Paula Northwood September 3, 2017
Scripture Matthew 15:29–38
Labor Day was designated a national holiday in 1894, and since then, I assume that these walls have heard many sermons on the topic. The battle for workers’ rights in this country has been arduous, fought in picket lines and folk song lyrics, and shared through stories that we like to tell. Long before Labor Day was a holiday, in 1858 (the first year of our state’s existence), the Minn. legislature passed a law prohibiting children under 18 and women from being employed more than 10 hours a day in factory work. Minnesotans have been concerned about labor rights for a long time.
At Plymouth Church, we have a rich history of working in the neighborhood to help people create a better life through the work of their hands—from providing assistance for newspaper boys, sewing classes for girls, child care and job training for Scandinavian immigrants to the present, when in every housing project we take on we provide job training for the residents so people can begin to be self-sufficient and have productive lives.
It’s good to celebrate Labor Day, if only to remind us that there is still more to do. We have made much progress but many people are struggling to make ends meet with minimum or less than minimum wages. Workers given less than full-time work (so that employers can avoid paying for benefits) also suffer. Then there are still the unmentionable atrocities being committed in the cotton fields of Burkina Faso so that we can wear cheap underwear, in Vietnamese sweatshops so we can wear inexpensive footwear, in Malaysian sweatshops so we can have affordable electronics, and so forth. It is important to be reminded at least once a year to pay attention to where our food and goods come from so that we are making choices from a justice perspective.
In studying the text for this morning, in light of Labor Day, I paid attention to what kind of work Jesus performs. He uses his hands to heal all kinds of illness, to bless and break bread and to feed people. What might his hands have looked like? Were they the calloused hands of a carpenter? Or the gentle hands that blessed children? Or the strong hands offered to Peter to save him from going under the sea? Were they artistic hands that drew in the dirt to calm an angry crowd bent on murder, or expressive hands that gestured as he told stories and parables? They were, at the very least, life-giving hands.
But you might remember that Jesus also used his hands to flip over tables and chase money changers from the temple. In some versions of the story, he used a whip. In Matthew 10, Jesus speaks of taking up a sword, although there is no record that he ever did. And of course, his hands eventually were tortured, nailed to a cross in an accusation of treason. These life-giving hands continue to give beyond his death.
There is a story about a church in Strasburg, Germany, that was totally destroyed during the Second World War, but a statue of Jesus Christ that stood by the altar was almost unharmed. Only the hands of the statue were missing. When the church was rebuilt, a famous sculptor offered to make new hands but, after considering the matter, the members decided to let it stand as it was—without hands. “For,” they said, “Christ has no hands but our hands to do His work on earth. If we don’t feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, entertain the stranger, visit the imprisoned and clothe the naked, who will?”
As we understand it, bodies were also at the heart of the early church’s sense of itself. The body became a necessary and defining metaphor for the church and how it lived out who Jesus was. The church, the faith community, is “the body of Christ” according to the Apostle Paul. We are to be the hands of God in the world.
But we live in a world where machines have been invented to “free” us from nearly every physical task—including cars that will soon drive for us. I wonder if we understand what is lost. This freedom from physical labor done by machines and robots has created a culture of increased production that requires matching increases in consumption. Farmers Fred Bahnson and Richard Church observed that in this country “industrial agriculture has replaced malnutrition with obesity. While other countries starve, Americans eat themselves to death.” They have a point: There are increasing members of people in the U.S. dealing with obesity, heart disease and diabetes. They continue:
“What slavery, the Industrial Revolution, and now Information Technology all share in common is this same mistaken assumption: that there can be in this world an end to physical work, if not for everyone then at least for the privileged. As Garret Keizer writes in Harper’s Magazine, ‘[A] culture that has as its highest aim the avoidance of anything remotely resembling physical work must change its life. If you want an inconvenient truth, there it is: that the very notion of convenience upon which our civilization rests is a lie that is killing us.'”
The work we have tried so hard to get out of, in the end, may be our key to health and happiness.
I’ve been reading a book by neuroscientist Kelly Lambert titled Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist’s Hands-On Approach to Activating Your Brain’s Healing Power. It’s a fascinating book. Her research shows that in our drive to do less physical work, we’ve lost something vital to our mental well-being—an innate resistance to depression. She notes that extensive areas of the brain are devoted to our hands much more than other parts of the body, much like the sense of smell in a dog’s brain. When we use our hands to garden, chop, stir, cook, paint, play an instrument, sew, knit, do woodworking, make pottery or jewelry, we activate areas of the brain responsible for motivation, planning, problem-solving, decision-making, manual dexterity and pleasure. The work of our hands taps into the areas of the human mind relating to hope, creativity, beauty, happiness and joy. It may not eliminate depression, but it helps alleviate some of its symptoms.
As an example, Lambert observed that Amish deal with less obesity and depression than the general population. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for doing without the conveniences of modern technology or medicine. But we can be more aware of the impact these advances have on our physical and emotional health. It would seem that Jesus understood the healing that can happen when food is prepared and shared with family and friends or even entertaining a stranger, or when those in need are clothed, or those in prison are visited, or those who are lonely are held. The work of our hands is healing work. Not just for others but also ourselves.
For a moment, I invite you to look at you own hands—really look at them—young or old, smooth or wrinkled. Notice the veins and arteries, the tendons, the swollen joints from arthritis, the age spots, the scars, the painted or broken nails, the lines in your palms, the callouses, your fingerprints. Just for a moment, I want you to think about the things your hands have done that have been hurtful. Some memories may be painful: the clenched fist, the push, the pinch, the slap, the punch, the pulled trigger, the spank, the slamming of the door, the object broken, the angry letter, the hurtful text . . . clasp your hands together and hold these things tightly. Now release them, shake them off or peel them off like a glove—and know that you are forgiven. You are loved no matter what your hands have done to hurt others: God loves and forgives you. Yes, of course, there may be need for reconciliation or even restitution, but know in your heart that you are loved no matter what.
Look at your hands again. Now think of all the good your hands have done: the helping hand, the things repaired and fixed, the creations made or built, the lifting up, the babies held, the diapers changed, the children’s books held and pages turned, the bodies washed, the beds made, the bread kneaded and baked, the garden tended, the food made, the car driven, the hammer held, the paint brushed, the wood chopped, the surgery performed, the blueprint drawn, the flowers arranged, the pipes connected, the numbers added, the data processed, the sheet music held, the piano keys played, the strings plucked, the law book held, the teacher’s chalk held, the medicine given, the needle threaded, the yarn knitted, the picture taken, the firm handshake of a deal made, the check written, the wallet taken out and the money given, the hair pushed behind the ear, the tear wiped, the muscles rubbed, the love made, the cup passed, the bread broken and eaten. Your hands are made for this: to heal, and to help, and to love. Your hands were made to make God’s love visible.
There is so much to do in the world, and the good news is that we have others to do it with us. If you feel comfortable doing this, take the hand of someone near you and hear these words of blessing:
Tender and loving God, thank you for the gift of our hands. Bless these hands. Bless these hands that are your hands at work in the world. On this Labor Day, may our hands do the work of peace and justice. May our hands together heal, help and love. May it be so. Amen
Fred Bahnson and Richard Church, “The Work of Our Hands: Two Farmers’ Reflections,” The Cresset, Michaelmas 2007 (Vol LXXI, No. 1, p 11–16), http://thecresset.org/2007/Bahnson-Church_M2007.html (accessed online September 7, 2017).
Kelly Lambert, Lifting Depression (New York: Basic Books, 2008), p.42. Amish have one-half the rate of depression as the general population.