Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.

MEETING GOD THROUGH A PAINFUL MEMORY

Isaiah 6:1-8 Psalm 138 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Luke 5:1-11

Dr. Warner M. Bailey
February 10, 2019

Ingmar Bergman was an internationally famous film director. He was the maker of such memorable classics as Scenes from a Marriage, Wild Strawberries, and Fanny and Alexander. In 1988 he published his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, where his struggles with his father occupies a central place in his life’s story. His father was a strict, conservative minister in the Swedish Lutheran Church. Although Bergman’s father was evidently highly regarded as a pastor, his son remembers something different. He writes:

Most of our upbringing was based on such concepts as sin, confession, punishment, forgiveness and grace…all logical and ordered….We never heard of freedom and knew even less what it tasted like. It was a hierarchical system with punishment swift, simple, refined through generations. After the strokes were administered you had to kiss your Father’s hand, at which forgiveness was declared…and the burden of sin passed away.

Bergman writes that what he sought most of his life was reconciliation with a father who was cold and authoritarian in his relationships, sought so unsuccessfully until the pressure within the son burst, to scald those nearest and dearest to him.  Once, upon being taken by his father to see a dead man in a
coffin, the young teenager blurted out:

All that stuff Jesus says about in my father’s house are many
mansions! I don’t believe it. If I’ve at last escaped my father’s mansion, I’d prefer not to move in with someone who’s probably worse.

At age 14 he left home and surrendered to his powerful sexual drives with innumerable liaisons and marriages, and fathered an untold number of children.

These two excerpts from Bergman’s telling, illustrate how painful memories can evoke powerful effects that work on us all through our life. Each of us has a story: A young man or woman loses self-control and creates a life-long, painful memory of a horrible automobile accident, or an unwanted pregnancy, or a forced marriage that wipes away the chance of going away to college. A stressed-out father or mother loses their cool with their fractious child and creates a life-long, painful memory of child abuse. A person in public life, either in business or public service, is outed for errors in judgment or malfeasance in office and creates a painful memory of public denouncement and the embarrassment of a public defense.

We all have painful memories enough. I want to talk with you today about the healing of your painful memories. I want you to grasp the opportunity you have of finding a healing God in your painful memory. For, my friends, God wants your painful memories healed—not buried and forgotten, but
exposed and healed.

In all our Scripture lessons, the appearance of God shines a light on a painful memory and awakens a sense of deep judgment. In our Old Testament lesson, Isaiah has gone to the temple when his king dies. That’s a natural reaction. We’ve seen here at St. Stephen how peaks of national unrest bring more people to church. Isaiah comes to the temple for comfort. What he experiences is a shattering encounter with the holy God. The God, high and lifted up, actually lays bare for all to see the naked lies, the bald falsehoods, the blatant manipulating, which expose and judge Isaiah and his country. “I am a man of unclean lips,” he says.

In our epistle lesson, Paul says that seeing the resurrected Jesus made him feel like he was untimely born. Being untimely born means being the product of an abortion or being the body of a still born. It symbolizes failure. The resplendent Son of God awakened in Paul a memory of his persecution of the
church which caused him to feel gross shame and disgust. In the name of all that his faith and culture had shaped him to be, he had been damaging the very one whose life, death, and resurrection was validated by the scriptures of his faith. What a grotesque display of miscalculation and the myopia of hatred! “I am an abortion,” says Paul.

In our gospel lesson, Peter repeats a familiar fisherman’s complaint, “We fished all night and caught nothing.” He is tired and sleepy and out of sorts. He has no time to humor this kid who orders him to put out in the lake again. He’d show smarty pants how ignorant he is of the ways of fishing; how superior Peter is to this kid’s big-shot ways. The resulting overwhelming catch of fish should be a cause for joy—after all Peter makes his living by selling fish. However, there is no joy in the boat. For a memory rears up reminding Peter of just how stupid and proud and vain and blind he is. He found out quickly that he was not dealing with a kid who was too big for his britches. This was the Lord, not high and lifted up like
Isaiah’s confrontation, and not resplendent in resurrection glory like Paul, but the Lord, just the same, who looked like the next guy. “Depart from me O Lord, for I am a sinful man!” says Peter.

Painful memories creating gross shame and disgust. I am a man of unclean lips. I am an abortion. I am a sinful man. I worked in vain. I blew a great opportunity. I am a failure. Isaiah, Paul and Peter—you don’t get more towering figures in the Bible than these. But you would not have thought so on the basis of what they said about themselves. And that’s just the point I am making. They became what they were only because of what God said to them in the depths of their painful memory.

Isaiah saw in a vision how God burned away the uncleanness from his lips. God took away his guilt and freed him from the power to lie again and again. The resurrected Christ embraced all the pain Paul caused the church, and the love of God for Paul absorbed Paul’s sense of being a failure. Jesus heard Peter’s wrenching confession, “You don’t want to have anything to do with me, I am a sinful man,” and covered it over with “You will become fishers of people.”

A new identity straight from God was set against each of the painful memories. Look at the Isaiah of unclean lips. “Who will go for us?” asks the Lord in the temple, and Isaiah, freed to be able to tell the truth, responds, “Here I am, Lord, send me.” So, “lying Isaiah” gets a new identity as the bearer of God’s
word of hope to give people confidence in the coming destruction.

Paul grasps that God does not want him to be a failure. God knows about failure. Jesus died a failed man. But the resurrection shows that God knows how to put power in the place of failure. Paul insists that God’s grace saved him from being a failure. God calls “loser Paul” to a new identity as an apostle. The fact is, he says, God’s grace is so powerful to him “that I worked harder than any of [the other apostles.]”

Peter says, “I am a sinful man.” Jesus says, “You are a catcher of people.” Jesus sets for Peter a new identity againsta painful memory. Jesus points a new direction to go in. Follow me. I don’t think Peter ever grew out of his brash and impulsive personality that vexed him so. What Jesus did was to channel “lousy Peter” toward new aims, new goals, new directions. 

Painful memories never go away. Valentine’s Day may be for you the reawakening of a painful memory. You may struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Whatever your memory, God meets you in your sorrow, your disgust, your sense of failure. God meets you in the form of his Son who died a failure’s death, a loser’s death, a villain’s death.

For some, your healing requires cleansing, freeing and accepting a new vocation. For others, your will be healed when someone believes in you past your failures and you work your heart out from sheer grace. Or maybe, your healing comes when the jumble of who you are is redirected and focused. At every step you are meeting God through a painful memory.

You have an opportunity to join your sorrow, your disgust, your sense of failure with that of Jesus’ failure on the cross. We begin as comrades in failure. And only as we are comrades can he take us up in his resurrected life to something high and noble like Isaiah, to something where we can be good at it like Paul, to something where we will be a blessing like Peter.

 

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