Human Hands – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

The first time I saw it – and really looked at it – tears of sorrow welled in my eyes. I had been running on a trail through Maudslay State Park near Emery House. A massive, ancient tree with a sprawling network of gnarled roots and a soaring canopy greeted my gaze in a silent embrace. Almost every inch of its bark was covered in deep, jagged scars where names, dates, profane words, and crude drawings had been gouged. Over this surface the garish colors of spray-painted graffiti formed another layer of human commentary on this mute, living canvas. In what might have been a plot of inviting shade beneath its branches stretched a graveyard of empty beer cans, cigarette butts, and other garbage. I sighed deeply, and I knew that in this desecrated parody of a tree I beheld an icon of Christ crucified.

“Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” In a manner of speaking, God became public property in the person of Jesus. Of course, God belongs to no one in the sense of ownership. But if we consider God’s desire to become radically accessible and available to all, as we see that desire made manifest in the life of Jesus, the image works. Land held in public trust for the good and access of many, such as a state or national park, is subject to the wise and careful maintenance of those who cherish it, just as it is equally vulnerable to the negligence or abuse of those who treat it as an endlessly available commodity. Just as God was entrusted into human hands in the Incarnation, hands that carefully, lovingly swaddled, fed, caressed and held him, so also the Son of Man is betrayed into human hands that will slap, bind, torture, and nail him to a cross.

This saying of Jesus drives a painful wedge down the center of the conceptual universe that the disciples take for granted, the assumption that this Way of Jesus is a path of progress from the relative powerlessness of Galilean fishermen to the pure power of a promised Messiah. Jesus must either be powerful or powerless. Healing and amazement confirm the hope and expectation of power. Jesus’ painstaking, second prediction of his passion confronts the disciples with powerlessness, their own as much as their Master’s. What kind of power awaits a victim of betrayal?

This victim is the Son of Man, ben Adam, the truly Human One. This is the One whose human journey recapitulates and redeems the earthly pilgrimage of every human being. It is our hands that betray this Son of Man. Our hands betray the one who made us with his own hands. And because his Humanity is ours in its essence, in betraying him, our hands betray one another and ourselves.

These acts of betrayal are rarely premeditated. They are often not even conscious. So often, they are the clumsy, careless fumbling of hands that have not paused, for just a brief moment, to weigh the worth of that which they handle – and to weigh their own worth.They are the hands that casually gouge the flesh of other creatures to leave our mark upon the world. And these gouges and fumbles and failures to pause are sin. This is the collective sin in which we are all implicated, in which we are all complicit, that gathers like grit beneath the fingernails of every beautiful hand of every child of God.

The true wonder, the real cause for astonishment, is that Jesus continues to give us himself. He continues to entrust himself to our distracted, careless, fumbling, callous human hands, because his love for them and for us is endless and unbreakable. He knows that we will drop him or worse, countless times. The mystery of grace, of living in the full knowledge that we are beloved sinners saved by Christ, is that each time we drop him, we are given a new chance to stretch out our hands to receive him. Each time we drop him, we can depend on him more and more to catch us. And though we drop him every moment, he holds our souls in life and his right hand holds us fast. As he places himself into your hands at this altar, place yourself in his.

A single, cryptic phrase inscribed on that tree stays with me. Though its precise meaning is concealed from me, it wheedles its way into my heart like a splinter, or a hard saying of Jesus. The simple words: “This tree has seen GOD.”





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  1. Mike Stevens on April 29, 2022 at 16:26

    Lovely, Keith. I prayed on this as part of my daily prayer this morning. Thank you.


  2. Connie on April 29, 2022 at 09:23

    Amidst the trash, the sordid, the desecration, we find Jesus.
    “This tree has seen GOD.”
    Thanks, Bro. Keith.

  3. Mary S Naumann on April 29, 2022 at 08:53

    Blessings, Br. Keith

  4. Nick M-K on September 30, 2020 at 08:33

    A powerful image that helps me start my day with a softer heart, for myself and others whom I will meet today. Thank you, Br. Keith.

  5. Tim Carrington on September 17, 2018 at 18:01

    The image of Christ putting himself in our hands– careless and fumbling as they are– is powerful. I feel a sense that I should meditate each day on what is in my hands, and what I am in danger of dropping..

  6. Rhode on September 17, 2018 at 11:30

    What does this tree look lke a year later? Have we picked up the garbage? Have we fertilized, pruned and watered? Educated those who would do it harm? Have we placed our hands on the old wounds in sympathy? Or, has the garbage piled up obscuring even the path, leaves brittle, branches broken?
    I like to believe it is one grand miracle this tree of ‘life’ is here at all and still alive …..with branches stretched wide to afford the shelter of grace to everyone and as Leslie aptly wrote in 2017 – humbly pulling out the CO2 and giving us what we need….perhaps this tree is continuously watered by tears as people draw close enough to see the price that was paid.

  7. Edward Greene on September 17, 2018 at 10:21

    What a wealth of profound and beautiful comments on a profound and beautiful sermon! Brother Keith’s insistence on the unfailing, self-giving love of Jesus reminds me of Julian of Norwich. Many years ago I was exploring the summit of Mount Tabor in Galilee, the traditional site of the Transfiguration. The summit is riddled with caves, and on the ceiling of one of those caves someone had written — in English, with the soot of a candle flame — “Jesus is Light.” That memory has stayed with me.

  8. CHRISTINA MCKERROW on September 17, 2018 at 09:37

    Dear Readers: If you scan back to April 2017 you may read my thoughts at that time. Round about the same time, I was getting ready to go to church when a little thought nudged me.’ Why don’t you go to St. Andrew’s – another local church.’ Miracle of miracles, that Sunday morning changed my life. I didn’t jump from the old church to the new one, but as the Sundays went by, I found what I was looking for – a warm, welcoming congregation, and a Minister who appears to have time for all of us, and guides us spiritually. I thank God for this gift into my life – I hadn’t realized just how joyless life and I had become. Never be afraid to change – it may be the gift you are being offered. Christina

    • April on September 30, 2020 at 08:00

      Dear Christina, Thank you for sharing that… as I needed to hear it. Gratefully, ~ April

  9. James Rowland on September 17, 2018 at 07:49

    Thank you, Br. Keith. I will be returning to your sermon again and again. Yes. ” Each time we drop him we can depend on him more and more to catch us.” Like yesterday–and probably today as well. Your thoughts on this will be my touchstone.

  10. Susie mcniff on April 27, 2017 at 15:31

    Wow, I will remember this sermon and powerful words and imagery. Susie

  11. Cynthia Wigdahl on April 27, 2017 at 12:01

    Thank you, Keith!
    A profound reflection for me this morning. Riding along in Eastertide, I am captivated still with my experience of Maundy Thursday this year… the palpable removal of Christ from the disciples and from us (our dropping him?), and the invitation to ‘watch and pray’ (holding on to Christ’s presence in faith!). Your beautiful writing enlivens the good tension of daily life and renews hope.

  12. Dann on April 27, 2017 at 08:53

    This makes me think of the world between the time of Adam and the time of Moses, when all was fair game because no one had defined sin; it seems people who haven’t bothered to know what sin is, to understand its consequence to themselves and others, do so with all the forethought and remorse of a sneeze. Our times are (alas) like Noah’s time.

  13. Sally on April 9, 2017 at 22:20

    It makes me think of the neglected people, probably
    young people with poor homes, education, perhaps no father and no hope. What can I do different for those who message us and God what is happening?

  14. Verlinda on April 9, 2017 at 21:37

    Absolutely beautiful words, and a reminder that we all play a role in this Holy Week story.

  15. Rhode on April 9, 2017 at 09:17

    As the morning news of Coptic Christians murdered in Egypt fills my ipad screen my quiet sheltered meditation filled Palm Sunday is blown apart as the price of believing is revealed once more. Your tree buried in filth, its’ dignity marred and its’use subjected to the whims of stupidity is still a tree, no less a tree even when used for fuel. Those Christians dying for the simple act of being in church are no less alive now… even more so. Murdering their bodies has not destroyed them though their families and their killers alike will forever be altered. The desire for vengeance, retribution and fear will fill our hearts.
    Yet, Jesus was tortured and died for all. He asks us to pray for our enemies, to do good to them, a seemingly impossible request…I pray I do not forget my own betrayals that nail him to the tree and the forgiveness offered there everyday.

    • Ruth West on April 27, 2017 at 22:31

      Rhode, your comments were a sermon within itself. How wicked is this world, with so much violence! I heard today of how many thousands of gang members there are right here in our own country. Yet we cannot let the murders and such violence destroy us. I so admire the N. C. Christians who have truly forgiven the one who came in, pretended to join the Bible Study Group and then killed nine of them.
      I, like you, pray that I do not forget my own betrayals that nailed him to the tree and the forgiveness offered there everyday.

  16. John G. on April 9, 2017 at 08:23

    Brother, your sermon came as an answer to a question asked by a radio preacher. It was the question of the rich young man in the gospels. It is this,”What do I lack?” I came to you with this question, and the answer is here. What do I lack? Constancy, the willingness to share the life of Jesus on His terms instead of my terms. The willingness to be reborn as Jesus told Nicodemus. The courage to stick with it no matter what it takes. Treating the Gospel as the center of my life not as an enhancement to my life. Pursuing the call to Christian life not as an option but as a necessity until I hear the Lord’s say,”You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” Lead me, Lord, and I will follow. And when I fall away, and I will, please take me back again, a sinner of your own redeeming. Amen

    • Christina on April 27, 2017 at 10:07

      Good morning, John: Thank you for your response to this morning’s Word. Last night, following a book discussion meeting, I came home discouraged. I was asking myself the question, “Why bother? Why do I go to worship service every week? Church (capital C) is always talking about community but for me, after more than fifty-five years, I have never found it – or it has never found me.”
      So I must keep in mind your word, ‘constancy’ – or my old Scottish roots, ‘stoicism.
      Blessings. Christina

    • SusanMarie on September 30, 2020 at 07:34

      John G.,
      I am deeply moved by your response to Brother Keith’s excellent sermon. Thank you both for giving me a new understanding of Jesus’ words.

  17. Renny Azotea on April 9, 2017 at 07:39

    Amen, my brothers,we humans are sometimes our worst enemies. Without the saving grace of Christ we are lost. Thanks for the encouraging words. Grace and Peace Re.Renny

  18. Helen Trombley on April 9, 2017 at 06:47

    Thank you.

  19. Leslie on April 9, 2017 at 05:14

    Thank you for your powerful word of truth. Though your meditation needs no further embellishment, I offer that the desecrated tree is an icon of Jesus, the wounded healer. It continues to humbly pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and make oxygen for us.

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