August 5, 2012

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC



Acts 3:17-26

I grew up Mormon and didn’t even know it.  We were in church every Sunday – a Methodist church – but while we were getting ready to dash out the door, the radio was always on and the same program was always playing.  I can still hear the sign-off, which I think meant we were going to be late for church.

Again we leave you from within the shadows of the everlasting hills.  May peace be with you this day and always . . . Join us in another seven days when “Music and the Spoken Word” will be heard again from the Crossroads of the West.

It was years before I realized this was a Mormon broadcast, and years after that before I realized that Mormons and Methodists were not at all the same.

I didn’t think much more about the Mormon church until we moved to Burley,Idahoto serve the United Methodist church there.  Burley is typical of many towns in southeasternIdaho.  It has more Mormons than people.  I learned in Burley that when you say you are going to the Stake House it doesn’t mean you’re hungry.  When I was in the locker room of my health club, I saw some of the strangest underwear I had ever seen.  It was quite an education.  But part of my education that is still very much with me is that Mormons are some of the finest people on this earth.  I hate to speak in generalities, but with Mormons the stereotype is pretty much true.  They are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

Burley is an extreme example, but all ofIdahohas a high percentage of the population that is Mormon.  OnlyUtahis higher.  And even right here inNampa, this Nazarene community is really more LDS than Nazarene.  We have 17 Nazarene churches and 33 LDS wards.  (By the way, “LDS” stands for Latter-day Saints.  “Mormon” is more a nickname than an official name.)

I imagine you all have LDS friends, many of you have LDS relatives, and who hasn’t had the experience of two extra polite LDS missionaries knocking on your door?  Of course, one reason Mormonism qualifies as a “hot topic” in the summer of 2012 is because this is the year we could be electing a Mormon president.

We’ve never had a president who was not a Christian.  Some were more observant than others.  President Kennedy was our first Catholic president, but Catholics are Christians.  They are the original Christians!  President Obama’s Christianity has been called into question, but any fair-minded person would have to agree that he is a Christian.  But what about Governor Romney if he is elected?  The vote on whether Mormons are Christians might be about as close as the vote in November is likely to be.

I chose a scriptural passage today that Mormon missionaries often cite.  This is Peter’s second sermon.  His first sermon on Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, was a big hit.  The next chapter, Acts 3, opens with a healing miracle.  It’s the miracle that ends with the lame man “walking and leaping and praising God” (3:8).  So now God has not only spoken through this rough fisherman named Peter, God has also healed someone through him.  And now Peter decides to take another stab at preaching.  His audience we can picture still open-mouthed in amazement over the miracle they just witnessed.

He begins by giving Jesus credit for the miracle.  He refers to the Old Testament prophecy that Jesus would suffer and die.  And then we come to Acts 3:21.  I’m going to read it twice, first in the Revised Standard Version that we read today and then in the King James Version that theLDSChurchprefers:

[Jesus] whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke from the mouth of his holy prophets of old (Acts 3:21, RSV).

[Jesus] whom the heaven must receive until the time of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began (Acts 3:21, KJV).

The key word in the King James is “restitution”.  Some other translations say “restoration”.  The reason this is a verse many of our LDS friends have memorized is because they believe their church is the fulfillment of this.  They believe that Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is looking ahead to the day when God’s true church will be brought back to the earth.  It will be restituted.  It will be restored.

The Mormons teach that in 1820 a 14-year-old Joseph Smith was alone in the woods seeking wisdom from God when he had a vision.  God and Jesus appeared to him.  He asked them which church to join.  He was told to join none of them because none of them had remained true to God.  All of them had gone astray.

That’s what Mormons believe.  The true Church of Jesus Christ was lost through sin and error from shortly after the time of the New Testament until 1830 when it was restored in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  And Acts 3:21 is the verse they point to when you ask their scriptural basis for believing this.

So not only do Mormons believe they are Christians.  They believe they are the only ones who really are Christians.  No wonder they get offended when “Christians”, who they aren’t ever sure are Christians, claim they aren’t Christians!

There’s been a public relations campaign in the LDS church.  They’ve taken the emphasis away from Joseph Smith and placed more emphasis on Jesus Christ.  In 1982 the Book of Mormon was officially given the subtitle: “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”  In 1995 a change in their church logo was introduced.  It used to be four lines, each line in the same font-size.  The new logo has three lines and the middle line has the name JESUS CHRIST way bigger than any other word.

Going back to Acts 3:21, here’s how they see it.  On Pentecost God created something new.  The Christian Church.  Before, the followers of Jesus had all been Jews.  Now, from Pentecost on, the only true way to be a Jew is to become a Christian.  We’re with them so far.  That’s what we believe, too.  But here’s where we part company.  They believe that in 1830 God restored the church he first created on Pentecost.  And so now, in these “latter-days”, the only true way to be a Christian is to become a Mormon.  The LDS church, as they see it, is not one church among many, each one with its own particular emphasis.  Their church is unique.  God restored the true church, the only real Christian church, through the LDS church and not through any of the others.

I encourage you to get familiar with the history and doctrine of the LDS church.  I can barely scratch the surface in the limited time we have this morning.  I understand Kim Fields taught an excellent series of classes here on Mormonism.  He has a unique perspective, having been raised Mormon.  I’d like to get him back to repeat that class, but that’s probably a long shot, now that he’s pretty much running the whole Oregon-Idaho Conference.

There are a lot of strange things you will find as you get into the history and doctrine of the Latter-day Saints.  For example, there’s that whole part about the golden plates that we haven’t even touched on.  But in fairness, there are a lot of strange things in the Bible.  I mean, do we really believe Jesus was put to death and then came back to life on the third day?  Yes, we do.  But we don’t believe it because it makes logical sense.  We take it on faith.  Mormons take a lot on faith that leaves those of us on the outside looking in, scratching our heads.

And Mormons have a doctrine of on-going revelation that makes it difficult to pin them down on what exactly they do believe.  Yes, polygamy is part of their history.  But a revelation came to their Prophet in 1890 that polygamy is no longer acceptable.  Yes, they excluded blacks from their priesthood for most of their history.  But a revelation came to their Prophet in 1978 that their priesthood is now open to all males “who are worthy”.  When it comes to their doctrine, you can learn all about the intricacies of what they believe in any number of the “Mormon bashing” books that are out there.  But the problem is, many of these bizarre and arcane beliefs have not been taught or emphasized in their church for years.  They might well be officially excised through “ongoing revelation” at some point in the future.

And even if they aren’t, the LDS church is a church that does not emphasize believing the right things nearly as much as they emphasize living the right way.  You might ask your LDS friends and relatives about some of their stranger doctrines, and they won’t even know what you’re talking about.  Because that’s not where their church places its emphasis.  But ask them about their family home evening or their relief society or how they serve in their ward or what they believe about honor and integrity and personal responsibility and they will have a lot to say.  At least you’ll be talking their language.  Mormons live what they believe.  At least, they try very hard to.  Their faith is practical and down-to-earth.  They do have their missionaries to seek new converts, but their primary strategy of evangelism is to live good lives and let others form opinions about their church by how they live.

So how should we live as followers of Jesus who are not persuaded that the true Church of Jesus Christ was restored to earth through Joseph Smith?  Let me just lay out three possible approaches.

One is that we should aggressively try to convert Mormons.  My quick assessment of this approach is, “Good luck!”  Those who are really into their LDS church are about a likely to be converted as Pope Benedict is to become a Methodist.

In Burley, some of my pastor friends were into Mormon bashing big time.  One of them attended an LDS testimony meeting and when he got to the microphone he said:  “I testify that Joseph Smith was a false prophet.”  That went over really big.  These churches I’m sure got a few new members from disaffected Mormons.  But I doubt if they got any more than we did.  And our approach was entirely different.  We used respect.  It paid dividends in how we were able to succeed in an LDS community.  And even if it didn’t, it was the right thing to do.

This question of whether Mormons are Christians is I think a fair one.  Strong arguments can be made that they are and that they aren’t.  But it’s not particularly helpful in fostering good will to play this “you’re not a Christian” card.  It’s offensive and I don’t know why we would willingly want to offend.

I remember one of my early jobs was stuffing inserts into the “Sunday Oregonian”.  My boss was Southern Baptist.  She knew I was United Methodist.  She asked me one day if our pastor was a Christian.  That was an offensive question.  It still makes me angry.

When we start rendering judgments about who is and who isn’t a Christian, we start down a slippery slope.  If you’re going to say your LDS neighbor isn’t Christian, why not go ahead and say that the person sitting with you on the other end of your pew this morning isn’t Christian?  I think Jesus would say, “What is that to you?  Follow me”  (Jn 21:22).  In other words, “You worry about being a Christian.  Don’t worry about who else is or isn’t.”

So I don’t recommend that we respond to the LDS among us by aggressively trying to convert them.  A second approach would just be to let them do their thing while we do our thing and to avoid at all costs any conversation about faith.  That’s a better approach than the first, but I don’t recommend it either.

Far better I think than either one is something like this.  Work together with the Mormons whenever we can.  For example, the president-elect of our local Ministerial Association is LDS.  A lot of Ministerial Associations exclude the Latter-day Saints.  I’m proud that ours doesn’t.  Because there’s a lot we can do together.  We have many common interests in extending the love of Christ in our community.

And while we work with Mormons when we can, we need to be honest about when we can’t.  We need to be clear about who we are and what we believe.  That means some study for some of us.  Faith is a subject that should never be off limits.  But there is a way to share your faith, and then to be quiet and listen while the other shares, without arguing.  And the person with whom you are engaged in this faith conversation just might happen to be a Mormon who is ready to consider another way to follow Christ.

Jan Shipps is a unique person.  She’s a life-long United Methodist.  She’s also an LDS church historian who is highly regarded in that church.  Jerry Cahill from the Public Communications Department of the LDS church writes that she has “a quality rare among those who observe and write about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: she understands us.”

Her books have helped me prepare this message.  I want to close with a story she uses to close one of her books.  It was communion Sunday in her home church, First United Methodist of Bloomington, Indiana.  It was a hard Sunday for her, because it was the first Sunday after a dear friend had been excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  That means “kicked out.”  We joke about excommunicating people from theUnitedMethodistChurch.  In the LDS church it really happens.  It happens because the LDS church has some very strict expectations.  They make it real clear who is in and who is out and what you need to do and refrain from doing if you intend to stay in.

Jan Shipps, the Methodist and Lavina Fielding Anderson, the Mormon became friends through their common interest in LDS research.  In 1993, Lavina published a chronology documenting spiritual abuse by LDS leaders over the last several decades.  This article resulted in her excommunication.

And so Jan Shipps is serving communion, not thinking much about the communion, but thinking more about her friend, who for the first Sunday in more than four decades would be unable to receive communion in the church that had disowned her.  That’s when Jan Shipps had a mystical experience.  She knew her friend was with her.  Spiritually, not physically, but truly with her none the less.  And it occurred to Jan that in the LDS tradition they baptize people by proxy.  You can be dead and still be baptized into the LDS church.  Her friend Lavina was now dead, as far as her church was concerned.  That’s what excommunication really means.  And so now Jan Shipps was participating in communion by proxy, with and for her friend.  She writes, “It comforted me.  And I am certain that Lavina was comforted, too.”  (Sojourner in the Promised Land, page 361)

Dear God, it is regrettable that your church is so splintered.  Jesus prayed that we might all be one, and we are still waiting for that prayer to be answered.  Help us to hold fast to your truth as we understand it in the Bible.  And help us especially to remember that a big part of that truth is love for all people, even those who understand your truth differently.  In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.