Montreat Youth Conference Sermon "The Young Man Born Blind"

In early June, I was the preacher for weeks 1 & 2 of Montreat High School Youth Conferences. Six hundred kids attended the first week. 1200 kids the second week. The theme was “Be the Difference” with a sub-theme each day. The theme for Tuesday was "Be the Difference in Your Family." This sermon is from evening worship on Tuesday, the second day of the conference. My first sermon on the Call of Paul can be found here.

Liturgy for this service can be found here (scroll down for Tuesday).

Matthew 1:1-16

John 9: 1-34

Jesus gives us another story of life getting turned upside down.

Yesterday we had the Apostle Paul whose life was flipped upside down while on the way to Damascus.

I told part of my story of Jesus turning me upside down. I wonder what story came up for your yesterday of life disrupted, life turned upside down.

Our story today gives us a young man, probably around the age of 14 or 15, who was blind, he was homeless, begging on the streets.

Jesus cakes this young man’s eyes with mud and in an act that seems quite similar to baptism, the young man was sent by Jesus to wash the mud off his eyes in the pool of Shiloam and, like Paul, had sight restored.

Like Paul, our young man was born anew with the waters of Creation.

Many stories with Jesus, when Jesus initiates a moment of change, when someone or something is transformed, when there is a new beginning in Jesus’ name, a crowd of people usually get very nervous, and uncomfortable and anxious.

I wonder if you’ve ever had that?

When you are part of something hat is changing and your heart starts to race, brain starts to jump with thoughts, anxiety starts to kick in.

Anxiety starts to kick in the crowd in our story because our young man had changed.

The young man was known around the city as being blind, being a begger.People have known this young man, who doesn’t even have a name in the story, all his life as blind.The crowd and his parents have known him as “the blind man” and “the blind begger.”

That’s how people talked about him, how they referred to him—the blind begger. Those two words shaped and formed our young man’s identity. Those two words “blind begger” shaped how people knew him, talked to him and interacted (or didn’t interact) with him.

The young man was in a box when it came to who he was and how he was known to others.

I wonder if you’ve ever been put in a category, placed in a box of how you are known? You feel like you’re seen as just one thing.

You’re just the football player. You’re just the musician. You’re just the kid to be bullied. You’re just the smart kid, the gay kid, the liberal kid, the conservative kid, the artistic kid,  the kid who lives in “that part” of town, your just the Christian kid. Or you’re the kid who tripped on the field in marching band. Or the one goalie who missed the penalty kick.

Or the one with divorced parents, or the uncle who drinks too much at the bar down the street, or the one who has an estranged cousin.

For lots of reasons, most of them not helpful or healing, we can get boxed in, only seen by others as one thing.

As if people just call you “the smart kid” and act as if you don’t have a name or that there’s anything else about you.

In keynote this morning, Roger said this morning we can’t live compartmentalized lives. We can’t live fully when we are put in a box, when people define us by one thing.

Then what happens when things shift and change.

What happens if your conservative or liberal shifts. Or you are no longer the football player or swimmer, you’re no longer a musician. You’re the kid whose parent are no longer married.

This happened to the Apostle Paul in our story yesterday.

After his call to follow Jesus’, people in Damascus didn’t know what to do with him.

“Isn’t he the one who was wreaking havoc among those in Jerusalem who called on God’s name?”

How can this be the same man?

When I was coming to realize that Jesus was the way for me.

I wasn’t the Ashley that my family and friends knew growing-up.  They had to let go of who I was and embrace the change I was going through.

Has this ever been for you?

That was our crowd today after our friend, the young man, was able to see.

In this deeply unsettling moment, the crowd reacts with questions: Is this not the man who used to be a beggar? Isn’t this the blind man? How were your eyes opened? Who are you? What I love about the young man in this story is how he responds to these questions.

He just kept telling his own truth.

Folks kept asking “what happened, what’s going on” like they are trying to collect data for a research project and the young man’s response never seemed to satisfy the people’s need to know.

The young man just kept telling his own truth. The crowd kept asking “is this the same man?”

The young man kept saying Yes, it’s me. It’s true. I am the man.

He had to say this over and over again.

High school has come to an end for some of you, it will come to an end at some point for the rest of you.

You might be getting questions, “what are you doing after graduation?” or “what school are you going to?  or “what are you going to do with the rest of your life?” You may be getting these questions over and over again.

That’s when you tell your own truth and that truth might be “I don’t know. I don’t have a clue.” And that’s OK because it’s your truth.

Do you see what the Gospel is giving you permission to do? The Gospel is giving you permission to be yourself, no one else.

The young man seems to be pretty annoyed at one point just proclaiming, “one thing I do know that though I was blind, now I see.”

When questions would fly at me when I started to change, I would get really frustrated with myself because I never seemed to have enough words to explain what was going on with me.

I would get questions like, “what’s going on?” “why are you doing this?” “do you really have to do this Atlanta thing?”

Those questions were tough for me to hear in the moment.

When I look back I can have some compassion for those questions because I know at times when I’m face-to-face with something that is beyond my own experience, I can scramble for some sense of security.

And in those moments of scrambling for security, a sense of control I can lose a moment of connection with the person in front of me.

Even if someone is having a different experience than our own, even if it appears we can’t even relate to what’s going on with the other person we can still have a connection.

I wonder what it would have looked like or felt if someone in the crowd would have asked the young man, “what is it like to see now? Is this a big shock? What was it like to see your mother’s face? What was it like to see and touch your father’s brown skin?

What are you going to miss about being blind? You aren’t on the street corner begging anymore, now what do you hope to do?”

What question would you want to ask the blind man, a question that would create a connection?

Healing like with the blind man, with the Apostle Paul, with me…. was change.

Healing with Jesus usually means change and change is always hard, especially with those who are closest to us like family.

The parents of the young man are included in this experience of change, the escalation of tension and questioning.

“Is this your son?” they were asked.

The parents respond with “We know that this is our son, that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees. Ask him; his is of age. He will speak for himself.”

This sounds pretty awesome. Parents saying our child is old enough to tell his own story. Ask him! The parent’s words sound so empowering!

And then we find out the young man’s parents said “go ask our son” because they were afraid, afraid because people were already getting kicked out of the synagogue for following Jesus.

The young man’s parents were afraid that if they spoke about the change their son was experiencing AND Jesus in the same sentence, they might get kicked out of their synagogue.

I picture my own parents trying to explain my movement towards living in Atlanta, then going to Union Seminary in New York City to try to figure out this thing called ministry.

I picture my parents at a party and their friends ask, “so we heard Ashley moved to Atlanta?

And now she’s going to seminary? What’s seminary and what’s that about?”

I see my parent’s faces becoming flushed, anxiety rising and them blurting out “No idea what that’s about! Go ask her!”

Their response rooted in their own unknown as parents, their insecurity about what I was doing, who I was becoming, that they really didn’t have much of a say any more about the path my life would take.

I picture a parent in their neighborhood grocery store, standing there examining the price of milk when someone comes up and asks “Hey, is your son is gay? That’s what I’m hearing. Is that true?”

In a flash the words start to fall in that parent’s mind “don’t tell the truth. What will people think of me, our family? How am I to even explain him being gay?

“Will my son be safe from harm which is a real fear considering 50 plus parents in Orlando are grieving the death of their child.”

The parent in the grocery store really responds, “Go ask him” after stumbling through words.

There are times when parents don’t have as much courage as their children.

There are times when as parents we let our own fears and anxieties get in the way of being supportive.

Being a family is hard especially when change and identities of how we are known to each other shifts and gets disrupted.

Just ask Jesus. Jesus knew what it meant to be family.

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus went back to his hometown only to find his family and friends having a really hard time adjusting to the radical nature of his life and work.

Jesus’ family had such a hard time with who Jesus had become they tried to run him off a cliff.

In the Gospel of Mark Jesus looks around a crowd and says “here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever loves and hopes and dreams with God are my brothers, sisters and mother.”

Jesus casts a net wide when it comes to what it means to be family and it means that for everyone born, there is a place at the table, Jesus draws each of us deeper into his community of welcome and love.

This is what Jesus did for the young man born blind. While Jesus restored sight to the young man, the real healing was the young man now being part of a community that was going to love and welcome him.

This is what Jesus did for Paul—Jesus took a violent man who disregarded human life and brought him into the community of love and welcome.

The young man’s community and family structures weren’t giving the young man the support, the love he needed. Jesus was creating those structures to welcome and love those whom the structures were failing.

Like the young man, Paul was able to see again. Paul’s real healing was Jesus loving and accepting Paul.

We see this wide circle, sacred, incredible embrace of family in Jesus’ family tree, in the genealogy of Jesus.

Forty plus generations of people are claimed in Jesus family tree and as we talked about this morning, it isn’t a perfect Instagram picture of love and acceptance. In Jesus tree we see a loving family (possibly biological, possibly not), a messy and complicated family, a broken family, a mixed-up family.

Jesus’ family tree has it all: those who suffered from violence, those who were violent, those who loved, those who were rejected, those who dominated and those who were dominated.

Jesus’ tree includes five women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary.

It is significant these women are included because they can easily be dismissed and ignored. In our keynote this morning, Derek, from Montgomery Ohio noticed there are only 5 women in the family tree of Jesus. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary, represent those in family trees who have been silenced.

Picture your family tree right now. Picture those who are loving. Those who are struggling. Those who are broken and suffering.

Those who have been forgotten, those who have died, those who embrace everyone in the family. Those who have a tendency to judge and question. Picture your kinship, your kinfolk right now. Jesus gives us a family tree that is full of people’s whose lives were turned upside down by God and faced rejection and questioning, people who wondered about who they belonged to.

Just like Paul. Just like the young man born blind. And we can’t get to Jesus,  we can’t have Jesus without this tree of imperfect, faithful, messed up community of people. We can’t have the story of the young blind man without his parents.

I can’t tell my own story without talking about my imperfect, broken family. My grandfather was abusive to my grandmother. When my grandfather died, my dad and his sisters couldn’t muster the strength to have a funeral. As much as I don’t want to think about that, my grandfather and grandmother are part of my story.

Can you tell your story without talking about your family? You can’t. There is no you without your family tree. What it means to follow Jesus means seeing family in a new way. That was the real healing in this story of the young man—he found a new way and community to be loved.

And Jesus’ family is where Jesus initially learned about the bonds of kinfolk, his family taught him to cherish the connection and bonds of kinship.

Jesus knows what it means to be family. Roger brought that up this morning—families shape us in all kind so of ways.

I imagine young man’s experience with the crowd, with his parents shaped his welcome and acceptance of others.

Later on, in life, when someone came up to the young man and said, “you’ll never believe this, I was blind and now Jesus restored my sigh.” I would like to imagine the young man saying “oh that is beautiful, come on into our worship, we are gathering in this house to share a meal and sing songs and pray together.”

Rather than “really? You can see? You? Please. I didn’t see it myself so must not have happened.”

Our own experiences of rejection and heartache can give us strength to follow someone like Jesus and can shape the communities we are part of.

Paul did this—he knew God trusted him even with his past as a violent agent for Rome. Paul experienced in an incredible way what it means to be trusted,  to be welcomed, to accepted. Paul continued that work as he organized Jews and Gentiles to be one body as the early church. We can take our differences, and we all have something that is different about us, and allow those differences to shape us to be the followers of Christ we want to be.

That’s our work as Jesus’ family—to claim our differences, to allow those difference to shape how we welcome and love each other. That’s the work of the kinfolk of Jesus—the community we call Church.  Can we talk about our faith story, our relationship to the Church without talking about the 40 generations of those in Jesus family tree?

We can’t. Our faith stories are part of those 40 generations and those stories teach us about the faith.

In the keynote this morning, Jane from South Bend, Indiana said the genealogy shows that Jesus is related to generations of important people. That’s our family. If kinfolk to God, If kinfolk to Jesus, then kinfolk to us.

Can we talk about our churches the stories of our Churches without talking about those in Jesus family tree? No. We can’t.

In our keynote this morning, Jackson, from Gulf Breeze Florida said the genealogy is like a prologue to a book, the gets your ready for what’s to come. And Jake from Knoxville, TN said it’s important to understand where Jesus came from because all those stories tie into Jesus.

If kinfolk to God, If kinfolk to Jesus, then kinfolk to us, then kinfolk to the Church.

Which means as a Church it isn’t perfect and orderly relationships that shape us.

As Rodger told the genealogy this morning, your “ooh” and “aaah’s” and “oh’s” and “boo’s” sounded out the mess of these relationships.

These relationships that are a mess are the ones that guide us in our faith.   There’s pretty much no way around this. It would be nice to have a Church where the relationships looked like a present covered with unicorns and glitter, tied together with a pretty bow.

Sometimes we do that to our churches. We try to look perfect. Be perfect. Hide our imperfections.

Do you ever find that with your families or your churches?

Folks try to hide the hard stuff, the struggles.

When Roger told the story this morning of his grandfather dying and the conversation Roger had with his own dad.

It was time for Rodger’s dad to tell that story to Rodger the time had come, and with that story Roger had a more truthful, more expansive, more honest story of his family.

Jesus is about truth-telling. Jesus is about expanding whose lives and stories are included in family trees.

Bottom line is this: All stories are welcome, no exceptions. Jesus calls us to create a family, the Church, out of imperfections, out of brokenness, out of our vulnerabilities because that’s who we are.

There’s pretty much no way around that either.

We are a Church of the young blind man. Of Paul. Of the 40 generations of people in Jesus’ family tree.

Jesus is calling us to create a church that embraces and welcomes all the us—the joys, differences, and brokenness.

That’s how love enters. The parents of the young man missed the moment to say “we love you” when he regained his sight, when he was healed and transformed.

Instead they got all wrapped up in fear and anxiety.

We have those people in our lives, too, those who have missed moments to show love and support.

Can you picture that person?

Someone who missed the moment to share love with you when life was changing and shifting.

When someone is hurting in our churches, Jesus wants us to ask “how can we love you?

How can we support you?” The same goes for our families.

That’s how we create space for love to enter people’s lives in their brokenness.

And that’s what the parents missed in our story today—they missed that moment as their son was changing and shifting and being healed by Jesus—they missed the moment to share love. The young man’s parents instead conformed to fear and anxiety.

This is like Ananias and Paul. Paul had to let go of conforming to the ways of status quo and establishment. Ananias trusted God that Paul was to be welcomed into Jesus’ family, the words “you are my brother” affirmed Paul’s leadership, showed Paul’s transformation was of value.

You are my brother said Ananias. You are my kinfolk.  You are now family. In a way Anaias said “if you are kinfolk to God, kinfolk to Jesus then you are kinfolk to me.”

Last night I asked you to think about your Ananias. Who was your Ananias who loved and supported you when life turned upside down? We can bring that person into this story, too. Like Ananias to Paul, that person treated you like family, like kinfolk.

Now picture the person(s) who have put you in a box, seeing you as just that one thing.

Now picture the person who missed the moment is offering love and support during a time of change.

All 3 of those people---that’s family. Add those folks names to Jesus’ family tree.

Who is my family? To whom do I belong?

Jesus had a long family tree full of promise and deliverance, with misfits and adoptions, betrayal and reunion, love and hope.

We can be a difference in our birth families, in our church families, in Jesus’ family tree when we tell the truth about the imperfections, vulnerabilities, and power struggles.

We can start living with the truth, we can tell our own truth, empowered to use our voice to testify to the love found when we live as God’s family.

May we see with new eyes to see the person in front of us as a companions in Christ.

May it be so.