fortunate. The gap between had rich and poor grown enormously. The social fabric was being torn apart by capitalism – and by capitalism, I don’t mean the concept of private property or the right to own and operate a business. I mean capitalism in the religious sense: an ethos based not on a belief in a deity or a set of moral values, but rather one centered on the acquisition of more and more money.

Many of the central teachings of Muhammad focus on this crisis. Many times over, they counsel and require his followers to care for the poor and to show mercy to widows and orphans – in particular not to cheat them out of their inheritance. The message is that objects and comforts do not matter as much as the wellbeing of the community. It’s not exactly the same as the ethos of the desert – it’s more formal and universal rather than tribal – but it is a return to the basic values of generosity and caregiving. It was a reminder of something that many of the people who heard the message had forgotten.

There is a verse in the Qur’an in which God makes a proposition, “If you will remember me, I will remember you.”[ii] Now God – Allah, Adonai, Ram – these all are words that can and have been used to summarize the virtues and aspirations that give purpose and meaning to life. Justice in harmony with mercy. Truth that leads to freedom. Love, which renews each spirit that it touches. So when I read those words, “If you will remember me, I will remember you,” what I hear is a statement of faith about living with a holy purpose. Compassion and the courage to struggle for justice are always risks. Someone might take advantage of your trust. Someone else might be more interested in the personal benefits of the way things are, than in the universal benefits of the way things ought to be. But there is reward as well as risk. The possibility that things may turn out well, of course, but also some solace and satisfaction, simply in remembering to be who we are in our deepest selves.

I’m going to ask you to take a moment to remember with me now. Close your eyes. Think of your purpose in life, about what you are here for. And if you find yourself at a loss on that one, I and our tradition will be happy to help you out: you are here to experience the impossible honor of being alive, to come to know others and let them know you, to grow in your capacity to feel and to imagine and to act, and to use those gifts lovingly in the service of the whole of creation, of which you are a part. So think with me of that purpose, or some other rendering that you resonate with, and practice not just thinking of it, but feeling it. Pay attention to what comes up. It might be an image: A burning candle. A broken chain. A cup to share. Someone who loves you very much. It might be some words: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”[iii] “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”[iv] All are worthy. Not hell, but hope and courage. Whatever it is, remember it. Keep it in mind.

This week, try out using that memory as a touchstone, to start things over again when you act out of frustration or thoughtlessness. When the world spins you on your heels, and you find that you have forgotten yourself again, think back to that image, or those words. Let them pull you back towards the person you are capable of being. I thank you for taking that moment for the memory, and I invite you to open your eyes again.

We need those reminders, as many as we can get, because the world is full of distractions, and it is easy to get lost among them. The main character in the movie Memento cannot form long-term memories. He loses track of anything and everything after a few minutes or so. To combat his condition, he leaves himself notes and instructions, many of them tattooed on his body, so they can’t get lost. A very definitive sort of reminder. In the film, the protagonist struggles with who he can trust, which stories he can believe, and eventually realizes that he cannot fully trust even the messages he has left for himself.[v] And friends, it is true that we are all capable of error, and our ability to live rightly, even when that is foremost in our minds, is not always perfect. So the last layer that I want to remind you of is that we each need not only to remember ourselves but to have others we can trust and rely on to help us remember, and remember clearly. That is what this congregation is for. It is a part of the promise that we make each Sunday: to help one another. We have a common mission to care about how those around us are doing, and how connected they are with the purpose that gives their life meaning. We come together in community, to help one another remember ourselves.

[i] The Candidate, directed by Michael Ritchie, 1972.

[ii] Qur’an 2:152

[iii] Deuteronomy 16:20

[iv] The Gospel According to Matthew 7:12

[v] Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan, 2000


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