I preached this sermon at St. Lydia's on Sunday, January 20 as part of our exploration of the Gospel of Luke. Just before the sermon, one of our congregants, Mak, was baptized. The text is Luke 5:29-39, the story of Levi the tax collector who throws a banquest for Jesus; read it here.
Here’s the strange thing about parties in the Ancient Near East: parties were sort of public events. If I threw a great banquet, like Levi did, I’d invite all of my friends and associates -- the people who were at my social level, and then, everyone else would come too. And watch.
It’s actually a little bit like the weddings that have been depicted lately on Downton Abbey (no spoilers here, promise!). It’s the lady of the house who’s getting married, and all the other lords and ladies are the ones who get invited, but the whole town comes out for it. There are decorations in the streets and everybody gathers at the door of the church to see the bride. All the children wave colored flags, and cheer and shout as they chase her carriage down the road as she and the groom make their get-away.
So that’s kind of the scene that we have here at Levi’s house. A banquet with all of his friends, the tax collectors, and everyone in the town is out to see the show. They are gathered around the walls of the house, listening to the music that’s being played inside, and dancing in the streets.
Including the Pharisees.
Except maybe they’re not dancing.
Pharisees get a bad rap in the bible. They’re kind of the universal bad guys: when they come on stage the music goes all dark and tremolo-y. The Pharisees were a particular segment of Jewish culture during Jesus’ time, almost like a small political party or a ruling class. They were powerful, elite, and scrupulously observant of Jewish law. And many of these laws had to do with food and eating. One commentator writes, “Law guided the Pharisees in matters pertaining to food and meals, so the Pharisees maintained a separation from others and ate only with those who, like them, observed the laws of purity.”*
The Pharisees were really interested in keeping lots of things separate. Theirs was a world divided into clean and unclean, and their job was to make sure that they stayed pure. That’s why it is so astonishing, so scandalous, that Jesus is eating and drinking with these tax collectors. It means he isn’t interested at all in being pure.
The flirtation with purity is not a religious tendency displayed only by the Pharisees. We see it in our own religious tradition: the church around us or perhaps those traditions we were raised in. The idea that by staying on the straight and narrow, or taking part in certain rituals like confession or prayer, we can keep our hearts clean and pure and free of sin. The short explanation given of Baptism is often that is “cleanses us of our sin.” As if we are inherently dirty creatures in need of a good scrubbing.
I think it’s dangerous, this focus on purity, because it leads us to believe that if we are good enough,
or harsh enough,
we can save ourselves
through our good behavior.
And that when we stumble or falter,
we risk losing God’s love.
I think that stumbling and faltering is part of the deal.
And I think that God’s love is not going anywhere, no matter how badly we tumble.
A second and compelling argument against a religious focus on purity might be that Jesus seems wholly disinterested in it.
The Pharisees look on in shock and chagrin as Jesus, who just yesterday was teaching in the temple, defiles himself eating unclean food in the presence of unclean people. Jesus, if anything, is interested in being impure. It is not the well who need a physician, but the sick, as he says, and Jesus does not show up to this party with a bottle of Purell in his pocket.
If baptism washes us into anything, it washes us,
not into purity,
but into a mess.
It washes us into the knowledge
that God will draw us to this pool again and again
every day for the rest of our lives,
not to be scrubbed clean,
but to be messily re-born,
that we belong to God.
This God who sits down to eat
at a table with sinners, just like us.
Not because we’re pure or clean or perfect,
but simply because we’re loved.
It is not what what’s being washed out of us that’s important,
but what we’re being washed into:
a life that’s as wild and free as
children waving and shouting with abandon
as they chase the car of the newlyweds down the road,
as the tin cans clatter.
This is a kind of love that we can’t capture by carefully enacting certain behaviors,
by fastidiously keeping to one side of the line.
This love has no limits, no boundaries, no lines.
And instead of dividing us one from the other,
defining who we can’t eat with,
this love sets a table for all.
This week I went to hear a couple of friends’ band play as part of Goldenfest, an annual Balkan music festival that happens here in Brooklyn. Balkan music covers a few genres of music of Southeastern Europe including Klezmer and Romany. The music is brass and woodwinds clattering over frantic mixed meters, while complex percussion parts drive the whole thing along. Together with the musical tradition comes a highly developed tradition of dance: the dancers clasp one another’s hands, held up high, and circle the band.
This is a dance that belongs to everyone.
Not just the professional or the practiced.
The steps are complex; the line moves steadily forward as the dancers shift and dip.
For most of the night I watched them, mesmerized,
moving my feet in place to see if I could catch the rhythm of the thing.
And then an old friend on the line saw me,
turned and held out his hand
and pulled me in.
It was like falling into the water.
The call is as simple as that.
A hand extended.
Two words: Follow me.
And we leave everything behind
and join in the dance.
It takes us round and round,
the steps repeating, the rhythm revolving, just out of our grasp.
We might spend our whole lives attempting to understand it,
or finally just give ourselves over to the untamed meter
that we pound out on the floor
as the current pulls us under:
This dance is for everyone.
This is what it is to be free.
We share the sermon at St. Lydia's. And so I invite you to take a moment in silence, then offer a story or experience that has been sparked by the text
*R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible