Yesterday I was a guest preacher in a congregation I had never been to before. I entered as I do many congregation, a friendly stranger, but left with more than I had anticipated – with a deep sense of connection to God and insight into what it means to be the body of Christ.
On all accounts, this congregation was welcoming. Several people came to me and introduced themselves as I entered. Many talked with me afterwards, sharing a bit about their lives and their concerns. A young boy engaged me in conversation as he sold me a candy bar. If I was assessing their hospitality, this congregation would have scored high. Yet interestingly enough the most transformational part of my experience was not their hospitality, but rather came in an ordinary and unexpected moment.
In addition to preaching, I served communion. As is typical in many congregations, people came to the front of the Sanctuary and knelt at the communion rail. As they did they rested their open hands on the railing and waited to receive the bread and wine. Moving slowly from person to person, breaking off bread as I went, I placed a piece in their hand and said, ‘the body of Christ broken for you.’ Simple, traditional words which turned opened up an extraordinary experience. You see, as I placed the bread in their hands and said these words, my eyes moved from their hands to their face. As their eyes met mine, my heart was touched, softened, nudged. With each new person the experience became more personal. As I made my way, I noticed something…not only were their faces unique, but so were their hands. Each pair of hands had its own character, told it’s own story. Many of the hands were twisted as a result of arthritis. Some were the hands of laborers, big and rugged; others were refined, soft and polished. Some hands were the hands of children, others assisted the elderly. Yet all were open.
Our church, the ELCA, has lifted up a mantra, ‘God’s Work, Our Hands.’ One of the ways this mantra has come to life was with hundreds of congregations beginning this fall season of ministry putting their faith into action, using their hands to speak GOD’s love in the world. We’ve been highlighting hands for months, but crazy as it may sound, I hadn’t paid much attention to actual hands. I mean really looked at people’s hands. That is, until today.
An interesting aspect of this story is this congregation’s location – New Orleans. It was one of the two Lutheran congregations hardest hit by Katrina. I, like many of you, have lifted this city and its people up in prayer regularly since Hurricane Katrina hit. I have seen first hand the devastation in the early months and I have witnessed its spirit renewed more and more each time I return. New Orleans is coming back. Sure this transformation did not happen overnight, and it was and is not easy, but the people of New Orleans opened their hands to others and put their hands to work. And today its a new day.
Over the years, as I have prayer, visited, and worked alongside the people of this city, I have come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of its culture and spirit. And yesterday, as I placed bread in the hands of its people and shared the promise of GOD’s love for the broken and vulnerable, I saw this spirit in the flesh. This is a community of people who use their hands and open their hearts.
Over our lifetime, our hands will tell a story. What story will they tell? Will we be willing to open our hands to God and our neighbor? Will we let our hands and our hearts be connected? Can our hands tangibly express the unbelievable promises of God’s love for us and the world? Ordinary, useful, weathered, hands are agent of GOD’s love. Yes, it is God’s mission for all the world to know, truly know, God loves them unconditionally. And we, GOD’s people, have been created each with a unique pair of hands. This is the body of Christ at work.