Sensing Lent: Touch
March 13, 2022 – Rev. Drew Stockstill
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Hen Gathers Her Brood, mosaic at the altar of Dominus Flevit Church, Jerusalem
Our sermon series this Lent is called, “Sensing Lent.” Through our senses we can experience the glory of God all around us. The heavens and the earth declare it: the glory of the love of the Lord is everywhere, if we only perceive it. That’s what Jesus felt when he was talking to those Pharisees that day. He was thinking about all his brother and sisters, the children of God who he came to show God’s love to, who were still missing it. His heart, God’s heart, yearns for us and Jesus said, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Today, Lord, we pray, make us willing. I know there is somebody here who is longing to be held. Lord, we are willing. Maybe there is somebody who just hasn’t felt like themselves. Lord, we are willing to be held by you. These last few years have been a challenge, exhausting for some of us, and I bet there are some here who are feeling numb, who want to feel alive again. Lord, we are willing. As we name the sin that keeps us from being at peace under the wings of mother hen, we ask God to help us become mindful of what it feels like to be wrapped in the arms of our Lord. So, we turn our attention to the sense of touch, God’s touch.
One of my favorite memories to revisit is one of touch. When I was a young child, around the age of my daughters now, I loved to share my grandmother’s king-sized bed whenever I spent the night. When it was bedtime, I would play in her bathtub, brush my teeth, and climb into that California King that seemed as big as an island, or a pirate ship, which sometimes it was. Her bed was
always made perfectly and she had 153 pillows. I’d untuck the covers, slide into the sheets, and we’d say our prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” And then my grandmother would gently stroke my forehead as I drifted off to sleep.
Touch is a powerful force. The Bible knows this. The Hebrew and Greek words translated as touch, appear 154 times in the Bible. There are stories of God’s creative touch, as when God formed life out the dust. There is violent touch, as when Cain kills his brother, Abel. There is healing touch, which Jesus provides to countless people in the gospels. Some people, I know, don’t like to be touched. Maybe you have a complicated relationship with touch. So, in the Bible there are a lot of rules regulating touch in the Law – who and what can and cannot be touched. God is clearly concerned with appropriate touch. There are boundaries for touch, because touch is a powerful force. It sticks with you. My grandmother’s fingers on my forehead, the weight of my favorite teddy bear, Ted, when I held him tight. I can feel my hand in my dad’s as we cross the grocery store parking lot, the hug my mom gave me when they dropped me off at college. That was 18 years ago. I feel it. Touch is a powerful force.
It can be the simplest things: the feeling of an ax cutting through a log satisfaction. The feel of the dry soft yarn in the fingers of a knitter. The force of a football landing in your arms. The soft fur of a dog or cat curled in your lap. The way your favorite pen feels on the page. Or bread dough on your hands. How the bark of a tree feels when you climb up on its branches. Your grandchild on your lap. Sand under your feet on the beach. Wind on your face when you finally hit the downhill on your bike. Those feelings stay with us.
Touch is a powerful force. It can change your life: the tentative first kiss with my now wife, my babies in my arms as they took their first breaths. The soldier who feels the weight of the trigger the first time he fires in battle. The way the ring slid on her finger just so, or his. The sting of the slap. The force of metal crashing into metal. Those feelings, they change us. They stay with us.
The country singer Johnny Cash struggled with a substance use disorder for much of his life. He struggled with the feeling of pain, the feeling that was both physical and emotional. I’m a big fan of Johnny Cash. He knew himself to be a sinner of God’s own redeeming, and he helped a lot of people come to know God’s healing touch. In his old age Cash covered a song originally by the hard rock band, Nine Inch Nails. It’s called, “Hurt.” It’s a loud heavy song about self-harm and drug use. The song names the pain so many carry and how heavy a burden it can be to live with the intensity of our ability to feel. When Johnny Cash sang it, he sang is slowly, with a world-weary voice, not long before he died and you can hear the power of touch when he sings: “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel. I focused on the pain. The only thing that’s real.” That’s the power of touch turned upside down. When so much hurt has happened, pain seems to be preferable to nothing. Cash goes on, “The needle tears a hole. The old familiar sting. Try to kill it all away. But I remember everything.” Touch is remembered. That’s a feeling that can change a life. The sense of touch is a powerful thing.
Touch can change a life. And this is what Jesus came to do, change lives, for just such a life in pain. But Jesus wants us to remember something else, the love and grace of God, so Jesus redeems touch; uses touch to restore health, to bring to mind, not a familiar sting, but a new feeling of embrace, the feeling of the cleansing baptismal waters of forgiveness.
Jesus knew the power of touch and he used it, used that power of touch to heal. God reached through his son, to touch and transform the world. That’s who Jesus is, he is the embodiment of
God’s desire to touch us, and be touched. Over and over and over again in the gospels, when someone who is hurting comes to Jesus, he touches them and heals them. Like how one evening, as the sun was setting on a bustling city in Galilee, everyone in that city who had any who were “sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them.” He touched every single person who was sick. As the darkness fell, there was Jesus still touching, one after another, people who were in pain – in pain until they felt his touch.
Or how a man covered with a skin disease that kept most people away, came to Jesus and said, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” He wasn’t expecting much, he was certainly not expecting what happened next. Jesus said, “I do choose,” but what he chose to do was not just heal the man, but touch the man. Jesus desired to touch this man. Helping him with his skin issue was only one part of the healing. The greater part was for the man to feel Jesus’ desire to touch him. Sure, his skin hurt, but nobody wanted to touch this man. Imagine that suffering. And imagine what that man would remember longer: his clean skin, or the feeling of Jesus’ hands on him when it had been so long, so long since he had felt another’s touch?
Jesus’ touch is a powerful thing, because he doesn’t have to touch to heal. There are plenty of stories in the gospel were Jesus heals without touching, heals with just a word, heals without even being present in some cases. You could be healed by Jesus without being touched by Jesus, which is good news for those of you who don’t like to be touched. Jesus did not touch just to heal physical wounds, his touch reached in to heal the human heart.
Sometimes in the gospel, people couldn’t resist touching Jesus. The word touch in Greek has the sense of not just a glancing touch, but a clinging touch. There was the woman who had been sick for a long time who believed if she just touched the hem of his garment she would be healed. And she was right. Jesus felt the power of that touch. They were in a crowd with many people pressing in on him but when he felt her touch, driven by her faith and her longing and her desire, it changed him. He felt power go out of him, the POWER of touch.
Then there was the woman known mainly by her sin who came to Jesus when he was eating and poured expensive ointment on him and then clung to his feet, and was weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair and continued kissing his feet and anointing them with ointment. Everyone watching was stunned by this touch. Many offended. Jesus loved this woman, full of the desire to not just politely tap him on the shoulder, but handle him with gratuitous touch. He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” There wasn’t anything physically wrong with her, but imagine the power of that healing touch, for her and for him.
He touched to communicate love. He touched because he desired and the ones he touched desired to be touched. He touched because God chose to reach out and touch his children to let us know, "I am here, I want nothing more than to hold you, to protect you, to gather you, and I will, child. One day I will, when you let me.” God desires, and in Jesus God chose to touch, to feel, to hold, to be held. And of course, his choice meant that he felt the hurt of touch as well. He felt his disciple Judas’ tender kiss that was the sign of betrayal. He felt the hands and fists of those who beat him. He felt the pain of the spear in his side as he died on the cross. He felt it all, but his desire was the same. From the cross his arms outstretched he still wanted nothing more than to gather these hurting people into his arms, to free them from the pain that causes such violence. God knows your pain. That’s what compassion is, to be willing to feel with another person. Kiss of Judas, marble, Ignatius Jacometti
Beloved, today it is through faith that we know the touch of God. Today God reaches through the Holy Spirit to touch and transform the world. All around us are opportunities to experience the touch of God. But our deepest longing is for the pure touch of the risen Jesus Christ.
Thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples, he wasn’t in the room the first time Jesus appeared after they witnessed him die on the cross. Thomas wasn’t there, but they told him about it. But Thomas said, “Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas needed to touch him to believe. And so Jesus appeared again, this time to Thomas and said, “Thomas, put your finger here, reach out your hand and put it in my side. [Touch me Thomas, if you must.]” But blessed are those who are not able to reach out a hand to touch Jesus, but believe just the same that Jesus Christ is standing here with his arms open to you today, saying, “How I have desired to hold you.” And he will when you let him, and then he will when we can no longer resist his loving touch.