Friday, May 13, 2016

"Beautiful Gate – Or Gated Community?" - April 10, 2016

Text: Acts 3:1-10

This week I stopped in at Hy-Vee to get some garlic and a loaf of bread – the basic necessities of life - and I was quickly back to the car.  As I drove out of the parking lot, there was a woman asking for money.  She had a sign – “Please help, homeless.”  But it wasn’t just this woman.  There was a man with her, presumably her husband or significant other, and a black lab.  And a shopping cart with various items.  I have noticed people there asking for money from time to time, but this was a couple, with a dog.
Well, I was in a hurry, I didn’t feel very good, I didn’t notice this woman until I was almost past her, she was on the wrong side of the car to just hand her something out the window, and there was traffic behind me, so I couldn’t just stop.  Now while this was all true, I really didn’t actually go through all of that thought mental process – I just noticed the woman as I was driving past and felt sorry for these people, somehow more sorry because they had a dog with them.

Living in Ames, we don’t come upon these scenes as often as we would living in a more urban area, but we have all had this experience. 

Our scripture this morning involves a man who is begging.  Every day people would set him by the gate to the temple so that he could ask for alms from those coming to the temple.  There were three daily prayer times: at 9, 12, and 3 o’clock.  Sacrifices were offered at 9 and 3.  So basically, by being there at 3:00 he was at the gate of the temple at the highest traffic time of the day. 

This man’s physical condition meant that he was not allowed to be a part of worship at the temple.  This gate was as far as he could go.  Peter and John came to the temple and saw this man, asking for help.  And what happens is very interesting.  Both Peter and John look at the man intently and say to him, “Look at us.”  It’s a little out of the ordinary, don’t you think?  It’s not the way we usually interact with someone asking us for something.

In fact, it is the opposite of the way we generally relate to such a person.  We have learned to avert eye contact.  We often try to keep it as impersonal as possible.  Hundreds, maybe thousands of people went through this gate every day, and you have to think that for the vast majority, he was just part of the scenery at the temple.  Oh, they might give him something every now and then as part of their religious duty, but to really engage him, to look him in the eye and relate to him as a person - that was something else.

Peter and John looked at the man, and the man looked at them, expecting a donation.  But Peter says to him, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”  Peter took him by the hand and lifted him up, and immediately the man felt his feet and ankles made strong.  He started walking and leaping in the air, and he entered the temple with Peter and John.  People recognized him as the guy who always begged for alms at the gate, and they were amazed.

It is interesting that this gate to the temple was called the Beautiful Gate.  It was the grand entrance to the court of women – called that not because it was only for women but because this was as far as women were permitted to enter.  This was the outer court of the temple.  The inner court, or court of Israel, could only be entered by men, and then there was the court of the priests, accessible only to priests.

The gate was called the Beautiful Gate.  For some, it was a symbol of welcome to the fellowship of the gathered community inside.  But for others, the Beautiful Gate took on an ugly function: to keep people out.   Those who were lame or blind or considered ceremonially unclean were not allowed in. 

The man had asked for alms – for some spare change to help out a person in need.  But he got far more than that.  He received healing and wholeness, and it is possible that the greatest gift he received was not the physical healing, but the restoration to community.  He entered the temple along with Peter and John.  He was able to worship with the community - he had never been able to do that before.  Rather than being seen as simple a beggar, simply a crippled man, he could be a part of the community of Israel.
A couple of months ago, the Chicago Tribune told the story of a man who walked into a Chipotle and ordered a burrito bowl.  The guy behind the counter was friendly, thin, covered in tattoos, with short black hair, and as he scooped food into the dish, he looked at the tall, middle-age white-haired customer. 

“I think we know each other,” he said.  The customer, who had been thinking the same thing, said, “Where did we meet?”  “Diversey and California,” said the counter guy.  “I was a panhandler.”  “Nic!” the customer cried. “How are you?”

Nic Romano looked different from the panhandler Mike Nowak had known - no more long, dirty hair, no more filthy, bulky clothes - but he was as polite as Nowak remembered, and they talked until it came time to pay.  Nowak reached for his wallet. The cashier waved him off.

“No,” said the cashier, as Romano flashed him a smile, “you’re good.”  Nowak walked away with a free burrito bowl, served by Nic Romano.  It was a better return on investment than Nowak had ever dreamed.

Sunday after Sunday, around 8 a.m., even in the fierce heat and bitter cold, Nowak had passed the panhandler on the way to host his gardening show on WCPT radio.  He usually gave the guy a couple of dollars before pulling onto the expressway.  They encountered each other so often that they eventually learned each other’s names and occasionally talked a little.   Nowak learned that Nic had an addiction, maybe more than one. He didn’t know specifics, but that was fine.

Nowak had a philosophy of giving to panhandlers.  His philosophy was: sometimes he gave, sometimes he didn’t.  Sometimes he kicked himself for giving; other times, reminding himself how hard it must be being out there, he kicked himself for walking or driving past.
To Nic, he always gave.  Then one Sunday, Nic wasn’t in his usual spot.  He never showed up again.  “I feared the worst,” Nowak says.

During the years Nic Romano worked the underpass at Diversey and California, he encountered people of all kinds. There were drivers who flicked cigarettes at him, cursed at him, tried to run him over.  One time, a driver, purposefully it seemed, ran over the bag that held all his belongings and dragged it onto the expressway.

But there were also the “regulars,” nice people, like Mike, who routinely stopped to talk or donate.  “For people to stop and get to know me,” Romano says, “it really did help me get through.”

Even the regulars didn’t know Romano’s full story.  He grew up in an affluent North Shore suburb where he began drinking and doing drugs as a high school sophomore.  His family tried to help, he says, but he was kicked out of high school.  He drifted south into the city, into parties, into bar fights, and though he eventually finished high school, by then he was not only doing drugs, he was hooked.

For a long time, Romano was a functional heroin addict. In 2005, after overdosing three times, he managed to get clean.  But a year and a half later, in a moment of distress, he told himself, “Oh, just this one time isn’t going to matter.”  But it wasn’t just that once.  He eventually lost his job, lost his apartment, and wound up on the streets.  He started panhandling.

Within the parameters of panhandling ethics, Romano tried to stay honest.  He says he never carried a sign claiming he was a veteran.  When he started renting a room, he stopped saying he was homeless.  He could be creative; for a while his sign said only: “Obama wants change. So do I.”

Begging sometimes embarrassed him.  People who knew him drove past — his high school girlfriend’s mom, his ex-bosses, former co-workers.  But his addiction was more powerful than embarrassment.

In late 2013, he was arrested for heroin possession and put on probation, but he defied orders to go to rehab.  He kept walking the median, begging, knowing that one day he’d be arrested for violating his probation.  A little over a year later, the cops arrived.  Nic went quietly, even gratefully. Seventeen years of heroin.  Half his life.  He was sick of it.
“God,” he remembers thinking, “put me wherever you know I can get help.  I’m at rock bottom.  I can’t do it anymore.”  Romano calls his four months in rehab at Cook County Jail a blessing.  He works two jobs now, one at Chipotle and another as a server at restaurant.  He sees an addiction counselor regularly.  And when he runs into people who helped him out while he was panhandling, people like Mike Nowak, he goes out of his way to say hello.

“I just have to say something,” he says.  “I like to be able to say thank you for your kindness, thank you for your blessings, I want you to know I’m better.”
Nowak has thought about panhandling a lot — to give or not to give — since he and Romano reconnected.  He was glad that his donations helped keep Nic going until he could get his life together and he said, “I would rather live in a world where people attempt to engage than put on blinders.”  

To me this story says that whether we are led to give or not to any given person, we need to be kind.  We need to see others as human beings, with a story.  (story in Chicago Tribune, February 25, 2016).

That is exactly where our scripture for today begins.  Peter and John see the man at the gate.  They really see him, they engage him.  And it leads to healing – not only of body, but of spirit.  He joins the community.
Now, healing stories like this are always problematic – this one perhaps even more than when Jesus heals people.  This is Peter.  Now it is Jesus’ followers doing the healing.  So, why can’t my pastor do that?  Why can’t our deacons go out and heal?

Healings - what we would think of as miraculous healings - do happen, yet today.  But for every person healed in that way, there are a whole bunch who are not.  Some of us here have prayed for healing for ourselves or others that did not come.  And so, what are we to make of this?  And how are we to offer healing?

Rolf Jacobson, a professor in St. Paul, had cancer as a teenager, which led to having both of his legs amputated.  He spent a lot of time in the hospital.  He said that a lot of people suffering from illness face a great deal of isolation.  When he was in the hospital, none of his best friends came to visit him.  It was just too hard for them.  One even told him, “I don’t like to see you that way.”

It is difficult to see people hurting.  We all know that.  But when we turn away from them, their pain can become even greater.  The man who was healed experienced physical healing, but just as important, he was restored to community.  He was again seen as a person.

So what can we do?  We may not be the conduit of God’s physical healing.  But like Peter and John, we can offer what we have.  For loved ones who are ill, we can be there.  We can pray.  We can tell them that we love them.  We can make sure they are included.  And for everyone we see in need, like Nic at that underpass in Chicago, we can be kind.  We can see people in need as people, as real live human beings.  We can care about them and we can advocate for them.

The man at the gate was just asking for a few bucks, just trying to get by.  He never dreamed that what he would get was healing and inclusion in the community.  That’s the way it is with God: sometimes we get a lot more than we could dream of or imagine.

Now, beyond the fact that this man was healed and beyond the fact that he became a part of the community, there is, at least for me, another question hanging in the air.  And it has to do with the whole temple structure and system.  Why was it that people with physical problems like this man could not enter the temple?  Why could women go into the outer court but no further?  Why was there such a big deal about being ceremonially clean or unclean?  Why did there need to be such an insider/outside divide?

The man would sit each day by the Beautiful Gate.  And maybe a question to ask is, is the church a gated community?  Is the gate a way to keep folks out, or is it an entrance through which to offer welcome?

Accessibility is not easy, especially with older buildings like ours.  We have a new elevator, which is great, but this is still not the easiest building to get into and get around in.  But maybe of even greater importance is what we might call social and spiritual accessibility.  It is not just whether a person can physically enter the building; the question is whether folks are truly welcome into the community.  Folks like this man – considered different, considered an outsider, a person on the margins.  Who are the people outside the gate today?

If we are trying to keep out those we see as unworthy, it’s a Gated Community.   But with an extravagant welcome for everyone, it is truly the church of Jesus Christ – and it really is a Beautiful Gate, a gate that leads to healing.  Amen.

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