Rev. Tasha Blackburn
May 27, 2018
On this Memorial Day weekend, I want to talk about memory. Specifically, I want to talk about stones. We have a tradition of sending flowers to a funeral or to the house of someone who is grieving. And we continue that tradition on holidays such as this one when we leave flowers at graves. Of course, Memorial Day started as a time to honor members of our military who had died but, for many of us, it has spread as a time to remember all who have died. So flowers are brought and arranged on many graves this weekend. And it is good to bring flowers because they remind us of life: its beauty, its fragility, its joy. But flowers are not the only traditional offering. So are stones.
You may have seen this tradition in person or, at the very least, you probably remember it from the end of the movie Schindler’s List. One by one, people walked to the graves and with their left hands, they set a stone on the grave. This comes from an ancient Jewish tradition that believes flowers are fine but a stone is the powerful thing to stack on a grave. And that is because flowers may remind us of life but a stone is all about memory. Flowers and life fade but memory, like a stone, remains and does not die.
This tradition may be why we have tombstones today. What began as a stack of rocks, became a pile with one larger rock engraved with information on it, which became the one large stone that we are used to today. No matter the form, that stone is all about one thing: announcing to all who pass, Come and see who this person was! Come and see what he was to me! Come and see what she has done. Our stones are a demonstration demanding we remember. They help us with memory.
The writer of Psalm 66 calls out the same demand to remember. He says, “ come and see what God has done: he turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot.” The writer remembers that God showed up long ago when the people were escaping from Egypt and God parted the Red Sea. He also remembers when, years later, these same refugees were able to walk across the Jordan River on foot into the Promised Land. In these moments of confusion and fear, God had shown up and changed their lives forever. So “come and see what God has done” the writer sings.
That Jordan River passing into the Promised Land may be the beginning of stacked stones. Once the people had passed, if you remember, God told them to stack 12 stones there for the specific reason that people would wonder what they were when they walked by and they would ask. And, in the asking, the people would be given the opportunity to tell their faith story again.
The psalm writer does not just believe God showed up for the Israelites in the past. He believes God showed up for him too. Perhaps not in such a showy way as a parted Sea but, he says: when I was burdened and beat up, God showed up. “Come and hear, he sings, come and hear and I will tell you what God has done for me.” Not just for people long ago, but for me.
When God shows up, we want to remember it, and that attempt to set the memory is an Ebenezer. Ebenezer means “stone of help” and it is when you stack stones on the spot where God showed up in your life. You stack them so that you will remember and you stack them so that other people will ask you about it when they pass the stones by.
At times they were literal stone towers in the Bible, like when Samuel built one after a battle. But other times they are metaphorical like when our psalm writer starts piling up offerings: rams and bulls stacked liked stones, pointing to them for all who will listen: “Look at what God has done in my life!”
In all of our lives there are these stones. For some of you, they are stacked in your kitchen when God showed up as you sat together around that table. For many of you there are stones stacked high throughout this room because, when you needed help, God showed up. For me, there are stones stacked in the small chapel on Austin Seminary’s campus.
I was a new student there at the seminary, just 22 years old and I had no idea what I was doing at that school. I didn’t know if I should be a pastor. I was scared to stay and scared to go, not certain which way to head. So I just sat in one of the pews in that chapel. It was empty for some time as I sat there, and quiet. But after a while people began to come into the room and sit, readying themselves for the service that was soon to begin. A man I didn’t know walked in and sat right behind me. He was wearing his cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat. I didn’t think much of him but continued agonizing about whether or not God could use somebody like me.
We came to the first hymn and so we stood and started to sing those famous lines: “Come Thou fount of every blessing.” The cowboy’s voice was clear and loud. “With gusto he sang the words, “Sing me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above!” And, in that moment, the strangest thing happened: God showed up. God showed up, reminding me that he calls cowboys and he can call me.
I may have shared that story with you before. I hope I have because I’ve got some stones stacked there and I want to remember that moment forever and I want you to trip over it too and ask me, why are there stones here? Whatever Ebenezers you have standing the pathways of your life, be they sturdy or small, be they many or few, they all speak of that moment when God helped you. In that moment the story becomes more than history, it becomes your life story too. This is not just about people from long ago. It is about you and me and what God is still doing.
This is a weekend of stones, stones of memory. So take a few moments over today and tomorrow to remember where the Ebenezers are in your life. When you do that you join the story of salvation. A story of “they and them” becomes a story of “you and me.” Let’s step into the river with them and become a part of the great company who have been rescued by God. People before us stacked stone towers so all would know. The psalm writer stacked his offerings high so that all would know. It is our turn to stack our stones and tell our story. Share it with family and friends. Share it with someone who is down and out, someone who is lost. Share it with anyone at all, so that they will know. “Come and see,” you can say. “Come and see what God has done for me.” Amen.