This was the sermon from our 140th Anniversary Celebration. We had an outsanding service, including many friends and family who had come back to celebrate with us, and a luncheon followed where we shared old stories from our Presbyterian churches in San Saba. The text for the sermon was Deuteronomy 6:4-21.
Remember Who You Are
When I was in seminary I worked at a church in New Jersey. During Sunday School one morning, our pastor introduced one of the older members of the church and then she asked him what he had in his pocket. He reaches into his pocket and he pulls out a little ragged piece of paper. Written down, he has an account of the best day of his life. He’s had that same little note in his wallet for more than 50 years. When it gets worn out he writes it again on a new piece of paper. And when she asked him why he carried that little note around everywhere he goes, he said, “I don’t ever want to forget those great things that happened to me.”
The Old Testament text I’ve chosen for today is one of the most important texts in the Bible. It begins with the Shema, the central prayer of Judaism “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” What follows is what Jesus called the greatest commandment in the scriptures: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
And then it gives instructions: “Keep these words that I am commanding you in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” In other words do not forget that the Lord is your God. Make signs for yourself. Go to great lengths to remember that you are God’s.
Why should we not forget? Because of the great things that God has done for us. The passage reminds people of God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob of a land of milk and honey and a covenant that would last generations. The passage brings up their spectacular escape from Egypt, the plagues God sent, and the parting of the Red Sea to escape Pharaoh’s armies. The message is that we should not forget what God has done for us. Because when we forget what God has done, we might begin to think that God can’t do anything for us now and in the future. We might try to find security and salvation somewhere else: in our own hard work, in money, in friends. We might look to some other god for comfort and salvation, and find ourselves empty and lost. Remembering where you come from helps you get where you are going.
This call to remember happens over and over again through the scriptures. Over and over again the biblical community is told to remember who you are and to remember who your God is. When the people are afraid of the Canaanites and don’t want to go into the promised land, God says,
“Just remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs and wonders, the mighty hand and the outstretched arm by which the Lord your God brought you out.” – Deuteronomy 7:18-19
“Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness.” (Deuteronomy 8:2)
“He made water flow for you from flint and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know” (Deut. 8:15-6)
When people need laws to help them treat each other with kindness and respect:
“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.” Deuteronomy 24:17-18
When they bring the ark into Jerusalem, David says,
“Remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered,” 1 Chron. 16:12
When they return from the exile, and the people rededicate themselves to the law which they had abandoned, Nehemiah tells them
“You performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh and all his servants and all the people of his land, for you knew that they acted insolently against our ancestors. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day.” (Nehemiah 9:9-10, part of a much longer passage of remembrance)
At every critical juncture the call is there. Remember where you come from. Remember what God has done. The miracles God has wrought, the salvation that God has brought. So that as you go into the future you do not go fearfully, but boldly, confident that what God has done, God can and will do again.
There is even a festival of remembrance established in Deuteronomy called the Passover. I was once at a Passover seder when I was doing interfaith work in New York, the seder is the big meal of Passover to teach the younger generations what the people went through in Egypt. There’s a part of the seder where they stop and they tell the story of the Exodus, and our Jewish teacher gets up to tell the story. And she didn’t start with Moses, or even in Egypt. She got up and said, “It all began with a man named Abraham….” And she told us just about the whole book of Genesis: the story of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob and Esau, and Jacob’s twelve sons and all of Joseph’s life, being sold into slavery and interpreting the Pharaoh’s dreams before she even got to Moses, and then she took a big breath and told the story of Shiphrah and Puah and every single one of the plagues and every time Pharaoh hardened his heart and the Passover and the people’s escape from Egypt across the Red Sea.
The point with all this is that knowing where you come from matters. Over and over the Bible says remember what God has done for you, and at major points in Biblical history the community gathers to do just that. And today we gather on our 140th anniversary for this exact purpose. We gather to remember what God has done for us and what God has done in this community. We gather to remember what we have built and what our parents and our friends built, and all the fathers and mothers of this church. We remember those who have their names memorialized on windows and plaques and those whose names have slipped our memory. The people who led the charge and those who made everything happen behind the scenes.
We gather to remind ourselves that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and that the only way for us to go forward is for us to remember where we came from. Not to go backward, but to remember all the good things God did for those who came before us and to imagine all the great things God will do through us. Because for the past 140 years God has done incredible things through Presbyterians in San Saba, going forth as Christ commanded, and baptizing all in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, reaching and teaching and preaching the Gospel, and planting seeds wherever they might grow.
The great preacher William Willimon talks about being a teenager. And he said whenever he would go on a date, his mother would say, “Don’t forget who you are.” Not “be careful” or “be back by ten,” or my parent’s favorite, “don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” but “Don’t forget who you are.” She wasn’t worried that young William would forget his own name or his address, but that out alone with his date, or at a party with his peers, he might lose sight of where he came from, the values in which he had been raised, and engage in some behavior that was not who he was. He might forget who he was. “Don’t forget who you are,” she said.
That’s what our passage calls us to. Put it up as a sign on your doorpost, bind it on your hands and on your foreheads, tie a string around your finger. Tell it to your children and tell it to yourself. God has done great things for you. Tell it when you are here and when you are away. God has done great things in this place, and that God is not done yet. Don’t forget who you are. And don’t forget whose you are, either.
 Willimon, William H. Remember Who You Are: Baptism, a Model for Christian Life. Nashville, TN: Upper Room, 1980, 105.