Sermon Title: The Grace of God and Our Hands / Bible Passage: John 1: 14
May the peace of Christ be with you. What a joy to gather with you all at this conference and be able to say that together, we belong to a community of faith that calls us to live better. A Big Tent! This is a great metaphor for us all, the Big Tent as Christ’s church, God’s loving umbrella under which we all gather from every place and every walk of life, not in spite but because of our differences; the Big Tent, as our humanity, with all of its fascination, mysteries and idiosyncrasies. I hope you leave this place deeply touched by God’s glory, grace and truth, and with your heart burning… During the sermon you will see pictures of people’s hands doing different things. Try to think how our hands can be God’s grace, glory and truth in the world.
I cannot tell exactly why you are here, but I think I can point to some of the reasons you might be here. Let me guess at them and you tell me if I am right or wrong: First of all, you are here because God has brought you this far. You are here because before you, a cloud of witnesses was transformed by the love of God and wanted to share this love to other people and you are the result of this shared love. Am I right or wrong? You are here because there was a group of people, a community of love called the church of Christ who expanded the tent of Christ’s love and cared about you, about your family, about your health, about your hopes and dreams, about the things of your heart, and your wellbeing. Am I right or wrong? You are here because you love this church. In spite of everything and because of everything; you still want this church together to witness to the love and unity of the Christ’s body and continue to spread the gospel and fight for justice and peace here and elsewhere. Am I right or wrong? I hope you are here to renew your faith once again and say “Here I am God! Make my heart a Big Tent. For “I am going to live so God can use me, anywhere Lord, Anytime…”
In 1859, Ashbell Simonton, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in United States went to Brazil to be a missionary. Rev. Simonton started the first Presbyterian Church in Rio de Janeiro and then the message spread to other places until it reached my mother’s family and then my father’s family. My parents met in a small Independent Presbyterian church in Sao Paulo, got married and raised their four children in the church. And I must tell you, were it not for the Presbyterian Church in my life, I don’t know where I would be today. Even before my birth, I was part of the small Presbyterian Church in Sao Paulo. Every day and every night they held me, they told me all of the stories of the Bible, they taught me right from wrong, the imperative to love God with all my heart, to love my neighbor as myself, and to spread this love to the world. That community made me believe I was somebody. They provided me with symbols, metaphors, stories of all kinds, and spiritual tools to find my way in the world. Yes, while I was a shoe shinning boy in the streets of Sao Paulo when I was 9 years old, they showed that there was a tent for me to live, a bigger tent, a tent of love, a tent of grace, glory and truth, a tent of dreams and possibilities! Their hands, as well as Ashbell Simonton’s hands and the hands of the Presbyterian Church of USA are imprinted all over my body, throughout my history.
Verse 12-13 says: But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
Sisters and brothers, we are here today because God opened up a big tent in our midst and came to live with us. Jesus was God’s big tent for us and by God’s power and mercy and love we all became the children of God! Liberals, conservatives and everything in between, we were all born, not of blood or of the will of flesh of anybody but rather, we were born of God.
Jesus is the word of God who became a story, a story of hope, a story of a struggle, a story of salvation, redemption and transformation; a story of life and death. This incarnated story challenges and redirects the world, moves and transforms our own stories. The word became flesh, and Jesus was filled with desires and longings, fears, hopes, joys and tears, like us all. All of sudden, God needed food, needed care, needed friends, needed hands to care for him. In Eugene Peterson’s book The Message, he translates John 1:14 this way: “the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” Indeed! Jesus became our neighbor, the unexpected stranger in our midst, a foreigner with a strange accent, an HIV positive who moved right to the corner of our block. Jesus took on flesh and bones and came to live in our tent. And we reported him for stealing our jobs, carrying diseases, destroying the economy, being an illegal and we feared him. And yet, he shone with God’s grace, glory and truth. As Leonardo Boff, a Latin American theologian, says: “In Jesus we know who God is and who we should be.”
Sisters and Brothers, we are the ones now who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, are to make Jesus’ glory, grace and truth shine in our world! We are the ones to continue the embodiment of Jesus’s message, to be God’s hands in the world. For there will be no grace to transform people’s ways of living, no glory to shine on people’s stories and no truth to radically change people’s lives if not through us.
Where? Where is the glory and the grace and the truth of Jesus’ dwelling in our oikos, in our tent, in our world, as the disciples attested in the first century? Where is the glory and the grace and the truth of Jesus’s dwelling today? I would start by saying here, right here! Go around this big tent and fill your discipleship tool box with pieces of cloth and ropes of Jesus grace, glory and truth. Then take it home, expand your tent and invite your friends and all your neighbors to live under it.
This is a question for all of us to answer: Where is the glory and the grace and the truth of Jesus’s dwelling in our midst today? Let me give three answers and you continue with new answers later. Here they are: first, you give what you have; two do not fear your neighbor and third, let us become a diverse church. Let me unpack that a little:
First, this current economic crisis is making me thank God for some things. I truly lament and deeply regret the loss of many jobs and the difficulties many people are going through. However, this crisis is making me pause and pay attention to our unattended and devastating ways of living under heavy consumerism. The United States represents 4% of the world’s population and uses 46% of the world’s natural resources. We are killing ourselves and our future generations. This economic crisis can help us determine where the source of our trust and confidence is. What do we rely on when we lose our economic bearings? Friends, if we have a community of faith we don’t need to fear, for God will provide what we need through one other! We are already seeing it happening in various communities around the country where entire families are relying on other people’s love and resources. Now, let me offer this stupid proposal: let our denomination take away all of its moneys from the financial market, let every seminary and every church sell their buildings, and take their endowments away from the market. Then, let us invest it all in social programs here and elsewhere that will provide sustenance for thousands of families for generations to come. We will create hundreds of jobs and empower people. Along the way we will make a deal: everybody will receive the same salary. Example: it does not matter if you are a pastor of a big steeple church or a pastor of a small rural church. It is time for us to stop this differentiation between pastor’s salaries that end up differentiating their value to the larger community. There are too many pastors out there receiving too little money while very few are receiving way too much! Aren’t we the same under God’s love? Thus, if we give what we have, and share our resources, no one will be left out. AND, we will have to trust God and each other more than our money. Giving what we have, with open hands, is a concrete way to embody Jesus grace, glory and truth in our time.
The second way of incarnating God’s grace, glory and truth is to win our fear over our neighbors. I’ve been afraid of this swine flue epidemic threat but I am more afraid of the consequences that are already happening everywhere. There has been a growing fear of germs everywhere and I am afraid we are getting more and more fearful and self-enclosed. Recently, people are getting so nervous that they are afraid to touch other people, have you seen that? I visited this other church not long ago and at the door there was a huge container of hand sanitizer! That was the welcoming sign of the church! ! I was also worshiping in this Presbyterian church one day and before the peace of Christ happened, this person handed me this sanitizer… now everybody carries a sanitizer, and put one drop in my hand before shaking hands with me. I felt like I was a big walking germ, like I was full of all these tiny monsters! To make things worse, the flu comes from Mexico, “ai caramba, que disgrace!” But I know… we must acknowledge that there are some people who have weakened immune systems and must be more careful than the average person about germs. Moreover, just yesterday, the World Health Organization declared the swine flu a moderate pandemic and we must be alert with all that. The Disaster Assistance office is there to help us. My worry however, is that our fear of germs and the Swine flue will make us blow our fears out of proportion to a point that some denominations and many local churches have already decided not to share the peace of Christ and not to have Communion! How much does our fear of contracting an illness feed our fear of the other and fuel even more the individualism that plagues our society? If we continue to push people away, we will be worshiping God alone, each one with our own mask, in our own pew with our own bottle of hand sanitizer. Welcoming the other with our open hands in our worship services, wherever this other one comes from and whatever they bring with them, is a way to embody Jesus’ grace, glory and truth in the world.
Third, if we are to expand our tent and embody Jesus’ grace, glory and truth in the world we must become a more diverse church. The demographics are changing and we do not need to fear it. Instead, we must reach out and become a Pentecost church! Perhaps not a Pentecostal church, since we are already Presbyterian, but a Pentecost church, which means, a diverse church made of many cultures, with a flux of people from different ethnicities and world locations living together. This coming Sunday, during worship, look at your church and if the majority of the people you are worshiping with look too much like you, you might need to ask: is my church a Pentecost church? For a Pentecost church is a cosmopolitan church, a church that has the glory, the grace and the truth of Jesus manifested in various colors, ethnicities, classes, languages and walks of life. For our work for justice and for peace has to do with our ability to create a Pentecost church. A church that reaches its hands across race, gender, class, sex, ethnicity and cultures becomes a Pentecost church that takes the grace of God seriously, with all its perils, its messiness, and its painful endeavors to live together. Then, we will be embodying Jesus grace, glory and truth in our churches.
Friends, we are each other’s bearers, we are each other’s treasure, we are each other’s manifestation of God’s grace. There lies a challenge for us all: what if the key to our happiness might be in the hands of somebody else. Can you imagine that?
If we believe that perhaps and only perhaps, the key to our happiness might be in somebody else’s hands, we will treat each other very differently… if the key to your happiness might be in my hands, will you not invite me to your house and ask me to pray in your worship service and eat at your communion table? You will certainly treat me with much care and love. Then, as I know that, I have to care and love you deeply so that you will find your happiness through me. And that is the same the other way around. If the key of my happiness is in your hand, I will care for you, I will provide for you, I will give all that I have to you so that you live well and are happy. It might be a very selfish reason to care for the other but the hope is that as we deeply care for each other we will end up learning to love each other to the point that the apostle Paul mentioned : when one in the body is happy everybody is happy, when one is ill, the whole body is ill, when one is unemployed all are unemployed, when one does not have a house nobody has a house… We have a long journey ahead of us! We have an impossible task but the good news is that we do have God’s glory, grace and truth in and around us. Right here! And you are holding the keys of my happiness in your hands!
As I finish, let me tell you a story I read in the New York Times two Sundays ago.
It is the story of Wong Lee and her Chinese American family who live in New York city. This family wanted to have another baby after three boys. She wanted a girl and they adopted one from Africa. See what happens to her family and pay attention how she describes grace at the very end…
She says… “I love the word grace… it means forgiveness, everything that happens is sort of beyond our control, so it is sort of a reminder… and I am sort of waited to put this on… it was a long wait…”
How long are we going to wait until we tattoo the word grace on our bodies, the body of Christ, and write it in our hand lines? This morning, let us see that Jesus’ grace, glory and truth for us is incarnated in and through each other’s hands.
Let us sing: “I am going to live so God can Use me…”
Prayer Cards Instructions: Now I want you to get a piece of paper and draw your hand. Then, write grace and put your e-mail or phone number on that paper and exchange it with somebody else… In that way, you are taking some of God’s grace home with you! As we draw our hands, let us sing: “I am going to live so God can Use me…”
Because the world is poor and starving, go with bread;
because the world is sick with sorrow, go with joy;
because the world is living lies, go with truth;
because the world is weary of wars, go with peace;
because the world is seldom fair, go with justice;
because the world is under judgment, go with mercy;
because the world is filled with fear, go with courage;
because the world is so in need for a touching healing grace,
GO WITH YOUR HANDS
because the world will die without it, go with love.
And now, may the gracious God of our Big Tent Jesus Christ go with us all, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
 Globalization: A Very Short Introduction by Manfred B. Steger
 See Derrida, Hospitality book.
 Adaptation of a Charge and Benediction by former LPTS professor Hal Warheim
Big Tent Conference/ June 12, 2009 – Cláudio Carvalhaes