Peace Time Matters
Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. 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. 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. 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?” 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.”
Mark 2:13-17 (NRSV)
I have tried for a good chunk of my life to avoid this whole pastoral thing. When I was born, it was right at the time where my dad experienced ‘the call’ and made a vocational shift into pastoral ministry in the United Methodist Church. I grew up in a preacher’s house, whereas my siblings (who are a bit older) grew up in two very different houses. My uncle was called into the ministry, as well, although much earlier than my dad. And my grandmother served as a Christian educator and pastor, as well. There is a whole lot of pastoral work in my blood.
All of this led to a real mixture of emotions for me when I first felt called into the ministry. It did not help that I got the holy ‘tap on the shoulder’ at such a young age. I was only nine years old when I first experienced the feeling that God might be pushing me in this direction.
I put up a good fight, I think. I had a lot of (read: too many) dream aspirations growing up. I can recall wanting to be a chef, comedian, stage actor, voice actor, cartoonist, musician, comic book artist, Lego designer, engineer, video game designer, and teacher. At one point I wanted to just be my 7th grade teacher Bill “Hot-Shot” Carothers (I don’t know if he ever actually liked that nickname, but I led a chant of it often).
As I grew older, I even started to pursue some of these careers. I learned how to play guitar and sing and joined a Christian Rock band called F.A.C.T. with my buddies. I took every theatre course I could and had lead roles in all of the musicals and plays my school and community made available. I won talent shows for stand-up comedy. I made videos and tried to go viral on the early YouTube world. I created Let’s Plays and hoped for a gaming career. I joined and led an improv troupe for four years. I was a bass singer in an acapella group for four years. If it exists in the creative field, I’ve pursued it.
Even in the realm of ministry, I tried my darndest to avoid pastoral work. I tried to be a worship leader. I tried to be a youth director. I worked at a child care. No matter how far I tried to run from God’s call - it seemed like I just kept getting dragged back.
You might be asking: Why? To be honest, I just do not know if I have ever been confident that I am cut out for the job. That is not to say that anyone has ever told me that directly or that anything I have done professionally has affirmed that doubt - the doubt just exists somewhere in my psyché. It took me four years of serving an actual appointment to realize the source of this problem.
I am not very good during peacetime. In my heart, I am a soldier.
To be clear, I am terrible at exercise, so I am not referring to someone serving in military service. I am not called to that at all. What I mean is this: I have never wanted to do the work of the ministry that happens after the fun and exciting part. Conversion is sexy and exhilarating. Bringing someone into the faith, baptism, changing lives; that is the good stuff!
The trouble came with what to do next.
Whenever I started serving in a small, rural community, I learned that there was an expectation that I would pursue this Christian-ese term called ‘pastoral care.’ No one outside of the ministry talks about this thing. Very few budding evangelists share an incredible calling to go and sit in someone’s home drinking tea for a few hours just to talk. As an excitable, raring-to-go young pastor, I was less than thrilled at the very idea.
I should say that this may seem offensive - and I totally understand why it may come across that way. But - let us just be honest with one another. This has nothing to do with other people. I loved my congregation. I love people. I would do anything for them. If I learned of a hospitalization, I would drop everything and head that way immediately. It was not a lack of love - it was a lack of clarity. We’ll get back to this.
Before we dig any deeper into my shortcomings, let us look at this scripture for just a moment. Jesus is out teaching and working hard - suddenly he gets a bit of a rumble in his tummy. He sees this dude that he knows makes the best challah and he says, “Levi, come and follow me, let’s grab a bite at your place, yeah?” Everybody learns that Jesus is going to grab some grub with Levi and so they tag along for the ride.
While Jesus and the gang are partying it up, there are some folks who have been in the church their whole lives watching from the outside. They are leaders and teachers - called the Pharisees - who have worked hard to get where they are now. One of the leaders steps up and asks one of Jesus’ besties, “Hey - why is Jesus busy eating with tax collectors and other lose- I mean, sinners?” Jesus overhears this complaint and calls out from the party with a mouth full of matzo and says, “Listen here, Derek, those who are well don’t need a visit from the doctor - it’s the needy who actually are looking for my help. I didn’t come for those who think they have it all together, but the sick, sinful seekers.”
I always love Jesus’ words when he is with sinners. There is a wonderful little bit of Jesus-flavored sass that absolutely emboldens me to turn up my sass level, as well (which, in all wisdom, I know I should not do). Jesus cuts straight to the point with the Pharisees here - it is abundantly clear that they do not really think they need what Jesus has to offer. He has been teaching; they have not been listening.
I always wonder what the tax collectors and sinners in the room must have thought when Jesus said this to the Pharisees. An easily-offended version of myself wants to cover up these words of Jesus and say that he did not really mean those things. These people were not sick. I am not sick. But Jesus would want to be with me anyway, right?
A more honest version of myself realizes that the truth of Jesus’ ministry with the sinners is incredibly abridged in the Bible.
Do you know how much I can fit into a fifteen-minute sermon? Add a few sermons up and I can easily say more word-for-word than all of the collected teachings we have of Jesus together. Jesus had three whole years of constant, daily interactions. Over a thousand days - mostly unaccounted for in the words we have in the Good Book. What do you think they talked about? I bet Jesus had the best jokes. I bet he memorized everyone’s name. I bet he made people feel comfortable without saying a word.
I do not often attribute the ‘tough guy’ persona to myself. I am in touch with my feminine side and consider myself quite far from the ‘alpha male’ mentality. But one thing I do sparingly is actually cry. I will experience a similar tingly feeling of catharsis - but actually having liquid emotion drip down my cheeks? Rarely. Whenever I actually do get the waterworks going, it stands out in my mind that much more.
That being said, it was very recently that I got to experience that bizarre feeling of having a sad water park happen on my face. Since kicking off this exciting new ministry, I have ironically had very little time to spend in pop culture. Two months ago, I could barely remember the last anime or television show I had seen. Starting in October, I realized this was not good for me and made an intentional effort to start watching an episode of something every day as a part of my To-Do List. I decided I would just start with the first anime series on my Watch List on Netflix: Violet Evergarden.
I was not prepared for this show.
If you have never heard of this show, the viewer follows along with the life of the titular Violet Evergarden as she enters into a new vocation as an Auto Memory Doll. This is a pretty wild job. In this world, people either cannot find the words to write, have forgotten how to write or never learned to actually write, so they hire Dolls to draft out letters for them. Apparently, this job all started whenever a man created the job in order for his blind wife to write novels.
Violet is a tragic character - as a child, she was orphaned and never given a name. She was raised to be a human weapon without emotions; designed to be a secret tool for one nation to use to overcome another. Towards the climax of the war between two great nations the nameless girl gets adopted by Major Gilbert Bougainvillea. He takes a liking to her as a person. He gives her a name (Violet Evergarden) and raises her to the best of his ability.
After some time, the big day comes and the Major is called to the battlefield with Violet to be brought along as a battle weapon. Things go well at first but, after an unexpected turn in the battle, the Major ends up getting fatally wounded. He tells Violet to leave him. She refuses and carries him to safety.
On the way, she has both of her arms blown off by gunners. She then uses her teeth to carry him until they find a spot free from gunfire. She weeps at her weakness and he tells her that she must live. He then tells her three words that she does not understand, “I love you.” Violet blacks out, not knowing the fate of the Major.
This all leads to current day Violet, with two impressive mechanical prosthetic arms, pursuing a job as an Auto Memory Doll so that she can understand what the Major meant by those three special words.
Sad, right? You have no idea.
Each episode is easily self-contained and tells a story of Violet going to work for a random client with a different story. Some of these stories will tear you to pieces. Some will warm you from the inside out. Some will have you sitting on the edge of your seat.
Then, you get to that episode. Season 1, Episode 10. Titled, “Loved Ones Will Always Watch Over You.” Folks. I can’t even express the feelings this episode created. I can only tell you this: this episode earned it’s 9.8/10 stars on IMDB (for the uninitiated, that’s an incredible score on par with the greatest films ever made).
I will not spoil this episode because I genuinely need you all to watch it. Just know this: as a father of a beautiful baby girl, nothing has better summed up the intense love that passes between a parent and child.
Here is why this is important to our message here: all of these moments and episodes shared between Violet and each client happen during a state of general peacetime. Matters have settled in the nation. People are in a good place, generally. Violet really doesn’t need to go and sit with these people. But she does anyway. And, when she does, she sits and hears their stories; she experiences who they really are and it makes all the difference.
What makes all of these stories so important is not that the people are all well and wanting to just sit and chat with an Auto Memory Doll to write some random letter. Every single story is one of a sick person in need of a listening ear - the key word there being an ear that listens. I am not sure what led this mangaka (author) to have this whole story be about writing letters - but, if I had to guess, it is because someone writing a letter would have to actually listen, not just hear.
When I watched the actions of Violet, I cried not only because I felt so incredibly seen in my love for my daughter, but because I also felt like I was seen in my love for others. Suddenly, it made sense to me. I understood why pastoral care was so necessary - and I understood why it had felt so inauthentic beforehand.
See, the truth is that not every person who is sick is in the hospital. I thought the two were mutually exclusive. They are not. Violet learned this, too. Jesus knew it from Day 1. The Pharisees did not get it one bit. I thought that every single person in the church did not need me to come and sit and drink tea with them - and I was absolutely right. There were some Pharisees. There are always some people who are well - maybe too well for their own good. But there are people who are sick and you just cannot see it.
What can we do about it? How does any of this change anything at all?
The truth lies in what happened on those thousand plus days with Jesus that are not documented in the Bible. What did Jesus do with those sinners? Biblical scholars might suggest correctly that much of Jesus’ ministry is simply surmised in the four gospels. He would deliver ideas like those parables and sermons in multiple places and times. This is very likely true.
But what if there is more?
What if some of those times were not documented because they were downright boring? What if, sometimes, Jesus just sat there and he listened? Didn’t say anything profound, didn’t dive into their heads, didn’t offer prosperity or an easy way out - just listened. Just heard what the sick person needed to say. What if, sometimes, that is all it really takes? We can run from the ministry all we want, but the truth is that we sometimes minister to others by accident - just by listening to a hurting person.
At the end of it all, it might help just to acknowledge that not everything needs to end in fireworks and five-thousand lives turned to Christ. Sometimes the smaller times are way more impactful. Deep, not wide. We all want the loud excitement. The big parade. The climactic battle. But, the truth is this: peace time matters.