Windsor Community United Methodist Church
Thursday, December 12, 2013
Mike Turgeo “Discipleship by the sea: Invitation” January 16, 2011
"Jesus went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.
And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘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." Mark 2:13-17
Discipleship by the sea: Invitation
What made Levi leap? Really. I mean it sounds like he was just waiting to be asked to be anywhere but in that tax booth, doesn’t it? But was it just that?
Why did this man do something so radical, turn on a dime, give up his livelihood in a heartbeat? Truth be told, were we to bottle what it was that made Levi leap, we could sell it and we’d be rich.
But more importantly, were we to uncork that bottle and take that Levi leap, life’s difficulties would not disappear, but our dis-stress, our dis-ease would melt away. That’s what I believe.
Levi took a plunge that most people never take.
Was he at such a point of dis-satisfaction in life that he just had to try something different? Did his decision to follow have more to do with what he was seeking than what Jesus was offering? Well, from the first paragraph, we can’t tell. We really don’t find out why he dropped everything, just that he did. One thing for sure, it wasn’t money that caused Levi to turn his life upside down. He had to know Jesus was not going to lead him to riches.
And by most accounts of the tax collecting business in those days, Levi was probably doing pretty well financially.
The Roman authorities looked for locals like Levi and forged contracts by which money for tolls and tariffs would flow from the local population into Rome’s centralized coffers. As long as Rome got it’s required piece of the pie, they pretty much didn’t care how much tax guys like Levi charged the people.
And here is where Levi’s life had to be very uncomfortable. Those he charged, and over-charged for tolls were Jewish, and so was he. Not the best strategy for winning friends and influencing people back then, now was it?
So was it a moral crisis in the end?
Let’s think this through. How would it feel for you to be sitting in the tax booth? I don’t know, perhaps some of you have worked for the Franchise Tax Board or the IRS. Whether ancient or modern, it’s hard out there for a tax collector. We don’t think twice about lumping taxes right in there with death--inevitable and distasteful. Maybe Levi just couldn’t stand the moral heat anymore and he just had to get out of the kitchen.
At least IRS agents don’t set their own prices like Levi did. They have a buffer against moral outrage. Levi was in a much more precarious position than any IRS agent. Levi lived on the edge of tolerance.
So, maybe it was easier at some level for Levi to just go with Jesus than stay in that tax booth. We can only speculate.
But regardless the motive, it was Levi who had to decide to put his new life in motion. And he did. He registered no time fence-sitting according to our text.
What’s the one thing you would give up everything you own just to have? World peace? Personal contentment? Would you want a million dollars (adjusted for inflation, of course)? How about true love? Or maybe a second chance?
Would you like to have what Levi had, the ability to let it all go?
It seems to me that the authority of Jesus gets through to Levi somehow. Not but one chapter before this, we hear that Jesus and his disciples “...went to Capernaum and when the sabbath came he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Mark 1:21-22.
What is it about authority? Sometimes we respond and sometimes we don’t. Authority, when it is imposed by force, will never cause a lasting effect, only a limited, fearful response. However, authority based on respect, love and mutuality will alway carry the day. Innate authority is something you may not always be able to describe but you know it when you see it. I believe this is what Levi is responding to.
Was it the tone of voice Jesus used? His physical presence? His reputation.
A Markan perspective
Today we embark on a eight-week sojourn into the Gospel of Mark. Of the four Gospels in the Bible, Mark’s Gospel was written first. If you were to put the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke side by side, 90% of what you find in Mark you’ll also find in Matthew and Luke. For that reason those three are called ‘synoptic’ which means “seen together.”
It is in Mark that we start to find the definition of what it means to be a disciple. And it’s not just written descriptions, either; it’s living examples. Like Levi.
Being a disciple is kind of like getting started on your chores around the house. Sometimes the hardest part is just getting up and getting off the couch, or out of the tax booth.
Mark’s Gospel is compelling. it is short and to the point, 8-10 chapters shorter than Matthew and Luke, so it moves right along. But more than anything, the setting lures us in, especially the first 8 chapters--all of the action takes place near the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
SLIDE: Sea of Galilee
The drama of Jesus’ teachings, healings and miracles put the Sea of Galilee on the map; forever famous as the backdrop where Jesus introduces the Kingdom of God. And as you might guess, we get numerous images of Jesus and his friends somewhere in sight of a boat. Either in a boat, about to get in a boat, getting out of a boat, or standing near a boat--that’s when most of the action takes place in Mark.
In today’s passage we don’t technically hear about a boat but it is by the lake where Jesus teaches the gathered crowd. There likely were plenty of fishing boats scattered around on that Galilean shore.
The ‘Sea’ of Galilee had many names: Lake of Gennesaret, Lake Tiberias, Lake Kinneret. It’s the largest freshwater lake in Israel, about 33 miles around; 13 miles long, 8 miles wide. The lowest freshwater lake on earth, it’s fed by underwater springs, although it’s main source is the Jordan River, which flows through it from north to south.
It is big enough to have storms like the ones we hear about in the Gospels; the storms that serve as perfect metaphors for life’s troubles.
Trouble brewing is the theme of the second part of our passage. The scene shifts to Levi’s house at dinner, at a table overflowing with tax collectors and sinners. That’s how low the tax collectors are, they get top billing ahead of the sinners, their very own category of evil.
At this table we witness an internal Jewish family squabble of sorts, but one with an eternal ripple effect. The Gospel of Mark was written at a time when you just didn’t violate strict Jewish Law, and if you did, there would be consequences.
When the scribes, the gatekeepers of the letter of the law, pick a fight with Jesus, the one who came to fulfill the law and convert it into a living legacy of salvation, the die is cast, the ball is in motion and now it lays at our feet.
ILLUSTRATION: City Slickers
More than 20 years ago now, Billy Crystal and Jack Palance starred in the film “City Slickers.” I wanted to show a clip but the language is a bit rough.
Lefty, the crusty old trail-hand played by Palance says to Crystal:
“You know what the secret to life is?”
“No, what,” he says.
“One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean (squat).”
“That’s great, but what’s the one thing?”
“That’s what you gotta’ figure out.”
When Jesus offers radical hospitality to Levi and his ilk, he violates all conventional boundaries; what he did, for that time, was wrong on so many levels. As they say, you likely could have cut the tension at that dinner party with a knife.
Is there any comfortable place for you and me in this passage? Are we at the table with the IRS agents? Are we looking through the window along with the scribes? In other words, are we sinners or control freaks?
And like the scribes, do we consider rules more important than people? Are we content to play church or are we willing to be the church?
The scribes of the Pharisees ultimately chose to silence Jesus rather than adjust their understanding and experience of God. Why give up authority, contrived and imposed as it was, when it is more convenient to box God in than allow God to do something new in their lives?
I’m feeling pretty grateful this morning that Jesus’ invitation to the banquet arrives in my mail each day. And in yours. Most of my 62 years, I wasn’t even willing to walk down the driveway to pick it up. And, Lord knows, my anti-authoritarianism still rages, strong and true.
Levi and disciples like him help me see that Jesus is not the doorkeeper to the banquet, but that he is the perfect host and willing physician, beckoning each and everyone of us inside.
Why did Levi leap? Why would we not? I, for one, have run out of reasons.