May 2 2021


In the usual run of events ministers do a lot of handshaking. After a while it becomes almost instinctive. And so you can imagine what a significant adjustment we have had to make because of infection control. I really missed shaking hands at the recent wedding in chapel: giving someone’s arm a good pumping is what we usually do instead of embracing or kissing, so it all felt a little restrained. Touch is such a powerful form of communication.

During the months of covid “keeping in touch” has been a big part of my job. Zoom has of course been great for this, and as my old principal used to say, the telephone is a pastoral instrument. Keeping in touch is a metonymic phrase, where we use the idea of touching each other to represent our relationship, our friendship or love. So keeping in touch has been for me the next best thing to seeing you and being able to shake your hand on a Sunday morning.

How strange it feels to be literally “out of touch” with each other. But just now we are afraid of touching. We have to sanitise our hands, wash them for two choruses of Happy Birthday, and not touch our face.

The outstretched hand and finger of God almost touches Adam’s finger-tip in Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The image speaks of the transfer of life from the creator to the created.

We speak of the “touch of genius” or a “touch of madness”. We say we are “touched” by a kind person’s thoughtfulness.

We have had to withdraw into our houses. We have frequently been told to work from home. We have been doing more home-improvements, more gardening. We have bought more dogs, in order to have the walks dogs require. I imagine Netflix subscriptions have increased. And of course we have done our shopping online. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are out of touch.

For the Jewish community, the number of worshippers who gather for prayer has a mystical significance. The minimum number is 10 persons, which is referred to as a Minyan, without which no service can take place.

The Minyan requirement is from the Talmud, and is in contrast of course with Jesus’ own words: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them…”A small number, but close enough to commune together, and to touch each other.

In the first three gospels, the word “touch” appears some 30 times. “They brought unto him all that were diseased; and besought him that they might only touch the hem of his garment: and as many as touched, were made perfectly whole.”

Mark ch5, 25-34: And a woman, which had an issue of blood twelve years, And had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse, Having heard the things concerning Jesus, came in the crowd behind, and touched his garment. For she said, If I but touch his garments, I shall be made whole.

And straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her plague.

And straightway Jesus, perceiving in himself that the power proceeding  from him had gone forth, turned him around in the crowd, and said, Who touched my garments?

And his disciples said unto him, Thou seest the multitude thronging thee, and sayest thou, Who touched me?

And he looked round about to see her that had done this thing. But the woman fearing and trembling, knowing what had been done to her, came and fell down before him, and told him all the truth.

And he said unto her, Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace, and be whole of thy plague.

You too have touched me.
Brave and beautiful you dared my defences.
Do you know encounter can be addictive?
Do you care if your touch is healing or afflictive?

Love shows no quarter, gives no reprieve.
So you too have touched me: undeterred by what you’d seen or heard of me, you claimed your victory.
Do you take prisoners, or set them free?

More frequently Jesus takes the initiative himself, as when he touches Peter’s mother-in-law to heal her, or when he reaches out his hand to touch a despised and feared leper. Most famously, “they brought children for him to touch … and he took them in his arms, laid his hands upon them and blessed them.”

Unitarians will all be familiar with the post- crucifixion narrative of doubting Thomas. There is possibly no more intimate an encounter in the scriptures than this, and of course it signifies the central message of the gospel narrative, that doubting Thomas, who did not accept that Jesus was resurrected, was enabled to believe.

John ch20, 24-27: But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe… Then saith he unto Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and see my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and put it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

Are you superstitious? Do you, for example, believe it is bad luck to openly say that something nice or good will happen? Do you think that such optimism should be kept secret in case you tempt fate? Well if you do, there is an instant antidote you can employ to avert evil misfortune. I for instance hope very much that we will all be reunited once again in chapel, and in fellowship afterwards, shaking hands and sharing tea, coffee and cake as we used to. I hope it will happen soon, and to avert misfortune I will quickly add, “Touch wood !” Until then, let’s stay in touch, supporting one another, giving comfort where we can, and by our contact, sharing what it means to be a loving community at this time.

Let’s end by borrowing a few words from an old prayer from the Unitarian Orders of Worship: O God, we come to thee as thy children, to hear what thou wilt speak to our souls, and to feel thy hand laid upon us in blessing… Amen.


Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period