Bishop Daniel Sylvester Tuttle, the first missionary Bishop of Montana, writes about the winter of 1867-68 that he spent in Virginia City. He loved the people, but felt oppressed by what he described as the prayerlessness and godlessness.
For example, he had Sunday School teachers, of them he writes, there was “a Quaker, a Baptist, and two Methodists.. and one ‘churchman.’” Even though these were the best he had, one of the these was an absolute drunk and another was a habitual gambler. The vestry was worse, he writes, “Of the vestry of St. Paul’s church which we got together, one vestryman, high in civil office, got into an altercation with a lawyer over some matters retailed by gossip, and would have shot him dead had not a friend near by struck up the pistol. One was a Unitarian. Another, the most godly of them all, and the one on whom I most leaned for Christian and churchly earnestness, became involved in a dispute, and missed, by the smallest margin, the fighting of a duel. Still another was an appallingly steady drinker.” In early February he wrote to his wife saying… “Before I went to choir meeting Major Veale, my only faithful churchman here, called. He and I are putting our heads together about the election of a new vestry at Eastertide. We mean to cut down the number from nine to seven. We mean to throw out at least drunkards and violent swearers. Aside from him the other six, at the best, will have to be Unitarians, moderate drinkers and decent world’s men.” Now if that was the Sunday School teachers and Vestry, then can you imagine what the rest of the church must have looked like?
The church is an interesting creature. We would all like to think that it is entirely made up of saints and angels, but like Bishop Tuttle discovered this is far from reality. On any given day you can look at the church and see the glory of God or the scandals that threaten to bring it down. As Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Caterbury states, “The Church is not the society of those labeled virtuous. It is the mixed community of sinners called to be saints.” So, in the Church, there are days when we can all say with Shakespeare, “Hell is empty and all the demons are here.”
Thing is, it has been this way from the very beginning. At one point in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is debating with the leaders of the infant Church. At issue is the fact that these leaders do have faith in Christ – they are Christians – but they are also Jews as were almost all of Jesus early followers. However, because they are Jews, they have not abandoned the idea that the followers of Jesus must also be followers of the Law of Judaism, part of which was the requirement of circumcision for the men. The leadership asked Peter, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” This may not sound like much to us today, but back then it was a very big deal. They are asking him, “Why are you associating with sinners?!”
In our Gospel reading today, we have the same problem. “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” At another time Jesus will be seen eating and drinking with similar types, and the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” If these same religious leaders had been around Bishop Tuttle they would have asked, “Why do you hang around drunkards and violent swearers. And by the way, what’s up with that vestry?” However, Jesus answers them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Jesus ate and drank with sinners, because they were the ones who were in need of repentance. They were the ones who needed salvation.
You and I also share a meal with each other every week. We bless the bread and the wine and it becomes for us the Body and Blood of Christ. But did you know, when you come forward to the Lord’s altar and share in that heavenly banquet, like Jesus, Peter and the other Apostles, like Bishop Tuttle and all the rest, that you are also sharing a meal with sinners? Did you know that each and everyone of us who comes to this altar is in need of that salvation? Each of us – comes to this meal – not because we are saints, but because we are sinners in need of redemption. In need of forgiveness.
You all probably know that each summer I have the opportunity to go to Camp Marshall and serve as the Chaplain of Grace Camp, a camp for 3rd through 8th graders who have a parent in prison. Each year we have some returning campers from the previous years, but we also have new campers who are unsure of their surroundings or even why they were chosen for that specific camp. It was in my second year serving that I decided to start the camp off a bit differently. Instead of tap dancing around the issue that they all had a parent in prison, I just came out and said it, “You are a part of this camp because everyone of you has either your mom or your dad in prison.” No sugarcoating. No hiding the elephant in the middle of the room.
At first, some of the kids were horror struck. Looks of shock. Embarrassment. Some looks of anger were shot up at me – even by some of the counselors, but then it began to register: we ALL have a parent in prison? I don’t have to hide this?? I am free from the stigma and the labels that are associated with this? You mean to tell me that I can come here, be a kid and have fun? And I get to answer, “Yes!”
The Church – OUR Church – is quite similar. Like those kids, we all have something that we hide. Something that we would rather others not know about us, but the truth is unavoidable: we are all sinners in need of redemption and forgiveness. Each and every one of us… Period. We can’t act like the Pharisees during the time of Jesus, because we are the tax collectors and sinners. There’s not a one of us who can get to thinking we’re any better than another, because we’re not.
By knowing and understanding this, we become like those kids at Grace Camp or those tax collectors and sinners who sat at Jesus’ table or those drunkards and violent swearers that were on Bishop Tuttle’s vestry; we no longer have to feel as though there is some stigma or label on us, as though we were the only sinner in the church. By knowing and understanding this, we can no longer say to ourselves, “I’m not good enough for this.” Nor can we say that someone is not good enough for us. There was one of those funny cartoons that recently got passed through cyberspace. It showed the fracturing and divisions of the church throughout history. From one church, to hundreds of denominations and schisms – for the record, it is now estimated that there are 41,000 different Christian denominations throughout the world. However, while pointing at one of the fractions the teacher declares to the students, “And this is where our church came along and finally got the Bible right,” to which one of the students replies, “Jesus is so lucky to have us!” NO! Jesus is not lucky to have us, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Knowing and understanding this – that we are all tax collectors and sinners – gives us a freedom to be true to God and to one another. As my friend Heidi, the Dean of the Cathedral, said: it helps us to understand that we are all in the “pig sty” together and all in need of God’s saving grace.
I said earlier that the Church is a very interesting creature. She has some tremendous moments of glory and others of absolute disgrace. From Jesus to Peter to Bishop Tuttle to us today, the Church has always been this way and until the day of the Lord’s coming, it will always be, for the Church is the meeting place between a very Holy God and very sinful man, which can make for a very messy business. Yet, what we must not forget is that at the heart of this meeting place is the God who became man, Jesus, and it is through Him that all of our messy business is redeemed.