By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 5:27-32
When I was about nine years old, I had an interesting experience. I was raised in a culture where sin was often defined as moral infractions; things like using bad words, drinking alcohol, and working on Sundays (unless you were a doctor or policeman). Sin was about saying or doing certain things that my religious culture defined as “offensive.” So, back to 9-year old me. I was at a friend’s house playing. Her mom was my Girl Scout troop leader. They were good Christians. My friend had an older brother in middle school. While we were playing, her brother used two words – anatomically descriptive words – and his mother had a quick response. He knew only one of those words were permissible in their home. The other was a word she did not ever want to hear pass his lips again. Observing the exchange, I realized that my parents didn’t allow us to use either of those words. Hmm… Two Christian families at odds over this one word. I wondered: were there good, Christian families who allowed both words? That would be radical!
Many of us, I imagine, grew up with similar understandings of sin. But Jesus reveals that sin is not really about following rules. Sin is about relationships. Sin is that which disrupts or damages our relationships with God, self and others.
This morning’s story about Levi weaves together the threads of sin and grace; hospitality versus exclusion. It is better understood when we consider what precedes it. At the start of chapter five, Jesus is teaching the crowds along the lakeshore. He gets into the boat of a fisherman named Simon who has just finished his shift, so to speak, and is cleaning up his boat and nets. After teaching, Jesus asks Simon to put his nets out again and when he does, Simon gets a catch of fish so enormous, the weight and volume nearly rips the nets. Simon recognizes this as something miraculous and this is how he responds: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Does that sound like an odd response to you? Well, not if we realize how Simon and his culture understood sin. This miraculous catch of fish signals to Simon that Jesus is a holy man and, in recognizing that, Simon realizes that his own sinfulness is putting the holy man at risk of being made unholy or unclean.
In recent weeks I’ve talked a lot about clean and unclean issues for ancient people. There are these polar opposites: righteousness and cleanness on one side; sinfulness and uncleanness on the other side… and never the two should mix lest what is unclean and sinful contaminate that which is clean and all of life as we know it go off the rails.
After Jesus calls Simon to follow him, he next heals a leper, who cries out to Jesus, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus touches him – touches what is unclean or contaminated – but Jesus is NOT contaminated; rather he transfers his cleanness or holiness to the man.
Next, Jesus is teaching when a few guys bring, on a cot, a friend who is crippled so that Jesus can heal him. Seeing their faith, Jesus says, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you” (a statement which infuriates the religious leaders). Then, Jesus instructs the man to stand up and walk.
Those three stories are what immediately precede the story of the call of Levi to follow Jesus and in all of these stories (and particularly the story of Levi) we get smacked in the face with this conflict between how the religious leaders and culture of Jesus’ day understood sin versus how Jesus understands sin and the impact that understanding has on our relationships, our hospitality toward others. The religious establishment is focused on particular actions, conditions and behaviors that render people unacceptable; meaning they are to be avoided by the good religious folks. Jesus, however, clearly demonstrates that sin is something that disrupts our relationships with God and with one another and that Jesus has the power and authority to overcome that sin, that disruption, in order to restore people to right relationship with God and with those around them. Furthermore, the ministry of Jesus demonstrates that sinfulness is not something to run away from. Rather, sinfulness is something to move toward and confront for the ultimate purpose of repentance and restoring of relationship. Bible scholar Alan Culpepper writes that, “The scandal of this [Levi story] in the eyes of the religious people was that Jesus called for and modeled a style of discipleship based on association with sinners rather than separation from them.”[i] The movement of Jesus was never away from sinners; but always toward them.
This morning marks the second week of Trinity’s fall Stewardship Campaign, Setting the Table for Trinity: How Table Talk Shapes Our Hospitality and Generosity.” We are focusing on “table” or meal stories in the gospel of Luke because, in the ancient world, this table fellowship was the primary context for “association” or friendship. Last week I mentioned that Jesus defines his mission in the gospel of Luke: to seek and to save the lost. In this morning’s story, he phrases it slightly differently, saying that he has “come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”[ii] If this seeking out of sinners is Jesus’ primary mission, his mission strategy is meals because, as author and Pastor Tim Chester reminds us in Jesus’ culture, welcoming people to eat with you around the table was “a ceremony richly symbolic of friendship, intimacy and unity.”[iii]
It is easy to eat and fellowship with those we know and like and who are like us. But true hospitality challenges us to open our table and our hearts to those who are different, to those who may seem “unclean” or “unacceptable.” Hospitality is inseparably linked with generosity and grace because it is this authentic hospitality that keeps us grounded in gratitude. Authentic hospitality prevents us from becoming hypocritical Pharisees who delude ourselves into thinking that we have earned all the good things we have and have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps; that we are self-made men and women. True hospitality, in calling us to a common table, calls us to a common fellowship that reveals how much we share in common.
There is this church phenomenon where we try to keep our problems and troubles hidden from one another lest we appear to be not very good Christians. But, let me tell you, sometimes I look out at all of you and I think to myself, “It would be so helpful if so-and-so knew what was going with so-and-so. They share so much in common in their struggle. They could help and encourage one another.” That’s what I think when I look out on you. Let me tell what I don’t think: “Wow, they’re a hot mess. I wonder what they’re doing here.” That’s NOT what I think because the messiness and uncleanness of our lives ought to be what draws us together in this place; it ought to be what draws us closer to one another and to God as we embody the generous grace of God through expressions of authentic hospitality.
Levi was a guy that no one would have wanted to have sitting in their pew with them at church. He was a tax collector. He would have been despised by the religious leaders and the everyday Jew. It was common knowledge and common practice that tax collectors took more than what was owed in order to line their own pockets. On top of that, their work directly benefitted the Romans. The Romans had a big military machine to run and they squeezed every last dime they could out of those poor peasants whose lands they’d conquered and overrun. Tax collectors were aiding and abetting the enemy and economically oppressing their Jewish neighbors. They weren’t just sinners; they were the worst of the worst. But Jesus doesn’t run away from sinful Levi; he moves toward him and invites him to move closer to Jesus when he says, “Follow me.”
And in his first expression of faithful discipleship, Levi throws a big dinner party for his friends and colleagues so that they too can meet Jesus. Since Luke tells us that Levi left everything behind to follow Jesus, I can’t help but wonder if this dinner party, this big celebration, was the way in which Levi divested his wealth. The religious leaders are highly offended by Jesus’ willingness to attend this dinner party; to indiscriminately sit at the table with all these sinful tax collectors. As I mentioned last Sunday, some bible scholars have suggested that Jesus was put to death because of who he ate with. In the ancient world “doing lunch” was “doing theology.”[iv]
Friends: it matters who our dinner companions are because it says something about our understanding of God’s grace. When our dinner companions are always people just like us, those with whom we feel comfortable, then it is easy to develop a mindset in which we seek to control the flow of God’s grace and put conditions around it. But when we are able to welcome anyone and everyone as our dinner companions that very act of “open table” and shared fellowship cannot help but impact our own understanding and experience of God’s grace and generosity.
As I mentioned last week, when we gather around the table Jesus is our host; a host who welcomes everyone to a rich feast by drawing upon the resources of his closest friends and followers and transforming those resources into expressions of God’s goodness. That is exactly what happens in this morning’s story of Levi. Responding to Jesus’ call to “follow me,” Levi gives up everything, and is so happy and excited to do so he has to celebrate by throwing a big dinner. The meal is thrown in Jesus’ honor but the guests are Levi’s sketchy friends. I imagine Levi was hopeful that they too might respond to God’s abundant grace experienced and made manifest through the breaking of bread around the table with Jesus.
Friends, it is helpful charity when we can feed the hungry. But it is a proclamation of the gospel, of God’s generous grace, when we can sit down at the table and break bread together with those whom church and culture might judge as unworthy or unacceptable. Jesus didn’t seek out dinner companions with impressive pedigrees. The dinner companions of Jesus were generally an offense to the good religious folk.
So stewardship, how we give to the church, how we fund its ministries, and what we do with those funds says a great deal about our understanding of God’s grace. In fact, the amount we give to fund ministry has far, far less to do with our personal finances than it does with our trust in and understanding of the generous grace of God. Do we understand that Jesus is a host with often dubious dinner companions? Yet, he welcomes everyone to a rich feast by drawing upon the resources of his closest friends and followers (like Levi, and you and me) and transforming those resources into expressions of God’s goodness. Let us follow the example of Levi and joyfully offer up our finest resources to fund the banquet so that our dinner companions can meet Jesus as we set the table and gather round it together.
[i] The New Interpreter’s Bible: a Commentary in Twelve Volumes: vol. 9; Abingdon Press; 1995; p. 129.
[ii] Luke 5:32. NRSV
[iii] Chester, Tim. A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community and Mission around the Table (p. 19). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
[iv] ibid (p. 21).
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