Some while ago I visited the beautiful little town of Bad Tölz, not too far from here, about an hour south, lying directly on the Isar. Up on a hill above the town there is a beautiful Catholic church, and next to it a much smaller chapel. It’s very dark inside in the chapel, quite small and cramped, and almost the entire chapel, floor to ceiling, is covered with small painted pictures from the Middle Ages and later, about this size (gesture) – some smaller, some larger – most painted on a scrap piece of wood. They are fit together like a giant puzzle, so tightly packed together that no matter where you look, your eye encounters a painting.
Each of these painting depicts a scene of a divine miracle in someone’s everyday life. They feature farmers, townspeople, merchants, and other local folk. Each of these paintings is a memory – it is a memory of a day when God performed small, but tangible and very real miracles in the life of a farmer, a baker, a carpenter. Art historians call them votive paintings or ex-voto paintings, because each is an offering painted and dedicated to the church in memory. You’ll find them all over Germany, but they find their most vibrant expression in Mexico, where they have a long and vibrant tradition. In many churches in Mexico you’ll find these paintings painted on scraps of cheap tin, or anything else that poor people could get ahold of to create their art, but so full of life and color and joy.
These paintings grabbed my heart and my imagination because they depict the most practical, everyday stuff. In one, Jesus is depicted saving a barn from burning to the ground. In another, the holy virgin Mary comes to rescue an ill child. Or Jesus intervenes to save the fall crop, or to bring back a lost herd of cattle. Mary saves a girl who has fallen off her ladder while picking fruit. The deal with the minutia of life, with the very personal sphere of home life, family life, and rural farm life: with horses and carriages, barns and family homes, corn crops and domestic problems and sick children and lost puppies. The picture you find on the front of your bulletin today is a modern miracle painting created by the famous and amazing Mexican woman Frieda Kahlo during a time when she was suffering from a terrible illness and experienced the presence of Christ as healing power.
These paintings are not commissioned works of art or professionally painted icons, but the work of the people themselves. They were painted by grateful people who needed to express their holy joy with their hands and eyes and their creativity. They were painted on scraps of wood or salvaged pieces of tin with raw metal edges, whatever was available and could be turned into a memory.
Now, to be honest, most are not really “good” paintings. Most look flat and amateurish. They lack perspective; things are all the wrong sizes: the farmer’s wife is bigger than the house, and her horse is bigger than the family dog. But this aspect gives them the quality of strange dreams, and walking into the chapel in Bad Tölz, or flipping through a book of Mexican miracle paintings, is like walking into a dreamscape of swirling images.
I stood for a long while in the chapel in Bad Tölz, transfixed by the wall of paintings, lost in the dreamscape of the vibrant, colorful memories of people who lived here in this area so many centuries ago. If you could collect all of the memories of many different people – pluck them out of people’s heads – and somehow arrange them on canvas, as a giant mural, that is what it would look like. It is a people’s testimony of the goodness of God. It is a form of expression of gratitude and thanksgiving. It was thankfulness and gratitude made visible and tangible and real – turned into a vibrant memorial.
The attitude of the grateful townspeople is a lot like the grateful leper whom we read about this morning in the gospel of Luke. In the story there are ten lepers, ten men suffering from a terrible, painful, disgusting skin disease, and all are healed and made well by Jesus. Nine go away happy, their limbs healed, rejoicing in their good luck, ready to embrace life again. This is an understandable reaction. They are eager to get on with things – to rejoin their families, pick up their trade, and get back to work.
But one of them, seeing that he was healed, turned back to Jesus, praising God with a loud voice. He fell down at the feet of Jesus, thanking him.
One leper was so overcome with gratitude that he could not remain silent. Seeing what God has done for him, he could not keep it to himself. He had to shout it, to proclaim it, and to act out his thanks with his body and his life. The leper had a votive offering too: his body and his heart, offered in gratitude at the feet of his Lord.
Or – to tell a similar story – one Mexican woman is so overwhelmed when God heals her sick daughter that she could not keep it to herself, and went out into the barn, found a piece of scrap metal (that was all she could afford), and painted an image of her daughter’s bedroom, turned into a sick room when she grew ill, now transformed on tin into the site of a miracle. She takes it to her local church where it is hung in the hall for all to see: her votive, her offering, her thanksgiving, an offering of creativity in the house of the Lord.
Both of these acts are offerings of commemoration, or of memory and re-membrance. As people of faith, we are rooted in our memories of God. Our memories of God’s love and grace form our identity and give us a foundation. Remembrance is what makes a community. Remembering our God with us makes us people of God. Our collective memory of God among us gives us identity and security.
That’s what we do every week when we come to church, isn’t it? We remember. What we do when we gather here every week is remember God’s history with us. We remember the long arc of saving, loving, reconciling acts of God from the beginning of time to the end of it – and we rejoice in it. Think of our liturgy, in which we offer God thanks and praise for his saving act in Christ Jesus. Think of the many hymns and worship songs we sing, remembering God’s character, God’s story with God’s people, God’s love to us throughout the ages. Think of the Bible verses that we read every week, to commemorate and remember the words of God and the acts of God in the world. All of these things are acts of memory.
You’ll recall that at the last supper, when Jesus broke the bread and shared the cup of wine, he instructed his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me.” When we break bread together, whether in communion or at a lunch or a potluck, we remember God’s provision for our practical needs. And we remember the Christ who offers the bread of life and the living water – who satisfies our every spiritual need. We remember the God who fellowships with us and sits at our table. And the table is a natural place for sharing stories, for telling and listening to what God is doing in our midst, for expressing gratitude, and for giving thanks.
Not just the bread and wine, but the songs, the Scripture readings, our prayers and our worship are done in joyful remembrance of God’s history with us. And they are done in grateful, hopeful expectation of the fulfillment of all of God’s promises at the end of the age and in the age to come.
Our life here together is one suspended between the twin poles of memory and hope. We remember backwards, and hope forwards. But both of these directions are saturated with our gratefulness and with our certainty that our God is good. We remember with gratitude God’s history with us, and we anticipate, with thanksgiving, the coming future of God – whatever it may bring. We remember, and we hope.
Together, we are building a collective memory of God’s goodness and love. We bear witness to and remember in vivid detail, in Scripture and song and poetry and art, the Love made real among us, right here among us, in the tiniest details of our lives. We are painting a living picture, if you will, full of memory and hope.
The thing is, that we need these memories. We need to build and maintain and rehearse our memories of God’s goodness, because it is our history with God that sustains us when things turn difficult. Ecclesiastes makes that very clear, in its deeply poetic language:
“Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come… before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain… when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working …. when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low … when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road…
When the days of trouble come, will we remember God’s loving history with us? When the strong man fails and production ceases, will we remember the days of God’s abundance, and have hope? When the markets crash – will we remember our Creator in those days? When the weather turns and the sky is darkened and the clouds return with the rain, will we recall God’s unflinching, unfailing promises? Can we cross over to safety on that graceful arc of memory and hope, our past and our future held together by our grateful remembrance and our daring hope?
It is not easy to remain grateful and hopeful on stormy days. Perhaps we have to think of gratitude not as a spontaneous emotion that bubbles up in your heart when the sun is shining and the birds are chirping and you’re eating a cupcake. Perhaps we have to think of grateful remembrance as a practice, as an art form that we can cultivate and nourish until it becomes a natural expression. Maybe it will take intention, and prayer, and careful attention to become a people rooted in grateful memory.
We make our memories of God’s love to us deeper and truer and stronger by rehearsing them together. We remember better together. We remember God’s love in Christ by celebrating communion. We break bread together in celebration of God’s presence. We remember God’s promises to us and his Gospel for us by reading them out loud to each other, week after week. We work hard at gratitude, and we invest in our remembrance of God. We do it intentionally and with great joy and thanksgiving because our memory of God’s love is a feast for our souls.
And with our memories and our identities rooted deep in God, no dark clouds and days of trouble, no fears of heights or troubles in the road, can shake our assurance of God’s good history with us, his story of unfailing love. Like the grateful leper, our mouths will be full of laughter and our tongues with shouts of praise. And like the grateful townspeople of Bad Tölz or rural Mexico, our community will be a living memory, vibrant and dream-like, saturated with color, brimming with hope, a living witness to the goodness of the God who walks among us, making our memories, blessing our dreams.