Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Theology of Hands: Rebuilding Zion in the Land of 10,000 Lakes

By. David R. Weiss

“God’s Work, Our Hands,” the theme chosen for the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly has a timeless—and yet ever timely—character to it. This is, after all, the very vocation of the people of God: to be doing God’s work … with our hands. And to be doing it with steady conviction and fresh insight in each particular historical moment.

As we gather every two years, Lutherans from coasts and borders, from edge to center, the task of each Churchwide Assembly is to imagine in the company of the Spirit and on behalf of the entire ELCA what particular commitments will shape our life together into the future opening before us. Our task this year will be to work out a theology of hands.

About 540 years before the birth of Jesus, our Hebrew forbears faced a similar prospect. Released from their exile when Persia conquered Babylon, they returned to the site of Jerusalem. Committing themselves to rebuild Zion, the city of God, their deeper project involved rebuilding their life together as the people of God. It was, without question, God’s work.

It was, however, less clear whose hands were welcome to share in that work. As these returning refugees began their planning, certain kinfolk of theirs who’d been left behind during the Exile came down from the hill country to the north, the region called Samaria. Eager to help rebuild the city, they were rebuffed. Deemed of a defective lineage. Rejected.

In doing God’s work, these Hebrews decided that “our hands” did not include “their hands.” Thus began centuries of animosity betweens Jews … and Samaritans.

Recognizing this animosity throws immense light on the scandal of the Gospel Jesus proclaimed. Of the ten lepers healed, only the Samaritan returns to give thanks. The Samaritan woman at the well might rightly be counted as the first apostle, the first to share the good news about Jesus with others. And the parable of the Good Samaritan, far from teaching the simple truism of kindness to those in need, declares the scandal of discovering that in God’s kingdom holy compassion might be modeled by those we least expect—and least desire—to receive it from.

When Jesus imagines “God's work, our hands,” there can be no doubt that despite generations of consistent animosity, despite an unbroken tradition of exclusion, the Good News is that “our hands” includes Samaritan hands. And far from a precursor to political correctness, this stance of full inclusion is a theological claim. It says that God is a God whose work can be done by hands long held unwelcome. (The same claim was made earlier by the authors of Ruth and Jonah, and by Third Isaiah—all of whom challenged the exclusionary impulses of Ezra and Nehemiah during the rebuilding of the city and Temple.)

This week, as we gather around the theme “God’s work, our hands,” the decisions we make about whose hands are welcome to do God’s work will often be portrayed as being about faithfulness to Scripture or tradition or confessional polity. But in truth the decisions we make about whose hands can be “our hands” in the ELCA —united in love and ordained for Word and Sacrament—are decisions about whether we can imagine and confess a God as surprisingly, scandalously, and graciously welcoming as Jesus’ God.

God’s work, our hands. Is your “our” as big as God’s?

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. His first book is To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God's welcome (2008). David Weiss will be in Goodsoil Central from 12:30-1:30 for a book signing. A longtime Goodsoil supporter, he lives with his wife and children in St. Paul, MN.

1 comment:

  1. Hey David, nice to see your blog.

    I've been blogging quite a bit on the convention for the past couple of months. Check out my blog at

    Since I live in Northfield, I will be attending the assembly as a registered guest and Goodsoil volunteer -- and doing some live blogging. See you there!