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


Delivered 10/9/05
Text: Numbers 14:1-10a
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Some of you may remember the name John Gilbert, a famous actor of silent film days, a "sexy" leading man. His career declined with the advent of "talkies" because his high, thin voice was not at all what folks had imagined of this great screen lover. Gilbert was once called on short notice to play the role of the heroine's father in a Chicago production. He learned his lines in record time, but was still struggling to remember the name of his character, Numitorius, when the play opened. A colleague suggested simply remembering the book of Numbers as a mnemonic device. So, full of confidence, Gilbert rushed on to the stage that evening and delivered his opening line: "Hold, `tis I, her father - Deuteronomy."(1) That has nothing to do with the sermon (which should come as no surprise to you who have been around here these last five years)...I just mention it because our lesson this morning is found in the book of Numbers.

(READ Num. 14:1-10a)

Memories, memories. Happy Homecoming!

Memories light the corners of my mind
Misty water-colored memories of the way we were.(2)

However, there are a few caveats I would bring as we remember. Memories are not all "water-colored;" they sometimes can be right depressing. Memory sometimes can be faulty. And finally, there are some things which are just as well never remembered at all. Think about it.

Remember when the air was clear and the rivers were pure? Remember when people could walk alone at night without fear, when doors never needed to be locked, when drugs were something you got from the drugstore, and when we knew more about them than our children do? Remember when our little children were actually LITTLE children? Time flies. Depressing.

It is the same in the church. Visit in congregations around the country and hear things like, "I remember when the church was so full that we had to put chairs in the aisles every Sunday; now they rope off the back third of the pews...Wasn't it great when Pastor Smith was here - so kind and loving - I hardly know Rev. Jones...Remember that sweet Mrs. Johnson - now THERE was a Christian - taught Sunday School here for fifty years - her daughter doesn't teach Sunday School, doesn't even COME; she is the President of the local chapter of NOW...Remember when sermons were just about God and Jesus - now you've got sex and social justice in the mix." Depressing, huh?

But, there is another difficulty with memory. As John Gilbert could attest, memory is sometimes faulty. I read somewhere of a retired pastor who was giving a young seminary graduate some guidance on how to conduct his first wedding ceremony. He concluded with this instruction: "If, in the middle of the ceremony, you should forget the words, just quote the first passage of scripture that comes to your mind." Sure enough, during his first wedding, the young pastor lost his place and forgot what he was supposed to say next. Remembering the advice, he quoted the first verse that came to mind - "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Ah, memory.

That was the problem with the folks in our lesson. As you know, the nation of Israel had been in slavery in Egypt for 400 years. Now, suddenly, miraculously, they had escaped. To be sure, they were still unsettled - they were in transit in the wilderness. Life was not easy by any means, but at least the beatings and back-breaking labor and even murders had stopped. "Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty, Free at last!"

Now, they had come near to their new home in Canaan. A dozen spies had been sent in to check things out. But they had come back with mixed reports. "Yes, the land is as fertile as can be, but the inhabitants are GIANTS...they will clobber us. Forget it."

Scared those people to death. Scared them so bad that they wanted their old slave life back again. "Gee, the chains were not so bad...the whippings did not last all THAT we had to make bricks without straw - a little hard work never hurt some of our babies got killed - we had enough mouths to feed least in Egypt we had more of a menu than birds and these stupid biscuits that keep falling from the sky - quail á là king all the time, YUK...we got our water from the river, not from some idiot who goes around smacking rocks with a stick...when Pharaoh's daughter found Moses in the bullrushes, she should have sunk the boat. Take us back to Egypt. Give us the good ol' days again!" Ah, memories. Obviously, memory can be very selective. In the words of the song,

Memories may be beautiful and yet
What's too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget
So it's the laughter we will remember
Whenever we remember...
The way we were...
The way we were...(3)

Of course, as we know, there are times when memory SHOULD be selective. One psychology professor has said, "The greatest ability of the mind is remembering; but the second greatest is forgetting." Old failures, old hurts, old injuries do little for us if they are remembered so vividly that they paralyze or cast a cloud over future action.

The psychiatrist Alfred Adler used to tell of a group of people crowded together, trying to sleep on the floor of a great auditorium during the Second World War. One woman kept them all awake with her pitiful cries - "Oh, I'm so thirsty...SO thirsty...I'm SO thirsty." Finally, someone could not stand it any longer, got up in the dark and brought her a glass of water. They could hear the woman gurgle it down, but suddenly they heard her moaning again - "Oh, I was so thirsty...SO thirsty." Some people cannot forget.

Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, was noted for not holding grudges. She was once reminded by a friend of a wrong done to her some years earlier. "Don't you remember?" asked the friend. "No," replied Clara firmly, "I distinctly remember forgetting that."(4) One wishes that there were more like Clara Barton in our churches.

The Apostle Paul understood the problem. He had been through a lot...beatings, shipwrecks, physical problems, difficulties in the churches, in and out of jails. Most folks would have given up. Not Paul. His philosophy could best be summed up by something he wrote to his friends in Philippi while he was under arrest in Rome: "...this one thing I do: 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."(5)

Yes, memory can be depressing; it can be faulty; and it can paralyze progress. The British novelist Somerset Maugham, when nearing his 90th birthday, complained that "what makes old age hard is the burden of one's memories." But now, here we have Homecoming at First Presbyterian again, a day for memories. Maybe we ought to just forget about it.

No, not really. We need to do some creative looking back to give us some guidance for where we want to go. After all, as someone very wise once said, "Those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them." We do not want to go back to Egypt.

Yes, there are some things back there that might depress us as Presbyterians and Christians. Why are the churches not as full as they used to be? As you know, for years my annual practice has been to attend the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) - every OTHER year now. Each time we hear the same thing - membership loss...the continuation of a trend in mainline churches that has been going on for a generation, and this despite the fact that we have actually been taking in MORE members than we have been losing to death or transfer. In looking at the numbers we find that, for the most part, those we have lost did not leave us for other churches - they just left. That is depressing.

But it is also illuminating. It seems that evangelism is not our problem - we continue to allocate significant dollars and resources in the effort to reach people for Christ and the church. We HAVE been attracting people. But the most fertile field for the Presbyterian Church (USA) seems to be our own. If our congregations (including this one) could simply keep the folks they already have, declining membership numbers would be significantly turned around. That is a lesson we learn by looking back.

The faulty and selective memory of those ancient Israelites who wanted to return to slavery in Egypt is a problem we Presbyterians also share. Yes, we wish dear sweet Mrs. Johnson who taught Sunday School so faithfully for a half century could have kept her women's-rights-advocate daughter in the church. But we forget that Mrs. Johnson was never allowed to participate in the life of the church much beyond teaching Sunday School simply because she was a woman. A vast pool of commitment and talent was left some of it evaporated. Fortunately, that has changed now. We take much more seriously Paul's word to the church that in Christ, there is no male nor female. But if we wonder why folks drift away, a look at our past can give us a clue, not to mention some direction for the future.

What about those things that are best forgotten? The simplest thing, I guess, is to just forget them. I am not talking about old hurts or past insults (although they DO need to be forgotten), but rather old ways of doing things that critical reflection shows to have been less than effective. Forget the old ways, YES, but only after we learn from the mistakes. In learning from our history, perhaps we can rededicate ourselves and our message to the one thing that the church can do that no one else can - share what, on this or any other day of remembering, we recall as the faith of our fathers and mothers, the faith that brought First Presbyterian and thousands of other congregations like it into being in the first place.

Yes, remembering the "good old days" can be depressing, faulty, and at times, even paralyzing. Still, unless we learn from our history, we will long for the old life in Egypt, making the same mistakes all over again. But if we learn those lessons well, as we move into an always uncertain and challenging future, we will again share credibly and compellingly the good news of the redeeming love of our Savior - as Paul would say, "I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus."

Homecoming. "Swing low, sweet chariot, comin' for to carry me home." As you know, that song was sung originally by people forcibly and violently torn from their homes and villages in West Africa, transported in crowded, filthy ships, and finally enslaved in the United States. Those people, incredibly, accepted the religion of their oppressors as their own and refined it, made it better by remembering their actual home and their ultimate home in a God who never forgets about anyone; a God whose gracious love and mercy extends to every man, woman, and child; a God who, at the end of the day, welcomes all the exiles, all the wanderers, all the lost, all the captive, home again.

If you get there before I do
Tell all-a my friends I'm
Comin' along too
Comin' for to carry me Home.

Happy Homecoming.


1. Clifton Fadiman, Gen. Ed., Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, (Little, Brown, & Co., Boston, 1985), p. 241

2. "The Way We Were," from the 1974 motion picture, "The Way We Were" Recorded by Barbra Streisand, Written by: A. Bergman, M. Bergman and M. Hamlisch

3. ibid.

4. Fadiman., p. 42

5. Philippians 3:13b-14

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