We Are the Hands of God

June 5, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Psalm 4; John 7: 33-36; 2 Corinthians 4:6-12


You’ve probably all heard this one, but it fits today’s theme, so I’ll share it.

A small town was experiencing a terrible storm and local officials sent out an emergency warning that the riverbanks would soon overflow and flood the nearby homes. They ordered everyone in the town to evacuate immediately.

A faithful Christian man heard the warning and decided to stay, saying to himself, “I will trust God and if I am in danger, then God will save me.”

The neighbors came by his house and said to him, “We’re leaving and there is room for you in our car, please come with us!” But the man declined. “I have faith that God will take care of me.”

As the man stood on his porch watching the water rise up the steps, a man in a canoe paddled by and called to him, “Hurry and come into my canoe, the waters are rising quickly!” But the man again said, “No thanks, God will take care of me.”

The floodwaters rose higher pouring water into his living room and the man had to retreat to the second floor. A police motorboat came by and saw him at the window. “We will come up and rescue you!” they shouted. But the man refused, waving them off saying, “Use your time to save someone else! I have faith that God will take care of me!”

The flood waters rose higher and higher and the man had to climb up to his rooftop.

A helicopter spotted him and dropped a rope ladder. A rescue officer came down the ladder and pleaded with the man, “Grab my hand and I will pull you up!” But the man STILL refused, folding his arms tightly to his body. “No thank you! I know God will take care of me!”

Shortly after, the house broke up and the floodwaters swept the man away and he drowned.

When in Heaven, the man stood before God and said, “I put all of my faith in You. Why didn’t You come take care of me?”

To which God responded, “Son, I sent you a warning. I sent you a car. I sent you a canoe. I sent you a motorboat. I sent you a helicopter. What more were you looking for?”

This is a cute story, and we can all chuckle at the naivety of the Christian.  And yet, every week we pray together, “Thy kingdom come.” We pray that the world will be a kinder place, one in which justice reigns.  We pray for peace. We pray for those who are poor. And maybe, in our prayers we are like that Christian man in the flooding town whose expectation was that somehow, God will miraculously care for those in need; God will bring about a just and peaceful world. When we watch the news, we may identify with the writer of Psalm 4 who cries out, “O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!”  Whether it’s the local, national or international news, we hear one story after another of bad things happening, of people suffering. And as we look and listen, the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel ring true, “You will look for me, but you will not find me.”  Indeed, often times the world around us, with its natural disasters, famine and disease, widespread poverty, greed, intolerance, fear, retaliation; the existence  so much bad, it’s understandable that many people don’t believe that there is a God or at least question that there is a benevolent God who cares for us.  But this morning the psalmist counsels us, “When you are disturbed, be still and; ponder it on your beds.”

I think that what we are invited to ponder is, not, “Where is God in all of this?” but rather, “Where are we in all of this?”  What’s our role? And Paul answers for us what we already know, “ For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,”a made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. We learn from Jesus how to be God’s presence and action in the world. If we take time to ponder, to be still, we will come to know what we know.  We will experience God’s light and direction.

The sixteenth century nun and church reformer Theresa of Avila said it well in the following prayer:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,

no hands but yours,

no feet but yours,

yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion

is to look out to the earth,

yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good

and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.

On Sundays when we gather together we sing hymns such as We are the Light of the World, and Called as Partners in Christ’s Service. But do we really believe what we proclaim; that if people are going to encounter God, it will be through the loving actions of us? If we consider that possibility, our response, may be, “Who me?”  If so, we would be following a long, prestigious line of people who responded that way. Both Sarah and Abraham were incredulous when God called on them to play a significant role in developing a faith community whose members would worship one God. Abraham fell to the ground laughing, and Sarah, a little more discrete laughed to herself.  When God appeared to Moses in a burning bush and called him to go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of bondage, Moses demurred, saying that he was a stutterer and suggested that God had better send his brother Aaron instead.  When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to say that she would become the mother of the long awaited Messiah, she also was initially in disbelief, “How can this be?” she asked.

Oh, we try to be good and do good things. We donate, and even donate generously to worthy causes.  We make cookies for In a Pinch, help out at the soup kitchen or Seeds of Hope.  We work on the mission committee. Most of us are generous with our time, talent and treasure individually, and as a community we are known as the little church with the big heart.  But do we let ourselves recognize that it is God, working through us? We are not simply doing good deeds but, whether people recognize it or not, we are being the presence of God? Perhaps because we see ourselves as less than perfect, we can’t really accept that we are God in the world. St. Paul refers to us earthen vessels – fragile, maybe chipped and worn, maybe even a little cracked. Yet almost all of the stories preserved in scripture are ones where the small, the insignificant, the imperfect are called by God to do important work.  In fact, we are all made in God’s image and are called to be the face and hands and feet of the divine. The “treasure” we hold in the fragile, earthen vessel of our lives is the presence of God. Why is this recognition important? For me, doing good works on my own has its limitations. Sometimes I feel more generous, kinder than  at other times.  Sometimes I have more energy and enthusiasm. Other times not so much. St. Paul tells us that by being conscious of being Christ-bearers, intentionally walking in Jesus’ footsteps we can

Be afflicted in every way, but not constrained;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not feel abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed;

When I remember that I have the opportunity to bring God’s presence, God’s compassion, God’s healing, God’s acceptance to others, my attention to the task improves.

The other extremely important benefit of daring to acknowledge that we are the presence of God; is the WE.  We are not alone. We belong to a faith community made up of members who are also wrestling with this reality; who are trying to own it and live it.

In his classic Treasure in Earthen Vessels, Theologian James Gustafson speaks of the church as a community of language and interpretation, of memory and understanding.  He says that without the “common memory” of the church, individuals lose the sense of “roots, of identity, of direction.  This common memory that gives us roots, identity and direction is so important for us, especially during this time of transition. In other words, Gustafson talks about the importance of a faith community as one that links “human experience and the Christian tradition through interpretation.  We then internalize that meaning which gives us direction for our personal lives and for us as a faith community. Gustafson adds something I think very important, “If this function is to be fulfilled, there must be a community in which together people work through the kind of process of interpretation.”

We are very fortunate here at Union Church. Last summer we had story gathering sessions whereby we developed our profile as a church. We did not get our interpretation from the leaders of a hierarchical church, or from the teachings of one particular denomination.  All who wanted participate, reflected, shared and helped identify our foundational beliefs and philosophies, reminding us of our roots, strengthening us as a people, affirming our identity and providing guidance for our behavior and decisions.

We are a diverse community.  This is our richness, this is our blessing, and it is also our challenge.  Someone once said that diplomacy is the art of getting people who disagree on everything to agree on one thing. We don’t necessarily disagree, but we certainly have a variety of religious backgrounds and spiritual understanding. Although each person’s experience, understanding, and response to the divine is unique, in most denominational churches peoples’ internalized interpretation of their faith experience likely has more commonality than we have in Union Church. We describe ourselves as inclusive and non-judgmental, and I believe, strive to make that professed self-identity a reality.  And though we say that we are accepting of a divers set of ideas and approaches, we identify ourselves as Christian in the broadest sense; what someone termed “Wide Christianity”. As such I think that we likely can agree that as a Christian faith community we can continue to communally strive for a greater understanding of the messages of Jesus and support each other in living out the values that he modeled.

Gustafson states, although he is stressing the importance of belief in the identity and continuity of a faith community, he thinks it important that we attend to other activities that he says are also essential to the achievement of cohesiveness, stability and endurance as a church. In his words they are: worship, ritual, service, structures and processes.  In other words, all that we do as a church in our prayer life, our operations, and our service embody our values and give rise to or reinforce our beliefs.  If we can, in all of the ways that we come together, in all of the ways that we work together, in all of the ways that we provide service and minister, remember that we are the hands and eyes, and feet and heart of God, we will be doing much to advance the reign of God.  Others may not recognize our actions as divine. No matter.  If people are listened to and feel really heard, if they are encouraged, affirmed and valued, if they feel less alone, more satisfied, and happy, because of us, God’s work is being done.

May God’s light shine in our hearts to give us the knowledge of God’s glory in us.  May we be the light that shines out of the darkness.  Amen.