Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost, September 22, 2013
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
A recording of this sermon is available via Ancient Faith Radio.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Exactly 190 years ago today, in the year 1823, is the day that a not quite 18-year-old young man said that he was led by the appearance of an angel to begin digging in a hillside near his home in Manchester, New York. He said that he found buried there a stone box, and inside it were a set of golden plates inscribed in a language he called “reformed Egyptian.” He tried to remove the plates but was reportedly prevented from doing so by the angel, who kept telling him to come back annually to the place.
Finally in 1827, he reported that he removed the golden plates and brought them back home and set to work translating them into English by use of a special set of seeing stones that he put into a hat. He would place his face in the hat and then dictate the translation to scribes, who had to get the dictation correct or else God would supposedly prevent him from letting the dictation go forward. The translation took place mainly in a little town called Harmony up in the northeastern corner of Pennsylvania. It is also in Harmony that the young man said that a resurrected John the Baptist appeared to him and another man and restored the priesthood of Aaron through them in 1829. The two men subsequently baptized each other in the Susquehanna river, the waterway that defines much of the geography of Eastern Pennsylvania.
Those familiar with American religious history will of course recognize this story as the beginning of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormons, founded by the young Joseph Smith. The translation made from the golden plates is called The Book of Mormon.
There are some big problems with Smith’s story about finding the golden plates and also with many of the claims in The Book of Mormon regarding ancient civilizations in America and other such things—Egyptologists have, for instance, never heard of “reformed Egyptian.” There is nothing to corroborate its existence as a language apart from Smith’s claims about it. And since he claims to have given the golden plates back to the angel, they can’t be examined by anyone. And there is also no archaeological evidence of any sort to back up major parts of the historical information described in The Book of Mormon. No one has ever found evidence of all these civilizations in America that the book describes. These are just two examples of the numerous difficulties that come if someone begins examining Mormonisn to see whether he finds it believable.
But people do believe it. So why is Mormonism growing so quickly? How can people reconcile these many historical problems with the claims made by The Book of Mormon and other scriptures of the Mormon religion? Mormonism provides this supposed key, and it is taken from its scriptural book Doctrine and Covenants, which was penned by Smith in 1829, also in Harmony, Pennsylvania:
“But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (Section 9, verse 8).
How are you supposed to know that Mormon doctrine and claims are correct? Pray and ask God if it’s right, and if you feel that it is right, then you know that it is right. No problem, right?
If you find that an unreliable method for knowing the truth, then you’ve just identified a major religious cultural problem of our time. Many of us, even here in the Orthodox Church, make decisions about ultimate things, about eternal truth, based on how we feel.
I’ve heard, for instance, people say that they became Orthodox or that they remain Orthodox because the worship feels mystical or reverent or powerful or ancient. Some people say that Orthodoxy feels like “home.” For still others, it may feel likable or comfortable. Or maybe it just feels cool.
Contrast that approach to knowing the truth and making choices based on it to what we heard in today’s Gospel. After Jesus calls Simon Peter and tells him that he would be “catching men” rather than fish from then on, no one says, “How do we feel about this?” or even “Let’s pray about this and see if we feel peace.” There was a feeling mentioned, of course—astonishment at the sudden great catch of fish that they had made when they let down the net at Jesus’ command. Of course they feel that way—it’s an obvious miracle. But Jesus doesn’t say to Simon, “Notice how you feel right now? That’s how you know this is true.” He does address the feeling, but He says, “Do not be afraid.”
Don’t mistake what we’re saying here, though—there’s nothing wrong with feeling that the Orthodox Church is your home, that it is reverential, ancient, mysterious, etc., even comfortable or even cool. The problem comes when we turn our feelings into a test of authenticity.
Why is that?
The most obvious reason is that feelings are notoriously unreliable. When confronted with a mystical vision of a ghost in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge quite rightly suggests that his experience might be the result of an undigested bit of beef. He doesn’t trust it. Scrooge is of course not the hero of the story at that moment, but he has a point. How can he know whether what he is confronted with is truly more grave than gravy?
Another problem with the reliance on feelings as a test of authenticity is that feelings are relatively easily accessed and received. So you’re here, and it feels great. You feel the reverence. You feel the power. Maybe you even feel the love. So you got what you came for. Is there any need for further study? Is there any need for real repentance? Is there any need for deepening your faith? You already feel great, so why do the extra work? Why go any further on the path, when you’ve already arrived at your destination?
And what happens when feelings change? What if your parish changes and you don’t like it as much as you once did? What if you move to another parish and it just doesn’t feel like home? What if you get a new priest and his style is quite different from the previous one’s? What if you just get bored? What if you get married and your spouse’s experience of Orthodoxy kind of gets in the way of what you once felt? What if you find out that the history of the Church is a bit more complicated than that breakthrough tract you once read that changed your mind about everything? What if the people around you in church are more worldly than you imagined that this faith must produce? What if the priest or the deacon turns out to be a big sinner? What if your life circumstances change and you can’t be here as often as you once were? What if it feels like no one around you actually is living the Gospel, maybe even including you?
All those things can radically alter our feelings about the authenticity of this faith, about Christ. What then? Well, in many cases, we know what happens then: People leave. People get mad. People move on. People fade away. People give up because the shininess wore off.
So how does Simon Peter know that he can trust the Lord Jesus, Whom he has only just met at this point in the Gospel story? How can any of us trust that this faith is true? What is the one, secret key to authenticity, to knowing what is right? I do not think that there is one.
We human beings make our best decisions based on a combination of reason, experience, trust and intuition. Feelings can fall in there somewhere, and I would never tell someone that it’s bad to feel feelings. It’s not. Feelings can be very useful. But to make them the secret key to discerning authenticity is very dangerous. Of all the things we use to make decisions, feelings are the most unreliable, the most unpredictable, the most subject to our sinful passions and self-delusion.
If the Orthodox Christian Church is to be your path, make it your path not because it feels good or right, in whatever way it might feel good or right. Make this your path because you trust that God was serious when He said He would build His Church and you see that this one really has kept the faith the same all these many centuries. Make this your path because here is how get to true humility and love, even when it hurts, even when it’s hard or boring or you just don’t feel like it any more. Make this your path because this faith is reliable in the way that Christ is reliable—not comfortable, but challenging and transforming and healing.
Yes, you may feel some feelings along the way, and thank God for them! But there is much more to an authentic and wholly human pilgrimage in following Jesus Christ. How we feel can be a nice bonus, even a consolation from God, but it is not what brings us home. What sustains us when our feelings are soaring, falling, stagnant, erratic, comfortable or uncomfortable? We embrace the whole of this faith with everything that we are.
To the Holy Trinity therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.