About twenty years ago, an Australian priest living and working as an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa received a letter-bomb in the mail that took both his hands off and left him blind in one eye and seriously burned. As his body recovered, as well as it could, Fr. Michael Lapsley realized that another part of him had been wounded too: his memory, which now carried the indelible story of this violent act against his person. He began to learn to use the prosthetics at the end of each arm, and to cope with his one-eyed vision. But what about his memory, which threatened to leave him more permanently wounded than his other, more obvious injuries?
Several years ago, Fr. Lapsley preached a sermon in which he asked this: “Do you know about bicycle theology? It is when I come and steal your bicycle. A few months later I come back and ask for forgiveness for stealing the bike. I am forgiven, but I keep the bike. Sometimes we reduce forgiveness to saying sorry and we don’t return the bicycle. Sometimes however, the bicycle cannot be returned.”
He goes on, “As I stand here today, I don’t know who made the bomb [that so injured me], who posted it, and who gave the orders. I am not full of hatred, and I do not want revenge. But I have not forgiven anyone, because so far there is no one to forgive.
“Perhaps [some day] the doorbell will ring and a man will tell me: I sent you the letter bomb, please will you forgive me. Now forgiveness is on the table. Perhaps I would ask him if he still makes letter bombs. No, I work at a local hospital, he replies. Yes, I forgive you, and I would prefer that you spend the next fifty years working in that hospital rather than be locked up….
“Dear sisters and brothers,” Fr. Lapsely asks, “do you have bicycles that need to be returned? Do you carry poison in your heart because you have not yet shared what happened to you, perhaps many years ago?”[i]
One of the most commonly dispensed prescriptions in life is the instruction to forgive and forget: an approach that seems to be born of a near-total lack of understanding of either forgiveness or forgetting, both of which can be very difficult.
Forgiveness and memory are both on the table when a criminal (I think of him as a young man), hangs dying on his own cross beside Jesus, and says to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Forgiveness and memory.
We are living in a world full of memories that are in desperate need of healing – because we have littered the world with the limbs we have blown off each other, the lives that have been destroyed, the carelessness with which we treat our neighbors, the injustices we tolerate on a daily basis, the hatreds we allow to fester. Some of us have stolen bicycles, others of us have had our bikes stolen, and generally the landscape is strewn with the spare parts that are left scattered around, and the poison is still carried in too many hearts. So what are we to make of a criminal who turns to Jesus and says, “remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus, remember me.”
Do you think that Jesus remembers you? As you come to church and offer your prayers, carrying with you the memory of the bicycles that have been stolen from you, or that you have stolen and never returned, do you think Jesus knows who you are, recognizes your face, remembers your crimes, holds them against you, feels your pain, cares enough to ease it, sees your memories, wants to forgive you, wants you to forgive, thinks you can forget? Do you think Jesus remembers you?
With such wounded memories, it can be hard for us to believe that God regards us very much at all. And when we think of God enthroned in the heavens, or of Christ the King, as the church invites us to do today, we can easily be misled: we can easily begin to imagine that we are mere spectators who have gathered on the parade route to whatever royal event it is that Jesus makes his way to in a horse-drawn carriage. We know we are supposed to be cheering, waving the flag, and just be happy to catch a glimpse of this sight, so we can tell our grandchildren that once we watched the king pass by and felt our heart swell with national pride.
But the poison in our hearts – that has seeped out of our bleeding memories - makes it hard to cheer as loudly as we think we ought to; hard to swell with much pride at all. After all, how could Jesus remember me? How could he even see me in this crowd? How could Jesus remember me? And what could he do for me if he did remember me?
When we say that Christ is king, we are not affording him a royal retinue and resigning ourselves to a place on the sidelines of his occasional grand parades through the city. When we say that Christ is king, we are adding to our hearts the memory of his kingdom, which is the antidote for the poison that has been seeping there. And Christ is not king because he is the mightiest warrior or the triumphant leader, he is king because he alone has a perfect memory.
This is to say that Jesus remembers you and me perfectly. He remembers the hurts we have inflicted, and the hurts that have been visited on us. And he remembers the imprint of God that was given to each of us as we were made. He remembers how our memories have been wounded, and he wants us to allow his perfect memory to heal those wounds, by allowing him to carry them in his memory, rather than for ourselves, since they are really too heavy for us to bear.
We live in a society that too often thinks it can say whatever it wants, utter any lie, inflict any pain, invade any space, disrupt any peace, violate any loyalty, steal any bicycle if only we think we can get away with it. And often this proves to be true: often we can get away with murder or lesser crimes. But do we realize what we are doing to our memories as we shape them with such poison?
Two men hang on their crosses beside the dying Jesus: one of them refuses to confront his memory, but the other cannot escape his even at this last hour, especially at this last hour. And that man turns and asks, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
We often suppose that our worship of God is an act of our willful remembering of Jesus, as we tell his story, repeat his words, eat and drink the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. And, in some small way we are remembering Jesus this way. But more importantly, Jesus is remembering us when we gather around him. He remembers each of us perfectly, down to the number of hairs on our heads. He remembers the things we cannot remember any more, and wish we could. He remembers the things we wish we could forget. He remembers our pain, our suffering, and our sins. He remembers our joys and our delights. He remembers our happiest days and our saddest ones. He remembers our best selves and the worst possible versions of ourselves. He remembers every bit of us perfectly as he makes his communion with us. He remembers the bicycles that have been stolen – who they were stolen from and who did the stealing. He remembers the lost limbs, the scar tissue, the burns, the blindness. And he remembers the poison that still lingers in our hearts.
He knows that we wonder whether or not he will remember us. He hears us whenever we call out, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. And it delights him to hear that even in our distress we have remembered his kingdom: that there is a holy realm, sometimes near at hand, where he is king, and where his perfect memory has healed the battered memories of countless souls; where it has displaced the poison that we tried to carry around as if it wouldn’t kill us.
Dear sisters and brothers, do you have bicycles that need to be returned? Do you carry poison in your heart because you have not yet shared what happened to you, perhaps many years ago?
You can begin to heal your memory by telling this to Jesus today, as you make your way to his altar, to receive the gift of his Body and Blood, and discover that the poisonous memories that have been making you sick to your stomach (or worse) are healed by the memory of a kingdom yet to come where Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords, and he remembers that you are his most precious child, and he wants you to inherit the kingdom.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
21 November 2010
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] From a sermon preached by Fr. Michael Lapsley, SSM at Evensong, Westminster Abbey, 5 November 2006, text found on www.healingofmemories.co.za