There are some very strange world records, and I think that I found the strangest: “World Record for the Longest Surviving Headless Chicken.” The entry reads: On September 10th 1945, a chicken belonging to Lloyd Olsen of Colorado, had its head chopped off, but went on to survive for 18 months. The chicken’s owner, fed and watered the headless chicken directly into his gullet using an eyedropper throughout that period. Celebrity status was guaranteed when a manager took the chicken on a national tour. “Gone but certainly not forgotten,” the entry continues, the chicken’s life is celebrated each year by Colorado residents, who simply remember him as, “a big, fat chicken who didn’t know he didn’t have a head.” The chicken is dead, but it lives on in the memories of those who celebrate it!
Mind you, no one has a skill of remembering like Dominic O’Brien whose fame is secured in the Guinness World of Records for memorising on a single sighting a random sequence of 54 separate packs of playing cards all shuffled together. O’Brien managed to correctly recite (in order) the 2,808 playing cards which had been shown to him. It took him 11 hours 42 minutes to memorise the 54 packs, and then 3 hours and 30 minutes to recite them in the exact sequence.
Our memories, whether we use them to re-live the life of a headless chicken, or to recite packs of playing cards, or simply to remember what we need at the shop’s, are amazing things. Which leads me to ask this morning, knowing that that is the case, whether you remember the readings from the Bible which we heard just a few minutes ago? If I asked you, which I’m not going to, would you be able to tell me, for example, the central message of the Gospel reading which we have just heard? And if the answer is “yes,” – if it is held in your memory at the current time, will you be able to remember it tomorrow, and the next day? Of course another way of finding out how much of what we do in Church is being retained in our memories, for use in the rest of our lives, would be to ask if anyone remembers what my sermon was about last Sunday, or if anyone has been able to apply it during the week. That’s a dangerous question for a preacher isn’t it?
Now I need to tell you that my memory is hopeless, I would not be able to remember the sequence of 5 playing cards, let alone a few thousand, and when I was pondering this question, I had to look on our website at last week’s sermon to find out what it was about, I simply could not remember it, even though I was the one who wrote and preached it. Its not that I don’t pay attention when I read from the Bible, its not that I am not committed to wanting to know what the Church remembers Jesus saying. Its not even that I don’t find it interesting. The simple fact is that I read words each day from the Bible, which are pregnant with the eternal good news of God – and then I forget them. And unless I consciously remind myself to focus on them, the things of God which find their focus in prayer, and in Bible-study and in worship, and in living together as the Body of Christ, glow for a moment and then fall partly or totally asleep. And that’s true not only of the words I hear but of the faith that I believe.
I came to our Gospel reading today with a sense of horror, because here again in the words of Jesus we find another of those ideals which it is so difficult for us to live up to. The option was there of course, to focus on the lost sheep in the story, who is sought out by the shepherd and brought back to the fold with much rejoicing – and I am thrilled that our kids are hearing this morning that that shepherd is like God who seeks out each of us, in order to bring us home – but to focus on that story and not to make comment, this morning, on the rest of the Gospel passage which we heard, would somehow be taking the easy escape route for us all.
Jesus is teaching about right relationships – he’s talking about the Kingdom of God, and how in that Kingdom, people should relate to each other with love and understanding, in a spirit of reconciliation. Just as he has taught people to listen to God his Father, now he is teaching them to listen to each other. And at the heart of what Jesus has to say about disputes within the Church – which can equally be applied to disputes within our families, or where we work – is the idea that reconciliation is the key to living out a life of abundant love for God and for each other. The summary of that text, for us to take away with us today, is something like this: If someone does something wrong which hurts you, don’t let it fester, but go to them before they even come to you, and if they listen to you, you will be reconciled. But if they don’t listen, don’t give up there, take others with you so that together things might be resolved. It seems to me that Jesus’ way of doing things, is as ever, the opposite to what we find ourselves doing. How often – not just in the Church but in our families, and with our friends and work colleagues, do we start by telling others what someone else has said or done, rather than going straight to them with the aim of resolving issues, and being reconciled to one another?
The theological college which I lived in in Oxford, when I was training to be a priest, sometimes reached boiling point over the issues which were important to those of us who lived there, and which divided us. Different groups within the College drew battle lines about which Prayer Book should be used for our daily worship, whether women should be invited to celebrate the Mass, whether gay men should be allowed to train for the priestly ministry, whether we should speak or be in silence at breakfast… the list just went on and on. And whilst the issues might not have any significance to you, I am sure that you can imagine the tensions that went along with them! The two largest groups in the College were the traditionalists, who wanted everything to be as it had been in the past; and the modernists, who wanted to open up the Church to doing things in a new way. Does that sound familiar to any of you? And both the groups had names – names which they used for themselves, and names which they called the other group. You might not believe it, but this is what life was like in a priests’ training college. And I remember in my first year of living there, a priest who had been invited to come as a preacher at one of our services, tried to help us to live alongside each other, in the manner which the Church expects and which Jesus sets before us by his example. And his sermon was quite brilliant and inspiring, but it wasn’t ten minutes after the end of that service that I heard one of my colleagues, in our cloisters saying to another, “that really told it to the traditionalists didn’t it.” And I can only imagine that in another part of that College someone was saying the same thing in reverse.
I wonder if you have ever done that? I know that I have. Not perhaps over the same issues, but disputes within this Church family, the body of Christ: unsympathetic words about another member of the congregation, assumptions about those who hold different views from our own. So often we suffer the forgetfulness which puts worldly standards above God’s standards. So often we listen to ourselves and not to others in a way which only reinforces our pre-conceptions. So often we forget that all of humanity is equally made in the image of Christ.
In our Old Testament reading we heard the wonderful story of the preparation for the first Passover when God brought his people, out of slavery in Egypt and on towards the promised land. And that reading ended with a call to the Hebrew people, to remember what God had done for them, throughout every generation. But it wouldn’t take us long, if we read on in the Book of Exodus, to find out how quickly those people began to forget God’s faithfulness to them. Some of you will remember the story – the people are freed from slavery, and they end up in the wilderness, as they journey towards the promised land. And no sooner have they escaped from slacery, than they begin to grumble, “oh,” they say, “life wasn’t all that bad when we were in slavery – now God’s brought us out here to die.” And they abandon God and began to worship other things, which they make out of silver and gold. That continual cycle of forgetting God, and then being brought back to God, and then forgetting again and following other gods, and being brought back to God again, is central to the story of the Hebrew people. And we read that story as Christians for ourselves, because the history of the Israelites is a mirror of our own lives.
Which brings me back to where we started, thinking about memory and remembering. We are people who so easily forget – I’m not talking about memorising playing cards, or being able to remember the key points of sermons. We are people who forget the love which God has for us, and therefore which we should share with one another. But the good news of all of this – if you read on in that story in the Book of Exodus – is that in the middle of our forgetfulness, we can be sure that God remembers us. In the middle of our wanderings, Jesus assures us in the words of today’s Gospel reading that he is among us. That is why we are called to live lives which are open to reconciliation and love, one with another. Because our lives are not just any old lives, when we come together, we are Jesus’ life – we are the Body of Christ. God is amongst us. When we forget God, God remembers us.
This morning we welcome Erin and her parents to become a part of that life with us. And we do that in our central act of coming together for worship, because whilst Erin won’t remember what happens today, we will remember it on her behalf. Because as we welcome Erin for baptism, we welcome her into the Body of Christ, and that isn’t just a special event for her, it is a moment of significance for us all. And if God is here with us in the midst of our sacraments, as we believe, then this baptism isn’t just an event which relates to Erin and her family. The rest of us don’t just watch on from a distance as we see others come to baptism. We remember for ourselves the ongoing and unconditional love and acceptance of God, which baptism symbolises not just for her, but for all of us as well. That remembering alerts us to the responsibilities too which life in Christ, (which is life in his body – the Church) brings upon each of us.
In response to God’s love, we are called to be people who remember God not just on Sundays, but every day, and to lives which seek to share that love with others. So this week, don’t be like that headless chicken: remember God, remember God’s love for you, and live out God’s love for others treating them as Christ would treat both them and you. That’s the challenge for us all.
May God bring us with Erin through the cleansing waters of baptism, towards his altar of love again afresh this morning.