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“Do You Want To Be Made Well?” (John 5:1-17)

The Problematic Pool Party

Calvary Gospel Tabernacle

8.30.2015

John 5:1-17

“Do you want to be made well?” Seems a bit silly doesn’t it? Of course I want to be made well!  But I wonder…if in like a parallel universe this brother might look at Jesus and say, “Meh, come to think of it, lying down… it’s not so bad! I’m fine, really! I’ve got a Good view right here! plus the cool off the pool is refreshing at times. Yeah, I might stay a while…”

 

I love this situation. There’s a bit of agency included in this encounter with the Christ. Not so much agency that it gives license to twist the gospel, or reduce the gospel into some sort of self-help, pull yourself up by the bootstraps message. No friends I believe we have a situation where once again our Lord calls us, even us, into community and responsibility for one another.

 

The man who has been suffering in this story has been suffering for a long time! Scripture tells us in verse five that he has had his infirmity for thirty eight years. This man was a staple of the area, time and time again seeking his healing in the pool but unable to receive it. When reading this scripture my mind was drawn to the brothers and sisters I have encountered in my travels. At Penn Station, both Newark and New York, it would be impossible to pass through and not see a brother or sister experiencing homelessness. A brother or sister in desperate need of help. Food. Shelter. Some recognition of their humanity. Some dignified gesture that reminds them that they are not forgotten.

On the subway earlier this week I sat and watched two separate occasions where gentlemen attempted to gather the passengers’ attention and ask for help. Some change. Any food. Leads on shelter. Clothing for their children.

Walking around my neighborhood in Brooklyn I encountered two more men. One in a wheelchair trying to find shelter. Another asking for enough change to get bus fare.

In the encounters this week, I fear that I fell among the number whom James addressed in James 2:15 and 16. ‘If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?

Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.’

You see I’m normally happy to give. A cheerful giver even! But I found myself with eyes glued to my book on the train, unwilling to open my wallet in public and give what I could. I gave a dollar to the brother in the wheelchair but found myself pretending to be unable when I really was unwilling to help more. The last brother was very polite and I wanted to help him too but I was unwilling to use my debit card to buy his fare. In all of these instances I felt my spirit bursting to grab hold of these brothers and love them; praying for them, encouraging them, showing the vitality of our faith, letting them know my works are grounded by the moving of the living God.

I made no such statements. My mind more attuned to my bank statement. Dollar bills held hostage by the tyranny of bill collection. And I paint this picture for you because I consider myself a good, charitable person. A nice guy even. Yet still I must wonder, like popular hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar wonders, “How much a dollar cost?” I’m not afraid that I’ve blocked my blessing nor am I fearful of any divine punishment as a result but I pray that God’s love pierced their situations in spite of my inaction. I am confident that my anxiety, my cowardice, could never build a wall high enough to impede the Lord from lifting them out of their circumstances. No doubt, this is the gospel but it is far from a license for complacency.

Brothers and sisters, in truth, we serve an awesome God. A God who continually calls us to participate in God’s life. Instead of seeing one another as an inconvenience how transformed would we be if we saw one another as an invitation to follow Jesus.

I wonder how many people we know in our own lives who are stuck like the brother by the pool. I love this story because I not only see Christ’s example but I see myself by the pool. I joked earlier about the parallel universe where the man is actually content where he is. But when I think about the ways I have answered “Do you want to be made well?” with complacency, fear, anxiety, or doubt, it is no laughing matter. If we are really going to be about this life and really trying to grow in our walk with the Lord then we need to be real about the ways that we too are attending a problematic pool party.

I would never go so far to call lupus and the difficulties that followed my illness a good thing but I saw so many examples where God used this tragedy to bless me. One example of this is learning to receive charity. We feel good when we help other people. There’s an extra puffiness we experience when we know we can reach out and help somebody. Maybe we even believe we are sowing a seed of some sort by helping somebody. I always wonder if I have unwittingly entertained angels (Hebrews 13:2) whenever I have helped somebody. But brothers and sisters, on the opposite end of that spectrum…it is not fun to need help.

Our culture teaches us to preserve our dignity at all costs. Some of us have been burned by needing help, ridiculed for taking a handout, seemingly suffocated under the weight of our shame. But receiving charity is not a mark of failure. No one gets anywhere by themselves. Both Thomas Merton and Dennis Brown agree, “no man is an island.” There is a strong sentiment within the culture to prove how much you are trying, that you are can do! But I submit to you that a crucial component of Christianity is reaching the limits of your agency. Where your try just is not enough, and you need to be made well.

This is beautiful to me because the man tried and it was not enough. Living with a situation like his for thirty eight years…that’s more than enough evidence to believe that this is his lot in life. That perhaps contentment in this stage would be wise. Save him from some heartache. Why try to get in the pool again? But thank God that this man’s story does not end there. He encounters Christ and Christ invites him to participate with God. It is a slice of being a co-heir with Christ (Romans 8:17). Faith is participatory; we cannot afford to hold onto what we have whether that “have” is excess or doubt. We need to be available in order to be made well.

In verse 8, Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.”


I wonder what we can accomplish when we believe in God more than we believe in our circumstances. It seems that faith always has to come with a level of absurdity. If I tell you I’m going to breathe my next breath you probably won’t be that impressed. But if I’m telling you that while I am in a hospital bed recovering from pulmonary embolism, some faith may be required.

We cannot be so married to our dignity, caught up in our sense of self that we forfeit these opportunities to participate with God. God is calling us to be made well. God is calling us to ask our brothers and sisters if they want to be made well. What’s realer than that?

Truthfully being faithful is difficult and I think we develop a sort of Stockholm Syndrome with our problems. The devils we know seem better than the ones we don’t. (Or as my great, late grandmother used to say “Never lef sure fi unsure.”) But what happens when we quiet our circumstances enough to hear the Master’s voice beckoning us to “Rise” take up our beds and walk. Don’t worry about where you will go, just get going.

In verse 17, when it is clear that some members of the community are offended by what the Lord has done, Jesus answered them, “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.”

Everytime I see this verse, I think about Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir singing “God is working.” It is seductive and rather simple to write off your life, write off the world even, and stay convinced that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. But I wonder what happens when we take the Lord’s Prayer serious enough to believe that God’s Kingdom come, God’s will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven (Matthew 6:9-13). Not focusing on the situation (and surely not ignoring it, by and by) but believing that God is working, that God loves you enough to invite you to participate in that work and making yourself available so that “He who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)

I am convinced that we cannot follow Jesus by ourselves. To be Christian is to be in community. And the beautiful thing about the beloved community is that God continually calls us to love folks we may not even like. The least of these. Those the rest of society has the leisure to forget. We do not have that leisure.

We see in Deuteronomy 10, verses 18 and 19 that God “administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Lord provides the example then calls us to be holy as God is holy.
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So where are we in this story? Are we going to be like our Master or are we going to care more about our sense of order more than one another? I pray that we guard our witness closely. It is conflicting, and rather silencing to say we love God when we do not show that love to our neighbors. In what ways are we forgetting that Sabbath was created for man and not man for the sabbath? (Mark 2:27)

Brothers and sisters, you do not need me to convince you of the world’s brokenness. The problematic pool party has too many attendees. Despair seems more logical than hope. Too many feel that it is over but praise be to God, we know the author of our story. And He intends far more than this. You are not defined by what ails you. You are not a prisoner of your problems.

May we see our Lord as our example and walk with such empathy. He got directly involved in the mess, he was not far removed. He lived His life worshipfully. May we open our eyes and pray with our feet so that we too may worship the Lord in spirit and in truth. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

Getting More Than You Meant To Get (Acts 8:26-40)

In college I spent a lot of time in the student union. Any time traveler or sitcom flashback would find me in my college days doing something in the union. I had meals there, was always in meetings there, and during my days in student government, often slept there. There were weeks when I saw that place more than my dorm. Of all my favorite things in the student union, the best kept secret for me was a quote outside of the room named in C. Shaw Smith’s honor. Smith was the college’s first college union director and his words struck me so deeply I asked a friend on campus to text me the exact words so that I could share them with you. Smith said, “The campus is a place of serendipity, education itself is, because you get more than you meant to get. Serendipity–making an unsought for but happy discovery by accident. Coming to the union for a burger and having a life changing experience. Looking for a bridge partner and finding a partner for life.”

Getting more than you meant to get. There’s elements of providence in serendipity. The coincidence, the life changing experience, all evidence of the Spirit moving. Those of us who can attest to these episodes of serendipity can share the joy of these beautiful encounters. Conversations shared, events witnessed and participated in that  you can just feel something click. Like, “Ahh, this is why I’m here.” You might have thought you were just getting a quesadilla but nah, serendipity brought you an encounter where someone asked you the right question.

How is God inviting you to participate in God’s life? It is presumptive I suppose to assume that you are invited to participate in God’s life but friends I am quite sure that you, yes you too are cordially invited to participate in God’s life.  When we look at Scripture, we do not see a Creator who is unaffected by human history. God does not choose to sit on the sidelines of human history, God places God’s self in the midst; comforting the afflicted, delivering God’s people, reminding them, through presence and power that they are not alone.

In the gospel of John, Jesus promises not to leave his followers alone. He promises that the Father will send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will teach them everything and remind them of what Jesus said. And so we see evidence of this promise in our scripture today as Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch were beneficiaries of this promise on their encounter with serendipity. Their getting more than they meant to get.

Funny things happen in the wilderness. Moses encountered a bush that was burning but not consumed, voices cry out from there, the Savior is tempted there. But in this instance, on this wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza, the Spirit compelled Philip to go over to the chariot. Now I often appreciate how relatable characters in the bible are. They often prove, as the poet Propaganda once put it, that God often “uses crooked sticks to make straight lines.” But in this instance Philip is not like us. He doesn’t hesitate or explain to the Spirit why he couldn’t or shouldn’t approach the chariot. Philip does not ignore the spirit’s prompting; he is infused by it.

Running toward the chariot. Philip does not lean on his own understanding. He hears and obeys. Conversely, the Ethiopian eunuch responds to Philip’s actions by inviting him. Their encounter blossoms. The Ethiopian eunuch goes from reading scripture he does not understand to asking a transformative question. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” This transformation leads the eunuch on his way rejoicing. The Spirit snatches Philip and he finds himself at Azotus proclaiming the gospel as he passed through the region.I thank God for this moment of serendipity. This conversion story, the first of three individual conversions in this narrative, is a powerful example for us.

The Lukan account is unafraid to deal with difference. It does not fake color blindness nor does it look amicably upon assimilation. We have so much to learn from Acts. So much to learn about how we ought to treat one another, how we extend hospitality to the other. I fear what we would do in Philip or the Ethiopian eunuch’s shoes. The assumptions we would make. The prejudices we would harbor. The deafening silence of purposes unrealized and relationships never made. What happens when we lean on our own understandings? What is the byproduct of neglecting serendipity? Why ignore the Spirit and let unreadiness rule the day?

I often wonder and sometimes worry about those times I let serendipity pass me by. Those times I should have said something but didn’t, those times I should have acted but could not work up the gumption to do so. Sometimes we reduce our brokenness and only focus on the wrong things we do. There is not enough said about the moments we miss. The opportunities to be a blessing that we forsake because we feel unqualified, unready, unwilling.

We cannot afford to reduce the calling Christ places on our lives. The Spirit resounds; what does the Lord require of you? What does it look like when we love mercy? When we do justice? When we walk humbly with our God? What sorts of healthy dissatisfactions begin to blossom? What happens when our righteous indignation speaks truth to power? When our love of mercy is magnetic our doing of justice is further kinetic. We cannot walk humbly with our God without walking with the least of these.

I’m fascinated by the scripture that the Ethiopian eunuch was reading. This introduction to Jesus as a lamb silent before its shearer, one who was humiliated and one who was denied justice. I hear this and know this tragedy is held in tension with Christ’s triumph. I hear this and am reminded that Christ’s life, death and resurrection is the greatest act of empathy I could ever know. I hear this and endeavor to share this message of hope in Ferguson, in New York, in Cleveland and every town where our black brothers and sisters know the painful delay and dismissive denial of justice. I hear the Spirit resounding in the words of our fallen brothers and sisters and while the temptation to despair is formidable, the Spirit imbues us with hope. Hope that answers the question, “How long?” by the confident response, “Not long.”

Brothers and sisters there is no room on the sidelines of Christianity. Ideally, when one hears Christ beckoning them to follow, they realize that this following is an active thing. Discipleship is poorly performed passively. In Dr. King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon he assures everyone, in spite of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that they too can participate in God’s life. They too can be enabled to serve. Dr. King said, “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

It’s no secret that Dr. King did not live the life he planned for. As portrayed in the film Selma, he and his wife Coretta had hopes to be in a college town, leading a small church there with ample space for their four children to grow. As tantalizing as that dream was with its trapping and comforts, Dr. King realized that it paled in comparison to the leadings of the Spirit. On April 3, 1968, Dr. King told that crowd in Memphis, “Like anybody, I would like to live–a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

As aforementioned I am encouraged by the broken sticks. The cloud of witnesses who were used as God’s instruments. They were not perfect. Did not have it all figured out. In many cases they did not even sign up for this. But the bush burns, the daughter in law refuses to leave your side, the teacher compels you to become a fisher of men. As a mentor of mine once advised me, “God does not call the qualified. He qualifies the called.”

Cleaning My Lens

The second sermon I delivered this summer while interning at All Souls Presbyterian Church. 

Chris Burton

7.13.2014

All Souls Presbyterian Church

Cleaning My Lens (Romans 8:1-11)

 

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1, ESV)

 

I’m a creature of habit. Once I get something I like I usually stick with it. I might have five favorite restaurants in town but that would mean I just get five different meals. I’ve been buying a clean version of the same sneaker for over a decade now. I’ve got other shoes that I like but always want a pair of crisp Nike Cortez in my rotation. My mom has been trying to get me to buy a new phone for a year now. It has a slight, very fine crack on the screen but it doesn’t bother me so I haven’t gotten it replaced. Even these glasses! I have had them for three years now, which is no good, but I like them and haven’t been straining my eyes too much so changing them has not been as much of a priority as it should be. Truth be told, I would not even have them if it weren’t for my time as a middle school basketball coach where one of my point guards obliterated an older pair during practice. They looked a lot like these and I’d probably still be peering over them to this day.

 

So yes, I confess, I get attached. I like what I like and I’m sure that I have developed a formidable resistance to change. This is not always good. Routines can afford us stability, and stability is socially acceptable but what do we do when said routine is a bit more constricting than mere stability? What do we do when we get stuck?

 

Our faults, our shortcomings, our sin, our shame. All these conspire within us, trapping us in a perverse cycle. We say things we wish we did not say, we do things that we know we ought not to do.

 

Last week we heard Rev. Keyes illustrate the inner turmoil using the apostles’ words. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15, ESV) Paul articulates the war that rages inside of us all. Knowing better and doing better aren’t always a packaged deal. Our actions can betray us. No matter how disciplined we are, and successful we have become, we are all susceptible to failure.

 

As much as I am moved by the poem Invictus, my relationship with Jesus Christ calls me to thoroughly disagree with the last stanza.

“It matters not how strait the gate,

     How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

     I am the captain of my soul.” 

I pray that I may never desire to be the master of my fate. I’ve tried it my way and have proven myself unqualified for the job. I have come to find no profit in being the captain of my soul.

 

Paul’s letter is good news for all us. You may not fashion yourself to be a creature of habit but the truth is, living life on our own terms is a recipe for failing habitually. Submitting ourselves to the lordship of Jesus Christ is an acknowledgment that we have no business being captain.

 

Let us look at Verses 3 and 4 once more:

 

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin,[c] he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

 

Recently I began asking God to equip me to demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit daily. Galatians 5:22-23 tell us that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23, ESV) It has been said that “The fruits of the Spirit, or effects of sanctification, which are begun in us, do not ingraft us into Christ, but declare that we are grafted into him.” 

 

There is nothing you or I can do to earn God’s love. There is no hope for us in and of ourselves. Our hope is in Christ. The kindness that we demonstrate, the love that we have, any and all of the fruits of the Spirit are there as evidence of the work God is doing in us. In my preparation I encountered this quote from William Barclay that resonates, “Because of what Jesus did, there opens out to the Christian a life no longer dominated by the flesh but by the Spirit of God, which fills a man with a power not his own. The penalty of the past is removed and strength for his future is assured.” (Barclay, William. The Letter to the Romans (Revised Edition) Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975 p.103)

Forgiving yourself because you have been forgiven. Step out of the shade of shame and walk in the Son’s light.

Bitterness can corrupt. I remember praying for God to give me forgiveness. I knew that I was at risk of phoniness, in danger of proclaiming a hollow gospel if I did not walk in forgiveness. I prayed for forgiveness so much that it became a part of my daily routine. From time to time I would imagine dry soil, almost like red clay and I’d see a tiller pulling up that soil, breaking its hardness. And I would see this image again and again. I didn’t correlate the two, my prayer and my vision until much later but I am confident that I am able to demonstrate forgiveness because of the good work that the Lord has done in me. Matthew Henry once noted that “By the Spirit the law of love is written upon the heart, and though the righteousness of the law is not fulfilled by us, yet, blessed be God, it is fulfilled in us.” I am free to walk in forgiveness because of the Spirit that dwells in me.

 

I believe that forgiveness is a central component of our faith. Through Christ we have been forgiven. How can we follow Him and not extend forgiveness toward others? I have no doubt that it is a process, a journey too arduous to complete on our own. But I am even more confident that it is one we can complete through yielding to the Spirit and forfeiting any claims to the captaincy of our lives.

 

We’ve heard the story from our Old Testament reading several times and it never stops amazing me to hear of Esau’s forgiveness.

 

Esau stands with Joseph, the prodigal son’s father and Our Father who chose to show solidarity instead of shame.

 

Living a life free from the burden of our failures isn’t done by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit of the Lord.

 

Let us seek the Father daily. Ask for the Spirit to till our hearts and nourish us so that we bear the fruit that is pleasing in God’s sight.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

 

Brian Mooney

Educator, Scholar, Author

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