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Claire Matheny ~ Lenten Justice

The text for this sermon, Mark 2:13-22, can be read here.

Many of us have suffered a punch-the-clock kind of job. This is the kind of job that you see as a stepping stone, and you hope there may be a day when you do not have to live through its drudgery.

Perhaps even now you currently yearn for the other side of your employment and dream of something else. I first knew this longing after some long hours dedicated to the art of sandwich making. I worked at Lenny’s Sub Shop the summer after my senior year in high school in Memphis, Tennessee.

I knew that I wanted to work at Lenny’s because of the crisp white uniforms and the steady smiles. The employees seemed to be having a good time. It always seemed clean and welcoming, friendly and festive. Did I mention there were also cute boys?

Over the months, the job felt less and less romantic. I think it was the endless slathering of mayonnaise. Mayonnaise and mustard clogged the tread on my shoes. It was smiles that needed to accompany sandwiches even at the end of a hard shift with demanding customers. Every day I came home smelling like bread and cheese. This felt like the kind of job that was okay for a season, but from which I imagined my liberator: college.

Who knows if Levi had ever entertained thoughts of something else in the days leading up to Jesus’ approach. Tax collecting could be a lucrative job if you kept some off the top for yourself. But for those who regularly had to pay the tolls, tax collectors were among the unclean who deal with Gentiles and Gentile money.

And yet, tax collectors were necessary to the system of taxing by which roads were paved and the government was run. We believe that in Levi’s case, he was there at the road border, collecting money from those passing from one area to the next.

I use my EZPass every time I am on Interstate 95. What a convenience to just zip through on the left and never have to feed the meter with coins, or even worse, slow down and extend my trip by exchanging money with a toll booth operator. I just want to get going.

Jesus has no such attitude today. He strolls up to the toll window. In The Message, it says Jesus was strolling along when he asked Levi to go with him. He goes up to the person in charge of the toll and strikes up conversation, casually without insult or anxiety. Levi had been sitting there at the border—a place in between here and there. He invites Levi out of the toll booth, out of the job that hems him in. Jesus must have said some powerfully inviting words and Levi must have needed to hear them.

He wasn’t doing too poorly for himself, Levi, who had a home big enough to accommodate Jesus and a crowd of coworkers reclining for dinner. But this job likely has left him lacking, left him yearning for a Liberator, yearning for the invitation to do something else with his time, with his life. Don’t we all yearn to do meaningful labor? Tax collecting may have been his profession, but only for a season.

Some of the revolutionary nature of this meal is lost on us. And yet, day-in and day-out we tend to eat with people who look like us, who come from similar backgrounds, similar jobs, the same race. If asked why I do not eat with blackjack table dealers, oil tycoons, and adult store owners I could reply that I do not know anybody who holds these professions.

Shame on me.

I think of Jesus, who strolled up to the toll booth in order to have a conversation—not from a place of condescension, throwing coins in Levi’s direction. He strolled up to supposed strangers. There was no one that he did not know.

All of us face the invitation moments where the rubber meets the road: the boundary tax-collecting place where we must shed some of our privilege, our stability, our pride in order to embrace the servanthood of our Savior and the greater good of our neighbor. This is what it means to be a servant—risking self-convenience in order to follow Jesus. 

There was one day mid-summer working at the sandwich shop when Christ invited me to come.  Instead of putting down my apron, I went about my duty placing the pieces of bread together and wrapping it just so in the paper. And I turned my back on Christ and on my coworker.

A couple, a middle-aged man and woman, came into the shop. A child came with them and sat in a table by the door. They approached the counter. My more experienced co-worker Steve and I were ready to make them dinner. They took one look at Steve and then looked at me: “We don’t want him making our sandwich. We don’t want him to touch our food.” I was dense at first and then mystified as they were indicating that because Steve was African-American, they did not want him to serve them. I was in disbelief and stood stock-still until steely-eyed Steve mumbled to me, “you make the sandwiches,” and he went in the back to the office.

The next moments were eternity: my fingers like lead, my 18-year-old head spinning. It was so difficult as they selected their toppings and as I wrapped their sandwiches in the special Lenny’s paper. There were no smiles.  I made the sandwiches with some haste. I wanted this family to be on its way without causing a scene. After all, Steve told me to serve them.

But Jesus was telling me something different. Instead of leaving the toll booth, I stood in place. I was scared and uncertain. I allowed hatred to tighten my apron strings and I ignored a spiritual voice of defiance. I collected the tax, the cost of the sandwich and it seemed to pay my silence.  I gave that couple the EZPass through their racism. I wanted them to leave, in part so I could exhale and exclaim, “Did that really happen? How could this be?” Steve was not as phased as I was; he was more accustomed to the face of this evil.

I should have been more prepared to risk the loss of my crisp white uniform by saying something: “No, I will not make your sandwich.” The security of my job as a sandwich artist was at stake, I suppose. I could not seem to wrap courage around the truth: there is no room for hate in God’s kingdom. All the while, I ached for the child, by the door—on the border of this transaction, the child of that couple.

There are times I have been like a child at the tax-paying color line: my own soul at stake as I learn again the free gift of grace and the trail to Levi’s open table. There are moments that we do not get back in which our consciousness is stirred. Once you have been stirred, you may sit for a while at the boundary of convenience, but there is no going back, not really. Levi cannot get back in the tollbooth—he’s outgrown it. New wine of Jesus’ liberation will not fit in old wineskins.

I went in the middle of a workday this past week somewhere I had been trying to go: the movie theater. I went to see Selma. I paid my toll. Do you know that I did not have to talk to one person in the process? It was one of those machines; I just plugged in my information and out popped a ticket.

On screen, there was the hate-filled system. I watched as the Alabama state troopers beat black protestors on a bridge on Bloody Sunday. Tears rolled down my face. What hope aligned as people of different backgrounds joined forces. Unless we are willing to bend and move alongside our brothers and sisters, there is no forward movement.

How I long to go back and speak up: “I will not make your sandwich.”

I repeat those words again and again as my confession, until they are my redemption. Christ heals. Without confessional voices and actions, large and small, stepping with Jesus, contradicting Pharisees, there are only empty promises of equality.

Here we are stepping into the “stiff wind” wilderness of Lent. At this border, we are called to step away from our convenience, the things that make our lives seemingly comfortable. We examine our covenant. We continue to choose what we may give up, the little things that can be our sacrifices to keep us on target. In a season of contemplative disciplines, how strange it might feel to relinquish our silence.

You have very likely heard in the news about a song that came out of an Oklahoma fraternity—a racist one. After seeing “Selma” and with reflection on my own journey, I thought of all the voices that didn’t cry out and of all the eyes that turned the other way year after year on that campus. I wonder what yet is uncovered, what continues to wound and exclude. I wonder how we give up more of our convenience in order to eat with Jesus.

There is no easy pass through evil, only the road to Jerusalem. There is Christ who wades through the suffering of our deepest hate. And in the wake of his sacrifice, there are no employees, only servants: servants who take step by step away from the booth of duty and towards the gift of healing. Children are looking on. They are lingering by the door, waiting by the door between where we have been and where we are going.

Some of our friends are making sandwiches in the grinding world of customer service. They are trying to scrape together a living wage. They often have to look in the face of discrimination and condescension. We pray for those trapped in below-wage work with no end in sight. We pray for those who day-in and day-out face discrimination as a means to an end, to put food on the table. It was an utter luxury that at the end of the summer I could pursue something else.

I no longer make sandwiches for a living. But by the grace of God, I do preside at Communion.

In worship, we slow down and engage in liturgy. The word liturgy comes from the Greek word meaning “public work” or “public servant.” We are reminded that we are public servants as we worship. We are public servants as we go out and serve. This service, this strolling alongside all those in need of healing is a part of our promise, our covenant as the church.  Jesus’ love is cast to even those who would hate. The tie that binds customer and coworker, binds us at the common meal and common table. There is no punch clock, only our capable hands designed to serve bread to everyone.