Mark 2: 13-17

 The Reverend Phillip Blackburn

 October 4, 2015

I have gotten quite tired of sitting down to write a sermon and wondering if I need to directly address the latest tragedy, or if we can merely include it in the prayers of the people.  I thought I might actually make it to Friday, my sermon writing day, without having to deal with it; but no, that plan was foiled when a gunman decided to go on a mass shooting spree at a community college in Oregon which left 10 dead and 7 injured.  So, once again, we will ask all the usual questions.  Where was God?  How could this have happened?  What are we going to do now?  And, of course, the media and politicians will weigh in, per usual, with the usual rhetoric.  Experts will get on TV and make up a bunch of stuff.  People will yell at each other about guns, and then, finally, something else will happen and we will forget about it.

The truth is nobody feels very good about the world we live in at the moment.  And feel free to correct me if I’m wrong about that; if you think everything is going super, I’d love to hear about it. But odds are you don’t.  We look around and we see all sorts of things that cause us pause, and I have noticed something about all this bad news.  It’s making us angrier and angrier.  Whenever current events come up in conversations, or, God forbid, on the internet, the anger comes out.  We have all heard it, and, in truth, we have all been a part of it, throwing bombs  about “them” into conversations which we don’t really understand or have a stake in but feel compelled to comment upon nonetheless.

And in that anger, and in the midst of all this bad news, I hear lots of comments that go like this, “the world is just getting worse and worse.”  And this is the point in the sermon where I will do something perhaps unexpected.  I will disagree.  And I will point out to you two things.  First, and this is cold comfort, the world has always been pretty terrible; I mean about 150 years ago we were still selling human beings in America and then solved that problem by massacring each other.  Second, and this may be hard to believe, things are actually getting better.  Fewer people around the world live in poverty than ever before.  Global health is at an all time high and, in America, we give more money away than any society in the history of the world.

And yet we are still angry.  And we still think things are going downhill pretty fast.  And that is completely understandable.  But understand this, the society in which Jesus lived was no better.  Sometimes I don’t think we understand how terrible things were there.  And please don’t tune out at this point, because it’s important, and I’m going to get back to what we can do in a second.  So, just as a reminder, Jesus was living not in Israel, but in the Roman province of Judea, and it was occupied by the Roman Empire.  The people there were heavily taxed and oppressed.  They could be conscripted for military service, sold for the debts, and they had their religious freedom curtailed.  Jesus, living in rural Judea early in his life, was far from the epicenter of the troubles, Jerusalem, but they were real even on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  And what were the symbols of all the troubles in that region?  Well, they were two.  First, were the small garrisons of Roman soldiers left to keep the peace and the bureaucrats they protected.  Second, were the tax collectors.  And they were the worst.  The tax collectors weren’t Romans; they were Jews who betrayed their own people.  They were essentially franchise owners who bought the rights to collect taxes in a certain area, gave the Romans their due, and then kept the rest.  Basically they were getting rich off the persecution and repression of their own people.  So, yeah, this was Jesus’ world, and yes, people were very, very angry then too.

They were angry like the man in Oregon was angry.  The man who went into the college.  Without going into details, it is becoming clear that he was targeting Christians.  Apparently, and this is pure speculation on my part, he was of Northern Irish descent and living in America.  Northern Ireland has been racked by decades of sectarian fighting between Christians, and perhaps this man had enough.  Or perhaps he thought they were to blame for all the world’s problems.  Or, perhaps he was just plain crazy.  We will never really know, but we can say with certainty that he was an angry, angry man.

Now, there are lots of ways we can react to anger and, as Christians, it is important to look at the life of Jesus.  Here in Mark he does something remarkable with his anger, and I think it’s fair to say he was angry about conditions in Judea.  He looked Levi, the tax collector, right in the eyes, and he said, ‘Follow me.’  Then he went to dinner at his house.  This, of course, upset the religious leaders of the day, and they no doubt would have taken to Facebook to attack him if they’d had the opportunity.  How could he do this?  How could this alleged holy man eat with some of the worst sinners in the world?  The answer was clear, he came not for the (self) righteous but for the sick.

Jesus actually did change the world, obviously, but in this act of microchange we can see a model for our lives as Christians.  In an angry time in an angry world, Jesus went right to the heart of the problem and ate dinner with the worst offenders.  He sought to cut through the anger and rage and do something even more radical: build a relationship to effect change.  Do we really think Jesus was cool with Levi’s occupation?  No way.  But he sought to change the man through a relationship not just lob in more verbal bombs and make things worse.

As we deal with this latest tragedy in America, we will hear some people say we need more laws and some say we need more guns, but do you really think either of those things will really make things better?  Will they solve the underlying issues?  And what of all the anger in our society, the rage?  Do we really think Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton are going to make that better?  No.  It’s on us.  It’s on you and me to do things differently.  We aren’t Jesus and we probably can’t change the world, but we can change Fort Smith.  We can take all that anger we have and we can start building relationships, just like Jesus did.  Jesus was angry with Levi, but he never let himself hate Levi, instead he loved him, called him, and, as far as we know, changed him.

I am reminded in all of this of another story I once read about Oregon.  The author Donald Miller wrote in one of his books about something his Christian group in college did.  He went to school in Portland at a small college which was almost completely secular.  His Christian group was, needless to say, small, but they did something radical on that campus.  They set up a confessional booth in the middle of the quad.  And people could come in and one would confess their sins and the other would hear the confession.  But here is what’s really remarkable, they asked the secular students to come into the booth not to confess but to hear their confessions about how they, as Christians and the Church, had failed.  They said they were sorry for not doing better, for not following Jesus better.  And they, for one day at least, changed their college and how everyone on that campus saw followers of Jesus.

We love the Bible, you and I, and there are passages which mean a lot to us, but they are just words if we never do anything about them.  This is one of those passages.  It doesn’t just tell us what Jesus is about, it tells us what we, his followers should be about.  We should take all our anger and we should channel it into making change right here in Fort Smith, and making that change by creating new relationships, hearing new stories and sharing our beliefs in equitable ways.  And every time something happens like what we saw on the news this week, we should redouble our efforts, because people who feel heard feel hope.  Jesus came into this world not to save the self-righteous but to save sinners, and you and I are sinners.  We may not be able to change everybody’s hearts, but if we can’t change our own hearts, if we can’t sit down and talk with people who make us angry, what hope is there?  Amen.