gospel, John, Sermon Notes, Suffering, Sunday

Sunday Sermon: Lent IV- John 9:1-41

I had the opportunity to preach this past Sunday at Breath of God Lutheran Church in our neighborhood. While I forgot to record it, I am posting my manuscript here. The name of the sermon was “Blind Witness News”. A big thanks to Mark Parker for the invite and grateful to have such an engaged church in our neighborhood.

“Blind Witness News ”
Text: John 9:1-41

I don’t know about you, but I’ve probably spent more time in the last six months absorbing news content than I have in the last 6 years. The political climate in which we live, regardless of your political persuasion, is unprecedented and unpredictable. And with newsworthy happenings in the world come the inevitable spin and questions. It is so easy to get sucked in to the news reports and the arguing and the punditry and the analysis.

As such, perhaps this what has caused me to think of today’s Gospel reading in much the same way: as a news story. Could you imagine if it were recounted by a popular 24 hour news network today? Perhaps it isn’t too difficult to imagine. We have a significant event happening and a lot of people questioning and disagreeing about it. So today, I do want us to follow this story a bit like we would a news story, and try to offer some self-reflection along the way.

The word “blind” is used by John 17 times in his Gospel. 15 of those times are in this passage. This should bring to our mind not simply the topic of this passage, but a theme of sight. John wants us to see something here (pun intended).  We will come back to the disciples question in a bit, but I wanted to focus on the rest of the narrative, as if it were picked up by the news.

Imagine what the local news coverage would have been like for this story. “Breaking: we have some odd reports of a man, apparently born blind, who has been healed with mud, and you won’t guess what it’s made out of. Tonight at 11.” Or further still: “It is unclear as to the true identity of this man who was allegedly healed by a traveling Rabbi. We have someone who claims it was him who was healed, others claim it was just someone who looked like him: you be the judge.”

There are a lot of fun details in this story, and we can’t address everything, but I just had to pull out this amazing question by the neighbors as they begin by questioning the blind man after he received his sight. They ask him, in v. 12 “Where is he?” and he said “I don’t know.” Come on now…that is funny! This man has literally never seen anything in his life, he is sent by Jesus to go wash in a pool, where he then receives his sight and begins to be questioned, and one of the questions is, “Where is this man whom you’ve never seen?”

Next, the story gets picked up from the local news by the big news channel. Let’s call them PNN (Pharisee News Network). Their headline would look something like this: “So-called Prophet Breaks Sabbath by Performing Alleged Miracle…Sinner performing signs?” On their show, they would invite the blind man and his parents on, along with some expert analysts (pharisees, of course), to talk about this situation.

At the end of their newscast, the blind man turns the tables, even asking the pharisees if they want to follow Jesus because of all their questions. And like good pundits, they stick to the talking points and seek to discredit the man in order show they are the ones who are right, saying “You were born entirely in sins, and how are you trying to teach us?” And they cut the interview off and send him away, feeling satisfied that they got another news story, and maybe boosted their ratings.

Notice, that Jesus is not invited into the Pharisee’s discussion. Instead, Jesus goes to find the man after he hears about how he has been treated. He hears his confession of faith and says to him: you are the one who really sees. You get it, while those who think they have insight into the ways of this world are showing that they are blind. This is the work of Jesus which elicits an important question, not just for the pharisees, but for all of us: “surely we are not blind, are we?” We see things the way they are, don’t we Jesus?

It is here where I want to finally come back to the beginning of the story. When Jesus and his disciples come across this man who has been born blind, the disciples’ first impulse is to ask a question which I would paraphrase like this: “Whose fault is it?” This man is suffering, is it his own fault or the fault of someone else? Or, put even more succinctly: who can we blame for this?

I feel this question on a regular basis when I encounter human suffering, illness, and injustice in our world. My first impulse is to ask: “Whose fault is it?” so I can quickly post something calling them out on Facebook or something (I am only speaking for myself…I’m sure you don’t do this!) Or, it allows me to make a judgment call. “Well, they obviously brought this on themselves.” This helps me deal with the suffering as I see it. It helps me explain it away. It helps me keep things at a distance.

But, Jesus invites us into another way of seeing, altogether. To simply see a blind man as a problem to be analyzed, diagnosed, reported, or blamed is the way of the world. It is the way of the 24 hour news media. It is the way of blindness. Furthermore, to dismiss the work of God in the world when it doesn’t look like we think it should is the way of the religious elite, it is the way of power…basically, it is not the way of Jesus. And it is damaging.

Let me just say, that people have been horribly stigmatized by those who claim Christianity. I work part-time with HopeSprings, an organization which seeks to awaken, equip, and engage the church to bring hope and healing to those with HIV. We are having some focused conversations with other health and faith-based organizations right now to better address how faith informs our engagement with the people most at risk for HIV. This includes people in the LGBTQ community, particularly black gay men, transgender individuals, and IV drug users. Some of the people we have the opportunity to serve amaze me, because they still love Jesus after being treated as subhuman by those who claim to follow him. Many struggle to even think of darkening the door of a church again, though their faith is incredibly important to them. So many have been over-analyzed and scrutinized because of these factors, but people often fail to see God at work in their lives (and oftentimes, God is working in them to work through them to bless others…like us!) Certainly these would be like those whom we would categorize as “blind” today and seek to blame them or others for whatever may ail them. I wonder who else may be treated like they are “blind” today. And I further wonder whether we aren’t, in fact, the blind ones.

When Jesus sees this man, born blind, he sees it as an opportunity for the kingdom of God to break into the world. He sees it as a chance for him to get to work. To literally get his hands dirty, making mud out of spit and dirt. The work which began in Jesus continues on in his body, the Church, by the power of the Spirit. He is the light of the world, and now, so are we.

So, as we move forward today, back into our neighborhood this week, we are invited by Jesus to see what he sees. When we see our immigrant neighbors, will we simply analyze our assumptions concerning their lives, or will we wonder where God might be at work and inviting us to join? When we hear or read of another carjacking, mugging, or break-in, will we seek to blame police, victims, or perpetrators…or will we wonder “How might the light of Christ shine in this situation?” Where is God inviting you to see the world around you differently, as pregnant with possibility?

Jesus’ words in response to his disciples are an apt challenge for us today: We must work the works of him who sent us while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. So, as long as you are in the world, shine in the world by working in the world, perhaps in the most unlikely places, in order to bring glory to God. May we move forth as people who see. May we look for opportunities for God’s kingdom to come in the situations and people we encounter. May we get our hand dirty in the work of loving and healing others. And may we have our own eyes opened to the reality of Christ.

Baltimore, church, city, gospel, Movement, Musings

My Letter to the Church in Baltimore

As some of you may know, I was ordained into gospel ministry by my church this past weekend. It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life! As a part of the questioning time, one of the pastors on my panel asked me this question: “If you were to write a letter to the church in Baltimore, like Paul did, what would you say?”

I decided to actually write a letter. I pray it encapsulates much of what I feel as I am stepping into this new season of life.

Feel free to respond in any way in the comments section below.

A grateful servant of our Lord Jesus Christ
and a fellow laborer in the vineyard of our Master,

To the saints in the city of Baltimore;
my fellow workers in the harvest of our Lord,
Those he has purchased with His very own self,
Those who he has adopted into His family,
Those who serve the Body of Christ and the city,
Those who are endeavoring to see the reign of our King extend over our city and to the ends of the earth;


I thank God that I am counted as among you, that I get to be named along with you as the Church in Baltimore; a planting of our God in the city, for the city. Ever since my time in coming here, I am continually amazed by the work that God is doing here. I have had the joy of learning so much from many of you who have been working faithfully for our God in our city for years upon years. I know many of you have been praying for God to do a special work in our neighborhoods, on our streets, in the hearts of our neighbors. I want to rejoice with all of you, whether we be sowers or reapers, that we can rejoice together that the time for the harvest is now!

And it is happening. God is moving. The questions I would pose to all of us (myself included) would be:

Are we awake? Do we see? Are we ready?

Are we awake?

We see groups of people everyday; in our churches, neighborhoods, communities, and jobs. As we live and work and play in the city, sometimes these crowds stay just that: crowds of people with no personal identity. I would encourage us to see them differently.

The disciples seem to really reflect our attitudes when it comes to crowds of people. They wanted Jesus to send them away. They saw overwhelming needs, mouths to be fed, wounds to be healed, and maybe even moods to appease so that they don’t get too rowdy! You may even find your prayers being something like this: “Jesus, these people need much and demand much and, sometimes, frustrate and frighten me. I feel overwhelmed. The ground is hard.”

But Jesus response to seeing the same people we see was markedly different. He had compassion. He saw what was lacking. They needed people to lead them and care for them.

So Jesus turned to the disciples and said, “It’s time for a harvest. Pray that God sends more people because there is a lot of work to do.”

Do we see? 

A harvest. Where we see barren land, hard ground, and no growth, Jesus sees an opportunity to harvest. Could it be that we are not seeing our city the way Jesus does?

Today, before writing this, I took my morning bike ride through the city. This is quickly becoming a wonder-filled experience for me; a sweet time to reflect, to pray, and, hopefully, to get in shape! Today, it was the same route, the same pot-holes that never get filled, the same rows of abandoned homes, the same neighborhoods that seem to change from one to the next in the blink of an eye, the same groups of day-laborers by the 7-11, the young professionals on their way to work, the panhandlers trying to find daily bread, and the same crazy drivers that almost run me off the road (bless their hearts)! Today’s ride was the same, but, in a moment became totally different.

I saw the city with a fresh perspective. (There is something to Jesus healing so many blind people.) In reflecting on this passage from Matthew 9, I was awakened to the fact that Jesus sees this city as ripe for harvest. The issue is not the ground. The issue is not the seed. The issue is not the growth.

He asks us to pray for workers.

My desire with my ordination this weekend is to say that I am joining your ranks as a worker in the field of Baltimore and as a shepherd of the shepherd-less.

But, we all know that the work is not limited to the “professionals”, those who have been called into gospel ministry by profession, calling, or giftedness. We all are ministers in the Body of Christ. We are all co-laborers.

So the call remains: pray that God will send workers. And from where do these workers come?

Are we ready?

That is the final (but most central) thing I would admonish us to do: make disciples and teach them to work!

As a Church, we work on many things. We host incredible events to meet tangible needs in our communities, we fix up schools and parks, we show those infected of/affected by HIV that they are loved and valuable, we speak prophetically to our leaders in the city to call them to God’s way, we mentor and love our children, we fight against sex-slavery, and we seek to proclaim the reality that Jesus is Lord.

And these are all wonderful, God-honoring, Kingdom-oriented things that we should continue in. Indeed, God has prepared them for us that we should walk in them.

But let us not forget the core of our mission: we must make disciples. If we do not, we will fail in our mission as a Church, fail our King as it relates to our obedience, and there will be no one left to carry on the works God has for us when we are gone.

Our city needs committed disciples of Jesus who make committed disciples of Jesus.

I know I have much room to grow and learn as it relates to this. My prayer for us is that we never lose sight of the centrality of Christ’s call on us and that we may always partner together for the furtherance of this mission. I look forward to gleaning wisdom from you all in this area.

Are we ready?

Are we ready for the messy, difficult task of discipling? Are we positioning ourselves for life-to-life interactions? Who have we called to follow us? More importantly, are we proving ourselves, by God’s grace as people worth following?

These are all questions that I face each day, praying that God allows me to both answer them and be the answer to them!

May God’s will be done in Baltimore as it is in heaven.

The grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you, so that His Greatness may be known in our city and the world!

gospel, Musings

I want to be like Priscilla and Aquila (Correcting with Gentleness)

There has been a video that went crazy viral this past month. You can find it here. I know I’m kind of late to the party.

And it blew up. Friends and “friends” (I mean that latter one in the Facebook sort of way) took to arms either debunking or defending the whole thing. It sparked a lot of conversation. Some was thoughtful and helpful. Some…not so much. Which is surprising considering what a great medium the interwebs is for controlled, articulate, and edifying conversation. (it’s times like these when I wish there was a sarcasm font…)

In the course of reading one of the threads, I came across this little gem. To be honest, I don’t always enjoy DeYoung’s writing. And unfortunately, this bias often gets in the way for me when I read him or others in his tribe. I’m working through that!

But I was taken with his approach to Bethke in that he compares it to the story of Apollos, Priscilla, and Aquila in Acts 18:24-26:

“Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” (NIV)

Agree or disagree with the above items from Bethke or DeYoung, the model of how we approach someone is the thing that gets me. When I see something that I perceive to be wrong in a brother/sister in the Church (notice that no one is doubting someone else’s membership in the family for having different beliefs here), I invite them into my home and explain my way of thinking.

Not in a Facebook post. Not in a Twitter war. Not from a pulpit. Not in a blog comment one-up game.

Over dinner. With hospitality. Affirming their gifts and passion, not demeaning and squashing them.

So I want to be like Priscilla and Aquila. What about you?