A Lesson From A Roll Of Toilet Paper

This post includes the sermon  text for the message I preached on March 15, 2015 at a meeting of the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond, VA.  The sermon is based on Mark 2:13-18 and is titled:  “A Lesson From A Roll of Toilet Paper.”

You can also listen to the audio podcast at http://www.pattersonavenuebaptist. com

The audio is a little off…I think we forgot to plug in the cord into the camera.

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The scripture text is below, follow by the video, and then the manuscript of the sermon.

A Lesson From A Roll Of Toilet Tissue

Mark 2:13-17, New International Version (NIV)


Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.


While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”


On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”




“Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”


One of my sociology professors in college kept a roll of toilet tissue on his lectern in front of the classroom.  During the first class gathering for Introduction to Sociology course, he distributed a square of that toilet tissue to each of his students.


“Let me share with you the lesson of the toilet tissue,” he said.  “We have a practice in our culture of dividing people into various groups and assigning those groups value based on things like skin color, national heritage, income, politics, or religion.  Those who spend the most time assigning value generally view themselves superior to everyone else.  The lesson of the toilet tissue is that no matter how different or better you think you are compared to other people, at our core we are all the same – we all need toilet tissue.”


Throughout the semester, that roll of toilet tissue remained a fixture on the lectern – a constant reminder that no matter how superior we think we are to others, we are all made equal by one common physiological function.


You probably do not even want to think about that this morning while sitting in church, but as we read the text from today’s  Gospel lesson, we can’t help but think about that lesson from a roll of toilet tissue.


We all hunger for a sense of belonging.  We all want to connect, to be in community.  We all want to be in a group.  We were created that way. We were created for community.  But then sin enters the picture and it is no longer sufficient to be a part of a group, we want to be a part of THE group.  We build up walls and establish boundaries to decide who gets in and who does not.  We want the power to decide who gets ignored, avoided, spurned, rejected, excluded, blackballed, ostracized, shunned, cold-shouldered, and voted off the island.


  1. S. Lewis wrote a brilliant essay on this subject called The Inner Ring.[i] He points out that in every social structure there are small groups of people who are on the inside. Of course, it is seldom formalized; nobody takes a vote as to who is included and who is not, it just happens.  But then, once you get inside, you discover that there are even more rings and layers.


Walk across any high school campus and you’ll notice quickly who is on the inside, and who is not.  Those who have the most money and family prestige tend to populate the innermost ring.  They wear nicest clothing, throw the best parties, and drive the nicest cars.  The next ring contains the athletes and the cheerleaders.  Next are the brains – the kids who get the best grades and compete on the academic challenge teams.  Next you will find the “wanna-bes” – kids who are looking for the next big break that will move one level closer toward the center.  The outermost ring contains the geeks and the nerds.  The difference between the two, I am told, is that a geek knows how to use a computer.


It is amazing to me how little things after high school.  The names and locations might be different, but the dynamics are the same.  The rings still exist on virtually every level of society – sometimes even in church.


My first church after seminary was a typical, small-town Baptist church in rural Virginia.  It been established in 1778 and the congregation was filled, mostly, with “salt-of-the-earth” type people.  But there was one small segment of the congregation, however, that were a bit too uptight.  They were descendants of the first families of the church and they even referred to themselves as First Families.  They felt that their status as descendent of the founders church put them on the inside ring of power in the church.


Lewis writes, “I believe that in all men’s lives … one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”[ii]  The existence of such rings, he says, is not necessarily bad.  We are all finite, and we can have deeply intimate friendships with only a limited number of people.  The problems develops when we aim to gain status and self-importance by moving through the circles toward the Inner Ring.


Look at what happens to us as we strive to move closer to the inner ring.  We stay up at nights constantly comparing  and contrasting ourselves with other.  We feel anguish when others succeed.  We feel pride when others are excluded and we are accepted.  We feel self-righteousness.  We feel that God must feel lucky that we are on God’s side.  And we compromise – we compromise our core values and ethical standards in order to move toward the inner circle.


The problem, as John Ortberg has put it, is that “The Inner Ring turns out to be like an onion.  Once we make it to one circle, we discover that there is yet another, and another.  But no circle is so far inside that it can confer on us that sense of permanent worth we want so badly, because inside we know we’re still the same person.”[iii]


Groucho Marx once said he would never join a club whose standards were so low they would let someone like him become a member.[iv]


The text tells us that the “teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw JESUS eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 


What we see here are the folks who thought they were in the “Inner Ring.”  What we see is a religious righteousness.  Samuel Williamson speak of this, saying:


Religious righteousness is self-righteousness with a dash of religion.  It oozes the arrogance of inner goodness as it scorns the evil of the less fortunate; it takes credit for personal goodness while it altogether forgets grace.


True kingdom living nurture humility:  “I can’t do this on my own—even be good.”  And if can’t do “it” on my own, how can I despise anyone else who also can’t?[v]


Most certainly there are verses in the scripture which teach that God blesses the righteous.  But it is essential that we see…


…these are prescriptions for hope in God’s power…not descriptions of our own moral greatness.[vi]


I learned the lesson of the toilet tissue while a student in a sociology class.  It seems to me that might be a few other good places where we all might learn this lesson.


Maybe the pulpit should have a steady supply of toilet tissue nearby.  I have been told I am full of it anyway, so why not?


Seriously, sometimes pastors get the feeling that we are in a circle further in than everyone else.  They (we) imagine that we are more important.  We think we are closer to God.  We are not.  A handy roll of toilet tissue might remind us that we struggle with the same types of challenges and difficulties as those in the pew – and we often fall prey to the temptations as everyone else.


Maybe the pew would also be a good place to place a few rolls of toilet tissue, too.  Sometimes we think that the people sitting in the pew are somehow superior to those seated at home.  And when that attitude of superiority kicks in, so do the boundaries, the walls, and the lines of division and separation.


But you do not see that in Jesus.  Those who had been rejected, ostracized, shunned, and marginalized experience in Jesus a sense of welcome and inclusion.  Those who saw themselves as superior to others, however, were handed a piece of toilet tissue.


Let’s get back to that accusation leveled against Jesus by the Pharisees.  Seeing Jesus at a party in the home of Levi, a tax-collector, they murmur amongst themselves in disgust, asking: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”


Now to understand this accusation, we need to know something about the Pharisees.


To begin with, The Pharisees did no regard everyone as a sinner.  Only certain people (or certain groups of people) received this classification.  The poor were considered“sinners.”  So were certain women who were not properly modest, decent, and respectable.  Leprosy was thought to be a curse from God, as were birth defects that left a person lame, blinds, paralyzed, or epileptic.  Those who suffered from these ailments were classified as sinners.  Of course, those not of the Jewish race were also seen as sinners – especially the Samaritans.  At the top of the list of sinners were the tax collectors who were fellow Jews who collaborated with the evil Roman Empire.  Everyone outside the inner circle the Pharisees had created around themselves was classified as a sinner.  They were the people of the outer rings.


Isn’t it interesting that these folks from outside the circle were the most welcomed by Jesus.  And they knew it.  They stuck as close to Jesus as ugly on a bear.


Next, we need to understand that for the Pharisees, avoiding sin meant avoiding all of those who were outside their inner ring.  If you wanted to be right with God, you would never associate with “sinners.”  You would never touch a leper.  You would never be caught anywhere near a Samaritan or a Gentile.  And you would never, under any circumstance, attend any party in the home of a tax collector.  For the Pharisee, devotion to God meant refusing to associate with anyone who did not meet their high standards.


The third thing to note is that the Pharisees believe was that God was exactly like them.  The popular theology of the time taught that God did not include sinners, but God excluded sinners.  God embraced the righteous and rejected sinners.  Forgiveness was a pipedream.  Sinners were without hope.  They were beyond redemption.


“Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”


We understand the scandal a bit better now.  For the Pharisees, this was no minor critique.  This was their fundamental reason for condemning Jesus.  That is why this theme is mentioned repeatedly throughout Jesus ministry.


When Rabbi Jesus entered the home of a tax collector and surrounded himself with all of the riff-raff of society, it was an affront to the religious elite.  It was a threat to the entire religious, social, and politic structures of the day.  By attending Levi’s party, Jesus was saying that it was wrong to reject others.  He was also declaring that the Pharisees had God all wrong.  God did not build walls.  God destroyed them.  God did not reject and exclude.  God welcomed and embraced.


“In God’s Kingdom,” Jesus is saying,” Everyone is invited to the banquet table.”  Tax collectors would break bread with scribes.  Lepers would share the cup of the Pharisee.  The poor would eat meat with the rich.  The crack whore down the street would become your sister in the faith.  When you sit at God’s banquet table, there is no telling with whom you might be sitting.


“I have come for the sinners,” Jesus says, “not those who think they are good enough.”


Jesus is not saying that those on the outside are just as good as those on the inside.  He’s saying that those on the inside are just as bad as those on the outside.  Everyone needs what God has to offer.  Everyone needs God’s grace, and mercy, and compassion, and acceptance.  And nobody should ever be excluded from love, fellowship, inclusion and intimacy.


In his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, John Ortberg tells of a young man named John Gilbert who was diagnosed with a severe form of Muscular Dystrophy – a genetic, progressive, cruel disease.  He was told that the disease would eventually destroy every muscle in his body and finally, within ten years or so, take his life.


The young lasted a bit longer than expected.  He was twenty-five years old at the time of his death – though he needed machines just to help him breath.  For the last several years of his life, John could not even speak.  His only means of communication was by mustering up the strength to move a computer mouse over letters in order to spell words – but he did that beautifully, writing a brilliant essay about his life.


Every year this young man lost something.  One year, he lost the ability to run, so he could not play sports with the other kids.  Another year he could no longer walk straight, so all he could do was watch others play.  He lost the ability to do all the outward things that we think make us human.


John knew something about the pain of exclusion.  He wrote that junior high was perhaps the most difficult era of his life.  Now Junior High is difficult for almost everyone.  But what John Gilbert experienced was far more than what most of us can imagine during those years.  Certain groups of students humiliated him because of his condition and because he had to bring a trained dog to school to help him. A bully used to torture him in the lunchroom where there were no supervising teachers, until he was afraid to go to school.  No one ever stood up for him.


“What a silly species we are,” John writes.  “We all need to feel accepted ourselves, but we constantly reject others.”


There were other moments in John life.  At one point, he was named the representative for everyone in his condition in the state of California.  He was flown to Sacramento and ushered with his mother into the governor’s office for a private meeting.  The governor took a large glass jar filled with candy and told John to dig in.  John looked at his mother who said it was okay to take one, but the governor said he was the governor and that John should do what he said.  John stuffed his pockets.


That night the National Football League sponsored a fund-raising auction and dinner at which John was a guest.  The players let him hold their huge Super Bowl rings, which almost extended to John’s wrist.


When the auction began, one item particularly caught John’s attention: a basketball signed by the players of the Sacramento Kings professional team.  John got a little carried away, because when the ball when up for bids, he raised his hand.  As soon as his hand went up, John’s mother flagged it down.  John wrote, “Astronauts never felt as many G’s as my wrist did that night.”


The bidding on the basketball rose to an astounding amount.  Eventually, one man named a figure that shocked the room and that nobody could match.


The man walked to the front and collected his prize.  Instead of going back to his seat, however, the man walked across the room and placed it into the thin, small hands of the boy who had desired it so intently.  The man placed the ball in hands that would never dribble it down a court, never throw it to a teammate on a fast break, never fire it from three point range.  But those hands would cherish it.


John writes, “It took me a moment to realize what the man had done.  I remember hearing gasps all over the room, then thunderous applause, and seeing weeping eyes.  To this day I’m amazed!”  Then he writes, “Have you ever been given a gift that you could have never gotten for yourself?  Has anyone ever sacrificed a huge amount for you without getting anything in return…except the joy of giving?”


It was as simple at this:  Somebody noticed.  Somebody cared.  Somebody acted.  Somebody gave.


Have you bought a basketball for anybody lately?  When was the last time you noticed – really noticed – that somebody felt left out, all alone, excluded?


You can make a difference in that person’s life.  You can make them feel excluded and rejected, or you can make them feel lovable and acceptable.


Jesus had that choice – and He chose to invite you to God’s party.


Who are you going to share God’s inclusion with this week?







[i] C.S. Lewis, “The Inner Ring” published in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, New York: Macmillan Press, 1980.

[ii] C.S. Lewis, “The Inner Ring” page 97.

[iii] John Ortberg, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, Michigan: Zondervan, 2003, page 188.

[iv] Groucho Marx, Groucho and Me: The Autobiography pf Grouch Marx, New York: Simon & Shuster, 1959, chapter 26.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.


The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics
by: C. S. Lewis
publisher: HarperCollins, published: 2009-03-03
ASIN: 0061208493
EAN: 9780061208492
sales rank: 1722
price: $17.94 (new), $15.24 (used)

The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics contains seven essential volumes by C.S. Lewis, including Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain, Miracles, A Grief Observed and Lewis’s prophetic examination of universal values, The Abolition of Man. Beautiful and timeless, this is a vital collection by one of the greatest Christian literary figures of the twentieth century.



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