In late 2006, I sat in the office of my first church and awkwardly took notes on a pre-marital counseling session for some of our very good friends. It was awkward because I was new to the premarital counseling business – in my first church I buried far more frequently than married – and it was awkward because our friends were University of Chicago trained scientists, stereotypically secular, and my standard liturgy has a good bit of God in it – and it was awkward because I was asking my good friends to tell me about the inner-workings of their relationship – how and when they fight, how they talk about money and sex, how they understand fidelity and making a commitment between two fallible people.
That is, incidentally, what I love about doing weddings. I love to talk to couples about these things, to help them find the resources to make their marriage work, to make it a joy over time. Talking through all these things just seemed nosey in this instance, because I was their friend.
This line of questioning, though, does serve another purpose in helping to craft the wedding liturgy – it reveals the stories and metaphors that shape the couple’s understanding of their love and their commitment. For Adam and Catherine,* their metaphor came from a Charlie Kaufman film called Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Eternal Sunshine, a movie that found its way onto most of the “Best of” lists of the last decade, is about a couple whose love has taken a turn, and whose members each undergo a procedure to erase their memories of one another. The title and theme are borrowed from an 18th century poem in which the lovelorn heroine cries out for forgetfulness as her only comfort: The world forgetting, by the world forgot. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
In the movie – it’s a decade old, but cover your ears if you don’t want the spoiler – Joel and Clementine, the leads, cannot ultimately forget each other. They are drawn together again and again, and ultimately choose to try once more despite knowing they’ve caused each other pain. Adam and Catherine, my friends, wanted to make these promises to one another: I will never forget you.
At the time, newly married myself, I couldn’t quite get my head around why this was a promise worth making. Won’t you be together? How can you forget someone with whom you’re sharing your life? What I didn’t quite understand that a marriage – and truly any relationship – is about both remembering and forgetting.
When Josh and I are going through a rough patch, we often feel compelled to show each other that, in the words of Noel Coward’s poem, nothing is lost. We rehearse the stories of how we met, and how we fell in love that first summer. We remind each other of the first time we knew this was it, of the days our daughters were born, of our favorite things about each other. We remember together. All those memories are in there, deep in our sub-conscious – but there are times we need to bring them to the surface, when we need them to remind and sustain us.
There are other things in a life, in relationships, that need to be put to rest, that need to be remembered not. Past hurts, feelings of betrayals and loss, of pain and sin. If we are to go on together, we must choose to let some things be passed, even as we actively remember others.
In the Hebrew Bible reading for the morning from Exodus, the people have grown weary of following the Lord God, and have thus turned to other gods, building idols, a golden calf. They have betrayed the god of their ancestors; they have forgotten the divine promises to them; they have not responded in gratitude and faithfulness to the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt. Their relationship is broken. The Lord is furious. We’re done! He fumes. The people will be destroyed for their faithlessness.
But, showing once again the innovation of the Israelite faith, Moses, the appointed divine spokesman, protests. In other ancient traditions of the Mideast, relations between humans and the divine are largely contractual – protection and fertility and harvest in exchange for sacrifice. But the Israelite God is one who longs to be in relationship with humanity, and thus is moved by Moses’s entreaties. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever. Yes, the people have faltered. Yes, they have been faithless. But you have invested in these people. They are yours, your beloved, your broken. Do not now walk away.
The Lord relents.
Christianity historically has loved to suggest that the Israelites, or “the Jews” were uniquely fumbling in the faith. How do they give up so easily? But such a tradition is both ridiculous and unfair. The Psalmist speaks to many of our hearts when he prays, remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions, but remember me according to your steadfast love.
These are among my favorite lines of the Psalms. My youth was not so remarkably sinful; I’ve invested a lot in being a good girl over the years. But I want to be known by God, remembered, as the person I long to be, as the person I sometimes am, and not for my myriad and mundane failings.
If I ever want to really torture myself, I pull out my high school journal. If I am in a depressive mood, I will recall those times when my behavior placed me outside of the relationships I so cherish, when I felt even outside myself, alien and foreign. Kat Banakis, a friend and an Episcopal priest up in Evanston, described this feeling so well in the titular essay from her new book Bubble Girl: the most condemning form of loneliness I know… I should be on my A-game of integration and inclusion, and instead I’m alone in the crowd. I reframe my entire life as always being an outsider, and project forward into a future of remaining outside.
It’s not sinful to be lonely, nor to be depressed, but to me this is the heart of what sin and faithlessness do – they isolate me and make me feel as if I will never really be a part, known or loved, again. I wish I could say I avoid sin because I am so good, but it’s not true. I avoid sin because I hate this feeling with all that is in me. I want to avoid it. The memories of when I have felt that way are terrible enough, and somehow remain ever fresh. I can conjure that isolation with little effort.
This is also how many describe the feeling of clinical depression, of a major depressive episode. To be constantly standing outside one’s own life, without agency, will or power to connect, or to hope that things might change. To bear the weight of hopelessness and loneliness.
This week is National Suicide Awareness and Prevention Week, and I’ve been reading and rereading essays on suicide and depression. One powerful piece appeared on the web magazine A Deeper Story. The author spoke of his years long battle with depression, of how he was sitting on the floor of his bedroom closet, holding a gun, closer than he’d ever been to suicide, of how all he had left to do was write his note to his wife and two young sons, explaining how it would be better for everyone if he was gone. How they would be better off. It’s not true, he knows now, but in that moment, he already felt himself so outside of all he loved, that he could not imagine they needed him, that losing him might be more than they could bear. The thing that jolted him out of the moment was his toddler screaming suddenly in bed, in the midst of a night terror. He put the gun away and ran to his son, held him, comforted him, took his little body in his arms. The bubble was burst, connection was made, tragedy averted and the road to healing begun.
Depression and sin – not one and the same, but in this alike – tell us that we are replaceable. That those who love us do not really know us, that our failings and our brokenness are the only memorable things about us. That they are all we will be remembered for.
But those are lies. Depression, sin, self-loathing: they lie to us. For we are all, each of us, beloved by God. The Lord God remembers, not the mistakes and fears on which we ruminate and base our self-loathing, but the steadfast love from which we are created and which is ever extended toward us.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Denver that attracts a non-traditional congregation of those in recovery, of LGBTQ folks, of punks and others who have been rejected by society and the church published a book this summer called Pastrix, a remarkable book I am probably going to find a way to foist on you all. The people who find their way to Nadia have known trouble and pain, ostracism and addiction, fear and self-loathing. They have known sin – as perpetrators and victims. They are, as are all of us, both sinners and saints, 100%, all the time.
Her story is one of death and resurrection, of God’s grace. She writes, God’s grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word. My selfishness is not the end-all…instead, it’s that God makes beautiful things out of even my own shit. Grace isn’t about God creating humans as flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us peace—like saying, ‘Oh, it’s OK, I’ll be a good guy and forgive you.’ It’s God saying, ‘I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.’
I don’t always know how to preach the Gospel text for this morning. I often feel like one of the 99 sheep who has never wandered off, wondering why God is leaving to get the one. But, well, that’s just the nature of God. God comes to get the one. Even me, even you, even when the bubble separates us from everyone, even when we are lonely and afraid. Even when we think there is no hope. God remembers us, notices that we have wandered off alone and are endangered. God remembers us, each of us, and knows that even though there are 99 still safe, that one, even that one, can never be replaced. You cannot be replaced.
You are remembered according to the steadfast love of God. And you cannot be replaced.
This is unbelievable, overwhelmingly good news.
It is sort of terrible news, Because we are called to open ourselves to healing, to work for reconciliation, to be repaired by this grace. And that is work. It is.
But it’s the best kind of terrible. It’s one I’ll take, and need, on a rainy day, with the stress of a new quarter mounting.
Whoever you are, wherever you are. You are remembered. You are loved. You will not be forgotten, but pursued. You can never be replaced.
*I noted in the preaching that because the metaphor and my officiating of their wedding were public knowledge this anecdote yet honored the confidential nature of our counseling appointments.
**Sermon on Exodus 32:7-14, Psalm 25, Luke 15:1-10, and Noel Coward’s “Nothing is Lost”, preached at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, 15 September 2013