Rev. George Miller
April 19, 2015
Last week I was in St. Louis, walking along city streets lined with dandelions, tulips and other signs of spring.
At Eden Seminary I caught up with classmates and professors and listened to presentations on food, farming and why that matters to the church.
Best yet was spending time with my brother Tim and my niece Rylee. We shared meals, walked to the Arch, went to the farmer’s market and even attended a wrestling match.
One of those days a man came up and asked for money. I gave him some and Rylee asked me why; what if he was lying and just trying to scam me out of my cash?
So I told her this story: years ago, when I lived in NY, a friend was preparing to become a priest. He was advised to carry a roll of quarters with him everywhere he went. If someone asked for money, he was to stop and give them a quarter.
If the person said “God bless you,” it was an angel who’d come down to test him. If the person said nothing, he was still blessed, because he was able to give.
I liked that idea, so I began to carry loose change with me whenever I went to the city, gladly giving money to anyone who asked. Here’s what I discovered:
In the past when people asked for money, I’d put all my energy into ignoring them, or being angry at them, or feeling ashamed that I did not stop to help.
But now, if someone asked, I could say “Yes,” and go on with the rest of the day.
In other words, the guilt of any possible shame, anger, or discomfort was gone.
Of course, we have to wonder- does a quarter make a difference; does it really help? Sure, if the person receiving it uses it to buy food.
Does the money hurt? Sure- if they use it for drugs or alcohol.
Does resenting, ignoring or being angry at the person hurt me? Yes.
Does giving the quarter or a dollar hurt me? No.
Jesus talks about how giving can create heavenly treasures that cannot be stolen (Luke 12:33). But anyone who gives, any church that reaches out to others has to wonder- when is helping another actually hurting them; when is such an action enabling them?
Enabling is a word that anyone involved with ministry, social services or addiction recovery is familiar with.
Enabling is a process in which someone thinks they are helping another, but they’re actually keeping them stuck in an unhealthy cycle.
An enabler is someone who bases their sense of self-worth on being able to assist others, to help them manage their lives.
Trouble is this: if a person’s self-worth is tied to helping powerless people, one must always surround themselves with powerless folk or keep those around them powerless.
An enabler may do certain things: lie to cover another’s mistakes, make excuses for their behavior, and blame others.
Enablers may throw money at the problem. They’ll pay the person’s rent, pay their bills, pay their fines, pick up their tab.
I’m sure all of us have done this at one time, and there is a difference between providing temporary assistance and of perpetually enabling.
So, was I being a virtuous giver in St. Louis or was I an enabler who was making things worse?
That’s the challenge when we are a person of faith and when we are a Christian organization striving to do ministry and mission.
How do we reconcile these things?
We can look at the roots of our faith. Before the Resurrection, before the Cross, before the birth of Jesus, there was the story of the Exodus- of God delivering the people from bondage, giving them freedom and entering with them into a convental relationship.
Enabling does not create freedom- it actually creates bondage.
But the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ does the opposite- it frees one from bondage, it says there is life beyond the cross, and it states there is wholeness and healing for all.
That’s what we experience in today’s reading- freedom, healing and community.
So let’s revisit this story. The disciples have experienced the Resurrected Christ which empowers them to regroup and come up with a new game plan.
When the time is right, the Holy Spirit falls upon them and they welcome their first converts- people who are called to repent, be baptized, have their sins forgiven.
What follows is a time of teaching and fellowship, breaking bread and praying together. This leads them to being glad, having generous hearts and praising God.
Now that their ministry is in place, the stage is set for their first act of mission.
Because they are faithful Jews, Peter and John go to the temple for afternoon prayers; a time when the faith community gathers to worship and to offer their sacrifices.
There they meet a man who is lame. He is asking for money.
But there is something deeper going on here. The man is by the gate. He is outside the temple, meaning he is not inside. He is not a part of the worshipping community.
There’s reason for that- the law stated that people with certain imperfections could not enter the temple or make sacrifices to the Lord.
Those blind, or with blemishes, those with broken bones or itching skin could not enter in. Nor could those who are lame.
Harsh sounding rules that caused separation; rules that said not all people are welcome here.
Peter and John know these rules, but they also know the life Jesus led and the ministry he taught them- a ministry in which meals were shared, a ministry in which people were welcome and healing was offered.
So when the man asks for money, things go differently than expected. Sure, they could have flipped him a few coins, but that would not have truly helped, only enabled.
Instead, Peter makes a connection to the man; he looks intently at him. Not just a side glance, or a quick once over, but one of those deep “I really see you” stares that comes when we mindfully see a person and not a statistic.
Peter looks at the man and with total belief and conviction, Peter says “I don’t have money to give you; but I’ll give you what I do have- in the name of Jesus Christ rise up and walk.”
What a bold thing to do; what a confession of faith that the ministry of Jesus continues even after his death.
In an act of compassionate solidarity, Peter offers his arm and the man is elevated up.
A miracle, but the story does not end there.
The story isn’t just about how the man is empowered to rise above his situation, it’s about how he now gets to leave behind the gate and enter into the temple rejoicing.
In other words, through Christ he becomes part of the community. He gets to participate in worship, he gets to leap and to praise and he gets to be seen by others.
For years, the man had been an outsider, but now, in the name of Jesus, he is an insider- he belongs, he is empowered by the Gospel that says “You are able to rise above”; Good News that says “In Christ you are free.”
Here we experience a story about God’s Kingdom and its ever expanding reality.
Here we see how through the continued presence of the crucified Christ, boundaries are being redrawn to include more and more people into the covenantal community.
Here we witness how the Gospel has the ability to restore broken bodies; how the Gospel has the ability to restore broken spirits; how the Gospel even has the ability to restore broken relationships.
How the Gospel of Jesus Christ is one in which freedom, and not bondage, is the key. In which wholeness and healing are vital.
What it takes, in this story, is the ability to see- to really see another and to engage them with a word that promotes unity.
What it takes is not a quick fix or enabling to keep one down on the ground; but faith in another, faith in God and the striving to work together to raise another up.
What it takes is the ability to speak and to trust the Good News, to trust the promise that Jesus is still amongst us, and to trust that in the name of Jesus there is the ability to heal, to restore and to empower.
As we begin to wrap up today’s message, I think about our “Mission Theme Song” that we’ve been singing for almost 2 years now.
Inspired by Tracy Miller, composed by Sue Shellhammer, this song is so important.
Not only does it state who we are and what we do, it raises this reality: it states “Our challenge is at hand.”
Challenge is such a strong word. Challenge means something is not easy; it means things are not a quick fix.
Challenges are things you can try to ignore; challenges are things you can run from.
But if you’re strong, if you have faith, a challenge is something you are willing to face.
And if you are really, really smart, you do not face that challenge alone, but with another, together.
If you’re a Christian, you also face that challenge with God, made known through Jesus Christ, filled with the Spirit.
A man lame from birth at the gate of the temple is certainly a challenge. But Peter and John did not ignore it, nor did they run away, nor did they enable him.
With their faith in Christ, they looked at the challenge straight in the eye, they acknowledged his personhood, and witnessing to God’s light, they said “In the name of Jesus, rise up and move forward.”
Offering a hand of Christian compassion, they walked beside him and entered into the temple together, restoring the man back to his rightful place of community.
Creating space for wonder and amazement, leaping and praising, unity and healing.
In the name of Christ, we do not have to enable, but we can empower.
In the name of Christ, we don’t have to be blind to another’s plight but we can see one another with a compassionate eye.
In the name of Christ, we can each be a part of heaven’s community, right here, right now, on earth.
In the name of Christ, we are each empowered to enter, rejoice and come in.
Amen and amen.