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Memorize Your Text

It happens more often than I’d like to admit.

While proclaiming the Gospel lesson to the congregation on Sunday morning, I realize I’m reading words that I would have sworn were not in the text earlier in the week. Sometimes I wish I’d noticed these words earlier, thinking what stellar sermon material they would have made. More frightening is when they seem to contradict what I am about to say in the sermon! 

We all know that Biblical preaching starts with the text. Still, many of us would confess that we tend to move almost immediately from the text to commentaries searching for a new perspective and a fresh word to preach. Yet, very often what we are looking for can be found within the texts themselves. Dwelling in those familiar Bible stories and passages are previously unnoticed words, phrases, and insights that are ready to break open the Good News for us and for our hearers. 

How do we discover these hidden gems within the text? The primary way, of course, is to spend time with the passage, to step inside the scripture and poke around a bit, mining its depths for hidden treasures. There are various ways to do this. 

One way I have found particularly helpful is the practice of memorizing the Gospel lesson. As I spend time learning the scripture by heart, I cannot help but slow down and notice each and every word, discovering details that I had missed before. As I labor to put the Biblical words into my mind, heart, and mouth, I make new connections and am surprised by contradictions. Memorizing the scripture takes time, no doubt, but it is time well spent.

Much has been written on techniques for memorizing scripture, as well as the benefits of proclaiming the scripture by heart in the context of worship. The focus here is on how scripture memorization can aid our sermon preparation.   

  • Memorization forces us to start sermon preparation early. I need at least two weeks with a text (three to four weeks is better) before I am confident I know it by heart. For many preachers this would mean working on more than one text at a time, providing a wonderful opportunity to explore the text in context. 
  • In memorization each word takes on equal value, making us notice details we otherwise might have glossed over. A well known phrase like “if you had faith the size of a mustard seed” becomes equal to what follows, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:6, Proper 22C). After memorizing this entire verse, you might find yourself less interested in the well worn mustard seed than in why Jesus would illustrate the power of faith with a command as useless and potentially destructive as a tree planting itself in the sea.
  • Memorization forces the preacher to pay close attention to the order of words and events within the passage. Sometimes a sequence of events carries meaning, other times it simply pulls us into a particular part of the story. The Luke 17 text continues with the illustration of a dutiful slave. As you memorize the slave’s many tasks – plowing, preparing supper, putting on his apron, serving the master — you might start to feel the slave’s exhaustion. You wonder if this arrangement is fair. More than likely, you will find yourself identifying with the slave, rather than the master. This could provide a very different perspective for the sermon.
  • Memorization can call out the repetition of similar words and phrases even more powerfully than a concordance would. As you memorize the end of the slave illustration, “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” you see a connection to the command to the mulberry tree. You might ask if Christian disciples are the faithful ones doing the commanding, or if we are, instead, like mulberry trees and slaves, called to obey what the Lord commands. Whatever the answer, our preaching is richer for having asked the question. 
  • On rare occasions, proclaiming the memorized Gospel lesson can be the sermon itself. Certain passages, like the long narratives in John, lend themselves to this particularly well. This is not an “easy out” for the preacher, of course. Careful planning of liturgy, preparation of the congregation, and an introduction to the lesson are necessary to shore up this experience. Yet, how often have we wanted to proclaim the scripture and then get out of the way? If you do this, be prepared for folks to tell you it was one of the best sermons you’ve ever preached. Try not to be offended.

Learning scripture by heart can enliven and enrich our preaching. At the very least, we can expect that when we proclaim the scripture lesson on Sunday morning we won’t come across any words we hadn’t noticed before. All the same, don’t be shocked when the Gospel still has the power to surprise. 

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Jennie English is the pastor of Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Chicago, Illinois. She is a graduate of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota