Wednesday, October 17, 2012

One Great Whole

This was a 'talk' I gave at the Convocation of the Latter-day Saint Community at Stanford University on October 16th 2012 in the Memorial Church.

Standing in front of you here is an awe inspiring view. A group of people of faith in the middle of one of the top ranked universities. This is thanks in part to Jane Stanford, who insisted that this church be the centerpiece of campus while the architect wanted it to be a library.1 This likely seems strange to many who believe that faith and reason are antithetical, as seems to be the current Western Zeitgeist. Some may say that we must pick a side: faith or reason. Even if they are right, even if faith and reason are in fact antithetical, even if there is a deep and impassible chasm between them, how different is this from the chasm between our human condition and our concept of God? We see this chasm bridged through the atonement or at-one-ment of Christ. Can such an at-one-ment also work in the dilemma of faith and reason?

I love how Mormonism approaches atonement. Not only is atonement something which the Son of God wrought, but it is a process in which we are invited to participate. We do so in many ways. Our sealing ordinances are a form of atonement, as individuals are sealed or welded together. We have a strong concept of ‘gathering’ which is another form of atonement, as a people once scattered are brought together again as one people. I also see Mormonism as very effectively working an at-one-ment with faith and reason.

The Doctrine and Covenants teaches many things regarding this. We learn that we should seek diligently from the best books of wisdom, by study and faith.2 We learn that whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life will rise with us in the resurrection and will be an advantage to us there.3 We learn that in fact, the Glory of God is intelligence.4

The last year of his life, Joseph Smith gave two principles which he called “the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism."5 The first was truth. He said “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from where it may."6 This then as a fundamental principle frees us to accept truths that may even seem to contradict our faith. This says that we don't choose the side of faith or the side of reason, but rather we must choose the side of truth as manifested in faith and reason. Joseph said: “Have the Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists any truth? Embrace it. Get all the good in the world, and you will come out a pure Mormon."7

We need not fear truths gained from reason, but rather we must embrace them in order to be, as Joseph said, 'pure Mormons.' How do we know what of faith and reason are truth? Joseph said: “we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth... when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same."8 So with the 13th article of faith we follow of the admonition of Paul by seeking all truths and gathering or sealing them into one great whole.9

Now, I'm going to venture a guess that few if any here are guilty of not seeking out intellectual truths. If anything I'm guilty of over-focusing and interpreting even inconsequential information with a scientific approach. At times I even see things in equations. For example, when I read section 93 of the Doctrine and Covenants with phrases like "intelligence, or in other words light and truth" my brain sees: intelligence= light + truth. But if you do that to the whole section it is virtually impossible to make all the equations work as a set. Yet recently I had the following impression: what if most of the variables here are actually synonyms? What if truth = intelligence = the essence of our very being. Then "the glory of God is intelligence” can also read “the glory of God is humans/us/his children."10

Using B. H. Roberts tripartite model of the soul, we see that our bodies are shells, vehicles, or temples for our spirits, and our spirits are the same type of vessels for our “intelligence."11 Intelligence is the core of our very being, of our very selves. We read in Section 93 that intelligence is light and truth.12 We further read that “All truth [and intelligence] is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself"13 which is the same way Lehi speaks of people and agency in 2nd Nephi, when he says that man is independent, or an agent, placed on earth to act for himself.14 What if the most important truths we are to seek out, to gather or seal into one great whole, are our fellow human beings?

This fits very well with the other "grand fundamental principle of Mormonism:” friendship. Joseph placed the virtue of friendship, or love, above other virtues: “[I] don’t care what a [man’s] character is if he’s my friend.—a friend a true friend . . . I will be a friend to him[.] Friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism. It will revolutionize and civilize the world."15

If we accept this exegesis, this Mormon metaphysics, then the most important truths for us to embrace in our lives are the light and truth of every human soul. This is not a simple task. We instinctively divide into groups and assert our group boundaries by drawing lines of exclusion. As groups we fight against each other and we ‘truths’ separate ourselves rather than bringing each other “at-one.” We create and maintain these differences rather than seeking to bridge them. The political left versus the right, people of faith versus atheists, people of faith versus ‘apostates’ who have left their fold; all are chasms that we are to strive to bridge as Mormons through friendship, and in keeping with our ideals to gather, seal, and create an at-one-ment to bring humanity into one great whole.

So as we continue our efforts to seek for further light and knowledge, to seek for greater intelligence, let us remember that the most important intelligence that we seek to gain and gather are our fellow human beings, especially when a chasm separates us. As we strive to live the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism, let us seek all truth and intelligence and seal them into one great whole. I say these things in the name of the author of the at-one-ment, Jesus Christ, Amen.

2 Doctrine and Covenants 88:118 and Doctrine and Covenants 109:7
3 Doctrine and Covenants 130:18-19
4 Doctrine and Covenants 93:36
5 I've only found two instances of Joseph calling something a "grand fundamental principle of Mormonism"
6 Sermon delivered at the Nauvoo temple grounds on Sunday July 9, 1843
7 Sermon delivered at Nauvoo, Ill. on July 23, 1843
8 Joseph Smith to Isaac Galland, March 22, 1839
9 See 1st Corinthians 13:7, Ephesians 1:10, and the 13th article of faith.
10 Doctrine and Covenants 93:36
11 "Spirit and Mind" post at ByCommonConsent written by Jonathan Stapley
12 See Doctrine and Covenants 93 verses 29 and 36.
13 Doctrine and Covenants 93:29-30
14 For the same phrases see verses 16 and 26 of 2nd Nephi Chapter 2. For the whole section alluded to see verses 11-27.
15 Sermon delivered at Nauvoo, Ill. on July 23, 1843

Friday, August 3, 2012

Russell Hancock on testimony and the church

This is a transcript of unprepared remarks by Russell Hancock
1st Counselor, Menlo Park Stake Presidency

to the Valparaiso Ward Elders Quorum
6 May 2012

I’m grateful for the invitation to speak to your quorum.

My objective today is to tell you about my faith journey and offer up some conclusions and observations. I’m going to speak the only way I know how: honestly and with complete candor, nothing withheld. It means making myself vulnerable in front of group I don’t know well (yet), but we think you have a right to know your new stake presidency. If you sustain me as your leader then you need to know exactly what it is you are sustaining.

So here, for what it’s worth, is my story.

But first: it would appear that there are two types of Mormons, or at least two paths to conversion.

One set of members base their testimony on some sort of sensory encounter which they describe as a burning in the bosom, a witness of the spirit, or some sort of infallible encounter with the Holy Ghost. They might hear a voice, or have a tingling, or find themselves in tears, or some other such sensory experience. Many people that I trust and admire describe their witness in these terms, and I believe them. I absolutely believe them. If I’m being completely truthful I will also tell you there are others who speak of this, and I wonder if they are confusing the Holy Ghost with something else, something emotional or intentional or overwrought. But I have decided never to judge, to accept their claims at face value, and I do not doubt the possibility of such experiences.

The scriptures of course describe this. The most famous instance of it is the promise at the end of Moroni where we’re told to test the gospel and seek a manifestation of the spirit. We’re also taught that the manifestation of the spirit will be the Holy Ghost revealing truth to us.

So that’s one way of ascertaining truth.

Now here’s the true confession: I’ve never had it. This has never come to me. That’s not how I’ve obtained my truth.

Now, for most of my life, especially while praying, this is something that led to the sense that I was alone, and led me to feel like I was a second class Mormon--second rate because I couldn’t accomplish this sensory, infallible encounter with the Holy Ghost. I thought that there was something wrong with me.

It came to a head for me when I was in high school and began asking the big question that looms over the life of a young Mormon male: am I going to serve a mission? And by the way, I was born in the church, “born of goodly parents,” and raised to have faith. And I loved the church--loved everything about it. So as that crucial milestone came in my life where I had to decide whether to go on a mission, I wanted more than anything to serve! I wanted to do this, and yet when I was honest with myself I had to confess I didn’t actually know for myself that the Church was true. I was following my parents’ religion and way of life, and the testimony of family, friends, and ward members.

Here is the next confession that I need to make: I did something I’m not proud of. I began to speak more loudly and in a voice that was more shrill, and I would actually testify. I would stand up in church meetings and say things that I had no right to say, that I didn’t yet know for my own self. But I thought that in the act of saying them--and saying them more loudly--the testimony would come. So there’s another confession for you.

Well, my public speaking notwithstanding, I did what Moroni challenged me to do. I think I was very sincere. I worked very hard to pray and I approached my Heavenly Father in that prescribed way and I asked for a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. And brethren, it didn’t come, I knew that if I was being honest with myself I had to admit I wasn’t feeling any palpable sense of the Holy Spirit.

So what am I to do? Well brethren, here’s the next confession: I served a mission. You could say I caved. But I wanted to serve, and I think I had righteous reasons, but I should also tell you I felt like it was an important rite of passage. I felt all of the pressure that you feel to serve a mission, knew the opportunities I would be foreclosing if I didn’t, so I submitted my papers and received a call.

So I get into the mission field, where it started to trouble me that I was saying things to investigators I thought were true but didn’t know were true. That troubled me. So I thought it was crucial to continue this effort, to find out for myself if the church is in fact everything we’re taught. In fact, I would wait for my companion to fall asleep every night, and when I heard his heavy rhythmic breathing I would get up again and spend the night trying to induce this thing.

Well, it didn’t happen. That manifestation that was promised in Moroni eluded me. So this was a crisis point for me and I actually felt like if I was going to be true and have integrity then I should probably confess these things to my leadership, to my mission president, and also to my parents. So I actually wrote a letter home to my parents saying that I felt I was a fraud: I loved the church, but that I didn’t know it was true through this encounter with the Holy Ghost.

Instantly, back comes a letter from my mother. You have to know my mother to fully appreciate this. She doesn’t suffer fools. She can be very stern. So back comes her letter, and she says “Rusty, enough of this nonsense. This is pure foolishness. Stop this at once. Stop praying with your knees, start praying with your feet.” And that was a sweet relief for me. It was complete and total liberation. I took her advice and decided “I’m going to stop doing this thing. I’m going to stop holding a gun to the Lord’s head and insisting on a sign. I’m just going to live my life as if the gospel is true.”

So you must understand: what I did upon reading that letter, was that I made a wager. I decided to bet my entire life that the gospel was true. I decided I would wager my life that the church is everything it claims it is and live out my life accordingly. So that is what I’ve done and what I continue to do.

Now, there’s more I need to tell you on the subject because of course, the story doesn’t just end there. The kicker is that in the course of serving and fulfilling priesthood duty, knowledge does in fact come. But for me it has come in ways that were unbidden. Knowledge for me has not arrived because it was beckoned, or because I said ‘give me a revelation.’ For me it has come in ways I can barely describe, and never on command, and I’m not even sure that they’re sensory or palpable. But I can tell you brethren and sisters that I somehow crossed a threshold into an area that I think we can call something more approaching knowledge. When I speak with conviction about our church it’s not merely with hope and with faith but with something that is approaching knowledge. That I can tell you. But it’s never come on my terms and never come to me on my timetable.

Now here’s what’s striking. Every time I share these experiences I am assailed by people who tell me “that’s my feeling, that’s my experience too.” So I’m starting to draw conclusions that there really do seem to be two sets of Latter-day Saints. The two sets are people for whom these are experiences are forthcoming and those for whom they’re not. That’s a curious outcome, but there it is. I think we can observe it empirically throughout the church.

Now there is a section in the Doctrine and Covenants that speaks to this, and for some reason it doesn’t get the press it deserves, certainly not as much press as Moroni. It’s section 46, and it says:

13 To some it is given by the aHoly Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God... 14 To others it is given to abelieve on their words

That’s me, okay? That’s definitely me. And yet believing on the words of another is described as a spiritual gift--a legitimate spiritual gift. One that we might even seek, to believe on their words. This is me. And today I don’t think that makes me less of a Latter-day Saint, or less of a disciple. Actually I think I can stand before you and make the case that this makes me a gifted Latter-day Saint, and that gift I have is to believe on their words.

Furthermore, long years later, many years later, I encountered the writings and the talks given by a number of general authorities in the church, and if I could only have known this at the time of my mission and when I was very young, it would have saved me so much consternation, self-doubt, and recrimination.

I want to share with you the story of President David O. McKay, which I had never heard! But he stood up in the 1968 General Conference and told a story that turns out to be just like mine. I had never heard this from a church leader. Let me share it with you. This is President McKay:

I am going to tell you what happened to me as a boy upon the hillside near my home in Huntsville. I was yearning, just as you boys are yearning, to know that the vision given to the Prophet Joseph Smith was true, and that this Church was really founded by revelation, as he claimed. I thought that the only way a person could get to know the truth was by having a revelation or experiencing some miraculous event ... So one day I was hunting cattle. While climbing a steep hill, I stopped to let my horse rest, and there, once again, an intense desire came over me to receive a manifestation of the truth of the restored gospel. I dismounted, threw my reins over my horse's head, and there, under a bush, I prayed that God would declare to me the truth of his revelation to Joseph Smith. I am sure that I prayed fervently and sincerely and with as much faith as a young boy could muster.

At the conclusion of the prayer, I arose from my knees, threw the reins over my faithful pony's head, and got into the saddle. As I started along the trail again, I remember saying to myself: "No spiritual manifestation has come to me. If I am true to myself, I must say I am just the same boy that I was before I prayed." I prayed again when I crossed Spring Creek, near Huntsville, and again in the evening to milk our cows.

The Lord did not see fit to give me an answer on that occasion, it wasn’t until I had been appointed president of the Scottish Mission, that the spiritual manifestation for which I had prayed as a boy came. And it simply came as a natural sequence to the performance of duty.

So that is President McKay. That’s interesting! And I want to read to you this quote from Elder Oaks, which was interesting:

I have met persons who told me they have never had a witness from the Holy Ghost because they have never felt their bosom “burn within” them. What does a “burning in the bosom” mean? Does it need to be a feeling of caloric heat, like the burning produced by combustion? If that is the meaning, then I have never had a burning in the bosom.

That was Elder Oaks. Interesting, right? Now here’s Elder Packer:

Some have been misled by expecting revelations too frequently. I have learned that strong, impressive spiritual experiences do not come to us very frequently. Revelations from God—the teachings and directions of the Spirit—are not constant. We believe in continuing revelation, not continuous revelation. We are often left to work out problems without the dictation or specific direction of the Spirit. That is part of the experience we must have in mortality. The people I have found most confused in this Church are those who seek personal revelations on everything.

Let me read you another one, this from Elder McConkie:

Some people postpone acknowledging their testimony until they have experienced a miraculous event. They fail to realize that with most people—especially those raised in the Church—gaining a testimony is not an event but a process. Being born again is a gradual thing, except in a few isolated instances that are so miraculous that they get written up in the scriptures. As far as the generality of the members of the Church are concerned, conversion is a process; and it goes step by step, degree by degree, level by level, from a lower state to a higher, from grace to grace, until the time that the individual is wholly turned to the cause of righteousness.

Boy, that’s me! That describes my experience precisely. I wanted to share that for what it’s worth.

Now, I also want to point out that the Book of Mormon actually proposes actually two different models for obtaining faith and testimony. This is very important. The one model we’ve covered and everybody knows because it gets all the press, and that model is Moroni 10:4: Ask and have a witness be delivered unto you. That’s a legitimate model; it’s scriptural, I believe that it’s true and that it can take place exactly as described. And yet there’s another model laid out very clearly in the same book, which we must also take as scripture and therefore literal and therefore equally valid. It describes an entirely different path to faith and testimony and it is found in Alma 32, where the gospel is likened unto a seed. It uses an agricultural metaphor.. That one really resonates with me. It describes my own life experience. Here we’re not asked to have this dramatic confrontation with Deity, to seek out something bordering on mystical  and to have it delivered on the spot. Instead, we’re asked to do something altogether different, which is to cultivate a seed, to nurture it through our actions. It’s the horticultural approach, where a testimony is a thing to be carefully planted, cultivated, watered, tested. And what do you test? You test the fruits, right? To me the fruits of the gospel are delicious. They pass my taste test.

I find that a curiosity why missionaries don’t actually lead with that. I would lead with that if I had it to do over again. This is what I would be asking my investigators to do. I would say “just plant the seed, test it. Try it. You might have to try it over a lifetime, but take a look at this seed and then make your own decision on the merits, whether it is good or not. That’s been my experience. To me the fruits are so beautiful and so good that I’ve been willing to bet my entire life upon it.

So there’s my story, and we your stake presidency feel that you have a right to know us in this way. You have a right to understand our spiritual journeys, how we come by the things that we  say. And I will make you a promise right here, that you will never hear me say anything over the pulpit or in a church setting that is beyond my knowledge. If you listen carefully you will hear me choosing words like “believe” as in “I believe this is true” or “I trust this is true” or “I have accumulated enough evidence to persuade me this is the better path.” I’ll be using words very carefully.

Now having shared my story, I want to make five observations for all of us here in the Menlo Park Stake, each on our own faith journeys. Indulge me in five observations. Here they are;

First, and I want to say this very clearly: if you happen to be somebody who wonders; if you happen to be somebody who is experiencing doubt about the church or about the gospel or any of the great existential questions, if you happen to be a person who wonders I say: Marvelous! How marvelous that is! This is your home. You belong here with us, and you are badly wanted. I want to be very clear about this, the Stake Presidency wants to have a community of saints who are probing, who are discovering, who are testing, who are faith testing, and who are making serious, critical investigation. We’re not trying to cultivate a stake of passive believers, mouthing platitudes. We are trying to cultivate active seekers. This is the kind of stake that we seek to lead. So that’s the first thing I want to make clear,  that if you are finding doubts or asking questions, this is a safe and appropriate place to do that. And I can say that because my own Hosanna have passed through the crucible of doubt.

The scriptures make it perfectly clear that there is a place for doubt and for skepticism and that this is part of the journey. Remember in the book of Mark when the man seizes upon the Savior and says “Lord I believe, help thou mine unbelief,” and how the Savior looked especially kindly upon him. Count me as one of those.

Observation number two is to issue a challenge to those who are feeling comfortable, or those who are feeling complacent in the faith. We want to root out complacency. We don’t think there’s a place for that in the church. Forgive me, but I think there are a few too many Mormons who have decided that because the church is true, we therefore have all the answers to all of the questions, all of the theological questions that have plagued scholars and theologians for centuries. Disciples have been breaking their heads open over these questions for centuries, but because we have the gospel, we know every answer and there’s nothing left for us to do but to be perfunctory Mormons. We don’t think this stake should be a place where people can be smug. Nobody is excused from this lifelong journey of probing and questioning. An unexamined faith is not worth having.

Not only that, there is yet so much truth that need to be revealed, that needs to be discovered. Remember we believe in continuing revelation. So there is a great deal more for us to do. I fear that many of us confuse faith with depth, and this we must never do. So the second observation I wanted to make is that all of us have a duty to examine our faith, and to be breaking open our heads all over the great questions that our theology poses. It’s breathtaking if you allow yourself to participate in that kind of an exercise.

Here’s the third observation that I would like to make. The church is a dynamic organization. By dynamic I mean it changes. The gospel is timeless but the Church is not. I have lived long enough to witness the Church make many great and significant changes in my lifetime. Significant things, things like doctrines, teachings, or practices about women, about priesthood, about the garments we wear, among others. So this is significant. We should all understand that the church is a dynamic thing, and one that will grow and change and mature, and we will witness it in our lifetimes.

Here’s my fourth observation. I want to suggest that we have a role to play in that evolution. We should be agents in helping discover truth, agents in helping the church grow and increase and improve as an institution. Now we make distinctions of course between the gospel and the church right? There was a great talk in this past conference about that, the difference between the church and the gospel. Read that and apply it to our stake as well. Over the 9 years of our stake presidency I’m sure you’ll see many things come and go, changes made. We want you to be enlisted in the change. We want you to feel like you are agents in this. We want you to be innovative with us, and entrepreneurial and creative. We want you to bring your best thinking and we want you to help us.

Here’s the last observation I’d like to make. It’s an invitation to the members of our stake. We hope that you’ll pray with your knees and also pray with your feet. We want you to pray on your knees, we rejoice in those prayers. We seek those prayers, but we also want the stake full of people who are caught up in the work. It’s a work of compassion. It’s a work of saving, one person at a time. It’s a work of sweat and equity in this place where we’re trying to build a portion of the kingdom. And it’s our experience (it’s certainly my experience) that in the act of service, in the act of fulfilling our duty, this is where the greater knowledge comes, the greater light and knowledge. So we want encourage that among all of us.

Well, we’re living in an exciting time, when the church (I think) is asking more and more, asking more of us, asking us to be more like Ammon who served the king, who was willing to serve all his days. The church is asking us to be more like Ammon. The church is asking us to be less like Samuel the Lamanite: declarative, standing on the wall, shouting the truth. There’s a place and time for that, of course, and in stake conference I’m going to speak on this subject. But the church here locally is trying to be a bit more like Ammon, praying with our feet, ministering to the people around us. It’s really exciting, to be a part of this. Our mission, for example, has stopped all tracting, on a pilot basis. Right now we’re not tracting! We’re working with members, and seeking out service opportunities for our missionaries. We’re going to take that very seriously, and it’s a way that we’ll be doing that praying with our feet. So that’s the invitation that we want to make to all of our members.

Thanks again for inviting me. I would love to answer questions and make this a dialogue now, instead of a monologue.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Martha Hughes Cannon

I've wanted to highlight the life of this amazing and trailblazing woman for some time now, but it's taken months to get to this point. As a result I'm just posting this as is and apologize if it is choppy and full of grammatical errors. I should note that much of this post is made up of direct quotes from this book. I would recommend it because I would like people to know more about this woman. She was part of the first wave of women to attain higher education (getting her MD in 1880 at University of Michigan, and a BS in Pharmacy in 1882 from the University of Pennsylvania, in addition to a degree in Chemistry and a diploma from the National School of Elocution and Oratory), she was the first ever woman to be a state senator, she was the first woman to be on the ballot for a US senate race, she was a mother to 3 kids, and she was a mormon. What follows is a summary of her life:

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Mormonism and Science

I found this article totally by chance and found it very satisfying. If we take Joseph Smith's statement:
One the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth; let it come from where it may... Have the Presbyterians any truth? Yes. Have the Baptists, Methodists, etc., any truth? Yes. They all have a little truth mixed with error. We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true "Mormons."
along with the contents of the follow article by Talmage, it is not a stretch to say that "true" mormonism is synonymous with science.


BY DR. JAMES E. TALMAGE, PROFESSOR OP GEOLOGY IN THE UNIVERSITY OF UTAH. (This address was delivered in the Logan Temple about 12 years before he became an apostle) 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Massive Iron Gate

"if we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the Spirit. Remember, it was the questions young Joseph asked that opened the door for the restoration of all things. We can block the growth and knowledge our Heavenly Father intends for us. How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?"
- Dieter F Uchtdorf 2012 Leadership Training

David Ransom: At present women are not allowed to be priests in your Church...Is it possible that the rules could change in the future..?

Gordon B. Hinckley: He could change them yes...But there's no agitation for that. We don't find it.
-Interview 11/9/1997

"I am fearful they [mormons] settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken the influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way."
- Brigham Young 1862 General Conference (quoted again in General Conference by Ezra Taft Benson in 1963 and James E Faust in 1989)

So Prophets have told us that if we blindly trust them to guide us that we'll weaken the influence we could give them. They've told us that God could decide to grant priesthood to women, but they see no agitation for it, that we don't want it. We've also been told that if we don't ask the questions, God can't reveal the answers. Does anyone have any questions?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Talk on the 2 Great Commandments

Good morning brothers and sisters, and Happy Old New Years! Today for former Soviet countries it is Old New Years! They used to use the Julian calendar so their holidays were 2 weeks after ours. This month is often known as Drunkuary because they remain drunk for New Years, Christmas (for them on Jan 7th), and Old New Years. As missionaries we had very few ‘productive’ missionary lessons in January.

As I think of my mission in Ukraine, in this month of Drunkuary, I’m reminded of one of the most spiritually powerful moments on my mission. It was when I was able to help Jesus directly and personally. Jesus had fallen over, had vomit on his coat, and was incapable of getting up; he was so old and so drunk that he couldn’t stand and walk upstairs to his place. Christ cried out to my companion and I with slurred speech for help. As we helped him up the stairs, into his apartment, and onto his bed he shed repeated tears of gratitude. If we hadn’t walked by, Jesus would likely have frozen to death in the cold as many Russian men do. I hadn’t realized it was Jesus until, during his 15th tearful and slurred ‘thank you,’ the verse came to mind “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

I must also note that more often than instances like that story, I have left Jesus hungry, begging for change as I question his motives. I don’t believe anyone falls purely into the “good” camp or the “bad,” but we’re all striving to do and be more good (which, incidentally, is what Joseph once said was the translation of Mormon. Mormon = ‘more good’).

Brothers and sisters, I was asked to give some historic context to the 2 great commandments, but as I do so, I’d like us all to keep in mind the power and importance of Love as the previous talks have so beautifully discussed.

First, some rhetorical questions: Why does it matter which commandment is greater? Why are we asking these questions? Why did the people in the scriptures ask these questions of Jesus?

Let’s start by noting that these questions were all posed by Jews. They were “God’s chosen people.” So the question for them (and for us) is how do we please God? How do we live up to the covenant/chosen status? How do we become holy? At the time of Jesus there were two major schools of thought, roughly speaking, those of the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

The Sadducees believed we become holy and please God through the temple and the Priests/Levites. They believed that the people support them with donations and the Priests and Levites perform ordinances vicariously to keep the nation collectively holy.

Now the Pharisees felt differently. They have a bad reputation in the church. Their motives and movement was actually one that I think most Christians can admire. They felt that the ability to come close to God and be holy was not a monopoly held by Levites and Priests, but that ALL can be holy and have God intimately involved in their lives. They thought someone can be holy by following the scriptures and prophetic commentary on the scriptures with exactness. Thus everyone can attain a level of holiness and please God, even in their mundane daily activities. For them religion, purity, and scriptures were for everyman, not only the priests.

So these are the main schools of thought in the time of Jesus. So let’s see what Jesus thought by jumping into the examples from the New Testament about the 2 great commandments. When we look at them, what do we learn from each of these accounts AFTER Christ lists to two great commandments? (We’ll go through them in the chronological order in which the gospels were written) so we start with Mark.

In Mark we read the story of the 2 great commandments in the final week of his life, after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and after he had cleansed the temple. The Pharisees had already approached Jesus trying to trick him with the question about taxation, and Jesus had answered unscathed. After this, the Sadducees saw their opportunity to trap Jesus (because obviously the Pharisees wouldn’t because they had the ‘wrong’ interpretation). So they attempted to trick Jesus with a question about marriage and resurrection. Jesus again answered unscathed. Then a scribe, having heard all this, approaches Jesus saying that Jesus had answered with great wisdom. Then he honestly seeks to know Jesus’ opinion on what the most important commandment is. Jesus answers, listing the 2 great commandments, and the scribe agrees, adding:

Mark 12:32-34
And to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, IS MORE than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question.

This follow-up repudiates the idea the Sadducees had, in that the religious ordinances are less important than loving each other. The ordinances are inferior to love.

Matthew was written next, and the account reads differently. In this instance after the Pharisees and Sadducees made their attempts and were rebuffed, the Pharisees decided to try again. A lawyer/Pharisee asked Jesus what the great commandment of the law (or Torah, or scriptures) was. Jesus gave the famous answer about the two great commandments, after which he said:
Matthew 22:40
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

While in Mark the addendum to the two commandments repudiated the Sadducees, in this record Jesus repudiates the Pharisees. First let’s briefly mention the structure of the Jewish scriptures. We start with the first 5 books being the Torah, or the law. Next we have the Neviim or Prophets, and mixed in with the prophets in our Old Testament we have the “writings.” The writings are the psalms, proverbs, and short stories. So here Jesus is saying that the scriptures and prophetic comments on them hang on the commands to Love God and each other. In this context the word κρέμαται, or ‘hang’ is the same as hanging a picture, or hanging something on a nail. If you were rock climbing would you rather have a grip on something hanging or resting on a nail, or would you prefer to grip the two nails in a sure place? So now Jesus shows that the basis of the Pharisees’ idea of holiness, or pleasing God, which again was observance of their standard works and prophetic commentary, is inferior to Love.

A brief recap is that in Mark and Matthew we read that Love is greater than religious ordinances and greater than scriptures and prophetic commentary respectively.

Luke was the next gospel written. In it, the discussion of the great commandments occurs prior to Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem and without the context of the Pharisees and Sadducees. In Luke, Jesus is in the process of travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem and intended to travel through Samaria.

It’s worth giving some more info here on the Samaritans. If you ask Samaritans their history, they’ll tell you that the Samaritans were part of the Kingdom of Israel who remained in the holy land even during the Assyrian capture of Israel and remained during the Babylonian exile of the Jews. When the Jews returned from Babylon, the Samaritans and Jews had theological differences and each believed the other to be apostate. As a result the two groups hated each other. Here they have so very much in common, and yet because of differing beliefs they persecute each other.

Back to the account in Luke, Jesus sent people to make lodging arrangements in a Samaritan village for their travel to Jerusalem to observe Passover, and the Samaritans refused them because they were going to Jerusalem for passover (which they viewed as blasphemy). When James and John heard this, they suggested calling down fire from heaven to destroy the village. (They didn’t get the nickname the sons of thunder for no reason!) Jesus then set apart his 70 and instructs them. Immediately after this a lawyer stands up and asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus says “what do you think? How do you understand the scriptures?” The lawyer answers with the 2 great commandments and Jesus tells him he’s right. The lawyer then asks “but who is my neighbor?”

Luke 10:28-37
Jesus then gives the parable of the Good Samaritan. Everyone is quite familiar with the tale. Yet in context we see perhaps a bit more meaning. The priest and the Levite who passed by the wounded man were by Jewish standards very holy, respectable, and high ranking people. The scriptures forbade them from touching or being near anything ‘unclean’ which includes dead people. If they violate this rule, they must go through a long cleansing period and would be unable to perform any ordinances for others. Their interpretation of their scriptures and rules blinded them from living the greatest commandments. Jesus’ use of the Samaritan being the one who is holy is also salient given the recent event of being refused lodging by Samaritans.

Do we show love and serve those who hold apostate views in our mind? Do we reach out to those who are ‘sinners’ or are ‘lost’ rather than avoiding them because of our interpretation of the scriptures? Could we reach out to help the ‘other’ in our lives, be it a religious ‘other’, a political ‘other’ or a personal ‘other?’ Do we, like the priest or Levite, even let our pursuit of our own personal righteousness or holiness prevent us from helping and serving those whom we disagree with? Are we more concerned with our own personal salvation or with helping others achieve the same? The irony is that if we pursue our own salvation to the point of neglecting others we fail. When we seek to help and aid others, we find that we too are saved and exalted. Truly if we lose our lives in service we find it.

I remember the first time I noticed the slight differences in wording and the importance of personal pronouns in the account of the 12 disciples in the Book of Mormon. If we remember the account in 3rd Nephi 28, Jesus asks the 12 disciples what they desire of him. 9 of them wish for personal salvation and life with Christ (an unarguably good desire I might add), while 3 wish to serve and help others as long as possible. Notice the differences in Jesus’ words. To the 9 Jesus says: "Blessed are ye" But to the 3 he says “more blessed are ye." To the 9 he says “ye shall come unto me in MY kingdom," but to the 3 he says "ye shall be blessed in the kingdom of MY FATHER.” To the 9 he says "ye shall find rest," but to the 3 he says "ye shall have a fulness of joy; and ye shall sit down in the kingdom of my Father; yea, your joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fulness of joy; and ye shall be even as I am, and I am even as the Father; and the Father and I are one."

Speaking of the importance of personal pronouns, let’s move on to the last written gospel, John. The Gospel of John makes no mention of a story explicitly discussing ‘two great commandments,’ but it does discuss them in a unique way. If one follows the personal pronouns Jesus uses throughout the New Testament, but especially in John, something interesting emerges. Jesus refers many times in John to “my commandment” or “my commandments.” One of these examples is when Jesus says the famous verse all mormon seminary students learn: “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” Here Jesus is giving us the key for how it is that we love God, or in other words, how we keep the first commandment. In following every instance that Jesus refers to “my commandment” we learn what it is: “love one another.” (John 13:34, 15:12, In reading the New Testament we find that Jesus gave a commandment many times, (John 14:15, 14:21, 15:10) and those commandments he gave were that we love each other as he loves us. By loving each other, we love God. As Jesus said in the Gospel of John: “If ye love me, keep my commandments,” and since all his commandments in that gospel (and the New Testament) were to “love one another” we can also read this as “If ye love me, love one another.”

We see this fusion of the two great commandments in the Book of Mormon as well. As King Benjamin so eloquently taught his people “And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” This fusion is also known as charity. Nephi tells us that without charity we are nothing. Moroni and Paul also say the same. Paul is quite eloquent on this point. He tells us that even if he could speak with the tongue of angels, even if he was a prophet who could prophesy all things and know all the mysteries of God, without this love for others, he is nothing. This is because these other holy things which he mentions me might have are only hanging or sagging on the sure nail of love. Without love, our scriptures and ordinances fall flat and cease to be efficacious.

Do we believe this? Do we believe Paul in the bible and Moroni in the Book of Mormon that charity is what will matter in the judgment? “except ye have charity ye can in nowise be saved in the kingdom of God.”

In Matthew 25 we read about the judgement and who is saved. What does Jesus say in describing the judgment? He shows us that both those who are damned and those who are saved are each surprised by the outcome. He tells those damned that they saw him hungry, thirsty, an immigrant, naked, sick, and a prisoner, and didn’t show him love or charity. Because of their lack of love for their neighbor, we learn that it directly translates to lack of love for their God. Those who are saved did just the opposite. By feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, housing to the homeless, clothing to the needy, caring for the sick and visiting the prisoners, they showed their love for God. They love God by loving their fellow man.

Now we saw earlier that Jesus said love, or charity, was greater than the ordinances. This is quite easily harmonized when we realize how the ordinances are there to help us towards charity. They are powerful symbols which lead the participant towards love and serving others. In baptism, the natural man (who is an enemy to God, and by translation his fellow-man, he’s very self-centered) is buried in the water, and the initiate rises from the water reborn a child of Christ. This ordinance is a token of the promise we make to “mourn with those that mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort.” We renew this commitment as we symbolically eat and drink the body and blood of Christ.

The saying goes “you are what you eat” and we hope this to be the case as we symbolically incorporate the body and blood of Christ into ours. We collectively as a congregation become the body of Christ and each individually strive to allow ourselves to be Saviors on Mount Zion, giving service and love vicariously for Christ. This sacrament, the Lord’s supper, also serves to remind us that just as we see the body and blood of Christ in those around us, we must also look to see Christ in the faces of those in need of our help, service, and love out in the world. For truly as we serve and love one another, we serve and love our God.

Brothers and sisters, it is my prayer that we can all see Christ in the faces of others and act accordingly. As we strive to develop more charity we will help everyone come closer to Christ. The prophetess Eliza R Snow recorded the prophet Joseph saying “I do not dwell upon your faults, and you shall not upon mine. Charity, which is love, covereth a multitude of sins [see 1 Peter 4:8], and I have often covered up all the faults among you … The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs. ” It is my prayer that we too can be the pure love of Christ in our actions with all people, and in so doing remove sin. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.