Sermon: Knowing God By Heart

21 October 2007

Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
October 21, 2007

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Knowing God By Heart

Psalm 119
Jeremiah 31:31-34

Prayer:   May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

        Maybe it was all the preparation for our Yankee Fair and Barn Sale this week that got me going on this – but have you ever stopped to think about how much we accumulate during our lifetimes?  Nowadays, we have so much stuff.  Local author Daniel Cruson, at Serendippers this month, was telling us how valuable early will probate records were to historians.  In the 1700s, people had few enough possessions that when they died, every last thing – from butter dish to bedstead – was listed.  And because they’d often go methodically from room to room writing down all the items, in reviewing those lists today, sometimes everything virtually places itself back into its logical place in its original room, and we get pretty accurate layouts of colonial homes. There are not many of our homes today where you could do such an easy and clear inventory.  We just have too much stuff.

        And it’s not just our bedrooms and basements, attics and garages that are full.  Often our inner landscapes are equally cluttered. Especially in this information age, our minds are crammed full of all kinds of interesting but basically useless facts.  Think about it:  What do you know by heart?  Nursery rhymes and lullabies.  Fairy tales. Multiplication tables.  State capitals.  Favorite recipes.  Old telephone numbers and addresses. As a retired journalist, my dad’s got a head full of old sports statistics.  My husband the artist remembers all the writers, pencilers, and inkers of thousands of comic books.  My daughter has learned the names of most of the world’s species just from Animal Planet.  It’s frustrating: somehow the piano music I still know by heart is the silly stuff – like the Pink Panther theme, NOT the Bach classic I read off the sheet music for the prelude.  We sing wonderful hymns each Sunday, but how many do we know from memory?  And yet the most annoying things get stuck in our brains.  Why can’t we hold on to the good stuff?

        My favorite lesson for Confirmands was to send them out among the adults during fellowship time after worship and get them to take a Bible quiz.  Especially if their parents were pressuring them a little to do Confirmation because it would be so good for them, it always made those teenagers feel better when they found out how little their parents could actually remember.  One year people were asked to write down favorite scripture passages, and when the kids went to look them up in Bibles, they found out many of them were way off, or NOT in the Bible at all.  They’d be lines from hymns, or something else entirely.  One beloved Sunday school teacher actually quoted the “The Sound of Music” by mistake!  Ah yes, The Gospel According to Rogers & Hammerstein!

        The year the test was to list the 10 commandments, there was only ONE church member who could name them all, and she even had them in the right order.  The really embarrassing thing was that among the people at church that day was a seminary intern, two pastors (Yes, I was one of them, but I didn’t cheat and look it up!), two retired pastors and a seminary professor.  And here’s a humbling thought for us, with our proud Brookfield Congregational missionary heritage – the one church member who knew all 10 commandments was an immigrant living in low-income, government-subsidized senior housing.  She’d attended a Christian missionary school in the Middle East as a child.  I know she would have made her teachers proud!

        Today’s lectionary Psalm, which I quoted in your call to worship, Psalm 119, is believed by many scholars to have been written as a kind of ancient Sabbath-school curriculum.  It’s not only the longest Psalm, but the longest single chapter in the Bible, with 176 verses, so you can see why I didn’t read the WHOLE thing as a call to worship.  Look it up, though, when you get a chance – it’s a work of art, even though the brilliance of it doesn’t exactly translate to English.  The first letter each of the 8 lines in its 22 stanzas is one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Our English word “alphabet,” in case you don’t know, comes from the first two letters of Hebrew, aleph and bet.  So the Psalm is an acrostic: probably a memory device to help children learn God’s law by heart.  But more amazing than the sheer mental feat it was to write this way was the PASSION the writer brought to his love of the Torah.  He cared enough to want to help Hebrew children learn God’s law by heart.

        What a wonderful idea that is – to try to fill our hearts and souls and minds with the Word of the Lord.  Many of you, I’m sure, share his passion for that work of faith education.  We need to remember the things that are most important in this life, things that mean the most to us, like the Word of God.  Churches used to do more of that kind of Bible study.  The older we are, the more we’re likely to have actually memorized.  I had a dear friend, born in the 1920s, who could rattle off all kinds of Bible quotes, plus great poetry and speeches– but he used to always apologize for it, saying, “But that was before scientists did the studies to prove that children weren’t smart enough to memorize all that stuff.”  What I’ve seen in my years of ministry is that what some parents and educators might dismiss as “rote memorization” often comes back to us when we most need it. 

        I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I visited one of my elders, sick and in the hospital, and even through all the tubes and machines they could find the voice to quote a Psalm or pray The Lord’s Prayer with me.  One time, I stood at the bedside of a dear parishioner in intensive care who’d been comatose and dying for weeks, and yet, when I sang with her daughter, “Jesus Loves Me,” we’d both swear she reacted.  Even my own mother, in the final stages of Alzheimers, when she hadn’t shown a single facial expression for months, broke into a wide and spontaneous smile when I wheeled her into the dining room at the nursing home and played one of her favorites, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” on the piano.

        It’s such a gift and a privilege to get to know God by heart, as my mother did her whole life as a Christian.  It’s such a gift and a privilege that we offer in this place, that we give to our children, to get to know God by heart.  Today’s texts remind us how important that humble ministry we do here can be – because it’s about writing God’s law of love upon our hearts, about learning how to take it with us wherever we go and live in Christ’s way of grace and peace.  And yet, most of the time, I think we take it for granted, don’t we?  To most of us, Sunday School seems kind of tame, maybe even a little hokey – just one more activity among many for our busy kids to choose from.  My prayer for us is that we might be able to reclaim our passion for what we’re doing here each week – preaching and teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Because it makes a huge difference to some people, this gift of God’s steadfast love that we can so easily take for granted.

        I want to close with a story I shared with many of you when was first getting to know you during our Winter Privilege meetings.  It’s about one of my mentors in ministry – who met his wife of 50-some years when they were growing up during the Great Depression.  She had invited him to attend church with her family.  Little did she know but she was introducing him to a lifelong relationship with Jesus – something that she had never thought twice about.  Like many of us, she never knew a time when Christ’s church wasn’t the center of her family’s life.  But her husband-to-be found salvation in that simple Sunday School.  Since he was from a large and dysfunctional alcoholic family, he had known nothing but spiritual poverty and emotional abuse in his childhood.  This simple idea of being loved unconditionally by God and compassionately loving others in Jesus’s name was new and radical and terribly exciting to him, and he devoted his life to making “fullness of new life in Christ” possible for every man, woman and child he met.

        My prayer for us in the United Church of Christ is that we reclaim the freshness of our passion for the Gospel.  I was thinking, what if we put as much energy into evangelism and community outreach as we put into our Yankee Fair?  Because that’s what we were doing for our community yesterday – putting the face of Christ before them as they came here to shop.  What if every Sunday, we had family and friends and neighbors of all ages lined up to get through those front doors like our town lined up on Saturday morning at the door of the Barn?  What a wonderful place this would be!

        What if all people could carry inside them Jeremiah’s glorious vision of God’s law of love written in indelible ink upon every heart? All of God’s children would know the source of all Love and Life, and peace would flow like streams of living waters into a thirsty world. 

        Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


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