I believe one of the most troubling things about the children who have been separated from their parents at the border is when we learned that the case workers and childcare workers were not aloud to touch the children. Sadly, with the prevalence of physical abuse in our world, perhaps we can understand why. However, we also understand that not touching them can also be a form of physical abuse. So much so, when some of the childcare workers confessed in an interview to breaking the rules and hugging the children who were in their care, we said, “Well, good for them!”
It should be no surprise to us when we learn that our God is a God who uses the physical as a means of grace. Today’s scripture lesson, with its repeated theme of physical touching, is a perfect example.
Through the act of touching, a woman is made whole, and God’s healing power is released.
In these stories, through the power of the physical touch, barriers of society and tradition are crossed. Rules and laws are broken. The woman in the story is ceremonially unclean. It is against the rules to touch her and it is against the rules to touch her. And notice, that she is also unnamed. Then, notice what happens after the woman breaks the law, reaches out and touches Jesus.
Jesus asks, “Who touched me?” desiring to know the woman who touched him, he reaches out and touches her. He commends her faith and calls her “daughter.” Through the grace of physical touch, the woman who was once unclean has been made whole. And the woman who was once unnamed has become a child of God.
In the second part of the story, the corpse of the girl is ritually unclean. Like the woman with the hemorrhage, this girl’s body is also untouchable. Yet, Jesus does the unthinkable and reaches out and touches the girl’s body nevertheless. In taking the girl’s hand, in touching the girl, Jesus reaches across the boundaries of society but also boundaries of death. And her life is restored.
About fifteen years ago, I attended a conference for pastors at Princeton University in New Jersey with the two ministers I met in Memphis a month or so ago. During our free time, we thought it would be exciting to board a train and visit the Big Apple. Before we left the conference, several frequent travelers New York City, who were also attending the conference, gave us some advice.
“When you are in the city, don’t look anyone in the eyes,” they said. “Don’t speak to anyone.” “Don’t point, at anyone or anything.” If you point at a building, someone may think you are pointing at them, and there may be trouble. And whatever you do, don’t touch anyone. Don’t get close to anyone!”
Being a first timer in the big city, and desiring not to be shot or cut or punched in the face, I decided that I better heed this advice.
As we were standing at one intersection in Times Square, waiting for the pedestrian light to turn green so we could cross, I noticed everyone in front of me, looking back over their shoulders. I turned around to see what they were looking at and saw a very elderly man with a long white beard, dressed as if he was homeless. With one hand on his grocery cart, he was bending down and picking up a slice of pizza he had dropped on the sidewalk with his other hand. After he picked it up we all watched as he went to take a bite as he walked down the road.
“Look, he’s going to eat it,” someone said. But before he could get it to his mouth, he dropped it again. The crowd laughed and jeered. We watched him yet a third time, pick up the pizza, put it to his mouth only to drop it again. The light turned green, the and off we went.
Later, we were walking up several flights of stairs as we exited the subway. My friend, Cary was in front of me and my friend, Steve was behind me.
Up ahead of us I noticed a frail-looking African-American man struggling to pull a large suitcase up the stairs. Cary walked passed the man. I walked passed the man, who I heard grunting with each step, watching out of the corner of my eye, dragging the suitcase behind him. “Should I help him,” I thought to myself. “No, he might get the wrong idea.” “He might think I’m trying to steal it or something.” I kept walking.
Steve, however, who was behind me, took a risk. Not knowing if the man even spoke English, he asked, “Do you need some help?” As Steve reached out and touched the end of the suitcase, the man immediately gave Steve a fearful, mean glance. But then, he smiled. I watched as he smiled most hopeful kind of smile, and said, “thank you.” Steve, picked up the suitcase and helped the man out of the subway. At the top of the stairs, the man reached out his arm, looking like he wanted to hug Steve. He stopped just short of a hug and patted Steve on the back, saying, “Thank you. God bless you.”
Once again, God used the physical as a means of grace. Steve reached out and touched and the power of God, the amazing grace of Jesus Christ was released. Fear was transformed into joy. We all felt it.
As long as I live, I’ll always wonder what might have happened if I had purchased that homeless man another slice of pizza. I’ll always dream of the possibilities, of what might have transpired, if I ate a slice of pizza with him. I’ll always think of the grace that might of come, the salvation that might have happened, through the simple act of reaching out my hand to that poor solitary soul who was struggling to survive.
Because our God is a God who uses the physical as a means of grace.
Look at your hands. They are sacred. They are holy. They are the means of God’s grace. The simple act of touching is powerful. It is sacred, and it is holy, maybe especially so if that touch reaches across barriers of society and tradition.
This past week I received a little push back when I posted a picture of myself with Hisham Yasin with our lunch plates and wrote a caption: “breaking bread with my Muslim brother.”
“How can you call a Muslim, who does not believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, your brother?” They asked.
I then shared with them the story of how I became Hisham’s brother. I said, “The first that I did was to break all sorts societal and traditional barriers by visiting with him in his office.”
During that visit I quickly learned that when it came to religion or politics or philosophy, even sports, Hisham and I agreed on very little. However, I learned that there was one thing that we did agree on. And that is that inclusive love has the power to change the world.
He offered me some dried figs and a delicious glass of herbal tea. He quoted passages from the Qur’an. I quoted Jesus. During our conversation he kept struggling with what to call me. Sometimes he would call me “preacher,” but sometimes he would call me “pastor.” I really got him confused when he just stopped halfway through our conversation, and asked me, “what do you like to be called?”
“Because I am more than a preacher and more than someone who give pastoral care, I guess I prefer ‘minister.’”
During the rest of the conversation, I think he called me all three titles.
After our visit, I reached out my hand to shake his. He immediately reached out both of his hands to hug me. As he gave me this great big hug, he said, “I don’t know to call you preacher, pastor or minister, so from now on, I just call you “brother.”
Now, at that moment, I reckon I could have pushed him away from me saying, “Now wait one minute, Mister, you are not my brother, for you do not believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and Savior of the world!”
But thank God I chose instead to break traditional and societal rules, by hugging him back saying, “I love you brother,” to hear him say, “I love you my brother.” I chose to allow God to once more use the physical as a means of grace. And the power of God, the amazing grace of Jesus Christ was released. I felt it. And I believe Hashim felt it.
This, my friends, is what our world needs. We need to reach past all of the barriers that we erect between ourselves and our neighbors— political, religious, racial, ethnic, economic. We need to reach out and touch them. We need to allow them to touch us. We need to join hands, link arms, rub elbows and see that we have more things in common than the things that separate us. We need to see in the words of James Taylor, that ;there are ties between us, all men and women living on the Earth, ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood.”
Every Sunday morning, when we gather around this table and affirm the grace of the physical. When we consume physical elements of grain and grape, resprenting the body and blood of Christ, we affirm that we have been touched by God through Christ. We affirm that through his touch, we have been made whole. Through his touch, we have all become children of God. But more than that, in consuming the body and blood of Christ, we acknowledge that we are his body and his blood. We are the body of Christ. Our hands are of Christ in this world. Our hands are sacred, and they are holy. They are means of God’s grace. They have the power to heal this broken world. They have to power to accept, to welcome, to love, and to make this world a better place.
After we sing our hymn of communion together, all are invited to consume the physical elements of grain and grape, receive grace, and renew the commitment to be the hands of Christ in this world.
Commissioning and Benediction
Go from this place and remember that, in the words of Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body on this earth but yours…Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out on a hurting world; yours are the feet with which he goes about doing good; yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.”