April 19th 2015 – Third Sunday of Easter
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you, Most Blessed Trinity. Amen.
Friday night, Meagan and I went up to the Everyman theatre in Hampstead to see the film ‘Woman in Gold’. We had heard very little about the film, mostly as we had not taken the time to really research it…if I am honest, we had free tickets for the cinema’s club seats and so we were not overly bothered by what we saw. We thoroughly enjoyed the film and found ourselves wrapped up in a story we had no previous knowledge of. The elderly Maria Altmann, played by Helen Mirren, is a Jewish Austrian refugee who escaped Vienna during the Second World War who settled in Los Angeles. The film revolves around her fight with the Austrian government to restore to her, her family paintings that were illegally taken by the Nazis. The primary she desires is a painting of her aunt, created by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, simply called ‘Woman in Gold’, that had since become, from the time of the war, an iconic image for Austria. For me, one of the most significant themes of the film was that of remembrance. This is a theme I find myself often thinking about, especially at this time of year as I strive to hear with new understanding the words of Jesus, ‘Do this in remembrance of me…’
This week, however, this theme has also come up for me in another place. I was listening to a new podcast this week, one from the States, called ‘Relevant’; it is a Christian podcast that engages with culture and society. One of their main hosts, Cameron Strang, had just come back from a trip to Lebanon and he was talking about his experience. He shared stories of the cultural and social mashup that is happening from the displacement of one and a half million Syrians (although most agree the number is actually closer to three million Syrians) into a country previously made up of four million people. Strang commented that even if the war in Syria were to end today it would be years upon years before the damage and brokenness could be healed and a sense of stable life established. He said it was the first time he had come back from a trip to a country in crisis, whether from natural disaster or war, when he had absolutely no idea where to begin to help. Strang also commented on the fact that every other time he had returned from one of these visits he always had a clear sense of where the money and resources needed to go to make a difference, but this time the sheer magnitude of the issue seemed to cast a shadow farther than he could see. All he could say was to support groups like World Vision Lebanon, although they are just a small drop in the ocean.
Easter is a season of constant remembrance, Jesus is not physically present before us being crucified, dying, buried, and then resurrected, and yet we proclaim and enact remembrance. Your theology of the Eucharist will shape what of Jesus is present in this action of memory, but regardless of how much on how little you believe Jesus to be in this sacrament, what is being called to mind is not necessarily the presence of Jesus but the call to remember the person and life of Jesus. In many ways, the church has been trying to live out this remembrance for two thousand years; sometimes more successfully than others.
I remember taking history classes in school and students asking the teacher why we learned about the things of the past, one time very explicitly asking why we learn about the two world wars. Our teacher said, as I am sure many others also said, ‘We learn about these things so that we remember where we come from, remember what has shaped us into the people we are today but also so we can remember our failings so that we do not make the same mistakes again.’ It has not been until many years later that I realised that I knew where we came from, I knew what had shaped us into the people we were today and I knew of our failings with the hope of not making the same mistakes again, but I did not remember all these things. Knowledge is something you posses while remembrance is often something that possesses you.
In our readings this morning we see examples of living remembrance. Firstly, in our gospel we hear of the actions and words of Jesus to his disciples, ‘Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.’ Jesus is revealed as the one they knew and would remember because of the marks on his hands and feet. Jesus eats with his disciples; although this reading does not have Jesus breaking bread with them the imagery is no less poignant, calling our own minds, and we can safely assume the minds of his disciples, to the last time Jesus ate with his friends. He then says, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you…’ A more explicit call to hear again and be reminded of that which has already been proclaimed to you. And our gospel reading simply ends with, ‘You are my witnesses of these things.’ We have no record of Jesus every writing anything down, he was relying on the words and works of his disciples to carry on his message and testimony.
In our reading from Acts we see this very thing taking place. Peter looks out to the crowd and begins by reminded them of ‘The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers…’ He locates their memory in the story of their people then reminds them off the tragedy of Jesus’ death which would have been fresh in everyone’s minds. This same Jesus who was crucified is the same person who is being testified to through Peter’s life – the verses in Acts which precede our reading tell of Peter praying, in Jesus’ name, for the healing of an old crippled beggar. It was not enough for Peter to know Jesus was who he said he was and was now resurrected, Peter’s life had to remember and proclaim it. Peter’s own mind would have been haunted by his denial of Jesus, but his life speaks of denial no more.
Strang is haunted by what he saw and heard in Lebanon, a haunting that has unsettled his dreams and waking moments. You can hear in his voice the sleepless nights and desperate attempts to find a solution. He told of the way he knew of what had happened, and what continued to happen in Syria, but by experiencing it he was unable to shake off the truth of what he knew.
In ‘Woman in Gold’ the lawyer, Randol Schoenberg, who takes Altmann’s case, begins his journey with the hope of helping his client reclaim her expensive paintings. It is only after he has visited Austria, walked the streets of Vienna and seen the painting that he realises their is something bigger at play. His own grandfather, a Austrian composer, had also fled Vienna and settled in Los Angeles, but for Schoenberg that was simply family history. Participating in reclaiming history for Altmann becomes the very action that sends Schoenberg into an unshakeable desire for reconnecting with the avoided memory of what so many in Austria had lived through in the Second World War.
In my life there are many memories that haunt me, ones that seem to posses me and shape my life so many years after they have been lost to my own history. Somethings I am able to relegate to knowledge, to easily dismiss them as things of the past, but others hold on tight as if they are so much more simple experiences. Our journey into easter is a time to look at the memories we continue to live out. To take stock of the experiences that possess our very lives. Peter denied Jesus and abandoned him before his death, but that is not the end of his story.
Easter is a time not simply to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus, but to seek that resurrection for our own lives, the life of this community and our country. As with Peter somethings need to be put behind us so that we may live a new life not bound by our past. While others need to be dug up from the realm of knowledge because there is work to be done if new life is to be found.