Shawn Logue’s Dec. 31, 2017 Sermon “Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot”

December 31, 2017
Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot
Speaker: Shawn Logue

READINGS

Luke 2:22-40

22 And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And inspired by the Spirit[a] he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

29 “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word;
30 for mine eyes have seen thy salvation
31 which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to thy people Israel.”

33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him; 34 and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,

“Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel,
and for a sign that is spoken against
35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also),
that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”

36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phan′u-el, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, 37 and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Letters to a Universalist – Philemon Robbins Russell p. 17-18

SERMON

On this day in 2010, my grandfather passed away at the age of 86 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. The last time I saw him was Christmas Day of that year. You may notice the last few years that I’ve been around here on Christmas. And even though it’s been 7 years, I admit sometimes it’s just hard to go home and that it’s a little bit easier to stay here and not think about it too much.

20 years ago, two weeks prior to Christmas, my grandmother passed away. She had dementia in her final years herself.

My grandfather was my father’s father and my grandmother was my mother’s mother. I’ll note as an aside I still have one living grandparent – my father’s mother at the age of 90.
But there was a common theme in my grandparents from vastly different backgrounds – the loss of memory. My grandmother was a stay at home mom who immigrated to the United States from Ireland. My grandfather was a Yale law educated non-profit director that became a mayor and after politics became an arbitrator, not the expected field of choice for a former politician. He did try the stereotypical post-political roles of consulting and teaching a few classes at his alma mater for a brief time before becoming an arbitrator, but that didn’t last very long.
Having a bit more time with my grandfather, I could tell you a lot more about my relationship with him than my grandmother, but I can tell you both of them had very fundamental roles in my upbringing. When I was born, my mother was still in nursing school, and my grandmother was the primary go to caretaker for my parents when they were busy with school and work.

My grandmother’s role was most prominent in my younger years, reading me stories, singing songs, being the ever nurturing and loving presence. She was a devout catholic and would attend mass multiple times a week – mass really was the only thing that she left home for. She was quite content with being home.

She couldn’t be any more different from my grandfather, who was local celebrity in the city of New Haven, Connecticut. He hadn’t been mayor for nearly four years by the time I was born, but you would never know it when you’re a little kid seeing all the people coming up to your grandfather. Even in my early 20’s, the last time he was out in public, that really never changed. I just was more aware of who the current mayor was at the time.
But more importantly, my grandfather had an important role in exploring. Going to the park, going to the museum. Taking a walk outside every day no matter the temperature. But for all the education and sophistication, there was something that made him a little bit like my grandmother: a remarkable amount of simplicity. He had his routine stretches, the daily walk, and rounds of tennis – all pretty much regardless of the weather or the time of year. There was a sense of modesty and even a bit of disdain for being flashy or bragging. There are no buildings named after him, and I can tell you it wouldn’t bother him.

My grandparents were different people with different backgrounds and different goals. But they shared the loss of memory, and that brought about quite a bit of sadness to my family. The loss of my grandparents being themselves. The loss of their recognition of us. The loss of sharing our needs and receiving their wisdom. Seeing them physically but not feeling like they were there.

I remember a visit to my grandmother where she sang a song that had profanity in it. My grandmother so innocent she could be a saint. So devout to goodness, love and care. Who was she? My grandfather’s roaring intellect and think forward attitude had faded away. Sadly, as he progressed further, he reached the point that he couldn’t talk.

Of course, should old acquaintance be forgot is really a rhetorical question in the song Old Lang Sine. If you turn on the TV today or browse Facebook, you’ll see all the talk about the year in review. There’s an urge to look back immediately at what happened over the course of the year and think about some milestones that were reached. It’s incredible how much activity can happen in one year. But equally incredible is how somehow we can also feel how fast a year goes by. A year is so fascinating in those conflicting feelings.

Memories are an incredible part of who we are. And they have such an important role in those feelings. But beyond counting back time and our own experiences, memory over time has become more powerful when sharing stories and information, creating the society we have today. Our ability to learn and recall stories made religion possible as we understand it. As you heard in the reading from Luke this morning about a faithful follower named Simeon, memory had a deep role in sustaining life. Simeon was informed by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he saw the messiah. In this case, a memory and a promise empowered a will to survive.

While we have scripture and books, and even electronic devices to read stories nowadays, it’s important to remember that Christianity and Judaism relied heavily on oral tradition, where stories would be told and then passed on. In the time that Jesus dwelled as a human on this earth, the stories were written about it no fewer than 40 years later. Many writings pre-dating Christianity may have been hundreds of years old or more by the time they were written.

Aside from our memory to recall stories, both stories of our own and stories told for generations and beyond, there are all these complexities that come along with it.
Without the ability of memory, well exactly who are we? This is the question a Christian Preacher by the name of Philemon Russell took on in challenging Universalism in the 1800s, when the Universalist Church was a single denomination. He went as far as to say that there’s no purpose for an afterlife if we didn’t carry along the functions of our memory and our consciousness. And in effect, he is arguing that there is no possible way we could walk up to Saint Peter and ask for a ticket of entry to the pearly gates of heaven without being able to say something for yourself.

Dementia adds an interesting layer to the debate. We know that there are people living where their memory is partially and even fully diminished. We know that a person is still in existence without memory. And I’ll admit, it is a very difficult sight to see. I would even say it feels like the person you love isn’t there anymore. But yet, they are still living.
But it really challenges Russell’s thinking about our existence in the after-life. It may very well challenge many people to this day. Russell in the reading makes a reference to consciousness and that’s the part I find interesting. Consciousness as I understand it is something very distinct from memory. And in dementia, you will see the most pronounced example of consciousness with a wonder if any memory is present at all.

If anything, I may be inclined to agree with Russell about consciousness, but wonder why he would think a Universalist wouldn’t believe consciousness would stay with us.
With a healthy mind, we won’t recall every word or every action ever taken. But we know that throughout life, the conscience and the memory do indeed work together.

I ask for your indulgence in a hypothetical: if you had the ability to live forever, or even for another 100 years, would you make that choice? As the idea perhaps not of infinite life but of a much extended life becomes realistic, it’s definitely something to think about. I know that not everybody here will say yes and I probably wouldn’t say yes either. I could tell you why I wouldn’t say yes. Even though that would assume the cure of losing my mind in the literal sense, I’m pretty sure I would lose my mind in the figurative sense.

And with that I pose this possibility of life after death – the idea that our conscience and only our conscience remains. And that opens up the possibility for Universalism, but yet we still don’t really know for sure. After all, do we really understand how a conscience operates without a mind? If a conscience takes a bad turn or carries guilt, will that remain? Or would the absence of the mind eventually, even if not immediately, put the conscience at ease?

While our loved ones who pass on lose function of their own minds, they continue to have a prominent role in our minds, and will continue to as long as we live and our minds stay with us. Even while I watched as my grandparents lose their memory, their love, their affection, and the way they served as role models are etched in my memory. While my grandmother on one side and grandfather on the other led very different lives, I carry on and continue to learn from their wisdom. As I get older, I can see how important their influence was many years later.
After today, another year will only exist in our memories, along with all of the other experiences in our lives. Auld Lang Syne gives us an opportunity to start thinking about the present day. While it is fascinating to see what comes of our memories later in life or whether they exist in the afterlife, there’s still the present – our existence now. We pretty much all carry memories with us, both good and bad. We pretty much all have feelings we want to keep and memories we’d like to put behind us.

Here’s hoping the new year will bring us some cheer, knowing the challenges of life will continue on. Whether you forget your old acquaintances or not, take a cup of kindness for auld lang syne.