The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

CHRISTIAN AMNESIA

Delivered 7/1/01
Text: I Corinthians 11:17-26
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Some years ago a book was published with the intriguing title, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.(1) It sounds like something from Dr. Seuss but was written by a neurologist, Dr. Oliver Sacks. It recounts the history of a man whose memory had been obliterated by Korsakov's Psychosis, a mental disorder (often prompted by acute alcoholism) which may or may not get better. When Sacks would visit Mr. Thompson in the hospital, he writes, the man "would identify me -- misidentify, pseudo-identify me -- as a dozen different people in the course of five minutes...He remembered nothing for more than a few seconds. He was continually disoriented. Thompson built bridges across the "abyss of amnesia" that opened continually beneath him, Sacks recalls, "by fluent confabulations and fictions of all kinds, one moment speaking as the delicatessen-grocer he had once been, the next as an imaginary Reverend, continually improvising a world around him..."

The destruction of Mr. Thompson's memory drove him to this strange, desperate tale telling because, as Sacks theorizes, "to be ourselves, we must HAVE ourselves -- possess, if need be re-possess, our life stories...a man NEEDS such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self." Human nature appears to be so structured that without a continuity with the past, our lives would feel random and totally topsy-turvy.

To be sure, all amnesia is not drug- or alcohol-related. Some is due to injury or disease...Alzheimer's. Some comes naturally with age as a brain becomes stuffed with so many memories that, like an overloaded computer, some of what we try to access is no longer easily located on the disc - in my own life I call it a "senior moment." Some memories are too painful to recall, so we engage whatever mental powers at our command to keep them buried. But as Dr. Sacks' work says, when some of our history is blotted out, some of US is lost in the process.

I wonder if that might not be a problem in the church. What brings that to mind is the word we read in scripture from the Apostle Paul concerning the Lord's Supper. It seems from what he writes that the good folks at First Church, Corinth were having some trouble in the congregation. Cliques had formed. Divisions between rich and poor had sprung up. As they gathered for worship from week to week and sat down to the common meal they regularly shared to commemorate the Last Supper, there was no sense of "communion" - it was a caricature of the big family with everyone diving toward the fried chicken at the same time with the one with the short arms being left with the empty plate. Hardly appropriate for a church, would you say? Paul thought not. He blamed it on a sort of spiritual amnesia - they had forgotten what the Lord's Supper was all about. "This is my body...this do in remembrance of me...This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this...in remembrance of me. Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's DEATH until he comes."

In a way, Paul's choice of words might be surprising. Why would he not have said, "In eating and drinking, you proclaim Christ's RESURRECTION?" After all, is not the resurrection the focus of our hope? Do not the modern liturgies open the Communion service with "This is the JOYFUL FEAST?" Where is the joy in emphasizing something as morose as DEATH? We would rather focus attention on something more pleasant.

The modern church needs Paul's reminder. True, no one is elbowing his way past another to get to the table as in Corinth, not for the cube of bread or the sip of juice. But remembering Jesus, and in particular his horrible death, are not at the top of our mental agenda. We too seem to have developed a Christian amnesia. The cross has become a lovely gift of jewelry to be worn on a chain around the neck or a shiny golden symbol to be displayed prominently in the front of a sanctuary. No longer is it the vivid reminder of suffering and sacrifice endured on our behalf. Perhaps that is why so many church members evidence a kind of take-it-or-leave-it religion. They forget what was done for them on that dusty hill so long ago. As has been said, a clear conscience is often the product of a cloudy memory.

At this time of year, as we recall our nation's birthday, I am reminded of a scene from the Revolution. A father took his son up to the top of a hill overlooking a valley where the American patriots had just driven the British back with sacrificial courage. Before the father and his son lay the battle-ridden valley; the smoke of the cannon still lingered in the evening sky; the stench of dying flesh hovered heavily in the air; the moans of injured young men, cut down in the prime of their lives, sanctified the silence; the blood of the bold stained the snow-covered ground. The father placed his arm about the shoulder of his son and said, "Look long and well, and remember, THIS is the horrible cost of your freedom."

I am told that in the sign language used by the deaf, the way to say "Jesus" is to make an imaginary nail print in the hand. In this day of comfort and convenience, of padded pews and comfortable sanctuaries, of religion designed more to make us feel good than be good, we need the reminder that the center of the Christian faith is the symbol of agony. "Look long and well, and remember, THIS is the cost of your salvation."

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life my all.(2)

Of course, the cross is not the end of the story. Neither our memory nor Paul's stops with the Lord's death. Thus, we gather at the table on Sunday, not Friday. The concluding phrase of the apostle's sentence is instructive: "Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death...UNTIL HE COMES." The final word is victory...over every enemy, even death. The Lord's Supper is not simply a sad memorial meal; it IS a joyful feast, and our host is the risen Savior.

But for us who gather at the table today, the words, the bread, the juice can be a desperately needed antidote to our amnesia. If Dr. Sacks is correct in saying that when memory is lost, some of US is lost as well, we can ill afford forgetting that horrible cross. It is a vivid reminder of the incredible lengths to which the Lord went to bring us to himself and at the same time is a challenge to live as people worthy of such a sacrifice.

The great cellist Pablo Casals was once teaching a student who was struggling through a piece of music she had played many times and had long ago committed to memory. She was doing a terrible job - much had been forgotten so she improvised as best she could. Finally, after suffering through it with her, Casals comforted her by saying, "That is all right. Everything should be new every time you play it."(3) May it be the same for us as we come once more to the Lord's Table.

Amen!


1. Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, (South Yarmouth, Ma. : J. Curley, 1986). Ten years later it was reintroduced as a musical, "The man who mistook his wife for a hat" : chamber opera / Michael Nyman ; libretto by Oliver Sacks, Christopher Rawlence, and Michael Morris, London : Chester Music ; Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk : Exclusive distributors, Music Sales, c1996

2. Isaac Watts

3. Clifton Fadiman, Gen. Ed., Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, (Boston, Little, Brown, & Co., 1985), p. 106

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