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Based on the Scripture readings:
John 11:1-17

2008 May 4
Seventh Sunday of Easter
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

In Memory of Hope

A few weeks ago, I heard a story that still lingers with me and touches me regarding a small village in China, where they have no written language but communicate in song. The village, Dimen, is populated by about two thousand Dong people, a small ethnic group.

Almost everyone in Dimen farms or practices a tradecraft like engineering rice paddies, and the area is 1000 years old. Many homes, huts really, stand on stilts because the river at the center of town can flood regularly, and strapped to the stilts at most homes are the caskets that will be used one day for the inhabitants because the river can flood regularly. In fact, when you are born there, the tree from which you will carve your casket is chosen and must not be used for anything else, which is a powerful image.

The Dong speak their own language, called Kam, but it has no written form. So all teaching is done in song. All culture, practical advice, technical knowledge, natural description, and interpersonal wisdom is learned in song. The schools teach in song, and you can go to the National Geographic website and listen to some of these, and they sound a bit like sacred harp or shape note singing to me. There are ritualized songs to welcome you, to describe how spring is like youth, how to keep invaders away, and much more.

Because there is no written language in Kam, there is no written history. And since a cell phone tower came to town in 2006, and times are changing, fewer and fewer people are learning the songs with one particular effect.

In Dimen there is one song, one hundred and twenty verses long, which tells the 1000-year history of the people. It is the only vessel for this history. But only two people still know the song. And one of them is sick. The other is in her mid-seventies.

Which got me wondering, how do we live when we don't remember our song?

You could say that 100 percent of Christianity is about vision and hope and yearning for the future, and in a way that is what I addressed last week when I talked about the essence of baptism.

You could say also that the other 100 percent of our faith is about memory, without which our future is rather untethered and prone to cultural definition, distraction, and even destructiveness. I don't pretend to be a mathematician here, nor do I want to pretend that faith isn't worth the calculus of 200% or 300% measures or more. My point is that I don't know how to live without a song of history andBack to top memory, which leads to our vision and hope.

In the Torah -- Deuteronomy 26 -- there is an ancient creed which may be one of the oldest oral songs in our scriptures. Every Israelite learned this. These days, divinity school students do. It goes like this: "When you come into the Holy Land, remember to say this. A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and God brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey." (Dt 26:5-9)

In the Gospel of Mark, there is a story that takes place two days before Passover concerning memory. Jesus was eating at the home of Simon the Leper, which tells you something amazing already, when a woman with a flask of pure nard -- expensive ointment -- anoints his body, to great controversy. Except in Jesus' mind: Jesus is thankful, and he utters one of the most famous lines in scripture: "Truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her." (Mk. 14:9)

A few days later, in Luke, Jesus took bread and gave thanks and broke the bread and said to his disciples "This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." (22:19)

Our heritage is filled with invitations to remember, and amazing assertions as we do. Deuteronomy reminds us of the fundamentally liberating character of God and how we don't really get where we are so much on our own but together. It reminds us how God brings us through danger and fear, in history, to hope. Now, since Judas is at that same dinner party in Mark, Mark's memory contrasts betrayal versus devotion, Judas versus the woman, and with a single jar of perfume Mark releases the sense that Jesus is royalty, that all our confessions need not be verbal but symbolic or practical, too, and that complaints about all this are often cloaks for false religion. Luke's communion offers us a model for Christian life in a loaf of bread: a life taken, blessed, broken, and given: a loaf that itself reveals our connection Back to top to creation and our call to feed the sheep. If we remember our song.

As we take on new members today we are changing our tune a little bit. We must, because our harmony is now different and delightfully so. God is doing a new thing. But we are also charged to remember where we came from. Some of us here are old enough to have heard someone in our family say something along those lines. Armenian, English, Korean, Caribbean, and many others don't want us to forget. God doesn't want us to forget. Yet Americans like to forget. It's our blessing on one level: the gift of new life out of liberated self-invention. On another level it's our curse: the disconnection of liberated self-invention. So what do we do as American Christians?

While I actually know the answer to that question, I'm going to make you come back again and again to reveal it because, frankly, reunion, conversation, worship, mission, prayer, and vision are the answer, and they all take time. Christianity, ministry, even memory are not a quick fix but a convicted quest.

You could write a book about the eleven verses that we heard from John this morning, but you could also acknowledge that they include three central claims: God loves all humanity -- all flesh, says Jesus, and there are no stages of knowledge in knowing this God of love: it's all possible to see by seeing new life in Jesus, and this Jesus, this God, doesn't want us separate from the world, out of the world it says, but in the world, where we are and where we are called to be one.

That is our song. God's love for all, an equality of access for all, and an engagement of the world for all. I hope that we never lose this, for many waters cannot wash it away, and only distraction or disinterest can kill it off. So may God inspire our interest in each other, in Jesus, and may we be members together, in remembrance of Him.


Copyright 2008 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
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You can learn more about the Dong people at the websites of National Public Radio and National Geographic, which have sounds, pictures, and wonderful text.  The following links outside work as of 2008-07 but are not guaranteed:
National Public Radio:
National Geographic:

Parent page ] Sermon "Sacred Vessels" ] Sermon "No System to Save" ] Sermon "Entitled to be Thankful" ] Sermon "Welcome Food" ] Sermon "Waking Devotion" ] Sermon "Sitting at the Welcome Table" ] Sermon "Table Manners" ] Sermon "Speaking of God" ] Sermon "Singing New Songs" ] Sermon "Prepare the Way" ] Sermon "Here-ing God" ] Sermon "The Possibility of Possibility" ] Sermon "Sweet Creations" ] Sermon "Not at All Dead" ] Sermon "Planning, Praising and Pondering Palms" ] Sermon "March for Life" ] Sermon "Imagination, Dreams, and Vision" ] Sermon "Following the Magi" ] Sermon "Pushing Christmas" ] Sermon "Forecasts" ] Sermon "Ready for Christmas" ] Sermon "God in the Middle" ] Sermon "The Days to Come, the One to Come" ] Sermon "Earthly Healing" ] Sermon "Digesting Communion" ] Sermon "The Change of Prayer" ] Sermon "Unbreakable Body" ] Sermon "Seeing Clearly" ] Sermon "Right for Present" ] Sermon "A Change Agent" ] Sermon "What is Sabbath" ] [ Sermon "In Memory of Hope" ] Sermon "These Baptisms are Killing Us" ] Sermon "Wanting Prayer" ] Sermon "Last Minute Gifts" ] Sermon "Praying Well = Praying Much" ] Sermon "Peace Repent, Peace Remember" ] Sermon "Choosing Church" ] Sermon "A Model Church" ] Sermon "The Empire Struck Back" ] Sermon "Love is Patient and Primary" ] Sermon "Manifestations" ] Sermon "The Green Grace of God" ] Sermon "Signs of Sacred Things" ] Sermon "A Deal with the Future" ] Sermon "Free from Fear" ] Sermon "To Carry Each Other" ] Sermon " With God in Death; with Each Other in Dying" ] Sermon "Healing Prayers" ] Sermon "Facing God's Miracle" ] Sermon "Finding All Three" ] Sermon "Controlling Christmas" ] Sermon "Finding Jesus" ] Sermon "God as a Baby" ] Sermon "What Does It Mean" ] Sermon "Katrina's New Covenant Call" ] Sermon "Elevate your Expectations" ] Sermon "See: the Healing" ] Sermon "Lifeless Chaos and Living Creation" ] Sermon "Rapt Gifts" ] Sermon "Welcome to Reality" ] Sermon "Offering Up Thanks" ] Sermon "Blue State Blues" ] Sermon "Are we not entitled to thanks?" ] Sermon "Ancient Pieces of Peace" ] Sermon "Noticing Neighbors" ] Sermon "A Summer Day of Renewal" ] Sermon "A New Thing" ] Sermon "Breath of New Life" ] Sermon "Easter" ] Sermon "Sin: Currently Tense" ] Sermon "Why Are You Angry?" ] Sermon "Anxiety over Sin" ] Sermon "A Marriage Grade in Heaven?" ] Sermon "Isn't Marriage Gay?" ] Sermon "Expanding the Body of Christ" ] Sermon "Miracles:  Seeing More in our Midst" ] Sermon "Turning to God" ] Sermon "Why are You in Churchl" ] Sermon "Remember your Baptism" ] Sermon "Every Day Spirituality" ] Sermon "The Cross and Joy of Love" ] Sermon "Welcome Back" ] Sermon "Living Together" ] Sermon "Transforming Destruction" ] Sermon "The Work of Healing" ] Sermon "Peace" ]Back to top