Part One (Read Part Two)
April 11, 2010
I remember distinctly when I first knew Mormons were slightly different from me. I was in the fifth grade, living in the area of San Diego called Del Cerro, which means The Hills. I playing at my friend Matt Reed’s house; Matt was a part of a big LDS family, and his home was literally built in the side of a hill. We were playing army, and so were we were running all in his house and hiding. I was hiding in Matt’s kitchen when I opened the pantry door. It opened into what looked like an overstuffed 7-11. The pantry door was modest; but the inside was huge, about the size of a small one-car garage, which it may have been before. I didn’t stay gawking for long; Matt found me, and told me about his family’s storehouse. That night I asked my Sunday school teacher of a mother about what I’d seen. Yes, she said, Mormons keep enough food for a year, for a family their size and another the same size. (Notice that the rubric is not food for their family for two years.) The trick, Mom explained, was the keep the food rotated so that you would use the older food first, which meant that the pantry had to be well stocked and well organized. I was impressed that a family with seven kids could keep that much food on hand and from going bad: basically food for 18 people for a year. (Interestingly, Matt is now married, has a family, and still lives in that same house, and his kids go to the same elementary school we went to.)
I would know lots more Mormons growing up in San Diego, playing sports with them, being in scouts with them; I even dated one sort of. The last months of my senior year I dated the homecoming queen, who was a Baptist for the months she and I dated, but I heard she became a Mormon soon after I left for college—such is the powerful religious effect I have on women.
Perhaps no other question is raised as frequently as this $64,000 one: Are Mormons Christian? Mormons, of course, absolutely believe that they Christians, because the love and worship the Lord, Jesus Christ, and endeavor to follow his example in all the things. To paraphrase the Book of Mormon, they talk about Christ, rejoice in Christ, preach about Christ, prophesy about Christ, and look to him alone for the forgiveness of sins (2 Nephi 25.26). In what way could they not be Christian?
Well, it seems that the deciding factor depends on how you define the word Christian. If the word means its primary dictionary definition—one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ—then the answer is an absolute yes. But some people who ask this question sometimes think that this belief is enough. For example, they may call Mormons non-Christians because Mormons reject the concept of the Trinity as other Christian churches have traditionally defined it: the God is one ultimate being with three persons. In LDS belief, the Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are three separate beings who work together as one—this is different that our concept of the Trinity, meaning they’re one in substance as well as purpose.
They have other beliefs about God we might consider odd: God isn’t so much a creator as an organizer; God didn’t will creation into being—matter has always existed. Again, different than our belief that God created everything out of nothing. The Heavenly Father in Mormon belief is a being of glorified flesh and bone, and as is his literal son, Jesus Christ. Most Baptist Christians hold that God is spirit and doesn’t have a physical body. Similarly, for Mormons, human beings are God procreated children born with divine potential, and God is eternally married to the Heavenly Mother, and together they’ve populated the world with their children, us. This is not the traditional protestant view, in which we humans are created in God’s spiritual image, but we become God’s spiritual children through adoption by God’s grace, not by our nature, nor in our view is God married. These might sound weird ideas to you, but I can tell from experience you they are no weirder than some of the beliefs members of this church hold.
For some traditional Christians, the nature of God and Christ are reasons not to consider Mormons Christians; others see the Book of Mormon as the sticking point. These beliefs about God are much different than ours, but they are not the crucial criterion whether or not one is a Christian, which to me is, can you affirm in word and deed Jesus is Lord? Mormons can and do, and that is enough for me. Which bring me to this morning’s tie-in with our Easter theme, This I Believe. I believe Mormons are Christians, and that we have much to learn from them. Each of you can certainly decide for him- or herself, as you always do, and I love that about you all.
In recent years the LDS church has been using the tagline “Christian but different.” In other words, Mormons consider themselves Christians, but their beliefs and practices are sometimes quite different from traditional creedal Christians. (Remember that Baptists are NOT creedal Christians, by the way.) It’s helpful to me to think about adding Mormon Christians to other kinds Christians already out there: Evangelical Christians, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholic Christians, Baptist Christians. Mormon Christians believe that although their doctrine may sound unusual to other Christians, their devotion to Christ and their good works in his name reflect well on the Lord that all Christians seek to emulate. And as Jesus himself said in this morning’s passage, his followers will be known by their fruits. College Park is certainly known by our fruits!
So how did this workday come to be planned? Well, it was largely due to our 11-year-old daughter Hannah and her longtime friendship with a LDS girl named Sophie. About four years ago, as I rotated off the Habitat for Humanity board I starting thinking about how about the same dozen or so churches build all the habitat homes. Who were we missing? I felt that LDS churches could be a good group for us to build with, so I mentioned it to the Habitat muckymucks. They liked the idea, so I mentioned it to Sophie’s dad, Ned, who was the bishop (the lay leader) of the Guilford Ward that year. He liked the idea too, but he wondered how they would do the fund-raising, since all of their tithe goes directly to Salt Lake City, which sends them back funds. We talked about it once or twice. Soon after I heard about the vast amount of money that the national LDS leadership was spending in California to get Prop 8 past, and I wondered at that point if we were good fit. I decide to leave it for the time being. Then this December after Christmas, Ned called and asked if College Park would be interested in a joint workday with his LDS congregation. He said that he didn’t have a definite plan in mind yet, since he wanted it to be a joint venture about projects and date. I took it to both missions committee and deacons, and both groups passed it unanimously and with excitement. People from both missions and deacons volunteered to be on the leader team: Wendy Smithey, Jerry Cunningham, Matt Cravey, Cindy Dillon, Deanna Holt Miller, Beth Webb and I have been meeting with our new LDS friends.
Even so, why are we doing this? The short answer is that I believe this is what the spirit of God is leading us to do. You know I rarely use this kind of language, nor do I blame God for my strange ideas. But I think this is what God would have us to do right now.
The long answer is because we can. College Park can do workdays like this because we seek to be radically open with our faith with and to other people. We are a free church that is congregationally led, and one that embraces our freedom in Christ. One of the gifts that God’s spirit has given this church is the gift of acceptance. We accept people here where they are and who they are as good gifts of grace. This is different from mere tolerance. For example, we have had for many years’ women in leadership positions and female ministers. Thankfully, this is not as radical as it once was. We are also welcoming and affirming of gay and lesbian Christians. We’re not the only church in Greensboro to be so, but it is still too rare. When we combine with the Jewish congregations in town, Temple Emanuel & Beth David Synagogue, we do believing they are our elder brothers and sisters in God, allowing them their own integrity of their following God and the messiah. New members here serve communion, and children are welcome at the Lord’s Table.
All of which is NOT to say, ain’t we cool, but to point out that because we seek to follow God passionately, we know what we believe and are not put off by the faith journeys of others. The passionate love we have for God in our hearts recognizes that same passion for God in others, and we are drawn to them. What unites CP is that our primary identity is as Christians, followers of the risen Lord. While we have many other things that identify us, we are first and foremost, Christians. Ned Jarvis, my friend and Sophie’s dad, pulled me aside after the second meeting we had planning this workday and said, “I want to thank you again for your congregation doing this with ours. One of our sister wards approached another church to plan a workday together, and was told, “No way. We want nothing to do with you.” I was speechless when he said this, but not surprised.
When we are radically ecumenical like this, we do so without saying dumb or dishonest statements, like, “Well, we’re all saying the same thing about God,” or “It doesn’t matter what you believe about God as long as you believe it passionately.” Have you ever hear someone say that tripe? We are not all saying the same thing about God; different faiths make different truth claims about who God is and how God wants us to act. And it matters deeply what we believe about God and God’s claim on our lives. But we are not so arrogant to think we know everything about God. We don’t assign people to hell because they believe differently. We believe deeply that God loves all people and craves a relationship with us, though God only knows what God finds interesting in some of us.
As I have said, I for one believe there are different roads to God, and that each passes through the cosmic Christ, but that it is absolutely crucial that each of us take one. So what if there are many roads to God—take one! There is no general road to God, no road that embraces sloth or narcissism, or a life just consumed with TV, weed, fame, and the latest thing from Apple. All the paths to God involve discipline, and sacrifice and intention. All people who seek God whole-heartedly find God. There is no half-hearted way to follow God’s ways in the world.
It is our hope that at least four groups will benefit from our efforts. The first is of course the people to whom our efforts are focused: the student and staff of Peck Elementary; the recipients of the blood we donate; the women of My Sister’s Susan’s house; and this city’s residents who use our remarkable parks and public lands. I feel strongly that every ecumenical event we do should have a strong sense of doing something positive for people in the name of God. Whenever we get together with any sister congregation, I trust that some concrete benefit arises out of our joint efforts. And it’s a meta-message to cynics, so that whenever religious people get together for understanding and fellowship, something of what Christ taught is in evidence. Hungry children are fed, public lands are cleared and cleaned, donated blood is shared, young pregnant women are nurtured for, a school is beautified. This is Christ’s work in Greensboro.
Secondly, I am hopeful that we might be changed people. By doing God’s work in the world, we are changed. We empty ourselves of our preoccupation with ourselves, and discover ourselves filled with God’s wild spirit. It’s a good trade. Likewise, Mormon Christians with whom we work side-by-side, for just a few hours, will influence us. We will be reminded that Mormons have gotten a bum rap, and that prejudice is a very bad thing. Religious prejudice especially is a subtle sin.
Thirdly, I hope we change our new Mormon friends. Trust me, I don’t think they’ve ever met Christians like you all. They need to experience that the twin ideas of being free and faithful can co-exist in a group of Christians. They need to be reminded that phrases like “female ministers,” “gay Christians,” or even “Baptist tolerance” are not oxymorons. You are the best advertisement for what Christ can do in people’s lives, and the Christ in you will call to the Christ in them, and I am betting the both of us will be amazed.
Lastly, I hope this one little act of faithfulness will be a witness to Greensboro. These are very divisive times we live in, and the cause of Christ is associated with too many kinds of hate and intolerance. Maybe by two congregations coming together to act out our witness, we can uphold Christ’s light in the world. People in our city need God’s love and power and forgiveness and light. We best never forget that is why we exist: not for ourselves, but for others outside these walls.
So, won’t you join us? The LDS ward is has about 150 members, and they are bringing 70-80. We have about 400 members. Please don’t embarrass me theologically. There are five opportunities for service on Sat April 24 from 8-12. Four short hours. The sign up is on my right. One location is working indoors and outdoors at Peck Elementary, the local school that we provide the backpacks for. (btw, did I mention that the Guilford Ward congregation is making a $1000 donation of food for our backpack ministry? And another $1000 donation of diapers and the like to My Sister Susan’s House?) Two other workgroups: Adults can work outside at My Sister Susan’s House planting; others will be working here assembling care packages for the residents of that house. The fourth work group will be cleaning up designated Parks on that day as well. The fifth and last offering is a blood drive at the LDS chapel on Pinetop near Claxton Elementary that day. The kick-off potluck dinner is this coming Sat night right here in our fellowship hall with the Mormon congregation. Please sign up, please come, please help, and please be changed by joining with this unlikely pairing in doing God’s work in Greensboro.