Sunday, March 22, 2020

Sermon: "Sensing the Sacred: The Power of Touch", John 9:1-17 (March 22, 2020)

(This is the fifth sermon in our Lenten series, "Sensing the Sacred". 
The others can be found here, here, here, and here.)


Since I assume y’all are at home and either properly disinfecting your surroundings or at least comfortable with your own family’s germs, go ahead and touch something that’s next to you. If there’s someone watching worship with you, touch them (with their permission), or touch your own hand. Take a moment and reflect on what these sensations make you think or feel. If you touched your warm cup of coffee, did that sensation fill you with feelings of comfort or thoughts of routine? If you touched a family member or pet, did that that sensation fill you with feelings of love and reassurance or thoughts of gratitude? If you touched your own hand, did that sensation make you feel grounded, or fill you with thoughts about who you are? Really reflect for a minute…how do these sensations affect you? When you stop to think about it, the impact that a simple touch can have on our thoughts and feelings is pretty incredible.

Really, touch is a deceptively important sense. Although we rely heavily on our sight as a way of collecting information, our sense of touch actually plays an equal, if not more important role in our understanding of the world, not to mention our general well-being. I don’t want to go on for too long, so I’ll give you just two examples, both based in science:

First, consider the phenomenon of touch deprivation:[1] also known as “skin hunger” or “touch starvation”, touch deprivation is when a person experiences inadequate physical connection with others. This isn’t just a subjective judgement; a person with touch deprivation actually develops measurable symptoms like anxiety, depression, stress, difficulty sleeping, and difficulty maintaining relationships. In infants, touch deprivation can even affect their physical and psychological development, causing long-lasting or even permanent damage…sometimes, even death. Physical touch is actually critical to our health and survival as a species.

Secondly, scientists have identified something they call the Thomas Effect:[2] apparently, human beings have measurably higher confidence in things we can touch than in things we can see when it comes to ambiguous or hard-to-believe perceptions. Consider the necessity of “DO NOT TOUCH” signs every three feet at museums, or the apostle (from whom this phenomenon gets its name) who couldn’t believe in the resurrection until he touched the wound in Jesus’ side. For some reason, we feel compelled to touch things to confirm their reality, even if we can see them clearly. Physical touch helps us to understand the world around us.

Science aside, touch is an important sense in terms of spirituality, too. Ever notice how Jesus never healed using magical words or gestures, but always—ALWAYS—touched the person he was helping? And I’m sure you’ve noticed by now how central touch is in our experience of worship. It feels bizarre not to hug or shake hands with our neighbors during the passing of the peace. As much fun as y’all had with the Vulcan salute and air high-fives, it’s just not the same. And one of the most moving parts of any ordination is the laying on of hands. It’s not that the physical contact itself conveys any sort of power or authority…but it reminds us of our spiritual AND physical connection to one another and to those who have gone before us. Touch isn’t just important to our physical and psychological health, but to our spiritual health, too.

But of course, as important as it is, touch isn’t always a positive thing. In this age of #MeToo and mandatory social distancing, it can feel like a complicated matter to figure out when touch is “good” and when it’s “bad”. This was the essence of Jesus’ conflict with the pharisees in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus, of course, decided that it was right to touch the blind man in order to heal him (even though saliva-mud was probably one of the grossest possible ways he could have done it, in my opinion). The pharisees, however, were of a different opinion: Jesus should absolutely NOT have touched this man because not only was it the Sabbath (a day when work of any kind was prohibited), but by virtue of being blind, this man would have been considered ritually unclean.[3] So according to the rules, touching this man was 100% off limits. And if the rules say it, then we can’t (and shouldn’t) question it, right?

But human rules are different than divine rules. And while human rules are important as we seek to live peacefully together, they’re also fallible by nature. For example, there’s no “rule” yet in Idaho that says businesses should shut down or people should self-quarantine…but that doesn’t mean that physical contact is still perfectly fine during this time. We must discern between “good” and “bad” contact using Jesus’ criteria, not human criteria.

So what IS this criteria, you ask? Lucky for us, Jesus’ rules are far simpler to comprehend and remember than humanity’s laws: if a touch is beneficial to others, it’s good. If it could hurt others in any way, it’s not. In Matthew 7, he explains it this way: “You should treat people the same way that you want people to treat you.”[4] In Mark 12, he says it like this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[5] This rule, he insists, encompasses ALL of the sacred laws, and is the greatest of all commandments. The pharisees thought that the law was what made something good or bad. But they were wrong—the law can only help us RECOGNIZE what’s good and what’s bad, and even then, it’s far from foolproof. Only GOD can declare something good or bad, and Jesus’ rules are the only ones that never fall short.

In a best-case scenario, human rules reflect Christ’s criteria…but we can’t trust ourselves or our society to reliably operate that way. And honestly, we can’t force society to operate that way, either. But we CAN control how WE operate, and the rules that WE live by. So now is the time to evaluate if our need for touch, our desire to connect, is in this moment, beneficial to others, or potentially harmful.

As inconvenient and difficult as it may be for many of us, this pandemic isn’t a punishment, and it’s not God using us in order to prove a point. But it IS a chance for us to see how God can make good come even from the most dire of situations. Just as even the man’s blindness could be used to demonstrate God’s mighty works,[6] so too can our current situation be used to demonstrate God’s glory. If we need to refrain from physical touch because it may harm others, we have the opportunity to imagine new ways of fostering connection and showing God’s love to one another. Siblings in Christ, we have the rare opportunity to be trailblazers, discovering brand-new ways to be the Church in a world that desperately needs God more than ever. What a blessing!

In the true spirit of Lent—of giving of ourselves so that others might live—let’s become more deliberate, more expansive in the ways that we connect to one another. We MUST get creative in the ways that we communicate our love, and as much as I love being creative, this isn’t something I can do by myself. Reach out not with your hands, but with your hearts and minds and spirits. Not just to your friends and families, but to those outside of your immediate circle. Find a need, and figure out how to meet it in a new way. Make a phone call. Learn new technology. Write a letter. Send care packages. Draw a picture and hang it in the window. Share a video of yourself singing. Get outside of your comfort zone in order to reach out to others without physical contact. If we’re inspired by Christ’s love, these actions will connect us with others just as surely as if we wrapped our arms around them in a giant bear hug.

Touch has power, and sometimes, the best way to use that power is to refrain from acting the way we want to. We get to decide which rules we’ll place our trust in, so let’s choose the ones that have the best chance of helping and not harming our neighbors. Let’s connect with each other in new ways that remind us that NOTHING can stop God’s Church from “churching”. And most importantly, let’s use our God-given gifts—of creativity, of love, of community that transcends physical presence—to make sure that ALL of us feel God’s love as surely as if Jesus made mud with saliva and spread it on OUR eyes.

Or maybe we can aim for the sensation of a virtual hug instead. Either way, we’ve got this. Amen.


[3] Leviticus 21:18.
[4] Matthew 7:12.
[5] Mark 12:31.
[6] John 9:3.

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