Saturday, April 29, 2017

Counting Costs, Heart-settling and Plowing

The Good Samaritan
Good morning!  Here it is - today is Sunday April 30, 2017.  We are on the cusp of summer; the school year is beginning to wrap up and soon we will all be going different ways - some off to college, some off to missions, others about to get married, some off to visit grandchildren new and old.

During this time of the year when so much changes so quickly, I'm reminded of one of my favorite stories - that of the shared experience between Jean Valjean and Bishop Bienvenu in the masterpiece Les Miserables.  You may already be familiar with this story.  Jean Valjean was a convict of 19 years for stealing bread.  After many years of hard labor, he was released and he could find no place to live, no food to eat - no welcoming arms, except for one.  That one was Bishop Bienvenu.  Bienvenu means "welcome" ... Bishop Welcome, welcomed Jean Valjean to his home!

After giving Jean Valjean food and a place to rest, the bishop was repaid with theft.  The gendarms caught Jean Valjean, returned him to the good bishop.  The bishop turned the other cheek.  Instead of turning on him, the bishop gave him more silver - two silver candle sticks to be exact.  From the book, it reads;

"Jean Valjean was like a man on the point of fainting. 

"The Bishop drew near to him, and said in a low voice:-- 

'Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.'

"Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless. The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them. He resumed with solemnity:-- 

'Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.'

Bishop Bienvenu was a true, committed disciple of Christ.

Shifting gears now, I want to spend some time in the New Testament; in particular Luke, chapter 14.  It is full of profound lessons.

To start off, Christ admonishes his disciples that when they make a feast, it's best to invite people who cannot possibly repay the kindness.  To which one of his disciples says in verse 15, "blessed is he that shall eat bread in the kingdom of God" which I interpret that to be a bit of a joke or quip - similar to saying that a person is blessed when they get a free meal and don't have to repay!  Only in this case, the free gift is living in the kingdom God.

This causes Jesus to teach a few more parables.  In the first one, a man made a great supper, symbolizing God's gift of eternal life.  This man had invited many people to eat with him.  When the feast was ready, the man's servant tells the invitees the food is ready, but invariably, they decline the invitation - offering an excuse as to why they cannot join the meal - tending to a piece of recently purchased land, tending to livestock or even caring for a spouse.  All these excuses enraged the master and in his anger, he tells his servant to find those who would accept his meal - the poor, the maimed, the blind and then people on the street.  He vows that none of the original invitees will taste his meal.

Next, Jesus tells two more parables about counting the cost of discipleship.  He makes it absolutely clear the cost of discipleship is EVERYTHING.  He says that even a man will count the cost of building a tower or home and even a king would weigh the cost of going to war.  If a man and a king weigh the costs on such tiny matters, ((when compared to eternal salvation) should not the disciples who claim to follow Jesus also consider the steep cost of following Christ?

We too, need to count the cost of discipleship.  Are we truly willing to commit to Christ?  Are we willing to give our all - similar to Bishop Bienvenu?

And let's suppose someone weighs the cost of discipleship and views the challenge as acceptable - that the price to be paid (which is EVERYTHING) is worth entering the kingdom of God - this person then needs to settle this matter in their heart (see Luke 21:14).  This settling of the heart, is synonymous with commitment to God and his kingdom.

This settling is not easy and sometimes can take years.  I've observed that many people - normal people, Christians, followers, leaders - will settle or focus on the wrong thing.  My Sunday School class will recognize this next quote from Joseph Smith regarding on what we ought to settle our hearts.  He said, “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it."  I then draw a stick figure on the chalkboard - a body, a head, two arms, two hands, two legs and two feet.  I ask them to show me the appendages.  They point to the hands, feet, arms and legs.  I then ask about the head and heart, if these are appendages - the answer is no, those are VITAL to the survival of the person.  And so to apply this concept to settling the gospel in our hearts, we ought to focus on the Gospel of Christ - namely the two great commandments.  And we ought to not focus on appendages such as controversial church history, claims to authority or church programs - all of which are subject to change.  What is vital and never subject to change, is our love of God and neighbor - if we don't fulfill our duties to God and neighbor, nothing else matters.

My favorite scripture from the Book of Mormon is Helaman 5:12.  It says, "it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall."

To repeat, the foundation and rock upon what we ought to build our testimony and commitment is Jesus Christ and his core doctrine of loving God and loving neighbor.

Once you have settled in your heart; that you will love God and neighbor, you must do as Luke 9:57-62 instructs.  Some of the disciples of Christ say they would follow him wherever he goes.  To which Jesus responds, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath no where to lay his head."  Other disciples are willing to follow Jesus, but request of Jesus to let them go and bury their father or to say goodbye to their family.  Jesus laments that "no man, having put his hand to the plough, and looks back, is fit for the kingdom."  These disciples who "look back" are unfit for the kingdom of God - they are not focused on the task at hand - which is to plow the hardened soil of the souls of men, in an effort to prepare them to accept and live the word of God.  Jesus re-affirms his steep price of discipleship that once a man has settled in his heart to follow Jesus, and then put his hand on the plow, that they are not to look back.  Notice in this case, the disciples' hands are probably still on the plow and they are moving along with the oxen, but looking back often.  This indicates a lack of real commitment - their heart has not been fully given over to Jesus, and so he declares they are unfit for the kingdom of God!

Imagine if Bishop Bienvenu waffled or doubted the two great commandments, what state or condition Jean Valjean might have ended up in.

Instead, we are to count the costs of discipleship, settle the matter in our hearts and then put our hand to the plow and till the earth and not look back.  Be decided and committed in your love of God and service to our neighbors.

With our hand firmly on the plow, and only looking forward, how are we to live a committed life, by loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves?

I have found a very useful thought exercise that has helped me to stay focused on loving God and neighbor.  This exercise begins with gratitude.  It is a prayer of thankfulness to God for creating me and allowing me to live in this wonderful world.  This is the first circle of compassion.

Having a heart full of gratitude and feeling assured of God's love of me, I circumscribe a second circle of compassion to those closest to me - my wife Jill and my children Emma, Ben, Erick and Camille.  These are my nearest and dearest and most important neighbors to me.  Much of my effort and time should be devoted to teaching and loving and serving them.

The next circle extends to my parents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents and all my relatives.  These have helped form me into who I am today.  I am grateful for them and do what I can to serve and help them.

The next circle extends out to my co-workers and next-door neighbors.  These are people who I see most often besides my immediate family.  These are the neighbors God has put in my path to love and serve.

The next circle extends out to other friends, neighbors and acquaintances who I see less often.  I do my best to think of their needs and how best to serve them.  Often these interactions are brief and usually involve talking, listening and offering words of encouragement or offering some way to serve.

The next circle extends to people who I do not know, but encounter in my daily course of events - the person who scans my groceries, the boy who bags my groceries, the people I see on the greenbelts when I go on walks.  I try to acknowledge them, say 'hello' to them and try to act socially and kindly to them, and if possible, help them if they are in need.

The next circle extends to people I may never see or encounter, but nonetheless, I see them as children of God.  I accept that there is divinity within them and I strive to have compassion and love for them regardless of their ideology, political leanings or life choices.  Each human being deserves respect and love.

There is no better sermon than the primary song, "Jesus said love everyone."  The simple, one-verse song says all that we need to know.

Jesus said love everyone
Treat them kindly too
When your heart is filled with love
Others will love you

Let's revisit the fruits of Bishop Bienvenu's love toward Jean Valjean.  Jean Valjean turns his life around, becomes mayor, cares for Fantine, rescues Cosette, saves the life of an innocent man who is accused of being the escaped convict Jean Valjean, saves the life of a sailor, saves another man's life while he is mayor, and lastly saves the life of Marius, who would become the husband of Cosette.  Jean Valjean, having put his hand to the plow, did not look back.

To conclude, I want to share what I call the perfect trifecta of scriptures.  Brother Rick Carruth shared these three scriptures a few years ago in a talk he gave and I think these scriptures perfectly sum up what commitment to Christ means.

First: Jesus taught, "Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love they neighbour, and hate thine enemy.  But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." (Matthew 5:43-44)

Second: concerning the two greatest commandments, he taught, "Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all they mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love they neighbour as thyself."  (Matthew 22:37-39)

Third and lastly he taught, "This is my commandment, That ye love one another; as I have loved you.  Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:12-13)

To summarize, we are to love our enemies like we love our neighbors.  We are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  We are to love ourselves and our neighbors as Jesus loved his disciples and us.

It is my prayer, that we all commit our hearts to God and neighbor.  That we have greater compassion and love towards all of God's children.  That we give each other the benefit of the doubt.  That we try to show mercy and understanding, that we mourn with those that mourn, that we turn the other cheek, that we walk the extra mile.  This is my sincerest prayer and I offer it in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.