Sunday, September 29, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Becoming the Outcast"

Mark 2:13-17

13 Then He went out again by the sea; and all the multitude came to Him, and He taught them. 14 As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him. 15 Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi’s house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him. 16 And when the scribes and[b] Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 When Jesus heard it, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (CEB)


“Seeking God Anew: Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed,” Week Four

As the dad—and writer—put it, his family was a pretty standard-issue All-American family straight out of central casting: wife, teenaged son, teenaged daughter, lovely home, affluent lifestyle, the works.  Until they got it into their heads that they should travel to Africa on mission as part of their conscious decision to live more simply and give away the proceeds.  He writes:

(O)ur family had arrived here in Abisu #1, which we were thrilled to find on our very detailed, two-sided map of Ghana.  Amazingly, in a country no bigger than the state of Oregon, we have spent two days visiting village after village too insignificant to be mapped.  That said, Abisu #1 doesn’t even get its own name, instead sharing it with nearby Abisu #2…

As we emerged from our vehicles in Abisu #1, Hannah, her brother Joseph, Joan, and I might as well have been wearing neon arrows screaming “LOOK HERE!”  Like it or not, we are the center of attention.  We are the outsiders—not just people from somewhere else, but the most foreign people for miles, miles uncrossed by villagers who don’t have transportation.  Small children point.  They call us “obruni” (white person) as they see what they’ve never seen before, people with pale skin.  They want to touch us, shake our hands, feel our arms, understand whether we’re different.

For our teenagers, it’s a new world of being the “other.”  For all of Hannah’s and Joseph’s lives, they have been the majority: white kids in a mostly white world, English-speakers in an English-language society, affluent in an affluent community.  Now we are the different ones, the ones with the name that the majority calls us.

It’s one thing to say you are a stranger in a strange land…but think of all that entails when it involves a land so remote it literally isn’t found on the map.  It isn’t just that you have a toe, or a foot, outside your comfort zone, you are eons away from your comfort zone; it is zooming away in your rearview mirror.  And to be honest, for most of us, that is the only way we will ever be outcasts.  And, at least in that way, it is the only way we can relate to this part of Jesus’ ministry.

This is a new(ish) sermon series revolving around a new book, by a fairly new(ish) pastor, with a very un-new name: Jay Bakker, the son of the (in?)famous televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, first pinged my radar when he came to speak at my seminary’s annual Earl Lectures series in 2010.  I have followed bits and pieces of his work ever since, and after beginning the Revolution church movement in Phoenix, he has gone on to plant Revolution churches in Atlanta and New York City, and he is now planting a church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  In the meanwhile, he has also taken to writing, and his latest book, entitled, “Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed” spoke strongly enough for me make a sermon series!  The chapter I am borrowing from this week is called “Becoming the Outcast.”  Jay writes in it (in part):

Jesus was constantly with the wrong people.  Why was he talking to women?  To Samaritans?  To tax collectors?

Jesus never seemed to have a moral standard for the people who came around Him.  On occasion, the Gospels tell us He encouraged them to “sin no more,” but He never kept them out because of their sin.  On a regular basis, His disciples or the religious leaders were scandalized and offended by those Jesus welcomed into His presence.  Women.  Prostitutes.  Tax collectors.  Romans.  Lepers.  Beggars.  Samaritans.  In fact, Jesus got the most angry at those most focused on sin: the religious leaders who would classify other people as “sinners.”

Jesus ate with the wrong people.  He hung out with the wrong people.  He demonstrated through His life that there aren’t wrong and right people.  There are just people.

The type of inclusion Jesus practiced gets you in trouble.  This type of inclusion you just don’t do.  This type of inclusion gets you labeled as an outcast.  This type of inclusion gets you killed…

Jesus saw Matthew (Levi) and said to this traitorous outcast, this untouchable dirtbag, “Let’s try to change the world.”

Here’s the thing about being an outcast: sometimes, it can make you a persona non grata: someone invisible to other people, like a ghost in a community of flesh and blood.  But other times, it can make you the center of attention, of rumor, of intrigue, as though you came branded with your own scarlet letter upon your body.  In both instances, what the community around you is communicating is that you are different, and in both instances, it can be awkward at best and outright hurtful and destructive at worst.

Levi, also known as Matthew, would fall into the latter category.  As a tax collector, he would have not only been a very visible member of his community, he also would have been a very visible reminder of the Roman occupation of Israel.  As you can imagine—because of how we are as Americans—the Israelites were (and Israelis are) a fiercely patriotic people, and being reminded that they were the vassals of a pagan empire would have galled them at every turn.  But to make matters even worse, Levi—if you hadn’t guessed by his name—was himself an Israelite.  So, in essence, he is a collaborator, a traitor to his own people.  He would have fit in incredibly well in Vichy, France, during the Second World War.  He and Benedict Arnold would have gotten along spectacularly.

But there’s still yet another layer on this giant cake of awfulness that makes Levi such an outcast.  Many of you have heard me say this, but tax collection did not work back then as it does today.  Much as you might like to complain about the IRS, they are downright pleasant compared to the tax collectors of Biblical Israel who were, for wont of a better term, state-sanctioned thugs.  They would win the right to tax certain areas at auction, and in order to make a profit, would demand more in taxes than what the auction rights cost them.  So they lined their own pockets by basically stealing from their neighbors, and the Roman Empire turned a blind eye to this because they didn’t care how their legions got funded so long as they got funded.

And Jay goes into this at great length in his book as well, about exactly how hated the tax collectors were, the sheer magnitude of the loathing with which the populace held them in.  Even today, it truly is difficult to understate or overestimate.

And because of this, because of how they earned their living, tax collectors most definitely fell into the category of really bad sinners.  And it probably would have galled not just the Pharisees but you and me to see Jesus not just dining with Levi, but sumptuously dining with him: the Greek says they were reclining at the table, not just sitting, which says that this was a luxurious setting, where they lay on couches to eat rather than around a simple table.  Jesus is enjoying a feast that is bought and paid for with dirty money.

But here’s the thing, and why today’s lesson really matters: the Pharisees are perhaps the worst possible messengers to say this, because they, too, are Roman collaborators: they serve the temple high priest, who was a political appointee—he was appointed by whomever the Roman prefect was at the time!  So the Pharisees are criticizing Jesus for hanging out with, if you can imagine it, people just like them!

And so when Jesus says, “I came not for the righteous, but for the sinners,” we should in fact read this as an invitation to the Pharisees, that Jesus is inviting them because they are in the exact same boat as Levi the tax collector!  But the Pharisees, of course, will not do so.

Now, we can say that people like Levi are outcasts because of the choices they made, except that there is one other wrinkle in this hypothesis: sons were often expected to apprentice in the vocations of their fathers.  Joseph was a carpenter, and so Jesus was a carpenter too.  Zebedee was a fisherman, so his sons James and John, the Apostles, were likewise fishermen.  And so, it is likely that Levi was the son of a tax collector.

Can you imagine having THAT hanging around your neck as a kid?

So, really, this passage is about more than just socializing with people who have made themselves outcasts by the choices they made, but also by socializing with people who had little to no say to begin with on being made outcasts.  Because that, in a nutshell, is what privilege means: you had no say in what you were born into.  Levi had no say in perhaps being born to a tax collector.  Sure, maybe he could have gone and done his own thing, but at what cost?  Disassociating himself from his family?  Either way, he would have to become an outcast, either with society or with his own family.  What an unenviable choice to potentially have to make.

Becoming an outcast, then, requires us to in turn cast aside identities that we were born with, identities that we may have had no say in making, in order to understand the identities of others.  And I have to believe that doing so is a fundamentally Christian exercise, because it is what Jesus Himself does.  As Paul says in Philippians, though being made of divinity, Jesus emptied Himself of it and took the form of a mortal, of a slave.  Jesus was willing cast aside the greatest status of all in order to come, not for the righteous, but for the sinners.  Not for the healthy, but for the sick.  And not for those who were like Him, because there could not possibly be anyone else like Him.  No, He came for those who weren’t like Him.  As must we. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 29, 2013

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