Shoulder to the Wheel of Uncontainable Grace

 A reflection on 1 Kings 8:(1,6,10-11), 22-30, 41-43, Proper 16B

Thursday night, curious about what they would say, I watched Rock Center with Brian Williams, and its report on the Mormon Church.  Born into a Mormon family in Salt Lake City, I am a descendent of pioneers who put their “heart to song, their shoulder to the wheel” and travelled across this country in order to live their faith in peace and prosperity.

Rock Center’s report spoke of the values of the Mormon faith: hard work, strong family ties, deep faith, and a commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as they understand it.
By the time the report was over I found myself wondering why I left the church. I was a faithful member for the first fourteen years of my life. My parents were married in the temple. I was baptized by full immersion in the baptismal pool in the building known as the tabernacle on Temple Square.  (In case you don’t know how special Mormon’s think that is, you just have to see the expression on the face of a Salt Lake City Mormon –  a generation younger than I when I tell them this –  and you’d think I held rock star status). Everywhere I lived in Salt Lake City I could see the temple with the glistening angel Maroni on top.
And then, a moment after I wondered about leaving, I remembered how I struggled in Sunday school with the teachings of the church. Questions were not encouraged. We were supposed to learn the rules, do what we were told and work hard. I sang this hymn many times:
Put your shoulder to the wheel; push along,
Do your duty with a heart full of song,
We all have work; let no one shirk.
Put your shoulder to the wheel.
The report on Rock Center was glossy, smooth, and illustrious.
Even the interviews with those who left the church failed to show the “shadow side” of the Mormon faith that I knew.
It is one thing to promote good hard work; it’s another thing when hard work is translated into a theology of salvation.
And then there is this idea: as a child I was taught that each person who is alive, or ever has been alive, or ever will be alive, begins as a preexisting soul waiting in heaven to be born into a specific family at a particular point in time. God determines who our family is and the circumstances into which we are born.
Think about how that teaching might inform the current political conversation on health care and the economy. What it might mean to believe that God determines the circumstances each person is born into.
Take a moment, let that soak in.
To some degree the teachings of the Mormon Church, as I remember them, mirror the ideas of God conveyed in the readings we have heard this summer from the book of Samuel and now the book of Kings. The Mormon Church believes it is the modern day remnant of the twelve tribes of Israel revisioned in the teachings of Joseph Smith as the Latter Day Saints. They believe they are God’s chosen people.
The Old Testament readings this summer portray God as the one who chose the kings of Israel: Saul, David, and now Solomon. Kings chosen by God because the Israelites are God’s chosen people.
Although I loved my family church, even as a child I struggled with its teachings.  Particularly that God accepted into heaven only the people who practiced that religion and lived its particular principles of hard work and rules. I am to this day a hard worker. But, for my own health and well-being, I have had to learn how to live a balanced life.
Part of that balance understands that not every aspect of life is predetermined by God.
Sometimes things happen.  Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people.
Disease happens. Storms happen. Disasters happen.  There is a randomness to life.
God does not control every aspect of our lives.
Part of that balance is recognizing that our lives are an interwoven network of relationship – we have a responsibility one human being to another.
We are called by God to work hard but also to be aware – to recognize how the actions of our lives impact others, for better or for worse.
The good of my life might be the demise of another.
The coffee I buy on sale at the grocery store may come at the expense of the coffee farmer in Mexico who struggles to make ends meet, perhaps, ultimately contributing to illegal immigration.
It’s hard work to become aware and informed, we all have work, let no one shirk.
The Church of my childhood taught me about a God who counted all my sins and demanded a strict adherence to a set of rules. These rules were bound within a culture of privilege which made its members better than everyone else.  Beyond the need to proselytize and convert others to the faith, the church did not teach people to think about the global, systemic, and cosmic relationship of our intermingled lives.
Our readings this morning point us to think about the wider and deeper implications of life and faith. They portray for us a God who is less concerned with human perfections (remember David, the “great king”) and more concerned that we recognize when and how we fail to love as God loves.
Wil Gafney, an Episcopal priest, professor, and Old Testament scholar says this about Solomon in our reading this morning:
“In a time when most folk wouldn’t marry outside of their tribe or clan – Solomon did – and perhaps as a result, Solomon had a vision of a God who was bigger than he was, bigger than his family, bigger than his nation, bigger than folk who thought they had a monopoly on God. Or perhaps, having so many people in his family from so many different places opened his eyes to God in the world beyond the world which he knew. Solomon believed in a God who was not his alone, a God who would be the God of people he would never meet. …”
In the end, like Solomon, I’ve come to understand that God’s grace is expansive, generous, and creative. God shows up in clouds and bread and wine and the messy imperfection of human lives.  And always, when God shows up, an uncontainable expression of love, compassion, and grace shows up too.  Now that is a heart full of song I can sing.

About Terri C Pilarski

I am an Episcopal priest serving a delightfully progressive, interesting, creative congregation. I have been married more than half my life to the same man. We have two grown children, plus two dogs and two cats, although the number of four legged household members changes from time to time. I love to garden, knit, read, and play on Facebook or with my blog. I have been a practitioner of daily meditation since I was nineteen. I practice yoga five days a week and walk every where I am able too.
This entry was posted in family, Latter Day Saints, Proper 16B, Rock Center, the Mormon Church. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Shoulder to the Wheel of Uncontainable Grace

  1. Martha Spong says:

    I loved reading your story, and I'm sure your congregation will appreciate hearing it. The words to that hymn are amazing, aren't they? (In both good and challenging ways.)

  2. altar ego says:

    Nicely woven. And all of a sudden a light comes on that explains why Romney is so clueless about the world beyond his own–why he doesn't seem to grasp that his experience is limited, and that those limitations prove dangerous for the rest of us. It doesn't comfort me, but it opens my understanding. Thank you for that.

  3. Robin says:

    I came over to read this after reading your post on FB. For what it's worth, I think it's a lovely and meaningful sermon.

  4. Diane says:

    I wonder what your parish member meant. I think it is always appropriate (in a loving way) to lift up what true grace looks like. And this was a loving and also a critical look at another faith tradition with which you are familiar.Perhaps your parish member was worried that you were commenting on Romney's fitness to be president, instead of (more broadly) a Mormon's different perspective on faith and grace.I found your sermon fascinating. thanks for sharing.

  5. This is a beautiful and powerful sermon Terri. Thank you for sharing it.

  6. i watched Rock Center also and felt much the same reaction… i dated a Mormon seriously for a bit in college… Mormonism seems "wholesome" to many… and oh my goodness… to begin to explain the shadows is daunting… but you did it nicely indeed.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  8. Pastor Julia says:

    Thank you so much for writing, preaching, and sharing this. I've been thinking quite a bit about this topic and your words have fleshed out some of the things that really bother me about the absence of grace in the discussions. Thank you!

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