Who Do You Say That We Are?

Inspired by Mark 8:27-9:8

Like many of you, I have been following the political landscape lately, particularly the various campaigns as they rally towards the upcoming election. As someone who is fascinated with sociocultural anthropology, which is just a fancy way of saying that I’m a people watcher, but not in a creepy way, I just love to figure out what makes people tick, how they interact with each other, how they present themselves, how people adapt depending on their environment or company they keep, all that stuff. So, watching these debates and rallies is like candy for someone like me! Ok, that did sound kinda creepy. Anywho, one of the things that I have noticed about all these presidential candidates is the way that they present themselves to those whom they hope will vote for them, you and I.

The way that they do this has intrigued me. Most of them use some form of an “I” statement to introduce themselves, “I am blank, and I” and then they usually finish that statement with something they believe or something that they will do or something about who they are. For example, Amy Klobuchar recently began a rally by saying, “Hello America, I am Amy Klobuchar, and I will beat Donald Trump!” And of course, the crowd went wild!

These politicians know how to get a reaction from a crowd, that’s for sure! And they know how to key in on the thoughts and feelings of American voters with their little catchphrases like that. Now all that makes for great campaign moments but what I find fascinating about these I am statements from all the politicians is that it really doesn’t matter who they think they are, what really matters is who voters think they are.

Hold that thought and let’s move to our reading for today. The Sunday before Ash Wednesday is always Transfiguration Sunday, the day that we retell the story of the disciple’s mountain top experience with the transfigured Jesus, in all his glowiness. It occurs smack dab in the middle of Mark’s Gospel, and that is no accident. It functions as a major turning point in the overall narrative that Mark has invited us into. It’s the moment when they realize that this Jesus may be something more than just a wise rabbi, more than a prophet, more than a miracle worker, more than a healer. It not only causes them to reexamine all they had experienced with Jesus up to that point, but changes how they see him from then on.

And with that in mind, I’d like to focus on the scene just prior to them traveling up that mountain. Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am? They told him, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.” That was easy for them to answer. Anyone who was paying attention in the crowds that had been following Jesus could probably answer that question. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He looks them in the eye and asks, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” That may have been a little more difficult to answer. Only one person answered that time. Good ol’ Peter. “You are the Christ,” he says. But I’m more interested in the question than I am in Peter’s answer.

It occurred to me, maybe for the first time, that in this story, and the Gospel of Mark in general, Jesus is more interested in what others are saying about him, then he is about telling everyone who he is. Maybe it’s all the election campaigning that I have been watching on TV lately that made me notice this, I don’t know, but I found that quite intriguing. Contrast that with John’s Gospel, where Jesus is telling everyone who he is with “I am” statements: “I am the bread of life…I am the light of the world…I am the good shepherd.” At every turn in John’s Gospel, Jesus is telling people who he is. John presents a Jesus who would have made a great politician! Add that to the plethora of reasons why it’s my least favorite Gospel. But this is not the Jesus that Mark presents to us.

Mark’s Jesus asks a question that most of us wouldn’t dare ask anyone, let alone the public!” “Who do you say that I am?” I mean, maybe it’s my debilitatingly low self-esteem but you’d never hear me ask, “Who do you say that I am?” I’d be too afraid of the answers! My thin skin would rip like tissue paper! Now, whether or not Jesus had the same fears is up for debate, but what we do know, is even if he had those fears, he didn’t let them get in the way of asking people who they thought he was.

I mean, they could have said Satan, they could have said a demon, they could have said he was the worst rabbi they’d ever heard preach, they could have said he was a fraud. And people did say those things about him. Regardless, making sure that people had the right idea regarding his identity, was just too important to him. Remembering that your time on earth is limited will do that to you.

So, all of this got me thinking. What if we were brave enough to ask that question? And I don’t mean as individuals. I wouldn’t ask you to put yourself through that. But I mean as a church, as a congregation, as a denomination, as a religion. What if we were brave enough to ask the world, to ask the country, to ask Auburn, “Who do you say that we are?” If we are the body of Christ in the world, I think we should be asking that. If we are the hands and feet of Christ in the world, I think we should be asking that. And then really taking to heart what people say, even if we think it’s untrue. As scary as it may sound, I think we have an obligation to ask people, “Who do you say that we are?” I’d go so far as to say, church decline wouldn’t be a worldwide problem today, if we’d have been asking people that for the past two thousand years!

We’d have been able to hear what people were saying about us and been given the opportunity to make any course corrections that needed to be made. Because there are so many misconceptions about us out there, that it’s no wonder people don’t want to step inside our doors! So much of the world out there assume all us Christians are alike. There are so many that think we are all just a bunch of homophobic, xenophobic, sexist, racist, self-righteous, do-gooders! Now, don’t get me wrong, these assumptions that people make about us are justified. They know that it’s not hard to find Christians that are just like their assumptions. Thankfully, you and I know, not all us Jesus followers are like that. So, how do we make sure that people know that though?

Well, one way is to ask that scary question. When was the last time that you asked your fellow Auburnites, “Who do you say that we are?” Has Bethlehem ever done that? Like most congregations, probably not. We’ve never had to before. We’ve always had enough people naturally come through our doors, enough to pay the bills anyway. Well, as you can see, those days are gone. Oh, pastor, why do you have to be such a downer? Look, everyone is always asking pastors how to grow the church, right up until they answer. Then they never ask again because they don’t like the answers! But, I don’t see this as a downer at all though!

God has given you the opportunity to go outside these four walls and meet some of your amazing neighbors! Not only that, but God doesn’t send you out there empty-handed, but with good news to share! The greatest news the world has ever heard! Three simple words, “God loves you.” Period. Just as you are, strengths and weaknesses, “God loves you.” Those three simple words could be all that’s needed to help someone rethink what they’ve assumed about us Christians. But, we’ll never know of any misconceptions out there, unless we ask, unless we ask that scary question, “Who do you say that we are?” Do we have the courage to do that? Are we brave enough? Do we love enough? I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t think so. Thanks be to God. Amen.

We ARE Worthy!

Inspired by Mark 5:21-43

How many of you remember that Saturday Night Live skit Wayne’s World? They even made a movie out of it. It was about two Rock music fanatics who made a TV show on their public television station and one thing they were known for, whenever they met a Rock musician celebrity, was falling on their knees and bowing over and over saying, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” That is the image that came to mind while I was preparing for this sermon, as silly as that sounds.

However, this Bible story we have before us today is anything but silly. In it, we have two characters that go to Jesus for help, and both are coming from a place of unworthiness. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, let’s back up a bit. This story occurs right after last week’s story of the poor demonized person whom Jesus healed and restored to the community.

We’re in the same chapter in fact. The only segue is the fact that Jesus is now on the other side of the lake, meaning that he is back in Jewish territory, with his own people. In their minds, this is where Jesus belonged in the first place. He had no business on the other side of the lake, with those Gentiles, much less helping them! So, Jesus comes back, and he can’t even get off the boat before he is mobbed by a swarm of followers. Because you see, they didn’t follow him to the Gentile land that he went to, because they didn’t want to risk being contaminated by them. And that’s no exaggeration, I can point you to the passages in Leviticus that state all the regulations and rituals that they’d have to endure if they got too close to a pig, or an unclean person, or God knows what! We Gentiles are a sketchy lot!

However, despite being back with his own people now, he has two strange but similar encounters with people that felt unworthy of Jesus’ help, let alone just being in his presence. The first is with a synagogue leader. Think church council president. I mean, who’s more worthy of Jesus’ time than a church council president, right! But no, this synagogue leader did not feel worthy. He comes to Jesus pleading on his hands and knees. I think that’s a detail that we too quickly overlook. Have you ever been that desperate? I think most of us know what desperation feels like but to go to another human being and submit yourself before them and beg. That’s a whole different level of desperation and humility that I’m guessing most of us have not experienced.

So, there’s Jairus, begging for Jesus' help, to heal his twelve-year-old daughter. Jesus agrees and goes with him, only to be interrupted on the way by yet another one from his Jewish community, this time a woman who had been suffering from a bleeding disorder for twelve years. Notice the number twelve in both stories. That’s not an accident. Mark was a master storyteller, linking these two stories together, almost subconsciously. But let’s keep moving through the story.

The woman is the very embodiment of the very uncleanliness that his followers wanted to stay away from on the other side of the lake, and for them, uncleanliness meant unholiness. This woman’s condition made her unclean, unholy. And you did not want to be made unclean! There were rituals that needed to be done, a time period had to elapse, offerings had to be made, which meant there was a financial burden as well! You just didn’t risk being made unclean!

Now, a woman’s menstrual period already made her unclean. The Levitical law was that she had to segregate herself from the rest of the community until it was over. In their eyes, blood was just something to stay away from. So, if you read between the lines here, you realize that she has been ostracized for twelve years now. She was taking a risk even being there! But she was desperate. And more than that, she trusted that Jesus would be able to help her, to help her be restored back to the land of the living, back to her people.

Now here’s a bit of a side note, they were so hypersensitive about being made unclean, they believed that even touching the clothes of someone who was unclean would indeed make you unclean. So, this woman may have been thinking, “If we can be made unclean by just touching someone’s clothes, I bet you the reverse of that is true, that I could be made clean by just touching Jesus’ clothes!”

So, that’s what she does, especially because, in her eyes, and in her society’s eyes, she’s not worthy to do anything else. She’s not worthy to ask for an audience from this rabbi. She’s not worthy enough to interrupt him. She’s not worthy enough to risk contaminating him. She’s not worthy. But desperate times call for desperate measures. So, come what may, she reaches out and touches his robe and is healed.

Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” And then he and his followers have this little comical scene as they argue over the idiocy of that question. To which, Jesus just ignores them, because Jesus wants an audience with whomever touched him, with whomever had so much trust in him to do that! And he turns around to see her, on her knees, begging for mercy, and probably to not turn her over to the authorities. Why? Because she doesn’t think she’s worthy.

But we can’t stop there. There’s a little more story to be told. At this point, one of Jairus’s people came to tell him that his daughter had died, that there was no need to bother Jesus now. Further evidence that they just didn’t feel worthy of Jesus’ time and care. But Jesus felt otherwise. He goes to the house anyway, and when he gets there, he does the unthinkable! If they thought touching a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years would make you unclean, imagine what they thought about touching a dead body! You just didn’t do it. There were people who were set aside to do that, who were committed to a life of uncleanliness. But Jesus was not only fully committed to restoring people, but doing it in ways that were considered unlawful, unclean, and unholy.

Why? Because once again, the healings in these stories, aren’t the real story. They’re just the backdrop. The real story here is Jesus' willingness to go out of his way, in radical, irreverent, and in society’s eyes, immoral and ungodly ways, just so that he could make a point. And that point is this: there is nothing, and no one, who can tell you, that you are not worthy, even if that person is you.

There is nothing on God’s green earth, that can make you unworthy of God’s love and care for you, not even scripture. There is no circumstance that could make you unworthy. There is no behavior or mistake you could make, that would make you unworthy. There is no one who has the power to determine your worthiness, not even you. If you want to kneel before God, by all means, do it. If you want to bow before God, by all means, do it. Just don’t do it with the words, “We’re not worthy.” But instead, learn to live with the words, “We are worthy.” Thanks be to God. Amen.


Inspired by Mark 5:1-20

In its most general sense, the dictionary definition of the word “reconstitute” is, “to restore to a former condition.” To restore to a former condition. It’s not a common word to use in everyday language but when it is used it’s found in a wide variety of subjects. The word “reconstitute” is used in cooking, in medicine, it’s a military term, and it’s a business term as well, just to name a few of it’s uses. Now, when I think of the word reconstitution, my mind goes immediately to food.

And until now I would have thought of dry milk, but then I learned that adding water to dry milk is not called reconstitution, that’s called rehydration. So, what’s the difference? I’m so glad you asked! The difference is this, you rehydrate something that has been completely dehydrated, like dry milk, which has no liquid left in it whatsoever. But you reconstitute something that has been mostly dehydrated. It’s not dry, but it’s not exactly a liquid either. It’s kind of in this moisture limbo. For instance, frozen orange juice. Even when it’s melted, it’s more of a sludge than it is a liquid. So, you add water to it, to reconstitute it, to restore it to its former condition, to bring it out of its moisture limbo and back into the marvelous world of the breakfast table, where it belongs.

"What in the world does pastor have in that coffee mug this morning!" It ain’t orange juice that for sure! It’s just water, as always, but you know me, I am going somewhere with this, just be patient! So, let’s turn our attention to what is probably one of the most disturbing stories of the Bible. In the past, I’ve described it as creepy, as an example of the horror genre found in the Bible, but this time around I’m just very disturbed by it. More than that, I think that was Mark’s intention. So, Jesus continues to teach and heal throughout the region, and at this point of the narrative, he is outside the land of his Jewish community, in the territory of Gentile peoples. The biggest clue is the presence of swine. No Jewish community would have a herd of swine as they were thought to be unclean and unholy.

By mentioning this, Mark is pointing out that the people who live here, are people who the Jewish community have considered outsiders, less than, not one of us, people who were thought to be outside of God’s purview. In other words, whatever happened to them wasn’t their responsibility, nor was it God’s responsibility. They were on their own. All this is set up by just the mention of swine. So, depending on who you were when you first heard this story back then your reaction would either be, “Why is Jesus even bothering with those people?” or “Jesus took the time to come to one of our towns?” Either way, this was odd behavior in their eyes. Jesus had no business going there, let alone caring for anyone who lived there! And yet, there he was.

I’m sure his followers were just hoping he’d make an appearance, teach a few lessons, say a few prayers, and get back home as soon as possible, before anyone even knew they were there. Of course, Jesus had to disappoint them once again. Not only could this not be a simple visit, but the news of what occurs there traveled far and wide, much to the dismay I’m sure of the twelve disciples. They wanted Jesus to be taken seriously, and would have avoided anything that might hurt his legitimacy as a rabbi, teacher, prophet, let alone as the chosen one of God.

So this scene with the demon-possessed outsider was not good PR in their minds. And yet, there goes Jesus into a graveyard, next to a swineherd, and now he’s talking to some stranger who is clearly disturbed. They’re probably thinking, “Can’t we just have one day when we just have a normal outing with the savior of the world?”

So, Mark shares with us that there was a person living among the dead because the townsfolk were not strong enough handle to handle this person, which, is usually coded language for, because the townsfolk didn’t want to deal with this person. And so, this poor demonized soul was left with no other option than to live among the dead, putting this person in a very odd limbo, no longer considered to be among the living, but also not dead either.

It would not surprise me at all if the townsfolk had begun to refer to this person as an “it” and not a person at all anymore. Because it’s easier that way, it’s easier to dehumanize someone, or a group of people, when we “can’t handle them”, isn’t it. Whether we’re talking about the Holocaust, Rwandan Genocide, or the homeless we pass by every day, we often use coded language that dehumanizes, that puts them in a limbo that makes it easier to dismiss, if not altogether ostracize.

The Swine Driven into the Sea
by James Tissot (1836-1902)
Of course, none of this mattered to Jesus, Jesus is in the business of reconstituting people back to where they belong, and in the condition they once were. As such, Jesus heals this poor demonized human being. But make no mistake, it isn’t the physical healing that’s the miracle here, it isn’t the exorcism that’s the miracle here, and it surely isn’t the slaughter of those poor pigs, no the real miracle of this story can be found in two words, two words that Jesus says to the one who had been healed, “Go home.”

The one who had been living among the dead, in limbo, neither living nor dead, was now being told, by the savior of the world, to go home, “Go home to your people”, Jesus said. In other words, you have been restored, you have been reconstituted, back to what you once were, despite what anyone may say. Jesus says, “Go home.”

If I only had the opportunity to share one thing that Jesus did while he was here on earth in human form, it would be that Jesus was in the reconstitution business. I know, that doesn’t really have a nice ring to it, but even more than who Jesus was, God’s firstborn, the savior of the world, it would be to share what Jesus did, over and over throughout his ministry, and that was this continual work to reconstitute people from the limbo that society or life’s hard knocks had put them in, and back into the land of the living, in community with their people. That’s what Jesus was all about, that’s what Jesus continues to do for us, and that’s the work that Jesus calls us into. And Jesus knows this work isn’t easy. Jesus knows that better than anyone, because it got him killed.

However, because we have been restored, because we have been reconstituted back into the loving and welcoming arms of God, because we have been brought out of the land of the dead and back into the land of the living, we have been called to take a look around and see if anyone else has been left behind, to see if there is anyone else left in limbo by society, by us, who still need to be reconstituted, who still need to be restored. And sometimes that work is as simple as reminding ourselves to not dehumanize others in our everyday lives, to remind ourselves that everyone we meet are children of God just as we are, to remind ourselves not to be like those townsfolk who just could handle someone so different and off-putting as that poor demonized person they ostracized.

I’m reminded of a time during my last call before I became pastor here. I would go each Ash Wednesday and give ashes and communion at a local homeless shelter in Fresno. As I was preparing to go that first Ash Wednesday, I was going over the little service I was putting together for them and I came across the words that the pastor says when giving the ashes in the sign of cross on the person’s forehead, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I was caught off guard because I thought to myself, how can I say that to them, how can I say that to a people whose existence is already in the dust of society. This is their life now and I’m going to have the audacity to tell them that this will be their future as well? That just didn’t’ feel right.

So, I called up one of my mentors for some advice, someone I trust to not only guide me but to give it to me straight. So, I asked him to help me come up with words that would better suit the needs of the homeless community that I was scheduled to visit and give ashes to. His response will stick with me forever. He said, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” I asked, “Why not?”

He said, “Well, what if you have someone who knows the words to expect because they’ve grown up in the church, and here you come along and give them different words. They might wonder why they weren’t good enough for the usual words given with the ashes.” That really hit me hard. Granted, my heart was in the right place. I was just trying to be considerate to the predicament they were in but what I ended up doing was just regarding them differently, and not regarding them like I would any other human being that I would give ashes to on Ash Wednesday.

That may seem like an oversimplification of what Jesus’ mission is in this world but I often think we make following Jesus more complicated than it really needs to be. If at the end of the day Jesus sees that you’ve made a few course corrections here and there, that you’ve changed the way you’ve thought about this or that, all to help you see others better as fellow human beings, as children of God, when you didn’t before, then I think Jesus would be quite satisfied. I think Jesus would be tickled pink to tell you the truth! And so, may we be ever grateful to have a God who has reconstituted us, who has restored us, so grateful that we feel compelled to join in that work of reconstitution, of restoration, wherever God sends us, however big or small the task may be. Thanks be to God. Amen.

We Learn By Doing

Inspired by Mark 4:1-34

We are now four chapters into the Gospel of Mark and he finally shares with us some of Jesus’ lessons that he taught his followers. Up ‘til now, Mark has been more focused on what Jesus was doing, not so much on what Jesus was saying. But all that changes in this chapter where Jesus sits his followers down for some good ol’ fashioned lessons from the master. Can you imagine how excited they were? I mean, after all, this is the chosen one of God, the savior of the world, and he’s finally gonna teach a Sunday school class! Or I guess it would be synagogue class? Whatever they called it, the moment was finally here! I can see them sitting down, ready to take notes, wondering what he would teach them! Only for them to be completely let down when he finally does!

He tells them a story that has come to be known as the Parable of the Soils, of the soils! Not the most exciting of stories! Not only that but they are completely perplexed by it! So much so that they ask him later to explain it! Now, that might not seem like a big deal but if I preached a sermon one Sunday, and you all came to me and asked me to explain it, I would be sure that I had failed at that sermon. But not Jesus, he does his best to explain and then continues to teach. He tells them another story, in spite of the lackluster reviews from the last one, and this story is about, wait for it, lamps and baskets! Maybe now we know why Jesus didn’t write any of the books of the Bible!

Lamps and baskets. Anyway, the next story is about how a seed grows, and then he gets really spicy and tells them a story about a mustard seed! Did you see what I did there? Spicy…mustard? What do you expect from me? Jesus isn’t giving me much to work with here! In addition to these being some of the most boring stories any savior of the world had ever taught, they don’t seem to understand any of them! Not even his closest followers, the twelve, understood them! I can see their bursting excitement slowly deflate with each and every story, ‘til they finally put their notepads down, feeling disappointed, if not altogether dumb. This is what they had been waiting for? Just to be made to feel stupid for not knowing what in the world Jesus is talking about?

Two thousand years later, people are still debating on what Jesus meant by these and his other parables, leaving us just as frustrated as his original followers were. And that’s what I want to focus on today. Besides, you’ve heard plenty of sermons that have attempted to explain these parables anyway, some of them probably from me I’ve been here long enough now. But what struck me was not only the confusion of his followers but how Jesus doesn’t exactly help them out either. Even when he attempts to explain they still seem a bit stumped. He even asks them, “Don’t you understand?” He could see it all over their faces. No, they didn’t understand. And in what seems like a move that lacked greatly in the compassion department, Jesus just keeps forging ahead in his lesson plan.

What do we do with that? Because being confused by Jesus is nothing new, right! We are constantly confused and frustrated by Jesus! We are constantly asked to do or believe things that seem to not only go against our grain, but don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense either! Love our enemies? What? Even when they deliver death threats to us? Feed the hungry? Even when they’re probably gonna go and buy a beer instead of food? Forgive so we’ll be forgiven? Even when the pain still hurts? Being confused and frustrated by Jesus is nothing new! So, what do we do with that? Well, my suggestion is to do what Jesus did, just keep moving forward, just keep moving. Or in the words of the ever-wise Dory, “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Swimming. Swimming.”

So wise. Seriously, because I wonder if Jesus was teaching us something about not having all the answers, about what to do when we are confused and frustrated when we don’t have all the answers. Particularly for us Western-minded people, having all the answers is everything! Somehow we got this idea that faith was about getting all the answers. Even Luther’s Small Catechism asks the question, “What does this mean?” over and over. What does this mean? What does this mean? Knowledge and meaning have been put on a pedestal in our faith, so much so that we’ve lost so much of the mystery and the unknown that our faith inherently has within it. And like Jesus’ first parables that were about soils and lamps and seeds, I personally find that quite boring.

I’m not one of those people that needs all the answers, I like a bit of mystery on my faith! I don’t need to know how everything works. I don’t need to know what’s behind the curtain. But that doesn’t mean that I’m never frustrated by Jesus, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have my moments when Jesus just utterly confuses me, moments when Jesus asks me to do or believe something that makes absolutely no sense. In those moments, I think this chapter, and Dory, have some great advice. And that’s just to keep moving, or keep swimming. In this chapter, I hear Jesus and Mark telling us that answers aren’t everything! That sometimes, our faith is more experiential, than knowledge-based. In this chapter, I hear Jesus and Mark calling us not to understand, but to just follow. Just follow them on the journey.

Which is also a call to trust. I hear Jesus and Mark saying, “Trust us, even though this might not make any sense right now, even if it goes against your instincts or what you’ve been taught before, just trust us, and see where this goes.” Sometimes faith is something you have to experience before it can really make any sense to you. At the end of the movie, Finding Nemo, Dory learns that she isn’t alone.

At the beginning of her story, she has some memory problems that caused her to live a lonely life because she couldn’t remember who was who, but by the end of the movie, she not only has friends but has a family. But if someone had told her that at the beginning of the movie that wouldn’t have made any sense and she would have never believed you. It was something that she had to experience.

This also reminds me of the movie The Karate Kid. Remember how Mr. Miyagi made Daniel paint the fence and sand the floor, and Daniel gets frustrated because he just wanted to be trained in Karate, only to discover that those were the lessons? But in order for Daniel to get there he just had to keep moving forward, had to keep doing what Mr. Miyagi was asking him to do, even if it didn’t make sense, even if it was frustrating and confusing. And that took a healthy amount of trust on Daniel’s part. I believe that this is what Mark is trying to point out in this chapter. Faith isn’t about having all the answers. It isn’t even about searching for the answers. Sometimes, it’s just about moving, swimming, following, doing what Jesus asks, and then seeing what happens.

I find a tremendous amount of grace in that. For me, that takes an enormous amount of weight off my shoulders, to know that I don’t have to find all the answers, that that isn’t even the point of all of this, that it’s enough to just keep moving, and maybe faith will make more sense down the road, and maybe it won’t. Either way, it’s ok. Mark knew where he was going with this story. And talk about an ending that doesn’t make any sense!

Well, I don’t want to spoil the story for you but let me just say that this confusion, this bewilderment, never ends. And that might not sound like good news to you but to Mark it was. And I think that’s because it meant we weren’t alone in our frustration in not having all the answers, it meant that we had a family, even if it’s a family of a bunch of confused people, confused people who love Jesus and is loved back. Granted, it’s a weird kind of grace, but maybe that’s why I love Mark so much. Amen.

Jesus Will Always Eat with "Those People"

Inspired by Mark 2:1-22

Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany, which was on Tuesday. That is the day that we remember the visit of the magi to the little Jesus when they blessed his family with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The day is significant because the magi were not Jewish, and so that day has become known as the day that the very Jewish Jesus was revealed to the first gentiles, and therefore, to the whole world. 
However, this revealing, this epiphany, was not just a once and done deal, but has been an ongoing revelation to the world for the last two thousand plus years—which is why it gets its own little green season before Lent arrives. Jesus continues to be revealed to the world in new and often surprising ways both today and in the Gospel of Mark, as we will see over the next seven weeks, which will culminate with the reveal of all reveals in the story of the transfiguration.
We are still very early in the Gospel, only starting chapter two today, and Jesus is still leading by example. There are some teaching moments here and there, but Mark still seems to be more focused on Jesus’ actions rather than his words. And in this chapter, there is a whole lot of action going on and we didn’t even read the whole thing! The chapter begins with a dramatic healing of a man whose friends were so desperate for healing for him, they tore the roof open and lowered him down to Jesus! 
That story always makes me chuckle because, if you saw someone desperately tearing through the roof just to get to Jesus, wouldn’t you or even Jesus have said, don’t do that! Let him through for crying out loud! But Mark wastes no time with trivial details, he’s got a story to tell, he’s got a savior to reveal to the world, so he just pushes right through his story.
Next, we have the calling of a fifth disciple, Levi, that grows what will be his inner circle of followers. Levi is a tax collector which will be important in a minute. That scene ends with Jesus sitting at Levi’s house dining with other “tax collectors and sinners.” Mark quickly moves on to the next scene which just has Jesus being asked why he and his disciples don’t fast like everyone else does, meaning like their rest of their Jewish community. Which brings us to what I think is the main point of this chapter. We are given three scenes in this reading and it would be easy to preach on any one of them but I’m going to instead talk about a thread that I see running through each of them. As amazing as Jesus is in this chapter, healing, and calling, and feasting, in spite of all that, at every turn he runs into a wall of opposition.
At this point in the story the opposition comes very subtly, and it comes in the form of questions. In the first scene, Jesus heals the man lowered through the roof by saying, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” And immediately, some of society’s elite begin to ask, “Why does he speak this way? Only God can forgive sins!” In the next scene, Jesus is eating with those tax collectors and sinners and they ask, “Why is he eating with them?” In the final scene, Jesus is just eating, and they ask, “Why isn’t he fasting like us?” Questions can sometimes be innocent, coming from a place that is genuinely inquisitive. But not these questions, they are anything but innocent. In fact, you could say they are downright malicious and malevolent. Not because of the questions themselves but because of the heart that they come from. 
How do we know this? Because these same elite figures continue to appear throughout this Gospel, particularly at the end when they crucify Jesus. If there was ever a group whose heart was not in the right place, it’s these guys. But the funny thing is, at this point in the story, you’d never know that. If you didn’t know how this story ended, these might just seem like innocent questions. But we know they are anything but innocent, especially when he keeps running into questions like these around every corner. At this point, Jesus remains patient but even Jesus has limits, as we will see later in the Gospel, because these seemingly innocent questions have a cumulative effect. Let me give you modern-day example.
People of color get asked one of these seemingly innocent questions all the time, way more than white people, and the question is this, “Where are you from?” That’s it! Where are you from? Well, that seems innocent enough, right? But not when you take into account two things, one, white people don’t get asked this question nearly as often, and two, that cumulative effect. Let’s tackle that first one. This question is often a proxy for what they really want to know but even they realize would be socially unacceptable to ask. From things like, "You don’t sound like us so you must be from someplace else", to the much more simplified, “Why are you brown?” No one would ever ask that, so instead, we get the question, “Where are you from?” 
My friend Tuhina, whose parents are from India, and has preached here before, gets this question all the time. She knows what they’re really asking but refuses to play this game with them. And so, she just answers the question like anyone else would and says, I’m from Colorado. I’ve been witness to several of these encounters with her. The puzzled look on people’s faces when she says Colorado is hilarious, or it would be if you didn’t know what was behind the question. The answer is usually met with, “I mean, where are you from?” Emphasis on the word from, as if they weren’t clear enough the first time. So, she responds, “Oh, you mean, where am I from? Well, I’m from Denver.” At that point they often just give up.
Now some might think, why not just answer what you know they are trying to get at? Can’t it just be an innocent question. Well, maybe but that brings me to the cumulative effect of this question and questions like these that white people just don’t get because they haven’t experienced them to the degree that people of color have. When you are asked, over and over, around every corner of your life, “Where are you from?” You soon begin to feel like you don’t belong. A seemingly innocent question like “Where are you from?” soon begins to sound like, “you’re not from here”, which soon begins to sound like, “you don’t belong here.” 
You wanna know where I get this question most often? In Lutheran gatherings. The one place where we already look like we don’t belong. The ELCA is literally the whitest denomination in the U.S., so when we as people of color walk into a room full of Lutherans, we are walking into a sea of white, so believe me when I say we already feel like we don’t belong in the room. And every time we hear that seemingly innocent question, “Where are you from?”, it stings—not one question all by itself, but the cumulative effect of that question being asked over and over, across a lifetime, asked in much greater number than that of my white siblings.
It's these same kinds of seemingly innocent questions that Jesus was bombarded with throughout his ministry, and they will not only have a cumulative effect within him, but will also lead to his crucifixion. These questions though, make me feel oddly sorry for those asking them. Could it be that they wanted to be part of what Jesus was doing, and felt left out? I wonder this because I think we too quickly assume that we are the ones dining with Jesus in this story, or we are the ones being lowered through the ceiling. But, what if we’re not? What if we are the ones on the outside looking in? Before I confuse you beyond repair let’s take a closer look at that dinner scene with Levi and his fellow “tax collectors and sinners.” 
You might hear “tax collectors” and think IRS agents but they were even more insidious than that! These guys were considered treasonous traitors! Sellouts of the worst kind! You see, they were known for taking advantage of their own people! They were Jews, working for Rome to collect taxes for them, from their fellow Jews, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, they were skimming a bit too much off the top if you know what I mean. In modern terms, if they weren’t already the 1%, they were willing participants in creating the 1%. They were the worst of what Wallstreet has to offer. So, when they see Jesus eating with them, spending time with them, they’re horrified! Let me put it to you in another modern way, but I’m gonna warn ya, it’s not gonna be pleasant to hear!
If you were a Trump voter, then in this story, Jesus is eating with Hillary and her supporters. Likewise, if you were a Hillary voter, then in this story, Jesus is eating with Trump and his supporters. It’s all a matter of perspective but that’s how horrifying this scene is for them. But here’s the inescapable truth, Jesus is always going to dine with, spend time with, the outsider, the ones that society, you and I, have named as “those people.” Now, here’s the grace in that, sometimes that’s you and I. It’s all a matter of perspective. 
"Jesus Eats with Tax Collectors & Sinners" by Sieger Köder
But sometimes, it’s not you and I, and we have to be willing to not only accept that, but then ask ourselves the difficult question, “Why is Jesus eating with them and not me?” Which is why this table is so profound! Here, in this place, we gather not just as Republicans and Democrats, not just as conservatives and progressives, not just as whites and people of color, not just as gendered and nongendered, men and women, but above all, we come to this table on equal ground, as sinners. And because of that, guess who shows up, every time we gather here, without fail, to dine with us? Jesus does. Thanks be to God. Amen.