This sermon was preached at Saint Oswald’s Parkside by the Revd Canon Bill Goodes on Sunday, 27 June, 2021. (Pentecost 5B)
“Jesus turned…and said, ‘who touched my clothes?’” Mark 5:30
Touch is so important for us, isn’t it! We even use the idea of touch as a picture of anything that affects us – “I was really touched by your action” we might say. One of my most vivid memories of touch was after my father died — I was in Perth when it happened, so I didn’t see him until he was nearly ready for his funeral, and in his coffin — I touched his forehead, and it was so hard, so cold! Many people find that one of the hardest parts of coping with the death of a loved one is missing that loving touch that is so much a part of our expressing love day by day.
Did you notice the use of touch in the twin stories in the Gospel reading? The one story book-ends the other, and the two are linked by the common period of twelve years: in the one, the little girl’s age, in the other, the period during which the woman had experienced this embarrassing haemorrhage, spending all she had on doctors and yet getting worse instead of better.
The woman came up behind Jesus in the crowd, saying to herself, “If I only touch his robe I will be made well” There in the crowded street she reached out and grasped the tassel on the edge of the teacher’s robe. That touch was significant for both the toucher and the touched — she was “healed of her disease”, and he was “aware that power had gone forth from him”. Her experience of touch was her way of calling for assistance: his was the channelling of the power of the healing God into her body.
Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, made his call for assistance with words, “begging Jesus repeatedly ‘My little daughter is at the point of death, come and lay your hands on her so that she may be made well and live’”. Jairus recognized both the power of Jesus to bring healing, the importance of articulating his own need of this healing power, and also the place that touch had in the process of seeking that power. Then when Jesus came into Jairus’s house, putting all the professional mourners outside with his astounding claim, “she is not dead but sleeping”, he went to the little girl, took her by the hand and said, “get up!”
When the Church wants to continue this healing ministry of Jesus, it too uses the touch of hands and the anointing with oil to accompany our prayers for the healing, the wholeness of body mind and spirit that the person who has acknowledged the need of healing is seeking.
We rejoice, then, in the gift of touch and all that it can mean for our total well-being.
Sadly, however, touch does not always express love. All too often a pat on the back is experienced not as encouragement, but as assault, violence. For touch can also be used to hurt, to control, to belittle, to exploit, to intrude. And this can happen even in settings like the home which is meant to be a place of security, well-being, love. The General Synod of our Church in Australia recently published the results of some research it had commissioned into the Anglican experience of Family Violence, and the results of the survey were quite disturbing. The proportion of people who identify as Anglicans and who report having experienced “Intimate Partner Violence” is similar to or greater than the proportion of members of the general public who have had similar experience. Perhaps even more disturbing was the comparison between the experience of Church-attending Anglicans and non-attending ones — again, the Anglicans who attend Church reported a greater prevalence of experiencing Intimate Partner Violence than non-attenders. It was also sad, but not perhaps as surprising, that this violent touch was noticeably more likely to be experienced by a female than by a male.
In response to the results of this research, the General Synod’s Family Violence working group has made a set of ten commitments for preventing and responding to Domestic and Family Violence, the first of which reads, “Our Church acknowledges and laments the violence which has been suffered by some of our members, and repents of the part we have played in allowing an environment where violence went unaddressed.”
How are we to respond to this information? We are committed to a gospel which asserts that all people have equal value and should be afforded equal honour. We believe that this gospel of love is to be expressed in all our relationships, and that we are to live lives of mutual respect. And yet some of us are experiencing treatment which does not express those beliefs and values. The working group calls for repentance and lament, and we might remember how part of our response to the revelations of Child Sexual Abuse in the Church was to make public apology — and how significant that was to those who had been victims. Is something similar called for here?
So, with all the wonder of loving, healing touch, we must acknowledge that there is always a danger if it being abused, and must take care that our use of this wonderful gift is always appropriate and properly directed.
Perhaps we have all stopped reading the notice on the door from the link into the church — which asks us to refrain from hugging and kissing. Yet this experience of touch is one that many of us are missing as we deal with the COVID pandemic. Yet even that touch that we miss has the potential to be misused or become a mere formality. I remember well one clergyman who had the reputation of greeting people at the door of the church in such a way that you felt you were being “moved along” so that the next person could take your place. In some places I have seen the passing of The Peace misused in a similar way — using it as a time for sharing news, of making sure that you have personally touched every other person in the building, of a sort of break from the seriousness of the worship.
I wonder whether the acknowledgement of our communion with one another in Christ, our expressing our prayer for God’s peace for one another, might be expressed in a different way — would you be prepared to try acknowledging others by looking carefully at them, without any words, trying to see them as your fellows, joined to you by the love of Christ. I suspect that you might find that doing that with no more than three people from outside your family or close friendship group might be as much as you (and they) could cope with. Jesus was on a number of occasions reported as having “looked on” people — sometimes with love, sometimes with sadness, and that that too had been experienced as healing just as much as had his touch.