Sunday, April 14, 2024

Sermon: “Smaller Miracles”, Acts 3:1-10 (April 14, 2024)

This is a pretty miraculous story, isn’t it? If I were to ask you what makes it miraculous, what’s the first thing you think of? ...The healing, right? This is the very first time we see the disciples do something seemingly impossible in Christ’s name; it’s the first time they prove themselves to be anything other than a bunch of ordinary dudes who happen to have an extraordinary best friend. This is the moment that makes us think the apostles are somehow fundamentally different from us – there’s certainly no reason to believe that any of US are capable of such things. Either they’re somehow special, or there was something in the first-century water. This appears to be a great story for celebrating the disciples’ ministry, but there doesn’t seem to be much in it that we can learn from.

But what if I told you that there IS something for us to learn here, and not just some “big picture” lesson, but something relevant to our everyday life? Do you feel intrigued? Confused? Panicked? Don’t worry; I’m not going to tell you to head over to the hospital and get to work on those miraculous healings (although if you really want to try, I suppose it couldn’t HURT). I’m not going to tell you to go to medical school or join the Red Cross, either (although if you DO feel called to do either of those things, that’s wonderful!). In fact, this sermon has nothing to do with healing of any kind at all.

In scripture, miracles tend to overshadow everything else happening around them, but while they’re certainly flashy and impressive, they’re far from the only thing that matters. This healing, the so-called “first miracle” of the disciples, is actually the least important part of this story. There are OTHER astonishing things happening in this passage, too, things that are miraculous in their own right. It’s just that we tend not to see them this way. These other actions are just as unexpected, just as sacred, just as impactful as the things that we would traditionally consider “miracles” …but they’re things that we know WE’RE capable of. If we admit that it doesn’t take a special person to perform a miracle, then that means we’re not off the hook. And that’s pretty scary, because even though miracles can be done by anyone, they still aren’t the sorts of things that people normally do in “polite” society.

I mean, consider how this same scenario would most likely play out today. Most people would just walk past the man sitting at the temple gate without a second glance. Some might consider offering him money but ultimately decide against it, not knowing whether they’d be “enabling” any vices that might perpetuate his unfortunate circumstances. Others might reach into their pocket, pull out whatever spare change they find there, and drop it into the man’s cup. One or two might offer him a quick smile or a couple words of encouragement. Very few would do anything beyond that.

I assume that you, like me, have seen this scene play out many times before. Having been there myself, I’m more than willing to believe that everyone passing by has good intentions. They’re just adhering to the social norms of public interaction that they’ve inherited: Mind your own business. Be nice, but aloof. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Be shrewd with strangers. Avoid reinforcing behavior that doesn’t fit nicely into this rubric.

Following these “rules” has its benefits – they demand very little of you beyond obedience, and you can walk away afterwards feeling satisfied that you’ve fulfilled your societal obligations. But operating within the boundaries of any established system always serves to perpetuate that system, and while that will always work out fine for some, it keeps others – like the man sitting by the temple gate – stuck in an endless cycle of poverty that denies his personhood, unable to escape.

But Peter and John don’t play by these rules. Long before the *obvious* miracle happens, they’re already doing things that, in terms of societal norms, should have been impossible. Scripture says that “Peter and John stared at [the man].” (A better translation would be “They looked intently at him”.) “Peter said, ‘Look at us!’ So the man gazed at them, expecting to receive something from them. Peter said, ‘I don’t have any money, but I will give you what I do have.’”

Do you hear the difference, even WITHOUT the miracle? Do you see why this interaction is so significant from the very beginning? Up until this point, people had “helped” this man much the same way we might expect them to “help” him today: they got him as far as the gate, and they tossed him a coin once in a while. They helped him, yes, but in ways that were well within the established norms – nothing that would challenge the social order, nothing that would upset “the way things are supposed to be”.

But Peter and John came along, and they threw all that out the window. When they encountered the man at the temple gate, they saw a fellow human being, an equal, a part of the larger community – and they needed him to know that, no matter what anyone else might think. And so, although convention dictated that the man should keep his eyes lowered in humility, Peter and John invited him to meet their gaze. They insisted, from the very first moment, that their interaction be one of solidarity rather than charity. Not an easy thing to do, giving up power and breaking social norms. And yet, they did what to others might have seemed impossible – this was their ACTUAL first miracle.

But they still weren’t done. Instead of closing the conversation with the words, “I don’t have any money” (as I’m sure many of us have done at one time or another, truthfully or not), Peter goes on: “but I will give you what I DO have.” Forget for a moment that what he had was miraculous healing in the name of Jesus Christ. Peter didn’t let himself “off the hook” at the point that most other people would have given up. Even though he wasn’t able to give the man what he’d asked for, Peter realized that he had something else to offer, and so he did – without worrying about the time it would take, or the energy it might require, or how it might make him look. In this way, he made it clear that he considered the man to be worth the extra effort – ANOTHER miracle.

It’s easy to forget how significant this kind of gesture can be – until someone reminds you. As the pastor of a small community, I often find myself in the position of not having the funds to help everyone who asks. A few weeks ago, I received a call from a man looking for a place to stay for the night – not an unusual request, but unfortunately, not always an easy one to fill. I was just about to tell him that I wouldn’t be able to put him up in a hotel room when a voice inside me interrupted, “But what DO you have?”

My eyes caught sight of a small camping mat that had been sitting in my office for more than a year, just waiting for a use. “It’s not the most comfortable accommodation,” I began, “but if you’d like to stay somewhere a little more sheltered than outdoors, there’s a stairwell outside of our sanctuary building where you’re welcome to spend the night. I can give you a small camping pad to lie on.” After I hung up, I drove to Walmart and bought a pillow and blanket for him – the least I could do, I figured, since I was essentially offering him a slab of concrete as hospitality.

That afternoon, he met me at the church office and began thanking me before I’d even finished opening the door. When I showed him where I’d put the camping mat and gave him the pillow and blanket, he broke into a wide smile and asked if he could hug me. I didn’t feel I deserved it, but I gratefully accepted the hug, for just offering him what I had. For just showing him that he was worth that extra bit of effort.

I don’t tell you all this to pat myself on the back – I still wonder if there’s more I should have done. But this interaction has stayed with me, even more than those other times when I WAS able to offer the person exactly what they asked for. And it’s led me to ask the same kinds of questions that I think the Holy Spirit might have been planting in Peter and John: how can my help extend beyond just this one, brief moment? If I see and love these people the way God sees and loves them, how can offering “what I DO have” change from a momentary impulse to a habit?

Because that’s the thing about these sorts of small miracles: they have a way of multiplying into even MORE miracles. In our passage, the healed man could have gotten up and gone on his way. That wouldn’t have detracted from anything that Peter and John had accomplished. But because he had been really seen, because he knew that he mattered to Peter and John, he decided to go with them, praising God the whole way. More and more people learned what had happened, and the community of believers grew by the thousands. Yet another miracle, growing out of the earlier ones. In my case, I’ve started to tell others about my encounter with the man and my hope of helping even more people, and not only have those I’ve told been receptive, but they’ve offered their own wonderful thoughts and suggestions about how to make it happen. Miracles upon miracles.

They don’t always come easy, but miracles – even the smallest ones – are powerful: not only in and of themselves, but because of what they make possible. When we act in ways that value people over seemingly indestructible systems and social constructs, we break the cycle of what seems inevitable and are able to see a brand-new, never-before-considered way forward. THIS is what makes such small things miraculous – they start to transform “Good News” from theoretical information existing outside of the status quo into a real, tangible reality.  

Contrary to popular conception, miracles don’t require magic, or extreme holiness, or millions of dollars, or even an excessive amount of time and energy. The only special power we need to perform THESE sorts of miracles is courage. This means that we have no more excuses – if miracles aren’t happening all around us, it’s because WE’VE dropped the ball. But it also means that every single one of us is capable of transforming lives in Christ’s name – even without a single supernatural healing on our resumé. Peter and John prove that words like “I see you” and “I will give you what I DO have” can be even more powerful than “Rise up and walk.” May we all remember that this power is already ours. May our lives be full of these kinds of miracles. May we be the reason they happen. Amen.

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