STRETCH OUT YOUR HAND
A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC. Mark 1: 40-45. February 12, 2006.
Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean.”
– Mark 1:41
In today’s Gospel lesson we read that Jesus stretched out his hand and touched a leper, and he was made clean – that he was healed of his leprosy. Two pages later Mark reports that a man with a withered hand came to Jesus, and Jesus told him to “stretch out his hand.” When he did, his hand was restored.
So our reading today from Mark’s Gospel has first of all to do with healing. For quite a long time, healing was not taken very seriously in mainline churches like the United Church, and biblical scholars did not spend much energy with this part of scripture. The scientific revolution had relegated such things to the closet of outdated ideas. However, about 30 years ago, this began to change. First of all, within the churches, we have come to realize just how many of the gospel stories are about the healing ministry of Jesus. We cannot ignore this witness. Today more and more churches like ours are holding Services of Prayer for Healing – often once a month. No extravagant claims are made, but people come as an expression of their faith in the God who makes us whole.
In addition, what is rather amazing is the growing interest among scientists and medical people in the power of prayer. And where do you think this began in North America? Well I find it quite interesting that one important place was here in Montreal. In the mid-70’s, Dr. Bernard Grad, who was on the staff of McGill University and the Royal Victoria Hospital, was one of the pioneers in doing scientific research on the effects of prayer, and the transmission of healing energy through human touch. The Toronto religious journalist, Tom Harpur, has documented this in his informative book entitled, The Uncommon Touch.
During this same period, there were centres in Colorado and in New York City where nurses were being trained to use a variation of the “laying on of hands” as a technique in pain management with patients. These two techniques were called “Healing Touch” and “Therapeutic Touch.” Here again, healing energy worked through human touch, or even just moving the hands over the area being treated. You may have heard about these two approaches, as courses in them are offered here in Montreal and across Canada.
A few years ago a western Canadian woman named Rochelle Graham – a physical therapist – learned the method of Healing Touch, and her dream was to bring it into the church. She developed a spiritual version of Healing Touch which is called “Healing Pathways,” and it is based at the United Church’s training centre in Naramata, British Columbia. Rochelle teamed up with Flora Lit and her husband Rev. Wayne Irwin – two United Church people from Ontario – and they wrote a book entitled Healing From the Heart which is a very readable introduction to energy healing as a ministry of the church.
Three and one-half years ago, Healing Pathways training was offered in Montreal for the first time, and now three United Churches on the island offer Healing Pathways as part of their ministry – Cedar Park United in Pointe-Claire, Ste-Genevieve United in Dollard, and Union United in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue where Vicki Cowan is the minister. The next Level 1 Course will be in April, as is reported in the bulletin today. While we do not yet offer Healing Pathways sessions at Trinity, we could, as there are two of us who are taking the training. In other places, it seems that women have a special gift for doing this work, and I hope that some of our women will soon be interested in taking the training.
Yes, in this time of spiritual renewal in the churches, the healing ministry of Jesus is getting more attention today than it has for some time. As we read the Gospel stories like the one today, many of them are “journey” stories where Jesus travels around the country, preaching, teaching, and healing. But the case has also been made that journey stories are really about inner journeys, and they invite the reader or hearer to engage in an inner journey with Jesus. (Mitzi L. Minor, The Power of Mark’s Story, pp. 7-26) To say it differently, the stories about Jesus’ healing ministry also invite you and me to recognize the places in our own life journeys where healing is needed, and to open ourselves to receive the healing that he offers.
In today’s story about the leper, I want to make two or three brief points. First of all, the leper says, “If you want to, you can make me clean.” In Jesus’ time, the word leprosy was used for a wide range of skin conditions, some of which were quite contagious. And so people who were lepers were considered unclean. They were untouchable, both in a physical sense, but also in a social sense. You were not allowed to touch them, lest you spread their disease. But as a result, they were isolated and cut off from society. In fact, if they someone came near to them, they were required to call out “Unclean!” to give others warning of their condition.
Secondly, we read that Jesus was moved with pity, but there is a footnote in the Bible that says that “other ancient authorities read anger.” In other words, while Jesus’ reaction may have been based in his pity for the man, he was also angry with the way his society isolated the man in such a mean-spirited way.
And then we read that Jesus “stretched out his hand” and cleansed the man of his leprosy. Now you and I can easily see this as a loving thing to do, which it was. But we need to realize that Jesus was also breaking a taboo. He was touching an untouchable. He was going against the conventions of his society.
And so it seems to me that the message here for you and me is threefold. First, as Christian people and as the church, let us be open to healing and wholeness in our own lives and our own community. Healing may be of our bodies, our minds, our emotions, our spirit, our relationships . . . . it can be in any way that we need to be made whole.
Secondly, as Christian people and as the church we too should engage in ministries of healing, for this is what Jesus did. Sometimes we say this kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore, but more and more we are coming to see that this is not so. That when we pray for healing, something does happen. There may not be a cure, but God knows what we need, and some kind of healing always happens – and it is important for us to understand that even when there is not a cure, God is still bringing about some kind of healing.
And the third thing for us to do as the church is to stretch out our hand in all sorts of ways that go beyond convention, that reach out to people in our community who are seen as untouchable – maybe there are even some in our church that we treat that way. Here too, let us be like Jesus, and stretch out our hand.
I have a fine little book entitled Stretch Out Your Hand, and in it there is a page with sections on What Christian Healing Is Not, and What Christian Healing Is. During the next couple of weeks I am going to put that information in the bulletin so we will all have it.
I want to finish by quoting the words of a song that I have cited once before. It goes like this:
To be like Jesus,
this hope possesses me,
in every thought and deed,
this is my aim, my creed.
To be like Jesus,
this hope possesses me,
his Spirit helping me,
like him I’ll be.
(Gowan and Larson)