Several months ago, during Epiphany and Lent, I invited members of my congregation to join me in memorizing Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). We engaged it as a spiritual practice, the goal being to hide God’s word in our hearts. I wrote about this in a previous post, how surprised I was when over twenty people showed up for a mid-week class to take on this project. Of course it helps when Jeff Barker is your co-leader, and he was able to recruit about a dozen students from the Northwestern College theater department. The rest of the class, however, was a hodge-podge of congregational members—people of different ages and backgrounds, a majority who had never done any kind of Bible memory work before.
We put together a schedule and met weekly to recite aloud Jesus’ profound and often perplexing words, listening to the Spirit speak through the wisdom of each other. The final project was to recite the Sermon together (dividing up the parts) for the worship service on Palm Sunday.
When Palm Sunday arrived, there were eleven of us left. I expected we would lose people along the way, but if you would have asked me in the beginning who would be left in the end, I would have placed my bets on the college theater students. However, not one of those students made it to the end. But every single congregational member (save one) finished and stood up on the platform that Sunday to recite Jesus’ Sermon!
The other thing I didn’t anticipate is how much of a blessing this would be, both for those who presented and for the whole congregation. Each presenter brought the uniqueness of their personality, not one person the same, and still there was an uncanny sense that we were all in this together. It has become one of the highlights of my ministry at Trinity Church. I’ll never forget it. You can watch the performance here (find the service on 4/14/19 and fast forward to 40:25).
I loved doing this project with everyone who participated, but the person who most stood out to me was an older man named Robert. Robert had never memorized Scripture before and insisted that he wasn’t a good memorizer. Ironically, Robert was the first one to memorize the entire Sermon, and he did it two weeks ahead of schedule! I received this email from Robert a few days after Palm Sunday:
The presentation on last Sunday was not what I expected when I signed up…way out of my comfort zone. It was a great experience though and I have been approached by lots of people, many who I don’t know who really enjoyed it, including one who had family there for a baptism and thought we were some sort of professional bible memory people that did this sort of thing a lot. I never thought when I first looked at the paper that I would ever even get past the beatitudes memory-wise…It was blessing for me to be part of blessing someone else.
There are two key learnings (or reminders) in all of this for me. First, Scripture memory is not just for those of us who are pastors and “performers” or who are “good at memorizing.” It’s for anybody and everybody. It is a powerful gift when this is done by ordinary members of the congregation, and they offer it back to their church community in love. Second, that’s exactly what we’re doing, I think, when it’s all said and done: we are offering God’s story, which is also our story, back to God’s people. And not just that. Ultimately we’re offering God’s story back to God as an act of worship.
There’s a wonderful passage in Gary Schmidt’s novel Mara’s Stories: Glimmers in the Darkness where Mara, a young Jewish woman in a Nazi death camp, gathers the other prisoners together. Amidst the bleak darkness of their imprisonment, she seeks to bring warmth and light through telling stories. Mara begins,
“When my father the Rabbi would sit us around him and tell a story,…he would ask God to listen as well. ‘God,’ he would say, ‘make me a teller of stories, because all stories are Yours. And if you would lend me one now, I will tell it and give it back to You.’” She lifts her hands to heaven when she speaks…And the story comes to Mara as though God Himself were giving it. Mara smiles. She nods. And then she tells it.
That’s it. Burned into my memory now is this experience of sitting up on stage with ten of my brothers and sisters in Christ, stomachs churning and palms sweaty, each of us going up to the microphone one at a time and yet all together, lifting our hands and hearts and offering Jesus’ words back to the One Who Speaks and Listens, the Lender of All Stories.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, IA.