Hands of Christ Benefit Concert - Words from Cameron Smith
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Hands of Christ Benefit Concert
Rev. Cameron Smith
July 28, 2019
On behalf of the St. James, James Island, and Harbor View Presbyterian Churches, I would like to thank you for taking time on this beautiful Sunday evening to worship with us as we celebrate God’s hand at work through the Hands of Christ ministry, a ministry that is near and dear to many of our hearts. I would like to begin by asking each of you to take your hands and hold them palms up in your laps and repeat after me, “These are the Hands of Christ.” Now, I would like for you to hold the hands of the people sitting closest to you and repeat after me, “These are the hands of Christ.” This bold and brazen statement is, at its core, the central theme of the Hands of Christ: the mind-blowing idea that my hands and your hands could somehow be transformed into Christ’s hands when they are set about Christ’s work to let children come to him.
Sixteen year ago, the first Hands of Christ distribution was held as a partnership between the Zion-Olivet and Westminster Presbyterian congregations. Since then, 56,581 children have been served as one volunteer takes one child by the hand with the understanding that these are the Hands of Christ. If you have had the opportunity to serve as volunteer with Hands of Christ, you know the joy that goes into taking that child by the hand, the hope that they radiate with a new year of possibilities, and the love that you see in their parents’ eyes as they watch their children take this next step. If you have had the added privilege of serving on the Hands of Christ Steering Committee, Operations Team, or Board of Directors you know the added energy, sweat, and passion that goes into making each distribution possible. They say it’s the Holy Spirit that sees them through three weeks of almost daily distributions, but even this preacher isn’t sure how they do it year after year. With God (and caffeine), all things are possible.
Many of us know how the Hands of Christ have helped the children among us, but today I wanted to share a story of how the Hands of Christ have been working behind the scenes. I have worked at James Island Presbyterian Church for almost eighteen years now. Many days, I like to take my laptop and my work out to the church graveyard to enjoy the ocean breeze that comes down the Folly Road corridor and the shade that is cast by centuries-old oaks. While some people may find the idea of hanging out with dead people disturbing, it’s actually a very peaceful place and my neighbors never distract me from my work. It didn’t take me long to realize something about those old bones that surrounded me. We actually have two separate graveyards on the corner of Fort Johnson and Folly Roads that are divided by an azalea hedge and a chain-link fence. One is for St. James, and one is for James Island.
At the end of the Civil War, the freed slaves who had worshiped at James Island Presbyterian took a walk down the road to form their own congregation. These former slaves had been called members, but even within the church, they were not recognized as equals. They needed a place to worship freely, to form a community, and to support one another through the valleys and mountaintop experiences of life. And so there were two Presbyterian Churches on James Island. Then, in 1967 with the James Island community transitioning from farmland to neighborhoods, Charleston Presbytery approved the Harbor View Presbyterian New Church Development. And so there were three Presbyterian Churches on James Island.
There were days in our history when an African American family might show up at James Island and be asked if they were looking for St. James as they were sent on their way down the street. From time to time, a group might move their membership from James Island to Harbor View or vice versa for any number of reasons. However, for the most part, the three churches kept to themselves and rarely traveled the roads that led to one another. Don’t get me wrong, at least in recent years, we were polite. We greeted one another at presbytery events and we found solidarity with our fellow Presbyterians in the James Island Community Thanksgiving Service, but we didn’t know one another beyond the surface.
In Ezekiel 37, the prophet tells the story of his vision in the valley of dry bones, “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
As I learned more and more of our churches shared and separate histories, it was as if I walked through the church graveyard, surrounded by the bones of the saints who have gone before. I heard the same words, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Can these people who have been separated by time, racism, fear, culture, and division be brought together as the one Body of Christ? “O Lord, only you know.”
And that is where the Hands of Christ came in and started piecing the bones back together. In 2008, the choirs of James Island, St. James, and Harbor View Presbyterian Churches joined together to host the first benefit concert for Hands of Christ. It was one of the most amazing nights I can remember where the Spirit of God surrounded and uplifted us in worship as we sang, cried, and – yes, we danced. It took me to the valley of dry bones In Ezekiel, “suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
The following year, we added a James Island Hands of Christ distribution. As we worshipped God with one voice and served our neighbors alongside one another, the Hands of Christ pieced the bones together and the Spirit of God breathed life into them as we began to see each other as a part of the One Body of Christ. Again, don’t get me wrong. As my friend and colleague Pat Jones says, “It’s not all skittles and rainbows.” There is work to be done to come together to work for justice and peace right here on James Island, starting in our churches. But, the roads that we once took to get away from one another now lead us back to open doors and hearts, and we are committed to continue traveling those roads together.
As I reflect on all the Hands of Christ have done over the past sixteen years, I am amazed. Isn’t that just like Jesus? Our miracle-working, resurrecting, reconciling Lord? When we stopped being so worried about ourselves and our differences and started focusing on coming together for our common call to love God in worship and love our neighbor in service, he breathed LIFE into some very dry, old bones. And so today, we give thanks for the Hands of Christ: for Christ’s hands that will welcome a new group of children by taking one hand at a time; and for Christ’s hands that have brought us together tonight.