An Episcopalian Attempts to Become a Respectable Protestant (by Memorizing Scripture)
I decided the week before Christmas to memorize an entire portion of scripture, because I am insane.
It wasn’t a totally random idea, although it was a little crazy to take on in the midst of all the Christmas preparations for church and last minute gift buying.
This was a 3-sermon week, after all, so why not make it more difficult?
I’m part of a Facebook group called the Young Clergy Women Project, and we talk shop and exchange tips and ideas about ministry together.
Well, a group of women were discussing how they had in the past or this year were planning to memorize the birth narrative, the Christmas story, Luke 2:1-20, so they could deliver it without holding a book in church on Christmas Eve, truly from their hearts.
I thought it was a delightful idea, and I thought, “Have fun, ladies! Not a chance in heck I’m doing something like that!” and went on with my day.
But for the past couple of weeks, I’ve known the First Sunday of Christmas was coming up, and with the First Sunday of Christmas comes John’s Prologue, John 1:1-18.
I’ve preached before about my complicated relationship with the Gospel of John, how impatient I get with John’s ethereal, abstract poetry that doesn’t help me do anything concrete in life.
As if I have a leg to stand on when it comes to airy, floaty theology.
But as I mentally wrestled with John over the last couple of weeks, I decided to take a leaf out of Jacob’s book and not let go until John gave me a blessing.
And I remembered my colleagues memorizing the Christmas story, and I thought, “What if I tried the same thing with John’s Prologue? Maybe if I learn it, really learn it, I will understand it better and possibly even have something to say about it.”
So I got to work.
I divided it up into four chunks and made audio recordings of myself reading each bit.
And then I listened to those recordings, over and over, and tried to speak the words along with myself without looking at the text.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”
In the shower, driving to dance class, doing dishes, photocopying at church, I said the words over and over again: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”
Making little corrections—oh, it’s “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ, not from Jesus Christ.”
I even tried typing it out from memory.
The generations back of Southern Baptists in my family would be so proud of me—I actually memorized some scripture! Real live chapter and verse!
(I’ve always felt so inadequate about that. I can usually tell you who said it, but I could not give you the actual citation, which is why I will never make Protestant Pastor of the Year.)
Well, I am writing this as of Saturday afternoon, and as of Saturday afternoon, the first three paragraphs of John’s Prologue are solid in terms of memorization, but the last one is still a little shaky.
When I finish writing here, I’m planning to go walk around the mall and recite it to myself over and over again, because 1. I’ve heard walking helps memorization, and 2. If people at the mall are going to look at me like I’m crazy for muttering to myself, at least it will be for a good cause.
Working with this text for the past couple of weeks, trying to get the words into my mind, hoping they will sneak into my heart, praying they will come forth through my voice, has helped me think about the Word with a capital W.
This task of memorizing God’s Word has helped me think about what it means that the Word became flesh and lived among us.
So let’s think for a minute about what it means to relate to the Word, to encounter it, and let’s begin at the most basic, literal level.
How do most of us interact with the Word to start with?
We read it.
There are black dots formed into letters on a white page, and as we run our eyes across them, they create meaning in our heads.
Well, stop right there. That ability and skill right there sets us apart from 99% of people who’ve ever lived.
It is only in the last hundred years that the majority of people in this country have become literate.
Some of us may have had grandparents and certainly great-grandparents who were partially literate at best.
Many people around the world today do not know how to read.
It’s worth reflecting on the immense privilege it is to be one of the few human beings who have ever lived who can read the Word for ourselves.
And then the question comes: are we reading the Word not just on paper, but in other people?
How did most people experience the Word throughout human history?
They heard it.
The Word was in fact designed and meant to be proclaimed and to be heard.
The people who wrote the Bible did not write it expecting everyone in the congregation to have copies from which they could read themselves.
They expected the stories to be told by faith leaders, perhaps not word for word, but simply with the gist and the major events, and the psalms and poetry to be memorized and often sung, not spoken.
For generations of people, the Word was proclaimed and heard rather than read.
And God works this way in the Bible, too.
God never sends people letters or drops books into their laps.
Think of Samuel asleep and hearing God’s voice calling his name.
Think of the voice from the burning bush saying to Moses, “I AM who I AM.”
Think of the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism saying, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
And at Christmas—the word angel means “messenger” and comes from the same root as the word “evangelism.”
And the angels spoke: “You will conceive in your womb, and you will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus”–and the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward all people.”
The Word is spoken and the Word is heard, and we who are so comfortably literate and easily reliant on reading the words for ourselves, should stop and reflect on what it means to hear the Word.
When have we missed opportunities to hear the Word proclaimed to us by a neighbor, because we were confident we could read it for ourselves?
Even in our experience in worship—when was the last time you put down the bulletin and just listened to the Word?
It might be worth experimenting with that—after all, that’s how it was designed to be transmitted.
And what about speaking the Word, proclaiming the Word?
How often do you do that?
I don’t mean walking around reciting scripture in people’s faces.
But do you pray for the Holy Spirit to speak through you when you know you are about to have a difficult conversation?
Do you ask for God’s guidance to give you the courage and the words to share your faith with a stranger or a friend, to invite someone to church or to talk about God?
You are part of the priesthood of all believers, which means you are an evangelist, which means you are a messenger.
The Word of God needs to be spoken in the world, and you are the one who needs to do it.
You are an angel, a messenger, an evangelist, and there are people all around you who need to know that you bring good tidings of great joy that shall be unto all people.
So since I’m writing this on Saturday afternoon, I don’t know what happens on Sunday morning, either at St. Luke’s or St. Thomas.
I figure one of three things will happen.
Number 1, I will chicken out and take the gospel book out there with me and read directly from it, and this sermon will make no sense.
Number 2, I will go out there and try to recite it, but my nerves will make me get stuck somewhere in the middle, and one of you kind people will prompt me and help me fumble my way through the rest of it.
Or, number 3, God will have mercy on my soul and the Holy Spirit will speak through me and I’ll get through all 18 verses without a hitch.
(Update: it turned out to be option 2 at St. Luke’s and option 3 at St. Thomas. :))
The amazing thing is, I know that any of these three outcomes will manifest the meaning of the scripture.
Because the real point is that the power is in the Word itself, not in the messenger.
And that goes for all of us.
When we seek to share the Word with others, it does not depend on us.
The Word is living and active, and seeks to come through us into the world—“the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
And the purpose of memorizing the Word, or speaking it, or writing it, or hearing it, or reading it, is to learn to dwell within it, and to recognize it dwelling within us.
So pay attention this week to how you’re encountering the Word.
How can you read the Word not just on paper, but in other people?
How can you hear the Word from other people?
How can you speak the Word with other people?
And how can we, all together, dwell and live and thrive within the Word?
It should be the very beginning of our every thought and action.
Because “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
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