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John 14.1-7

I Nephi 18.23-19.3

Holy Moroni

Third Sunday after Epiphany

In October, I spent a week in Salt Lake City for my annual study leave.  It was my first visit to the city, and it was so cool to be sitting at the base of the Wasatch Mountain Range, at the western slope of the Rockies.  The reasons for my visit were two:  Debbie had a national school librarians conference at the Salt Palace, and I took the opportunity to fill in the considerable gap in my knowledge of the Mormon Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  Salt Lake City is dominated, both geographically and ideologically, by the Church.  Geographically, because a good deal of the city is oriented around Temple Square, home of the mother church.  The streets and blocks of the city are positioned and numbered with respect to their location in a grid around the Square: 100 St  S. is one block south of Temple Square, 500 St W. is 5 blocks west of it, and so on.  And each block is ten acres square, as is the Temple campus.  The streets themselves are unusually wide; they are difficult to cross without a walk sign.  Brigham Young designed them this way so that, in his words, an ox-pulled wagon team could turn around “without resorting to profanity.”  The city also reflects the ideology of the Church, particularly regarding attitudes toward and restrictions bound by temperance.  All draft beers are required to be 5% ABV or less, and spirits can only be had in pours no more than 1 ½ ounces.  Of course, creative mixologists have found ways to get around the restrictions, and I did have cause to wonder just how religiously motivated they actually are.  Debbie and I had dinner one evening at one of the oldest establishments in Salt Lake City, a place called Whiskey Street, named for a section of town that once boasted 37 distilleries, all of them run by Mormons; Brigham Young himself had 235 charges at one distillery over the course of ten years, which comes to two visits each month, every month over the course of the decade.

As I said, I went out to Utah not knowing very much about the Mormons, probably because I’ve spent most of my life on the east coast and there just aren’t many Mormon churches out here.  But still, there are more than 6 ½ million Mormons in the United States – compare that with the United Church of Christ’s number at just a hair over a million, and I realized I should probably be better acquainted with a denomination six times the size of my own regardless of where I happen to live.  I knew a little bit about Joseph Smith, whose prophecies established the Mormon Church, a bit about the so-called “golden plates” from which he translated their scriptures, and a little bit about the Mormon migration from New York to Illinois to Missouri to what eventually became the state of Utah – although on their arrival, the territory still technically belonged to Mexico.  In fact, the Mormon Church had a significant role in gaining statehood for Utah, and I think partly because of this, it has always had an American-facing slant to it, sometimes for the good, and sometimes for the unusual.

You may have caught a whiff of the unusual if you read my Friday blog, which was simply the introduction to The Book of Mormon in its entirety.  Mormon was an ancient prophet of an undetermined era, who gave his writings and prophecies to his son Moroni, sometimes considered an angel, who added some words of his own to the prophecies, which were inscribed on golden plates, as we heard in I Nephi 19:  “And it came to pass that the Lord commanded me, wherefore I did make plates of ore that I might engraven upon the record of my people.”   Moroni buried the plates under a hill called Cumorah, which is in New York State near the town of Palmyra.  Joseph Smith “discovered” the golden plates and translated them; the translations are the Mormon scriptures:  The Book of Mormon, Doctrines and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price.  Moroni chose America to hide the plates because, in Mormon understanding, America is the new Israel, the new promised land.  As Mormon history has it, some time in the seventh century before the birth of Jesus, two tribes, or families of Israel, the Nephites and the Lamanites emigrated from the middle east to America and settled it.  The history is a little fuzzy here – in some places the writings indicate that only the Lamanites survived, and in some places both tribes survived.  But it is noteworthy that neither family is listed among the Old Testament’s twelve tribes, or families, of Israel.  In fact, I scoured the Hebrew scriptures for the names of Nephi and Laman, and found only crumbs.  A form of the name Nephi appears in the book of Ezra:  in the list of the people who returned to Israel from the Babylonian captivity, Ezra lists someone called Nephisim as one of the temple servants.  And there is no Laman in the Old Testament, although Laman is also called the son of Lehi, and Lehi is a location in the book of Judges, specifically the place where Samson defeated the invading Philistines by wielding the jawbone of an ass.  The Hebrew word for the jawbone of an ass is Lehi.  So it is the Nephites and the Lamanites who came to America, whose passage is described in the verses I read from the 18th chapter of I Nephi in The Book of Mormon:  “And it came to pass that I , Nephi, did guide the ship, that we sailed again towards the promised land.  And it came to pass that after we had sailed for the space of many days we did arrive at the promised land; and we went forth upon the land, and did pitch our tents; and we did call it the promised land.”  And as the introduction tells us, these families of Nephi and Laman are the principal ancestors of the Native Americans.  As I said, a rather unusual history.

Seven hundred years later America once again finds a place in early Mormon history, which hold that after the resurrection, Jesus came to America and preached to the Native Americans.  And when he returns in glory at the second coming, he will appear first in Jerusalem, and then in Missouri.  Now, to be fair, while this last bit of information is not found in the Mormon scriptures, it is mentioned in a Mormon commentary on the scriptures, that Christ will return to a land called “Bountiful,” which they take to mean a place in America.

I really enjoyed my week in Utah, and my time spent in Temple Square was rewarding.  If you remember the pictures I shared with you all on my return, the Temple itself is completely surrounded by scaffolding.  Construction is underway to build a three story basement of sorts, an underground space for offices and meeting rooms and assembly halls.  Of course, as a non-Mormon, I would not be allowed in the building in any event, especially for worship, which is what I was hoping to do, because only Mormons are allowed to attend.  And I respect that.  My disappointment was mitigated though by the opportunity to sit in the Mormon Tabernacle, which I did on a couple occasions for the daily organ recital, and what a magnificent instrument in such a magnificent space.  The organ itself holds 206 ranks, and 11,623 pipes, organized into eight divisions and played from a five manual console.  And the acoustics are so delicate that you could literally hear a pin drop from 700 feet away – the pin-drop demonstration precedes every recital.  The tabernacle is in the round, and during one recital the organist – they varied from day to day – dared the audience to identify when the pipes in the front of the space were voicing, and when the pipes in the rear were – the acoustics are so good it was close to impossible to tell the direction of the music.  And the people I met on the campus were to a person friendly and gregarious.  It was almost like freshman year in college – folks would smile and wave to me, would invariably greet me with a hello or a good morning, and sometimes say things like “It’s nice to have you here,” or, “I like the sportcoat you’re wearing.”  Admittedly, for this semi-taciturn New Englander, it bordered on unsettling, but that says more about me than it does about them.  It was clear that this non-Mormon was more than welcome on the Temple campus.

But I came to the city and to the church with a theological question in mind, and to be honest, I’m not certain I came away with a definitive answer.  The question is simple enough:  Is Mormonism Christian?  Is Mormonism a Christian religion?  With a name like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the answer might seem to be a no-brainer.  Jesus really is the center that holds Mormonism together.  The passage from John that Jennifer read this morning has multipole parallels in The Book of Mormon, particularly when Jesus ways “I am the way, the truth and the life, whoever would come to God comes by me.”  In 2001, Dr. Robert Millett, Dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University, gave an address at Harvard Divinity School where he articulated what Mormons believe about Jesus:  that he is the Son of God, that the details of his life in the gospels are historical and true, that he performed miracles and is the head of the church, that he died and rose again and that he is the path to salvation.  But it is also telling that, in the words of Joseph Smith, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.”  What this means for the Mormons is that with the death of Jesus’ disciples, the church as we know it ceased to exist for 1700 years, because the word of God was incorrectly translated and transmitted by those who followed.  In fact the church of Jesus Christ was not sustained by the spirit of God or by the resurrected Jesus until the angel Moroni directed Smith to the golden plates which held the three additional books of God I mentioned, The Book of Mormon, Doctrines and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price, which detailed the further adventures of Jesus, if you will, including his post-resurrection appearance in America and his appearance to the tribes and families of Nephi and Laman seven centuries before his nativity.  Add to this the doctrines that God is a material being rather than a spiritual one, and has a wife, that there is not one God, but a series of gods who serially created one another over the centuries, and that Jesus’ promise at the end of Matthew, “I am with you always until the end of the age” has a 1700 year gap, and I think we may be excused if we wonder about the answer to my primary question, is Mormonism Christian? 

But I must admit my question says as much about me, and my own understanding of what constitutes faith, as it does about the Mormon Church.  Because at the end of the day, the Mormons don’t care much for believing, they are much more about doing.  To put it in the language of Luther, Mormon Christianity is less about faith than it is about works.  My question is a theological one, and Mormons aren’t really focused on theology.  In fact, I spent more than an hour in the Deseret Book Store, which is dedicated exclusively to works by and about Mormons and their religion, and the most recent text on Mormon theology written by a Mormon was published in 1899.  So maybe it’s not fair to ask a theological question – Is Mormonism Christian? – of a church that has little interest in theology.

There are other aspects of the church that I don’t have time to go into this morning:  the long history of polygamy, which, though refuted in the 1800s continues in certain fundamentalist Mormon circles today, its male-oriented and dominated leadership, and its suspicion and exclusion of what they call “gentiles,” which refers to all of us who are not Mormon.  At the end of the day, it remains true that there are many paths to God, and if the Mormon Church, would rather focus on the doing part of their religion and not so much on the believing part, then may there always be ways of working together to build community and in so doing to honor Christ.

And, as a postscript, let me say how much I appreciate the fact that this congregation provides me with both the time and the means to go away for study leave.  I hope it helps me to be a better minister and I hope I can find ways to share my experiences with all of you.

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