Sharing Hands, Sharing Hearts

One Great Hour of Sharing   “Sharing Hands, Sharing Hearts”    Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Rosemary C. Mitchell (retired)  by Pastor Teddie McConnell and based on Matthew 25:31-36 and 1 John 1:1-4
The 15th-century artist Albrecht Dürer is perhaps best known for his exceptionally fine line drawing of praying hands.  You can see it in the image on the slide and in the bulletin.
Although there are many stories that surround this famous image, among the most poignant and powerful is this one: Albrecht drew the hands to pay homage to his brother Albert. He titled it simply “The Hands.” 
Albrecht and Albert were both artists. They had both dreamed of attending the Academy of Fine Arts in Nuremberg, Germany. But their father could not afford to send them. The two young brothers agreed to put each other through school. They tossed a coin and Albrecht won. He would go first, and Albert would go to work in the mines to support him. 
When Albrecht completed his education, he would either go to work in the mines or, hopefully, earn enough from his artwork to support his brother’s education. 
Albrecht finished school and his artwork was almost an immediate sensation. He was making a great deal of money. When he returned home, he toasted his brother Albert at a banquet with these words: “And now, my dear brother, it is your turn. You will go to the academy, and I will take care of you.” 
But Albert could not. He responded, “No, brother, it is too late for me. The years of working in the mines have destroyed my hands. Every bone in every finger has been broken at least once. And now my hands ache. It is too late for me to make the delicate lines on canvas.”   
And so, Albrecht Dürer painstakingly drew his brother’s hands with palms together and thick fingers stretched skyward. “The Hands” was a tribute to his brother who had given him so much. The world opened their hearts to this masterpiece and renamed it “The Praying Hands.” 
Like the Dürer brothers, those who are compelled to leave the world a bit better than they found it do so with thanksgiving and joy. They are often quiet, unassuming individuals. They are the ones taking care of others; the “behind-the-scenes,” practical, detail people who clear the way for others’ gifts to shine.  
This story goes even further, telling how the man who did for another found he could no longer do … what he loved … for himself.    
Why does the image of “The Praying Hands” resonate so powerfully with us today?
Not only does its origin story provide background and depth to the popular social media emoji we use so frequently — hands clasped together in prayer — but it is also a metaphor that reminds us of those who form the backbone of communities, organizations, and congregations. People who quietly go about doing acts of kindness and compassion; people who clear the way for others to do what they do best. They can be advisers or those who cheer you on. They are practical, down-to-earth folks who know how to quietly get done what needs to get done. They are the people who notice what we might mistakenly call “the little things.” The “little things” that make all the difference in a person’s life. And they are the people who still believe that more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of (to quote the great poet Tennyson) and know that it is the small steps that lead to accomplishing the impossible. They are truly disciples who follow the way of Jesus.
One such disciple was Bishop Henry Knox Sherrill, then presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, who in 1948 offered this challenge to his congregations: “How much money can we raise in an hour to address the suffering in the world?” The desire was to show the power generated when Christians unite in a common cause. 
Not long after the Episcopal bishop addressed his congregations, the Presbyterians accepted his challenge and eventually as many as 20 denominations joined the effort. In 1950, this challenge was named “One Great Hour of Sharing.”
The Offering’s original goal was $1 million to make the love of Christ real for individuals and communities around the world who suffer from the effects of disaster, conflict or severe economic crisis. 
Today, the purpose of One Great Hour of Sharing has remained the same, responding to needs in 100 countries, including the U.S. and Canada. The last time it was reported, the funds exceeded $20 million annually, funded by eight denominations.  It includes Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the Presbyterian Hunger Program, and the Self-development of People, which provide relief from natural disasters, food for the hungry, and support for the poor and oppressed. They focus on Matthew 25 goals of eradicating systemic poverty and dismantling structural racism.
In situations such as the Ukraine, PDA’s role is finding organizations on the ground, in the communities that need help, and helping to build their capacity to assist through the generosity of donors to PDA, including through the One Great Hour of Sharing special offering. Susan Krehbiel, PDA’s Associate for Refugees & Asylum, cites the Hungarian Reformed Church as an example.
“They have relationships with individual congregations,” she said. “Then they have relationships with local governments, they have relationships with other ecumenical churches and organizations that do this work. And they get international support, not just from PDA, but also from other Reformed churches in the world.
“So, it’s helpful for us to not only have the direct relationship with them, but also to know that they’re in relationship with others, so we can see the whole picture, and we’re able to work with the other national and international partners to see that resources get to them.”
Local volunteers assist Hungarian Interchurch Aid’s work to distribute food to people displaced by the conflict.
Another example is in Nigeria, where a terrorist organization called Boko Haram has made international headlines for abductions, murders, and other criminal activity in Northern Nigeria and neighboring countries such as Chad and Cameroon. Boko Haram has added to the impact of problems like flooding, corruption, and poor governance to create food and housing insecurity. Women and children have been particularly hard hit. When the criminals are arrested, nothing happens to them, so they operate with impunity.
The results of the OGHS work in local communities includes restoration of livelihoods, improved farming practices, growth in household income, protection from COVID-19, and additional economic opportunities, while raising awareness of the situation in Nigeria. 70% of the beneficiaries were women or other vulnerable groups, which is unique in terms of aid the region usually receives.
This season of Lent and the tradition of “One Great Hour of Sharing” combine to remind us that our faith is not only about the words we speak or proclaim or sing, but the Christian faith is a very human, relationship-building faith done in the name of God. Our faith is made real, and we are made real to one another, not by the abstractions of our theology, and not solely by our monetary gifts, but by the presence of God mediated through meeting the physical needs of those who are hurting. People of faith have deep within them the call to service above self.  We believe and know that we live our faith by responding to the call of our baptism. We are partners with God and with the whole people of God in renewing Creation. To accomplish that work, we know we are compelled to get involved, using those unique gifts we have each freely received, making a commitment to be a full member of the household of faith, and inviting others to join us. 
One Great Hour of Sharing evokes images of “lending a hand” or “opening our hands.” Unfortunately, for many years, we used such terms as “handouts” or “a hand up,” which are classist and have no place in the faith community.
But for most of us, expressions like “lending a hand” or “opening our hands” are much closer to our experience of what it is to be church or community.
Most of us have people in our lives whom we count on to “lend us a hand” or “to open their hands.” Or perhaps they are folks who are described as “hands-on.” During the past three General Assemblies, there have been “Hands and Feet” Days when commissioners and visitors are invited to be actively engaged in the community hosting the PC(USA) General Assembly.
Such expressions aptly describe the posture, busyness and activity of what we believe we are called to do and be as Christ’s disciples.   
Images and metaphors related to hands and touching abound in the church. New Testament Scripture is filled with stories of Jesus reaching out his hand to bless and to heal. Our sacraments are visible acts of blessing and sharing. Our hands bless and welcome a new member of any age. Our hands share the Lord’s Supper. Within the gathered community, the spoken words and visible actions combine to communicate a shared meaning — our common language of God’s grace freely offered to all who believe and want to serve. 
At an ordination, the act of praying and the “laying on of hands” is a powerful moment of affirmation given by the gathered elders to recognize and set apart for service those who are called by the voice of the people. The real focus of ordination is not the individual ordained but rather the community for whose benefit the person is ordained. It serves as a sign of the calling of all Christians to service of others. (Sacraments as God’s Self Giving by James F. White, p. 82)
The real test of discipleship is our love for one another. This test is a real challenge for each of us and all of us. It’s a resource that comes from channeling the Holy Spirit, not one we can measure.    
Jesus often used the imagery of touching or helping or responding in his parables.  Walter Brueggemann reminds us that parables are not reports. They are not directives from a corporate entity. Most parables do not offer any interpretation; that is left up to those who have “ears to hear,” but in Matthew 25 we read about “crisis parables” that are followed with directions. In Matthew 25:35, Jesus provides a precise and clear list of things we should have done, could have done, need to do in response to God’s love and grace. It is absolutely clear: As disciples of Jesus, our first duty is to love others.
It makes it challenging to be clueless or shrug our shoulders to say, “I didn’t know.” And who is the audience for Jesus’ words? Is it just the leaders? No. dIt appears that the message is for all who have “ears to hear and eyes to read” — for all nations and all people of God. No more blaming the leaders. Because of our baptism and membership in the Body of Christ as disciples, we move from individuals concerned only with me and mine to discipleship with others for others. Our baptism makes us part of the household of God. As disciples, we are called to responsibility as we recognize the gift of grace freely given to us and freely received.
And we are never alone in this work of ministry and this journey of faith. We join with others and are surrounded with the sure and certain promise that God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit is with us.

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