Delivered by Nancy in a sacrament meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Cincinnati YSA Branch, Cincinnati Ohio North Stake, Sunday 9 December 2012
By the end of this year, we will have completed four cycles of the LDS Gospel Doctrine curriculum focusing on the standard works. Since those Sunday School cycles began in 1997, we also have endured four complete U.S. presidential election cycles. Because Book of Mormon-study years happen to have coincided with presidential election years, each of our most contentious November Tuesdays has been followed by a November Sunday when the Gospel Doctrine teacher presented a lesson entitled: “How Could Ye Have Departed from the Ways of the Lord?” The intent of that lesson is not to chastise the American people for voting as we have, but to warn us that if we depart from the ways of the Lord by, among other things, contending one with another, we are destined for destruction just as surely as were the Nephites.
When Christ visited that ancient American nation shortly after his resurrection, the very first lesson he taught included this commandment: “There shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been.… For verily, verily, I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men to anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.”[i]
In the chapters covered by that “How Could Ye Have Departed” lesson—Mormon 1-6 and Moroni 9—Mormon describes how hard, angry hearts are leading the Nephites into annihilation by the equally hard-hearted Lamanites. “They do not repent,” he tells Moroni, “… wherefore, I fear lest the Spirit of the Lord hath ceased striving with them. For so exceedingly do they anger that it seemeth me that they have no fear of death; and they have lost their love, one towards another; and they thirst after blood and revenge continually…. I know that they must perish except they repent.”[ii]
The sorrow that pervades these final chapters in the history of the Nephites is made all the more poignant by Mormon’s undeniable love for his people. He continues to work with them, pleading with them to repent even though their ears remain closed. He mourns fallen comrades, naming many individually and describing them as “choice men” despite their sins.[iii] He writes: “Behold, I had led them, notwithstanding their wickedness I had led them many times to battle, and had loved them according to the love of God which was in me, with all my heart; and my soul had been poured out in prayer unto my God all the day long for them.”[iv] Finally, with the once-great Nephite nation reduced to only a few dozen bloody warriors, Mormon laments: “My soul was rent with anguish, because of the slain of my people, and I cried: O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! … O ye fair sons and daughters, ye fathers and mothers, ye husbands and wives, ye fair ones, how is it that ye could have fallen! But behold, ye are gone, and my sorrows cannot bring your return.”[v]
Mormon, I believe, was a great exemplar of the concept we call charity.
Charity is an interesting word. Most English-speakers today would probably define it as an institution that benefits the needy, or as the act of giving to a good cause. In the context of scripture, however, charity generally means more than that.
Some form of the word charity appears in the King James Version of the Bible twenty-nine times, mostly in the epistles of Paul. It is one of the English words the translators used in place of the Greek word agape, which more often was translated simply as love. Indeed, many English translations of the Bible use the word love instead of charity, so what we think of as Paul’s great sermon on charity is to many people just a sermon on love in general. You hear 1 Corinthians 13 quoted at weddings and see excerpts in romantic verses on greeting cards. But the translators commissioned by King James understood that Paul was not talking about any form of love; what he had in mind was the unconditional, transcendent love that begins with faith, hope, and submission to the will of God. Mormon defined it most succinctly: “Charity,” he said, “is the pure love of Christ.”[vi]
I think it’s interesting that Mormon used many of the same descriptive phrases as Paul in his own sermon on charity, which is recorded in Moroni 7. I like to think that Mormon somehow had access to Paul’s ideas; perhaps the New Testament apostle visited this continent as a resurrected being in order to inspire and encourage the beleaguered Nephite prophet. Maybe Mormon had back issues of ancient General Conference reports delivered to him by angelic messengers. (Please understand that I’m just speculating here.) I don’t know by what means Mormon was able to quote Paul, but what I do know is that the Lord wanted both of them to testify, and all of us to understand, that charity—the pure love of Christ—is the greatest and most necessary of all Christian virtues.
Have we understood? Have we experienced that mighty change of heart that prompts us to forsake contention and love everyone, including the idiots who didn’t vote for the candidate we voted for?
Charity suffereth long and is kind, and is not easily provoked. Charity seeketh not her own—which means that the charitable person is willing to set aside her own interests to improve the lot of another. Consider this story, which I heard on National Public Radio about ten days ago:
In 1991, the Reverend Eric Williams was a young pastor who had recently taken charge of a Baptist church in Kansas City, Missouri.
“I got a call from a local funeral home,” said Reverend Williams. The woman on the other end of the line said, “I’ve got a really big favor that I want to ask.”
The favor had to do with a young man who had just died.
“He’d been a member of the church all his life,” Williams recalled. “His parents were very active in church. Mom sang in the choir. At any rate, he was 25 years old, and he died of AIDS.”
The woman from the funeral home told Williams that when the man’s pastor found out how he died and that he was gay, he said, “Well you know, I am not going to do the funeral. And it can’t happen in our church.”
So the woman asked Williams to perform the service, but he didn’t want to do it. He said he thought it wasn’t appropriate for him to go against what another pastor had decided.
“And I was perfectly all right with that,” Williams said, “—until I went home and started thinking about this family.” And so, reluctantly, he decided to do the funeral.
“I met the parents of this kid,” he said. “And you know, I was used to black dads disowning their gay sons. That was the thing to do. But not this family. This father and this mother, they celebrated [their son’s] life. They embraced all of his friends. You know, they taught me more about unconditional love in that little experience than any of the Sunday school books and any of the courses in seminary, or any of it,” Williams said. “And that was the event that kind of rearranged my life.”
In the years that followed, Reverend Williams became an advocate for those with HIV/AIDS, organizing prayer services and information sessions, and urging other pastors to take up the cause, spread awareness, and help relieve the burden carried by victims of the disease and their families.[vii]
Here’s another story to consider. I have a friend named Jana whose father abandoned her family when she was a teenager. He not only disappeared without offering any explanation or even saying goodbye, but he cleaned out the family bank account before he left town. A few years ago, Jana got an unexpected phone call: the father she had not seen or heard from in twenty-six years was dying in a distant state. Did she want the hospital to continue life support? Did she want to come and say goodbye?
“Within a few hours I got on a plane,” she writes, “and spent most of the flight thinking about the past, … replay[ing] scenes in detail for the first time in years. The shock, the pain of his sudden abandonment, the betrayal of knowing that he’d chosen to humiliate us still further by emptying the future of retirement for my mother and college for us kids, still stung. The selfishness of it. The shame.
“’I’m not sure I can do this,’ [she confided to a friend she called from the airport]. ‘I thought I had forgiven him and forgotten all this.’
“’How could you forget it?’ [the friend] countered. ‘He hurt you terribly … If you turned around right now and went home, no one would think less of you. You don’t owe him anything. You are a good person even if you can’t do this,’ she said.
“’I feel like this is a test,’ [Jana responded]. ‘Today I find out whether I’m really a grown-up, and a Christian. What if I fail?’”
She didn’t fail. Later, she wrote: “It’s the act of loving that marks the true saint. And I was able to love my dad, there at the end of his life. I sat by his bedside, held his hand, and prayed the Jesus prayer for both of us. LordjesuschristsonofGodhavemercyonmeasinner.”[viii]
We in this Church call ourselves Latter-day Saints. So I ask: Are we truly saints, in the way Jana defines the word? We also are called by the name of Mormon. Do we deserve to be so associated with a man who loved as unconditionally as he did? Are we worthy to be called Christians?
I plead, as did Mormon, that we may forsake contention, forsake selfishness, and “cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all…. [It] is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him. Wherefore, my beloved brethren [and sisters], pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons [and daughters] of God; that when he shall appear we may be like him; for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure.”[ix]
[i] 3 Nephi 11:28-30
[ii] Moroni 9:3-5, 22
[iii] See Moroni 9:2
[iv] Mormon 3:12
[v] Mormon 6:16-17, 19-20
[vi] Moroni 7:47
[viii] Jana Riess, Flunking Sainthood, Paraclete Press, 2011, pp. 166-67, 171
[ix] Moroni 7:46-48