Touching the holy

IMG_6790Our Gospel reading shows Jesus having a busy day (Mark 5:21-43). He has travelled across the lake by boat and is greeted by a great crowd on the other side. A leader of the synagogue approaches him and falls at his feet. It is dramatic, it is humbling, it is desperate. Jairus’ daughter is seriously ill and he will do anything to save her, so no humility is too much for him – he is past caring about such trivialities. Every parent will recognize instantly how he felt. There is no question about whether this is worth his time; Jesus goes with him. There are some things that when you get the call you just go.

On the way the crowd presses in. And a woman decides this is her moment. She has suffered for many years, spent a great deal of money on trying to find a cure. Women and bleeding are unclean matters in first century Palestine and so coming into the crowd is risky, approaching Jesus is risky, but what has she to lose? Still, she tries to do this covertly. ‘If I just reach out and touch him I will be well.’ She doesn’t want recognition; she very much doesn’t want recognition. She just wants to be healed, quietly and without fuss. That is familiar, when something is so serious, we don’t want a fuss, we just want it sorted.

Does she think this is magic? It is a world of the superstitious and the supernatural. But it is faith, which means trusting in God, that heals her. That is not the same as magic, which is the manipulation of elements and who knows what else. Faith means trusting in God – whatever. And ultimately of course there is no guarantee that she will get what she wants, as understandable as her plight is.

There is something about reaching out to touch the holy. Shrines and holy places have been the focus of much pilgrimage over the centuries and still are. People come to touch the holy, to find something tangible with which they can connect and feel that they are able to grasp what is otherwise difficult to get hold of. It can be fragments of a saint or something associated with them, it can be buildings – places where the holy feels more present. And all of us access this in reaching out for bread and wine and connecting with the holy through the ordinary of food and drink. We are physical beings and need to have physical expressions, vehicles to help us travel from the material to the spiritual, from the present to the eternal.

The point of these things is not to be the holy itself and we need to watch that this does not get confused. Their value is how they help us connect with God and the holy. TS Elliot in his poem Little Gidding, referred to the church there as being a place where ‘prayer has been valid’. And that validity, that tradition of praying, becomes a well we can draw from and find encouragement from. So when we touch what we see as holy items, go to places we see as being holy places, what makes them holy is the encounter with God that they usher and facilitate. For the woman with bleeding and great shame, it was the touch of the garment. It then became a moment of blessing as Jesus honoured and sent her on her way in peace. She longed, she hoped, she cried out and her cry was heard.

Touching the holy is no mere knick-knack hunting. We are not picking up items for the sacred mantelpiece where they can gather dust and be gazed at occasionally. We are seeking to make a connection with all that lies at the root of existence, with the very purpose of life itself. We seek to connect with God. We seek to connect our deepest desires and longings with God, ultimately to place our trust and hope in God’s mercy. That is something we can all relate to and also find that we are sent on our way in peace by the Christ who hears, loves us and blesses us as we reach out to him.

Sermon preached at St Luke’s Church, Peterborough, Trinity 5 – Sunday 1st July 2018

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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