A Communion Meditation preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister, at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost 15, September 1, 2002, dedicated to Savana and Sonoma Hardesty and their mother, Elaine, to all workers who labor for justice and peace in this world, and always to the glory of God!
(Part VII of VII in the sermon series:"Seven Lost Keys to Understanding the Misunderstood Jesus")
Isaiah 58:6-12 and Luke 19:1-10
Today is the seven in the seven part series on the seven lost keys to understanding Jesus. Thank you for your interest in this series which included: Law, Grace, Meekness, Anger, Sanity, Contentment and today, "Touch." We will print only a few of this final sermon and then print the entire series for circulation next week.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Harvey Thies was a man who was hard to touch. Harvey had lived alone since his mother died. Twenty years had passed when I arrived as pastor of Bethany United Church of Christ on Cleveland's westside. In all that time, I don't think Harvey had received many hugs, or even kind touches from loving hands. He had been mugged, not hugged. He had been "manhandled," but not embraced. And taking one look at him, you could understand why. Harvey's clothes smelled of cat urine, his breath was pure gin, his visage was toothless, and only his language was rougher than his voice. But, under his grim and dirty exterior was a loving, gentle, and lonely man. All he needed was some human touch.
Our family phone and the church phone were the same line. That phone would ring at all hours of the day and night, often with Harvey on the other end. He would always begin rather bluntly, "It's old man Thies, of course." If seventy-six is "old," he was right, but "lonely man, Thies" would have been more true. He rarely had on his hearing aid (which didn't function well anyway) and as a result, our conversations were usually Harvey telling me or Susan about his day.
We hadn't been in Cleveland long, when Susan, myself and two other church members decided to clean Harvey's house while he was in the hospital following a bad fall. We worked day and night under the frightful gaze of seven cats. Finally, Harvey was ready to come home and his home was relatively cleaner (at least the first floor was!). With a system of home health care set up and daily meals to help him along, Harvey received in final years what he had needed for a long time. Harvey told me when we left Cleveland, "you all saved my life because you reached out and touched me. And, I thought I was an untouchable."
Not long ago, in the Stockholm suburb of Traneberg, an eighty-four-year-old woman was found dead on the balcony of her apartment two months after she had frozen to death, apparently while watching New Year's fireworks. She was still sitting in a chair, dressed in a coat and hat, her head down against the balcony railing. A neighbor called police after watching her for several days and noticing she never moved.
Along with the woman who wrote her local newspaper asking how she could get some of the junk mail everyone complained about because her mail box was always empty, Harvey Thies and the deceased woman of Traneberg simply needed human touch. Although touch is often seen as insignificant, or even negative in our day and age, we all need it. The fearful, crowded world in which we live only increases our loneliness and isolation. Our fear of the masses makes us more solitary. People in our times get into empty liaisons and affairs, or drugs and alcohol abuse, or throw themselves into thousands of useless hopes because they need some meaningful human touch and don't know where to find it, or even if such a thing exists. Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, "In my country people die of starvation, but America suffers the more tragic reality that people here die of loneliness." May God help the untouched. May God help us all!
Touch heals and strengthens us a human beings - no matter what stage or age of life. In his classic PBS series in 1993, "Healing and the Mind," Bill Moyers dealt with the multiple dimensions of healing. Time and time again, doctors and healers across cultures and traditions lifted up touch as healing power. In one interview with Dr. Rachel Naomi Nemen, Director of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness centered in Berkeley, CA. , Dr. Nemen tells of her days as an Associate Director of a pediatric clinic in Stanford University. One of her colleagues, Marshall Klaus, chief of the intensive care nursery, did an informal study of the tiny premature babies under his care. Each child was so small they could be held in one hand. Each incubator was surrounded by shifts of people and millions of dollars of equipment. Everything was high-tech. Dr. Nemen reports, "Of course we didn't touch these infants because we'd get germs on them. But, Dr. Klaus did an experiment in which half the babies in the unit were treated as usual, and the other half were touched for 15 minutes every few hours. You'd simply take your pinky and rub it down the little baby's back. We discovered that the babies who were touched all survived better. No one knows why. Maybe there's something about touching that strengthens the will to live. Maybe isolation weakens us" (B.Moyers, Healing and the Mind, Doubleday, NY, 1993, p. 356).
If there is any one word which blossoms in the Bible from Old Testament to New Testament it is "touch." In the Old Testament (or Hebrew Scriptures), God was Almighty, all right, but back in the old days, God didn't seem to be into touching. There are only five references to God touching anyone in the Old Testament. Now "smite" is well-used in Hebrew scriptures. Over 300 times we are told that God smote someone or something. Proverbs 1:7 declares, `the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge." And we would add, "the fear of the Lord is also the beginning of running for cover!" (These two paragraphs draw on Clyde Fant, The Misunderstood Jesus, Peake Road Press, Macon, GA., 1996, p. 153).
Along comes Jesus and touch becomes his primary contact with others. He touched children, widows, beggars, blind persons, prostitutes, sick persons with every imaginable affliction, lepers, and even the dead. He literally went out of his way to touch the untouchables of his society. Most often the people he touched were strangers and outcasts. Perhaps even more than his teaching and his preaching, the healing touch of Jesus of Nazareth that was his all-inclusive trademark. When the Christian church continued and flourished in the Book of Acts, it was people's need for healing that drew them to the disciples and faith that followed.
In today's text, Zacchaeus comes to view Jesus as he passes through Jericho. The short tax collector climbs a tree and ends up hosting the Lord after Jesus spots him and calls him by name to come down. We don't know what transpires in Zacchaeus' home, but he comes out a changed man, declaring that he will set things right with those whom he has abused financially. Contact with Christ changes yet another from lonely untouchable to transformed steward.
We don't have the healing hands of Jesus. But, Jesus himself said that believers will do "greater works than these," (John 14:12) when looking to life beyond his touch. Around the world, the healing hands of Jesus have touched many a broken spirit and suffering body. From our own congregation we have sent people out to touch a world in need of healing. Before his death in July, Hugh Hadley was very involved in the Rotary International's program called "Operation Smile." Through this program, teams of doctors went across the world performing major surgeries on children with facial defects too terrible to describe. My wife, Susan has been to Latin America at least 12 times on medical mission trips. Traveling to Central America with eye doctors and surgeons, Susan has served as a translator as people of all ages are healed through the gift of sight with eyeglasses and eye surgeries. Our own Dr. Robert Michler, of the Ohio State University annually leads a team of heart surgeons to various Latin American countries (in recent years, the Dominican Republic) to operate on children who would die without the surgery. Both Dr. Michler and his wife Sally work year round to make Heart Care International the excellent mission it is today. Dr. Michler, who is a world renowned surgeon, calls this work "the most fulfilling work I do."
I contend, that you need not reach across the globe to be the healing hands of Jesus. Reaching out to your family, to nearby neighbors and to members of our church who are lonely and in need friendship and companionship are vital acts of love and mercy that extend the healing hands of Jesus to those around us. But, reaching beyond our closest circle to the edges of our society must also be apart of the reach and touch of Jesus. A month from today, October 1st, the BREAD organization will hold our Annual member Assembly. This year, we will also ask Franklin County Commissioners, Mary Jo Kilroy, Arlene Shoemaker, and Dewey Stokes and Stokes' opponent in the upcoming election, Mary Ellen O'Shaunessy, to join us. We are seeking justice for those in our county who are uninsured and have need for primary health care. Believing that we need to double our care ability at Columbus Neighborhood Health Centers, we will be calling on commissioners and the one candidate to support our efforts with county funds. Sometimes the healing touch of Christian faith comes in the form of accessible health care and justice for the poor and working families who have inadequate care for themselves and their families!
I have heard some people raise concerns that by turning to government and politicians to sort out such problems as health care, we, as people of faith, are yielding to government control on such issues. This is a good point, but not good enough. For example, in a small town, we would all agree that a volunteer fire department is better than nothing. But, a volunteer fire department in Columbus would be an absolute catastrophe. In New York City on September 11, over 25,000 lives were saved by the incredible work of the NYFD and NYPD. So, are professional firefighters an example of government control in crisis or are they a much needed part of public service? I have never heard anyone say about our city's fire department, "Why don't we do it through the churches and synagogues?" Unless, we speak out and work for health care justice in our society, we will find that we are heading back to the frontier days in our societal care for children, sick, elderly, mentally ill, and uninsured people who are neglected and unattended in their needs.
In a press conference in which I was a spokesman last Thursday announcing the formation of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice, Rabbi Harold Berman of Tiffereth Israel, responded to a reporter's concern that this group may be politicizing the arena in which people of faith exist. Rabbi Berman wisely said, "Actually, we are de-politizing this arena of faith and life, because, until now only who are politically motivated have spoken to these issues. When people of faith speak out we bring to a perspective based on our scriptures and the ancient call to justice found there. This does not politicize issues, it creates responses that are faithful."
We have a world dying to be touched - by our hands and by those empowered by the action of our hands. They are across the globe, across the street, and across the aisle in our sanctuary. A few weeks ago, one of our new members asked me how another one of you was doing - having not seem him in church for sometime. I truly did not know the answer, having failed to note the person's absence. Two days later, I received a call, "Rev. Ahrens, I stopped by and talked with my new friend from church. The visit seemed to pick him up!" Seemed too? Actually, according the one who was visited, "That unexpected visit healed me." Friends, as we come to Christ's table of grace, look around you - who is here? Who is missing? Whatever you receive through the grace of communion today, take that gift and that grace, that healing touch to someone else, remembering the words of Jesus, "those who follow me will do greater works than me" (John 14:12). Amen.
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