“A gentle touch can make all the difference.” Spend some time around a NICU – neo-natal intensive care unit – and you will see some wonderful things. Touching and holding babies is an essential part of their care. Their brains respond to touch in ways that stimulate healthy development.[i] It helps even the tiniest infants feel their parents’ love. It calms them, comforts them, and often actually helps them to grow and develop faster. Parents plan time for “kangaroo care,” holding the baby in an upright position against the chest – its skin to skin contact. Parents relax and listen to their baby’s breathing – it helps develop a bond and babies who experience kangaroo care have better weight gain and are better able to regulate their own heart rate.[ii] Babies with no family attending them are cared for by hospital volunteers who provide this loving support. There are also nurses trained in infant massage, and parents can be trained too. Light but firm strokes are used to comfort babies.[iii] Gentle touch makes a profound difference for these littlest humans.
Living on the margins is a challenging exclusion from the rest of society. It can exclude us from the faith community. Even from feeling that we are a part of the human race.
In our Mark scripture, people are following Jesus, even moving around the lake to find him on the other side, bringing their sick in their bed to him for him to touch. Because when Jesus touched them, they were made well.
In our Acts scripture today, as Peter and John were going to the temple for evening prayer, a beggar is sitting at the gate asking for alms. Asking for alms was expected among Jews – part of the understanding that wealth was considered a loan from God – and the poor had a certain claim on the possessions of the rich. Those who HAD ENOUGH were expected to share with those who HAD LITTLE. Part of what WE know but the beggar does not, is that Peter and James do not have any money of their own. At this point in the story, those who followed Jesus pooled their funds and it was distributed based on need among the community. But money isn’t what this man at the gate really needs anyway. He needs healing. So Peter asked the man to look at them – and took his hand and raised him up, telling him he did this in the name of Jesus. The man needed healing. He needed a Savior. And this is exactly what he received. Not only could he then walk – he could enter the temple which had been forbidden him because he was lame. He went with them into the temple, walking and leaping and praising God.
Yes, this is a healing story. But it is a bit more complicated than most of the healing stories we read in the bible. We are told that this man had been lame from birth. That means that he had been excluded from worship in the temple all of his life. He was living on the margins of society, hoping in enough generosity to survive because in a society based on physical labor, he was dependent on the generosity of others. What happens when Peter heals him isn’t just healing – it is a restoration to whole personhood. It’s a religious restoration as well. When Peter takes his hand and raises him up, he becomes whole.
“The words wholeness, health, and holy each share the same Teutonic root. In Latin, salvation also means health or wholeness. If divided within ourselves, estranged from others, or alienated from the ground of our being, we are not whole but broken. Prayer saves us. It helps heal our brokenness. (Forest Church)”[iv] And so Peter heals and restores this man who is lame and sitting at the gate.
This story is a sign of God’s new kingdom – where those living on the margins including the poor, maimed, and blind are whole and can fully participate in God’s blessings. No longer separated – they are heralded in as a sign of what God is doing.
We all need touch. Scientists have confirmed what is instinctual for most of us – that touch can help us connect with each other. Touch is important to our sense of well-being. Apparently, it helps in even particular and unexpected ways.
n NBA. U of Illinois psychologist Michael Kraus studied the on-court touching between NBA teammates. The more on-court touching there is at the beginning of the season, the more successful the individual players AND TEAMS were at the season’s end. All those high fives, back slaps and chest bumps apparently create a sense of connection and develop teamwork. Touch predicted success for NBA teams.[v]
Neuroscientist David J Linden thinks that touch is actually the most important of our human senses. It is the first sense that we develop as infants – and if we age in ways that tend to isolate us, it may be the last sense that we have to connect to one another. Linden’s book states his premise: Touch: The Science of the Sense that Makes us Human.
Of course, touch must be appropriate. Touching on the arms from shoulder to hand is generally acceptable. And light touches work as well as prolonged ones for casual acquaintances. More recent studies have found that seemingly insignificant touches yield bigger tips for waitresses, that people shop and buy more if they're touched by a store greeter, and that strangers are more likely to help someone if a touch accompanies the request. Call it the human touch, a brief reminder that we are, at our core, social animals. "Lots of times in these studies people don't even remember being touched. They just feel there's a connection, they feel that they like that person more." "We feel more connected to someone if they touch us," according to Laura Guerrero, coauthor of Close Encounters: Communication in Relationships. [vi]
US. There are times when we are holding it all in, and don’t have the words to explain what is going on. (Go off script) We hold ourselves together so tightly that a touch can dissolve us into tears. We don’t want to share with those closest to us how we are feeling because we don’t want to burden them with it, or don’t want them to feel responsible for “fixing” it. This is particularly true in relationships between men and women – women often just need to be heard and feel cared for and our male companions, family and friends want to jump in with a solution. So we don’t tell you what we are feeling. We tell our sisters, our friends, our therapists. What we need is touch – and compassion. We all need touch.
Our instruction for today is the same as that shared with Peter and John. To touch and heal in Jesus’ name. The world was fully of hurting people in need of healing touch then – and now.
The quotation from Wendy Mass, author of The Candymakers, has been shared and repeated often because it is true.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
LEE. In one confirmation class we had a boy named Lee. Lee was probably the most uncooperative confirmation participant I have ever encountered. He rejected everything anyone said about God and exhibited anger in multiple ways every week. He didn’t want to be there and seemed determined to make us give up on the whole idea of trying to have a class. And then one day we talked about God’s love for each of us. Lee got so angry that he slammed around chairs and hit the walls yelling that this was all just fairytales and nonsense – although that wasn’t his word. “God doesn’t care about anybody!” He yelled. One of our leaders got Lee to sit down, and touched him on the arm. And then he cried. Ugly cried, big shuddering sobs as he told us that when his mother died when he was three that her family kept telling him that God needed another angel in heaven, that it was God’s will that she died, and that God loved him. A loving God wouldn’t take his mother away. As Lee sobbed, with arms holding him on each side, the rest of the class moved in and all touched him. We began to pray for Lee, surrounding him and touching him while he cried out years of anger towards God. Later, we talked about the bad theology that had separated him from God. Later, we talked about good intentions behind those remarks. But Lee was changed that day. He became a leader in the group and after high school, used his leadership in the US Army. Lee was in need of healing – and in need of a Savior. And he was healed by touch and love.
Even within our congregation this morning, we are in need of healing. Some of us are struggling with a difficult diagnosis with themselves or one they love. Some of us are concerned about estrangement or pain in our primary relationships: parents, children, spouses or partners, and closest friends. Some of us are caregivers feeling the almost crushing burden of providing for family members – and some of us feel that we are stifling the lives of those we love by our needs. We are people feeling desperately lonely and people who would do almost anything for a day without the demands of others. Some of us are grieving one we loved after months and years since their passing, still wondering if there was anything we could have done differently. Some of us are desperate for a direction for our lives and wondering if our journey will make sense at some time in the future.
We are hurting. We all long for healing – for a touch of human kindness to give us borrowed strength for the battles that we face. The kindness and compassion that we show each other today can take root in our lives for the week. One person asked a new pastor at their church, “Please don’t take away the passing of the peace. For some of us, that is the only time anyone hugs us all week.” We are hurting and longing for human connection – and that is just within this congregation this morning.
Outside these doors is a community, a nation and a world in perhaps more desperate need of a caring touch. In the name of Christ we can offer a caring touch to refugees, those who are struggling economically, the disabled, those who have been injured by the church on one ground or another, those treated as less important by our society because of differences of race, ethnicity, language or nation of origin. The people outside our gates are in need of care and healing too – just as are those within them. Inclusion is a healing gift too.
Do more than be kind – for everyone we meet is fighting a battle we know nothing about. Above kindness, we all need compassionate touch. We need healing. And we, who are the followers of Jesus, are instructed to go into the world to touch and heal – in the name of Jesus. This may be the most important instruction that we ever receive. And our actions with this may make the most difference. May we be faithful. AMEN.
[iv] Forest Church, LIFECRAFT 91.