Sunday, February 28, 2010

Below is a homily that is offered in the context of a worship service focused on hearing God's call and choosing to say "yes." What the reading of this text is missing is the power of three very personal testimonies and a wide range of power musical elements. It was a great day in worship.

This morning’s worship service is a service of testimony. It is the natural outcome any time we choose to focus on what it means to follow Jesus. This morning we heard from Kathryn, Joey, and Beth, each sharing how they saw God move among the Chin refugees in Malaysia – and how they saw God move in their own lives as a result. We listened to the Sanctuary Choir musically testify about the call of Jesus’ first disciples and how they responded. We lifted our voices together in song testifying to the reality that Jesus still calls and we are beckoned to respond. We heard Bruce sing out his choice to follow Him. We now come to a testimony that arises from the pages of the New Testament. It is a story of one who was not worthy, who Jesus calls as one who would help change the world. Let’s listen to his story in Mark, Chapter 2, verses 14 through 17.

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.

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 can be entertaining listening to the various Biblical scholars try to sort through whether this one in the story named Levi is the brother of another disciple, James, who is also identified as the son of Alphesus or is James – carrying two names like Simon Peter – or whether Levi is also known as Matthew, because Matthew’s call story in another Gospel is virtually identical. I tend to land with the later, connecting Levi and Matthew’s story, and seeing James as the brother. If you remember Peter and Andrew are also brothers called to follow Jesus, as were James and John, the sons of Zebedee. I think we sometimes we have failed to give adequate attention to the natural relationships that are found among the early disciples of Jesus. For some reason it has been easier for people to read these call stories in isolation, seeing them as almost random encounters, where Jesus called and the disciples responded. As I read the stories emerging from the pages of the New Testament and watch the interplay of relationships, I believe that Jesus already knew many of those he first called to follow. When they heard his call, they were ready to lay everything aside to walk with him. They were ready to do whatever they needed to follow him.

The crowd followed Jesus and listened to him to teach as they walked along the lake’s edge. As they came to the toll booth they found Levi sitting there, doing his job. He was not a Chief Tax Collector like we will hear later about Zacchaeus, who would have made outrageous profits from the corrupt exploitation of the people. Levi was much further down the economic food chain, a mere toll collector, but still would have been seen as an outcast, as unworthy, by much of the crowd – and clearly so- by the religious leaders of the day. But Jesus sees people differently than others. He calls out to Levi, invites him to follow and Levi – without hesitation or reservation – got up and followed Jesus. It would be a great testimony if the story stopped right here. Jesus saw one who the world saw as unworthy as worthy of becoming his disciple – not because of the applause of the crowd but because of God’s incredible grace. This is a story we could hear and cheer because it would testify that our task is not to be perfect, but to be faithful in saying “yes” when Jesus calls us to follow – whatever that means for us – wherever it might take us – whether to Malaysia or across the street.

But there is more to the story. We move from the grace act at the toll both to a scene of a grand party staged for tax collectors and sinners, all of those considered religious and social outcasts in the community. The teachers and preachers of that era could not believe it. “What are you doing hanging out with people like this?” they asked Jesus. Jesus tells them, “It would be easy just to call the easy - those living the ‘right’ kind of life. I have come to call those on the outside looking in.” I think the reason I am so moved by this story is that I have to wonder where I would fit if other got to choose who was a religious insider worthy of God’s call. I know that there are many who would challenge my strong support for women in ministry. I know that there are others who would worry about my heart of the poor. I accept that still others would contend that since my everyday conversation is not loaded with religious language that I might not be holy enough. I am pretty certain that if some of the pious leaders of the religious right could decide who was in and who was out, I would probably be banished to a toll box or a party loaded with tax collectors and sinners. The good news is that Jesus shows up in exactly those kinds of places to call us to follow.

Levi is sitting in his toll booth going about his daily routine, then in a moment Jesus changes everything. One becomes a follower in a single moment, but discipleship is born in walking and talking with Jesus over time. Levi’s story begins when he responds to Jesus’ call. He could have never imagined the journey ahead of him. He would spend the next three years listening to Jesus teach, watching him heal the hurting and redeem the broken. He would walk with Jesus and experience the agony of seeing Jesus’ crucified and the joy of the resurrection. When he stood up and stepped out of his tool booth he could have never imagined what it would mean to follow Jesus. He just knew the Jesus called and the only answer he could speak was “yes!”

This morning I want to ask you one question; “is Jesus calling you?”
• If you have found yourself on the outside looking in and need to hear Jesus’ call to follow in faith, what is stopping you from saying “yes” today?
• If you have found yourself spending so much time with the religious that you no longer find yourself at parties of grace designed to welcome the tax collectors, the sinners, and those outside of faith, what is stopping you from joining the party today and extending your hand and your life to others today? Some do this by serving in one of our many community ministries like KidsHope or Good Shepherd. Others respond to God’s call to serve in short term missions overseas. Others respond in service in the ministries of this church. This question is not whether there are opportunities, but rather which opportunity is God inviting you to pour yourself.
• If you have found yourself having said “yes” to Jesus, never left the toll booth to follow Jesus on the road to discipleship, what is stopping you? The word and way of Jesus beckons you.
• If you have found yourself sitting in your toll booth going about your routine of life and have heard Jesus calling you to stand up and step out to follow God into missions or ministry, what is stopping you? It seems that the broader Church has become bashful about asking people to hear and to respond to God’s call to ministry and missions. It is our loss. God has not stopped calling. If you feel God’s call on your life, what is stopping you from standing up and stepping out today?

We cannot respond out of guilt or a sense of duty, but rather we are called to respond out of an authentic relationship and a strong sense of call. This morning I challenge you to claim kind of relationship with Jesus where when we are called the natural answer is “yes” wherever it might take us. Just like Jesus could not begin to tell Levi about the journey that lay before him, I cannot tell you what lies ahead for you if you choose to hear God's call and choose to follow. What I can tell you is that wherever you go, you will with Jesus.

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