April 26, 2020
It took me awhile to find a church when I moved from Coffeyville to Wichita to go to college. I had grown up in an American Baptist church, but the American Baptist churches in Wichita weren’t anything like that one. For awhile I went to the Catholic cathedral downtown with a friend, but found that my Baptist upbringing and some pretty basic Catholic beliefs came into conflict. (By that I don’t mean that the Catholic Church has wrong beliefs; but I couldn’t reconcile what they taught with what I’d been raised with.)
Finally, one day as I was driving north into town from my apartment, I passed a Christian church that had on its sign a slogan, “The end of your search for a friendly church.” Sounded intriguing, and my grandparents were Disciples, so it wasn’t completely unfamiliar; so the next Sunday my boyfriend and I visited there. Eventually we ended up joining.
I really wanted to get involved in church leadership, and the first step in that was to be a deacon. Then the pastor told me that in order to be a deacon, a person had to be supporting the church financially. At the time, I was in college, and was just barely getting by; my on-campus job barely covered my rent and utilities, so my parents were still helping me. I didn’t have any extra money to put in the church offering plate. So I couldn’t be a deacon.
I do understand the point of asking church leaders to support the church financially. It indicates a level of commitment to the church and its work; but what about the folks in a church who quite literally don’t have money to give to the church? Isn’t there some other way to demonstrate commitment? Isn’t there some other way…to practice stewardship?
Awhile back I happened to be listening to a news report about the decline in membership in Jewish synagogues. At the time, at least, many if not most synagogues required people to pay dues in order to be members, and the dues were pretty high. They were finding that not a lot of young people were joining the synagogue, and when they probed into why, they found that it was because, between high housing costs, starting families, and student loans, younger folks simply couldn’t afford the dues. So there was some rethinking being done.
(Again I don’t want to give the impression that I think synagogues are Doing It Wrong; every religious community needs financial support, and this is quite a simple and pragmatic way to ensure that support. Only thing is, it wasn’t working anymore.)
When Diana or I or another elder gives a stewardship thought on Sunday morning, they usually talk about how stewardship—giving—is part of our faith. The reality, of course, is that the church, like our homes and any other organization, has bills to pay, and most of the funds to cover them comes from our offerings. But even if we had absolutely zero expenses, zero paid staff, no building, no bills of any kind to pay (which, I’m sure you realize, is thoroughly impossible), giving is still an important part of a faithful life.
As my church in Wichita and many others understand, if we are giving financially to a church, it indicates a level of commitment to that church and to its mission. (I didn’t disagree with that even when I was in college; it’s just that I didn’t have any money to give!) But is giving money all there is to stewardship as a spiritual practice?
I’ve known people down through the years who have had the same dilemma as I did in college, for various reasons. We talk a lot about financial stewardship and giving; but what if a person doesn’t have any money? We cannot expect people to give money to the church if it means they’re having to go without some basic necessities.
Remember the story of the widow’s mite? (Mark 12:41-44). Oftentimes in church we hear that preached and taught as an example of sacrificial giving, of what we should be prepared to do. But Jesus was probably saying something else as he and his disciples watched her put her last two cents into the temple offering. She had nothing else to live on. What was she going to eat that night? Would she have a place to stay? Would her children go to bed hungry?
What should we think about an institution that requires a poor widow to give everything to it, when it meant she had nothing to live on? Only one verse before that story begins, Jesus had condemned the scribes, the experts in the Law, because “they devour widows’ houses.” When we take the story out of context we don’t hear what Jesus was saying to his disciples about that widow’s offering.
What if we don’t have any money? Does that mean we don’t have anything to give? Today’s reading is a story about some of the early church folks who didn’t have any money.
At the time in which our story takes place, there were two important requirements for observant Jews.
One was regular, daily prayer—it appears, based on what we see in Acts, that first-century Jews practiced a form of what has come to be known as “praying the Hours” or fixed-hour prayer. There were certain times each day when everyone was expected to pray. (There are still people who do this: when I lived in the dorms in college, we were all headed out to the movies one night, and one of our group had an alarm go off on his watch—this was in the time before everybody had a phone in their pocket. He said, “Excuse me, I have to pray.” And he went down to the ground, bowed his head toward Mecca, and prayed for just a few minutes; then he got up and we went on our way. Observant Muslims are called to pray five times a day, at set hours; and like Adnan did that night, they are supposed to stop what they’re doing and pray right there and then.)
At the time in which today’s story took place, Jews living in Jerusalem were supposed to go to the Temple for their regular daily prayers if at all possible. So Peter and John, when our story opens, were on their way to the Temple for the afternoon prayer.
The other important part of Jewish life at that time (and now, as well) was almsgiving—sharing what they had with others who were in need. If a person was in a position where they had to beg for their daily subsistence, the best thing to do would be to be at an entrance to the Temple at the hour of prayer. It had to have been dehumanizing, because I’m sure a fair number of folks would walk by without even glancing at the beggars—even if they tossed a coin or two toward someone’s bowl, they probably would do their best to avoid making eye contact. Eye contact with a beggar would sort of invite them into a deeper relationship, even if it were only a slightly deeper one; and if a person did that with every beggar, they would soon find themselves overwhelmed and broke, because the need was so great.
So the beggar in our story, who was over 40 years old (that detail comes from outside our reading, at 4:22) and had never in his life been able to walk, was probably used to people walking by as quickly as they could, some occasionally dropping a coin or two in his direction as they passed. He might mumble a quick “God bless you” toward them, but they quite possibly never even heard it.
And then along come Peter and John, and the beggar asks them, “Could you spare any change?” And they don’t hurry by. They stop, and they give that man, no doubt used to being treated as little more than an intrusive part of the scenery, their full attention. They notice him; they recognize him as a fellow human being created in God’s image.
I have to wonder just how much that would have meant to the man.
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt invisible? If you’ve ever run a cash register, at a grocery store or anywhere else, you probably know what I’m talking about. People are so focused on getting through the line and on their way that many of them never look up, never appear to notice that there is another human being on the other side of the counter. I know when I’ve done that kind of work, just having a person look at me and say, “How are you today?” is a pretty special thing. That’s what Peter and John did for this man, who was used to being invisible.
But Peter and John didn’t have any money. Acts tells us that the first Christians lived a communal life (my pastor growing up, perhaps for shock value, used to say the earliest church practiced “Christian Communism”). Everyone put everything they had into a common treasury, and everyone shared everything, so there wasn’t anybody in need. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all that Peter and John had no money of their own, living like that. And both of them were fishermen by trade, living far from a body of water, so they weren’t working for a living at this point, either. So they didn’t have any money.
But did that mean they had nothing to offer this man? No, indeed: they actually gave him three things that I would argue are better than money, and I think this may be instructive for us as we think about what we have to give if we don’t have any money.
The first one, as I mentioned a moment ago, was their full attention. I doubt he got very much of that, other than from the people who laid him at the Temple gate every day. And it’s entirely possible that they weren’t his friends, weren’t doing it out of the kindness of their hearts, but expected him to pay them for the service out of what little he was able to bring in by begging. For a person used to being treated as part of the scenery, having two people stop and look intently at him must have felt like a cool drink of water on a hot day.
Second, Peter and John gave him healing—something they were able to do because the Holy Spirit had come to them at Pentecost. This middle-aged man had never walked a step in his life. He wouldn’t have been able to run and play with other boys when he was little, and could not work for a living in a time when there weren’t really a whole lot of desk jobs to be had—and even if there were, how would he get there? Peter took the man by the hand and raised him up, and his legs grew strong and he could walk, for the first time in his life.
We’re not meant to ascribe any greatness to Peter for this. He does what he does “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” It is the power of God, shown forth in the life of Jesus and now through his followers by the presence of the Holy Spirit, that strengthens this man’s legs. The man recognizes this, and begins immediately to praise God.
Now that the man could walk, where is the first place he went? He went into the Temple, to participate in the afternoon prayer. That might not seem like a big deal to us, but it’s probable that he had never been in there. The Law actually said no person with any kind of deformity or disability—even a discoloration of the skin—could enter the Temple. When the people gathered to be in God’s presence, to pray, he was excluded; so the third thing Peter and John gave the man was a place in his community.
Peter and John had no money, but they offered the man what they had. They gave him their time and attention, noticed him as a fellow child of God. They gave him healing, and he stood up and walked. They gave him a place in the community from which he’d previously been excluded.
If they had had a few coins to give, the man would have been grateful. But what they gave him was much better than money.
There’s no denying that, especially in our time and place, money is necessary. And yes, I think that we are called as Christians, when we can, to give some of our money not just to our church, to keep the church going, but to those in need. Actually, part of the reason we give to the church is to help people in need that we can’t actually help in person—a portion of your regular offering goes to support the work of our church through the world, through the Disciple Mission Fund; and when we give to Week of Compassion, we can help people in the most dire of circumstances, like refugees or victims of natural disaster.
But there are things that are better than money. That’s what Peter and John gave, and even if we don’t have much—or don’t have any—money to give that isn’t already spoken for by our mortgages and rent, our bills, and our families, we can still give things that are better than money: our time and attention, a healing touch (even if we can’t, as Peter did, take somebody by the hand and restore their ability to walk, our touch can heal in other ways), and welcome into a place and a people who belong to God.
We can give our time to the work of the church, or—when we can be together again—offer some of our time to sit with someone who’s sick and whose regular caregivers need a break, or look after somebody’s children, or maybe even drive somebody somewhere they can’t get to on their own. We can give the skills and abilities that we have, like being handy with tools, cleaning, organizing, keeping records, teaching, playing music or singing, you name it.
Maybe our gift is hospitality—as Peter and John did for the man at the Beautiful Gate, we’re good at helping people feel welcome and find a place in a group. If we invite people to church—I know some of you are doing that quite regularly, and the ability to do that is also a gift from God—this is a very important gift to share. Maybe our gift is cooking, and we use that gift to bless other people.
Or it could be that the only gift we have to offer is the time and desire to pray for others. We certainly can’t see that as an unimportant gift; it could well be one of the most important ones of all.
My point is, even if we don’t have much—or don’t have any—money, we still have gifts to share, gifts given to us by God, who expects us to use them in ways that build up the church and help our neighbors. You may think your gift isn’t important, if it’s not something that puts you in the spotlight or gets you a lot of accolades or attention; but I promise you it is, and it may well be more important. The folks who have the more public-facing gifts wouldn’t get very far at all without the folks gifted in organization and administration and the skills to keep our facilities in good shape. And none of us would get anywhere without the people who have committed to praying for us.
So I invite you to think about what gifts God has given you to share, and pray over the question of how you can put them to use, both now in this weird time and once we’re able to be back out in public and at church again.