Toward the House of Levi

By Jeff Johnsen 10-11-2010

I was invited to be the guest preacher one Sunday this summer at a church in a suburb of my city, Denver, Colorado. My text was Mark 2:13-17, which tells a story of Jesus offending religious leaders by dining with "sinners" in the home of Levi, a government tax agent.

I felt that I could not preach this passage with integrity without mentioning some of my own relationships that others might find offensive. Had I been to Levi's house, myself? I was tempted to use pseudo-scandalous examples, like maybe homeless kids or gang members who have been my friends over the years. But I knew that, rather than scandalizing my audience, these kinds of examples would actually elevate me as a ministry role model.

So I confessed instead that in our work with homeless families, Mile High Ministries has unmarried couples living in our facility. I knew this wouldn't be particularly good news for many in this particular evangelical congregation, but I was just warming up. We also serve undocumented immigrants, knowing full well that they are in the country illegally. Not only that, but I've been politically active in supporting changes in America's immigration laws, including speaking at a rally denouncing a new anti-immigrant law in Arizona. The room was now very quiet, so I encouraged everyone to exhale.

After my final story, about how much I enjoyed a birthday party for a loved one at a lesbian bar, I was confident that people would have some words for me after church was over. Sure enough, some thanked me, because they too have a relationship with an undocumented person or a loved one who is gay. Others were chagrined that I could be so wrong on the critical issues of our day, or even that I had such poor judgment as to speak of such things in an audience where children were present.

One man promised to try to get our transitional housing facility shut down, and another told me that I was preaching from the wrong version of the Bible. A careful reading of the "authorized" text, he said, would clarify that Jesus had gone to Levi's home precisely in order to preach repentance. I wonder why Pharisees would find that so offensive?

In accepting an invitation to dine with sinners at Levi's home, Jesus risked taking on the shame of those with whom he chose to share table fellowship. Indeed, he chose to be one of them, in the eyes of his community. As Greg Boyle says in his wonderful book, Tattoos on the Heart, Jesus was not a man for others, he was one of them.

For my part, I am a novice on this journey of being so closely identified with outcasts that I risk taking on their shame. But I have a feeling that if I continue to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, they're going to lead me, more and more, toward the house of Levi.

Jeff Johnsen directs Mile High Ministries, listens to Miles and John Lee, and looks (and sings) more like Willie Nelson. This blog first appeared on Geography of Grace.

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