Text: John 21:1-19
Date: June 20, 201
It’s still an odd feeling, being here, in this sanctuary, with all of you, looking out, seeing the empty spaces where Don & Elvira used to sit, no longer seeing Don Mellott next to Mary Beth, nor seeing Joyce and Sam, in the back. There is so much I miss about them all. Don & Elvira were often the first ones here; often arriving before the ushers. And Don always had something peculiar to say. Who now is going to drive the Family Promise van drivers, on Sunday mornings? With both Sam & Joyce, there is just so much to say. So much we all will miss. Who will greet us every Sunday with such a warm smile and handshake like Sam? Who is going to replace his humor? And Joyce, Joyce just served and served and served with such effortlessness. She adapted; she embraced new challenges; she always was pushing us to learn and try something new. And Don Mellott, every Sunday, he spoke the kindest words about my sermon. He always approached with the warmest smile. He had such an amazing way of relating to the youngest kids, and a heart of gold that cared for everyone he encountered. What a gift they all were. What a chasm their absence has created. We miss them all very much.
Did you know that Sam Hofer was the first elected head usher for Glennon Heights Mennonite Church? Or that Joyce Hofer was the first elected church historian? Both make perfect sense, do they not? Nominating team, you’d be amazed at how many elected positions there used to be in 1962, and each position used to have a run-off, of two, sometimes three people for each position. And while I’m not positive, I’m willing to wager that Sam Hofer owns the record as the church secretary who served Glennon Heights the shortest amount of time – under six months. As he was elected in 1963 and then ended up moving to Illinois, just a few months later.
And did you know that Don Schierling spent a considerable amount of time working with Glennon Heights in 1969 and 1970, just after moving here and becoming the conference’s urban minister? I have here a letter from 1970 from Don wrote to the entire church. In it he talks about his deep desire to help Glennon Heights be God’s agents in the city of Denver. In the letter, Don highlights three priorities which he hoped Glennon Heights would get involved in. The first is to embody God’s justice. Particularly, Don wants to help Glennon Heights work for racial and economic justice. The second is relevance. Don wanted to lead a study at Glennon Heights to help them explore the meaning of the Gospel in the twentieth century. And lastly, Don wanted to foster conversations which would help Glennon Heights better bridge their different understandings of faith.
Sadly in 1970, the church voted on Don’s proposal. And from what I can piece together from the records, the motion failed 25 to 24. It’s interesting to think about what might have been. However, those three initiatives, they sum up Don’s heart and passion, do they not?
I mention these examples because they are a small piece of our embodied memory. There are thousands of other interesting stories we could add about all who we are remembering today. And what I want to suggest today is that remembering is the central act of the Christian community. We gather each week to remember and worship a man who was deemed a terrorist by the state, someone those in power tried to erase from history, tried to silence from this world. We gather to make the story of an innocent man who was crucified available to our world. We gather to devote ourselves to the ministry of memory.
But we don’t just gather to remember Jesus; we gather to remember each other and all those who have worked to make this community, this tradition possible. Because as Mennonites, we don’t believe that faith is primarily about believing the right things or getting people to believe the same words. No, we believe that faith begins and ends with bodies. Religion after all comes from the word – religare – the root word that gives us words like ligament or tie. Faith is what binds our bodies together, and not just one another but also to our ancestors as well as to the babies and even those who will come after us. Faith is what connects us to a much larger story – to the lives and bodies of the multitude that make our worship possible and meaningful.
And the way we act as ligatures which link the past to those who will come in the future is through memory. It is by keeping the stories of Sam and Joyce, Don, Don and Elvira alive. It is by allowing their dreams and hopes to continue to reverberate through us. It’s by continuing the work, like Brothers, which they started. It’s by allowing their lives and stories to continue speaking, through us.
When I think of those who recently died, I think of people who understood the importance of sharing stories. I think of the conversations which Don Schierling and I had about growing up in Henderson; about the struggles he faced to live into a more radical, peacebuilding faith, about his time in PAX, about Brothers and the different ways he dared and sometimes failed to make his faith relevant today. The same is true for Joyce and Sam. They also saw memory as a sacrament. Because they knew that their identity, their faith was determined by the existence of a particular shared history – this Anabaptist world they loved so deeply. That’s why they never wanted to miss Mennonite World Conference, MennoCon, Annual assembly, faith and life forums. Because our history, our stories, our songs, these embodied memories are what enabled them to be the amazing people that they were.
However, there is a tension, a difficulty, talking about the importance of memory, when two of the people we are remembering suffered from dementia. Dementia is one of the most horrific diseases we humans must face. Because as humans we are storied creatures, with flesh and blood and histories. Stories are how we make sense of the world. It is the memories of people, places, and things that help give us barring in the world and enable us to make sense of what is happening around us. What happens when one slowly disappears into the far off land of dementia? When you lose the ability to place oneself in the narratives that are constitutive of your identity? Can someone still be who they are, without their stories?
Earlier in the service I made the claim that remembering is the central act of the Christian community. But over the last few years, as I’ve thought about Don, Elvira, as I’ve thought about family members and friends who have dementia, I’ve come to realize that while remembering is important. We do come to church to remember who we are and whose we are. But more important than this, we come to church because we trust that no matter what happens to us, no matter what life throws at us, God remembers us. Even if we can’t remember our stories, our identities, God will never forget us. For God remembers us always. That is part of what it means to proclaim that our God is a God of with.
We see this very clearly in our story from John 21. John 21 takes place after the resurrection. And the story opens after the disciples have made the decision to return: they go back to their nets, back to their old jobs, back to their life before Jesus. In other words, the disciples return to their earliest circumstances: it is as if Jesus had never been. They have buried their past; their memories; all the stories of their time with Jesus.
And in this story, Jesus returns to give the disciples back their memories. Jesus returns to show the disciples that even if they don’t remember who they are and all they did together, God will always remember. And it what is so interesting in our story is that it is only because God remembers them that the disciples were able to get their identity, their memories back. It was only because God remembered them, that they were able to resume being followers of Jesus.
No where do we see this more clearly than with Peter in this story. For in this story, Jesus asks Simon Peter the same question three times – do you love me? Why does Jesus ask Peter this same question three times? Because a few weeks prior, it was Peter who denied Jesus three times. And this detail leads me to believe that the reason that Peter is running from his past, the reason he has forgotten his experiences with Jesus is because this past ended with desertion and failure. But by asking the same question three times, Jesus helps Peter see that everything that happened, even his betrayal, is part of the past that makes Peter who he is. And that Jesus wants to give him back this memory to redeem it. To offer Peter another chance. Jesus remembers Peter, to show him that nothing will ever run their relationship. Jesus remembers Peter; in doing so he gives Peter his identity back and opens up for Peter the possibility of a more hopeful tomorrow.
In light of this story, what Jesus teaches me is that we are constituted in our identity and are stable in that identity, not because we are a people that remember, but because we are a people who are remembered. A people who are forever remembered by our God. Is that not what the great Pixar film, Coco, teaches us too? Sure memory is important. But what really saves Hector, what really gives him a stable life, what really brings him security is the fact that someone is able to remember him. Remember me. That’s Hector’s prayer and that’s our deepest prayer, too, if we are honest.
And the good news of Jesus is that nothing, not sickness, not death, nothing will ever stop God from remembering us. And because God remembers us, because God will always speak our name, ultimately we will always have our identities, we will always be given back our stories, our experiences, ourselves. More than anything, this is why we come to church, to remind ourselves that God will remember us always. We come to church because we are like the good thief on the cross – because what we really want is not for God to save us, but for God to remember us. The good news is that God always responds to us the same way God responded to the thief but telling us yes. That God will always remember us. For we will be with God always.
This is why the ministry of memory is so important for God’s people because we worship a God who always remembers. We worship a God who refuses to let death have the last word. A God who goes out of God’s way to return our memories, to return ourselves back to us, even when we forget.
Sara and Ignacio – so much of parenting centers on filling Elizabeth’s mind, body, imagination up with stories. Stories of her families; stories of her faith. Stories which enable Elizabeth to believe that a new world is possible, a world based on forgiveness, equity, equality, love and abundance. God’s world where black lives, latinx lives, women’s lives, indigenous lives matter. A world of liberation and hope. And one of the best ways to expand Elizabeth’s mind so that she can see God’s reign, here, among us, now is by telling stories about people like Don Schierling – someone who dared to follow a wild dream so passionately, until it became a multi-million dollar non-profit organization which helps thousands of marginalized individuals every year. Stories of people like Elvira, who oozed love and always seemed to find ways of bringing beauty and life into this world while taking care of everything. Stories about people like Joyce, someone who made radical hospitality seem so effortless. Stories of people like Sam who always found time to explore the sacredness of each person he encountered. And stories of people like Don Mellott, who refused to let dementia stop him from serving the church, teaching children, and caring for friends, family and strangers.
How you do this – that is the challenge and that is also the joy of parenting. Years ago, Mennonites told their children the stories of the martyrs as bedtime stories as a way of helping them understand this great tradition we are part of. And it was the grandmother’s task to always tell their grandchild the story of Dirk Willems on the day they chose to get baptized. Today maybe we also tell the stories of Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, Casar Chavez, Ella Baker, your grandparents, and the thousands of other people who have inspired you.
But above all, make sure you let Elizabeth know that the reason we tell these stories is because we worship a God who will always remember her. A God who will never let her go. A God who refuses to let death, or dementia, or broken hearts, or bad health, or anything else ever separate us from the one who is love. A God who will wrap her, and Elvira, and Don, And Sam, and Joyce, and Don, the many other loved ones we’ve lost, and us in God’s arms forever. For we are God’s beloved. That means God will remember us, always.