Saturday, April 13, 2024

“Look at Us” - April 14, 2024

Text: Acts 3:1-10

The Book of Acts is an action-packed book – I mean, wild things happen on almost every page.  Last week we looked at Jesus giving his followers instructions to wait for the Spirit to come, and then he ascended to heaven.  Then in Acts chapter 2, the Holy Spirit did show up in a powerful way, with tongues of fire, and Peter gave a sermon about how this was the fulfillment of the promise given to the prophet Joel, that God’s Spirit would be poured out on all flesh, to all people.  Three thousand people were baptized that day.  We will look more closely at that on Pentecost Sunday.  

And then the fledgling church got down to the messy and necessary work of figuring out what this all meant in their daily lives – what it meant to live as a community that was led by the Spirit.  This new way of life involved sharing fellowship, sharing meals, praying together, worshiping together, sharing what they had so that everyone’s needs were met, and basically living simply and generously and joyfully.  

This brings us up to this morning’s scripture.  At the temple in Jerusalem, there were three daily prayer times: at 9 am, 12 noon, and 3 o’clock.  John and Peter were going to the temple at 3:00 for prayer and they come upon a man who is crippled – lame from birth, we are told.  Apparently, some friends or family members carried him there every day at this time so that he could ask for alms from those arriving for prayer.  He was there at the high traffic time of day.

This man’s physical condition probably meant that he was not allowed to be a part of worship at the temple.  There is reference to this both in Leviticus and in 2 Samuel.  The gate where he sat 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.

They stop to help him.  Not out of compulsion and not for what they would get out of it, but simply because here was someone who needed help.   

Both Peter and John look at the man intently and then they 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 who is 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.  And particularly with a person begging on the street, we generally don’t want to be noticed.  That can even be true for the Salvation Army ringers at Christmas or kids selling Girl Scout cookies at Hy-Vee – if we don’t have a donation to make, we want to kind of slip on by unnoticed.

Hundreds, maybe thousands of people went through this gate to the temple every day, and you have to think that for the vast majority, this man was just part of the scenery.  Oh, they might give him something 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.

“Looks at us.”  Why would this man not be looking at Peter and John?  

It’s not hard to imagine.  If you were reduced to asking for alms, that meant you were on the lowest rung of society.  There is an honor/shame dynamic going on here.  This man knows his place.  He is too embarrassed, too ashamed, he feels too inferior to look them in the eye.

But when Peter and John say, “Look at us,” this man looks up.  What Peter and John are doing is no small thing.  They are saying, let’s forget about social classes and social rank and the dynamics of begging for help and almsgiving.  What if we just treat each other as human beings?

Peter and John saw this man.  Not as a poor man with a physical disability that forced him to beg for a living.  They saw him as a person.  “Hey, look at us,” they said.  It was OK to look them in the eye.  In God’s sight, they were equal.

They truly see each other, and then Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I do have I will give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”  Peter takes him by the hand, and immediately the man felt his feet and ankles made strong.  He started walking and leaping in the air, and then 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.

This is a miracle of healing.  This man was lame from birth and now for the first time, he could walk.  

That is the first miracle.  But there is another.  The man enters the temple with Peter and John, and everyone is amazed.  He has never been able to worship in the temple before.  He is able to fully be part of the community, and that may have been just as great a miracle.  The man’s life was changed physically, but it was also changed spiritually and socially.  This man had just hoped for a couple of bucks, but he received so much more.  

Now, healing stories like this are always problematic – this one perhaps even more than most, because it isn’t Jesus doing the healing, it is Peter and John.  Through the power of the Spirit they were able to carry on Jesus’ ministry and even perform healings.

So, why can’t my pastor do that?  Why can’t our deacons go out and heal?  Why doesn’t this happen today?

Healings - what we would think of as miraculous healings - do happen, yet today.  But for every person healed in what seems a miraculous way, there are a whole bunch of people 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 or participate in healing?

Rolf Jacobson, a professor at Luther Seminary 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 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 offer our presence.  We can pray.  We can make sure they are included.  And for everyone we see in need, 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.
It is interesting that this gate to the temple 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.  Gentiles could go no farther than this gate.  Those who were lame or blind or considered ceremonially unclean were not allowed through this gate.  

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.  They encountered each other so often that they eventually learned each other’s names and occasionally visited a little.   Nowak learned that Nic had an addiction, maybe more than one.  But then one Sunday, Nic wasn’t there, and he never showed up again.  Mike feared the worst.

Nic 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.  For a long time, he was a functional heroin addict.  After overdosing three times, he managed to get clean.  But 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.  

Begging embarrassed him.  But his addiction was more powerful than embarrassment.  He was finally arrested for violating probation and when the cops came, 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.  Now he was working two jobs and seeing an addictions counselor, and when he runs into people who helped him out while he was panhandling, people like Mike, 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.”

Mike Nowak is 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.”  

That is exactly where our scripture for today begins.  Peter and John see this man at the gate.  He is a person with a story.  He is a person of value.  They really see him, they engage him.  And it leads to healing – not only of body, but of spirit.  He joins the community.  
We can be a part of that miracle of community when we remove barriers, whether they are physical or cultural or spiritual.  We can be part of that miracle of community by welcoming others in.

Now, when I read this story, there is, at least for me, one 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 then 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: does the church have a gate?  Can the church be like a gated community?  Is the gate a way to keep folks out, or is it an entrance through which to offer welcome?

There are all kinds of ways we make people feel welcome or not welcome.  Some of the structures of our society are set up to exclude, sometimes without our even realizing it.  People can be excluded by rules or traditions or maybe by a certain vibe we are not even aware of that says, “You really need to be like us.”  

People can certainly be excluded by architecture and physical structures.  Accessibility is not always easy, especially with older buildings like ours.  We have a ramp and an elevator – we have made improvements, but this is still not the easiest building to get into and get around in.  

Of equal 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 those people outside the gate today?

With an extravagant welcome for everyone, the church is truly the church of Jesus Christ and a community where we are truly seen and where we truly see one another.  To become a part of the community is to enter through a Beautiful Gate, a gate that leads to hope and healing.  Amen.


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