Saturday, May 23, 2015

My Sacrament Meeting Talk on Grace

Here is the summary of my talk last Sunday. The assigned topic was "Saving Grace".

1) "I Stand All Amazed":

I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me - confused by the grace that so FULLY he profers me.

I love that line, because I am a History teacher by original profession, a social scientist by nature and a lover of comparative religion. Grace has been a debated topic for thousands of years, and it truly has caused much confusion throughout history. In our own church history, I am old enough to have seen a time when we didn't talk about grace very much - and I am glad we talk about it more now than in the past. Today, I am not going to try to give a discourse about that debate over time; rather, I am going to talk specifically about the place of grace within Mormon theology and why I believe the Mormon concept of grace is even more powerful than we tend to realize.

2) Definition of grace:

Grace means favor - as in being seen as favorable / worthy of being favored. It also connotes giving something without requirement, as in bestowing a favor on someone. In this light, it is a gift that does not require a matching gift in return. It is NOT a loan, since it cannot be paid back.

2) Overview of the pre-existence and its foundational relationship to Mormonism's unique view of grace:

We had two choices: to accept HF's plan and suffer many things in mortality, including a fall from grace (favored status of parent-child relationship) and an atonement (a return to a higher favored status of equality) or to accept Lucifer's alternate plan, which was no fall from grace, no atonement and return in the same condition as we had prior to mortality. The first plan included pain and suffering and anguish and grief and weakness and transgression and sin and guilt and disability and everything else we experience in this life that allows us to learn and grow; the second plan was pain-free and growth-less.

We teach that the atonement was promised to all who would accept HF's plan. In essence, HF said to all of us:

[quote]Trust me. I will not fail you. If you choose to accept what I am offering, my grace will cover everything you experience as a result of mortality, and you will be saved from the natural consequences of that life.[/quote]

So, when I am asked by a friend if and when I have been saved, I answer:

[quote]Yes, I have been saved - before I was born by my acceptance of Jesus as my Savior and Redeemer. So have you - and so has every other child of God. Paul said, "For as in Adam ALL die, so in Christ shall ALL be made alive." I believe him.[/quote]

Brothers and sisters, we have been saved by the grace of God already - so why is it so hard for us to accept that?

3) Before I talk about the biggest reason I think we struggle to accept that, I want to highlight one of the most fascinating and least understood verses in the Bible, then add an interesting insight from the Doctrine & Covenants.

Luke 2 tells of Jesus' life from birth until the age of 12. The last verse in that chapter (verse 52) gives a summary of the next 18 years. It says:

[quote]And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.[/quote]

Remember, grace means to be favored, so, in a real way, this verse says that Jesus increased in grace. D&C 93:13 puts it this way:

[quote]And he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness.[/quote]

This places grace, in its fullest sense, as the empowerment that moves us through a process of growth - and it frames grace in terms of growth and progression, rather than in terms of a one-time offering. In other words, as my son said, we are not saved from something; rather, we are saved continually to or toward something. Yes, we have been saved - but we also are being saved. If even Jesus, of Nazareth, went through this process, why do we tend to insist that we be perfect now?

4) The Gospel and life are full of paradoxes, and perhaps the most central paradox of all is that we are acceptable to God just as we are but we also are commanded to be perfect, as Matthew 5:48 says. Our teaching of this need for perfection, I believe, is the biggest stumbling block to an acceptance of the grace that so fully he profers us - not that we believe in perfection but that we don't teach it the way it was meant by Jesus in that verse. We tend to accept the Mosaic Law view of perfection - a view that equates perfection with being mistake-free (like a test that requires 100% to be given a passing grade). For that reason, whenever we make a mistake, large or small, we feel guilty and worthless and unworthy and not acceptable to God. Often, this occurs even when our mistakes are the direct result of things we inherited from just being born.

However, the footnote for Matthew 5:48 frames perfection very differently. It says that to be perfect is to be "complete, whole, fully developed" - and, interestingly, that Jesus was NOT an example of that when it was given. Notice that ONLY Heavenly Father is listed as an example of perfection in that verse.

It also is difficult to accept grace when we are focused on not letting others see our weaknesses and struggles. Pres. Uchtdorf also compared the church to a showroom for cars and a repair shop. He said church meetings aren't supposed to be a showroom; they are supposed to be a repair shop. My father used to say that warts only can be healed if they are exposed and treated - if we let other people see them. I believe in wearing nice clothing to church to show respect, but when we put on our Sunday best and carefully apply makeup before we go, others only see us as if we were in a showroom - and they never see our warts - and they think they are the only people in church who have warts - and they feel guilty and worthless - and the perfection cycle continues.

5) This brings me to the way we tend to explain things in terms of parables. In "Believing Christ", Stephen Robinson gives the parable of the bicycle - in which a girl asks her dad if she can have a bike. He tells her that she can have a bike if she saves every penny she earns until she can afford one. She returns after some time with 61 cents and says she has saved all of her money and asks, again, if she can have a bike. Her father takes pity on her and buys the bike for her, even though her money doesn't not come close to covering the actual cost.

I appreciate the point Brother Robinson makes that God will give us the bike even if we can't pay for it on our own, but I like a different parable. I believe he provided a vehicle for us (a way to go where he wants us to go) in his first plan before we were born and simply asks us to accept it and do our best to learn to operate it - to try to drive where he wants to take us. The vehicle is free, as is the license to drive it; all that is required of us is to get behind the wheel and drive. When we get into an accident, he asks us to learn from the experience, get back behind the wheel and continue to drive. He doesn't care how many accidents we have (or, even, as the parable of the workers says, when we start driving); he only cares that we accept the gift of the vehicle and drive. I believe he will let us drive until we reach our final destination, no matter how long that takes. After all, he has time and all eternity to be patient and extend his love.

Truly, even after all we can do, it still is by grace that we are saved.

6) I want to spend the last few minutes talking about how, in order to be full participants in divine grace, we need to extend to others the same grace we receive from HF and Jesus.

We are invited to become like God, and being gracious is perhaps the ultimate goal in that process. I am concerned that we are not as accepting and loving toward others as God is toward us. If he offers his grace to ALL of his children, and if Jesus spent his ministry serving the people who were rejected and shunned by the religious people of his day, I am convinced we should be more like him and less like the leaders who avoided the sinners and the sick and the despised. If we are full of grace, we will not turn anyone away; we will embrace all and love them actively and fervently, no matter what mistakes we believe they are making; we will help them on our collective journey through life; we will ride with them, together, side-by-side. If someone stumbles into our Sacrament Meeting, reeking of alcohol - or wearing what we deem to be totally inappropriate clothing - or holding hands with someone we think they should not love in that way - or any other image that comes naturally to our minds when we picture a sinner- in those situations, I pray we can be grace-filled and thank God they found us rather than ask why they are here. We judge too much, too quickly, too harshly and too stereotypically - and I believe Jesus would say, simply:

I loved and served them when nobody else would. Why won't you do the same? They have my grace; why can't they have yours? Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Brothers and sisters, may we be gracious to all around us, as God is gracious to us, is my prayer.

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