Monday, 12 September 2016

Eating with the wrong kind of people

Sermon Preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
11 September 2016

Mark 2.13-17  Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them.  14 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.  15 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.  16 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?"  17 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."

Psalm 22.23-31   You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!  24 For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.  25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.  26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever!  27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.  28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.  29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.  30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,  31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

We have a friend who puts considerable thought
            into what she calls her "fantasy dinner parties". 

Sometimes these are, at least in theory, realistic possibilities,
            because the Fantasy-guest-list comprises people
                        who are both real and alive;
            but sometimes the guests are fictional, or dead, or both.

And I can see the fun in this.

My personal Formula One fantasy dinner party
            currently has Murray Walker, Damon Hill,
                        Ayrton Senna, and Juan Manuel Fangio attending.

While my Baptist Minister evening would include
            Violet Hedger, one of the early pioneers of women in ministry,
            alongside the great scholar-Pastor David Russell,
            and John Tattersall, the minister who baptised me.
But sadly they are all now dead,
            so it's unlikely to happen this side of eternity.

And I wonder, who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

Would you have the great and the good there?
            The famous and the infamous?
Would you have family and friends,
            or the strange and the stranger?

Would your fantasy dinner party include Levi, I wonder,
            the first century tax collector from Mark's Gospel?
If so, it would be an odd choice,
            because he wasn't the kind of guy to get many dinner party invitations.

In those days, unlike today (of course),
            tax collectors occupied a position on the edge of acceptable society.

They weren't doing anything illegal,
            always carefully making sure that they were on the right side
            of the first century tax evasion/tax avoidance line.

But definitely morally suspect,
            and certainly not that kind of people you would have in your house
            without first making sure all your receipts were in order.

The fundamental problem with tax collectors like Levi
            was that they were working for the wrong side.

They were Jews working for the Romans,
            they were crossing cultural boundaries best left un-crossed.

Israel at that time was an occupied province,
            firmly under Roman control,
            paying taxes according to Roman laws.

And, quite naturally under the circumstances,
            Jewish nationalism was thriving.
"We want our country back", was written deep in the heart and soul
            of every Jew to seethe in anger at Roman boots
            on the sacred ground of the promised land.

If there had been an option for a referendum
            to exit the Roman economic community,
            it would have passed unanimously.

But of course, no such option existed,
            because Roman economics, like the economics of every empire ever since,
            was predicated on Roman military might.

Voting to leave the Empire would have been pointless,
            and armed insurrection was the only option open
            to disaffected young Israelis hoping for a better life
                        and greater self-determinacy.

And here we have Levi,
            not only taking a job for the Imperial overlords,
            but a job collecting taxes from his own people.

More a collaborator than a collector, one might say.
            An unscrupulous bureaucrat,
            willing to compromise his own purity for profit,
                        and to betray his own people for a touch of power.

And it is this tax collector called Levi
            who Jesus ends up sharing a meal with.

Is it any wonder the ardent nationalist Pharisees
            started to get so upset with him?

They had their own plan and agenda for resisting the Roman occupation,
            and it certainly didn't involve cosying up to compromise collaborators.
Neither did it involve armed rebellion or public opposition.

For the Pharisees, resisting the Romans was primarily about
            exercising what we might today call nonviolent resistance,
            and it's a perspective with which I find myself having a great deal of sympathy.

Their resistance revolved around resisting compromise
            over the core of their religious identity.

They were going to be the best Jews they could,
            as far as possible within the letter of the law,
                        encouraging the people to follow their lead,
                        and avoiding assimilation to the oppressive and seductive forces of empire.

This is the world of the boycott,
            the high moral ground, the careful avoidance of compromise.
And the last thing they needed was a populist preacher
            undermining their hard work by going to share food with a tax collector.

In ancient Mediterranean culture,
            the sharing of a meal they at the heart of society.
Traditions of hospitality ran deep
            and one of the greatest honours you could pay to another person
            was to give or receive food.

This was, after all, and agrarian society,
            and the link between the land and the food people consumed
            was much more apparent than it is for us in our world.

To break bread with someone was to honour them,
            and so the Pharisees had strict rules
            over who it was permissible to share food with.

If they could control who ate with whom,
            they could control a significant aspect of the way society functioned.

But here's an interesting thing,
            it's not just Levi the tax collector at this meal.
Mark tells us that Jesus ate food with tax collectors (plural),
            and with sinners.

It's not just Levi and his accountancy friends at this table.
            Others, the sinners, ate there too.

Now, from the point of view of the Pharisees,
            there may not have been much to differentiate tax collectors from other sinners,
but you can be sure that in the non-purist world of the everyday Jew,
            there was a whole world of difference,
            and it had to do with indebtedness.

The nation of Israel was in debt to a foreign power.
            In a situation that has striking similarities to the financial enslavement
                        experienced by many countries in the developing world today,
            Israel owed a debt to Rome that they could never repay.

All they could do was service the interest, so to speak,
            through paying exorbitant taxes,
hoping that the Romans wouldn't just send in their crack legions
            to call time and strip the country of its remaining assets.

And whilst Levi and his fellow tax collectors were servicing this system,
            the other sinners where is the victims of it.
The "sinners" were those in debt,
            while the tax collectors were those collecting the debt.

Tax collectors and sinners would not normally sit down and share a meal together,
            and yet here they all are, at Levi's house,
                        sharing food with Jesus,
            while the Pharisees look on disapprovingly.

All of which begs the question of just what is going on here?
            And it also asks us to make our own difficult choice:
                        where, in all this, do you our sympathies lie?

Are we with Jesus, destroying the taboos and breaking the boundaries,
            or are we with the long game of the Pharisees,
            faithfully and is legally resisting the temptation is to compromise?

I, for one, don't think that this is a straightforward question to answer.

Let's look at the story a little more closely
            and see where it takes us.

The class enmity between sinners and tax collectors
            could only have been broken down
                        if there had been some kind of debt relief,
                        some kind of release from an obligation;
and this is exactly what we meet, time and again,
            in the stories of the ministry of Jesus.

Perhaps the most obvious example is the Lord's prayer itself,
            which we often recite as,
            "forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us".

However, Matthew’s Gospel gives us an alternative way
            of saying the same thing, and he puts it
            "forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6.12).

The sinners who eat with Levi
            can do so because their debts have been released,
                        their sins have been forgiven.

The gospel, or good news, of Jesus to tax collectors and sinners
            concerns the equalisation of power;
            the forgiveness of sins is about the cancelling of indebtedness.

Of course, this is no new insight.
            The Jews knew very well that the people of God
                        were called to have a radically different approach
                        to issues such as power, debt, money, property, and relationships.

The ancient Jewish laws relating to Sabbath and Jubilee
            enshrined, deep within their society,
            mechanisms for the restoration of relationships
                        across socio-economic divides.

So, the stories of creation speak of a rhythm of work and rest,
            six days God labours, and on the seventh God rests.
This is where the pattern of the working week comes from,
            and we know that it is good.

The seven-day pattern continues in the story of the mysterious manna in the wilderness,
            which sustained the Israelites for 40 years.
Every day the food appeared on the ground,
            but only enough for that day,
            until the sixth day when there was enough for the seventh day as well.

Taking this pattern and enshrining it in law,
            the Jewish Torah also required a Sabbath for the land.

Every seventh year the land was to be rested,
            left fallow, rather than over-farmed.

It has only been with the introduction of modern fertilisers
            that farming has moved away from this practice,
            and there remain serious environmental questions
                        about the over-use of the land without allowing it to rest.

But in addition to its ecological wisdom,
            the practice of resting the land functioned at a psychological and spiritual level
                        to break the sense of ownership of the land,
            and it reminded the people that they were merely stewards
                        of a world that existed far beyond their own life span.

And then every seventh seven-year cycle,
            after 49 years of labour and rest, once in a lifetime,
                        there was to be a year of Jubilee,
            when debts were forgiven,
                        when land reverted back to the tribe that originally owned it,
                        when slaves were released,
                        and when wealth was redistributed.

Whether this ever actually happened is a moot point,
            it may just be an economic thought experiment,
            but the principle is clear.

In an agrarian society, the cycle of poverty begins
            when a family has to sell their land,
                        and the process of one family growing richer
                        while another descends towards bond slavery is begun.

Again, the similarities to global cycles
            of poverty and wealth in our own world are striking,
            as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Sabbath and Jubilee challenge this cycle,
            and assert a counter-narrative
                        that the purpose of economics should be to guarantee enough for everyone,
                        not to facilitate surplus accumulation by the few. 

The theological insight underpinning the economic idealism here is straightforward.
            "The Earth belongs to God, and its fruits are free,
                        so the people should justly distribute those fruits
                        instead of seeking to own and horde them.” (Say to this mountain).

And so we come back to Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners.
            Sharing food with the debtors, and with the agents of enslavement alike.

And it's all about sharing, and it's all about forgiveness,
            and it's all about food, and power, and inequality, and sin.

And the Pharisees don't like it one bit
            because it is messing with their status quo.

A rabbi like Jesus should not sit to eat
            with the tax collectors or sinners;
and neither should tax collectors share table with sinners.

This is the new economics of forgiveness in microcosm,
            and its challenge remains as sharp in the 21st-century
                        as ever it was in the first century,
            especially when we read it in a context
                        of haves and have-nots,
                        of vested interests and enshrined inequalities.

I'm not going to get too political about this today;
            I'll leave it for each of us to weigh our own perspective
                        on politics and economics
            against the measure of the relationships modelled by Jesus,
                        and the new economics of the kingdom of God that he proclaimed.

But just for a moment, imagine with me a fantasy dinner party
            where the street homeless person is sat at table
                        with the person who paid off their mortgage years ago.
Imagine an unemployed person
            sat with the person who has just had to sanction their benefits.
Imagine a disabled person
            sat at table with a target-driven work-capability-assessor.
Imagine a junior doctor
            sat with the secretary of state for health.

And then you be the judge:
            who here is sick, and who is healthy?

And in the middle of it, hear Jesus saying,
            "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".

For Jesus, those who are "sick" are the tax collectors and the sinners.

He diagnoses the nature of society's malaise
            as a sickness in the system
which enslaves the poor and the vulnerable,
            excluding them from society,
and which co-opts good people to its corrupting aims.

Those who think they are healthy, in this analysis,
            are the beneficiaries of the system,
            and Jesus says that they have no need of him.
He doesn't sit and share food with the Pharisees.

All of which brings us to today, to our church,
            and to how we will live together.

This is a church which has, since its foundation nearly 170 years ago,
            sought to care for the poor and the vulnerable,
                        to see the person behind the predicament,
            and to bring relief to those enslaved to sin and sickness. 

This is who we are,
            it is what we do, in very many different ways.

And then we take that hands-on engagement,
            that lived reality of equality and sharing,
and we offer our experience of it
            to a wider conversation about how we will shape society.

It's why we don't shy away from talking politics,
            and it's why we give time and energy
            to organisations like London citizens.

But it has to be real for us,
            if it is to go anywhere else.
We have two work out what it is for Jesus
            to sit and eat with tax collectors and sinners in our midst,
and for us to be honest about the nature
            of our own place at the table.

We are all of us sick,
            we are all of us indebted through sin,
            we are all of us enslaved to a system that diminishes and demeans,
                        and this is true whether we own property or sleep rough.

If we deny our sickness, we deny our need of a saviour,
            and we take our place with the Pharisees,
            and we surrender our place at the table.

Last Sunday lunchtime we continued our conversation as a church
            about what we might to do with the basement on Sundays,
            when it reopens later this year following months of renovation.

It is clear that an important part of this
            will involve the sharing of food together,
            as we sit at the table with one another and invite Jesus to join us.

Several of the comments from the meeting have stayed with me,
            but one in particular seems especially relevant here:
One of our congregation observed
            that we had to just shared communion in our morning service,
            and said that, for them, when we share food over Sunday lunch,
                        "it is like we create a communion service
                        for the vulnerable and elderly who come",
            that "it's our way of sharing Christ".

And I love this. Yes, and Amen, I want to say to this.

Another way of putting it would be to say that our eating together,
            rich and poor, housed and homeless, strong and vulnerable,
                        is a sacramental act:
            it's something we do in obedience to the call of Christ,
                        in expectation and faith that Christ joins us in the doing of it.

And this isn't just true of Sunday lunch,
            it's true of all the other times we share food together as a church.

And there are so many of those,
            from home groups to church socials, to Tuesdays,
                        to the night shelter and the evening Centre,
            to shared biscuits in the foyer,
                        to communion services, and I could go on.

Bloomsbury truly is a church which marches on its stomach.
And we do so to share Christ,
            because we are his body.

And here's the thing about the body of Christ,
            here is the truth of the broken bread of communion.
The body of Christ is broken.
            We are broken, we are sick,
            it's why we need our great physician.

And if our shared food is to be sacramental,
            if it is to make Christ known in the sharing of it,
            then it has to involve sacrifice.

As Levi the tax collector had to give up his hard-won advantage
            that the debt of the sinners might be cancelled,
            so we are called to sacrificial living.

The awful truth of the call of Christ,
            the truth that the Pharisees could not cope with,
            is that the powerful are called to give up their power.

If all we do is to try and feed the poor,
            to alleviate their hunger, to meet their needs,
            then we are not truly sharing Christ with them,
                        because the difference of power remains unaddressed.

Charity has value, and it has its place,
            but it is not the kingdom of God.

Simply sharing space while food is served
            is not the kingdom of God.

The terrible truth of the call of Christ
            is that if we are to see debts cancelled, sins forgiven,
            and good news made manifest in our midst,
then we have to be willing to give away our control and our power,
            to give up our vested interests and our personal desires.

As Nye Bevin  put it, "the purpose of power is to give it away".

And then, as we take our own seat at the table,
            no better or worse than anyone else,
            tax collectors and sinners together,

then, we meet the risen Jesus, as we gather around his table.

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