God's Work Our Hands
September 12, 2021
I spend some time each year watching the remembrance ceremony held at the 9/11 Memorial. I have to watch for a while and then step away, returning and leaving several times throughout the hours it takes to read the names. The grief is so palpable. You can see it in those who read the names of their beloveds – in their tears, in the movement of their hands, in their postures. They carry that grief in their bodies.
As many of them say, it feels like it was yesterday. On this 20th anniversary so much is right there at the surface – memory, grief, heartache, hope.
But I also hear these family members bearing witness to love – giving voice to the ways that they see their loved ones reflected in the lives of children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, in the acts of compassion carried out in memory of those who were lost. The small moments that tell them their loved one is still present in some way – a song that plays on the radio, a butterfly that lands on a shoulder, a bit of sun peeking through the clouds on a graduation day. I watched a special about the babies who were born in the months following 9/11, the ones whose fathers had died that day. Several of them have followed in their father’s footsteps by becoming fire fighters or police officers. To see their faces now, at almost 20 years old, juxtaposed with pictures of their fathers – it took my breath away how much several of them look like their dads.
We’ve learned a lot in recent years about how we carry trauma in our bodies and how it can resurface at unexpected times. People experience that embodied trauma in different ways: a racing heart, extreme fatigue, a feeling of being jumpy or on edge, difficulty concentrating.
Perhaps what’s most unsettling is how that trauma that lives in our bodies can be reactivated by another stressor, even one that doesn’t bear direct resemblance to the original wound and takes place years later. So, for example, the stress of being isolated during a global pandemic can bring back the trauma response of the days following September 11. The same is true of other traumas – assaults or abuse or accidents. We hold on to those even when we’re not thinking about them consciously.
The person whose voice we heard in our First Reading from Isaiah knows something about the trauma we carry in our bodies. I did not hide my face from insult and spitting, this person says. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard. This person speaks as one who has been hurt by forces he could not control. He carries the wounds of those violent encounters.
And yet this speaker also acknowledges that God has used his body for good: God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. He describes how God has wakened his ear to listen more carefully. God’s help frees this person to continue doing the work to which he has been called. He is able to say with confidence: I will not be put to shame…Let us stand up together.
The same is true of Jesus, who inhabits a human body that will be traumatized in unimaginable ways – beaten, bloodied, nailed to a cross. That outcome was not at all what people of his day expected of a messiah.[i] Saviors aren’t supposed to suffer and die. Ancient writings had dreamed about a powerful, perfect ruler who would judge the wicked and stand up for the righteous people of Israel. Then along comes Jesus, who says, “I am going to suffer and die. And look over there. There’s your cross. Pick it up, and join me.”
Peter’s resistance to Jesus’ talk of suffering and death makes sense to me. Who wants a leader who says, “Hey, in order to follow me, you’re going to have to be prepared for the worst possible challenges. You are going to have to put your life on the line. You will meet resistance and rejection. You might even die. But that’s what it means to take up the cross in my name.”
Peter can’t understand at this point that the crucified body of Jesus would also become the risen body of Jesus. Jesus does mention it: “And after three days [I will] rise again,” but Peter can be forgiven for not being able to wrap his head around that statement. Peter could not have imagined the ways that God can bring life out of death, how God refuses to let suffering have the last word.
We, however, live on the other side of that empty tomb, and because we do, we can take up that cross and follow Jesus with a sense of freedom. Whatever difficulty we might encounter will never be able to take us away from God’s abiding love. We can head out into a world that will still try to hurt us, but we can channel those words from Isaiah. We don’t have to hide our face from insults and spitting because the Lord God helps us and therefore we will not be disgraced. I shall not be put to shame; the one who vindicates me is near…Let us stand up together.
I hope this next month of service in the name of “God’s Work. Our Hands.” will give us a chance to experience that freedom in God’s name. We can be intentional about looking for opportunities to put our bodies on the line in service to others. You might think that sending a card or sharing some cookies or sweeping someone’s porch or donating some diapers doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice. But I can promise you that it means the world to the person who receives your gift of service. I promise you that God can use you as an instrument of grace and love and compassion in ways that will totally surprise you.
As you begin to think about how you might choose to serve in the coming weeks, remember that God gives each of our bodies a new story to carry – a story of hope and healing in the face of grief and anxiety. Rest in the promise of that hope as you enter each new day, with eyes and ears opened to the opportunities God might put before you.
As you prepare to go out into the world to serve, I invite you to receive this blessing, which I have borrowed from a 2019 service of remembrance at the Harvard chapel[ii]:
May our lives honor the lives of all who have been lost,
all who have suffered in the wake of that terrible day.
May we honor them with our eagerness
to work for a world in which our lives are not swallowed up in violence,
but in which we are set free to be the people God means us to be.
God has not placed us at each other’s mercy,
but in each other’s care.
May the spirit of God enlighten us, transform us, and lead us into life.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ