May 18, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Luke 24: 36-48

The Body of Christ

As the church, it is our job to see the resurrection that happens all around us in our weary, hurting world. Together we are the living body of Christ. Together we are the ones charged to witness the promise of new life, then share this promise far and wide. And it is one thing for me to stand in this pulpit and make these loud and luminous proclamations. It’s another thing for us to do it, I know.

Friends, we have come to the third Sunday in our spring sermon series. Every week, we are pairing one of the winning provocative proposals with a simple action Jesus teaches his disciples in the light of the resurrection.

Here we have the loud and luminous proclamation: Christ is risen, he is risen indeed! Death turns into life every time. Now here’s what we need to do about it, something tangible we can take in our hands. Here we have our provocative proposal printed in your bulletin: Church of Peace fosters engaging, thought-provoking, heartfelt and moving worship services. Now here’s the simple action we learn from Jesus: “Touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones.” Indeed, sharing worship together has a whole lot to do with touching and being touched.

First, please understand. There are many ways to participate in our worship services, and not all of them involve coming into this place on Sunday mornings. We have sisters and brothers living in faraway places and those who are confined to their homes right here. This is why our deacons, circle members, and parish nurses go and visit and bring the love and blessing of our church to those who aren’t here. You can keep up with the church through the Visitor and the Church Mouse. On our website, you can read the sermons and find the videos of special musical performances. You can see photos and share conversation on our Facebook page. There are important, meaningful ways to be part of our church without actually coming to church.

And yet, there is something about coming to church that is different —different from watching a church service on television, or listening to a recording of the music, or praying at home by yourself. Showing up together here in this place is an extraordinary feat. For many of us, it is not possible at all. For all of us, let’s just acknowledge that it is hard to do.

Coming to church is work that involves overcoming barriers. For some of us, the barriers are physical — getting out of bed on a Sunday morning, or getting a ride here, or getting into the building. Some of us who have been wounded by the church —this church or any church — experience barriers of fear and unhealed hurt. There are social barriers, financial barriers, language barriers, theological barriers. That we ever manage to show up here together is a miracle. Because the thing about coming to church, you put yourself in a position where you might touch somebody, where somebody might touch you.

Today our Gospel story is an exquisite epilogue to the resurrection. After Jesus gets up from the dead on Easter morning, after he is conspicuously absent from the tomb when the women show up… After Jesus accompanies the two men going to Emmaus and is made known to them in the breaking of the bread… After all of this, our story begins. Jesus shows up to a gathering of the disciples.

He is ready to explain everything and then leave them with their final charge. It is the moment of reveal on those reality shows when the designers say, “See here is how we fixed everything.” It is the moment at the end of the mystery drama where the lead detective says, “Here’s how I solved the case…”

Eventually, Jesus tells the disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you— everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” He opened their minds to understand the scriptures. Jesus announces the promise of repentance and forgiveness, and he calls his disciples to witness. Things work out, Jesus ascends into heaven, and a new story begins. Maybe this is exactly what Jesus thought would happen.

At the beginning of our story today, it doesn’t go so well. He can’t just charge in and start teaching like he used to. When Jesus shows up to the disciples, they are terrified. He meets them in the dark of their fear, and he says, “Look at my hands and feet, see that it is I myself. Touch me and see.” And the Bible doesn’t say whether the disciples touched him or not, but I hope they did. People need to be touched.

The Bible does say, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’” And if somewhere there is a better description of what it means to be the church, I haven’t found it. Here they are gathered in joy while disbelieving and still wondering, and somebody go get this man some fish. Here their gladness crashes right into their grief and their wonder. They hand the risen Lord a piece of fish, and they wind up getting resurrection all over their hands.

In our world, we know too well that touching can be risky and dangerous. Not all touch is good. From our own life experiences and from the culture in which we’re formed, we develop our own personal boundaries. Some people need to be hugged; some can’t stand it. Negotiating these boundaries becomes tricky because we don’t want to expose ourselves to harmful touch, of course.

Yet there is another danger as well. In our twenty-first century, American, individually-packaged world, we also risk a deficit of touch. I’ve seen this among teenagers who deal with social pressure to conform to a certain body image; they wonder whether they are worthy of touch. I’ve seen this among older people who deal with changes in their bodies; they wonder whether they are worthy of touch.

We human people need to be touched. Hospitals are beginning to recognize the value of including practitioners who specialize in healing and therapeutic touch. When babies are born too early, doctors recommend what’s called kangaroo care — placing the baby on the mother’s body, so her temperature can help keep the baby warm. This simple practice of human contact reduces mortality rates by one third. [1]

All through our lives, we are shaped by people who touch us with violence and injury and by those who touch us in kindness and love. Our bodies carry all our scars, every soft place that has ever been kissed. Our bodies know, we human people need touch. It brings healing to our lives as individual beings.

There’s also this. Touch has the potential to bring healing to the hurt and hate in our world.

First, the good news. As a society, we are making measurable progress toward overcoming barriers of bigotry and prejudice. We continue to wrestle with racism, and we know that racism is wrong. We know Muslims should not be mistaken for terrorists; we know that teenagers deserve respect, that lesbian and gay couples should have the same rights as straight couples.

And yet. In our society, there are still residual feelings of division that are not rooted in any rational argument or any disgust with political correctness. When it comes down to it, some things just make people feel icky inside. Sometimes this happens when people see a Black man and a White woman kissing, or they see two gay men grocery shopping with their children and expressing playful affection. Sometimes it’s when a woman wearing a hijab introduces herself as their doctor or maybe when a person with a developmental disability sits down next to them on the bus. Now most people don’t mean to feel this way; there’s no good reason for it. It’s just an icky feeling. Somebody’s different from me, and a part inside my stomach recoils. I wonder whether the disciples felt this icky feeling when the resurrected Lord came to see them.

Friends, the very good news for us is this. This icky feeling is something we can get over! It’s happened to me. Truthfully, it’s happened to anybody who as a second grader was genuinely afraid of getting cooties from the boys (or the girls). We get over this. So if you ever find yourself challenged by difference, saying “I don’t know, it just makes me feel icky.” We can help you. By showing up together, we dissolve these barriers of discomfort. We help each other take the risk that you might touch somebody, that somebody might touch you, and see it’s okay.

Recently, photographer Richard Renaldi launched an exhibition called “Touching Strangers.”[2] Each photograph features two strangers who agreed to pose together in positions ranging from cordial to affectionate. These photos show a whole range of expression —some are cheerful and some are disturbing.  Most involve people who are noticeably different from each other.

One of the most difficult to arrange was an Orthodox Jewish man touching the arm of a man who is not Jewish. In my opinion, one of the most troubling photos shows a police officer smiling, his arms around the neck of a girl who looks about fourteen; she is not smiling. One of the most heartwarming shows an older white woman sharing an embrace with a young African American woman like they’re mother and daughter. All of the photos suggest that there’s a whole story behind the image, and yet you know the people are strangers. As though any of us are ever really strangers.

This photography exhibit shows what it looks like when people overcome barriers and stand beside one another, arm in arm. It makes you wonder what you would do if Renaldi approached you on the street and wanted you to pose with someone you don’t know. Imagine the courage it took for these people to agree.  It’s probably a lot like the courage involved in coming to church.

Every week, we practice the work of coming to church and sharing worship together. Here we practice putting ourselves in the position where we might be touched. And we learn how our own hands can offer caring touch to those who are hurting and happy, sorry and sore. In this, we encounter the person of Jesus — not just an idea of the Son of God or a glorious burst of light. Here is the body of Christ. Touch and see, barriers are overcome, healing right here. Come and worship, and you’ll wind up getting resurrection all over your hands. Amen.


[1] Gawande, Atul. “Slow Ideas” in The New Yorker July 29, 2013, page. 39.

[2] http://www.renaldi.com/#id=album-31&num=content-1347

Special thanks to photography professor Alexandra Silverthorne who recommended this exhibit to me.

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