This message was delivered August 29th, 2021, at the First Baptist Church of Denver.

Don’t Just Dine With Your Enemies, Recline With Them

“There is more that we can do together than any of us can do apart.” A quote we’ve heard many times. Unfortunately, my dad has not. My dad is of the type that struggles to find any good in the world, based mostly on his experiences in the grocery store and on the road. My dad is of the type that has seen a lot of things, and he has found that he doesn’t want much to do with any of them. And I love him dearly, just to be clear.

One such item that he wanted nothing to do with were his neighbors. In particular, the neighbor on his right – really, his only neighbor, as he lives on the end of a row of homes, where he placed himself in order to avoid as much of the concept of neighbors as possible. This neighbor was the bane of his existence for several years and he made sure I knew it. To my dad, this neighbor had it out for him. The simple sound of a car door closing would cause him to rise from his recliner at a pace fast enough to cause anyone else to pass out. He’d then run to go look out the window between his blinds that he had carefully arranged so that they didn’t see him peering back at them, often muttering some expletives under his breath.

“I’m gonna need a bigger fence,” he’d mutter.

This neighbor, for a number of years, stirred something within my dad that I had never seen before. Everything they did, he would have a comment on, generally followed by some way in which he was going to modify his property in order to never even see such an action again. Eventually, this relationship escalated to the police being called on several occasions – so often, in fact, that the police would arrive with a look on their face that resembled someone who was sick and tired of this malarkey.

Then, one day, my dad heard a veritable cacophony of door slams and naturally rose to the occasion – however, this time, he noticed they were moving out. I could see the look in his eyes that described a feeling of utter joy as he peered from behind his carefully arranged window blinds. Then, a knock at the door. It was the neighbor. The neighbor shook his hand and told my father that “although they didn’t get along, my dad was a pretty alright guy.”

Love can come from who and what we least expect. This was certainly the case for my dad. He was so caught up in everything his neighbor did that he began to feel that everything they did was meant to harm him in some way. Every action, every word, every movement, and every car door slam twisted the knife with their name on it that he had placed in his own back. And yet, he never made an attempt to connect, as he’d assumed there was clearly nothing good that could come from his neighbor.

Like my dad, I think a few of us in this congregation have seen some things too. We have seen and continue to see the worst in people, both right here at 1373 Grant Street and around the world. I can at times sense within me a creeping undertone of disdain and anxiety for the world around me, knowing what it has done to my brothers and sisters and knowing that it did so intentionally.

In a building as beautiful as this and in a space with grass and flowers as colorful as ours you’d hardly think that anything bad can happen here. But I’ve found that ministry, especially our ministry, is hard – exceptionally hard. Fighting against hatred, especially hatred carried out in the name of the very same Bible I preach from today, is hard. Preaching a gospel of love and of not just welcome but also affirmation for all, is hard. I have been called an egregious sinner for the life I lead and the message I preach, and I know I am not alone. And when we hear that, from our neighbors and our friends, it can feel as if we are alone, refugees in a world that we so desperately want to love and yet it fights back at every turn.

And yet, here I am, preaching that very same message, because that is what Jesus does. In the passage we’ve read from Mark today, Jesus makes this ministry of radical love seem effortless. While Mark has a tendency to be a bit hasty in his writing of the gospel, we have no reason to believe that Jesus’ actions in the first part of this passage did not happen just as quickly as they are written. While we’re not exactly sure who precisely Levi is, we do know that he’s sitting at a tax booth, likely collecting tolls for those transporting goods along this road that Jesus is walking. Now, I’ve driven both in Illinois and on E-470, and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s tolls. While my dad is muttering expletives about his neighbors, I’m muttering expletives about the $14 I just had stolen from me to get to the airport – absolutely ridiculous. These same tolls were just as ridiculous two thousand years ago, so it is not hard to see the disdain that many would have had for Levi’s type in this time. Nonetheless, Jesus calls him, and he follows quickly. What did Jesus see in this man?

Jesus’ seemingly effortless ministry continues at Levi’s house, where he’s just casually hanging out with toll collectors and sinners – no big deal, it would seem. Suddenly, as Mark would make it sound, in come the scribes and the Pharisees, sauntering into our story at just the right time to show Jesus what’s up. Jesus, though, in his second effortless act of our narrative this morning, proclaims a clear rebuke of the righteousness that the scribes and Pharisees claim to have: “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.”

In typical Jesus fashion, it would seem that this statement is said casually, with Jesus sounding like he’s passively dismissing the Pharisees and scribes as he said it. Friends, do not let the passiveness of this comment cause this quote to lose weight:

“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.”

Jesus, or perhaps Mark’s account of Jesus, makes this ministry seem effortless, but it was not. Jesus, the Son of Man, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, son of the God most high who is ruler above all, has everything to lose in this proclamation. Do not forget, friends, that Jesus was just as much as a Jew as the Pharisees were and knew exactly what he was doing. Toll collectors are not only not friends of mine but were even less friends of anyone in the first century CE, especially those who considered themselves righteous. Like E-470, their tolls were not fair, so not fair to the point that even associating with such a person would render you unclean. And cleanliness, especially spiritual, was everything. Those who were unclean could not enter the Holy Camp or the Temple in the Old Testament, and were kept separate from really much of everything. Unclean folks were not folks who were wanted in this time.

And yet, even through the knowledge that this action would cause a stir, he still showed up to call the sinner and to call the tax collector. But remember that this, my friends, was one of many things that eventually led to his death on the cross. His intentional rebukes of the Law in the name of love would eventually find him killed, the ultimate price to pay for a ministry that only seeks to bring life to others. Even so, Jesus showed up. And so, friends, we too must show up. We must keep teaching others to love as Jesus loves, a love that applies to and affirms all of us instead of just a few. And we must seek out students that do not think like us, look like us, or act like us – as those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. We must teach this message, for it is through this message that we might change the world.

ut it will not be easy. As much as we would like the world to be ready for this message, it still is not. It will lead to persecution. It will lead to the muttering of expletives under others’ breath and it will lead to being called an “egregious sinner.” It may even lead to death, as it did to Jesus.

Yet, this is our mission to which we have been called as followers of Jesus, and we must seek to carry it out in every way we possibly can. We must be the physicians to those who are sick, friends. And we must do it with open arms, with love, and with comfortability, treating our enemies as our friends who we don’t just dine with but recline with. That is what Jesus did after all, according to the original Greek. This dinner that Jesus had with Levi and the others was not just some awkward dinner with your in-laws, in which everyone tries to speak as little as possible. This was a dinner between friends who were so comfortable with each other that they felt the need to recline as they were eating. Jesus was teaching the scribes and the Pharisees to love just as he loved, as a friend and as a neighbor – and still, they killed him.

My dad was so done with his neighbors that he couldn’t stand to look at or talk to them, and yet they still managed to break through and learned how to love just a little bit better, even if it was at the last possible moment. We can be this same physician to our neighbors too, especially the neighbors that hate us, and perhaps we’ll be able to break through, if only just a little bit. We will not change the world overnight, though. We will still be persecuted, and we will still be considered egregious sinners. But we must continue to love and teach others – because that is what Jesus has called us to do.

On your mark…. get set…. Stay a while, recline and relax. You just might teach someone something.