Sermon: A Touching Faith

Text: Luke 8:43-48
Location: Chelsea Community Church, New York, NY
Date: September 15th, 2005

I believe that one of the most important things our faith can do to us is to help us pay attention to that which we would not normally pause and observe. Our rituals, our prayers, they are all movements of our bodies and our souls to stretch ourselves into realms of unknown, unthought-of, and unobserved things.

One of the things that I was thought to observe by various women of faith, is the ways in which God reveals Godself in the Bible. I keep asking myself: In what ways God becomes flesh through the bodies and ways of a woman? Catherine Keller says that “The divine is always becoming flesh – what else does the Eros desire? Of course, stories of God becoming Man have eclipsed the revelation of Her becoming Woman. But now, in our becoming, vision begins slowly to clear.”

How does faith help us to become and to live in this process of constantly becoming?

You must have heard this story several times. This unnamed woman carries a bleeding situation for 12 years. No proper treatment, no relief, no solace. Not a day goes by without knowing that she is bleeding. Then, maybe after all the possible treatments she must have been under, she hears about this Jesus who performs miracles. She determines herself to try once again. When this Jesus comes to town she fills herself with courage and improperly approaches Jesus. Her faith is not enough. She needs to touch Jesus.

She says: “If I only touch his clothes, I will be made well.” So, off she goes to touch this man. Among the multitude she finds a way to get to Jesus. Interesting enough, she does not want to ask for a favor nor explain her case. Neither she wants to praise Jesus or alarm everybody with her socially improper gesture. A woman should never touch a man, for that was a prostitute’s behavior. She jus needed a touch, nothing else, a touch that would make her become something else.

She finally touches Jesus. However her touch didn’t go without faith. Her body was her own scripture, no division between body and soul, belief and skin. That’s why Jesus feels somebody touching him. In the midst of so many people, Jesus notices her touch, a different touch, a touch that was carrying something else, a certain weight. Her touch was definitely not a regular touch, an uncompromised or irresponsible touch, but a touch that connected her to him in different ways. Through their bodies they were connected at different levels. Body and soul connected each other and created a bond, a weird bond.

Jesus turns and asks: “Who touched me?” A silly question for anybody else but not for Jesus nor for the woman. Jesus explains: “I noticed that power had gone out from me.”  Jesus’ power was not in his wisdom or his words. It was in his body. Jesus body was the flux of the God’s transcendence with our human immanence. His body vibrated because of her touch. Jesus body and that woman’s touch was the connecting point of their encounter, an erotic encounter. Carter Heyward says that “Our shared experience of relational power, our sacred experience of sensual power, our erotic experience of the power of God, is the root of our theological knowledge and love of God. It is a calling forth, an occasion to touch each other’s lives and an open invitation into the healing of common woundedness.”

There is an intrinsic association between faith and the power of touch in this story. Her touch was the necessary extension of her faith. Her faith would not survive were it not for her touch. Faith alone was not enough. It had to come accompanied by a gesture, a bodily movement, an attitude not only of her heart but also of her body. Connection! Faith is about connection, and also connection through our bodies. Here we learn that bodily movements can determine the way we believe and give shape to the ways in which we frame our relationship with God and ourselves. This woman would never have been healed if she had not had the courage to touch Jesus. Would YOU have the courage to touch Jesus?

What does this story say to us? Many things, I believe.

One thing is that without our bodies our faith is only vapor, disincarnate thought, a sheer feeling that can come and go without material contours, and can afford to live without the presence of the other. However, our faith can only happen if we get into each other’s ways, if we rub each other’s skin learning to live with the presence, limits, joys and difficulties of those who are different from us.

Jesus incarnate is the embodiment of God and the possibility of the embodiment of our faith. Without a bodily faith God is kept up above completely distant from us. I believe that we can only believe through our bodies through what I am calling a literal touching faith. That’s our faithful way of becoming.

Our faith is a transient faith that moves from place to place, from touch to touch, from miracle to miracle, hope to hope, love to love, eye to eye, from God’s absence to God’s touches. How can we be touched by God?

I believe God touches us in different ways:

Sometimes we can only be touched by God when we do not perceive it properly. Touches unattended that leave traces for us to wonder: Was God here? The question of Jesus becomes our question: Who touched me?

Sometimes Jesus touches us through the gestures of each other. Have you been touched in a way that it was so intense that you felt that that touch was something else, bigger than what you were feeling? Have you ever been touched in such a way that your life was turned upside down, that you had to make decisions never thought before, that made you feel lost or that you had to make turns or that placed you in places of awe and astonishment? Have you ever been touched in a way that a possible revelation was on the way?

Have you ever felt your skin attached to your soul and the touch was like a journey into your secrets and memories? Sometimes, when somebody touches my body they are moving inside my soul.

Sometimes, we are touched by God when we are touched by somebody else, a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a friend, a lover, an unknown person.

However, to be touched is also dangerous. It can take us to places we never wanted to go. Ask those women who were raped, battered, those women that felt the evil and disgusting touch of man when not desired. How do we avoid being touched when we do not want it? How do we keep the boundaries of necessary respect?

Or, what to say of those who are desperate for a touch but can’t have it for some reason. What about those who have their bodies burning with unfulfilled desires. Or those who cannot touch because they are not entitled, allowed, those who feel interrupted by some reason, illness, loneliness and etc, and are always preventing themselves from some sort of risk or shame?

Leonardo Boff, a well known theologian from Latin America tells a story. He describes stories of the quotidian life of people he has met while traveling around Brazil, especially those among the poorest within Brazilian population.  In these stories he vividly depicts the potency of death amidst the lives of banished people,

their utter poverty, their lives lived in dis-grace, and their search for dignity and honor. The reader is haunted and disturbed by these stories. In one of them, Boff recounts a visit to a poor house in which he baptized a child who was to die later in the same day due to malnutrition. After he finished the baptism rite and before leaving the house, a woman suddenly asked him to go to her house next door. There, alone with this woman, he describes what happened:

After the baptism, a woman called me and conducted me to a small room in her shanty town. Bare floor, this place had no furniture. Poverty inhabited every corner like an uttered scream of a dog. We were alone. Murmuring, she said to me: ‘I have only met ugly, sick and skinny men in my life.’ She then took off her clothes, showed me her naked body and confident, turned to me with her shinning eyes: ‘I am still young, I am 35 years old (she looked like 60 years old), and I can make you happy for a moment. You are a well fed man, handsome and attractive. I only know ugly, sick and skinny men. Give me this joy… Please, make love with me! Only once, I beg!’ I kept silence, a long silence, the silence of perplexity. Then I said: ‘I am a religious person, I already have a commitment… I can’t… I should not… I don’t want…’ Her eyes turned down with disappointment. Later in my house, meditating on what had happened to me, I was filled with shame, shame of my own self. What an egoist I was. In my religious life, I learned that chastity was abstention and not a form of expression of a higher love. This unbounded love knows no limits. It’s beyond right or wrong.  This woman was purer than I was. She had the ability to offer herself and to love freely…

Had I known that chastity was something to be offered, as encounters without embarrassments, I would have made love with that woman. Not for pity but for a free decision and completely self-giveness. Chastity then would have been overabundance of love and not lack of love. If I was that kind of celibate man, I could have been a saint… and could have sinned. For if I had sinned, I would have found God who makes sin become grace and grace become sin [1].

How do we tell the difference between grace and sin? There is no way to avoid one and only receive the other. They are intertwined. How do we incorporate faith in our bodies without harassing the other? How do we touch the other in gracious ways? How do we avoid the sin of touching what and those we should not?

We cannot afford to let God go out of touch. If God goes out of touch we lose our gracious ways with one another and around the world. We cannot keep ourselves out of touch, for to be out of touch is to be out of connections and we cannot become… God’s grace flows disguised in thousands of touches opening thousands doors for our becoming.

Yes, I am talking about bodily material touches but there are also other ways of touching each other: moments, words, a look, a card, a coffee, a walk, a smile. They are touches that can also change the shapes of our souls. Thus, how do touches enhance our strength, our ability to cope with the hardships of life? In what ways can a touch make us laugh, hope, love and believe once again?

Some people become eternal to us when they lend us their excellence, when they love us unconditionally. It is the presence of God in them and in us that makes the whole difference. I am sure you all know the story of Helen Keller, the woman that became deaf and blind when she was less than two years old. 2003 is the celebration of the centennial year of her birthday. This woman overcame all the obstacles of her life and went to study at Harvard, at Radcliffe College and wrote books and lectured throughout the country about her life. In her spellbinding book, “The Story of My Life”, she tells us about the presence of her teacher, Ms Sullivan a person who changed her life. She says: “The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on each my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me.” (p.25)

Helen Keller’s life was placed in such a darkness that nobody could penetrate. How could someone come to her if she could not listen or talk? Can you imagine that? How can such a person be brought to life, to light and to the amazements of life? Who could establish a code to contact her? Who could rescue her from her darkness and her wilderness? Somehow, unexpectedly, this woman appeared to Ms. Helen Keller. Ms. Sullivan taught the first word to Ms Keller by drawing the word water on Ms. Keller’s arm with water. That day, Helen Keller’s life was transformed and for the first time she knew what hope was all about. Listen to how she described Ms Sullivan’s touch in her life:

“Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbor was. ’Light! Give me light!’ was the wordless cry of my soul and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.” (p. 25) That ship that was Helen Keller, got the sounding-line of her teacher, a person that came, touched and changed everything in her life.

That bleeding woman touched Jesus and was healed forever. A touch, maybe more than her faith, changed her life. How Jesus’ touch can still heal us today? In what ways can we move our bodies towards a touching faith? How do our daily bodily movements inform and tell us where our faith is located? How can we discern God’s gracious movements through our bodies and how avoid sinning against the other by not touching who and what we are not supposed to touch. And how do we touch each other without fear? It is a difficult task. But we should consider it every time a touch is needed to move us forward.

Sometimes a touch, more than faith, is the way in which God help us to become…

May each other’s touches be gracious and transforming. May God’s touch be always around us, in us, touching us unexpectedly. May we grow in discernment of what a touching faith can be in our journey of becoming…

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