Sunday, 9 October 2016

Breakfast on the Beach

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
9 October 2016 11.00am
John 21.1-17
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.  2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.  3 Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing." They said to him, "We will go with you." They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.  4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.  5 Jesus said to them, "Children, you have no fish, have you?" They answered him, "No."  6 He said to them, "Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some." So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.  7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.  8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.  9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread.  10 Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish that you have just caught."  11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.  12 Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord.  13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.  14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.  15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs."  16 A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep."  17 He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep.”

Ezekiel 47.1, 6-12
6 Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar.
He said to me, "Mortal, have you seen this?" Then he led me back along the bank of the river.  7 As I came back, I saw on the bank of the river a great many trees on the one side and on the other.  8 He said to me, "This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh.  9 Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes.  10 People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea.  11 But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt.  12 On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing."

Revelation 22.1-2
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb  2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Let me tell you a bit about Simon:

He's always full of bright ideas,
          which seem to him, in the moment that he has them,
                   to be brilliant and compelling;
          and he can’t quite understand why everyone else
                   doesn't follow his lead immediately.

Experience has shown him that more often than not he's on the money
          with whatever insight or idea has just popped into his head,
but that just sometimes he's heading off down a dead end,
          and will need to back track to get back on the right course again.

But that doesn't stop the ideas coming,
          and it doesn’t make him any less enthusiastic about today’s big plan.

The thing you need to know about Simon,
          is that what it is that he's doing now, is never enough,
                    and so he's always running on ahead in his mind
                   to what comes next.

And another thing: Simon likes to perform,
          he likes to do well, and to be seen to be a leader,
          or at least at the centre of things.
And actually, he does very well in most things he turns his hand to,
          and he ends up as the leader of a significant church.

But there’s a brittleness there that it can be hard to spot at first glance:
          the competent confident veneer
                   hides a fear of failure that can be all consuming,
          because deep down, Simon is afraid
                   that he can only be loved for what he does,
                   and not for who he is.

And so he needs to learn that being is more important than doing,
          and even though he is often successful in what he does,
                   and even though the Lord is with him
                   in many of his projects and ideas,
          sometimes he has to learn to let go of all the effort,
                   to relax, and discover that he is loved
                   not for what he does but for who he is.

Does this sound like anyone you know?

I’m talking, of course, about Simon Peter in John’s gospel.
          And any similarity to anyone else, living or dead,
                   is purely coincidental.

In today’s sermon we come to the last in our series
          looking at the meals of Jesus,
          which has taken us on our journey up to and through harvest.

And we have seen how Jesus disrupted power structures
          by eating with the wrong kind of people,
          and by sitting people in the wrong places at the table,
          and by allowing the wrong kind of activities to take place around the table.

But today’s meal, the breakfast on the beach
          with just a handful of disciples,
          is a different kind of story.

Here we meet Jesus in a far less public, and more intimate setting.
          Just him and some of his friends,
                    quietly having some fish and bread
                    early one morning on the shore of the sea of Galilee.

We don’t even know the names of all those present,
          but there’s surely some significance in the fact that there are seven of them,
                   because this is John’s gospel, and the way he writes,
                   the little details always carry levels of significance beyond the obvious.

So if seven is the Jewish number of perfection,
          then the seven friends who sit on a beach with Jesus,
          are probably to be understood as in some way representative
          of all those who would be Jesus’ followers.

And here, immediately, with this little clue,
          we start to find ourselves invited into the world of this story.

If the seven friends on the beach stand for all disciples,
          then they stand for us.
And we are invited, in our imaginations,
          to begin to picture ourselves sat on the beach with Jesus,
                    perhaps as one of the unnamed disciples,
          whose identity has been omitted by the author
                    so we can fill the gap with our own face.

Or perhaps we see ourselves as one of the named disciples,
          maybe Simon Peter, or doubting Thomas.

Maybe we see in their reaction to Jesus,
          an echo of our own personality,
          of our own response to Jesus.

The story of the breakfast on the beach sits,
          within the narrative structure of John’s gospel,
                   as part of a concluding section,
          where a number of loose ends are wrapped up.

Immediately before it we meet doubting Thomas
          getting to put his finger in the wounds of the crucifixion on Jesus’ body,
          with his doubts being finally answered.

And immediately after it, we have Simon Peter
          being brought face to face with the abject failure
                   of his three-fold denial of Jesus
                   around the charcoal fire of the high priest’s courtyard (18.18-27),
          as Jesus speaks to him over a charcoal fire on a beach,
                   and three times forgives him and commissions him for further service.

And these two key characters, the doubter and the denier,
          Thomas and Simon Peter, are both present in the boat,
and they, with the other five disciples,
          are those who get to share breakfast with Jesus on the beach.

I think it is these two characters, and what they represent,
          who provide us with the key to understanding our passage from this morning.

And it’s a strange little story,
          which almost feels comic in the way it’s told.
I mean, it’s almost impossible not to have a laugh
          at the idea of Simon Peter sitting there naked,
          and then deciding to throw on his clothes before jumping into the sea.

It’s typical Simon Peter, isn’t it?
          It just seemed like a good idea at the time.
The naked part wasn’t so unusual,
          as apparently on a mild night fishing from a boat,
          it was quite usual to strip off if you were in and out of the water.

But the decision that if that’s Jesus on the shore, he’d better put some clothes on,
          followed immediately by the decision to jump into the water
          and swim to shore rather than wait for the boat to paddle in,
is classically Simon Peter in its planning and execution.

And in fact, Simon is the driving character
          in this narrative, with his personality and character,
          moving the action at every turn towards its conclusion.

It starts with Simon and the others gathered in Galilee.
          We’re not told why they’re there,
          but we know we’re a week or three after the resurrection,
                   and it seems that some of the disciples at least
                             have made the journey north from Jerusalem
                             and back to Galilee where it all started.

And then, suddenly, kind of out of nowhere,
          Simon announces, ‘I’m going fishing’.

It’s like he can’t sit still.
          The waiting is killing him, so he jumps up and sets off.

And I wonder how many of us are like Simon?
          As you will have gathered from my introduction to the sermon,
                   I know I have tendencies in that direction.
Sometimes, any activity is better than no activity,
          because ‘doing’ is infinitely preferable to just ‘being’.

And because Simon is a natural born leader,
          where he goes, others tend to follow.
So the other disciples set off with him.

And of course, for a character like Simon Peter,
          the success of a night’s fishing will be determined
          by how many fish have been caught.

I’m told that there are those who go fishing for the tranquillity of the experience,
          to sit still beside a lake contemplating the beauty of creation,
          and meditating on the delights of solitude.

There may even have been those on the boat that night with Simon,
          who were happy enough just to come long for the ride,
                    regardless of whether any fish were caught,
          because it was a warm night and they wanted the company.

But Simon is definitely there to catch fish,
          to be productive.
He’s stripped off ready for action,
          and if there’s any diving in to be done, he’s ready to do it.

And after a night on the lake, he’s caught nothing.
          From Simon’s perspective, this is failure;
          and failure, in Simon’s world, is the ultimate in shame.

And then, as darkness turns to light,
          Jesus appears on the shore, unrecognised at first.

Now I can’t tell whether he says it with a sarcastic tone or not,
          but his question, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’
                   is certainly a rhetorical question,
                   designed to prick away at the moody failure of Simon and the others
                             to be productive in their task of fishing.

Their sullen, single-word reply of ‘No’,
          highlights the humour of the moment.
They’re like sulky teenagers
          owning up to something shameful.

And then, in an echo of a story from Luke’s gospel (Luke 5.1-11),
          Jesus tells them to let the nets down on the other side.

We’re not told how Simon the experienced fisherman responded
          to this instruction shouted by a stranger on the shore,
          and I can imagine he was muttering something about grandmothers and eggs
                   as he gave it one last go on the other side of the boat.

But I think it says something about Simon’s desire to succeed at all costs
          that he was willing to give it a go.
The little voice that sometimes won’t let us give up
          even when we know we should have walked away long ago,
          encouraged him to give it just one more try.

And, lo and behold, a net full of fish.

Ta-Da! A miracle.

But more than this, from Simon’s point of view:
          Success! A result!
For Simon, the night is redeemed,
          his decision to lead them out into the lake fishing is justified,
          he’s done something worthwhile,
          and his value is restored.

And we could leave it there, but because this is John’s gospel,
          there are layers upon layers in this story
          which we need to unpack to get at the heart of things.

Firstly, there’s the whole metaphor of fishing.

Yes, at one level it’s a story where Jesus does a miracle,
          and the disciples recognise him.

But fishing is not a neutral image in the gospels,
          or indeed within the Jewish scriptural tradition.

In both Mark and Matthew’s gospels, (Mt 4.18-20; Mk 1.16-19)
          Jesus’ calling of Simon and Andrew to be his disciples
                   is accompanied by a promise that they will leave their fishing nets
                   to become ‘fishers of people’.

And in the prophetic writings of the Jews,
          fishing was an image used for bringing people to judgment,
          like fish caught in nets (Jer. 16.16; Ezek 29.4-5; Amos 4.2; Hab 1.14-17).

So we might say that fishing here is a metaphor for mission,
          and that our story from John’s gospel invites its readers
          to reflect on their own experience of fishing for people.

It is of some small comfort to me
          that it seems to have been the experience of the early church
that it was possible to spend all night fishing,
          and come back with no results.

I mean, I long for a full church, I really do.
          I long for a world where we extend to many people
                   the love and acceptance of Christ,
          and where we join together in bringing the good news of liberation
                   to a world where so many live in darkness and pain.

And I feel the lure of the program driven approach to mission,
          where we adopt the right formula,
          implement the right systems,
          and see the results come flooding in.

I have the little voice on my shoulder encouraging me
          to give it one more go, to try letting the nets down again,
          because this time it’ll be different.

And who knows, it might be!?

I mean, Simon Peter had a night of darkness and no results,
          and then netted a great catch on the final throw of the dice.

Who’s to say we won’t be the same?
          Who’s to say we won’t suddenly find ourselves
                   with 153 new fish by the morning.
          Who’s to say that our failure may not yet be redeemed by success?

But this story challenges such ways of thinking.
          Because it turns out that it’s not about the catch at all.

When Simon Peter gets to the shore,
          fully clothed and soaking wet,
          leaving the others to haul in and count the fish,
he discovers that Jesus has already got a fire going,
          with fish roasting and bread ready.

The catch, impressive though it is, isn’t the point.

And in a world where we are what we do,
          and where we’re only ever as good as our most recent achievement,
the story of the breakfast on the beach
          causes us to stop and consider whether Jesus actually needs us
          to put in all that effort to be successful,
                   either as individuals or as a church.

What if, actually, we’re loved for who we are,
          and not for what we do.

What if we’re loved whether we’re successful or not?
          What if we’re loved whether we have 53 or 153 on Sunday morning?

What if our fixation on productivity and effectiveness
          is irrelevant to love that God has for us and the world?

What if the sea, and all that is in it,
          already belongs to God,
          and our efforts at fishing are, at best, tangential to his greater purposes?

Evelyn Underhill, the spiritual writer from the early twentieth century,
          said that we spend most of our lives conjugating three verbs:
                   to want, to have, and to do.
          While the fundamental verb of the spiritual life is ‘to be’.

What if our desires, our possessions, and our actions,
          are nowhere near as important as they seem to us,
and our being in God is all that ultimately matters?

What would it take for us to learn to let go?
          To set aside our desire for success,
                   our drive to achieve?

For Simon Peter it took a moment of great failure,
          followed by a moment of great love,
to learn that he was valued for who he was, not for what he did.

The denial of Jesus in public, in the courtyard of the high priests house,
          was the moment of ultimate public shame and failure for Simon Peter.

For a man of his personality to be caught out in this way,
          would have been a disaster of unimaginable proportions
          as his self-image was destroyed before his eyes.

And yet, from his failure came his forgiveness by Jesus,
          and his recommissioning over the bread and fishes on the beach.

And Simon learned that lesson that can only be learned by going through it,
          which is that failure sets you free
          to be loved for who you are, rather than what you do.

Faithful discipleship is not about achievement or productivity,
          it is about faithfulness.

And the vision of a net full to the brim but not breaking,
          is a vision of the kingdom of God where all are welcome
          with no-one feeling threatened by anyone else’s inclusion.

The vision of Ezekiel that we read earlier
          offered a vision of the world transformed,
where the dry and dusty land between Jerusalem and the Jericho
          is brought to life,
with the salt waters of the Dead Sea teeming with fish,
          and the barren banks verdant with trees.

The kingdom of God is about the transformation of the earth,
          it is about the salvation of all things,
          and the healing of the nations as creation itself is redeemed.

And this is not about successful church growth,
          and it is not about personal or corporate achievement.

The transformation of the earth comes about, in Ezekiel’s vision,
          through the pure clear water which flows from the temple in Jerusalem.

It is the people of God who are the source of life to the earth,
          and that blessing flows through us to bring renewal and refreshing to all.

It isn’t something we can manufacture or perform,
          rather it is the gracious gift of the love of God,
which invites us to discover what it is to be truly loved for who we are,
          so that others may discover what it is to be truly loved for who they are.

And any religion or form of faith that requires any of us
          to be something other than that which we have been created to be,
is ultimately a hollow shell of a faith
          that brings judgment and not blessing.

We are loved.
You are loved.
I am loved.

This is the gospel of Christ, who invites us to discover new life with him,

          as we join him for breakfast on the beach.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

The New Improved Literary Criticism

First there was literary criticism. Then there was new literary criticism. And now, just when you thought that this product couldn’t get any better, we are proud to introduce the new improved literary criticism. Eight out of ten scholars said they preferred it.


Academics have taken modern advances in Biblically applied literary theory to the absolute limits. What began with SOURCE CRITICISM has reached its ultimate fulfilment in SAUCY CRITICISM.


Feminist criticism made texts applicable to those with a concern for feminist issues. Materialist criticism was for those concerned with economics and power politics. Saucy criticism succeeds where all previous attempts have failed, and makes texts relevant for students everywhere.


There has been much debate about the precise nature of saucy criticism - whether it can be regarded as “synchronic” or “diachronic”. One of its leading proponents said that it was probably best described as being just plain “chronic”.


The stated aim of saucy criticism is to pay attention to literary devices and phenomena in the text which have previously escaped scholarly recognition (but which have been sniggered at by observant students during boring sermons for years). Innuendo, double entendre, and a dirty mind are the stock-in-trade of saucy critics.


Thus it is that new light is shed upon Adam’s true reaction to waking up and meeting the naked Eve for the first time (Gen 2:23).


Many places exist in the Bible and liturgical resources such as hymn books where the application of saucy critical method can make the text more accessible, more relevant, and certainly more amusing.


However - since the basis of the new improved literary criticism is the individual student’s reaction to the text, further examples will be omitted and left to your fertile (!) imaginations.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Prayers of intercession for Syria and the whole earth

Great God of the whole earth, we come today to bring before you the needs of this planet. And we do so trusting that you are the God of Aleppo, and the God of the West Bank; that you are the God of North Carolina, and the God of Washington; the God of Libya, and the God of Uganda; the God of London, and the God of Bloomsbury. 

We trust that you are God of the environment, and of the climate; that you are God of the marginalised, and of the victim; God of the poor, and the suffering; God of the well and the wealthy; God of the safe and the secure. We trust that you are God of the whole earth, and we trust that you are our God, and we are your people.

And so it is in trust that we your people, cry out to you that the world is not the way that it should be. Every day we see people diminished and distorted in their humanity. 

From those living in war zones and being used as weapons in fights that are not of their making, to those dropping bombs and piloting drones, to those holding civilians hostage to ideologies of hatred and desperation, to those who could negotiate peace but whose national interest is better served by war. 

And so we pray for Syria, and today especially we pray for Aleppo, where millions sit and wait, in fear and without water. And we pray for those who have fled the hells of their former homeland seeking a promised land elsewhere, only to encounter suspicion and hostility. 

And as we remember the example of Jesus who sat and ate with outsiders and sinners, who received hospitality and gave friendship across borders and boundaries, we commit ourselves to living differently, to seeing the person behind the presentation, to finding the image of the divine in each created being.

Help us to open our eyes to the systems of oppression that enslave humanity. Through our prayers for others may we find within ourselves the commitment and the courage to stand against those powers and principalities of wealth and patriarchy that subjugate women, constrict men, exclude children, disadvantage the marginalised, and impoverish the vulnerable.

And in a world where death always seems to get the final word on life, we recommit ourselves to the one who brings life to the living and hope to the dying. And so we stand in prayer alongside those who are sick, those who are diminished through dementia, those who are living with terminal illness. We pray for our friends, and for our families, and for ourselves. May those who need courage be granted it, may those who seek peace discover it. May those who long for rest find it. Great God of the whole earth, may we find our purpose and completion in you.


Monday, 12 September 2016

Eating with the wrong kind of people

Sermon Preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
11 September 2016

Mark 2.13-17  Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them.  14 As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him.  15 And as he sat at dinner in Levi's house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples-- for there were many who followed him.  16 When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?"  17 When Jesus heard this, he said to them, "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."

Psalm 22.23-31   You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!  24 For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.  25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.  26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever!  27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.  28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.  29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.  30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,  31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

We have a friend who puts considerable thought
            into what she calls her "fantasy dinner parties". 

Sometimes these are, at least in theory, realistic possibilities,
            because the Fantasy-guest-list comprises people
                        who are both real and alive;
            but sometimes the guests are fictional, or dead, or both.

And I can see the fun in this.

My personal Formula One fantasy dinner party
            currently has Murray Walker, Damon Hill,
                        Ayrton Senna, and Juan Manuel Fangio attending.

While my Baptist Minister evening would include
            Violet Hedger, one of the early pioneers of women in ministry,
            alongside the great scholar-Pastor David Russell,
            and John Tattersall, the minister who baptised me.
But sadly they are all now dead,
            so it's unlikely to happen this side of eternity.

And I wonder, who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

Would you have the great and the good there?
            The famous and the infamous?
Would you have family and friends,
            or the strange and the stranger?

Would your fantasy dinner party include Levi, I wonder,
            the first century tax collector from Mark's Gospel?
If so, it would be an odd choice,
            because he wasn't the kind of guy to get many dinner party invitations.

In those days, unlike today (of course),
            tax collectors occupied a position on the edge of acceptable society.

They weren't doing anything illegal,
            always carefully making sure that they were on the right side
            of the first century tax evasion/tax avoidance line.

But definitely morally suspect,
            and certainly not that kind of people you would have in your house
            without first making sure all your receipts were in order.

The fundamental problem with tax collectors like Levi
            was that they were working for the wrong side.

They were Jews working for the Romans,
            they were crossing cultural boundaries best left un-crossed.

Israel at that time was an occupied province,
            firmly under Roman control,
            paying taxes according to Roman laws.

And, quite naturally under the circumstances,
            Jewish nationalism was thriving.
"We want our country back", was written deep in the heart and soul
            of every Jew to seethe in anger at Roman boots
            on the sacred ground of the promised land.

If there had been an option for a referendum
            to exit the Roman economic community,
            it would have passed unanimously.

But of course, no such option existed,
            because Roman economics, like the economics of every empire ever since,
            was predicated on Roman military might.

Voting to leave the Empire would have been pointless,
            and armed insurrection was the only option open
            to disaffected young Israelis hoping for a better life
                        and greater self-determinacy.

And here we have Levi,
            not only taking a job for the Imperial overlords,
            but a job collecting taxes from his own people.

More a collaborator than a collector, one might say.
            An unscrupulous bureaucrat,
            willing to compromise his own purity for profit,
                        and to betray his own people for a touch of power.

And it is this tax collector called Levi
            who Jesus ends up sharing a meal with.

Is it any wonder the ardent nationalist Pharisees
            started to get so upset with him?

They had their own plan and agenda for resisting the Roman occupation,
            and it certainly didn't involve cosying up to compromise collaborators.
Neither did it involve armed rebellion or public opposition.

For the Pharisees, resisting the Romans was primarily about
            exercising what we might today call nonviolent resistance,
            and it's a perspective with which I find myself having a great deal of sympathy.

Their resistance revolved around resisting compromise
            over the core of their religious identity.

They were going to be the best Jews they could,
            as far as possible within the letter of the law,
                        encouraging the people to follow their lead,
                        and avoiding assimilation to the oppressive and seductive forces of empire.

This is the world of the boycott,
            the high moral ground, the careful avoidance of compromise.
And the last thing they needed was a populist preacher
            undermining their hard work by going to share food with a tax collector.

In ancient Mediterranean culture,
            the sharing of a meal they at the heart of society.
Traditions of hospitality ran deep
            and one of the greatest honours you could pay to another person
            was to give or receive food.

This was, after all, and agrarian society,
            and the link between the land and the food people consumed
            was much more apparent than it is for us in our world.

To break bread with someone was to honour them,
            and so the Pharisees had strict rules
            over who it was permissible to share food with.

If they could control who ate with whom,
            they could control a significant aspect of the way society functioned.

But here's an interesting thing,
            it's not just Levi the tax collector at this meal.
Mark tells us that Jesus ate food with tax collectors (plural),
            and with sinners.

It's not just Levi and his accountancy friends at this table.
            Others, the sinners, ate there too.

Now, from the point of view of the Pharisees,
            there may not have been much to differentiate tax collectors from other sinners,
but you can be sure that in the non-purist world of the everyday Jew,
            there was a whole world of difference,
            and it had to do with indebtedness.

The nation of Israel was in debt to a foreign power.
            In a situation that has striking similarities to the financial enslavement
                        experienced by many countries in the developing world today,
            Israel owed a debt to Rome that they could never repay.

All they could do was service the interest, so to speak,
            through paying exorbitant taxes,
hoping that the Romans wouldn't just send in their crack legions
            to call time and strip the country of its remaining assets.

And whilst Levi and his fellow tax collectors were servicing this system,
            the other sinners where is the victims of it.
The "sinners" were those in debt,
            while the tax collectors were those collecting the debt.

Tax collectors and sinners would not normally sit down and share a meal together,
            and yet here they all are, at Levi's house,
                        sharing food with Jesus,
            while the Pharisees look on disapprovingly.

All of which begs the question of just what is going on here?
            And it also asks us to make our own difficult choice:
                        where, in all this, do you our sympathies lie?

Are we with Jesus, destroying the taboos and breaking the boundaries,
            or are we with the long game of the Pharisees,
            faithfully and is legally resisting the temptation is to compromise?

I, for one, don't think that this is a straightforward question to answer.

Let's look at the story a little more closely
            and see where it takes us.

The class enmity between sinners and tax collectors
            could only have been broken down
                        if there had been some kind of debt relief,
                        some kind of release from an obligation;
and this is exactly what we meet, time and again,
            in the stories of the ministry of Jesus.

Perhaps the most obvious example is the Lord's prayer itself,
            which we often recite as,
            "forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us".

However, Matthew’s Gospel gives us an alternative way
            of saying the same thing, and he puts it
            "forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6.12).

The sinners who eat with Levi
            can do so because their debts have been released,
                        their sins have been forgiven.

The gospel, or good news, of Jesus to tax collectors and sinners
            concerns the equalisation of power;
            the forgiveness of sins is about the cancelling of indebtedness.

Of course, this is no new insight.
            The Jews knew very well that the people of God
                        were called to have a radically different approach
                        to issues such as power, debt, money, property, and relationships.

The ancient Jewish laws relating to Sabbath and Jubilee
            enshrined, deep within their society,
            mechanisms for the restoration of relationships
                        across socio-economic divides.

So, the stories of creation speak of a rhythm of work and rest,
            six days God labours, and on the seventh God rests.
This is where the pattern of the working week comes from,
            and we know that it is good.

The seven-day pattern continues in the story of the mysterious manna in the wilderness,
            which sustained the Israelites for 40 years.
Every day the food appeared on the ground,
            but only enough for that day,
            until the sixth day when there was enough for the seventh day as well.

Taking this pattern and enshrining it in law,
            the Jewish Torah also required a Sabbath for the land.

Every seventh year the land was to be rested,
            left fallow, rather than over-farmed.

It has only been with the introduction of modern fertilisers
            that farming has moved away from this practice,
            and there remain serious environmental questions
                        about the over-use of the land without allowing it to rest.

But in addition to its ecological wisdom,
            the practice of resting the land functioned at a psychological and spiritual level
                        to break the sense of ownership of the land,
            and it reminded the people that they were merely stewards
                        of a world that existed far beyond their own life span.

And then every seventh seven-year cycle,
            after 49 years of labour and rest, once in a lifetime,
                        there was to be a year of Jubilee,
            when debts were forgiven,
                        when land reverted back to the tribe that originally owned it,
                        when slaves were released,
                        and when wealth was redistributed.

Whether this ever actually happened is a moot point,
            it may just be an economic thought experiment,
            but the principle is clear.

In an agrarian society, the cycle of poverty begins
            when a family has to sell their land,
                        and the process of one family growing richer
                        while another descends towards bond slavery is begun.

Again, the similarities to global cycles
            of poverty and wealth in our own world are striking,
            as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Sabbath and Jubilee challenge this cycle,
            and assert a counter-narrative
                        that the purpose of economics should be to guarantee enough for everyone,
                        not to facilitate surplus accumulation by the few. 

The theological insight underpinning the economic idealism here is straightforward.
            "The Earth belongs to God, and its fruits are free,
                        so the people should justly distribute those fruits
                        instead of seeking to own and horde them.” (Say to this mountain).

And so we come back to Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners.
            Sharing food with the debtors, and with the agents of enslavement alike.

And it's all about sharing, and it's all about forgiveness,
            and it's all about food, and power, and inequality, and sin.

And the Pharisees don't like it one bit
            because it is messing with their status quo.

A rabbi like Jesus should not sit to eat
            with the tax collectors or sinners;
and neither should tax collectors share table with sinners.

This is the new economics of forgiveness in microcosm,
            and its challenge remains as sharp in the 21st-century
                        as ever it was in the first century,
            especially when we read it in a context
                        of haves and have-nots,
                        of vested interests and enshrined inequalities.

I'm not going to get too political about this today;
            I'll leave it for each of us to weigh our own perspective
                        on politics and economics
            against the measure of the relationships modelled by Jesus,
                        and the new economics of the kingdom of God that he proclaimed.

But just for a moment, imagine with me a fantasy dinner party
            where the street homeless person is sat at table
                        with the person who paid off their mortgage years ago.
Imagine an unemployed person
            sat with the person who has just had to sanction their benefits.
Imagine a disabled person
            sat at table with a target-driven work-capability-assessor.
Imagine a junior doctor
            sat with the secretary of state for health.

And then you be the judge:
            who here is sick, and who is healthy?

And in the middle of it, hear Jesus saying,
            "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".

For Jesus, those who are "sick" are the tax collectors and the sinners.

He diagnoses the nature of society's malaise
            as a sickness in the system
which enslaves the poor and the vulnerable,
            excluding them from society,
and which co-opts good people to its corrupting aims.

Those who think they are healthy, in this analysis,
            are the beneficiaries of the system,
            and Jesus says that they have no need of him.
He doesn't sit and share food with the Pharisees.

All of which brings us to today, to our church,
            and to how we will live together.

This is a church which has, since its foundation nearly 170 years ago,
            sought to care for the poor and the vulnerable,
                        to see the person behind the predicament,
            and to bring relief to those enslaved to sin and sickness. 

This is who we are,
            it is what we do, in very many different ways.

And then we take that hands-on engagement,
            that lived reality of equality and sharing,
and we offer our experience of it
            to a wider conversation about how we will shape society.

It's why we don't shy away from talking politics,
            and it's why we give time and energy
            to organisations like London citizens.

But it has to be real for us,
            if it is to go anywhere else.
We have two work out what it is for Jesus
            to sit and eat with tax collectors and sinners in our midst,
and for us to be honest about the nature
            of our own place at the table.

We are all of us sick,
            we are all of us indebted through sin,
            we are all of us enslaved to a system that diminishes and demeans,
                        and this is true whether we own property or sleep rough.

If we deny our sickness, we deny our need of a saviour,
            and we take our place with the Pharisees,
            and we surrender our place at the table.

Last Sunday lunchtime we continued our conversation as a church
            about what we might to do with the basement on Sundays,
            when it reopens later this year following months of renovation.

It is clear that an important part of this
            will involve the sharing of food together,
            as we sit at the table with one another and invite Jesus to join us.

Several of the comments from the meeting have stayed with me,
            but one in particular seems especially relevant here:
One of our congregation observed
            that we had to just shared communion in our morning service,
            and said that, for them, when we share food over Sunday lunch,
                        "it is like we create a communion service
                        for the vulnerable and elderly who come",
            that "it's our way of sharing Christ".

And I love this. Yes, and Amen, I want to say to this.

Another way of putting it would be to say that our eating together,
            rich and poor, housed and homeless, strong and vulnerable,
                        is a sacramental act:
            it's something we do in obedience to the call of Christ,
                        in expectation and faith that Christ joins us in the doing of it.

And this isn't just true of Sunday lunch,
            it's true of all the other times we share food together as a church.

And there are so many of those,
            from home groups to church socials, to Tuesdays,
                        to the night shelter and the evening Centre,
            to shared biscuits in the foyer,
                        to communion services, and I could go on.

Bloomsbury truly is a church which marches on its stomach.
And we do so to share Christ,
            because we are his body.

And here's the thing about the body of Christ,
            here is the truth of the broken bread of communion.
The body of Christ is broken.
            We are broken, we are sick,
            it's why we need our great physician.

And if our shared food is to be sacramental,
            if it is to make Christ known in the sharing of it,
            then it has to involve sacrifice.

As Levi the tax collector had to give up his hard-won advantage
            that the debt of the sinners might be cancelled,
            so we are called to sacrificial living.

The awful truth of the call of Christ,
            the truth that the Pharisees could not cope with,
            is that the powerful are called to give up their power.

If all we do is to try and feed the poor,
            to alleviate their hunger, to meet their needs,
            then we are not truly sharing Christ with them,
                        because the difference of power remains unaddressed.

Charity has value, and it has its place,
            but it is not the kingdom of God.

Simply sharing space while food is served
            is not the kingdom of God.

The terrible truth of the call of Christ
            is that if we are to see debts cancelled, sins forgiven,
            and good news made manifest in our midst,
then we have to be willing to give away our control and our power,
            to give up our vested interests and our personal desires.

As Nye Bevin  put it, "the purpose of power is to give it away".

And then, as we take our own seat at the table,
            no better or worse than anyone else,
            tax collectors and sinners together,

then, we meet the risen Jesus, as we gather around his table.