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Touched Again


Mark 5:1-20            Lam. 3:22-24          Ps. 13:6

I: — “Seated, clothed, and in his right mind”. So reads Mark’s description of the healed man whom our Lord had touched. The entire story has been one of my favourites from childhood.

“Seated” — no longer agitated and frenzied.

“Clothed” — belonging to the community, according to ancient

Hebrew symbolism.

“In his right mind” — no longer driven and distracted. Simply sane.

The fellow’s situation could be summed up in one word: deliverance.

Only a few weeks ago Maureen and I were at a cottage on Georgian Bay. One Monday evening Maureen said to me, “I have something to tell you, but I am apprehensive about saying anything because I am afraid you will react by denying it or walking away or sulking — as your custom is.” I decided that holiday time might as well be truth time, and so I asked her to tell me what she had to say.

She told me, so gently as to be a caress, that I have been angry to the point of being consumed with rage. My frustration over developments within the denomination had mounted until the pressure of my frustration had generated enough heat to keep me enraged. In addition I had become embittered. Not to mention suspicious of people here, imagining slights where there were none and imputing ill-will to the people who had supported me most in my recent struggle. As I found myself disappointed and disillusioned over the past several years a low-grade infection had settled into me which had latterly become a high-grade infection. I had become an angry, bitter, suspicious and reproachful middleaged man. To be sure, I had preached on James 1:20 — “The anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” — but I had also managed to forget whatever I said.

As Maureen held up the mirror before me I saw it all. For the first time in a long while I had no desire to deny, flee or sulk. I simply owned it all. And as I owned it, it came out of me like pus. As the poison within me drained away I thought once more of the gospel-incident: townspeople are shocked to see a frenzied, agitated fellow seated, clothed, and in his right mind. As I reflected on all that had transpired in only a few minutes I thought again of the text in the Lamentations of Jeremiah which I had read a hundred times: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Great is God’s faithfulness.”

There were immediate consequences to my un-poisoning. One which affects you people most immediately is that you will never hear the sermon I had planned on preaching today. In the week before my holidays, when I had my shirt twisted in such a knot that it was ready to ignite, I had written a very strong sermon — or so I thought. As I read it over in the wake of my deliverance I realized that it had been written out of a bitter heart and an angry spirit. It will never be preached.

Still, I think it’s all right to tell you something of what was in it. For instance, I had picked up a copy of the UC Observer in a hospital waiting-room and had read an editorial concerning new directions in UC worship. What I read any thoughtful person would recognize as both illogical and blasphemous. In orbit myself now at one more perfidy I had inserted this item into the sermon in order to let you people know just how bad things are. But then I had asked myself, “Who is going to be edified by hearing this from me? And who will be edified by hearing it through my bitter rage?” No one, of course. The sermon will never be preached.

Perhaps you would have made allowances for me if you had heard it. “After all, he has been under stress.” But your generous forbearance would not really have helped me. During the last war the depth-charging of submarines was unsophisticated, very much a hit-and-miss affair. In fact a submarine’s chances of being sunk through a depth-charge attack were only 6%. In other words, a submarine was almost certain to survive a depth-charge attack. One attack. Several, in fact. Nonetheless, a submarine was usually sunk on the seventh attack. You see, after six depth-charge attacks the submarine captain was so unnerved that he lost his ability to think objectively, think constructively. The he was easy to sink. I don’t want to put too fine an edge on it; still, I wonder how many times I have been depth-charged in the last few years. Often enough, I think, that I was about to lose my ability to think objectively, think constructively. My wife came to my rescue. She embodied the steadfast love and faithfulness of God.

As I pondered all that she did for me on that Monday evening I thought again of Psalm 13:6, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt bountifully with me.”

II: — Seated, clothed, and right-minded at last I have fresh enthusiasm for the Streetsville congregation and fresh vision for it. No doubt you have enthusiasm and vision too. Listen to a few aspects of mine for the next few minutes, and then tell me of yours over the next few weeks.

(i) One aspect of my renewed enthusiasm is adult education. Sunday morning at 9:00 o’clock sharp. (“Sharp on time”, as Stephen Leacock used to say.) 9:00 to 9:45, beginning on the 29th of September. An adult study of scripture is what I have in mind. In the past few years we have seen scripture twisted by the ideological left, and we have resisted this. At the same time, scripture-twisting at the hands of the ideological right is no better. A case in point. Concerning the NT stories of the feeding of the multitudes the ideological left says, “Nonsense. It’s all pre-scientific gobbledy-gook and should be set aside.” The ideological right says, “Not so fast. It’s one more miracle that Jesus did as proof of his divinity.” But Jesus was never concerned to prove his divinity, was he. Jesus wasn’t concerned to prove anything. When people asked for proofs concerning him or his truth or his kingdom, he refused. Instead he called disciples into his company, knowing that life in his company would generate conviction and assurance of him, his truth and his kingdom. For such disciples any “proof”, so-called, would then be as superfluous as it was inappropriate.

According to the inner logic of the NT itself the feeding stories magnify one glorious truth: Jesus Christ feeds and sustains his people in their particular wilderness. This is what we have to understand: Our Lord will feed and sustain you and me in whatever wilderness we find ourselves.

Another case in point. The ideological left sits loose to morality. Morality is thinly disguised social convention. As social convention it reflects social class rather than some truth or other etched in stone. The ideological right, on the other hand, equates immorality and sin. The immoral are the real sinners who especially need saving, while the moral, of course, are virtuous and godly. Not so according to scripture! Jesus didn’t die for the immoral, the apostle tells us; Jesus died for the ungodly. And the ungodly are the moral and the immoral in equal measure! Sinnership is common to all of humankind, whether moral or immoral. Our sinnership is the same spiritual distortion whether we behave in a manner which others congratulate or in a manner which others curse. Everyone, in equal degree, stands in need of God’s mercy and God’s patience and God’s invigoration; which is to say, everyone, in equal degree, stands in need of God himself.

From time to time people tell me that the bible is boring. Boring? With all the sex and violence in it? I want to recover biblical literacy as together we are grasped by the kingdom-reality it attests, which kingdom exposes ideologies of the right and the left at once.

Why Sunday morning at 9:00? Because Streetsvillians are too busy and too fatigued to come out one more evening in the week.

(ii) Another aspect of my enthusiasm: a deepening of our relationship with our Jewish friends at Solel. Some of us have maintained the contact through our work with the foodbank and the housing project, but on the whole our attention has been almost wholly directed to other matters recently. Even the briefest reading of the gospels makes it plain that to encounter Jesus is to encounter his Jewishness. The English text tells us that the menorrhagic woman reached out and touched the “fringe of his garment.” It wasn’t a fringe in the sense of a fashionable decoration; it was the tzith-tzith, the tassels of his prayer shawl. Jesus wore his prayer shawl as an undershirt every day. Jewish people today put on such a shawl when they go to the synagogue to worship; orthodox men and boys are wearing it as an undershirt at this minute. Because of the yiddishkeit of our Lord, engagement with Israel (the people) is not an option for Christians.

I am reminded of the church’s debt to the synagogue every time I read Romans 9 where Paul says, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants… the promises…; and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.” Be sure to note the apostle’s use of the present tense: to them belong. He doesn’t say, “To them there used to belong…”.

Then in Ephesians 2 Paul reminds Gentile Christians (you and me) that at one time we were “without Christ (the Messiah), excluded from the citizenship of Israel, strangers to the covenants based upon promise; without hope and without God in this world.” Then in an about-turn which takes the breath away from me, the benighted gentile Paul has in mind, he adds, “But now — but now you who were once far off have been included in the realm of the Messiah Jesus.” To seize our Lord in faith is to be admitted to everything that God promised Israel and fulfilled in his Son. Then surely I can disdain Israel — even merely ignore it — only to my spiritual impoverishment. At the very least, wouldn’t a close relationship to Israel help us cherish the older testament, which book, we must remember, was the only bible the earliest Christians had?

(iii) In the third place I am haunted by the fact that life (that is, bodily existence) comes far easier for most of us in Streetsville congregation than it comes for most people elsewhere. I tell my own offspring repeatedly that not one per cent of the world’s people enjoy the privileges that they, Mary and Catherine enjoy. For part of the last three summers our younger daughter has assisted at Camp Oochigeas. Oochigeas is a northern Ontario camp for children who have cancer. The camp directors are Doug and Cathy Hitchcock of this congregation. When Mary went off to camp for the first time I had a misgiving or two. After all, she was only fourteen, she was going to become attached to youngsters some of whom would not survive until next spring, and what would the effect of all of this be on Mary’s psyche, etc. Mary has come home invigorated; in the following months she has visited children her age who are hospitalized. We have had overnight in our home youngsters who are not likely to collect old age pensions. So far from being submerged by all of this Mary has thrived. What she has gained, what will be with her for life as a result of her work at Oochigeas, is inexpressible because invaluable.

In the summer of 1972 I supervised Keith Burton, the student-minister on Miscou Island, New Brunswick. (A good atlas will tell you where Miscou Island is.) Following ordination Keith went to England to work in a hospice for young men suffering from a muscular dystrophy, which disease saw most of then die at 16 or 17. (The oldest resident of the hospice was 25.) Keith wrote me from England: “Do you know what has happened to me through my work in the hospice? I have learned the meaning of the resurrection.”

One third of the women in Ontario’s jails are there inasmuch as they have been unable to pay fines. Is this the modern-day equivalent of yesteryear’s debtor’s prison? Might there be something here through which a women’s group (or a men’s group) could learn the meaning of the kingdom of God (an how it differs from the kingdoms of this world)?

Jesus Christ is victor over everything which afflicts humankind. My faith in his victory is strongest when I am knee-deep in suffering people whose suffering appears to contradict that victory. I say “appears”, because the triumph of him who has been raised from the dead is a triumph which can never be undone.

(iv) Sunday evening. I think there is a place for a Sunday evening event every month or two. There is little opportunity Sunday morning for discussion and dialogue. Why not make good this deficiency on occasional Sunday evenings?

A few weeks ago it dawned on me that the majority of the people who attend the Ottawa Summer School of Theology where I teach each July are laypersons. This summer I spoke to them for instance, about the doctrine of justification and its pertinence for real and neurotic guilt. Shouldn’t we hear of this in Streetsville and discuss it among ourselves?

In highschools, synagogues, universities and conference centres I have spoken on the often-tragic relation of the church to the synagogue (in other words, the history of Christian anti-semitism). Yet there has been no exposure to it here! Why don’t we invite our friends from Solel to join us on a Sunday evening and learn together?

For years I have been wedded to the city. I am a city-boy virtually devoid of rural blood. For long enough I have thought of Mississauga as a suburb of Toronto. But Mississauga is not a suburb of anything. Mississauga is a city in its own right. It’s population will soon be half a million. It has now all the problems which bedevil cities.

For years I have been intrigued by the biblical understanding of the city. The Tower of Babel (with its confusion and alienation) is an aspect of that city mentioned in Genesis 11. Not to speak of other cities: Babylon, Rome, Jerusalem. (Jerusalem is the holy city, supposedly, yet so unholy is it that it slays the prophets and crucifies the Messiah.) The book of Revelation speaks of the New Jerusalem, another city. Why don’t we explore together what it means to be a Christian, or a Christian community, in the midst of the city, when according to scripture the city is humankind’s proudest monument to its God-defiance? And while we are at it, why don’t we bring along a city-planner from city hall and hear what she has to say? In Paul’s day the Christians in Rome numbered no more than 75 in a city of one million. Yet this “little flock”, says Jesus, is salt and leaven. Salt and leaven, tiny in themselves, permeate and alter everything they touch; everything.

(v) Throughout all of this we must continue to cherish one another in this congregation; in cherishing one another’s humanity we may even have to learn afresh what it is to be human. I have in mind recent technological innovations which have put our humanity at risk. Computer technology has now given us Virtual Reality or Synthetic Space or Telepresence.

When you look at a computer screen or television screen you are aware that you are looking at a screen. Now imagine yourself equipped with large, electronically sophisticated goggles. As you look at someone on the screen you are not aware that you are looking at a screen. Instead you have the sensation of having the person on the screen in the room with you. You have the sensation of sight, hearing, touch, even smell. You can even reach out and “shake hands” with her (even though she herself is in Montreal). You will have the physical sensation of shaking hands, even though in reality nothing has been shaken. It’s called Virtual Reality or Synthetic Space or Telepresence. To have the sensation of touching someone when in fact no one is being touched means that our humanity has been simulated. Simulated with near-perfect simulation, thanks to computer technology, but only simulated. Then where is our real humanity? What is it to be human? What does the gospel have to do with real humanity? and the Christian fellowship?

(vi) Needless to say worship continues to be the single most important thing that we do in our life together here. Worship will continue to the setting where the living word of the living God is exalted and magnified. At the same time, the vehicle of worship is the liturgy. “Liturgy” is an English word formed from two Greek words, laos and ergon, “people” and “work”. In other words, liturgy is the work of the people, what the people do in the course of worship. There will be more for you people to do in worship as Jesus Christ is extolled, his people edified, and the reign of God discerned amidst the principalities and powers of this world.

It remains only for me to say that regardless of how you grade this sermon — A, B minus or Z — it is a much better sermon than the sermon you were going to hear. For the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God. Far more important that we confirm each other in that steadfast love of God which never comes to an end, just because his faithfulness to us is great indeed.


 Victor A. Shepherd

8th September 1991