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Our story today begins where the larger story is changing. This is the moment things change both in the trajectory of our story and in the future of Christianity. Up until this point we had been hearing and learning and discussing stories of Jewish followers of Jesus. With the calling of Saul and Barnabas, the story takes a shift. Saul and Barnabas are called to be and commissioned to be missionaries to the Gentile world, to the Greek-speaking world. All of the assumptions of what it means to be followers of Jesus turn radically when Saul goes out on his missions.
And you may notice how in chapter 13 his name is Saul and in chapter 14, there’s someone named Paul and those are the same people. Saul is a Hebrew name and Paul is his Greek name. It’s not so unlike Joseph being an English name for Jose in Spanish. When Saul is out in the world with other Greek speakers, he takes a name that they would know: Paul. And from here on in the book of Acts, Paul is preaching and teaching to the Greek-speaking world, so, we call him Paul, too
Ok, here’s the problem: I have 2 sermons. I think they come together in the end… but there may be a moment of a hard transition…
We don’t know very much about this missionary trip that Paul was on. We know well he was in Lystra and he was talking and preaching and teaching he sees someone and he stares at them. We don’t know anything about the man he was staring at. We don’t know if he’s young or old, so we don’t know if the whole life that he hasn’t been walking is 20 years or 50. And we don’t know if he was deeply involved in what Paul was saying: was he following along in a way that he was believing these things about Jesus? Was Paul someone with a new story and so it was something different on days that might have all felt the same? Was it just that Paul showed up where he was placed and he couldn’t walk away?
What we do know is that when Paul looked at him, stared at him. It seems there was something in that man’s eyes that revealed to Paul that this man who had never walked believed in an impossible future. This man believed in a future a world in which he could walk. There was no evidence that this could or would happen. He probably never saw anyone get up and walk after they’d never walked for their entire lives. But he believed there was a world in which he could walk and he could run and he could get up and he could dance. He believed that there was a world different than the one he was living in right now.
When Paul told him to get up and walk he did not hesitate. He leaped into that impossible future that he had only imagined and he walked into a reality.
And those who were in the city center, where Paul usually placed himself to preach, saw this all happen. They had watched him grow, they had seen him struggle, they had hoped at some point the muscles would develop of the bones with grow or the nerves would start sending signals. But nothing. and as time went on they came to accept what was, accept that this man’s future was going to look like the past… he would remain where he had been placed.
They would certainly notice when the man that they had known for years, could not walk, suddenly leaped up. They experienced something wild, something unexpected, something they couldn’t have even conceived of… They filtered what they say through their own stories and experiences. It must be Zeus! It must be Hermes–because Paul was always talking. They were certain they understood what had happened. They were certain they understood how to interpret this big, huge, life-altering miracle. They misunderstood, they assumed the vessels were the Divine.
Every time we come to a miraculous healing story in the bible I get a little uncomfortable. We read these stories and then go into the world holding on to them, believing them, praying for the miraculous in our lives and in the lives of our loved ones. And I wonder if I don’t have enough faith because I don’t necessarily expect the unexpected healing in the midst of medical… impossibilities. I know that there are miracles: organs become available for transplants, cancers go into remission, there is unexplainable. But it seems like they happen all the time in these stories and rarely… here.
So I become uncomfortable in these stories.
It is one thing that comes up from time to time, we’ve talked about it before, that there are those who believe that you have to have some threshold of faith to be healed or made well. And they might use this story, this story of this man who had faith he could be healed, to back up their understanding of healing. I’ve known faithful people who have prayed over their loved ones, their children, and not seen the miracles they were longing for.
It makes it tragic, and sad, and human. It says nothing about a person’s faith.
The point of the healings in the Bible are generally less about just making the person not disabled, they consistently were about making some able to live in whole and abundant living for as long as their mortal bodies go on. And that whole and abundant living is found in community. If whole and abundant living is what we are after in our finite bodies and fallible communities, sometimes healing looks different.
Sometimes the miracle looks different.
The miracle is supposed to point to God and heal a community.
And Paul tells them that, that he and Barnabas are not gods in human guises but come to speak of the God, creator of all things, whose witnesses, that which bears witness to the creative and goodness of this God: the rains from heaven the water the ground and bring fruitful seasons and times of harvest. The witness to that God are the satisfying food that comes from that harvest. The witness is hearts of joy and happiness.
I wondered if the crowds were blinded by the miraculous, maybe they were always searching for the miraculous–keeping one on the path were a god might show up, that it missed the every day miracles.
Years ago, I had this internship in Costa Rica for 5 months, where I lived in the house with the pastor and his whole family, which is a whole story on its own. There was the house, all tile for easy sweeping, because you would walk out the back door to a little yard, the there was the beach on a small bay that opened up to the ocean. When I got there, I took a lot of pictures of the sunset over the ocean. It seemed that each one was just a little different, each sky turned a different color. The folks that I was staying with told me that I can’t take a picture of every sunset. They told me that they are all beautiful so, they’re kind of all the same after a while. And I wondered if that was true. Because I had a little digital camera, so why not? And when does a lovely sunset become so commonplace that you let them go by without acknowledgment?
How often do we miss the beauty in the everyday, the mundane? The sunset that comes every day that it becomes normal, unremarkable. Do we pass by the works, the witnesses to the works and goodness of God without noticing because we are so busy looking for the big events, the big miracles, the kind you write books about, they make movies about, that we don’t notice God’s hands in all things, the changing of seasons, the growing of food, the celebrating of friends, the joy in any moment.
Here’s where we bring back the man who could now walk: how often do we miss the small miracles because we fail to imagine a future different than the world as it is now–perhaps by being distracted by all the other things happening in the world or falling in despair?
Because I think we have to do both: We have to live in gratitude for the small things, to see the miracle in the moments, the flowers that grow back in the spring, the kindness of a friend, a family member reconciled, a moment of joy.
We spent all of winter looking at Jesus’ vision for the world, the kin-dom of God, the beloved community; and if we don’t hold on to that vision, if the church isn’t the place that tells a better story of a better world, then… are we even followers of Jesus? Do we deserve to be here?
We have to believe in a future we have never seen. We have to believe in impossible things. We have to believe in a world that is different than this one, a world that is kin-dom of God, beloved community rooted, where everyone has enough, no one is lonely, our weapons of war are turned into means of sustenance, of justice and compassion; healing, wholeness, and abundance. Here’s the thing, when we hold these two things: a recognition of God in the small things and a belief that we will see that impossible future, that our world will know healing and wholeness and abundance…
When we hold these two understandings of miracles, it makes the only imaginable seem a little more possible. It means we might be ready when someone comes to us with an idea, a small plan, a gift of mercy and justice. It means we can believe there is a world to come where none will be hungry, and instead of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the need, we can celebrate and support the work of Friedens Pantry, a ministry formed from a UCC congregation in Milwaukee that cared for 40,000 people last year. That is a miracle, that is a witness to the goodness of God, through the work of God’s people.
And maybe that’s enough for today, to take moments to see the work of God in the every day, in the seemingly normal, so we can see the miracles that are changing lives.
We can’t just tell stories about the impossible future, we are all called to to be Paul. We take our visions of an impossible future, our gifts, our resources, our words and actions, our ideas–as individuals and as a community working together–and we be the vessels of bringing healing and wholeness and abundance to this world, to our neighborhoods, to our family. We become part of the work of healing hope, communities, families, lives.
And it’s hard to hold on to hold the vision, to believe the world can be different than it is. It is so much easier to seek to thrive under the empires of this world than to stand up against as they wield the only weapon they know–death.
This story really ends with the people of Lystra stoning until they thought he was dead and throwing him from their city. And we know hold stories of saints of our faith who have spoken a vision of the world, celebrated the small ways God’s people showed up in love, and then were destroyed.
It is hard work to love the world, to love all of creation enough to believe it can and will be whole, holy, justice, kind, peaceful. It is the work we are called to.
That in the face of a broken world, hold on to the vision of kin-dom of God of peacemakers and more than enough, justice and healing, wholeness and abundance. When the world, in all its need and the brokenness of it all becomes overwhelming, find, see the small, everyday witnesses to the love of God in the rain and flowers, children and the wise with age, in moments of joy and community. Be grounded in all that, then call out to another to stand up and join us in being the witnesses to God’s love that need your, our salt and light..
That’s Oscar Romero in the middle. I might take a little liberty: Let us not tire of being love, it is the force that will overcome this world, and build the beloved community.