“What I Have I Give You…”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
Sermon 2 in “Holy Habit of Gladness & Generosity” Series
20 September, 2020
“I have no silver or gold,” he said, “but what I have I give you.” I will never forget those words; they have changed everything for me, though they were not intended for me.
Like so many others, I was making my way to the temple for late afternoon prayers. And, as usual, lying just outside the Beautiful Gate at the temple entrance was the man everyone said had been lame as long as he’d been alive. I’ll call him Beau, because he was always stationed near the Beautiful Gate. It never occurred to me to ask his name—I guess it just never felt like he was a full person, like the rest of us. Most of us avoided so much as making eye contact with him, because the whole transaction was just so awkward. Were we fearful that we’d catch something from him? Did we worry that he’d ask us for more than we cared to give? Did we really think him unworthy of human dignity?
Whatever the reasons, this was our habit as we practiced our piety: we barely saw him, just habitually dropped a small donation into his beggar’s bowl as we passed by on our way to evening prayers, as if that was the opening line of our prayers.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who occasionally wondered what he did with all the money he received. Did those men who carried him to the temple entrance take a cut of what he collected? Was he truly lame, and if he was, then who was to blame—Beau’s parents or him, that God should punish him that way? Surely I wasn’t the only one who gave a little bit grudgingly from time to time, especially when finances were tight for my family, too.
The poor beggar probably saw those questions and thoughts and all that ambivalence written in our eyes and in our faces, and it was too much for him to bear—I mean, how does one beg for years on end and retain a sense of dignity? And so, he avoided looking into our eyes, too. It must be so painful, seeing person after person after person looking with suspicion, or antipathy, or pity, or worse, looking away and ignoring altogether—none of them seeing an equal, a fellow human being.
I learned that saying prayers and giving alms was how we show respect for God—and it is, for sure. It’s one way. But never in my life had I encountered the power and presence of the living, speaking, active God as I did in that moment. That day, I realized that all my rote prayers and charitable giving had been a mere going through motions. It dawned on me that I’d spent years faithfully practicing the religious rituals, hoping to feel some sort of reassurance that God was giving me a passing grade, that my life was assured to go well if I just did what I was supposed to do. Which was, to say my prayers and drop a coin in the beggar’s bowl every week. But what the two men who preached of Jesus—Peter and John were their names—what Peter said and did that day for a man he’d never met felt electrifying to me, and opened my eyes to a deeper spiritual reality.
They were just ahead of me as we headed toward the temple. Hunching over as if to make himself invisible, Beau glued his eyes to the ground as he shook his bowl and repeated his mantra, “Alms for this needy one, please.” Usually, we just dropped our coins in his bowl with a stooping motion as we kept on moving in toward the temple. Like I said, almost as an opening prayer: “Here’s my gift, O God, see me giving it to this poor wretch. Lord, save me from becoming like him.”
But Peter and John stopped completely, which made me slow down, too. “Look at us,” Peter said to him, as he and John looked intently at Beau. It was an astonishing moment: they looked at Beau with the intent to truly see him, to understand his struggles and fears and, to help him feel seen, noticed, dignified. They gave him more than just the cursory glance that relegated his personhood to a mere caricature as the lame beggar, the one who received our alms, who became a part of our perfunctory prayers. I felt something shift—in my spirit as much as his—when the two men treated Beau with dignity.
Beau slowly fixed his attention on them—it was clear that he was obeying their command in order to get their coins. And that’s when Peter said the world-changing words I’ll never forget: “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you.” And he reached out to take Beau’s hand.
I later learned that Peter and John, along with the other members of their Christian community, had no silver or gold of their own because they had pooled all of their possessions together, and discerned as a community how best to manage the money and resources. So, no one is ever in need, they said, and no one is ever distracted from the call to serve by having too much, or a fear of losing what they have. I’m not sure how well or how long that will work, but I can’t help but admire their courage, their faith in each other, and their willingness to sacrifice as they grow in their love of God and one another.
What Peter had, he gave to Beau. And what Peter had was deep and sincere faith in God. As well as an understanding of God’s love and power and presence. And an ability and desire to bring life from places that are dead. Because, let’s face it: Beau was largely dead to the world. But Peter understood that his mission was, after the example of his teacher Jesus, to convey God’s message of divine acceptance, holy healing, resurrection power.
In the face of the status quo notion that the man would only ever know begging to survive, despite tacit acceptance that he need never be treated as a human being worthy of equal dignity, as “one of us”, what Peter had was confidence in the power of Jesus Christ which refuses to be daunted by fear, or constrained by others’ notions of what’s possible. And so, he said to Beau as he took his hand, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ, stand up and walk.”
In that moment, everything changed. A lame man became mobile. The one who had previously relied on the charity of others became a bestower of gifts on others, an outspoken preacher of God’s generosity and amazing grace through fellow human beings. He was a constant advocate for a deeper compassion toward those who struggle and those who are pushed to the margins. A man who had only ever lay outside the gates to the temple yearning for acceptance but kept firmly at the margins, was for the first time allowed to enter in—to participate as a member of the blessed community. He took Peter’s hand, was raised to his feet, and was able to worship not just in the temple, but everywhere he went, he worshiped and praised God and loved his neighbor. His joy was infectious, spilling out of him in acts of selfless generosity that made others dance and cry out with joy. It multiplied.
Of course, it wasn’t only Beau who changed. I was changed. I saw a power, a love, and a presence at work through Peter and John that I hadn’t been awake to for all those years I’d religiously done my dutiful prayers and almsgiving. I longed for their peace and confidence in my own life, their awareness of being partners with God in this world. I recognized that, although I thought I was doing a good deed in giving a gift to the needy in the coins I dropped in his bowl, Beau’s humanity and wholeness asked something different of me. I had been going through motions without actually being present to a fellow human being in need. I had been going through the mechanics of piety without being fully attentive to God’s presence and power in me. I had been going through motions without opening myself to my own deepest spiritual needs, because I feared what I lacked and I didn’t know the fullness of what God had given me.
Peter said, “I don’t have silver or gold, but what I have I give to you.” And in that instant, I was awakened to the truth that generosity and charity isn’t just about giving our extra coins.
It’s about an attitude that gladly shares whatever we’ve got, without fear of scarcity, and boldly accepting vulnerability, because everything we have, from our breath to whatever forms of wealth we enjoy, everything is a gift from God. Our greatest gift is love—the ability and choice to treat others with the same dignity and grace that we need and want for ourselves.
I was awakened to the gospel of Jesus Christ—the Good News that, despite all the things that worldly voices and pressures might point to as our flaws, our faults, our failures, God embraces us as we are and promises to heal and transform us in the ways we need it most.
Friends, what I have, I give you: Here is the love of God in Christ, at work in me. Will you take my hand, and walk with me? Amen.