Jesus Calls LeviLuke 5:27-32 (NRSV)
After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up, left everything, and followed him.
Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Have you ever had an experience that just knocks you for a loop and you are not sure if it is good, bad, or somewhere in between? Two weeks ago, I experienced something like that right here in Oldtown, and it has had me in deep reflection regarding who I am as a pastor and the way that our church understands their faith. It happened during worship, and I’ll be honest, it brought tears to my eyes, not only that day but each time that I thought about it over the last two weeks.
As you all know, each week after the scripture reading, I ask if there was a word, a phrase, or question that jumped out to you. Now it’s not a time for in-depth conversations, nor is it a time to debate theological understandings, but it is a time for our congregation to share and to help open each other’s hearts and minds, and that is exactly what happened for me that day!
Now here in Oldtown, we celebrate intergenerational worship every single week, So, those words, phrases, comments, and questions come from people aged two to a hundred and two! Okay, maybe not a hundred and two, but you know what I mean. Well, this particular week, we had just heard the story of Jesus healing the paralytic. Remember? The story that says that it was so crowded that the man’s four friends carried him up to the roof and lowered him down to Jesus? Well, when I asked all of you to share the words, phrases, or questions that arose for them, several hands quickly raised.
One person repeated the last few words of the reading, “We have seen strange things today.” One of our four-year-olds said, “Jesus said, ‘Pick up your bed,’” which caused a few people to giggle, because how would you pick up your bed and carry it with you? That’s when I took a moment to explain that beds back in Jesus’ day were more like sleeping bags that you roll up and take on a camping trip, not like the big beds with mattresses, box springs, and headboards like we have today. Then someone said, “Your sins are forgiven,” to which one of our seven-year-olds raised her hand and asked, “Pastor Kelly what’s a sin?”
Okay folks, let’s take a minute look at that first sermon box. When you think of the word sin, what does it mean to you? And how does the label sinner make you feel?
When I heard those words, “Pastor Kelly, what’s a sin?” that was when my eyes filled with tears. Now I’m sure several of my clergy friends and people from other churches may not agree with me, and many of you might disagree as well. But in a world where the church for generations has looked down on people and told them that they were “bad” and “unacceptable” because of their sin, this innocent question from a child, who attends worship regularly, knows her Bible stories, and knows that she is a beloved child of God, reassured me that there is hope: hope for our young people, hope for the future of the church, and hope for healthy, vibrant lives lived in faith.
Now that seven-year-old knows that none of us are perfect. And she knows that we all make mistakes sometimes because we talk about that in worship all the time. But she doesn’t carry with her that label, that guilt, or that judgment that keeps many from knowing that they are loved unconditionally.
I took a moment to explain that sins are the things that keep us from God. They are things that try to pull our attention away from our faith, causing us to make poor choices. Folks, the Bible is full of stories in which the sins of others are highlighted and pointed out. These sinners are often treated as less than human, and it is usually the righteous religious ones that are doing the highlighting and the pointing. But, over and over again in the Bible, we hear stories of Jesus hanging out and eating with sinners. And over and over again, it’s the Pharisees–or the religious leaders–that get upset.
One day, Jesus was walking by a tax collector’s booth. Now we know from last week that tax collectors usually had a bad reputation, whether they deserved it or not. Well, as Jesus walked by, he said to Levi the tax collector, “Follow Me!” And that is just what Levi did! He got up, left everything, and followed Jesus. Like Zacchaeus, Levi was excited about Jesus’ invitation because people never invited him anywhere. All they did was looked down upon him, called him names, and judged him. Levi was so excited that Jesus acknowledged him, called him by name, and invited him along that he put on a great banquet for Jesus at his house. And there was a large crowd of Levi’s friends, all of whom were excited to meet Jesus, too.
Now as a minister, not all, but many, of my friends are ministers because that is something that we have in common. It’s something that we can talk about over dinner. And the same was true for Levi. As a tax collector himself, many of his friends were tax collectors, so most of the group that Jesus was eating dinner with that night were those that were looked down upon, called names, judged, and labeled as sinners. As you can imagine, the Pharisees and their scribes were complaining saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor. Sick people do.”
Okay, friends, let’s take a moment to look at sermon box number two and truly think about what that means: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor. Sick people do.”
Folks, the problem is that too often, we focus on the wrong things. We give power to labels, titles, words, and names, and we forget what our call or our mission is. In Jesus’ day, the act of eating with someone acknowledged that person as an equal. So, ministers ate with ministers and tax collectors ate with tax collectors. The rich ate with the rich. The poor ate with the poor. And the lines were never crossed. They didn’t eat together because they were friends, but because they had the same status, were of the same class, or had the same reputation. In those days, religious leaders considered it unthinkable for a Jewish teacher to eat with common people, let alone a bunch of sinners. But Jesus cared more about helping people than worrying about his reputation.
Who Jesus is eating with doesn’t matter as much as the work that he is doing. Jesus is not being corrupted by his dinner guests. On the contrary, he’s changing their lives forever by inviting them, teaching them, and welcoming them into a new way of living and being. Not just talking about grace and light and love and hope, but actually sharing it with them, and in so doing, changing their lives forever.
Jesus doesn’t just sit in hallowed halls, wearing fancy robes and, talking about helping, encouraging, and saving others. He meets people where they are. He doesn’t look at where they have been or what they have done, because that doesn’t matter. It’s where they are going that counts.
Again, in the upper room, when Jesus gathered with his friends the disciples for their Last Supper together–as we will be reminded at the communion table in just a few minutes–Jesus looked around the table that night and saw one who he knew had betrayed him, another who would deny him, and he knew that the rest would eventually abandon him. But he fed them anyway. Jesus knew that they were far from perfect, and he knew that they didn’t understand what was about to happen, but he loved them anyway, just like he loves and feeds us.
Folks, we all have things that pull us away from God sometimes. We all say and do things that we shouldn’t sometimes. And we all have times when we are broken and lost and in need of direction. We are human beings, so yes, we are all sinners. But the good news is Jesus eats with sinners! Now not only are each and every one of us invited to eat at his table, but we are invited over and over again to follow him, being assured that no matter what, we are loved unconditionally. And I don’t think you can get much better news than that!
My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.