sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 03/23/2014
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13Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
Levi takes a leap of faith here. When Jesus invites him to “follow,” Levi understands that Jesus is inviting him into a whole new life. It’s a massive career change, from wealthy, secure tax collector to student of a poor, itinerant, homeless teacher. Why did Levi (also known, other places in the Bible, as Matthew) get up and follow him? Why did he trust Jesus?
For that matter, why do any of us trust Jesus?
We’ve been proposing, over these last couple of weeks, that Jesus is really good. That he gives us a picture of a God who wants to do good for us and to us, if only we’ll give him the opportunity by depending on him. By asking him to act on our behalf.
We’ve been proposing that Jesus is genuine and truthful when he says that he’s come so we can have life, and life to the full. That he’s capable of following through on that commitment – that he’s got power, resources, knowledge, skill, everything it takes so that if we trust him, if we take enough mini-leaps of faith in him, we’ll actually experience life, full, abundant life with him, through him, from him. And that there is something uniquely compelling about Jesus himself that allows us to be sure of him, to have confidence in him, to get over our trust issues and betrayals and let downs and actually take a shot at trusting him.
When it comes to Levi, and his leap of faith, of course we can’t know for sure exactly why he yes to Jesus’ invitation. But we can take some educated guesses. And my best guess is that Jesus was offering Levi more than an invitation into a new life; he was offering Levi a cure for what ailed him, and Levi could already tell it was working.
Levi is in Capernaum, a town on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, near several important trade routes. Israel is under occupation by the Roman Empire, and under the local authority of the sons of the late Herod the Great. When Herod the great died, the kingdom was divided between his three sons, Archaleus in the south (including Jerusalem and Bethlehem, for example), Antipas above him (including Nazareth and Cana), and Philip in the northeast (with cities like Bethsaida and Caesarea Philippi). These three Tetrarchs, like their father before them, were just puppet rulers, with their strings being pulled by Rome. They were in power as long as they maintained order and kept the taxes flowing to the Empire. (By the time of this story, in fact, Archaleus had been deposed because he’d ruled so poorly and so Rome took direct control.)
Capernaum was in Antipas’ territory, on the border of Philip’s territory, and Levi collected the tolls whenever traders passed from one territory to the other. Lots of people could remember when you didn’t have to pay tolls (Herod the great had died 30 or so years earlier), so we can guess that Levi probably took the blunt of their grumbling and complaining and abuse. And the locals would have despised him because he was working for their oppressors. Which was a bit of a vicious cycle, because once a person is made into an outcast and socially marginalized, it negatively affects their attitudes towards the outcasters. Which makes it more likely they will abuse what little power they do have, and in someone like Levi’s case, that would mean colleting extra, unauthorized taxes to boost his own income.
All in all, it meant two things for Levi. One, he would have had job security and a wealthy lifestyle. And two, he would have been the object of scorn day after day, except in the evenings when he could get together with the other outcasts, those who were referred to in his day as “sinners.” When we hear “sinners” we imagine a set of forbidden behaviors, but which really meant they were on the outs religiously speaking and politically speaking.
Now imagine you’re Levi. When you were a kid you had two options presented to you. Option 1: live a loyal Jewish life, following the religious guidelines of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, working in an approved profession. Upside? Good standing with your people, your family, the respect of the community, access to the traditions and Temple of your people. Downside? The threat of being impoverished and abused by the whim of Rome and the Tetrarchs. Constantly having to look over your shoulder. Option 2: Get in good with the Roman powers-that-be and work for the Man. Upside? All the money and security you could ask for. Downside? You’re an outcast for the rest of your life, and cut off from the traditions and God of your people.
Levi had chosen option 2. Imagine that you’ve gotten everything you’ve wanted by way of wealth, and yet your soul aches with the deepest kind of ache for belonging. Your soul is sick. You make do with the friendships you can find, but everyone’s soul is aching like yours. It’s killing you. But there is no way you’re joining up with the very hypocrites who have exiled you. You want to belong, but not on their terms. They want to shame you into belonging. Their souls are sick with something else, sick with pride.
Then along comes Jesus. He seems to have no soul sickness. He’s an outcast too, like you, but also not like you. He didn’t go after wealth hoping it would be a good life and find it wanting; he didn’t go after security from Rome. He doesn’t have the ache that you have and your friends have. And he doesn’t have the pride of those who’ve rejected you. He doesn’t wield shame as a weapon, and at the same time he seems immune to it when it’s wielded against him. He seems to have a different source of life, and it spills over to everyone around him.
No scorn. No critique. No shame.
He just looked at me, saw what I did, and who I am, and said, yup, you, I want you. Come along if you’re up for it.
Yes. I think I will. I want what he has. I need what he has. I’m dying without it – I was numb to that fact, the fact of my internal death, just to survive, but it’s true. Just hearing the words – Come, follow me - is already bringing healing to the ache in my soul. He says I can belong with him. And with his. It’s like I already do. I just have to say yes. Yes. Heaven help me, yes!
15While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
17On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus meets us human beings and connects with us by calling us. By inviting us to be his students, disciples, apprentices, followers. The ones he calls are the sinners – the ones who, for one reason or another, like Levi and his friends, aren’t drawing life any more from pride of place. He’s not calling the righteous – the ones who float above their desperate need, buoyed by pride of place, by contentment with the approval of the sanctioned community.
And he is, in relation to us human beings, to everyone he calls, a doctor. That’s the deal, and there is no other. This is a bit counterintuitive when it comes to how we understand God’s relationship to us, isn’t it? What if we understood that about God? That his primary relationship with us is as a doctor. Someone who wants to make us well, someone who is devoting his life to that purpose. And Jesus is a particular kind of doctor. A really good doctor. A doctor for the sick.
In those days, doctors didn’t command the kind of respect they often command today. In the oral tradition of the time, there was a list of the professions that were looked on with contempt: “…the donkey driver, the camel driver, the sailor, the coachman, the shepherd, the shopkeeper, the doctor, and the butcher.” Rabbi Judah is quoted as saying, “The better of the doctors was good for hell.”
Why the contempt? Well, generally speaking doctors weren’t super effective – medicine was in a pretty primitive place at the time. And more than that, doctors had the reputation of giving preferential treatment to the rich and neglecting the poor.
In other words, people didn’t trust doctors. They suspected them of just being in it for themselves, not for their patients, and they didn’t trust many of their “cures.”
And yet, Jesus compares himself to a doctor anyway. Why?
When we go to the doctor, we are often in a particular emotional state. We arrive at the doctor’s office with emotional baggage. Guilt, shame, fear, worry. There’s something called “white coat syndrome” – a surge in blood pressure that 20% of the population experiences when in a doctor’s office. We’re afraid of the prospect of a painful procedure, embarrassed about being touched or having to disrobe, afraid of being criticized for unhealthy behavior, and most of all we’re afraid of a bad diagnosis.
And yet, all that most doctors want to do is be helpful. This is true of all the professions that care for us in our distress: doctors, nurses, therapists, dentists, physician’s assistants, counselors, social workers, you name it.
[two great doctors growing up, Dr. Opachik and Dr. Scuccimari…]
Let me tell you about Dr. Sam Tickle. Retired now, he was a pulmonologist (a lung doctor) in Memphis, TN during the rise of the AIDS epidemic. (He’s married to Phyllis Tickle, the renowned author that will be speaking at the Blue Ocean Faith conference in Ann Arbor in May, and who compiled the set of fixed hour prayers that so many of us practice, called the Divine Hours). At the time, HIV hadn’t been detected and there were no effective treatments.
Dr. Tickle was like a living example of the doctor Jesus in Mark 2. He was a first responder to these gay men who were showing up in the 1980’s with mysterious and rare lung disease and no immune response. They were dying horrible deaths with no cure or even treatment at the time. He is beloved in Memphis today, because of the way he cared for these men. He allowed them into his unit.
Which caused all kinds of pushback. Because more and more of these men were coming to his hospital, knowing they’d be taken in. This disease seemed dangerous, and these men were despised in many cases because of their homosexuality.
[Sam’s conversation with Phyllis…]
Dr. Tickle didn’t have a cure for AIDS. But he did offer what Jesus’ was offering in Mark 2 to Levi. He offered acceptance. He was willing to be with them, and do everything in his power to make them well. And, like Jesus, he offered it despite the personal cost. Because he was a doctor, and that’s what doctors do with sick people.
That’s what Jesus was doing. Offering acceptance to these “sinners,” these people without pride of place in his day, and sick with the soul ache that comes from being an outcast to the righteous.
Notice, he doesn’t call himself a doctor because of his miraculous healing power. He has that in abundance, of course, but the immediate context isn’t a healing, but the fact that he’s eating with these sinners. He accepted them. Because that’s what they needed to get well, and he was their doctor. He was willing to be with them, and do everything in his power to make them well.
In fact, so many of Jesus’ healings in the new testament include this component of acceptance – the lepers, the centurion’s slave, the woman with feminine bleeding for 12 years, the paralyzed man, the blind beggar, and on and on. The healings themselves were great, but the thing that made Jesus their doctor was that he was at ease with them in their sickness, and accepted them, touched them, greeted them, forgave them, welcomed them, treated them with the dignity only the “righteous” were accustomed to experiencing.
This is the heart of the good news, isn’t it?
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, to the glory of God.
If you’ve been listening the past few weeks, you remember that the glory of God is to take care of those who depend on him. Being accepted by Dr. Jesus is where that glory begins. We see his goodness in his acceptance of us, and that’s what frees us to trust him, to depend on him. To take a leap of faith with him. So that he can come through for us, to his glory.
That’s what Levi discovered. He resigned as a customs official. He accepted a position as an apprentice of Jesus. It was a leap of faith. And then Dr. Jesus upped the ante on his acceptance of Levi. He came to his home, to his party, to his friends. Ate with them. Drank their wine. Listened to their jokes. Probably told some of his own. He was with them. Despite all the flack from the Pharisees. Because he’s a really good doctor.
And it’s his acceptance that is the beginning of the cure for what ails us. Because at the heart of the sinful, broken human condition is shame. The painful feeling that we are deeply flawed and unworthy of belonging. And so we go elsewhere for life, depending on everything but God for life, to our detriment and the detriment of others. But Jesus’ acceptance meets us powerfully in our shame, revealing to us that no matter how deeply flawed we might actually be, it doesn’t threaten our belonging with him. He’s not afraid to take on our shame by being associated with us. We are worthy of belonging with him by virtue of our shared image-bearing humanity. He’s become one of us and made all of us worthy because of our association with him.
We all have our concerns about taking a leap of faith with Jesus, just like we all get nervous about going to the doctor. How will it work out? What will we find out is wrong with us? How humiliating will it be? What will his prescription be? Will I be able to follow it?
It’s a leap of faith. You’ll have to decide if you want to find out for yourself.
In my experience, all those fears are unfounded. It will work out in such a way that we have life, and life to the full. We will find out that what we have is fatal, but that isn’t the end of the story. That the end of the story is life, and life to the full. It might be humiliating if it were anyone but Jesus, but it’s Jesus, and so there isn’t a hint of humiliation, just joy. His prescription is going to be ever increasing doses of himself and of learning a whole new way of living, and it’s going to be the most challenging thing we’ve ever done in our life. But with his help, we’ll be able to follow it. Even if it takes you a lifetime of refills and referrals.
[personal story of a visit to Jesus, the really good doctor…]
1. Reflect on Romans 13v10 & the Hippocratic Oath…
Romans: Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.
Reflect on what that means about Jesus. Jesus is a really good doctor. He is love, the fulfillment of the law. He will do no harm to you. Reflect on the disquiet you might experience about trusting Jesus with this or that about your life, and the concern that he might do harm to you. Take 2 minutes each day to put clarity around the harm you worry or feel you might experience if you take a particular leap of faith, and invite him to respond to you about that.
2. Let Jesus be himself. Make space in your conception of him to feel differently about you than you feel about you. Sometimes because we can’t accept ourselves, we imagine God doesn’t or won’t either. Or because we think it’s hopeless, we imagine God thinks so too. Ask him to reveal to you how he feels about you with respect to your deepest shame.
3. Make an appointment with Jesus already. Stop trying to be your own doctor. Sometimes we don’t go to the doctor because we figure that we already know what’s wrong and what we need to do. We don’t want to waste the time, the money, and go through the rigmarole. Maybe. But maybe not. What would it hurt to bring your ailment to Jesus? He might surprise you. Schedule 30 minutes with him. 20 minutes devoted to you telling him what’s wrong with you and your life. 10 minutes to seeing what he says back.