This is the first of a four-part sermon series preached at Ellendale UMC about our new vision statement: “…to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus Christ.” For the other sermons in the series, click on the links below:
Part 2: “…to be the feet of Jesus…”
Part 3: “…to be the voice of Jesus…”
Part 4: “…to be the body of Christ…”

A sermon on James 2:14-17 & John 9:1-12

A few Christmases ago, Carrie gave me a print of the painting of The Return of the Prodigal Son by the great artist Rembrandt van Rijn. It’s a remarkable piece in so many ways and you’ll likely hear me refer to it multiple times in sermons in the future. But there is one feature that I’ve been drawn toward multiple times, including this week as I’ve been pondering about the significance of the work of our hands in reference to being the hands of Christ, which is the first part of our new vision at Ellendale UMC.

The central figure in Rembrandt’s painting, as in Jesus’ parable, is the lovesick father who at long last welcomes home his wayward child. In Rembrandt’s portrayal of the encounter, there is something fascinating and beautiful about the father’s hands, which is featured on the cover of your bulletin.

rembrandt-father-hands

Do you notice the difference between the hands? One hand appears more rugged and masculine – wide and with thick fingers and appears more calloused. The other hand, however, looks softer and more feminine – narrow, caring, nurturing. Together these go “hand-in-hand”(I know…I know…preacher’s humor can be the worst) to give us a picture of the strong, yet tender love of God – gentle enough to embrace us without causing us harm; strong enough to rescue us and hold us secure. I went back to that painting this week and as I reexamined it, I saw the hands of my grandparents.

That rugged hand looked just my Papaw’s. I remember those hands well…hands that held onto a piano bench pad in the living room of his home. We grandchildren turned their living room into a rodeo frequently. He would hold the piano bench pad down between his chair and Granny’s, pretending that the pad was a gate holding in the bull, which was one of my uncles or my father with us, the bull riders, on their back…those rugged hands that grabbed me while I was giggling and kicking and screaming while he pulled me into his “bear trap” every Sunday (there was no getting out of Papaw’s bear traps)…hands that, when we had sleepovers at Papaw and Granny’s, would rub us down with Vick’s 44 vapor rub even though we weren’t sick, because we needed that “calming down” that only Vick’s could provide after those rodeos…hands that were rugged and calloused from feeding cattle or bloody from messing with the barbed wire fencing…hands that went through his garden and fields picking vegetables not only for Granny to prepare and cook but also to give to needy families in the area…hands of service…hands of work that as I’ve shared before gripped a hammer and fence post as he breathed his last.

That other hand is Granny’s, though. Papaw’s hands worked the earth. Granny’s work was more delicate – handiwork, needlework, crafty. The quality of her hands, while different from Papaw’s, was just as much needed. Her hands were caring…not inflicting Vick’s 44. Those hands were artistic – she played the piano some, but one of her best gifts was the care she gave through hospitality and cooking – preparing meals for family and guest, for friend and stranger alike…hands that frequently held a book, usually a Bible or a hymnbook as she loved the Lord and sang with all her might…hands that were well trained in serving and loving.

These are the hands of my grandparents…and they give me a glimpse, albeit imperfect, into what the hands of Jesus were all about. Our gospel lesson tells us one way in which Jesus’ hands go to work. Jesus’ hands in this passage worked with dirt and water. I’ve always been curious about Jesus’ use of spit and dirt, mud…it seems so, well, unsanitary, dirty, unclean, odd. But he does this here and on some other occasions, where he uses spit and dirt to form mud and rubs it over the eyes of a blind person to bring them vision, to give them, in a sense, new life. And as I pondered on this, I realized, as some of the ancient Christian writers did, that Jesus was revealing his relationship with the God who fashioned humans from the dirt all the way back in the account of creation in Genesis 2:7.

In the second century, there arose a teaching that challenged the notion that Jesus was truly and fully human but taught, rather, than Jesus only appeared to be like a human. You see, this teaching couldn’t grasp how someone could be both truly and fully God and truly and fully human. Yet one of the key leaders in the church at the time was a bishop named Irenaeus, who helped guide the church into maintaining belief in both Jesus’ full humanity as well as his full divinity. Irenaeus was a student of one of the Apostle John’s disciples. Irenaeus wrote about this connection between Jesus in the flesh and God’s work in creation by pointing out the work of Jesus’ hands:

Jesus bestowed sight on the one who was blind from birth – not by a word, but by an outward action. He did this neither casually nor simply because this was how it happened. He did it this way in order to show it was the same hand of God here that had also formed humans at the beginning. And therefore when his disciples asked him why he had been born blind, whether by his own fault or his parents’, Jesus said, “Neither this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God might be manifested in him.” The work of God is, after all, the forming of humans…for the Lord took clay from the earth, and formed man. Notice here too how the Lord spit on the earth, and made clay and smeared it on his eyes, showing how the ancient creation was made. – St. Irenaeus

Hmmm…When the disciples get into a debate about some philosophical or theological argument about the origin of this suffering, about the problem of evil, Jesus’ takes them to a new level and his hands go to do the work of God. Maybe there’s a lesson there for us. For the disciples could’ve just said, “We’ll pray for you, blind man,” and then gone about their merry way. Just like the negative example depicted in the passage from James. But, if when walking down the road and our hands have the cure or the ability to supply the actual need of someone in search for it, we keep our hands in our pockets and just ask the theoretical question, then, well, we’re not being the hands of Christ and James tells us our faith is useless.

What sorts of things do we see Jesus doing with his hands in the gospels? Healing (as we have seen in our passage this morning and many, many other places where he touches an ill or dying or dead person, or in some cases where an ill person touches him); Jesus’ hands can be found drawing artwork in the sand one chapter earlier in John 8; they are touching the disciples who were afraid at the transfiguration in Matthew 17; Jesus’ hands washed feet; blessed, broke and dispersed bread; served others; touched the untouchable; got dirty by reaching to the unclean; and in the end were wide open as they were wounded and nailed to the cross to show the full expanse and embrace of God’s love. And that’s what the hands of Jesus convey – love!

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!

And if our vision, I would say, is that we would be the hands of Christ to the world around us, then well our hands ought to be doing the same things that Jesus’ hands did in the gospels – creating, healing, giving grace, offering hope and encouragement and faith, getting dirty, washing feet, feeding the hungry, touching the untouchable, and willing to be wounded for the sake of God’s love.

Legend is told of a church that was destroyed during World War II.  Among the ruins there was but one item left standing, a statue of Jesus with his arms reaching out. However, his hands were severed in the midst of the wreckage. The church was rebuilt and a sculptor offered to make and attach new hands to restore the statue but the members of the church opted to let it stand as it was saying, “For Christ has no hands but our hands to do His work on earth.  If we do not feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, entertain the stranger, visit the imprisoned, and clothe the naked, who will?”

One last word – my grandparents’ hands, like everyone’s, withered over time. Granny’s hands weakened to where they couldn’t cook or create or serve like they once could. I had to come to terms with the reality that the work of the hands I witnessed in my grandparents would have to continue in people like me. The work is now ours. John Wesley made this observation when he talked about the transfer of ministry and leadership from Moses to Joshua in the Old Testament as they approached the promised land. Wesley made this statement: “Let not the withering of the most useful hands be the weakening of ours.” We are here because of useful hands…some of those hands have withered, some have gone…but those hands have designed to strengthen ours so that when the time would come for us to take up the task, we would be able to do so. So, let not the withering of those useful hands be the weakening of ours. Let’s be the hands of Christ.

Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love,
Show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.

Kneels at the feet of his friends, silently washes their feet,
Master who acts as a slave to them.

Neighbors are rich and poor, neighbors are black and white,
Neighbors are near and far away.
 

These are the ones we should serve, these are the ones we should love;
All these are neighbors to us and you.
 
Kneel at the feet of our friends, silently washing their feet,
This is the way we should live with you.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Words matter. And the last words we remember from loved ones matter in particular. In the lead up to All Saints’ Day, I’ve pondered about the importance that we often attach to the last words of our beloved ones, of the saints who have gone before. Sometimes the words are a cry for help, sometimes they are words of a deeply committed hope and faith, sometimes they are words of blessing upon the family or loved ones who are at the side of the dying person, sometimes they’re just random. In many cases, of course, we aren’t sure what the person’s final words were. But in all of the varied cases, one thing remains the same: for the survivors, the future is uncertain and sometimes downright scary. The new reality that will unfold in the aftermath of a loved one’s death is one that is largely unpredictable. How will I…how will we move on without him or her or them? The beast of death and of the uncertain future is so scary.

And it works for more than death too. To speak to other current events (ahem, Election Day)…what will I/we do if my/our ideal candidate is not elected? We’re so prone to be trapped in fear about what we hear might happen if the worst thing occurs and the beast on the other side of the political aisle gets elected? Or perhaps there is more than one beast on the ballot? The future is so uncertain. How do we move on when the beast will surely rise from the earth and claim us, one way or another (or both)?

Daniel has a vision, a dream of sorts, which though it has a nice resolution at the end is filled at first with monsters who evoke fear and terror and death on the rest of the world who would dare stand in their way. Daniel admits that he is deeply troubled by these four beasts and asks for an interpretation by one of the angelic attendants in the dream. And did you notice the angel’s response? It’s almost nonchalant. The angel in a matter-of-fact way just says those four beasts represent four kingdoms. The angel doesn’t put as much significance on that part of the vision as Daniel (or we) would wish, but moves rather swiftly to point out that the eternal kingdom belongs to the “holy ones” of the Ancient of Days, or as other translations put it, the “saints” of the Most High God! If you continue reading the rest of Daniel 7, you’ll notice that Daniel is not satisfied with the lack of specificity about the nature of the vision and what all is represented therein…particularly those beasts. You see, living with ambiguity and the temptation to fear is not a new predicament for God’s people.

The angel, and thereby God, is inviting Daniel, and thereby us, to take a longer view than to be merely caught up in the temporal realities and kingdoms and powers that will one day pass…and yes, Tuesday (Election Day), too, shall pass. We are invited to take a view that, rather, is one that has stood the test of time and remains throughout kingdoms and empires, across crusades and dark ages, through times of persecution and exile, and even survived the times of enjoying popularity which was probably the most threatening temptation to the preservation and deliverance of genuine faith. The communion of the saints. It’s a part of the Creed we confess…a creed that has been around longer than any of the political candidates up for election, a creed that is older than the United States, older than the British empire, than the Holy Roman Empire, older than the dark ages, older than when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, even older than when the Church established which books would be within the canon of the New Testament. “I believe in…the communion of saints… (or the communion of the holy ones)…” and this forever and ever “…life everlasting.”

The last words of our Creed, the last words of the angel to Daniel in our passage. Congruent with the last words of our movement’s founder, John Wesley, who on his death bed proclaimed several times: “The best of all is, God is with us.” That statement – “God IS with us” is not a statement bound by a particular time period but is an eternal statement that stands the test of time…God was, God is, God will be – or as God revealed God’s self to Moses, “I am.” That is the one to whom the saints ultimately give their allegiance – not to the beasts that emerge from the earth, not to the kingdoms that come and go, not to the political parties or any temporal reality – but to the One who sits on the Throne, who has conquered the realm that ruled over all the kingdoms of the earth. For you know what the beasts all have in common? They all died: the reign of death. And this One, the one who appeared “like a human being” or “a Son of Man” established at the funeral of one of his best friends that, “those who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live.”

stole-from-papaw-ties

Last words. My wife, Carrie, made this stole (see above) for me. The symbols of eternity and the Trinity that are intertwined are made from the materials of some of my Papaw’s neckties. When I think of the communion of saints, he is one of the first ones who come to mind. The reality is that I don’t know what my Papaw’s last words were. I don’t know what he uttered as he died, if anything, for he was alone building a fence around some hay bales for his cattle. But even though his last words are unknown, he actually left a message loud and clear for his loved ones in positioning himself the way he did when he died. Granny found him lying in the field, his glasses in his shirt pocket, his right hand holding a hammer, his left hand holding a fence post. He died sending a message that said: “Until the eternal kingdom comes in fullness when God wipes away all tears and death and crying and pain will be no more…until that day, I will not stop working.” No temporal reality, no setback, no fear, no temptation would hold him back from his task. Papaw’s favorite hymn was one called ‘Yield not to Temptation,’ #191 in the All-American Hymnal that resides in the pews at Oscar UMC. Almost every time there was a hymn sing and my dad (the song leader) opened the floor for requests for congregational hymns, Papaw would holler out, “Number 191!” The final verse is so fitting for Daniel 7. Yield not to temptation…yield not to fear of the beasts…death will not have the final say…

To them that o’ercometh, God giveth a crown,
Through faith we will conquer, though often cast down;
He who is our Savior, our strength will renew;
Look ever to Jesus, He’ll carry you through.

I was a nervous wreck, still a mostly impressionable 22-year-old young man, recently married in the summer of 2003 as I ventured from one side of North Lexington Avenue in Wilmore, Kentucky, to the other. In the opening chapel service of my orientation weekend at Asbury Seminary, Maxie Dunnam, the president of the seminary at the time, addressed the incoming graduate students and began with these words:

 If you don’t remember anything else during your time here in seminary, I want you to remember these two things for the rest of your life: number one – There is a place in God’s heart that only you can fill; number two – There is something that you are called to do that you cannot do without the help of the Holy Spirit.

Well I’ve forgotten a few things I’m sure and with the help of notes and textbooks I’ve remembered other things, but those two statements have kept coming back over and over. As I look back, however, I have come to realize that he was only reiterating something that I had already known and been taught ever since I’d sensed the call to ministry that would take me to the pastorate. They were instilled in me by my loved ones, but especially my Papaw & Granny.

 

Five and a half years prior, right around my 17th birthday, about half the age I am now, I had broken the news to my family that I had sensed the call of God upon my life into ministry and that I intended to follow that call. I shared this over dinner (where I grew up, that’s the big meal in the middle of the day that others call ‘lunch’) that was our custom on every Sunday after church at Papaw & Granny’s house, just a few hundred feet from our church in Oscar, Kentucky.

 

Papaw's Letter

 

Later that week I received a hand-written letter from Papaw (left) in response to the news I shared. He vowed his unconditional support and from Granny as well as I pursued my calling. There were several things in that letter that were quite prophetic but one thing he said curiously yet subtly foreshadowed the second point of that inaugural message to my seminary career. Papaw wrote:

Just remember, always, that nothing can happen to you in life – no setback, no disappointment, no temptation – nothing that you & God together can not handle.

Papaw’s life and teaching exemplified to the nth degree the value of a life of humility and acknowledging that life’s fulfillment is found in depending on the Lord to live into God’s purpose for our lives and to make it through the most difficult of times. There have been plenty of setbacks, several disappointments, and a multitude of temptations, many to which I have fallen prey. But every victory, lesson, and new beginning have been because of the help, saving help, of God’s Spirit. I’ve held onto that letter Papaw wrote. It was the last one he addressed to me. He died six months later.

Granny and Me

 

And then there’s Granny (right), who I’ve known my whole life to be filled with infectious joy that manifested itself in her seemingly incessant singing. That’s a trait that has found its way into my ministry as those who are burdened with the task of listening to my preaching can attest when all of a sudden I break into song. I shared this with her on my last visit to see her before she died earlier this year. In recent years, the smile became rarer and rarer, but one adorned her face that day. That’s how I’ll remember her!

 

But there was something she always wrote in my birthday card every year that stood out to me when I recall the first point of that opening chapel. She would sign every card written to me with this phrase:

There is a special place in my heart just for you.

With each child, and son- or daughter-in-law, with each grandchild, and expansion of the family with more weddings, and with every great-grandchild that arrived in our family, we saw Granny’s heart grow. And so, I believe, it is with God. With every new creation, with each bundle of joy, with every masterpiece, we see another chamber of the heart of God. In this small, yet significant, way Granny gave me a picture of the loving God who prepares a place for each of us.

 

In a few weeks when I am ordained as an elder in full connection in The United Methodist Church, I will kneel down and have hands laid upon me as a closing, of sorts, to the chapter upon which Papaw and Granny helped me embark and through which they prayed me. But it will be a new beginning as well as I start a new journey in ministry as lead pastor of Ellendale UMC in Bartlett, Tennesse, just outside of Memphis. The ordination will be enjoined with celebration not unlike how I began this journey at half my current age when eating a meal at Papaw and Granny’s table surrounded by loved ones who always encouraged one another in our love for God and our neighbors. At the service, there will be beautiful singing and I will long to hear the angelic voice of my Granny belting out louder than the rest of the congregation. There will be praying that I may humbly take up this yoke and I will long to see the face of my Papaw who quietly but dependably taught me about the importance of humility. But though I won’t get to hear her voice or see his face, I’ll experience the truth and beauty of all they embodied in the faithful community that seeks to follow the Lord of us all. After all, they’re now a part of that great cloud of witnesses who urges us on in our pursuit of the One who authored and perfected this faith that unites us in our acknowledgement that:

  1. There is a place in God’s heart that only you can fill;
  2. There is something you are called to do that you cannot do without the help of the Holy Spirit.

And that’s grace enough to carry us the rest of the way.

Yesterday I took the kids to go visit my Granny, since she’s not able to get out as much. I’ll have to tell you more about her soon, but I went to visit her yesterday because it was her husband (my Papaw’s) birthday. He would have been 89. As we were walking toward the door, I saw the sign next to the house that has been up for years, which inspired me to post the picture below of it on facebook. The word ‘friendship’ is under-rated. There’s something irreplaceable about having friends in our world, and this thought brought to my mind a hymn by Charles Wesley…

The sign outside my Papaw & Granny's house. Having known the gift of the surrounding community who helped in my family's time of need, Papaw and Granny know the invaluable gift of friendship.

The sign outside my Papaw & Granny’s house. Having received generous aid by the surrounding community who helped in my family’s time of need, Papaw and Granny came to know the invaluable gift of friendship.

Among the thousands of hymns and sacred poems that Charles Wesley penned in his lifetime is a collection of 18 “Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord”. The lyrics of the hymns in this collection beautifully portray the mystery of the Incarnation pointing out that it was not just the death of Christ that brings salvation but that the entirety of the life of God becoming human (conception, birth, childhood and development, teaching, miracle-working, suffering, dying, being raised again, ascending, and his impending return) that reconciles the world to God and one another. One hymn in the collection that has continued to resound in my remembrance of the Advent of our Lord is the fourth hymn, the first verse of which says this:

Glory be to God on high,
And Peace on Earth descend;
God comes down: He bows the sky:
He shews himself our Friend!
God the Invisible appears,
God the Blest, the Great I AM
Sojourns in this Vale of Tears,
And Jesus is his Name.

The first time I was exposed to this hymn was in 2003, when I took a class in seminary taught by Lester Ruth. He admitted his favor of this hymn over the others in the collection and drew our attention especially to the middle of this verse: “God comes down; he bows the Sky: He shews himself our Friend!” The end of the verse elaborates on this identity when Jesus is proclaimed to walk with us “in this vale of tears.” This is precisely why these lyrics fit squarely in Advent and is appropriate in light of events that bring us to tears, because in this thought, Charles was addressing Jesus’ identifying with our suffering, sojourning with us as we ache for the fulfillment of the creation’s redemption.

What is the Incarnation if it is not God empathizing with us? A friend is one who knows how to empathize with others in pain. The second verse of “What a Friend we have in Jesus” assists here: “Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness…”

Abraham was called a friend of God (James 2:23). Moses was said to have spoken face to face with God “as a man speaks to his Friend” (Exodus 33:11). Proverbs remarkably claims, “Faithful are the wounds of a Friend” (27:6).

And of course we have these words of Jesus spoken on the night he was betrayed:

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:13-15).

Laying down his life for friends…How does one reconcile that with Paul’s words in Romans 5 which declares that God demonstrates his love for us in that “while we were still sinners (can we substitute ‘enemies’?), Christ died for us.” Does God, in Christ, befriend the enemy? Is that how to bring these together? It seems so.

Friends, in this sense, are those who don’t turn their back when the ones they loves turn away, but pursue them in merciful love, seeking reconciliation anyway. Before he died for a world which had set itself at enmity with God, Jesus learned to walk in the vale of tears that were poured out in grief over the slaughtering of infants and children, the loss of life when a tower fell, by a widow who lost her only son, by two siblings who lost their loving brother… In this way, he “shews himself our Friend.” His befriending of the world began in Bethlehem. And when we become turn to receive his friendship, he invites us to join the mission of God in befriending our neighbors and enemies, indeed, the whole world.

“Let not the withering of the most useful hands be the weakening of ours.”

John Wesley wrote these words of the succession of the leadership of Israel from Moses to Joshua. In my sermon preparation last week, that statement caught my attention. I love that the hands pictured above are holding a cup. You can see the lifetime of the usefulness of these hands; hands that are continuing to be spent, even as they wither, in the most sacred of activities. These hands have been useful not because they have been on display, but because of what they have done and displayed for God and for others. These hands have been useful because they are the hands of one whose life has been spent in serving, not being served.

“Let not the withering of the most useful hands be the weakening of ours.”

From what I was told, when Papaw died he was found with three fence posts in one hand and the hammer he was using to drive them into the ground in the other hand. Papaw’s hands were calloused from hard work…good work…the holy work of tilling the ground, caring for God’s creation, and giving back to God what was already God’s and to neighbor what was needed. As I observe my hands while typing, I notice my hands are far less calloused and in need of being strengthened for the holy work still to be done in my life for God and those around me.

“Let not the withering of the most useful hands be the weakening of ours.”

The burden/cup of leading God’s people to the next level was passed from the most useful, tried, and trustworthy hands of Moses into the younger hands of Joshua who dared to trust that God would do what he said he would in bringing them to a land he had promised long ago. Many of us have a great inheritance of something done by the most useful hands in bringing us out of difficult situations into just within grasp of something greater than what our ancestors ever could have imagined. May we respond with boldness and trust like Joshua who was told, “Be strong and courageous…for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

If anyone I’ve ever known fit the bill for what John Wesley described as entire sanctification, it would be my Papaw (pronounced “paw paw”). Papaw loved the Lord his God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength and loved his neighbor as himself. Those who will have the burden of hearing me preach will doubtless hear many examples of how important this man has been in my life. Papaw died in 1998 and I miss him still.

Papaw and I in front of my hometown church, Oscar UMC. This picture actually made it to the cover of the Lexington Herald Leader one day, but that’s another story for another time. 🙂

One of Papaw’s spiritual gifts was that of encouragement. Being a recipient of God’s grace throughout his life and of generous support from his community during a difficult financial time, I witnessed Papaw give public and private support to others in a variety of ways in their time of need. One way his gift of encouragement manifested itself was in his craft of writing letters by hand. I was the recipient of such a letter after announcing to my family my intentions to enter into the ministry. I had just turned seventeen years old and declared these intentions at our usual family dinner (or you may call it lunch, depending on which sub-culture you live in) after church one Sunday. Later that week, I received a letter in the mail, which is pictured at the bottom of this post (in the caption is the letter’s contents, in case it’s illegible to you). This letter was the last one I received from him before his death later that year.

I share this letter with you because I have found myself opening this letter time and time again, not only for the sake of the fact that it was his last letter to me, but because of its rich and rather prophetic content. His words have proven true as my vocational journey has taken its interesting yet subtle twists and turns these last fourteen years. In particular, his affirming words that God would lead as I would pursue the area of service to which God was calling me and the final statement reminding of God’s presence with me come what may, have become etched in my memory. I think you might find his words could be applied more broadly as well, so I hope these words will encourage you!

To Jeffrey Wed PM Jan 14 1998 Dear Grandson,
Words cannot express my happiness, my appreciation for your announcement Sunday of your feeling and hearing God’s call for a deeper commitment to serve Him.
We do not think it too important for you to decide immediately the area of service you are to pursue – God will lead. But we do hereby pledge our full support, whatever it may be.
Sue & I will continue to pray for you daily (just as we have for many years). And not only for you but for each of our dear children and other grandchildren.
Just remember, always, that nothing can happen to you – no setback, no disappointment, no temptation – nothing that you & God together can not handle.
We love you.
Best regards,
Papaw