"Being Seen" (Mark 2:13-17)

Mark Longhurst, February 18, 2018
Part of the Lent series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page

Sermon 2-18-18, "Being Seen"
Rev. Mark Longhurst

Mark 2:13-17

Have you ever felt truly seen by another person? I still remember the first time I met Faith. I’m juggling working odd jobs on the route to ordination, and I save up my money to attend a program at a place in South County called the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. A good number of Faith’s friends enroll the program, and they seem friendly enough to me, so, I have lunch with them at one of Kripalu’s picnic tables. The spectacular view overlooks the mountains and the Stockbridge bowl. I munch on my kale and I sip my chair, and I find myself engaged in conversation with a lovely woman. Her name is Faith. As usual, I am clutching a book at my side, and she happens to ask what I am reading. I am not used to people actually showing interest in my book’s topics, so when I say, “Oh, it’s on Christian mysticism and prayer,” and she responds, “Oh, tell me more. Which mystics are inspiring to you?” I know I have made an important friend. Because I feel seen. Her kind eyes and her inquiring questions somehow know me.

The whole crowd is pressing in against him, yearning for a teaching that transforms. He is walking along the Sea of Galilee, and he sees Levi son of Alphaeus sitting in his toll collector’s booth. There are different types of tax collectors in this day, under Rome’s shadow: there are land tax collectors, there are tribute collectors for imperial building projects, there are temple tax collectors, and there minor tax collectors, such as Levi, who gather funds for customs and tolls. Levi is likely a simple man seeking to secure an income for his family; odds are that he’s not directly implicated in those brutal taxes that, say, seize even more from peasant farmers who have already nothing more to give.

Yet it doesn’t matter what type of tax collector he is; Levi is a tax collector. Rabbinic texts, says scholar Adela Yarbro Collins, lump tax collectors in with “robbers, murders and sinners.” (page 194 Collins). Tax collector is an epithet, “You tax collector. You thief. You criminal.” In this culture tax collectors are loathed, and few people wish to see them.

This Lent, we will dive, with Mark’s gospel, into the spiritual discipline of seeing God, seeing others, seeing reality, and seeing ourselves. We will look back to a mystical tradition called the “spiritual senses,” and we will look forward, clear eyed, into our present moment. In today’s passage there are two movements of seeing: there is the healing power of being seen by Jesus, and this comes with the responsibility to see others.

Jesus is one who sees, and he has already begun his ministry of seeing. He has seen Simon and Andrew. He has seen James and John, and now he sees Levi. He has called these fishermen, this toll collector, to join God’s movement.

The call, even in a collective-based kinship culture, is nevertheless intensely personal. Jesus does not pull out ads that ask the general question: “Who wants to join the movement of subversive love? Who wants to take up a cross?” Neither is Jesus’s call a vague platitude: “Who wants to love humanity and work towards peace on earth?” It sounds good but lofty vision often masks reality’s messy contradictions. After all, even the NRA says school shootings are a tragedy. The call of idealism is laudable on one hand, and on the other, often a strategy of avoiding the situation, or dismissing the policies needed for substantive change, or ignoring the people right in front of you. And this is why religion is so dangerous, because it’s easy to sound spiritually saccharine and even insightful, which all too often cloaks the real ego needs of admiration and power. As Dostoyevsky wisely said, “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.”

Perhaps this is why Jesus calls individuals by name. He sees Simon and brother Andrew. He sees James and John. He sees Levi. He sees us, he sees Margy O’Conner, and Sam Smith and Jina Ford and Sheila Basserab. He sees us in our beloved quirks and varying personalities, and he especially sees those who are suffering. This week he sees Florida families grieving, he sees the geography teacher Mr. Biegel, who saved a student’s life and lost his own. He sees slain students such as Jaime Guttenberg and Martin Duque Anguina, and he even sees shooter Nikolas’ Cruz’s unaccountable rage which, when mixed with easy and legal access to semiautomatic guns, led to heart-shattering horror. And the mystery of seeing is that Jesus’s gaze somehow holds all that he sees in fierce love.

Jesus sees us, calls us by name, and notices us in our tragic, our unique and our beautiful particularity. Jesus sees Simon and Andrew casting nets into the sea, and James and John mending their nets, and Levi sitting at his toll booth, and Jesus sees Dick Ford pondering in his therapist’s chair, and Ed Lawrence practicing at the organ, and Monica Mackey visiting donors, and Jason Velazquez in front of the podcast mic, and Michael Payne in his hospital clothes, and all of us young parents wrangling with kids to prepare for school, and perhaps especially, too, the children themselves, who are rushed out the door with no agency over their own schedules. Jesus sees us.

Jesus’s seeing, however, is not only a loving mutual exchange. Jesus’s seeing is the validation that we are seeking, the acceptance for which we’ve been longing, the embrace of “you are enough” that we have ached to hear. Jesus’s seeing is this, and yet it is more.

Seeing in Mark’s gospel is connected to following which is first connected to repentance. To follow on Jesus’s way requires recognizing that we are, on our own, probably headed in the wrong direction. Jesus sees us barreling down the road, going south when we intend to go north, and he loves us enough to offer the opportunity to change. To be seen implies responsibility.

To be seen by Jesus is connected to following which is connected to repentance, which means that to be seen by Jesus is an invitation to action. It is to re-program the GPS, to reorient our values and desires, to intervene in our addictions to fossil fuels and war, to chart a healthy alternative beyond toxic, white, masculine anger, to stand up to the demonic power of the NRA, and it is to stand with the poor and the immigrant and the LGBTQ person and the outsider. Simon and Andrew and James and John and Levi demonstrate this action; they show no equivocation; immediately they leave what they are doing, and they follow God on Jesus’s path.

But that’s not all. Seeing is connected to following and following is connected to repentance at, at least in this passage, following is connected to feasting. New Testament scholars call this table fellowship, which is a slightly technical term, but captures the action: Jesus wastes no time in recruiting Levi to host a small group potluck dinner. All of sudden, we are reclining around the table at Levi’s house, and “many tax collectors and sinners are also sitting with Jesus and his disciples.” Perhaps Jesus knows that when people eat together, they see each other, and they become people to love rather than enemies to oppose. It’s much harder, say, to demonize or deport someone when you’ve heard their story, and you’ve looked in their eyes, and asked them to “Please pass the bread.”

Not everyone wants to see or to be seen, especially when being seen means being seen with them. The entire religious worldview of the Pharisees, just like many religious worldviews, including progressive Christianity, are built around purification and monitoring the boundaries. Just ask a Democrat to have lunch with a Republican in today’s climate, to hold on talking politics and swap childhood stories. A simple conversation with another human being could make national news.

Jesus draws boundaries, too, but his moral redistricting is radical. He sees the people on the margins, the people who are suffering, the people who are left out, the people who are sick. He calls them to follow and feast, and then he throws down the gauntlet. You are either on the side of the poor and excluded, or you are not. You have to choose, because “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; [and] I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Sinners, here, is a social category before it is a moral status before God. We are all sinners, which is to say that the homeless man, or the undocumented immigrant, or the person of color, are at root the same as me. In today’s left-wing contexts, I often sense that in our passion to honor particularity we often obscure that which most unites us.

To see and to be seen in this way occasions the recognition of shared humanity, which is the birth of a new community. I see that I, too, even with my different experiences, my privilege, my whiteness, my socially constructed identity, am still no different than a sinner, and that I, too, must join with the sinner; and that I, too, am a sinner, and that my wholeness depends on seeing others and being seen as a human being.

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Mark 2:13-17

13 He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

15 And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (ESV)

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