FEBRUARY 17TH, 2019 PASTOR DON PIEPER
RIGHT ON THE MARK 2 Cor 4:1-7/MARK 2:8-17
“WHO NEEDS A DOCTOR?”
Last time our readings took us to the seaport city of Capernaum, where four friends were seen crashing a standing room only party, crashing thru the roof in order to get their crippled friend close to Jesus, who forgave the crippled man of his sins and then sent him home, free of his mat.
Now, down at the seaside, Jesus approaches a tax collector by the name of Levi and invites him to join him on the adventure of a lifetime as one of his disciples with the words, “Follow me!”
Jesus didn’t put any conditions on that invitation. It was a come as you are kind of deal. Levi had never experienced anything like it before. “Who me…? You want...me?”
Later, at a party Levi throws for Jesus at his home, the religious leaders take issue with Jesus - this time for his lack of judgment and good taste, eating with Levi and his low life friends. Last week the religious elite were heard whispering among themselves, this time they show a little more nerve, and go straight...behind Jesus’ back to his disciples: “Why does he eat with such scum?” (Mark 2:16) Why are they so upset? What is it about Levi’s dinner guests that so gets under their skin?
Truth is, some people just do... Steve Martin portrays a business man trying to get home to his family for the holidays only to bump into a guy who gets under his skin. First the guy steals his cab, later his smashes his rental car and now they winds up squeezing next to each other on the plane...
[Planes, Trains and Automobiles – 9:38– 12:00]
There are some people who get under our skin. For those in shape, it may be those who are overweight. For those in a hurry it’s those who make us wait and worry. For those who’re clean and sober, it’s addicts who are intolerable. For those who lean to the right, it's the liberal we can't stand the sight of. But if our ears are open, Jesus’ friendship with Levi should give us pause.
Guys like Levi were despised as Roman sympathizers. It was common knowledge that they were making a healthy profit off the sweat, blood and tears of their peers. They were infamous for their cheating, back stabbing ways. As a result they brought public scorn and disgrace to their families, were expelled from the synagogue, and their testimony was inadmissible in court.
Why would Jesus invite one of them to join his inner circle? Why does Jesus not only accept an invitation to Levi’s home, but actually eat and socialize with such loathsome folks like this tax collector and his questionable friends? By doing so, the keepers of the faith protest, Jesus condones their sinful lifestyles and treats them as if they’re friends!
“Why does he eat with such scum?!” they demand. The silent response from the disciples is telling. They're wondering too. Why is he here? Why does Jesus…? Why? Because that’s what Jesus is about! “I have come to call sinners, not those who think they’re already good enough!”
If this is what Jesus is about why are fewer and fewer people today seeking him out in Christian community? Instead of acceptance that draws them into a loving relationship, seekers pick up an “us versus them” vibe – a “we are right and you are wrong” kind of thing. Such an attitude is not only con-descending but it reeks of ungrace leading many who desperately need God run the opposite direction.
In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Phillip Yancey writes: “The more unsavory the character the more at ease they seemed to feel around Jesus, people like: a Samaritan social outcast, a military officer of the tyrant Herod, a cheating wife, a greedy tax collector, a woman battling multiple demons.
What's happened to reverse this pattern? Why don’t sinners like being around us?”
As the bumper-sticker reads: “I like Jesus. Save me from his followers!”
It seems to me the church should not be so much a place of uniformity but one of common purpose – united not because we all think and look and vote the same but because we embrace Christ's heart and mission for a hurting, disconnected world. The church should basically be a hospital of sorts, a kind of ER or triage, where hurting, lost souls come for healing, hope and a sense of belonging. As Jesus so profoundly put it: “Healthy people don't need a doctor – sick people do!” (Mark 2:17)
Like so many of us in this increasingly disconnected post-modern culture of ours, Levi was isolated from the community around him, a Jew in the service of Rome, prone to be alone. But Jesus looked beyond his position and his reputation and saw a sick soul in need of healing – he saw the beauty of God’s original intent, a potential that Jesus meant to unleash.
It reminds me of Joe Rantz, one of eight U of W rowers, all sons of loggers, shipyard workers and farmers who, against all odds, competed in the 1936 Olympics. Joe's father remarried after Joe's mom died and his new wife influenced him to abandon Joe. Unwanted and alone Joe struggled to trust anyone other than his banjo until George, the team's boatmaker and local sage, took Joe under his wing.
George did so because he saw something in Joe that others did not. Taking Joe upstairs where he built his boats, George explained to Joe why he chose the type of wood that he did, that each had its own story, strengths and weaknesses, that were crucial in making the boat fast. “The wood teaches us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, about prevailing over adversity, but it also teaches us some thing about the underlying reason for surviving in the first place. Something about infinite beauty, about the power of grace, about things larger and greater than ourselves, about the reasons we're all here. 'Sure I can make a boat,' he said, 'but only God can make a tree.'” (The Boys in the Boat)
Joe and the other boys in the boat had always considered George's boat shop off limits, and that George himself was not to be bothered. That evening, Joe came to realize that George was teaching him otherwise. He learned he was welcome and that he belonged to something larger and greater than himself, greater than the rejection he'd known or the limitations of his being poor. As he mulled over the conversation in his head he began to feel an inner pull...and the sense that he belonged.
We all have a need to belong. Jesus came to Levi’s party to eat with him and his fellow scoundrels. By doing so he was saying in effect, we are family – we belong to one another. Even now he invites us to his table that we may come to belong. “Take and eat; drink of it all of you, for this is the blood of the new covenant...!” Here you are invited to belong to something greater than yourself!
'Let's have a feast and celebrate for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, lost and is found!'
(Mark 14:22,24; Luke 15:23-24)
That's the prodigal father speaking there. Like so many of Jesus' stories the happy ending is that of a feast for those once separated, now reconciled and united.
As a hospital for wounded souls we strive to help those who have been wounded, some times by the church itself, come to be loved and belong. I know of a man who was in a recovery group and had made it to step 3. His sponsor explained that this step involved surrendering your will to God. Angrily the man spat back, ‘No way I’m going to turn my life over to God. He’d ruin me – and I’d deserve it!’
'You ought to fire that God. You’ve got the wrong God for this program! The God who operates here is forgiving, and gives you all the chances you need. He is honest, trust-worthy and will always be there for you. I had a God like yours once, but I fired him and got me a new God.”
“What are you talking about? Where am I going to find a new God?” ‘Well,’ the old timer said, handing him a Bible, ‘you can use mine till you get on your feet.’
So many of us have misconceptions about God often masked with the face of an abusive or neglectful parent or judgmental Christian. Truth is, many people have walked in here needing to fire the god in their head that they’ve associated with the God of Jesus. It’s no wonder so many of us struggle to trust God, not to mention those fallen creatures who claim to speak on his behalf.
So it was with Joe Rantz. The conversation I quoted didn't end his struggles. There was an angst inside of him that particularly hindered his performance on the rowing crew he was on. So one day George tapped him on his shoulder and invited him back up to his shop. He told Joe that there were times when he seemed to think he was the only fellow in the boat, as if it was up to him to row the boat across the finish line all by himself. When a man rowed like that, he said, he was bound to attack the water rather than to work with it, and worse, he was bound not to let his crew help him row.
What mattered more than how hard a man rowed was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing, and a man couldn't harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened his heart to them. He had to care about his crew. It wasn't just the rowing but his crewmates that he had to give himself up to even if it meant getting his feelings hurt. 'Joe,' George said, 'if you don't like some fellow in the boat, you have to learn to like him. It has to matter to you whether he wins the race, not just whether you do. Joe, when you really start trusting those other boys you will feel a power at work within you that is far beyond anything you've ever imagined. Sometimes you will feel as if you have rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars.'”
(from Daniel Brown's The Boys in the Boat)
Jesus of course, calls us to go beyond simply learning to like those in the boat, or in other boats, but to choose to love them as God, in Christ, chose to love us, even while we're hopeless sinners. We tend to live anxious, angry, defiant lives because we do not yet trust that we are fully accepted ‘as is’ and that God is “for us not against us”, as the apostle Paul put it, a God who loves to give his children second chances, and third chances, and so on, if need be and as time allows.
I love how Levi discovers a sense of purpose by throwing a “come as you are party” for his fellow cheats and scoundrels. Like the four friends of the paralyzed man on the mat, Levi has a life- changing encounter with Jesus and begins to say to himself: “If only I can get my friends close to Jesus.” So it is that he throws a mixer party – a party with a purpose – the purpose of getting his friends and Jesus and his friends in a room together! He throws a real mixer fixer upper of a party!
Eating with sinners and striving to love those struggling to stay afloat, to belong, can be messy business but it is for this purpose Jesus came and gave birth to the church. “Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do. I have come to call sinners, not those who think they’re already good enough!” (Mark 2:17) Who needs a doctor? We all do! It's one thing we all have in common!
Jesus came to give birth to a community of grace in which any and all could come as is, could come to truly belong, and help others come to belong as well. He came that we might know the liberating power of grace – that we are loved as is, that we can come as we are, and by the power of his grace, like Levi, walk away changed. “I have come to call sinners…,” Jesus said, to eat with them, hang out with them, heal them and love on them – and then cut them loose to do the same!