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.