The touch

touch1“Touch” is a difficult subject in this day and age.  Today’s gospel reading (Mark 1:40-45) of Jesus touching & healing the leper, alongside what for me were powerful images of folk embracing each other amid the Victorian bushfire tragedy — or as simple as a gentle hand on another’s shoulder, well, they led to this sermon.  I won’t always post my sermons to this blog, but wanted to this time, acknowledging the input of Sojourners Community’s Rose Marie Berger towards the writing of this …

Today’s gospel reading is the third in a series of healings in Mark’s gospel.  We’ve had a healing that freed someone from an evil spirit that bound him.  We’ve had the healing of someone that enabled them to serve the Lord, and today – a healing the allows someone to re-engage with … to re-enter the community.

At the time, people with leprosy were excluded from the community. They ere forced to leave their homes, their families and communities. They lived in colonies – gradually becoming more disfigured and alienated. They were considered to be “unclean” which meant that they were unable to attend synagogues – to read the Scriptures – to offer sacrifice. All religious and spiritual practices were forbidden them since they could not go into any populated place.  It was a desolate existence.

When the leper approaches Jesus, he is, in fact, going against the Law. This said that he should have called out to warn Jesus and the disciples that he was unclean and that they should keep away. Instead, in desperation, he comes to Jesus and speaks directly to Him. In his wretched state, he has seen in Jesus someone who could heal him – the question was did Jesus want to heal someone who was ritually unclean – who, some said, was leprous because of some sin?

 Jesus, of course, wants to and reaches out and touches him – strictly speaking, making Himself unclean in the process. At once – immediately (how often do we hear that word in Mark’s gospel?! the leprosy leaves the man and he is healed.  Jesus reaches out and touches him …

 This past week, night after night on our TV screens we’ve watched footage of devastated bushfire victims hugging another victim close, folk – Kevin Rudd included, placing a comforting hand on the shoulder of a bushfire survivor.

There’s something about touch.   

In 1971, Ashley Montagu published Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin and returned touch to cultural consciousness. We have learned that cuddling infants is crucial to their emotional well-being. Breast-feeding, more than just a mechanism for milk, is a core and basic experience of bonding. In the developing human, it establishes a sense of safety in the world.

Catholic writer Rose Marie Berger says:

It took a while for the modern world to catch on to what the ancient world already knew. What were those Christmas moments like when Mary’s hands first caressed the impossibly soft skin of her newborn? Gazed into his eyes? Felt him pull, tug, and bite at her breast? She was not just a vessel of Divine intent. Mary shaped Jesus into a human being through the force and affections of her body.

Once could argue that Jesus learned Mary’s lessons well. Touch was significant to his ministry throughout his life. He touched lepers, the blind, the lame. He gathered children into his arms and touched their heads. With loving care, he touched, no more than touched – he washed the feet of his disciples.

Touch is – well – “touchy.” It crosses boundaries. In most western cultures, including our own – we have a presumption against touch. “Look, but don’t touch” describes behavior toward objects, but is also used to describe relations between people.

In Jesus’ life, touch was also profoundly political. He allowed himself to be touched by the bleeding woman who reached him through the crowd … by the woman who anointed him at Bethany.

He received the touch of Judas’ kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane  … the violence of the soldiers’ blows. After his death women touched him, washed him, rubbed oil into his skin, and wrapped his body in linens. Even resurrected Jesus said to Thomas, “Touch me and see. No ghost has flesh and bones like this.”

Surely there’s a place for healthy, affectionate touching. The trouble is that our lack of experience in healthy, affectionate, appropriate touch – in Christian communities and beyond – once could argue, has led to an explosion of unhealthy and violent manifestations of touch.

Pedophilia, incest, rape, beatings, and self-mutilation are all experiences of touch as domination. This is dehumanizing touch, not touch as a gift revealing the delights of being truly human. Then there’s touch offered totally selflessly – in the name of care and compassion, but so often misunderstood. Touch – it’s a tricky subject.  Dale and I have a teacher-friend who simply as part of his compassionate nature would from time to time put a hand on the shoulder of a kid. This friend of ours went through hell because he dared reach out and touch.  Though he’s long since been cleared, the scars are there.

Touch – appropriate touch, non self-seeking touch, non-dominant touch — it’s part of what’s bound up in being fully human. Yet we don’t know how to handle ‘touch’.

Elias Canetti opens his powerful collection Crowds and Power with these lines:

“There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching towards him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it.” We fear the unknown touch, says Canetti.  And that may be true. But there’s something deep within us that craves e the touch that’s affectionate, that’s intimate, that’s life-giving. 

The poet Anne Sexton concludes her poem: The Touch with these verses:

An ordinary hand — just lonely

for something to touch

that touches back.

The dog won’t do it.

Her tail wags in the swamp for a frog.

I’m no better than a case of dog food.

She owns her own hunger.

My sisters won’t do it.

They live in school except for buttons

and tears running down like lemonade.

My father won’t do it.

He comes in the house and even at night

he lives in a machine made by my mother

and well oiled by his job, his job.


The trouble is

that I’d let my gestures freeze.

The trouble was not

in the kitchen or the tulips

but only in my head, my head.


Then all this became history.

Your hand found mine.

Life rushed to my fingers like a blood clot.

Oh, my carpenter,

the fingers are rebuilt.

They dance with yours.

They dance in the attic and in Vienna.

My hand is alive all over America.

Not even death will stop it,

death shedding her blood.

Nothing will stop it, for this is the kingdom

and the kingdom come. 

Is it too simplistic … is it too naive to suggest that we are each called to be of the touch of Christ with those who we meet in life?  Is it too simplistic to suggest that there’s a time and place for us, as disciples of Christ to be a “soft touch” in a hardened and hurting world.  Is it stretching things to suggest that if we’re to be the hands and feet of Jesus in following him, we’re also to ‘be there’ in ways that touch others – both figuratively and actually.  I think not.  I hope not!

 There are those in our world, probably some of us here today who have not known touch in the best light. Those who have been nurtured by touch that’s affirming, agape-loving, life-giving and appropriate will in most cases be well equipped to be sharers of the touching life themselves.  Those who’ve known something else in life will often struggle.  Yet as we’ve experienced vicariously this past week through the moving and tearful images across our TV screens, there is no doubt something incredibly sustaining, empathetic, reassuring, compassionate, life-giving about the hug, the kiss, the arm on the shoulder.

 For me, and I speak as someone who struggles with touch – for me, it’s a sign of the kingdom.  It’s a sign of the grace and touch of God who comes close in Jesus Christ – the wounded healer, the one whose touch makes whole.  May we, each one, be open to the touch of God today; and may we, in ways that build up, love, energize and give life — help make this world a more touching place. Amen.


 Portions of this sermon adapted from The Sense of Touch – Rose Marie Berger (  accessed: 11 Feb 2009)  

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