*This sermon was preached on March 29, 2017 at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills Village, CO. You can watch worship online at http://www.bethanylive.org
The gospel for the day is John 9 (in it’s entirety)
We don’t always see what is right in front of us. We often aren’t aware of our own blurred, tunnel vision or outright blindness to people, systems and community in our midst. In this story from John 9, Jesus has great compassion and really saw the man who was born blind and knows the implications of this disability on his status in the community. Jesus saw the person, the child of God, and saw beyond a physical difference. But in the ancient world, someone born differently abled came with many questions: who sinned? What evil fell upon this person or was committed by this person or their family? It was often thought that people with an assumed disability were contagious, so they were shunned, cast out and feared by the community.
Jesus rejected these positions and simply restored the man’s sight-albeit in a gross and profane way. Mud, spit and washing in a common pool. Very messy. Jesus broke the rule of no work on the Sabbath to heal and return sight to this man as well as return him into the community and the Pharisees were quick to point out his error. But Jesus had a different vision of how that day should be for that man. Jesus saw more than rules and edicts. Jesus saw the world through a different lens than the people and the Pharisees. Jesus’ vision of the world and the people was through God’s eyes of relationship and love, not through the vision of the religious authorities of following and knowing the correct doctrine, rules, Torah or worrying about sins. When Jesus healed the man born blind, it has nothing to do with knowledge, checking off to-do boxes or following rules-it had everything to do with community, inclusion and relationship. The irony is that when the man was blind, he was an outcast, and when he was healed and professed what Jesus had done for him, he was still and outcast.
I don’t know about you, but I need my vision to be expanded and light shown into those areas of my life where I can get stuck in prioritizing rules, Bible knowledge, and doctrine understanding as the way to know God. I need to see more than what is right in front of me and the way it’s always been. In the past few years, I’ve had many conversations where many believe that the future vision of the whole Church, the ELCA and other mainline protestant denominations looks bleak. We, as this larger church, are losing youth, young adults and not seeing as many new worshippers. These conversations always gravitate toward: maybe we need more programs, more rules, more classes, more expectations, more types of worship. Or, I wonder, what if we, like the disciples are asking the wrong question of who sinned and need for Jesus to widen our vision?
My own experience with faith community through the seven congregations I have served in some capacity, has informed and widened my vision of how I am called to serve the church and participate in God’s transformative work in the world. How many of us can point to important and deep relationships with peers, adults in addition to our parents in our childhood congregations as foundational in our faith formation? I know that I can. It wasn’t SS curriculum or confirmation lesson that I remember. It’s people of faith showing up and bringing Christ with them when I needed them and having the opportunity to do the same for other people. It was a pastor (the first female pastor I had even seen) putting me in the pulpit on a Sunday when I was 14. It’s when we offered a young woman from our church at the time, who had struggled with depression and suicide attempts, a position as the nanny to my children because I knew she needed to feel valued, to have a purpose and had a lot of love to give. She now also serves the Church. It was when my own family was held by our church community as we grieved the death of my son and this same nanny stepping up in ways that she nor anyone else could have imagined out of love for my children. You see, rules, bible knowledge or doctrine didn’t change my life, our nanny’s life or the man born blind. It was relationship with people who knew and loved Jesus and could see beyond what the world saw: broken, messy and real lives. This is the vision that Jesus is talking about in John 9, and this is the vision that compels me in my ministry in faith formation. Faith formation is not about content, it’s about relationship. I want our children and youth to have so many important relationships here at Bethany, that they know that they are loved and that we will catch each other when life becomes messy.
This vision is why I’m passionate about our SS age and confirmation age students and families being in relationship with one another and with all of you here and why we instituted the Milestones for every grade. Families learning and worshipping together rather than separated from each other on Sunday mornings is crucial. This is the only space in our culture where all five generations are together. We segregate by age everywhere else in our society. Yet, science is discovering that we are wired, by God I believe, to be in intergenerational community. And this community matters deeply. We need each other, we need the wonder and fresh eyes of the child and the wise, caring eyes of our elders. I have a vision of this community being a value and a priority for our young people.
This vision is why we lowered communion instruction age because Jesus doesn’t exclude anyone from the table. What happens in Holy Communion is a mystery of God’s grace that none of us truly understand and I often think that babies and toddlers who simply come to the table with their chubby little hands outstretched asking for the bread truly comprehend this posture of mystery. Martin Luther states that we all come before God as beggars. Jesus comes to us in the bread and in the wine for relationship and draws us all to the table for relationship with one another. All are welcome, no rules, only community.
George Barna did some research in the early 2000’s that found values are set by age 9 and worldview by age 13. If children never or rarely attend worship by age 9, it’s very unlikely that worship will ever be seen by them as a value in their lives. If their worldview through middle school is that church is another to-do list, this is how they will view church in their lives. In my 20 years of experience, when we quit worrying about how much content we are trying to teach and shift to creating deep relationships through integrating children/youth into the life and mission of the congregation, in particular worship, such as with the milestones, worship leadership, and leadership in other areas of the church, more youth stayed engaged after confirmation. SS and Confirmation should about relationship building, not courses to check-off. Confirmation is all about relationship and integration into the life of the faith community. I have been known to say somewhat tongue and cheek that if a middle schooler attended worship 40 times in a year, I would confirm them. Don’t get me wrong, some education and content is a wonderful thing-otherwise I’m completely out of a job-but if we knew that our youth and young adults will be around after receiving the certificate? What if they were so integrated into this life of faith and community so that they would have their whole lives to learn the Bible and theology? What if the most important content our children and youth can learn is that they know that they are loved by God and us?
Vibrant Faith institute learned that it takes 5-7 Christian caring adults to raise a Christian child. That is beyond mom and dad and that means all of us. If you are a Christian adult, regardless if you have children in your home or not, you are a Christian parent. What if our vision here are Bethany was that every child and youth who walked through our doors on Sunday or Wednesday had 5-7 adults who knew their name and at least one thing about them to ask them about? Maybe a hobby, or how that math test went. How could that change the life of a teenager struggling with self-worth? Or a child whose parent is ill? What if this community and every congregation is a place where our young people can’t wait to get to each week because they are known, seen and loved? How might this change the world?
I want everyone 18 and under to come forward. If your child is under 6 please come up with them mom or dad. Hi all! Did you know that Jesus sees you? Did you know that Jesus sees you not as the future of the church but of the RIGHT NOW of the church? You are so important! Can all of you write your name on this name tag and put it on. (parents of young kids, please help). Ok I’m going to give you all five little pieces of paper. On the papers, there is a place for your name and one thing that you really love to do: My name is: I love to:
Write your name and just one thing (the same thing on each paper) that you love to do. We’ll all sing Jesus Loves Me while you do that. Now, I want you to leave these name tags on until after you go home. Go and give those sheets to five adults in the congregation. Don’t be shy and adults reach out for one! After worship-go to the fellowship hall and adults, find the child who’s name you have and ask them about the thing that they love to do. You matter to them. You are their people and they are yours. Together we are the beloved community of Christ and in Christ.
Jesus knew the importance of community. Jesus sought out the man he healed after he had been expelled from the synagogue and made sure that this man knew that his restored vision had nothing to do with what he did or didn’t know. Knowing that Jesus is one sent to reveal God’s love to all people, especially those whom the world doesn’t want to see, is the only thing that matters. Jesus as the light of the world gives us a new way to see ourselves, to see others and to see how we are as the church together. Jesus restores our sight to see each other as valued, as brother and sister, as equals, as beloved. You see, it’s all about relationship. Relationship with Jesus who opens our eyes to a new vision of how the world, how the church, how the future will be in God’s love. Amen.