REMEMBER FROM WHERE YOU COME
Sermon preached by Frank M. Yamada at Convocation for the 182nd Academic Year of McCormick Theological Seminary, Augustan Lutheran Church of Hyde Park, Chicago, IL Wednesday, September 07, 2011
I would like to begin with two questions: “Why are you here?” and “From where do you come?” The first, “Why are you here?” has an obvious answer. We are here for convocation. We are “called together” to begin this 182nd academic year at McCormick Theological Seminary. However, I think we can unpack a deeper reason for our convoking by asking the second question: “From where do you come?” or the more colloquial, “Where do you come from?”
“Where do you come from?” is a question that I get asked all too often, and it often invokes a line of questioning that is troublesome. The line of questioning goes something like this. A person will come up to me and ask, “Where are you from?” To which I respond with something like, “Originally from Southern California” or “from Chicago. To which my questioner will ask the inevitable and pointed question: “No, where are you really from?”
Implied in this second question is a more subtle and biting query, even if it sometimes goes unspoken: “Why are you here?” The above line of questioning—“Where are you from?” and “Where are you really from?”—is the underlying thought-pattern behind every border search, every car that is pulled over with persons inside who don’t look like they belong in this neighborhood, every man or woman who is pulled out of line in the security check for a reason that everyone else in the line knows. It is a series of thoughts that interrogates belonging. One could argue that these questions have taken on a more ominous tone in the past decade. Where are you from? No, where are you really from?
Today, I would like to take these thoughts as my point of departure. I would like to take this line of questioning, which often has skewed intentions, and flip it on its head. I want to use these questions to probe more deeply into our purpose for gathering in this “called-together” assembly or convocation.
So, where are you from? No, where are you really from? In all seriousness, from where do you come, really? I am guessing that you could answer this question in a number of ways. You could say, “I come from Iowa” “the Southside,” “Westside,” or “Northside.” You could answer the question in terms of your faith tradition, “I come from a Pentecostal background,” “the PCUSA,” “the PCA,” “the RCA,” or the “KPC” (Korean Presbyterian Church). You could respond by describing the type of church to which you belong. “I come from a suburban,” “urban,” “rural,” “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “hopelessly or hopefully stuck-in-the-middle type of church.” “I come from a big church.” “I come from a small church.” I come from a growing church”… “from a dying church.” Somehow, with all of these diverse characterizations, I still think we have not really answered the question, “But where are you really from?” Thankfully, I believe that Scripture provides us with some thoughts and answers to our questions. Today’s passages remind us of how we forget and how we remember from where we came.
In Matthew 18:21–35, we hear of the story about an unforgiving servant. This is a story about amnesia, of a servant who forgot from where he had come. Jesus tells a parable in which a king calls a servant to account for a substantial debt that the latter owes to the king. Upon hearing the moving plea of the servant, the king agrees to forgive the debt so that the servant and his family are not bound to a life of servitude. Our friend, the servant, however, does not learn his lesson. He forgets from where he had just come. He comes upon a neighbor who owes him a very small amount of money, and this servant mercilessly exacts every last penny from his debtor, even treating his neighbor violently, grabbing him by the throat.
Our friend, the servant has forgotten from where has come. It was not too long before that the same servant was begging for mercy from the king; but in an instant, this debtor turns into a harsh collector of debts. Loss of memory is a terrible thing. Without a memory of where we come from, we forget who we are and lose all compassion for the plight of our fellow human being.
What we remember and what we do with that memory are critical. This upcoming Sunday, we commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11. What do we remember and what do we do with that memory? Perhaps we, like many of our churches, temples, and synagogues throughout the Chicagoland area, try to educate the world in peacemaking or interreligious understanding. Maybe we remember and give thanks for those heroic persons who gave their lives to save others. Maybe we mourn.
Or do we promote more violence in the world through our fear and growing hate? Does our memory make us more afraid, more in need of “national security,” more fearful of each other, so that we engender suspicion rather than working for the mutual good of all?
In retrospect, I wonder what would have happened if, in response to 9/11, we remembered differently, or if we responded in a different way to our memories. What if we remembered the pain and loss of that horrible day, and vowed that never again will we allow anyone else in the world to experience this same kind of pain and loss. What if we remembered the violence committed against us, and we committed ourselves to bring an end to violence in the world, to say, “Never again!” What if instead of war, we committed substantial economic resources to campaigns of peace and the building of understanding?
What happened with our friend in Matt 18 was that he forgot his Torah. Deut 5:15 responds to such forgetfulness. Why do you keep the Sabbath? Why do you democratize it so that all, including your sons, daughters, male and female slaves, and all of your animals also observe it? As the Deuteronomist proclaims: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm…” You generously extend Shabbat to everyone because you remember from where you came—that you were once slaves in Egypt.
Jesus reminds us of a similar Torah memory as he is teaching his disciples to pray: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” If we forget from where we came and forget the one who released our debts… if we forget the one who forgave our sins… if we forget the one who delivered us from evil… if we forget the one who gives us our daily bread… and, yes, if we forget the one who delivered us at the Sea, WE FORGET WHO WE ARE. If we forget from where we came, if our memory lapses, if we suffer from a similar type of theo-ethical amnesia, WE FORGET WHO WE ARE.
So who are we really?
The Crossing at the Sea in Exodus 14 reminds us of the pivotal event where Israel is delivered from the Egyptian army not around, not over, but through the waters. It is the memory unparalleled in the history of Israel. In this event, the LORD takes us to those primal waters of both chaos and life in which slaves become free, the oppressed are delivered from their oppression, the nation of Israel is birthed again out of the womb and through the waters to become, in a new way, the children of the LORD.
These are the same waters in which God, in the beginning, said, “Let there be… and there was…
These are the same waters, which flowed from a rock, to sustain the life of the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness.
These are the same waters in which Jesus was baptized by John, and when he emerged heard God declare, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased”
These are the same waters in which we were called when we were baptized; when we were claimed, sealed, and recognized as God’s own children.
It is IN THESE WATERS where we remember from where we came and to whom we belong.
So, my brothers and sisters, my colleagues in this journey of learning, remember the waters, from where you came, and in them remember God’s liberation, God’s deliverance, and the LORD’s mighty works on your behalf.
Remember these waters when:
-your studies and the brothers and sisters with whom you are studying challenge you to your core and shake your beliefs…
-you face the plague of self-doubt at the midnight hour…
-hear the threat of change blowing fiercely, and it is blowing fiercely, in your ears…
-see trouble brewing on the horizon, and your life raft doesn’t look like it will hold water much longer…
-you run into denominational road blocks, OR ponder the very real possibility of not having a ministry job on the other side of this degree, OR face the constant challenges to your emerging and God-given authority…
When trouble arises, always remember from where you came. When the waters rise, remember that it is God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, who parted the Sea and made the Israelites to walk on dry ground. When the storms rage, and they will rage, remember that it is Jesus who said to the storm, “Be Quiet!” “Shut up!” And the waves heeded his voice and were still. When the wind blows and threatens to knock you over or sweep you away, remember that it is the Holy Spirit that blows like a fire and can turn the tongues of many nations into the unified language of praise. When adversity hits, remember from where you came. Remember the waters out of which you are born again into new life.
When we remember from where we have come, ultimately we will remember whose we are. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed in a prisoner camp for his participation in the resistance to Hitler and the Third Reich, said it this way. At the end of his famous poem, “Who am I?”—a work in which he wrestles with his demons of doubt, even as others looked to his leadership—he leaves us with these words:
“Who am I?
They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am,
Thou knowest, O God,
I am Thine!”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Who am I?” Page 347 in Letters and Papers from Prison, the enlarged edition; ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Touchstone, 1997).