That Healing Touch
Pentecost IX (O. T. 16)
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
I guess it must be natural for us to look for a leader who will make everything all right. The Prophet Jeremiah expressed that wish in today's Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 23:1-6): he scolds the government of Judah for being shepherds who drive away the sheep, rather than gather them together. The actual government policies and their effects are not relevant to today's subject; the Prophet takes the opportunity to announce that God will raise up a leader – someday – who will gather the people together, who will be a good shepherd of the flock.
Enter Jesus, stage left. Today's Gospel gives us a picture of Jesus that shows what kind of leader he is. It has two stories of Jesus and his apostles trying to get some time alone; both times a crowd chases them down. Jesus' reaction tells us a lot about him and reminds me why I call him Lord and Savior.
Now many are there for his healing touch: he touches lepers and their skin disease goes away; he touches the blind and they see again. Remember the woman with the hemorrhage? We read about her not long ago. She touched the hem of his robe and she was healed. The touch of Jesus is a healing touch; the sick are cured.
From reading what the Gospels say he taught, it's clear that the teaching of Jesus is also a healing touch: it heals the soul. These folks feeling ground down by life found hope and buoyancy in the teaching of Jesus. "The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was cast into the sea and caught fish of every kind" (Matthew 13:47); "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20); "I am the good shepherd; I lay down my life for the sheep" (John 10:11). The voice of Jesus had that healing touch.
And Jesus' reaction when people mobbed him was compassion. Compassion! He wanted to get away for some time alone with his disciples; he was looking for an opportunity for a little rest. The crowd tracked him down and he looked at them and had compassion, "because they were like sheep without a shepherd." When you're tired and trying to catch a break and people want something of you, it's easy to get irritated. And, to be fair, there were times that Jesus did all he could to get away from the crowd. But when they were around him, with that look on their faces that showed their spiritual hunger, his reaction was to have compassion. Some leaders would be irritated – I think that would be my reaction – and other leaders would be scornful – "Look at those sheep" – but Jesus had compassion.
My Lord and Savior. Just the sort of leader we need.
In the documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, one of the sons (I don't remember which one) of Fred Rogers says of his father, "It was a little tough having the second Christ as my dad." This quality of Jesus to have compassion on the crowd is the thing that makes me compare Mr. Rogers favorably with Jesus Christ. The man was gentle with people, yet not afraid to tackle difficult subjects. There is a lot I would like to say about Fred Rogers that would be off topic, so let's focus on this quality of compassion for the crowd and on words that have a healing touch.
I'm too old to have grown up with Mr. Rogers; I don't have children, so I didn't watch his show with children, either. Most of what I knew about him before seeing the documentary was through hearsay and through parody. He was so distinctive and so popular that he was a frequent target for comics and satirists. But part of what makes him an appealing figure to me was his commitment to talking about difficult things with children. He didn't hide moral and social questions from children, but addressed them directly and without flinching, yet with kindness.
For example, during the civil rights struggle, when white parents were fleeing suburbs that black families were moving into and when in parts of the country racist segregation was enforced by law, he invited the African-American policeman Officer Clemmons to sit with him, take off his boots and socks, and put his feet in the warm water that Fred was soaking his feet in. When Officer Clemmons said, "I don't have a towel," Mr. Rogers shared his. During a time when white parents were trying to prevent their children from going to school with black children, Mr. Rogers offered the healing touch of some warm water and his own towel.
Fred Rogers was not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. The man who played Officer Clemmons was gay, and Mr. Rogers had a real struggle with that. He was a fairly conservative Presbyterian, after all, and was fairly strict in his theology and morality. But he was kind and he respected François Clemmons, so he didn't simply reject him but struggled over the matter. Of course, since Mr. Rogers was so kind and so soft-spoken, many said that he was gay. He was not; you don't have to be gay to be thoughtful and compassionate.
One of the reasons I came away from the film sad was the contrast between Mr. Rogers and our society. He hoped that his example of kindness could take hold and could help to forge a society in which people treated one another with kindness. What has happened to us? How did we grow so mean? Some of you want to point fingers at someone, but pointing fingers simply gives examples; it doesn't answer the question. And I decided that I don't want to pepper this sermon with examples of the public meanness we are experiencing; do that for yourselves. I'm simply left with the sadness that when we look at a crowd that is hungry for kindness or positive teaching or healing, we rarely respond with kindness these days. We've grown mean.
And there is the witness of Mr. Rogers, showing us how to be compassionate. "Won't you be my neighbor?" he asked. As a Presbyterian minister, he was thinking not only of the folks in his neighborhood in Pittsburgh or his television set for Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood or even the children and parents who watched his program and who flocked to see him whenever he would make a public appearance. He was no doubt thinking of the story of Jesus, when the lawyer asked him, "Who is my neighbor?" And if you don't know that story, ask me sometime (Luke 10:25-35).
Many have attacked Fred Rogers who misunderstood his message. And what, at root, was his message? That you are a person of value. Yes, to be honored you should accomplish certain things, but you shouldn't have to earn the right to be loved. You can be loved just as you are. You can be Mr. Rogers' neighbor just as you are. Daniel Striped Tiger sang, "Am I a mistake?" and Lady Aberlin sang back to him, "You're fine just as you are."
At this point I paused and we looked at a video of this song; link below.
I think that was the part of the message of Jesus that healed so many souls: although there is always room for improvement, there is always repentance to be made, God loves you as you are. You are not a mistake; you are a creation of God. That message heals souls in a way that is more lasting than Jesus' ministry of healing skin diseases and such. I wonder if the Prophet Jeremiah would have been disappointed in Jesus; he didn't "execute justice and righteousness in the land." He didn't ride in on his white horse and make everything all right. Instead he came with a compassionate, healing touch and words of kindness.
You may not have the ability to lay hands on someone and make their cancer go away; if a woman with a hemorrhage touches the edge of my robe, it probably will not make the hemorrhage stop. But we still have that healing touch of Jesus, the message that although there is always room for growth, God loves you just as you are. I hope that's the sort of church we are: neighborly and compassionate. All around us is a crowd and this week you will find yourself seeing crowds that need to know someone is looking upon them with compassion, with that healing touch that says that God loves them just as they are.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6XAP_VThhk to hear Daniel & Lady Aberlin sing.