August 21: Proper 16:
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
“You have not come to something that can be touched.”
God cannot be approached…God is “a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.”
God cannot be approached, or touched, or grasped with the head, or the hands.
God is so far above us, so utterly transcendent, so wholly other that we have to ask: how can this God care about us?
How can this untouchable, unreachable God care about you; about me? About what happens in our day to day lives? It is simply not possible…and yet…
Here is Jesus, teaching in the synagogue, and in walks this woman suffering from some disfiguring illness for eighteen years.
“Woman,” he calls out, “you are set free from your ailment.” You are set free because this great and mighty God has declared that the time has been fulfilled. You are set free because the reign of this unreachable God has broken in and is real and present before you. You are set free because the fullness of this blazing fire God is revealed in Jesus…in the fullness of his humanity; We are set free because the whole of God is seen and heard and felt…and felt…in Jesus—Emmanuel—“God with us.”
“You have not come to something that can be touched…” and yet…
“Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And then what happens? Jesus does something…He lays his hands on her.
He touches her. God touches her. Just as God touched Jeremiah, “The lord put out his hand and touched my mouth.” God touches us.
The biblical narrative is a narrative of this “scandal of the particular” (great term); it has some variety of meanings, but generally it conveys this idea that this God of “blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom and tempest;” that the God whose voice “thunders over mighty waters, and breaks the cedars of Lebanon” (Psalm 29: 3&5); that the God who “stretched out the heavens like a tent” (Psalm 104:2) and formed the Leviathan “just for the sport of it,”(Psalm 104: 26), this God cares about us…works with and though us, individual human people at particular times and in specific places.
The Genesis narrative, that begins with the creation of the entire cosmos eventually narrows it’s focus to one man—Abraham—and his family as the bearers of God’s covenant throughout history…the promise that “all nations of the earth shall be blessed” through him (Genesis 12:3).
Our Christian mirror of that, the Gospel of John, also begins with the cosmic Christ—the logos—co-creating with the Father all things, and then becoming fully human in an individual, in one historical human person—incarnate—God becoming fully human, so that we may all become divine.
It is in the particular where God meets us. It is in the particular where this untouchable God touches us.
Touch…a very specific, particular…incredibly personal and very intimate gesture is often where God meets us.
There is a reason why laying on of hands is a foundational sacramental gesture.
Laying on of hands is used in every rite of the church, at baptism when we put water on someone’s head, and again when we seal them with the oil of chrismation…
At the Eucharist (notice when I actually touch the bread and wine),
During individual confession and penance…
At the blessing of a marriage…
And during healing and anointing…every sacrament and sacramental rite has touch as a central gesture.
Why might this be?
There’s plenty of research now on the importance of touch in early childhood development
And how touch releases certain chemicals in the brain that create feelings of bonding and well-being in us.
And it’s believed that touch is one of the last senses that we lose as we are dying.
It’s also true that very often when Jesus healed, as he does here, he touches people.
I think for all those reasons, but also touch is so central to our sacraments because it is the gesture that reminds us of the reality of the Incarnation…of this scandal of the particular…it’s the sign that this untouchable God can and does touch us through others.
It is the gesture that unites two beings and makes them a trinity of “I” and a “you” and “us.”
It is a specific gesture—a particularity—that highlights the connection between me and all that is…that makes our being a part of everything clearer and less ambiguous. When we touch we remember that we belong to each other.
Sacramental touch—like we do during the laying on of hands—is like eating the bread, or sipping the wine at Communion it is something that makes you one with all around you. It is a kind of “cellular knowing” as Richard Rohr says, a knowing at the deepest level that the reign of God is among us—here, present, with us…and we know it in every fiber of our being because we can taste it and smell it and fell it long before we can see or hear it.
People are always wanting Jesus to give them signs that the reign of God is indeed breaking in, and miss the fact that he is doing that every time he eats and drinks with someone or touches them.
Healing stories in the Gospels are always about more than just returning a person to health, in fact, I would argue that they are rarely about merely that. Healing in scripture is always, as it is here, about proclaiming the reign of God; about revealing it to be fully present now. In other words, every act of healing has both a personal and a social dimension. Healing is about proclaiming the kind of wholeness that exists beneath and beyond our physical capabilities or limitations.The kind of wholeness that exists when we are all connected to one another and to God. In our healing ministry here we often have people coming for a personal concern, as well as those coming to pray for healing of their families, or their communities, or the healing of creation. The people and situations named by those seeking healing prayers here are offered as a particular focal point for God’s mercy, love, and our universal desire for wholeness. And the laying on of hands is our tangible reminder that God is already present in the stress, the anxiety, the pain, already reaching out in compassion and care; already at the work of transformation.
No, you have not come to something that can be touched, but open yourselves just a bit, and God can touch you, and begin healing you toward that wholeness that only God can provide.