Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
When we began our focus on spiritual practices earlier this spring, we first considered the practice of Simplicity (where might less be more?) and then the practices of Hospitality and Generosity (where might more be more?) In a context like ours it’s easy to overfill our lives– whether as consumers, over-schedulers, or hoarders; letting go and moving toward greater simplicity can have a healing effect on our souls. So, too, can turning our energy outward, moving from self-centeredness to allowing God’s abundant generosity to flow through us to others.
Next we took up the spiritual practice of prayer – at least our part in that dialogue with God – when we used Anne Lamott’s book, Help. Thanks. Wow. to consider the essence of communicating with God. Prayer can be as simple, she reminds us, as expressing any of those three words to God: Help. Thanks. Or even ‘Wow,’ an expression of wonder or awe. Soon we’ll take up the other part of prayer which is listening to God in return.
Meanwhile, today I want to invite you to a spiritual practice I learned as a child and for which I’ve gained new appreciation in recent years: the practice of memorizing Scripture.
Some of you know my family’s roots are in the Baptist Church tradition, where Bible memory verses were a big deal when I was a kid. At Vacation Bible School, prizes would be awarded if you could memorize each day’s verse. At Pioneer Girls (which is kind of like a Christian version of Girl Scouts), you could earn a scholarship to church camp if you memorized all of your assigned verses for the year. And then at church camp itself, there would be a verse of the week we’d rehearse together in the dining hall at least once or twice a day. I wish I could say all of them “took,” and lodged in my memory bank well enough that I can call them to mind decades later. But what’s interesting to me is that some of them actually did. So in my 50’s I can quote a number of verses I learned as a child. Romans 3:23, for instance – “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Or John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” These verses were invested with such importance in that tradition, and repeated so often, that they became part of my long-term memory. The 23rdPsalm is another passage that has stuck with me over the years. The one that begins: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…”
Maybe you’ve never heard of this particular Christian practice, but you grew up in a church steeped in liturgy, where the same prayers or the same words around the celebration of the Eucharist were repeated week after week. I also spent a number of years in the Episcopal Church, as a teenager, so I know those kind of holy words, too, can stick with us in a powerful way. If that was your experience, and I were to begin reciting a prayer right now – one that you’d heard or repeated many times in church over the years – I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if you could join right in.
Our interfaith friends know the value of memorization too.
For instance, ever since I read Chaim Potok’s book The Chosen as a teenager, I’ve been impressed by the way Jewish rabbis and scholars commit huge portions of both the Torah and the Talmud to memory. There are wonderful scenes in that book with lively debates about texts, enriched by the facility with which the major players can quote Scripture verses and centuries of interpretation and the speed at which they can do so. It’s like watching a high-powered tennis match as the quotations fly back and forth. What a skill! To know your holy texts so well that you could call to mind a passage for every occasion?
As another example, this week our Muslim friends began their holy month of Ramadan, and I was interested to see in the newsletter of one of our local mosques that they are holding a competition with prizes awarded for memorizing big chunks of the Quran in Arabic. Again, highlighting the value not just of passing familiarity with their Scriptures, but of knowing their texts well.
Why does anyone bother, do you think? In a modern world with thousands of other priorities competing for our attention, what’s the point of committing Bible verses to memory? Isn’t it a little old fashioned? Particularly when at any time we could simply pull out our phones or laptops and look up anything we want? Well, first of all, let’s not underestimate great uses of technology. Why notput powerful search engines to work for your spiritual health and growth? I’m all for it! It’s fantastic that you can now Google phrases like “Bible verses about courage,” “Bible verses about refugees,” or “Bible verses about peace.”
But since it’s Mother’s Day today, I thought I’d share a story about my mom that involves actually memorizing Scripture.
It was three years ago this summer when the progression of her brain cancer made clear it was time to call in hospice services. Mom knew she was dying – she’d known since her diagnosis four years earlier it was only a matter of time - so it wasn’t the idea of hospice that bothered her. She was ready to let go and by that point she’d been ready for a while. It’s just… there were some really pragmatic pieces of what her final weeks would look like that caused her a great deal of anxiety. And as wonderful as the hospice nurse was with her thoughtful explanations and offers of medication and so on, there were parts of that intake meeting that really pushed Mom to her breaking point.
But here’s what actually stands out most in my mind from that day. She got more and more anxious as the appointment progressed, and the minute the nurse headed for the door, Mom started reciting fervently, right there at the dining room table, the 23rdPsalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.” Through her tears, facing the end of her life, having just heard what that end would actually look like: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
Why memorize Scripture? Why, as Deuteronomy commands, should we “keep these words” in our hearts? Why “recite them to [our] children and talk about them when [we] are at home and when we are away, when we lie down and when we rise?” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7) That’s why. Because someday we’ll need them. And we won’t have to go looking for them. They’ll be as close to us as our own breath.
Today we heard the psalmist say: “My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you.” (Psalm 42:6) Eugene Peterson translates that same verse this way: “When my soul is in the dumps, I rehearse everything I know of you.” I love that. On our best days and on our worst days, we can rehearse (review, revisit, repeat) everything we know of God. We heard in our other verse from the Psalms today that God’s word is “a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.” (Psalm 119:105) Whatever our particular circumstances, at times for any of us it can feel like darkness is closing in, so who wouldn’t want in their tool kit a little piece of God’s light to cling to?
My college roommate loved to sing, and as she’d read her Bible she’d draw a little musical note in the margin every time she came across a verse she already knew from a song. There are so many! In fact, if you’ve been attending church for any length of time, you might be surprised by how many Bible verses you already know.
But whether or not you’re a singer, and whether you’ve been in church for a lifetime or for all of 45 minutes, I encourage you to give this spiritual practice a try. Just pick a single short verse from the Bible that you find meaningful. Write it down and post it somewhere you’ll see it often, or use one of the Bible memory verse apps available for your phone. You could even try reading a passage aloud and recording it, so you can play it back to yourself until you learn it (that’s one of my theatre major daughter’s tricks for memorizing monologues) … or if you find it in a musical setting, add it to your playlist, or sing it to yourself while you’re driving around in the car… If this spiritual practice is new to you, I’ll bet you find memorizing a Bible verse isn’t as difficult as you expect.
And if you’re intrigued by the idea but don’t know where to begin, as we leave worship today I’ll be setting out a table with copies of a number of Bible verses I find myself returning to again and again. There’s no magic to the subset I’ve printed for you; there are so many to choose from. But if you’d like a place to start, you’re welcome to take one or more of those verses home with you today. And just experiment for a while. Try copying a verse over and over in a journal, or taping it to your mirror, your front door, your kitchen cabinet. Try reading it aloud and recording yourself, or look for a song that leans on that Bible verse for its lyrics, and play it for yourself often.
I’ve never achieved anything remotely as impressive as the huge feats of memorization I see in the Jewish and Muslim traditions, nor do I expect to. I’ve also not remembered equally well every Bible verse I’ve attempted to commit to memory over the years. We don’t have to be perfect or heroic about this. Like any spiritual practice, practicing is itself the goal. And if we rehearse what we know of God, it will be here (head) and here (heart) when we need it most.
As a spiritual practice Scripture memorization may be new to you. But give it a try. I expect Mom would want me to tell you: you’ll be glad you did.