Text: Acts 3:1-16
What’s the ask? It’s an oddly phrased question—one I am sure that our English guru’s would take issue with in terms of grammatical structure. However, I thought of this awkward three-word question this week after reading the story of the beggar in Acts 3. What’s the ask? is a well-known phrase in the business world and in the world of consulting. When someone asks, What’s the ask? they are wanting to know directly, clearly, and in simple terms what is being asked of them. In some ways, this pithy question reflects our pressure for time and our increasingly short attention spans. In its essence, it communicates, “Don’t bore me with the details, just tell me what you are asking for—what you need or want from me.” But it also does something else—something far more important than saving time or pandering to our restlessness. The simple phrase, What’s the ask? forces us to be clear about what we are needing, wanting, or asking for from someone else.
One of our core values at Pullen is defined by the affirmation that the question is often more important than the answer. After all, it really doesn’t matter what the answer is if we haven’t asked the necessary or relevant question. There is a story that Brooks Wicker told me years ago that illustrates this point. The Wicker home place, still to this day, sits directly across the street from a small Baptist church on a rural county road in Robeson County. As the story goes, the church had had a program on homelessness and hunger. So moved by the presentation, the members decided that they needed to feed the homeless a meal. They went into full action mode organizing, planning, and cooking a meal for the homeless. They set up tables in their fellowship hall, decorated the space, and prepared for their guests. You can just imagine—tables filled with fried chicken, potato salad, green beans, deviled eggs, bread, and all kinds of homemade desserts. When all was in place, they opened their doors and waited—they waited for the hungry and the homeless to come partake of their genuine generosity and hospitality. They waited and waited. No one came—not a single hungry, homeless person came. No one came because no one had stopped to ask the question, “Are there any hungry homeless people in rural Robeson County that need to be fed?” It’s easy to hear that story and think about how the good people of that small Baptist church didn’t ask a necessary or relevant question. But one can also reflect on that story and wonder if the presenter of the program on homelessness and hunger was clear about the “ask”—what that particular church could do to prevent hunger. What’s the ask? The question is, indeed, often more important than the answer or finding what we think is the “right” solution to our needs.
In Acts 3 the beggar who had sat outside the Beautiful Gate in the Temple’s courtyard had asked the same question for years, “Do you have any alms for me?” He had long given up on asking to be healed. All he was asking for was enough money to take care of his physical needs—money for food and shelter—from day to day. Begging for money outside the temple entrance was his daily routine and Luke pays special attention to this detail contrasting the beggar’s position of being on the outside of the Temple with that of the Jews entering the Temple for prayer. Luke also makes much in this story of Peter’s eye contact. Peter commands the lame man to “look at us,” which naturally compels the man to fix his attention on Peter and John. It is worth noting that Peter’s focus is squarely upon a particular individual. This detail, in Luke’s telling of this story, stands as a reminder to us that mercy is always a personal concern. But that’s another sermon. And regardless of all the details Luke includes in telling this story—all of which make important theological statements—I want to suggest that the take away for us today is that the beggar had lost sight of what’s the ask. One would assume that the lame man started out going to the Temple in hopes of being healed. More than money, surely what he wanted was to walk again. This beggar’s story makes me wonder if somewhere over the years, somewhere along his journey, he had forgotten “what the ask” was. Someone in the lectionary group this week wondered if maybe he didn’t know what to ask for or what the question could be. Maybe he didn’t feel that he could ask for something more than that which the system had ascribed to him—a place outside the Temple in the role of beggar.
This story begs our reflection (no pun intended) on our human tendency to negotiate down when asking God for what we want and need. It calls into question our view of God and reveals in some ways just how small we make God in our thinking and acting. It reminds me of a book that, for years, sat on my desk. The title of the book was, Your God Is Too Small. And while that book no longer sits on my desktop, I continue to be haunted by its title. Your God is too small—what does it mean? Does it mean that we have made God in our image rather than living as though we are created in the image of God? Does it mean that we have reduced God to acting within our physical realm and our insatiable need for the tangible rather than believing in a God who exists outside the physical and who represents the intangible? Does it mean that we only expect God to work within our limited ways of understanding and knowing rather than in the mysterious and unexplainable expressions of a faith that transcends what we can see and touch and hear and know? The story of the beggar makes me wonder: how does one maintain an intellectual and spiritual integrity and believe and trust in a God whose ways are not our ways? How do we have the faith and the courage to keep asking for justice and mercy and healing in ways that go beyond what we can know and understand and explain? And it raises the question, “Is it even ‘right’ to ask God for what would seem to us to be a miracle—for something outside the boundaries of what we can prove?”
But possibly more important, this story of the lame man invites us to reflect on how the big-ness of God’s love and mercy and justice is known in our lives and in the world. In the midst of our lectionary discussion, it struck me that without Peter and John the beggar would have continued his daily routine at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. Whoever brought him there daily would have continued to drop him off in the same spot day after day—outside the Temple gate. He would have remained an outcast, casually seen but unknown to those who were allowed to enter the Temple. He would have continued to ask for alms hoping to get a charitable handout from a well-meaning soul who looked upon him with pity. But Peter and John came along and changed the trajectory of the beggar’s life. They looked the beggar in his eyes, saw his need, and offered him something far greater than what he was asking for. They brought word to him of a God who desires more for us than we think possible. They brought word to him of a God who heals our brokenness and restores us to wholeness. They offered him a hope that enabled him to respond in a way that he had long stopped believing was possible.
Peter said to the lame man, “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, walk.” Peter’s command was not the incantation of a magician, as though healing powers were released by the mere mention of a sacred “name,” but rather it was a believer’s confession and faith in the promise that Jesus restores our brokenness and offers wholeness for our living.
So, what’s the ask this morning? It is this. Our world needs people who believe in a God who is still making the impossible happen. Our world needs people who are willing to make a confessional statement that God’s ways are not our ways. Our world needs people who have faith in the promise that God’s love and justice and mercy can restore our world’s brokenness and offer wholeness and peace for our living. Our world needs people like Peter and John who are willing to look directly at need, at pain, at despair, and invoke the bigness of a God who can meet us where we are and heal us where we are broken. So, here’s the ask…will you be one of those people? Someone whose God is beyond our human imagination. Someone whose God is God, and not a mere human projection of God. Someone whose God fills the world with wonder and amazement.