I am going to being my talk by reciting a poem that I have known since I was in college. It will be the basis for my talk. It’s called “The Touch of the Master’s Hand” and was written by Myra Brooks Welch, perhaps you know it also.
‘Twas battered and scarred, and the auctioneer
Thought it scarcely worth his while
To waste much time on the old violin,
But he held it up with a smile.
‘What am I bidden, good folks,’ he cried.
‘Who’ll start bidding for me?
A dollar, a dollar. Then two! Only two?
Two dollars, and who’ll make it three?
Three dollars once, three dollars twice,
Going for three…’ but no.
From the room far back a gray haired man
Came forward and picked up the bow;
Then wiping the dust from the old violin
And tightening the loosened strings,
He played a melody pure and sweet,
As a caroling angel sings
The music ceased and the auctioneer,
With a voice that was quiet and low.
Said ‘What am I bid for the old violin?’
And he held it up with the bow.
‘A thousand dollars, and who’ll make it two.
Two thousand, who’ll make it three?
Three thousand once, three thousand twice,
And going and gone’ said he.
The people cheered but some of them cried,
‘We do not quite understand.
What changed its worth!’ Swift came the reply,
‘The touch of the master’s hand.’
And many souls with their life out of tune.
And battered and scared with sin,
Are auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd,
Much like the old violin.
A ‘mess of pottage,’ a glass of wine, a game,
And they travel on.
They’re ‘going’ once and ‘going’ twice;
They’re ‘going’ and almost ‘gone;’
But the master comes, and the foolish crowd
Never can quite understand
The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought
By the touch of the master’s hand.
When I first read this poem I decided it was about the homeless person or the alcoholic or the drug addict but it wasn’t for me or you. But recently I’ve changed my mind. The poem fits all of us at some level. It was battered and scared, that doesn’t usually fit me but sometimes it has, perhaps not physically but emotionally. When it happens, I seem to remember it for a long time. When I was about eight years old, I remember playing in a neighbor’s back yard. I went home to lunch and then returned to my neighbor’s yard. I heard the sound of children playing in the yard. However when I got to the gate the neighbor who owned the house stopped me. We’re not playing here anymore. Everyone’s gone home. I knew that wasn’t true, but I turned away and walked sadly home. It was so long ago so I don’t remember what I felt like. I’m sure I wondered what I had done wrong. It was a small battering but probably left some scars on me. Throughout the years, at home, or neighborhood, or friends, or school, some battering came to me and I’m sure they left scars. Sometimes it felt good to have someone else to blame for my silly actions. I only hope they left me more compassionate also.
Then the poem talks about the violin as though it were worthless. It looked dusty and dirty and probably wasn’t a name brand. How many people do we see today who are ill dressed and dirty and don’t speak as we do. It’s easy to feel that they don’t have much worth. Then we get to know them as the people got to know the violin when it was played. And usually we change our mind about them. In fact we can hear their beautiful music when we really listen to them. Sometimes however, we are so intent on what we don’t like about them that we don’t see anything else.
Have you ever longed to make beautiful music? I have. I have sometimes longed to be famous and then life would be OK. But I know that’s not true. I have learned that beautiful music comes from many quiet places. A few weeks ago I sat at the dining room table at Highland House. A member of the community came home looking mad. An assistant asked her if she would like a snack. She mumbled a no, and so the assistant asked her what she would like for lunch the next day. She answered with a look of “don’t bother me” and she grumbled something. So the assistant who had to get her lunch ready patiently said, “We have cheese or peanut butter and jelly. Would one of those be good?” Again a negative response. Finally the assistant said, “How about if I write cheese on one slip of paper and peanut butter on the other. Then we can mix them up and you can choose one.” That sounded alright and so that’s what she did. The climate changed then and they both had a happy time. That to me was people making beautiful music together.
Another time I heard a story about Mo Higgs and I have permission from Mo to tell it. Mo hates getting eye drops in his eyes so one day an assistant came to Mo with this suggestion. “You know Mo that we try to discourage anyone from saying cuss words in the house. Well, what if we tell you that you can say a cuss word every time we put eye drops in your eyes. How does that sound?” That sounded fine to Mo and so when Mo gets his eye drops he says his cuss word and then he laughs. That sounded like beautiful music to me.
Then there is my housemate Emmy Lu. She gets up every morning and goes out to our balcony to feed the birds. Then later that day she goes to the other end of our hallway and sits with a woman who is bedridden. Also beautiful music.
My family and friends also bring me beautiful music. Now that I don’t drive they offer to take me to where ever I need to go. I feel very cared for by everyone around me. It makes growing old a pleasure. Last weekend my son Bob kept calling me from New Jersey. When I asked what was going on, he stated that because my daughter Carol was going to be out of town that weekend she told Bob to keep track of me. I felt very cared for.
I come to church partly to hear beautiful music. Certainly we hear it from our musicians. But I also hear it all around me. The greeting I get when I arrive, the room set up for worship by many loving hands; the people around me greeting all of us with smiles and hugs; the hello I get from Jimmy, “God loves you and I love you;” and the letter I get from Barbara every week. These are all beautiful music; and as I look at you I see beyond this time and day. I see you during the week, teaching children and adults, helping ex-convicts get back into society, taking in the stranger and giving him a home, working with women and children, caring for people who need help or who are disabled, listening to us and caring for our spiritual needs, and doing many other things that create beautiful music.
Then I listen in the poem about the worth of a soul and I think of Andrew at Euclid Street. When he was about to become a member of L’Arche, I wondered what he had to offer our community. We would certainly take good care of him but he didn’t speak except using a few signs. I was so wrong. His friendliness has enhanced our society and he is a very popular guy. Other core members came into our community filled with anxieties and violence. They needed a master’s hand and they got so much love and respect from our assistants that they became new people. Michael went from being very silent to becoming very self assured. All of us have been helped by somebody and are touched by a master’s hand.
Then I finally ask myself, “Do I want to be touched by the master’s hand?” The answer I give comes straight from an often repeated message by Mo Higgs. “Sometimes; not all the time” is what I have to say. I sometimes turn away, fearful of the personal consequences. I choose my words and actions to avoid violence. I enjoy my possessions and waste my time doing things just to keep busy, and yet I know where my heart is. I too have been given new life by the touch of the master’s hand and I want to follow him. Today’s scripture from John talks about one way to do this. Love one another as I have loved you, so you are to love one another.
I would like to close my talk with some words from Pope Francis. “This is the invitation which I address to everyone. Let us be renewed by God’s mercy; let us be loved by Jesus, let us enable the power of his love to transform our lives too, and let us become agents of this mercy, channels through which God can water the earth, protect all creation and make justice and peace flourish.”
This sermon was originally spoken at an 8th Day Community faith service, and was originally posted on their website. You can also listen to the audio version there. Dottie, our original live in assistant and member of the L’Arche Greater Washington D.C. community for 32 plus years, passed away May 19, 2016.