No Other Hands but the Ones in Our Sleeves

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 11/16/2014

video               “Giving is the Best Communication” at        

If you’ve been here for my last couple of services, you’ve already heard a bit about the topic of Grace that I’ve been sprinkling into services about different topics altogether. 














Grace, you’ll remember me saying, is that particular miraculous quality of this world that can, just when you most need it, make a way out of no way. It’s a quality of the world that makes it so that there is no situation so terrible that there isn’t an opportunity for love, for connection, to shine through. Grace is the thing you hear about in the old hymn Amazing Grace: I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind, but now I see.


Grace is the ability to redefine the boundaries of possibility, said Columbia professor and author Manning Marable.


In October, we talked about waiting for grace to help you with forgiving people in your life who are hard to forgive.  And earlier this month, we talked about grace swooping in and rescuing you from a grief so terrible that you think it will overwhelm you.


20th century theologian Paul Tillich says this: Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when year, after year, the longed for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.


Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness. If that happens to us, we experience grace.


After such an experience, we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed.


Everything is transformed.  Everything is transformed by this inbreaking of grace that comes from where, we don’t know.


That is the other quality of grace, isn’t it – it is something that happens outside of ourselves and is something that we don’t control. If it came from us, it wouldn’t be grace, would it, it would just be ourselves once again doing the best we can do, the best we can do to be cheerful, to self improve, to see the upside of things, to be good. 


But our ability to affect and change the world or ourselves for the better is naturally limited, limited by our own abilities and our own perspectives.  This is why we need each other, to help us be better than we can be otherwise, and also, there is grace out there to help us through, which is usually unexpected and always outside of ourselves. 


The front page of the theme packet this month has a quote that says “there is a sacred otherness to the world which is breathtakingly helpful simply because it is not us.”


Grace is this sacred otherness to the world, the sacred otherness that can be breathtakingly helpful. 


But grace can be frustrating precisely because we aren’t in charge of it.  Grace is not interested in our plans or our controlling of things.  It doesn’t come just because you ask for it, and certainly not when you demand it.  You might think, I’ve had it, things are really bad, and I am READY FOR GRACE – and grace just kind of laughs at that stuff.  Grace comes when it comes.


Author Brian Doyle writes, Grace is uncontrollable, arbitrary to our senses, apparently unmerited. It's utterly free, ferociously strong, about as mysterious a thing as you could imagine. First rule of grace: grace rules.


Grace rules.  You don’t.  The world has a streak of light in it that can burst into your life and transform it. But you’re not in charge of when it comes.  You may think you need grace more than any one has ever needed grace before, and you might be right about that.  But grace comes when it comes, according to rules that you wouldn’t have made if you were the one making them.  Grace is utterly free and ferociously strong.  Arbitrary.  Apparently unmerited.  Grace rules.


This is the sort of situation that, depending on the sort of person you are, can drive you completely crazy –– or can be completely liberating.  For most of us, it’s kind of both. But to contemplate the fact of liberating grace, to stop for a minute and rest knowing that life can be miraculously good all on its own- that, more than almost anything else, is a spiritual practice.


Life can be miraculously good all on its own.

Grace just comes, it’s just there, and it’s for you to see it and to be open to it, even when it doesn’t match your expectations.  You can’t just mope around and beg for it to come to you.


The winds of grace are always blowing, but you have to raise the sail, says 19th century Indian mystic Ramakrishna.


You don’t beg for grace or demand it because that doesn’t work.  But you can ask for it, and that’s called prayer, folks, just asking for something larger than yourself to come to your aid or to the aid of someone else.  You can ask for grace. But beyond asking for grace, you can set conditions, set the stage, so that grace is most welcome and most able to act in your life and in the lives of others.  And that’s really the point of what we’re talking about today.


Here’s a story from World War Two.  A church in Strasbourg was destroyed. Nothing remained except a heap of rubble and broken glass, or so the people thought till they began clearing away the masonry. Then they found a statue of Christ still standing erect. In spite of all the bombing it was unharmed except that both hands were missing. Eventually rebuilding of the church began.


One day a sculptor saw the figure of Christ, and offered to carve new hands. The church officials met to consider the sculptor’s friendly gesture—and decided not to accept the offer. Why? Because the members of that church said: “Our broken statue touches the spirits of men, and reminds them of life’s goodness and grace.  But that statue has no hands to minister to the needy or feed the hungry or enrich the poor—except our hands. The statue inspires. We perform.”


Grace is not something we control or we demand.  But, in the strange mysteries of grace, it is something that we can help along in the world.  Grace needs hands on this earth to do its work, and most often those hands are ours.  And how wonderful would it be if each of us were dedicated to being the hands of grace in this hurting world?  How wonderful would it be to be useful in this way?


Consider the tale of the lemonade stand robbery, which was reported in the Washington Post this past September. [1]


“All summer, Spencer Bergman was working toward his goal: Earn and save $500 so he could get a dog.


His mom purposely set the amount high; busy with four children and more-than-full-time work, she had said “no” to a dog forever. She and Spencer, who recently turned 13, figured it would take years to earn that much.


His longtime friend Spencer Tarbet, who’s 12 and lives in the house behind the Bergmans’ in Loudoun County, had a goal, too: Pay his share of scout camp.


They were closing down their lemonade stand one summer day when a young man, maybe 19 or 20, shirtless, smoking a cigarette, asked for change for a $20 bill — and walked away with all the money they had made that day, $35.


Spencer Bergman called after him and, when the man kept walking, called out again.


The man turned around, swore at the boys, and said if they ever told anyone he would beat them.


“My heart stopped,” Spencer Bergman said. It was the scariest thing that had ever happened to either of them, by far.


Bergman and Tarbet were crying when Courtney Tarbet arrived just a minute or two after the robbery to take her son to his first viola lesson.


Jen Wing, who manages those lessons, saw Spencer’s tears, heard the story and gave him a “Wimpy Kid” book before he left. It was one of Spencer’s favorites, about a boy his age worrying about the bigger kids at middle school, like “gorillas who need to shave twice a day.”


The book was signed by the author, Jeff Kinney. Inside, Wing, the manager, had slipped $15, and a note: “Spencer, please don’t lose faith in people.”


The boy burst into tears and gave his mom a long hug.


Then Spencer Tarbet gave the $15 gift to his friend, Spencer Bergman. “For the dog,” he said.


When Paul Bergman got home from work, he gave his son a wad of cash, $89: People at his office, overhearing his shocked reaction when his wife called to tell him about the crime, had opened their wallets.


The boys decided to have another lemonade stand in the same spot and joked that they would ask each customer for a photo ID and a fingerprint. Teachers and parents kept telling them, “Keep the change!” They earned $90.


And Jeff Kinney, the author of the Wimpy Kid books, video-called the Spencers. He told them about some of his own setbacks. He told them that as long as they kept trying to do the right thing, they’d be fine.


“My heart really went out to these kids,” Jeff Kinney said later. “Everyone wants to respond by showing these kids the better side of humanity.”


Everyone wants to respond by showing these kids the better side of humanity. 


Let’s translate that, to “We are going to be agents of grace in the lives of these children.  Today, we are the hands at the ends of God’s sleeves.”


The exercise in this month’s theme packet is to be an agent of grace in the world for someone else.  In other words, do something nice for someone.  But the kicker is, you can’t let that person know it was you doing it.  The packet explains that if you just do something nice for someone, then they think that you’ve just been nice, that maybe you’re a good person.  But to be a true agent of grace, it isn’t really about doing something nice for someone.  It’s about helping someone experience life differently.  


The goal is to remind someone that life itself is generous, not stingy;  open, not closed; full of surprises, not full of threats.  The goal is to convince them that life itself is good, using your actions.


It’s like saying, please don’t lose faith in people. Don’t lose faith in the inherent goodness of the world.


Like it or not, the holiday season is upon us, and lots of us who are involved in churches are looking for ways to make the holidays, all the way from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, more meaningful. 


May I suggest that this year you resolve to be an agent of grace in the world.  Look around you and see where you can help grace flow more freely.  Maybe it’s the unexpected act of kindness. Maybe it’s leaving a surprise gift or a note of appreciation.  Maybe it’s doing your part for a greater good.  Maybe it’s something only you can see, only you can do. 


How can you help bring goodness into a suffering world this season?  How can you express your true gratitude this Thanksgiving for all the surprising and unmerited gifts you’ve received, by paying it forward?  How can you help the temple’s candles burn when you know there isn’t any oil? How can you be the timeless hands of a Christ child who once was born to spread light in a dark place?


I have here some opportunities for you to practice spreading grace. These are small things, just a way to bring more joy into the world, or to help someone see the good that is already there, the good that you help along with your own work.


I also have a video to watch while I’m handing out the slips…



[1] “After a lemonade-stand heist, a Loudoun community rallies to right a wrong,” by Susan Svrluga, Washington Post, September 28, 2014.