A More Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy – a sermon

Sunday, February 8th, 2015 – Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Psalm 147, II Corinthians 3:1-6, Mark 2:13-22
Hymns: “Blessed Assurance”, “Amazing Grace”, “Jesus, Name Above All Names”, “I Need Thee Every Hour”, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus”, “Come, Share the Lord”, “God of This City”
Special Music: “Mighty to Save”

“A More Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy”
“Mos Eisley Spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
When Obi-Wan Kenobi says these words to Luke Skywalker near the beginning of the very first Star Wars movie, he is warning him of the dangers inherent to the spaceport ahead of them, advising him that they must be cautious. Mos Eisley, as the audience finds out in short order, is full of Imperial stormtroopers, aliens who look distinctly like Satan, and criminals who have been sentenced to death in twelve systems, not to mention a scruffy-looking nerf-herder and his Wookie co-pilot.
In short, Mos Eisley is a very unpleasant place, and is decidedly not the sort of place that any nephew of a respectable moisture farmer should be hanging out, to say nothing of a Jedi Master. The only two reasons that Obi-Wan was willing to take the risk were 1) he knew it would be guarded by stormtroopers who, with their relatively weak minds and total inability to hit the broad side of a barn with a blaster would be easy to get past, and 2) he knew that this was the type of place where he would be able to find a pilot crazy enough to do what he was asking.
Definitely not the kind of place you go looking for the better parts of society.
And yet…
I’m willing to bet that if Jesus had, instead of coming to first century Israel, found himself instead a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Mos Eisley would have been EXACTLY the sort of place he would have gone. If we really mean it when we join with Casting Crowns in singing the words, “Jesus, FRIEND OF SINNERS,” then we must acknowledge that Jesus indeed sought out the wretched hives of scum and villainy in order to reach the people whose lives he was sent to redeem.
And for many, many Christians, that is quite a problem.
Something that seems to preoccupy a lot of Christians is the question of “What would Jesus think of our church?” They ask themselves if he would be pleased if he walked in the door of the sanctuary. They ask themselves if he would be happy with the songs they sing, the sermons they preach. They ask themselves if he would feel welcome in their church.
And while that’s all well and good, and it is certainly something we should remember, I must ask us all this: would Jesus even walk into a modern Christian church for any reason other than to read a passage from one of the prophets, say, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” and then walk back out? After all, the majority of the people who are IN the churches ARE NOT THE ONES that Jesus came to save. To be sure, there are those in the churches who are still seeking, but most of us who sit in a church pew on Sunday morning ALREADY know Jesus.
No, on Sunday morning, I’m willing to bet that Jesus, having attended his own services at the local synagogue on Saturday (after all, he WAS a Jew), would be at the Mos Eisley Spaceport, ministering to those who were down on their luck, seemingly without hope. He would seek out those wretched hives of scum and villainy. That’s where Jesus did his ministry. Those were the people who needed him most, not us.
You see, that is exactly what he was trying to communicate in today’s Gospel reading, from Mark 2. It starts off with Jesus doing something UNTHINKABLE – he calls a new apostle. And while that in and of itself was not particularly remarkable – after all, he did so eleven other times; twelve, if we’re counting Paul – what WAS remarkable was that this particular call was extended to a man who was a member of the part of society that was indeed thought of as “scum and villainy”. Levi, who would come to be known as Matthew, was part of the lowest of the low in first century Israel – he was a TAX COLLECTOR.
Let’s think about that for a minute. A tax collector. We don’t see them commonly referred to by name in the Bible – the only other one is a particular wee little man named Zacchaeus who, as we all know, climbed up a sycamore tree. That’s because they were thought of as particular dirtbags by Israelite society. Consider what we think of tax collectors now. None of us – not a one – likes the Internal Revenue Service. Yes, I realize that the tax dollars which they collect from us are necessary to make sure that the country actually runs, but you still can’t help but have a strong dislike for people who are quite happy to take a chunk out of your paycheck and then help themselves to more every April 15th. And then, if you get audited – it’s never happened to me, but I can only imagine it’s pretty unpleasant.
So think about that, how much we dislike the IRS, and then multiply that by about a hundred. That’s how much tax collectors were looked down upon in first century Israel. EVERYBODY hated them. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the regular working people. They weren’t even welcome in the wretched hives of scum and villainy, THAT’s how much they were despised.
Now there was good reason for that, in that most tax collectors of the day, in addition to collecting the taxes that were due to the Roman government, also collected a little somethin’-somethin’ extra for themselves on the side. And it’s not like you could say “No”, because if you did, they’d just have to call up a Roman guard, and suddenly, you found yourself sitting in jail for tax evasion. Tax collectors were corrupt, disproportionately powerful, and roundly hated by just about everybody.
With that understanding of the outright societal hatred of tax collectors in your mind, let me now put this in context. This story immediately follows on last week’s story, when Jesus healed the paralyzed man. Now, you may remember that the big takeaway was not the healing of the man’s paralysis, but the fact that Jesus had, in the presence of the religious powers-that-be, claimed, as God incarnate, the authority to forgive sins. They were already irritated with him, and his ministry had only just barely begun.
And so what does he do next? Well, he goes and finds this tax collector named Levi, and he says to him, “Follow me.” He doesn’t condemn him for his corruption and abuse of power, doesn’t tell him what a bad person he is, doesn’t call him unworthy. No, he calls Levi to join him in his ministry. And then, it just gets better.
Mark 2:15 says that Jesus went to have dinner at Levi’s house, where “many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples”. Many tax collectors and sinners. Levi’s house has become a hive of scum and villainy, and Jesus has voluntarily gone there, taking his disciples with him, to share a meal with these people. Again, he’s not there to condemn them, not there to preach to them – he’s there to sit around a common table and break bread with them.
Needless to say, the Pharisees were not pleased. Here was this so-called rabbi, this supposed fisher of men, speaking not with THEM, not sharing a meal with THEM, but with these horrible people, these low-down, dirty filth of society, these sinners, these TAX COLLECTORS. If he was such a high and mighty holy man of God, how on EARTH could he stoop to the level of these worthless scum and villains?
And of course, Jesus, being the master of the quick-comeback one-liner, says, “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 other words, Pharisees, you already know what’s what. Jesus doesn’t need to explain things to you. These tax collectors and sinners who have fallen so far in life – they’re the ones who need a hand up, the ones who need the Word of God spelled out for and explained to them. They are sick, you are not, and if Jesus is the great physician doing spiritual triage, who do you think he’s going to see to first?
So here’s the problem:
We’re the Pharisees.
Oh yeah. We’re TOTALLY the Pharisees. And when I say “we”, I’m referring to American Christians as a greater whole. We have no room or time for the sinners or the dregs of society. All we seem to be concerned with is what WE do, if WE make Jesus happy, and look at us, aren’t WE great compared to those tax collectors. A more wretched hive of scum and villainy we would never even cast a second glance at, let alone enter.
Over the last century, American Christians in their many, many iterations have, at different times and in different places, taken great pains to exclude people who are DIFFERENT, people who are regarded as sinners. We’re talking people being excluded on account of having a checkered past. We’re talking people being excluded because they’re homeless. We’re talking people being excluded because they have AIDS.
Yeah, that one totally happened in the ‘80s. But that’s not where it stops. People have been excluded because they didn’t have the same skin color or ethnic background. People have been excluded because they were gay. People have been excluded because they were from a different country. People have been excluded because they weren’t the same flavor of Christian. People have been excluded because they were women.
And in every single one of those groups of people that American Christians have excluded you will find the sinners. You will find the tax collectors. You will find the scum, you will find the villains, and I am telling you right now, THAT is where you would find Jesus. You would not find Jesus standing at the front of the Church of the Resurrection in Overland Park, smiling beatifically upon his followers and telling them what a good job they’ve done. No, you would find him walking down Troost Avenue, talking to the people he encountered, sharing in their lives, and maybe, just maybe, telling them to follow him so that he might make them fishers of men.
Being a Pharisee isn’t a good thing, y’all. Their rigidity, their unbending adherence to a certain code, their unwavering commitment to the things THEY thought were right, even if it meant the exclusion of MANY people, was one of the things that Jesus came to undo. And that’s why he went to the sinners and the tax collectors. That’s why he took his ministry to the poor and unwashed of first century Israel. And that’s exactly why we should be doing the same.
Nearly one hundred twenty years ago, Charles Sheldon – who, though not a Disciple, was a minister in one of the Congregationalist churches that came out of the Stone-Campbell movement – wrote a little book that you may have heard of, In His Steps. In it, the main character, a minister, asks his congregation to ponder the question: “What would Jesus do?”
The book and its primary question experienced something of a pop culture revival twenty years ago, with “What Would Jesus Do?” appearing in mass media, on clothing, in music, on TV, you name it – but the problem was, it was a pop culture revival. It wasn’t really very deep, it didn’t burrow its way into the consciousness of American Christianity. We paid lip service to it, and then carried on in our Pharisaical ways.
But in spite of that… there’s good news. You see, for as much as Jesus associated with the sinners and the tax collectors, and upbraided the religious elite for their unyielding ways, he didn’t exclude them. Just ask Nicodemus. Just ask Joseph of Arimathea. Just ask Saul of Tarsus, the man who would become Paul, perhaps the greatest of the Apostles. Jesus offered the path to righteousness to EVERYBODY, from the most corrupt tax collector to the most sanctified priest. All he asked was that we follow in his steps, and live our lives ALWAYS considering that question: “What would Jesus do?”
We know what Jesus would do. Jesus would embrace the excluded. Jesus would reach out to the downtrodden. Jesus would go to the wretched hives of scum and villainy.
So don’t be afraid of Mos Eisley Spaceport. Who knows what disciples of Christ may await therein. And as you go, remember: Jesus has not called us to be fishers of the righteous. Jesus has called us to be fishers of men and women.
All of them.
Amen.

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