The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s128g15    Sunday 16   19/7/2015

‘they .. begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak.’  Mark 6:56

There are a multitude of ways to touch, without making actual physical contact.   We can be touched by an unexpected act of charity, by a smile from a stranger, by a ‘like’ on Facebook.   Recently I heard the founders of Good Bitches Baking being interviewed on radio and their motto: ‘Spreading a little sweetness in our community, one bite at a time.’ (1)

Similarly we can be rejected in a multitude of ways; by having our request for our baby to be baptised questioned, by an unintended slight, by being labelled as blond, female, gay, coloured, heretic, atheist, back-slider, capitalist, blue-collar, agnostic, alcoholic, loose ..

I have a rainbow sash which I use as a marker in the book I use as a missal for the celebration of the Holy Communion.   It was ‘blessed’ when the wearer was denied the sacrament by a prelate :-)

Touch, and avoidance, can be socially and ritually mandated, like the dictum: ‘children are to be seen and not heard’.   Some children have never been able to elicit praise from parents; they have never felt good enough.   When most illness was thought contagious, strict avoidance was demanded.   Detailed rules to restore ritual cleanness were mandated.   Similarly people can be deterred by ‘unintended’ language, such as that which is gender exclusive.   Even the seemingly innocuous descriptor: ‘family worship’ may be seen by single people to exclude them.

And in a church where a prayer book and liturgy is so mandated, it is vital that such considerations are taken seriously.   If the language of our liturgy suggests that the divine is unconcerned by a careless use of language that marginalises whole groups of people; who is important - us or others?

Touch is so important, and Jesus let himself be touched, touched by the multitude of others, when such touch inevitably was judged by the religious as making him unclean.   The Pharisees were the separated ones - the ones who kept their religious distance from others.

Jesus let himself be touched by the multitude of others and this is, of course, in stark contrast to the Church for whom the Holy Communion is actually more defined by who may not partake - those who are not straight, baptised, confirmed, communicant Anglicans of my particular variety ..   How is church an exercise in communion, when all the communication is one-way and usually didactic, even accusatory? - time-proven strategies to avoid incarnation and touch!

I have been reflecting on that lovely prayer by St John Chrysostom: ‘who .. dost promise, that when two or three are gathered together in thy Name thou wilt grant their requests’ - a combination of passages from Matthew and John (2) - thinking - does this not imply a God bereft of, and desperate for, followers?   When will the church corporate appreciate that it is far more important for the church to be gathered with Jews and Muslims, for surely Jesus allows these others to come, to touch and be touched?   When will we realise that our prayers for peace will actually be granted when and as we come together?   And when the church corporate becomes this open to others, then individuals might be empowered to be this open as well!   It is never likely to happen until the church corporate acts, for after all, it is the church corporate who claims the indwelling of the Holy Spirit! 

The crowds react to Jesus, taught by religion and pseudo-orthodoxy, with fear and trembling, daring only to touch a fringe.   And all are healed; all are not converted into straight, baptised, confirmed, communicant Anglicans of my particular variety!   All are healed, healed of the need to beg, healed of the ‘knowledge’ that they were the untouchables, the unclean, the unimportant, the expendable; healed of the ravages of pseudo-orthodoxy.

So much illness is exacerbated by isolation, stigma and fear and all of these are overcome by .. touch - by allowing the other to be who they are and being with them in their pain.   In my work in the hospital, few people are actually discharged completely cured.   It is way too expensive for that to happen!   Once normal bodily functions have resumed people are discharged to recuperate.   Sometimes someone’s discharge may be delayed if they are going to an empty home.   But full healing comes with time, in a hopefully supportive environment.   Full personal healing is actually dependent on the health of the community.   A released criminal returning to the same environment as his pre-incarcerated life has little chance of not reoffending.

So an essential part of the cure of the multitudes was that they were sent home to recuperate, and to take their part in making society a supportive and healing community rather than remaining a divisive and alienating one - a supportive community characterised by incarnation and touch.

For me there is little point in praying for personal healing if we are not prepared to work for an all-inclusive society where no one feels isolated for surely this is what God, if he or she exists, would certainly want.   I repeat: our continuing personal health is actually more dependent on the health of society as a whole rather than the intervention of God.   The church as an institution is led by the Holy Spirit to initiate and facilitate this community of touch and incarnation, to let others, all others, more than just touch the fringes of our cloak, but be welcomed at our table.

2.  Matthew 17:20, John 14:13-14