Oh, the Leaping
If you had told me some 30-odd years ago—
back when I was serving my first church as a minister,
back when I had a daughter who was about four years old,
a daughter who dressed in pink leotards and pink ballet slippers
5 and 6 and sometimes 7 days a week,
sure that she was going to be a dancer when she grew up, dancing her way through life—
if you had told me some 30-odd years ago that I’d be standing here this morning, in this church,
with this same daughter having asked me to be a part of this particular experience,
I would have told you, unmistakably, that someone had taken your morning bowl of Rice Krispies
and sprinkled on them something that may have looked like sugar
but it was both funny-tasting and definitely illegal,
which was the reason you were speaking incoherently.
But here we are, all of us!
What a hoot!
We’re here today to celebrate a service of installation.
That’s a foreign concept to me, since my tradition is United Methodism,
and we have a different process of placing ministers in congregations.
In my tradition you simply show up that first Sunday morning with a smile on your face,
going to a church you’ve been sent to by the bishop, even if you don’t want to go,
and the congregation you’ve been sent to has to accept you, even if they don’t like you.
Perhaps you can tell from my description that I believe your method has a little more going for it.
But I’m still getting my mind around this idea of installing a pastor.
When I hear the word installing, what I think of is car batteries and kitchen dishwashers.
In my mind the whole process calls for everyone today to show up with their toolbelts on.
I know, of course, that’s not at all the way you feel, and, in truth, neither do I.
But to my mind a notion that comes closer to capturing what’s happening here today
would have all of Christen’s family sitting on this side of the center aisle—
her immediate family, including all those generations who could be here only in spirit,
as well as those people who have been like surrogate parents and grandparents to her,
and those friends who are so close to her that they’re a family all their own,
and colleagues who support her, professors who have helped form her.
And on the other side of this center aisle would be another family,
the family of Peace United Church of Christ:
those who have been here from the beginning,
those who have caught the dream more recently,
those who left their indelible imprint here and now watch from the another place on earth,
or a place beyond earth.
In this notion I’m describing, the person standing where I now stand would say
to the family [on the right], “Will you have this person to be your pastor, your worship leader,
your congregational facilitator, your confidante, your teacher, your cheerleader, your friend?”
Then that person would turn to the other side and say,
“Christen, will you have these people to be your parishioners, your fellow travelers for the journey ahead,
your comrades in faith, your pride and your joy, and your friends?”
I believe that’s one sense of what we’re engaged in here today:
not just one person being installed into a position,
but two distinct entities, a congregation and a minister, embarking upon a momentous journey.
It is not a step that either one takes lightly.
And it is a step holds promise, and carries a sense of joy, even a hint of excitement.
Let’s now move to this afternoon’s text and allow it to lead us through out moments together
as we seek a full understanding of what this day represents.
I ask your indulgence as I speak to you from my experience as a minister
who once served a congregation that bore some similarities to this one,
and as I speak to you as a person who has known your new pastor for a few years now.
The story, as it comes to us, has five movements, each very quick.
Now Peter and John were going up to the temple
[that’s, of course, the temple in Jerusalem where Jesus used to worship too,
until his death just a few weeks before]
at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.
[that’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon for the regular daily service]
And a man lame from birth was being carried,
whom they laid daily at that gate of the temple which is called Beautiful
[we’re not sure which of the nine temple doors that one was,
because ‘Beautiful’ is not a name applied to any one of them;
the best guess is it was the main door, 75 feet tall]
to ask alms of those who entered the temple.
We must steer clear of the idea that this man was a beggar in the sense that we think of “beggar” today.
In a time when there was no Social Security, no health insurance, no Medicaid,
people willingly and naturally supported one another.
If you honestly needed, then you honestly asked.
And if you were one who had your fair share of resources, then it was not just your choice
but it was your duty to give of what you had, without a hint of condescension.
The idea was that when you gave to another who needed it, you were really giving to God.
And as you know, when you give to God, you’re helping yourself as much as anyone.
Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms.
That’s the first movement.
He asked for what he needed.
And to you who form this family of faith who are taking this important step you’re taking,
formally making it clear for all to see that a new pastor is now a part of your life together,
I encourage you: Ask.
Ask Christen—ask comfortably for what you need.
Ask your questions, all of them.
Ask for her time, for her support; ask for her perspective, for her understanding.
You have every right to ask, every right to speak, every right to make yourself known.
And to Christen I would say, “I hope those who are becoming your people will ask!
I pray they will share out of their depths with you.
Experience tells me that they will not always ask at convenient times,
because richly lived human life does not stay within the bounds of scheduled appointments
and normal office hours.
I encourage you to welcome their asking, even if you don’t understand where the questions are leading,
even if you humbly feel you don’t have nearly enough answers.
Remember: they are turning to you for a reason—trust that reason.”
Now comes the second movement to our story.
And Peter directed his gaze at him, with John, and said, “Look at us.”
In the previous verse the story says that the man who was sitting there on the stonework
saw Peter and John—he glanced up and there they were.
But an entirely different word is used for what Peter did—he didn’t just happen to see.
The word in Greek for what he did means “he grabbed ahold of with his eyes and he did not let go.”
Peter riveted his gaze on this man.
He shut out what was going on all around so he did not miss a thing
about this other human being who was now before him.
And when Peter gave a direction to this man, saying “look at us,”
he used still a different word, which meant,
“Look at us but also look into us.
Let your eyes envelope us!”
Thinking about this second movement in our story,
both to pastor and to people I implore you with identical words.
Don’t just glance at each other but open your eyes and really see one another.
Really peer into each other’s faces, realizing that when you do so,
you are simultaneously revealing your own face.
So model being aware—and model it to each other.
Model waking up in the moment to whoever shares this moment with you.
Wake up and really see those others around you.
Wake up and really look intently at what’s going on in the world—
the world nearby and the world at large.
Wake up and behold the extravagance of God’s grand creation.
Wake up and really see your purpose for having been placed here on earth.
Wake up, and as much as you can, stay awake.
Here comes the third movement:
And he fixed his attention upon them, expecting to receive something from them.
But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have….”
We know that when Jesus and the twelve roamed that land, they held possessions in common
and only one person handled their money.
Presumably that tradition had continued, so Peter and John had no more cash
than the man who sat looking up at them.
Peter named it, straight up:
“I don’t have money, but I do have something I think you could use, and whatever I have, it’s yours.”
To the people of Peace church today I say,
“Be like the man at the temple door—be expectant.
Look forward to receiving something.
Expect something good to happen.
Be ready for the possibilities.”
And to Christen this afternoon I say,
“Be like Peter as he stood before this man who had arrested his attention, and be clear.
Be clear about what you don’t have to give, and what is not yours to give.
Be clear about what you cannot do, what you dare not do, because it is not yours to do.
And be just as clear about what you can offer, even if it’s not quite what was asked for,
because your understanding of ministry says you must offer it,
if you are to be true to your calling, true to the Gospel,
and ultimately true to these people who are now in your care.”
And to both of you I say,
“You each have something to give and you each have something to receive, and I hope you will.”
The fourth movement:
Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but I give you what I have;
in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”
And he took him by the right hand and raised him up;
and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.
We don’t need to supply details here—the writer of Acts fills them all in:
the simple command, “Walk”, the right hand extended, the pulling up,
the feet being made strong, not to mention even the ankles.
Who would have guessed that, minutes before the 3 p.m. worship service began,
this surprising event, this unexpected healing would take place, out there in the open?
And that’s what it was: a healing.
A man miraculously coming to be more whole in ways he had not been.
To pastor and to people this morning, I suggest,
“Healing is just as possible today as it was then, individually and collectively.
Healing is just as possible right here, at the door of this sanctuary, as at the door of that temple.
With prayer, with attention, with understanding, with love,
bodies can heal, even when they’re not expected to.
Minds can heal, even when they have been fragmented.
Spirits can heal, even when they have brought very low.
Hearts can mend, even when they have been broken.
And this healing is not something that a pastor does to a people or for a people.
Healing is something that happens when pastor and people together
tap into a powerful energy that is beyond their own.
Healing is something that blossoms into being when the Holy Spirit moves among you,
calling upon anyone and everyone to get involved,
whether you carry a seminary diploma in your back pocket or not.
And then we come to the final verse.
And leaping up he stood and walked and entered the temple with them,
walking and leaping and praising God.
The final movement is the celebratory one.
We can almost hear that man, shouting with joy.
We can almost see him, bounding about, jumping up and down in his excitement.
The writer of Acts wanted to make sure we got the picture,
so in one short verse he used the word “leap” twice.
And all the delightful actions of the one man were recorded for us,
but we’re told nothing at this pivotal point in the story about Peter, about John.
We can only surmise.
My surmise is this:
Peter, always so passionate, always ready to be the bull in the china shop,
Peter could not have walked sedately on into the temple
while all this springing energy was going on around him.
My surmise is that Peter was drawn into it too—
grabbing a hand, throwing back his head,
letting out a whoop, leaping with the best of them.
Oh, the leaping, that day!
To the family of Peace church, I pray that many experiences of leaping will lie before you,
as God moves among you and your new pastor,
as the Spirit settles over you, and healings occur around you and within you.
And to Christen this afternoon I say,
“I realize now that you knew what you were doing all along,
you with your pink leotards and your tiny ballet slippers.
You were getting ready to dance and to leap,
although in ways neither of us ever quite imagined all those years ago.”
And to both people and pastor this afternoon, I offer this blessing:
May your joys together be full.
May your times of connection be ever so rich.
May your healings be transformative.
May your leaps be very, very high.
And may the dance you share be both lovely and long.
James E. Miller
Peace United Church of Church
September 19, 2010