Tuesday, August 16, 2011

“A Dinner to Remember” - Luke 5:27-32 - August 14, 2011

{This sermon was offered in the midst of a worship service filled with symbols of commitment. The service included the baptism of three young adults, a celebration of the Lord's Supper, and the licensing of my son, Aaron, for Gospel Ministry. The focal passage was read in two sections; the first showing Levi's choice the follow Jesus and the second, telling the story of Levi's party.}

Levi would have been hated by most in the mainstream in culture. They hated him because he was a tax collector, not the kind of institutional dislike we hear expressed for the IRS during tax time, but instead it was a searing personal hatred for someone they viewed as a crook and a traitor. The Romans had an interesting way of paying tax collectors. They told them how much they were to forward on to the government and their pay was whatever they could collect over and above that. It was a recipe for getting wealthy and for being despised by almost everyone who walked the streets beside you. They were the living embodiment of everything the Jewish people hated about the Roman occupations. Levi was of a particularly despised class of the tax collectors. They had mobile booths and would set up wherever they saw a crowd or could expect traffic to give them the maximum take. Some scholars speculate that Levi has been setting his booth up so he could tap the crowds that were drawn to Jesus. He is an incredibly unlikely person for Jesus to invite to his side. It is even more remarkable that he becomes the catalyst for others on the edge of culture to find their way to Jesus.

Whether Levi set up his tax booth on the fringe of the crowds around Jesus or was someone Jesus saw in his regular going in and out of Capernaum, it is most likely that Levi knew about Jesus. In the days before the fishermen working along the seashore had heard Jesus’ call and followed him. Jesus had healed a man with leprosy and another who was paralyzed. Word about Jesus spread like wildfire and the crowds gathered to see what Jesus might do next and to hear what he might next say. Luke tells us that one day Jesus “went out,” out from the crowds and the chaos that swirled around him, to claim a personal encounter with Levi. Of course Jesus finds him attending his tax booth, where else would he be?

I wonder what Levi was thinking when he saw Jesus coming down the road toward him. Jesus speaks. Can you believe it? Jesus speaks to the one everyone hated; to the one no one would have thought of as being worthy; to the one who was a crook and a traitor. Surely he had come to pronounce judgment on him. Surely he will curse him. This is what everyone else did. Were his ears lying to him? Did he hear Jesus correctly? “Follow me.” YES! He did not care how much money was on table and did not pack up his booth. In one moment, in one act, he left everything behind. He committed to follow Jesus and never look back.

Tyler, Morgan, and Abby this morning we celebrate your baptism. It is a bold statement of faith like Levi’s. It is an public act of spiritual obedience. Your baptism makes us remember the moment we decided to follow Jesus. Your baptism makes us remember when your faith was new and passionate. Your baptism makes us remember our first moments following Jesus. Your baptism is a living testimony that Jesus comes for us – each of us – regardless of how others see us or what other say about us – and invites us to follow him. Thank you for your witness among us.

As we heard earlier in the service, Levi’s story does not stop with the choice to follow Jesus. He threw a party and invited all of his friends to get together and get to know Jesus. It was an odd assortment of fellow tax collectors and others that lived on the fringe of the community. The religious set pulled Jesus’ disciples aside. With a mix of sarcasm and self-righteous judgmentalism, they ask how Jesus can eat with sinners like those gathered at the table that evening. Jesus steps in. He has news for them. He did not come for those like them. He came for those whose hearts and lives were sick.

The call to the table is also an act of spiritual obedience. Jesus tells us to do this and remember that the bread is the symbol of his broken body and the wine is the symbol of his shed blood. But was we look at our time at the table through the lenses of Levi’s story we have to ask, when you came to the table this morning, what attitude did you bring with you? Did you go through the religious motions, or did you understand that the Lord’s Supper is a dinner for sinners? Like the table at Levi's dinner, it is intended not for the self-righteous, but instead for those who understand their righteousness is found first and only in Jesus Christ. It is a table where those who are heart sick can find the story to heal them. Jesus tells us that his body is broken and his blood is shed for the forgiveness of sin for the many.

I am not a spectator to this moment. I am a part of the many. I find my place among Levi’s friends – those who know that the only reason that they are with Jesus is because Jesus has welcomed them. There is no part of me that is worthy for this great dinner invitation. On my own merit, my name should be dropped from the list. But Jesus – the Jesus who came for me when I was a stranger and outside the family of God – invites me to the table that flows with grace. This is a table that reminds us that because of Jesus a group of sinners that deserve rejection are invited to the table that testifies God’s grace. We who were a part from God and we not a part of the family of God, because of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus, are made children of God. When one says the church is filled with hypocrites and sinners I can only rejoice.  That is exactly what Jesus intended.  It is exactly what we see modelled at Levi's table and at the Lord's Supper table commissioned by Christ.

I love Levi. He gets it. He knows that he does not deserve a relationship with Jesus, but Jesus comes and gets him. While my place in culture is different than Levi’s, I claim his heart. I know my faults and failures. I know that the only way I have a relationship with Jesus is that he came for me. I know that I did not do anything to earn it or could live a life worthy of God. I could have been- I should have been- left out. But Jesus invited me in. Lord, please help me to remember that I belong at the sinners table with Jesus – not among the self-righteous religious elite second guess God’s grace. I fear that Jesus is not pleased with the modern evangelical Church because we have in our piousness we begin to sound more like the Pharisees than claim an identity with the sinners who know that apart from Jesus we are nothing.

Aaron, in a few moments LaJuanda Speegle and Larry Fitch will come to affirm your call to ministry. I celebrate your response to God’s call. Remember Levis. It is well to be clear that the call to follow is not a once and done, but a once and always leaving everything behind to follow Jesus. Remember Levi. When you find yourself sitting comfortably in judgment of others, you are in the wrong place. It is your call to go out of your way to reach out to those on the edges of religious life and invite them to join you at Jesus’ side and then trust God to move in their lives.

How about you? What is your testimony about your relationship with Jesus? Is Jesus welcoming you to begin a relationship with him through faith? Is Jesus inviting you to follow Him? Have you said “yes” to following Jesus but have never made that commitment public so others might see and hear your witness of faith? Is God calling you to ministry – to missions – or to some specific place of service? Is today your day – or your family’s day to join this congregation as it seeks to follow Christ in this place?

The hymn of response is #285, Wherever He Leads, I’ll Go. How is God calling you and how will you respond?

[1] http://www.gracecommentary.com/luke-5_27-32/ available online on August 12, 2011.

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