My readings this morning described the important power of memory for our faith.
For example, Psalm 77 starts in despair,
Will the Lord cast me off for ever? will he no more show his favor? Has his loving-kindness come to an end for ever? has his promise failed for evermore? Has God forgotten to be gracious? has he, in his anger, withheld his compassion? And I said, “My grief is this: the right hand of the Most High has lost its power,”
but memory comes to the rescue,
I will remember the works of the LORD, and call to mind your wonders of old time. I will meditate on all your acts and ponder your mighty deeds.
In The Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 11, Peter reports on how an unexpected invitation to preach to an “unclean” Roman officer and his household was confusing and frightening, until memory transformed it for the spread of the Gospel,
As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (11:15-16 ESV)
These insights into the Scripture got me thinking about this Sunday’s Gospel, in which Jesus uses a story about throwing around seeds to illustrate what it will be like to preach, teach and share the Good News in his name,
Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen! (Jesus, recorded in Matthew 13, this Sunday’s Gospel in the Revised Common Lectionary)
The “dirt” on which the word lands represents, in part, the capacity of a person to remember what is heard or read. Hearing or reading Scripture “plants” it in the believer’s mind, so that the Holy Spirit can bring it to remembrance at the right times, like seasons of despair as in Psalm 77, or in the face of a confusing choice like Peter’s in Acts 11.
And planting is an important image, because the word needs time to crowd out old weedy thoughts and emotions that clog our lives. Memory is not just storage, but fertile soil in which the word grows. The Letter of James puts it well,
So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls. (1:21 NLT)
Our son with autism planted carrot seeds in a plastic cup at his day program. They came home with him, with green tops sprouting and needing more room to grow. So I got a proper flower pot and some good garden soil.
That good dirt is like a spiritually receptive memory.
If I toss the little root ball of carrots on the sidewalk, they will be scarfed up by our local bunnies and birds just as a the devil snatches the word of the Lord from a hard headed person whose memory is paved over with no entryway for new life.
If I leave the young carrots in the plastic cup, there’s not enough soil for them to grow, just like the word planted in a shallow memory will not take root and will wither in the face of life’s challenges.
If I transplant the carrots to a poorly kept patch in my yard, they’ll be choked by the weeds just as the word will be choked out of a memory clogged with worldly concerns like grudges and fantasies.
But I transplanted the carrots into good and abundant soil, so they can grow. Jesus is telling us that those who receive, hold and let his words take root have “dirty memories” – not “filthy” but abundant, healthy space for his word to grow – and will experience spiritual growth and good works in his name.
This doesn’t mean you have to sit and memorize every last word of the Bible to follow Jesus. He says that each believer’s “crops” will come in different abundance, “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” He can work with different capacities and chooses all sorts of people – some who can remember every detail of childhood, others who can’t remember what they had for lunch.
Some of us will memorize large swaths of Scripture, others will catch onto a verse here and there. In either case, the Holy Spirit will bring the right words to remembrance at the right time.
The important thing is that we let the word be planted by whatever means God uses – hearing it read and preached in church, reading it ourselves or listening to podcasts, having a friend share it with us over coffee – so that it gets into the dirt of our memories, be they great big fields or fancy little pots. It is God who brings forth an amazing crop through those who make a little room for the seed to grow.