Forgettable

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

At the beginning of his career, Sigmund Freud had to battle many skeptics who challenged his theories of psychoanalysis.

One of the most controversial of Freud’s views was the idea that some mental illnesses derived from repressed memories of traumatic events that happened in childhood. A man might not be able to remember being cruelly punished as a child, — but his psychological fears and obsessions were evidence that something harmful did occur in his past.

Freud later backed away from this theory. Instead, he hypothesized that the troubled people who came to him were damaged by fantasies. They imagined traumas like being hurt by one of their parents—though these traumas didn’t in fact occur.

This later point has been accepted into our modern understanding of what human beings are like. We’re now well-aware of how past events can poison our souls—even when our conscious minds have forgotten those events.

At some unconscious level, these experiences can remain with us and harm the ways we live today.

More recent suffering can also linger in the mind after we would expect the pain to be forgotten. A friend of yours stops returning your phone calls; you realize that your relationship is over. Yet months later, whenever you pass a restaurant where you used to meet, you think of your former friend, and you find yourself getting angry.

You realize that you’re still mad at someone who plays no role in your present life. You have other friends now. In reality, you’re doing fine without your former friend. And yet the rejection still lingers.

And in addition to memories of childhood and adult traumas, we can also be harmed if we think too much about past good times! Consider the middle-aged man who punishes himself in endless workouts at the gym. He’s engaged in a vain attempt to recapture the physique he once had in college. He can only imagine himself as the muscular young athlete he will never be again.

St. Paul, in today’s Second Lesson, says he has no interest in either past pains or in past gains. He writes: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

“Forgetting what lies behind.” Isn’t it curious that, to outsiders, Christianity seems to be the opposite–looking backwards rather than forward? To non-Christians, our faith can seem to be hidebound. We appear to be caught up in the past, obsessed with preserving old doctrines at all costs.

But as St. Paul’s remark shows, this is not how the early Christians saw their faith. Followers of Jesus wanted to put the past behind them who they could build the Kingdom of God.

And at many times in our later history, Christians have rediscovered this commitment to God’s future and sometimes, radical reform was needed to break with tradition.

One such reformer was the saint whom we honor today, St. Francis of Assisi. Francis rejected his noble birth, casting off his elegant clothes and renouncing his wealth and social position. Leaving his parents’ house, he lived for the rest of his life as a kind of holy vagrant.

Francis’s break with his past allowed him to be more and more alive to the present. 800 years ago, he embodied a quality prized by us modern people: the quality of“openness.”

Francis was open to new relationships—he famously talked to birds and had mystical communications with animals. He was open to a new relationship with money—he would beg each day for the food he needed to survive.

Most important, Francis was open to the Spirit of God. He loved the Church, but he also realized that the Church wasn’t an end in itself. Rather, it was a means to richer, fuller life. Christians who find God in the sacraments of the Church can also find God in the animal kingdom, or in what Francis called “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon, the splendor of creation.”

For us who aren’t saints, such freedom to change is harder to come by.

The past weighs on us — like Paul, we may be trying to live up to high marks on our resumes. Conversely, we may not be able to forget the black marks—mistakes that we can’t forgive ourselves for making.

But perhaps, like St. Paul, we can put the past behind us if we have something to look forward to. “Forgetting what lies behind,” Paul says, “I press on.” Paul presses on toward “the call of God in Christ Jesus.”

The future after all is where our lives will be lived.

And for Christians the future is in Christ: “the call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Francis found this prize. The way he interpreted his call was unique – but we can still share his vision.

Francis was driven by hope. He was able to imagine a world where the rich took care of the poor. A world where humans cared for the other members the animal kingdom. And the remarkable interest people have in St. Francis—he’s surely today’s most popular saint—the interest in Francis surely comes from his amazing openness.

Because he was so aware of God’s creation, he was able to love life all the more. A great example for each of us. Hope allows us to put behind us events that are best forgotten, so that we can move on into God’s future.

Openness is also an essential value for us as a congregation. The consultant who is helping Incarnation in planning for our future growth has noted an important fact about religion today. Most people have lots of interests to occupy their time and they have plenty to do on Sundays.

So we can’t simply open our church doors and expect people to come through them. We need to reach out to people to tell them about our work.

Our “Open Church” this afternoon will be our latest attempt at Incarnation to look forward. We don’t want to forget our past. But at the same time that we preserve our rich history, we also look forward to new challenges.

Like St. Francis, we want to be open to the future. And like St. Paul, we want to “press on,” following “the call of Christ.”

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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