Sunday, May 31, 2015

Excommunication and Sacramental Theology

I was able to attend Sacrament meeting in my ward for the first time in over a month today. I've been to three sacrament meetings during the last five weeks. I attended with friends in Mesa, AZ on April 26, after participating in the ALL conference. I attended sacrament meeting with Affirmation members at local wards in Santiago, Chile on May 3 and Buenos Aires, Argentina on May 10. On May 17, I participated in a testimony meeting on the Hill Cumorah in Palmyra, NY, not an official sacrament meeting, though a very significant gathering that was attended by the Palmyra Stake President. Last weekend, my husband and I were camping with a friend in western Minnesota, where my only church was private prayer and scripture study surrounded by lakes and prairie and blessed by wind and rain beating on the roof of my tent. Though I've had my share of church in the past month, it felt really good to finally be home and to be greeted warmly by members of my ward. I've missed them.

One of the things I realized in worshiping at my home ward is how important my home ward is to the spiritual work I need to do in my life. The Gospel is true in Mesa, AZ, as it is in Chile or Argentina, or in the Church's home stake of Palmyra, or even in the wilderness on the Great Plains of western Minnesota. But there's a sense of accountability I experience in worshiping with people who know me. And there's something about being at home that puts the focus back on day-to-day soul-building work. I felt I had been gone too long and I was grateful and relieved to be back.

The theme of our Sacrament Meeting talks was Church attendance, and then we had a special fifth Sunday lesson on the Sacrament. In between, the title of the Sunday School lesson was "Woe unto you, hypocrites!" (We focused on texts in Matthew 21 and 23.) The end result, for me, was deep reflection on my motivations in attending Church (realizing, with gratitude, that I still attend out of a deep yearning to be close to my Heavenly Father, and to put myself in a place where God has promised to meet me). It also involved some wrestling with a sense of loss or exclusion at not being able to take the bread and the water at Sacrament.

I have a lot of complicated thoughts and feelings about not being able to take the bread and the water. On occasion friends have told me that I'm not unworthy and I should just take it. Whatever my state of worthiness or unworthiness, my understanding of the Gospel requires me to respect good order in the Church, which includes accepting the restrictions placed on me as an excommunicated member. I want to take the bread and the water only when my membership has been fully restored, when my right and obligation to partake of the Sacrament in that way is recognized by duly ordained priesthood leadership.

But an insight I had long ago, almost from the first time I started attending the LDS Church almost ten years ago, is that I can still participate in the Sacrament and experience the healing power of the Atonement through my participation, even without partaking of the bread and the water. I've always had a sense that "partaking of the Sacrament" was something you do fundamentally in your heart. And some of the scriptures we studied today in Sunday School and in our fifth Sunday meeting on the Sacrament helped clarify for me that this isn't just my idiosyncratic take. It's a profoundly scriptural way to understand the Sacrament.

First I reflected on this text from Matthew 21:28-31, which we read in Sunday School:
But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.
My reflection on that was that saying you will go work in the vineyard is sort of like making a covenant. It's like baptism. Baptism is a formal way of saying you will go work in the vineyard. But as we know, you can make that covenant and still not show up for the work. And Jesus' commentary here is that there are some people (like publicans and harlots) who haven't entered into the formal covenant, but who are doing the work. In other words, there is work for me to do, even in my covenant-less state. In other words, it's not pointless for me to show up at Church and to work on my soul and to seek guidance from God about what work he'd like me to do.

There was a sweet brother, who in the opening prayer at Sacrament meeting, thanked God for his mercy, and asked for God's mercy on all of us. That prayer was balm to my soul.

Those reflections on the mercy of God and of the work I have to do, whether under covenant or not, were still with me as we began the fifth Sunday lesson on the Sacrament. We started by reading together 3 Nephi 9:20:
And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost, even as the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not.
This was cross referenced with D&C 59:12:
But remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord.
In 3 Nephi Christ commands (invites?) his followers to "offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit." My bishop explained to us, in relation to D&C 59, that this is "the sacrament we offer to God": a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And I realized that this has nothing to do with what we are eating or drinking while the Sacrament is being administered. (Cross reference with Matthew 15:16-20? "Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught?" etc.) I also noticed that the Lamanites, "at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not." Again, not outward ordinances that matter, but what is going on in one's heart. "Everything depends," my bishop emphasized, "on getting and keeping the Holy Spirit in our lives."

I felt the Spirit at Church today, inviting me to ignore the distractions of the adversary that would try to convince me that it is useless for me to attend or participate because of the limitations placed on me by my excommunicated status. I felt the Spirit comforting me, inviting me and including me, and strengthening me for the challenges of the week ahead, helping me to do the work that I've been put on the earth to do. I also felt something of a reproach from the Spirit to be mindful, never to let my membership status be a reason to get discouraged or to forget mindfulness.

My bishop reminded us that perhaps the most important word in the Sacrament prayers is "remember." Amen.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks, John. This also represents an important lesson to those of us with active covenants. I think keeping commandments simply because we made covenants is a good reason, but not the best reason. The best reason is a sincere desire to please God.

I'm also reminded of the unfortunate human habit to avoid or chafe at responsibilities simply because we "have to" do them. Sometimes knowing that you are required to do something takes the joy out of it.

Thanks for your great example.