Touch, Touch Me Lord Jesus

A Sermon Preached on The Fifth Sunday Before Lent
February 14, 2021 at 11:00 am
for an Online Service with The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
.

The readings used were 2 Kings 5.1-14, Psalm 30, 1 Corinthians 9.24-27, and Mark 1.40-45.

“Have you ever been so sick you couldn’t pray?”

You may or may not have heard of The Angelic Gospel Singers – after all, they had their biggest hit in 1949 in the United States with the song below: “Touch Me, Lord Jesus”. This kind of African-American gospel music was not well known outside the Black radio stations and churches in the United States – we certainly didn’t sing this at Evensong. And yet, among those who know this genre – the original gospel music before it was white-washed in the ’70s – these ladies were royalty. They are the roots of secular Rhythm and Blues and Motown and influencing everybody from Aretha Franklin to Elvis, the older incarnations of Fleetwood Mac, and even the Rolling Stones. In concert their performances were full of testimonies and stories, as well as some amazing singing. Have a listen:

I love the introduction here by Margaret Allison, playing the piano and talking away, and then slowly beginning to sing her testimony, and howling in a way that would make Little Richard proud. It slowly builds up and seems stream of consciousness, although I suspect she did this hundreds of times. She starts off with the question, “Have you ever been sick you couldn’t pray?” and leads into having a talk with herself and then with “Doctor Jesus” and asking him to go into the operating room with her, to “speak to the doctors and tell them what to do.” She had her challenges to learn to walk afterwards, to use her hands again, and play the piano. In the midst of her pain she found herself uttering the words of their 1949 hit:

1 Touch, touch me Lord Jesus
with thy hand of mercy.
Make each throbbing heartbeat
feel thy power divine.
Take my will forever.
I will doubt thee never.
Oh, cleanse, cleanse me dear Saviour.
Make me wholly thine.

2 Guide, guide me Jehovah
through this veil of sorrow.
I am saved forever
trusting in thy love.
Bail me through the current,
o’er the chilly Jordan
Lead, lead dear Master
to thy home above.

“If you choose, you can make me clean.”

In the gospel reading we hear of Jesus healing a leper. In countries with modern medicine available to all we do not see leprosy today, as there are antibiotics and other medicines available to deal with it, and yet decades after it disappeared from us we still seem to have a revulsion to it. Jesus stretches out his hand, daring to touch the unclean man and become unclean himself, and says, ““I do choose. Be made clean!” In a similar story we hear of Naaman, not a Jew but a Syrian general, being healed in the river of Jordan.

In another performance on YouTube you can hear Margaret Allison testify that God’s “still in the healing business. All you have to do is just call on him. Wait on him. He may not come when you want him to – but he’s always on time.” And I believe this. I have been to places where people have asked for divine intervention, and claim that they have received it – places such as Lourdes in southern France. Prayer works in conjunction with the marvels of modern medicine, but sometimes there are healings which cannot be explained by physicians.

Miraculous healing has been controversial in the history of much of post-Reformation Church of England. Under the influence of Jean Calvin and the Reformed tradition, most Anglican theologians from the 1550s on declared that the era of miracles had ended with the closing of the canon of scripture. There was no longer any need for miracles testifying to the power of Jesus, as the supposedly superstitious Catholics celebrated, as we had the holy scriptures, and that was testimony enough. This is part of what historians have called The Disenchantment of the World – the change from the 16th century on in which the supernatural is no longer seen, and God is no longer a part of any rational explanation. It may have paved the way for the rise of the hard sciences, but it also meant that sectors of the population felt more than able to dispense with God.

All of this started to change some 120 years ago, as African-American churches in the United States began to claim that the Holy Spirit was still in the healing business, just as the Catholics always claimed. Starting in the early 1900s even the establishment Church of England began participate in new organisations such as the Guild of Health and the Order of St Luke, and prayers and anointing for healing became normal parts of the liturgy. I have prayed over people for healing, and I have seen some people get those prayers answered. I have been prayed over, and I know God’s spirit moved in me.

But I look at the world and I see a world that needs healing.

  • We have this pandemic, which has long been predicted, and is a direct consequence of the globalization of the world, where a disease which in earlier eras would stay regionalized, or take years to make its way around the globe, but now took just weeks to do so last year. And yet, despite being predicted, in so many places our leadership failed to prepare, or were in denial. If it was an even worse disease just imagine how horrible things would be now.
  • We are suffering from the long-term exploitation of the resources of the globe, to the point where we are warming the world at a faster rate than at any time in the long, long history of humanity. Will we respond? Will our leaders lead us on this?
  • We are suffering from a lack of compassion. We spend vast amounts of money on things we do not need, but we have to have fundraisers for our health systems, stretched to their limits. We are indifferent to the most preventable diseases among the poor – neonatal tetanus, HIV/AID, measles, malaria, and tetanus.
  • We are in need of healing from loneliness. We are so good at being independent and autonomous that we have inadvertently cut ourselves from each other, and so we fail to reach out. It’s especially prevalent in Britain, where the joke is often told that you English need to explain to Americans that when someone says, “You must drop by sometime” they usually really mean, “Don’t ever visit me.” But in a time like now this becomes quite problematic, and people, especially those of us living alone, are starved for talk and for touch. There are definite physical effects, one study stating that “the heightened risk of mortality from loneliness equals that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic, and exceeds the health risks associated with obesity.” So we need to reach out, take the risk of communication.
  • We are in need of healing from the long-term consequences of centuries of racism, slavery, and extractive imperialism. It continues to warp our politics, our foreign policy, our empathy. I wrote about this in my soon to be resubmitted dissertation, and I see it in the politics of my home country of Canada.
  • And as individuals we need healing from the effects of sin – our hatred of others, the idols we have worshipped, our disregard of those in need, the times we have betrayed the trust given us, the occasions when we have broken the agreements solemnly contracted, the people and things we have coveted, stolen, and destroyed.

For all of these things, we healing.

But the forces that challenge such healing are strong.

  • They are the demons of “I am one person; I cannot do anything” and “This doesn’t concern me.”
  • They are the diseases of self-interest and the short term outlook.
  • But we have a Saviour who makes us part of his own body.
  • Jesus, by the power that raised him from the dead, empowers us to do more than we can ask or imagine.
  • As Jesus is concerned for all people, so we see all women, men, and children as our family.
  • We become as concerned for others as ourselves, and take the long view of the millennium.
  • As the hands of Jesus in the world we have the opportunity to say, “I do choose. Be made clean.”
  • We also stand in the place of the leper and say, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”

And each of us needs healing. It may be some complaint about our health. It may be a wound so great that it cannot be healed except by a miracle. It may not be healed in this life, not until until God breaks into history and transforms the world, and we hear the voice from the throne saying,

“Behold, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” Revelation 21.3-4

And then we will know that this prayer has been fulfilled:

Touch, touch me Lord Jesus
with thy hand of mercy.
Make each throbbing heartbeat
feel thy power divine.
Take my will forever.
I will doubt thee never.
Oh, cleanse, cleanse me dear Saviour.
Make me wholly thine.

The Anglican congregations in Greece, for 2021 only and because of the pandemic, are observing Easter on the same day as the Greek Orthodox, which is May 2. This affects all the Sundays from February to June, and it means we are adding four weeks of Sundays before Lent (and will lose four Sundays after Trinity, when we rejoin the Gregorian calendar).

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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