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


Delivered 10/1/06
Text: Deuteronomy 32:1-7
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Oft in the stilly night,
Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
Fond memory brings the light
Of other days around me.(1)

Memories...we like them...and we need them. And as those words of Thomas Moore remind us, we are comforted and instructed by them. That is why a day such as this is a GOOD day.

Memories, memories. Memories are important to us: they tell us who we are and from whence we have come; they remind us why we do what we do; and finally, they spur us on in the direction we need to go. In Macbeth, Shakespeare called memory "the warder of the brain." The KEEPER...the WATCHMAN. And with all that memory can do for us, it is an apt description.

Sometime back someone sent me the biographical sketch of a man, the Rev. Samuel Suther, a minister of the German Reformed Church in North Carolina in pre-revolutionary days. He had been born in Switzerland in 1722 and emigrated to America in 1739. Apparently, he was quite the fire-brand in advocating a break with the English king, and as such, got himself into all sorts of difficulties. He sounded like an interesting character, but I doubt that I would have given him much more than passing curiosity except for the fact that there was included in his story a list of his children. It turns out that Rev. Samuel Suther was my great-great-great-grandfather. That knowledge puts no money in my pocket, no eggs on my table; it accords me no special honor...but I am glad to have it. It gives me a sense of my own roots...who I am and from whence I have MEMORIES...and is another reminder that preaching runs in the family.

It has been said that people trace their genealogies back to either kings or horse thieves and then stop. Who THEY were and what THEY did challenge us to either live up to them or live them down. Our heritage becomes the shaper of our lives.

Our religious heritage does the same for us. None of us could say we are here today regardless of any spiritual influence that has come from our past. We look back to Godly mothers and fathers, to a sensitive Sunday School teacher or an understanding pastor who took us under their wing. Because of them, we learned that we are not here by accident - we were created in the image of God and have work to do, to "have dominion over," to manage God's creation. By the grace of God, our mentors continued to teach us, and we were led to a new life in Jesus Christ. Our past has very much determined our present. That is why knowing who we are depends on knowing from whence we have come. "Remember the days of old," says the lesson, "consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you."

One of the most valuable parts of our heritage is that it gives us REASONS FOR DOING WHAT WE DO. If we look back to the Reformers...the Calvins and Luthers and Zwinglis...we see a tremendous break. They rejected the practices of the Roman Church of their day because they said the church had FORGOTTEN her roots. They went back to the teachings of scripture and pointed out how far the church had strayed from historic Christian practice. Needless to say, they encountered violent opposition, but they remained firm in their convictions and the result is the protestant tradition in which most of us have grown up. We ARE what we ARE because of our memories of the past.

Sometimes, our memories force us to make changes in the ways we do things. Take worship, for example. What we do here today is very different from what might have been done in Presbyterian churches 150 years ago. There was hardly any congregational participation. The sermon would have been three times longer than what you are used to. The prayers would have been EIGHT times longer and worshipers would be standing while those prayers were delivered. The pew would have been even more uncomfortable than pews usually are. And since that combination could be more conducive to sleep than to worship, ushers were equipped with long poles fitted out with brass knobs on one end to nudge the nodding men, and feathers on the other to tickle the dozing ladies. People came to hate Sundays, and those BAD memories convinced us that changes had to be made. The result of those changes was much less longwindedness on the part of the preacher and much more participation from the congregation during the worship hour. Our memories have shaped what we do.

But even more important, the memories that we have...the memories of what God has done for us in creating us and giving us a job to do...the memories of what Jesus did for us by entering into human history and taking our sins on himself on the cross...the memories of our religious tradition as handed down from the Reformers...and even the more recent memories of parents and friends who nurtured us in the faith...those memories show us the direction in which we need to be headed as we move into the future.

On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur, there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for those in danger. Many lives were saved by this wonderful little station, so that it became famous. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding area, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews were trained. The little lifesaving station grew.

Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. So they replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in this club's decoration, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club's initiations were held.

About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, and some of them had black skin and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.

At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club's lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon life saving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast. So they did.

As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that seacoast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are still frequent in those waters, but now most of the people drown.(2)

What can we say about THIS station? If we ever forget who we are, where we have come from, why we do what we do, and what we need to do as we travel the road, the danger is that there are lots of folks who will end up drowned for all eternity. The challenge on this day of memories is a simple one...REMEMBER! As you come to the table, REMEMBER!


1. Thomas Moore, "Oft in the Stilly Night," Stanza I

2. Quoted in Howard Clinebell's, Basic Types of Pastoral Counseling, citing the source as Theodore O. Wendel in "The Ecumenical Review," Oct 1953

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