This sermon was delivered on April 23, 2019 at the opening worship service for the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Acts 3: 1-10
Daily life was an inevitable cycle that could not be broken.
The man would wake up and, relying on the compassion of others, wait for the time when they would arrive to carry him to the entrance of the Beautiful Gate. Gentle hands would press in on his frail body, bearing his weight to the familiar place before moving on, rarely looking back at him. Laying at the threshold of the temple with only the dusty ground for support, the man would beg for spare change. A coin tossed his way as he sought to simultaneously catch even one friendly glance made in his direction. Perhaps a snicker from a passerby or a stride that allowed someone else to avoid locking eyes with the beggar whom he or she could not help (or did not want to help). This was the world that the man knew and these were the relationships that carried him through each day. When they were ready, he could expect to make it to the gate and, when they deemed the time was suitable, he would be carried home. He was wholly dependent on the charity and convenience of others so that he could live.
I wonder if he would gaze at his legs with anger and disappointment when he was alone. These limbs that existed without purpose, mocking him as they extended in awkward directions while he sat on the dusty ground. His legs betrayed him, made him less than in a world that defined able bodies as holy. The gate was the closest that he would ever get to the temple and its faith community; the coins tossed in his direction and the hands that carried him were the only tangible representations of their religious beliefs that he would ever experience.
And so on this exact day when Peter and John pass by the beggar, he expects little more than money. In fact, I don’t believe that he expects money at all…he just hopes that they will follow suit like those who had crossed his path. The man speaks up, asks for alms, and receives just one request from Peter, “Look at us.”
Intently, the man looks at Peter and John hoping to get at least a few coins, nothing more and nothing less. They immediately confess that they do not have money. Perhaps the man’s heart sank, fearing that he was being mocked: called to look right at them so that his needs could be rejected before they walked away laughing at his misfortune.
“…but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”
The man jumped up to his feet without hesitation, joyously celebrating an even greater gift than the pennies clanging to the ground at his once useless feet. Without looking back at his daily seat by the Beautiful Gate or the pile of coins on the ground, he moves purposefully toward the temple. He eagerly crosses the threshold that once seemed like a wall rather than an entrance. Standing tall and proud, he dances and leaps among the familiar faces to praise God for the freely given gift of wholeness.
This is resurrection. This is a transformed life that brought the man from the margins onto his feet and right into the heart of community.
But here’s my honest question for us today: Are you still basking in the glow of Easter resurrection?
As our Sunday best has been thrown in the laundry basket and our days went back to normal, are the joy-filled alleluias still hanging on your lips?
Are you still celebrating as the stone was rolled away to reveal the Prince of Peace who had conquered even death by execution on a cross?
Has the shining light of Easter been enough to carry you to this place only days later?
Because if I am really honest with you this afternoon, and I am going to be honest: I am struggling. The promise of resurrection has too quickly been filled with all of the places that I do not see new life; the places where death has seemingly had the final say and transformation is a far off dream.
I look around at the world and see brokenness and division. Political leaders continuing to wield their authority over those who can do nothing more than place their trust in the powers and principalities that hang over them. I see neighbors who hide from one another, feeling more secure in the life within their own walls rather than open to the possibilities of life together. Supposed laws for civility that only result in divisions in the treatment of people based on the color of their skin, where they were born or where their families are from, or the religion that they practice. Fingers pointing outward to place blame on others rather than the inward reflection required to change the way we live in community together. A planet slowly dying; Creation transformed by human hands into what is easiest and convenient for us rather than what will feed and shelter generations to come. I see people (and I include myself in this) who are selfish enough to see only what is right in front of us, relying on the work of our hands instead of relying on the Holy One who created those hands, our whole beings, in the first place.
After reading the news headlines about Sri Lankan churches and hotels, with hundreds dead, I could not stop looking around my own sanctuary filled with spring flowers and choruses of alleluias hanging in the air. I felt my heart drop thinking about the transformation of sanctuaries to rubble, not only on the other side of the world, but also those burned to the ground right here and only mere whispers of concern for the communities of color that once inhabited them.
All humanity has shown ourselves capable of is death, destruction, division, and self-centeredness.
I didn’t even make it through Easter Sunday without questioning resurrection!
Is this really what a resurrected life looks like; what a resurrected world looks like thousands of years later? Because if it is, it appears as though human brokenness is conquering the resurrected life of Christ.
“It is finished?” Certainly not.
Here’s the thing: We aren’t Peter and John in this story.
Sure, we show up and do what we can to offer assistance to others. But then we go on to the next thing, feeling good about what we did without really doing more than placing them on the threshold of what is attainable. We stock the food pantry without considering how we are complicit in the hunger of our neighbors. We criticize stories on the news in casual conversation but do very little to engage beyond those who agree with us. We stand at an arms length when it comes to issues of racism and white supremacy, sexism, able-ism, equal rights for our lgbtq siblings, and just about any other -ism and division that we know of; we acknowledge their existence but allow our complacency to leave action for another day.
And we don’t really want people to see us. We can’t find it within ourselves to say, “Look at us,” because if we did, the illusion would be gone. “They” would eventually see beyond our polished outward selves to the struggling, insecure, uncertain parts that linger beneath the surface. The facade would be pushed aside to expose the parts that we work so hard to hide. If we don’t want to see those parts of ourselves, why would anyone else?!
We confess that we do not have money: our buildings are in disrepair, our resources are stretched to their limits, and our salaries just don’t cover the time and energy it would take to do more, to be more, to the people whom we serve. We question what we have to give if we cannot resource it, trusting in the things of this world rather than allowing ourselves to dream of what God might be calling us to do before we even utter the word, “No.” The church just cannot be and do more than it already is; we are stretched thin.
We react like the crowd in the temple that day: recognizing the man look with wonder and amazement rather than joining in his celebratory dance.
The muscle memory of the church leaves us with scarcity and longing for more. If only we had more members, more youth group attendees, a young adult group, or young families. If only people would volunteer (and by this I mean, not bring their own ideas, just lend a hand to do things as they always have been done!). If only attendance in worship was higher or visitors stayed for fellowship and came back another Sunday. If only….if only…if only…
Peter and John could not heal the man if they had not been whole themselves. They acknowledge that they lack what the man desires. But they don’t let what they don’t have define what is possible. They confidently give what they possess: an invitation to the community shaped by Jesus’ love for all people. They meet an unexpected, unvoiced need for the man at the gate and, as a result, give him the ability to a part of the crowded temple for the very first time.
The man on that day lacked any kind of muscle memory that would have equipped him to leap and dance into the temple. All he had known from his first breath was a life rooted in the ground beneath him, reliant on the compassion of others. But without even a moment’s hesitation, he rose up and joined the two men who had placed their hands in his own and went to be a community member in a world where he was once just passed by.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of visiting Bothell United Methodist Church, a suburban church outside of Seattle, with the Princeton Theological Seminary touring choir. Just a few days before Christmas Eve that year, someone tried to break into their church building. He or she broke the front window, climbed through and made their way to the church office. When the glass was broken in the office, an alarm sounded and the person quickly left the building.
I’m guessing that the church leaders did what any of us would have: called the buildings and grounds committee to tell them of the break in and pick up some brooms to sweep up the glass. They nailed plywood boards over both window spaces and maybe the committees went back and forth about the unexpected expense of replacing the security glass. And, of course, making plans for the future to better prevent someone from pushing their way in again. Security would have been high on their priority list.
But on Sunday, both pastors came before the congregation with a jar full of broken glass. They said, “This glass is from both of our broken windows. Someone tried to break into our church. Whatever they needed, they felt like they had to get in here. They needed something that we had inside. They are now a part of our community; a member of this church.”
They prayed for the unnamed person and that jar filled almost to the brim with glass stayed on their communion table as a reminder of the new member in their church.
Days later, the pastor visited the intruder at the local police department. He shared that the congregation had been praying for him and he was a welcomed member of their community, no strings attached.
I recently asked the church’s pastor for an update and Pastor Kim said this, “Unfortunately, nothing more came from that specific situation – other than a decision to change our alarm company! However, it did launch us into an all church, and all neighborhood, intentionality in supporting houseless folk. It’s been a rough year trying to change culture, both in the church and in the community. For example, it all came to a boil when we allowed a guy to live in his RV in our parking lot. But because of that, we have an even stronger relationship with our police department who send people to us who we can support, and we created a Community Assistance Plan (including a team and a fund designated). Best part – we got some non-church going neighbors to be on our team with us!”
I take it back. The church and its members can be all of the people in this story.
Sometimes we are like the unnamed people in the crowd: showing up to do what we can because it’s all we have in us to give. Watching in wonder as the miraculous happens and questioning how it could be…how the world could change so quickly to a new reality that we never thought possible.
Sometimes we are like Peter and John, journeying together with uncertainty of what the future will hold but holding on tight to the community that we have committed ourselves to. We humbly confess what we can and cannot do; all the while providing an invitation celebrating that there is always room for one more.
And sometimes we are like the man lame from birth: having little more inside of us than waiting for the empathetic touch of another person or asking for the little that we need to survive one more day. But when we are given the opportunity to do more, to be more, than what we thought possible, we jump at the chance trusting that we are loved and known in community.
Resurrection isn’t a moment. It isn’t a miracle that will magically fix everything to life as it “should be.” No, resurrection is movement. Movement to a world that is ever inching closer to the kingdom of God.
We need all the people in this story then and now to see that the boundaries we build, whether they be the Beautiful Gate at the entrance of the temple, a solid wall at the border of our lands, or even the beautiful stained glass of our own sanctuaries; none of these can hold back the abundant love of the kingdom of God.
And so we approach the thresholds of the world and celebrate the incoming reign of Christ whose Spirit brings new life to even the most broken, divided, and hurting parts of Creation.
We were made to see boundaries as doorways to new possibilities.
May it be so.