Who is Jesus here for? This question comes up often in the gospels. In this morning’s passage, we get an answer straight from the man himself.
Jesus has returned from a preaching tour. He’s back in Capernaum, the town on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee that is the center of his public ministry. Jesus goes out to his favorite spot on the beach. He begins to teach the old familiar folks, and the great crowds of strangers who have travelled many miles to listen. But Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus has to say to any of these people. All we hear is his two-word sermon to a seaside tax collector named Levi. “Follow me,” Jesus says.
Later, we find Jesus eating at Levi’s house. I guess the newest disciple each day gets to take Jesus home to dinner. Levi has invited all his tax collector friends, people known for corruption and graft. Lots of other people with bad reputations have shown up, too. Jesus sits down to eat with all of them: not just your garden variety liars and cheaters, but a whole group of notorious sinners.
Of course, word gets around about how Jesus has been spending his evenings. The leaders of the people ask, “Why is Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners?” (He’s a rabbi, right? He’s supposed to be a role model?) Jesus explains himself this way: “Those who are well have no need of a doctor, but those who are sick. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Who is Jesus here for? He is here for everyone who wants to hear what he has to say. For all of the people who gather to hear him teach, back then and now. But Jesus gives precedence to the folks who need him the most. He saves his evenings for notorious sinners.
Jesus explained this two thousand years ago, and it got recorded in one of the most printed books in the world. “I’m here for the sinners!” Jesus said. But we still seem to have missed the message. Many folks think that church-going people are holier than everyone else. And other folks think that church-going people are hypocrites, because it’s clear that we aren’t holier than anyone else – we’re at least as bad, maybe worse. But according to Jesus, it’s the troubled people he wants to spend the most time with. St. Augustine said: the church is a hospital for sinners. The church of Jesus is here for those of us who find ourselves spiritually sick, who need Jesus medicine in order to get well.
Following Jesus has never been about being right, or being good, or being done with self-improvement. Following Jesus is about recognizing how far we have to go, and opting into a daily, lifelong process of transformation; of reformation; of repentance and conversion. Something to remind yourself when you’re having a really bad day.
Who is Jesus here for? Jesus is here for the sinners, minor and major. Jesus is here for all of us who want to be healed. I believe that one of the most important ways that many of us need to be healed is in our relationship with money. We have so much trouble with money. We feel shame because of how little we have. We feel guilt because of how much we have. We feel uncomfortable being honest, even with ourselves, about how we use what we have. It’s so uncomfortable thinking and talking about money that we do it as little as possible. Aren’t you glad you came to church today so we could address that?
Jesus is here to help us with money. I’m glad, I think. I’ll admit, money is an area where I struggle spiritually. I spend too much time comparing myself to other people. Should I keep most of what I have, because there are people all around me here in Concord who have more? Or should I give most of what I have away, because there are people all around me here in Concord, and across the world, who have so much less? Even when I let go of the comparisons, I’m still at a loss. How do I decide how to rank the needs and wants of me and my family with the needs and wants of others? And how can I give what I give a little more freely, a little more joyfully, trusting in the God who gave these resources to me for the good of the world?
Over the past few years, I have shared parts of my story with money with you. In early adulthood, as a student, it was easy to feel that my time for significant giving had not yet come. Then I married my husband, for whom tithing, giving ten percent of our income to our churches, was an unquestioned moral imperative. So, not to be outdone, as I began working here, I took the leap; and each of us began to tithe our pre-tax incomes to our churches, giving small additional gifts to other organizations. But last year my income, my expenses, and my commitment to tithing came into direct conflict. We simply couldn’t afford excellent local daycare for two children, pay our bills, and tithe. Instead, I settled for giving something approximating 10% of my post-tax income to this church. I plan to give the same percentage in 2016, giving about $350 a month, or $4,200 to the church over the course of the year; and not very much to anyone else.
It’s not a perfect solution. It’s where I am, now. Sometimes, to be honest, it feels like too much. At other times it feels like way too little. So I think what I’ll work on this year is my relationship to this gift that I’m giving. I’m going to work on feeling grateful that I can give what I do to a community full of people I love, to support ministry I value. I’m going tow work on setting aside thoughts of what might be possible financially if I wasn’t doing it. And I’m going to work on allowing my awareness of the needs of others, the needs of the world, to change my heart just a little bit more, so that something different may feel possible, may feel right, may feel joyful, in the future.
There are lots of reasons to give what we have away. We can relieve suffering. We can support our family members and friends. We can fund the arts, education, medicine. There are lots of reasons to give to a church, and to this church. What we do here matters. Our gifts empower all of the ministry that is rising up and flourishing among us in this amazing place. We are making God’s love and justice real here together, changing ourselves as well as the lives of people far beyond this congregation.
There are lots of reasons to give at least a portion of what we have away. One of them is this: most of us have an unhealthy relationship with money. We are sick, and in need of healing.
Jesus wants to help. He’s always ready to help, even if we wish he wasn’t. And so I wonder, how could you heal a little this year? Can you let go of any shame you have over how little is left to give, and truly accept what a big deal it is to give a small gift from a limited budget? Can you give more intentionally – actively deciding ahead of time how much you will give, and to whom, re-examining any choices you’ve made before? Can you calculate the percentage of your income that you are giving away and see how that sits? Can you make a lifestyle change so that you can give a larger percentage this year?
Whatever our financial situation, whatever our commitments, each year should be different for us; a chance for conversion, new healing, new health. What could be different for you, this year?
“Follow me” Jesus says. Follow me, you sinners of all kinds. Follow me, everyone who feels that our lives are not yet what God had in mind for us; that we have not yet become humble or brave or foolish or thankful enough. Follow me, Jesus says. Follow me, step by step, and discover what freedom, what richness, what joy can be yours. Follow me.