August 25, 2019

“Can’t Touch This”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Hebrews 12.18-29

Luke 13.10-17

August 25, 2019

A couple years ago I went to a conference in Massachusetts. On my way back into Boston to catch a flight, I had some extra time and decided to stop at Plymouth Rock. I had never been in this state before and wasn’t sure when I’d return, so even though it seemed super touristy, it was one of those tourist “rite of passage.” I had seen pictures of the rock online and carefully plotted out my path, where I would park, and how long I had to stop at the site. I imagined touching this ancient rock, feeling somehow connected to people who came from another country, traveled the ocean in uncertain times, to start all over again. I have touched rocks before. I have rocks in my yard. I have rocks in my office. Those are all pretty ordinary rocks. I once touched a sacred rock in Israel, which I couldn’t see, but was underneath another rock in a dark area, and since I couldn’t see it, this rock felt less sacred and more scary. Plymouth Rock wouldn’t be a religious experience for me, but maybe there would be these feeling that I was somehow connected to those ancestors who first crossed the ocean, or to all those people who had traveled here to glimpse this history.

I was extremely disappointed to arrive and find out I could not, in fact, touch the rock. We could look at it from afar, but there was no touching the rock. I was like a toddler in a toy store, looking through a glass case. In reality, touching the rock probably wouldn’t have been that impressive, but we are beings who rely on our senses. We sometimes want to touch something for a better experience. How often do you walk into a store and reach out automatically to a towel or fabric of clothing, just to see how soft it is to feel? Sometimes we need to hear something verbalized out loud, even though we have figured out the meaning through visual cues. Sometimes touching or seeing or hearing can clarify for us. Sometimes our senses can overwhelm us and even be in contrast to one another. If you see a black and white cat, but then begin to smell something, you recognize that the creature is no longer a cat, but a skunk – and you respond appropriately.

Our lives are often filled with contrasts and mixed emotions and situations, and sometimes our senses guide us. Very rarely is life straight-forward. Take a thunderstorm, for instance.[1] These storms can be simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. A storm can be deadly, but the rain is life-giving. Storms can be loud, but elegant. I love to watch a storm from indoors, both recognizing the beauty of it, and also the danger of it. Perhaps this is our experience in worship. Maybe this is how we experience God – both as powerful and beautiful, frightening and awe-inspiring. The Spirit, our Advocate, is a comforter, who reassures us. Yet, the Spirit also challenges us and pushes us to grow in our faith. If we do not face challenges, and also feel comforted by God, then we will never make a change.

Annie Dillard wrote: “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”[2] Many expect church to be an experience that is soft and fluffy and gentle, but God’s word to us can be jarring.

Both scripture passages put a finger on what we cannot touch: healings, social stigmas, emotions, fires, darkness, voice. What else cannot be touched, but we know exists? First, we read in Luke that Jesus is in the synagogue teaching on Sabbath. A woman who is bent over enters the scene. We know she enters because the narrator tells us, but if we were in that room, would we have noticed her? Would she have been acknowledged? We cannot touch the emotions she felt, or that the community felt – but maybe we can imagine.

Jesus, the Savior, the Messiah, the One who knows, sees what is happening. He calls her over. She has grown accustomed to being bent over like this.[3] This is her everyday experience and she has adapted. It seems others have adapted, too. No one has asked Jesus to heal her, and she seemingly goes unrecognized. Adapting can be positive, but sometimes adaptation just means ignorance, or being ignored.

Jesus calls her over and heals her and the community. He shows those who are able-bodied who she is, and brings their attention to her. Healings are not just about the person being healed, but can show the illness of the body of community.[4] For example, the illness doesn’t have to be a physical disability. Perhaps it is also metaphorical. Racism is something that plagues our nation right now. To be healed of this does not mean “healing” people of color, it means that white people must recognize our own participation in an unjust system and make changes. It means being healed of our own ignorance. It means being healed of the unthoughtful words that are said, so that those who are hurt can also be healed. One commentator points out that the woman, bent over, is only able to see her feet, and maybe a few feet in front of her.[5] This is perhaps one of the greatest illnesses in our world today – not being bent over, but that we often cannot see past a few feet in front of ourselves. We not only cannot see past our own perspectives, but we surround ourselves in like-minded people, and we cannot see past them, either.

Jesus touches this woman to heal her. This, indeed, is a contrast. She is not touched by the community – most likely she was considered unclean. Yet, here, Jesus touches her as part of healing. Jesus often was the first to touch someone as a way of bringing them back into the community, showing their social acceptance.

The Hebrews passage tells of contrast, specifically comparing the old law to the new. This is a difficult slope, because God has not changed. There is not a God of the Hebrew scriptures and a God of the New Testament – it is the same God who has been the same forever and ever amen. God was not replaced. Sometimes it can seem as if the God depicted in one is different from the other, but we see not that God was destructive, but that God was refining, specifically with fire. The author of Hebrews lists that which cannot be touched: fire, darkness, gloom, tempest, trumpet, and voice.

The fire is an interesting metaphor – also with contrast. We can see the beauty of a fire as we sit by a warm fireplace on a snowy day. We can see the destruction when we hear about wildfires obliterating homes. Fire is a metaphor, complicated as life.

On Ash Wednesday we place ashes on our heads – ashes from palm branches that have been burned. We remember we were ashes and to ashes we will return. We remember we will die – and we are also given a new perspective on life – the preciousness of life and its fragility – as we also contemplate our death – contrasting the two.

We hold these all in tension together – the beauty and ugliness of life, the sads and glads in our lives, the complexities of emotions and feelings, and knowing that God is there, with us in the midst of all those things. We know that God is in the healing of society, and calling out for change when people are excluded. We know that there are some things we can touch – and others that we cannot, but that we can sense. We can sense God, we can sense love, we can sense justice.

What in your life stands in contrast? What is confusing? Where is God in that complexity? This week, breathe in and breathe out, holding it all together, and giving it to God, who carries it for us and refines it. Amen.


[1] Frederick H. Borsch, “Hebrews 12.18-29” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 3. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 377.

[2] Ibid., 377-379.

[3] Emilie M. Townes, “Luke 13.10-17” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 3. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 382.

[4] Ibid., 384.

[5] Ibid., 386.