Moses stood on the banks of the Jordan River and looked out over the Israelites who were about to step into the land promised to them by God. Their exodus was now over – an exodus which had seen deserts wandered, bread falling from the sky, armies avoided, and seas crossed; an exodus which had displayed God’s faithfulness and love again and again. Yet, despite the miraculous and memorable journey, Moses stood before them and said:
“Take care that you do not forget who you are, where you come from and how you got here.”
Moses knew the power of story. He knew that if the Israelites did not remember the story of the exodus they would have nothing because for them, story is everything.
Just like the Israelites, the Church is a storied people; that is, our identity and purpose – who we are and why we are here – isn’t rooted in either dogma, denominational history, or even evolutionary anthropology. Rather, the soil of our faith is the story of what the Creator God is doing in our world through Jesus. It’s only with our roots deep within that story can we understand what it means to be human, what this world is for, and what our role is within it. Just like the Israelites, our story is everything; it’s there we understand to be human is to be gardeners who go out into this world with shovels and watering cans to cultivate God’s shalom around this world.
But perhaps the Church finds itself on the banks of another proverbial river. Perhaps, as we stand on the banks of this river, we need someone to remind us, as Moses did, of the dangers of losing the plot.
My denomination, the United Church of Canada, has been losing the plot. I know we are not alone. Ecclesial amnesia is beginning to be a systemic condition, bringing about confusion and anxiety, and causing people to cling desperately to doctrine, scripture, social-justice, or anything else that triggers a memory or provides some over-arching purpose they can rally around.
But the thing is, not just any thing will remedy this amnesia. There is only one thing that will bring back our memory of who we are, where we have been, how we got here, and where we are going; there’s only one thing which can lead us westward back to our creational intent and purpose as the Church: that story of God we have been pulled into by faith.
Moses didn’t know it at the time, but what he was saying was essentially what we hear every time we break bread together. He was offering the Israelites an anamnesis, that part of the Eucharistic liturgy which calls us to remember our faith. Memory is a power thing. As much as it brings us back to that past moment, it also brings that past moment to us; remembrance allows us to experience things anew, it allows us to be transformed all over again in the present. The beauty of the anamnesis is that it calls us to remember the story of what God is doing in this world through Christ, of how, through grace, we have been pulled into it, and that it brings it all to the present, allowing us to find ourselves transformed and part of this hopeful plot of grace and restoration.
The remedy for ecclesial amnesia is not found in more stuff or in the nuancing of ecclesiology and contemporization of worship, but in finding creative ways to elicit and engage those memories of how God came down into our world and lives and showed us what it means to be human. It’s then, and only then, that we can begin to cross the river with the knowledge and hope that we are not alone, this is God’s world, there is a stunning conclusion awaiting us, and find there the strength to, with our shovels and watering cans, continue to pull shalom out of the ground and be the Church.