For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”
In the 1970’s and 80’s, right where I lived, there were these enormous religious controversies playing out around me. I ran track with kids of the professors of a local divinity school, and these teammate’s dads were shaping the direction of conservative Christianity in this country. And my mom taught in the preschool that I went to as a kid where a major debate about church life in this area was going on. I had no idea these things were happening at the time, but I think about them a lot these days.
A prominent author named Diana Butler Bass recently wrote about what happened in the 80’s in the church that housed my preschool. The church’s denomination was arguing about whether or not women could be pastors or priests. And they were arguing about language in their worship and their prayers that had to do with this issue of women’s leadership too. This was part of a whole series of church controversies in the 70’s and 80’s that gave birth to what some of us least like about churches in America today.
And there was this heated meeting in a church up in Hamilton, Massachusetts about this where the bishop – the person in charge of all the local churches of that denomination – met with a group of loud and angry men who were questioning the changes that were happening.
One of the men, a particularly loud and rigid guy, stood up and challenged the bishop. He raised his voice and said- “You sir, are a bishop, and it’s your job to guard the gospel. What do you think the gospel is?” This man, it turns out, was Diana Butler Bass’ first husband, and she was shaken and humiliated by this moment. Later, they’d divorce.
But the bishop took it in stride. To his challenge about the gospel, he simply answered- “God is love.”
To this, his challenger said – “Yea, sure, but what is the gospel?”
And again the bishop said – “God is love. God loves everybody.”
God loves everybody. This is the good news of God, given to us in Jesus Christ, or at least the start of it.
God loves everybody.
This week, we get going on our fall series, The Table: How Jesus Gathers. And today I begin by asking who gets to be at Jesus’s table and what happens when we’re there.
It’s another way of asking- What is the gospel? What is God’s good news spoken to us and lived out for us too by Jesus Christ? And how does that come alive to us still?
Let me read today’s passage about Jesus. From the fifth chapter of Luke’s stories of his life.
Luke 5:27-32 (Common English Bible)
27 Afterward, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at a kiosk for collecting taxes. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.”
28 Levi got up, left everything behind, and followed him.
29 Then Levi threw a great banquet for Jesus in his home. A large number of tax collectors and others sat down to eat with them.
30 The Pharisees and their legal experts grumbled against his disciples. They said, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
31 Jesus answered, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do.
32 I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners to change their hearts and lives.”
So I want to start with a little who’s who in this passage. And then after the who’s who, we’ll ask- what’s sin, who’s a sinner, and why is that who Jesus loves?
Then lastly, who gets to be at the table with Jesus? And how can that experience affect us?
The who’s who. We’ve got Levi, who’s a tax collector. We’ve got Pharisees, who don’t like Levi very much. And then we’ve got Jesus.
Tax collectors were considered sell-outs. They were collaborators with the Roman empire’s colonization of Judea and they made their living by overcharging and extortion. So hardly fan favorites amongst their fellow Jews, for a bunch of very good reasons. If Levi saw a young upstart rabbi coming over to visit his tax collection storefront, he might have expected he was going to get a lecture – young Levi, what are you doing with your life? He certainly wouldn’t have expected a recruiting visit.
But that’s what happens. Jesus says-
Which was like saying-
be my student.
Join this movement. It’s a little like a church membership pitch. And this means Jesus is also following him. For whatever reason, Jesus takes an interest in Levi – he knows his name, his family, his circumstances, his potential. And then Levi takes an interest in following Jesus – being his student, sitting at his table.
The first table they sit at together isn’t Jesus’s, though, it’s Levi’s tax collection table and then it’s the big table in Levi’s home. Again, when you follow Jesus, you find that Jesus is really following you – wanting to be where you work, where you live. Levi throws a party in Jesus’s honor to celebrate their new connection.
Outside the party, pissed off and grumbling about what’s happening there, are a group Luke calls the Pharisees and their legal experts. The Pharisees come up as a group now and then and they usually seem like Jesus’s enemies. At least, that’s how Christians have usually talked about them.
There are two problems with this, though.
And, Jesus just might have been one of them.
OK, the less surprising part first. Anti-semitism. The Pharisee’s reforms and writings during this time became the basis of what eventually became modern-day Judaism. I’m over-simplifying a little, but it’s basically true. And for most of Chrisitanity’s nearly 2,000 year history, Chrisitan people and institutions have been brutally and violently anti-Jewish. Even though Jesus and almost all of his first followers and almost all the writers of the Christian Bible were Jews.
So to always cast these Pharisees who shaped what Judaism became as the villians of the Christian story is to risk sliding right into this old, hateful pattern. The Pharisees are not the enemy. They’re more than that.
There’s also a really good chance that at one point in his life, Jesus was a Pharisee. Or at least shared lots in common with them.
The Pharisees were a reform movement in the culture and religion of Jesus’s time. They believed God was a loving father, and that God loved humanity so much that God gave humanity the law, the scriptures –so that everyone who followed them would have connection with God and all God’s benefits in this life and in the life to come (what some people called eternal life).
Jesus shared the Pharisee’s devotion to scripture. He shared their love of worship and the gift of rest they called sabbath. He too loved the gifts God was giving the world through the Jewish people. And like them, he believed God is a loving parent and emphasized a life of prayer and devotion to God. In many ways, the Pharisees were Jesus’s people.
Jesus got into arguments with them all the time. Not because they were his opposite, but because he was a more radical version of one of them.
They knew each other. They shared common foundations. Jesus just wanted way, way more from their movement.
Where Jesus and his contemporary Pharisees parted ways was that they had a really different sense of who belongs at God’s table and of how you get there. Who belongs at God’s table and how you get there – this was really important to Jesus. It got him angry like not much else did. And we see it playing out here at the table too.
How you get to God’s table.
For Jesus, you don’t earn your spot. That’s impossible. Who really earns anything that matters most in life? Who could earn love and affection from a parent? It’s there or it’s not, freely given, as it should be, or not. And who could earn a spot at God’s table? Who could earn a “follow” from God?
I say follow because there’s something interesting going on with this word here. Jesus invites Levi to follow him – to be his student, to join the circle of people he’s teaching, to pay attention to him. But what that means is that Jesus was also first following Levi. Jesus paid attention to Levi. Jesus was interested in his life and reputation. Jesus took the initiative.
Years ago, when Grace and I and our kids started getting on Instagram, the feature we hated most was how the follows work there. You can follow someone and they can never follow you back. Kids all the time will follow someone on Instagram, wait for the other person to follow them back, and then unfollow them right away. It’s part of the hustle to look cool by having more followers than the amount of people you follow.
And it’s gross. It’s a way of using each other to build up our status.
God’s not like this at all.
God would rather follow more people than God has followers.
In fact, God follows everyone. God takes an intimate interest in all of creation. Like God clicking around- I want to see that. I want to know that. I follow you. I follow you. I follow you.
God loves everyone and everything God made. And God pays attention to everything and everyone. God follows us all universally, whether or not we follow God back.
This is how we get to God’s table – through God’s loving, attentive knowledge of us. And through God’s invitation to us to pay attention in return, to follow God back.
Who belongs at God’s table? As far as God’s concerned, everyone. God loves everyone.
But Jesus puts a little twist on that everyone here. He says there’s one group of people he may follow, but he’s not really expecting to follow him back. He’s not calling on them, knocking on their door, or anything.
I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners.
I’m like a doctor. Healthy people don’t reach out very much. But sick people – they are always welcome. I’m here for them.
What’s a sinner? For most of us, sin is what we judge other people for.
I know this because people show me this all the time. Sometimes someone who’s frustrated with our church, maybe realizing it’s not for them or thinking about leaving, will ask to meet with me and ask why I don’t talk more about sin. I’m confused when this happens, since I think I talk about sin a lot. So I’ll ask them:
What’s wrong in your life that you wish your church would talk about more?
And sometimes they’re confused by the question. So I’ll keep going. I’ll ask:
Where have you lost your way, what unhealthy patterns in you would you like to confess to me? What are you doing to hurt yourself, hurt others, maybe even hurt God, that you need us to speak about more often?
And then they’ll be like:
Oh, no, I didn’t mean me. It’s (these people).
And they’ll talk about something other people do that they wish their church would take a stand on, and would criticize with more clarity.
This is sin as a category for stuff we judge other people for. Whether we’re conservative or liberal, religious or not, we are prone to this. Maybe it’s the human condition, to want to justify ourselves by looking down on others. Certainly it’s sort of become the American way – to locate the bad in the world in people not like us.
This is not at all what Jesus is talking about. Part of Jesus’s radicality (where he parted ways with his fellow Pharisees too) is in his call to humility and introspection. He had this profoundly non-judgmental, humble way of thinking about sin.
Sin is where we’ve lost our way, any and all of us. Sin isn’t about a pointed finger, it’s about the three fingers that are pointing back at us. Sin isn’t a pair of poop-stained, critical glasses through which we see the world, sin is for our time in the mirror, to see ourselves more truthfully.
Sin is what’s in us that isn’t healthy, that needs healing and repair. Sin is how we hurt others and hurt ourselves. Sin is how we puff ourselves up too big or even how we knock ourselves down to make ourselves too small. Sin isn’t just personal like this. Sin is also collective and structural too – we’ll talk about that later. But all of this sin – all the parts that are wrong with us – make God love us even more.
What’s wrong with us doesn’t in any way reduce God’s love for us. God loves everyone, and God especially loves self-aware sinners.
It’s not just sin, though, that evokes God’s affection and attention.
Sin is only half of this doctor metaphor Jesus uses.
We need healing for how we’ve lost our way, but also for how our path has been derailed by others. We need healing not just for how we’ve screwed up, but for how others or for how life has screwed us over. We have hurt others and ourselves, but we have been profoundly hurt as well.
And this too, God sees with loving affection.
Jesus’s invitation to Levi, and to all of us, to follow him, is so different from our usual ways we think about self-improvement.
We’re always trying to justify ourselves, to make ourselves look or feel better than we are. Or when that fails, and we confront our mistakes and our wounds, our failings and our hurts, we may not have much hope for any of that to be accepted or to change. So we try to cover up and hide our crap – all the parts of us we don’t like or aren’t proud of.
But Jesus comes alongside us and is like:
I follow you. I know you. I see you. I see how you’ve lost your way and I see how you’ve been hurt.
We’re all sinners, just as we’ve all been sinned against.
And that need, that lack, that ache makes us eligible to sit at God’s table. To be in relationship with a God who loves us.
This past week, I finally starting watching Ted Lasso. Friends have been going on and on about it. A gem of a human in my community group baked and boxed Ted Lasso-style biscuits for us all, which was the most thoughtful, delicious thing to do for your friends, and maybe the most effective TV-show promotion I’ve ever experienced too. Ann Bakun, don’t be surprised when Apple TV calls…
So I binged a bunch of Ted Lasso last week, and man is it a delightful show. It’s a show about a lot of things, but in many ways it’s a show about this God loves everybody thing I’m talking about today. About how the kindness, grace, and acceptance of God starts to propel healing in us, whether we’ve hurt or been hurt, whether the thing we see in us is our sin or how we’ve been sinned against.
You get the relentlessly optimistic Coach Lasso, who eventually with the help of God and friends, can confront some of the pain in his life. And you get a variety of other characters, who through love and acceptance, start to find freedom to confront how they’ve lost their way, and made a mess of themselves and others.
I watched this show sometimes through tears, as I thought about how both sides of this coin are me, and pretty much everyone I know and care about too.
We all have our ways we’ve been broken and hurt. And we all have our ways we’ve lost our way, let the worst parts of ourselves be in charge. But all of us, when we’re seen with kindness, acceptance, and truth, find there are healing paths forward. We don’t have to be stuck. We can get better.
This is Jesus’s way with us. He’s not walking around following people, stopping by their workplaces to get to know them, sitting at the tables in our home. The world had Jesus of Nazareth walking around doing these things for one short lifetime, many years ago.
But now, Jesus is available and present just how God is, through the Spirit of God, the same Spirit Jesus called his Spirit, the one who comes alongside us so that we’ll know God is with us, and know God’s acceptance, and know God’s power to change and to heal.
Sometimes this Spirit of God comes to us felt, but unseen. Sometimes Spirit comes to us through other people and events and through the creation around us.
Wherever kindness speaks to us, though, wherever a voice is saying to us:
I see you, I know you, I want to follow you,
that’s in part Spirit of God. Wherever we’re told,
let’s be friends, let’s be at the table together,
that’s in part Spirit of God.
God is love. God loves everybody.
God has space and attention for you and me. And when God sees what’s wrong with us, the hurts and the hurting, the sin and the sinned against, the losing our way for whatever reason, when God sees all that, God loves us even more. And in that loving acceptance, God has ideas for how we find our way forward again.
If you’re willing, can you try something this week? I’m going close with a little experiment.
Find a quiet moment today or tomorrow when you can sit somewhere by yourself. If it helps, sit at a table with another empty chair, so you can imagine what’s true – that God is with you there. Tell God anywhere in your life that you’ve lost your way – what’s breaking or broken in you, where you’ve hurt or been hurt, your sin or your pain, whatever seems most important.
And then two things:
Imagine God looking at you with loving acceptance, maybe putting a hand on your shoulder and saying:
I hear you, I see you, it’s OK. I’m here.
Sit there and lean into the loving acceptance of God.
And then when you’re ready, ask God, ask the Spirit of Jesus,
is there anything I can do to help find my way again with you? Any next step toward my healing?
See what comes to mind, and if it seems truthful and helpful, give it a try.
Friends, God loves us just as we are. And with God’s loving acceptance, God wants to keep helping us find our way forward.