Community of Christ

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Thus says the LORD, My people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.

Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them a parable.

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According to the gospel lesson for today, Jesus ate with sinners and for that he was criticized by the godly people, by the squeaky clean people of his day. In that time and place everybody knew who the sinners were. The way we know ex-cons and felons today. In that time and place sinners were marked, stigmatized and excluded from full participation in society.

It was a simple fact: some people were officially sinners; some were not. Today we exclude people from our society not as “sinners” but on different terms.

Jesus ate with sinners. And ever since the community of Christ aspires to do the same. We aspire to break down walls of hostility whatever the names of those walls may be.

I don’t know if you heard, but this past Thursday I did something that Jesus never did. Two thousand years ago, Jesus ate with sinners. This past Thursday, I ate with Episcopalians. I know! Can you believe it?! I ate with Episcopalians in a room with big windows. Anyone walking by could have seen me!

So far, so good. I’ve heard no grumbling or complaints from any of you.

In fact, no one seems to mind that I put my reputation at risk. Unlike the time 30 or so years ago when I was a new, young pastor in town and was seen walking into the Mecklenburg Pub.

A certain member of this church saw me and told another member of this church, a certain Arline Duffey, that she had seen the Rev. Tremba going into the pub. To which the ever sweet, cheerful and optimistic Arline replied: I’m sure if the Rev. Tremba went into a bar he had good reason to.

And she was right. I actually had a couple good reasons. But that’s a story for another day.

I was invited to give a talk about Presbyterianism at Trinity Episcopal Church. I was the first in their month long series on Christian denominations.

After enjoying a delicious potluck supper, I gave my talk. I began with a little word game. I asked them to say the first word that came to mind once they heard the name of a certain denomination.

I said: Baptist. And I heard fundamentalist. Immersion.

I said: Methodist. I heard John Wesley.

Catholic. I heard Roman.

Orthodox. Greek.

Pentecostal. Snakes. Snakes? Really?

I had two more: Presbyterian. Dour. Ouch. That hurt!

And finally the last one: Episcopalian. Wine. That’s right. One of them said, wine.

Which meant I didn’t have to use my classic icebreaker. Maybe you’ve heard it: where two or three Episcopalians are gathered together there’s always a fifth.

Episcopalians. You gotta love ‘em even if we’re not exactly sure what they are. They seem like Catholics in many ways. But they are not Catholic. They are often grouped with Protestants. But they are not Protestants.

They are Anglicans. Which means they are offspring of the Church of England, which, as you might know, was an overnight creation by King Henry the Eighth.

King Henry woke up one 16th century morning still without a male heir to his throne because the Roman Pope wouldn’t allow him to divorce and marry enough women to get the son he wanted and needed. So Henry—with a wave of his scepter—declared himself head of the Church of Rome in England. Over and done. No long, drawn out theological struggle that “protesters” like Martin Luther, John Calvin and Menno Simons had fomented on the Continent.

Overnight Henry created a new church. It’s good to be king. And even better to be king and head of the Church of England.

And so it was that when the Englishman Thomas Shepherd staked out his claim in the early 18th century here on the bluffs of the Potomac, Shepherd placed the Church of England in the center of town with the blessing of King George the Third. Every other so-called church would be pushed to the perimeter of town.

A few years later something happened. The American Revolution broke out.

When that Revolution ended the Church of England meekly and wisely changed its name to Episcopal, which means “ruled by bishops.” Ironically, Trinity Episcopal Church still remains in the center of town while we Presbyterians remain on the outskirts.

Which only goes to show how humble we are. After all, it was the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who basically won the revolution for America against England and could have easily ordered the Church of England to get out of town.

But, alas, we didn’t. For we are the Presbyterians. The few. The chosen. The humble.

Besides, a true community of Christ—no matter its name or denomination—must aspire to forgiveness and reconciliation.

You’ll be happy and relieved to know that I recited none of what you just heard to my Episcopalian audience. Instead I honored their request and told them about our boy John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed and Presbyterian traditions of Christian faith.

Calvin was born and raised a Roman Catholic in France in the 16th century. He was heading for the priesthood when he suddenly changed directions and became a humanist lawyer and a scholar of classical literature. He loved books and ended up writing one of the most influential books in all of Christian history—the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Before he got to write that book he was exiled from France for taking the wrong side on what was basically at that time “health care reform.” And we all know how hard and risky that is.

At that time—and for a thousand years before that time—the number one health care issue wasn’t cancer or diabetes or Alzheimer’s. The number one health issue was where your body would spend eternity. Would it swim in heaven or burn in hell?

It’s hard to believe, but people would do and pay just about anything to guarantee their or their loved ones entrance into Heaven after death. People were terrified and desperate and, as it turns out, the Church had the only ticket to ride.

The Church and its deputies held people in terror of Hell the way people today fear the loss or cost of medical insurance—only more so. Just show me the hoops and I’ll jump through as many as necessary to save my soul!

Much was and is good and wholesome in the Catholic Church. That exploitation of fear was not one of them.

And so in the 16th century Martin Luther, John Calvin, Menno Simons and others challenged the monopoly, the authority and the prescriptions of the all powerful, all pervasive and persuasive Church. Dissenters and protesters against the entrenched system of health care lost their livelihoods and, in some cases, their lives. You see, the Reformation wasn’t merely a change in Sunday morning worship styles. It was a new paradigm of “health care” accessible to the masses. And it spread like wild fire.

Calvin’s book debunked many myths and crippling superstitions of the church that people had swallowed hook, line and sinker. He battled ignorance, insisting that along side every church should be an academy to teach literacy and reason. (The Elk Branch Presbyterian Church in Duffield still has a small academy right next to it.) Presbyterians founded more that 65 colleges and universities in this country.

In case you haven’t noticed, Presbyterians love books, science and the arts. Thanks to John Calvin it’s in our DNA.

Calvin tried to remedy the prophet Jeremiah’s complaint: My people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding.

Eventually Calvin would redefine Christian life and practice away from guilt and toward grace, away from fear and toward trust, away from despair toward hope. Calvin affirmed the original goodness of creation including humankind. Yes, we mess up and stray from God’s love, but God does not forsake us or lay burdens of guilt upon us. Like a shepherd, like a mother, like a father, the Beloved finds us time and time again and leads us home.

Calvin’s book is thick and long and flawed. But his bottom line is this:

God is good and God alone is sovereign. Life is good. And yes, it is hard, sometimes very, very hard. But grace abounds, sometimes in amazing ways.

What, then, shall we do but embrace this grace and live it for all it’s worth, leaving the rest to God. After all, God is sovereign and we are not. So relax. It’s ultimately not about you or me. It’s about something far greater than we can imagine.

There is nothing to fear. All shall be well.

After all, we are all predestined, predestined to a destiny like Christ, which is to say, a destiny to shine with the radiance of love like the stars in the heavens. We can’t see it all now but we’ve seen enough in Christ to believe the rest just got to be, it just got to be awesome and amazing—enough to make our hearts sing for 10,000 years or more.

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HYMN 280
“Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound”