In my hometown of Longview, Texas, there’s an auto dealership that used to hold an annual contest with the local country music radio station. The radio station would draw the names of 25 contestants, and these people would meet at the dealership and stand around a hardbody pickup truck. The primary rule was that contestants were required to have one hand on the pickup truck at all times, and they would stand there until only one remained with her or his hand on the pickup truck, and that person would win the truck.
The contest attracted enough attention that, one year, a documentary film crew came in and filmed the contest. The movie was released with the title—same as the contest—“Hands on a Hardbody.” Years later, there was a Broadway musical based on the documentary. I can’t make this stuff up.
The film follows 23 contestants as they begin early one morning with their hands on the truck. The film includes interviews with the contestants, learning about their hopes and dreams, their aspirations, their determination to win this truck.
As the days and nights wear on, people drop out of the contest due to fatigue, making mistakes when they accidentally remove their hand from the truck. In the film, we see the contestants accuse one another of cheating. But we also see them getting to know one another, laughing together, making new friends, all while going days and nights without sleep.
Much of the film is narrated by Benny Perkins, who won the truck in the same contest a couple of years before. Benny becomes friends with J.D. Drew who, at 64 years old, was the oldest in the contest that year. J.D. is a patient, humble man, unwilling to trash-talk his fellow competitors.
In the last hours of the contest, the three remaining contestants with their hands on the truck are Benny, his friend J.D., and a woman named Norma. Benny walks away when his leg goes numb, and then 78 hours after the contest began, Norma accidentally lifts her hands from the truck, and finally J.D. is the only one left standing with his hand on the truck.
As Norma is escorted away, we hear Benny’s voice as he speaks about what the contest means to him. He says, “You basically learn the values of humanity, the values that you would put on another human being. Because you see other people, struggling, fighting the same thing you’re fighting, wanting the same thing you’re wanting. And you see them lose, and that has value, even losing, because they at least tried. And there’s not that many triers in the world today. There’s not that many people that are willing to take a risk to do something, to stick themselves out in a position where they might get hurt. They don’t want to do that; that’s a risk. But yes, it teaches you human values. The very basic human values.”
The final moments of the documentary show J.D. behind the wheel of the new truck he has won, driving down a country road in East Texas. We hear the voice of one of the filmmakers as he asks J.D., “So if you learned one thing during this whole thing, what’d you learn?” J.D. laughs and says, “One thing that I learned real good in this whole thing, was if you really want something, you keep your hands on it.”
If you really want something, you keep your hands on it.
For Jesus’s disciples, in the days after Jesus’s crucifixion and death, the disciples gathered together, seeking strength in community, in togetherness—I imagine them with their hands clasped together, keeping their hands on each other. But they are afraid to let anyone else in. The doors of the house where they met were locked, for fear of what might harm them, what danger might be lurking outside the doors.
But Jesus breaks in. Doors can’t stop him. Fear can’t stop him. Death can’t stop him. He breathes on the disciples and lets them touch him. He is Jesus, not a ghost, but in the flesh. He breaks in and proves he’s a savior you can put your hands on.
In our own vulnerability and humanness, baptism breaks in and claims us as children of God. Human hands may trace the shape of the cross on our foreheads in baptism, but it is God who breaks through the skin and leaves the indelible mark there. You can’t wash that off. We put our hands on this water, on this baptism, on this identity, even as God’s hands are on us.
Bread and wine break into our world and form us as the Body of Christ. We put our hands on the bread, on Christ’s body broken for us, and we put our hands on the wine, on Christ’s blood shed for us, but it’s God who breaks in and forms this community.
Did you ever think about the mechanics of that grace? The bread and wine go in your mouth, but do these elements stop being holy after they have passed your lips? The bread and wine feed our stomachs, where they are broken down into elements our bodies can use, feeding our cells, sustaining us, keeping us human for a little while longer. Did you ever think of that? Somewhere in my system are the remnants of the Eucharist we shared last week at Easter. Maybe in my hair, some Eucharist from a couple of years ago. And whatever isn’t used by the body eventually makes it way out and through twists and turns, and it finds its way back into the earth, to nourish new creation.
Luther says that Jesus Christ is at the right hand of God, and the right hand of God is everywhere. EVERYWHERE! Could it be that God is always loving and always reaching out to creation? If you really want something, you keep your hands on it. God’s hand is always touching creation, always reaching out to us.
What a powerful witness during a year when we can hardly put our hands on each other anymore! We don’t want to spread a highly infectious virus, so that has informed our decisions about who we can see, where we can go, how we’ll behave. There are no more handshakes, and if I do end up shaking hands with someone, my first thought is “How soon can I wash or sanitize my hand?” This is not how I want to live!
This pandemic has been hard on our social interactions, hard on our physical life, and it’s hard on our sacramental theology too. Lutherans only have two Sacraments—do you remember what they are? Baptism and Holy Communion. Both Sacraments are very much into touching! Because this is how we understand God is with us, physically present.
But it’s not magic that makes baptismal water holy; it’s not magic that turns bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood. It’s the Word of God WITH these physical elements. And the Word of God has an extensive reach.
God’s own hands are moving in the world, reaching out and touching us through the Sacraments. And God’s own hands are reaching out to those who are in need. Sometimes God uses our hands—as our own national church body, the ELCA, has long declared that we are about “God’s work, our hands.” We give our hands to serve and to care for the world, touching others with the love we know from God. And when we can’t physically touch each other, we still reach out through phone calls, messages, hand-written letters, waving from a distance.
If you really want something, you keep your hands on it. God reached out and embraced us first, and in response, we grab onto God. The disciples wanted to hold onto Jesus, and Jesus breathed on them the Holy Spirit and commissioned them for ministry, sending them out in his name. He allowed Thomas to touch his wounded hand and side, “Do not doubt, but believe.” Jesus kept redirecting them—essentially saying, the way to grab onto me is to serve your neighbor. “As Abba God sent me, so I’m sending you.”
Wherever God sends us, we are never beyond God’s reach, never more than an arm’s length away. If you really want something, you keep your hands on it. God’s hands are on you. What God wants is you.