When I was a kid, we used to scuff our feet along the carpet to build up static electricity, and then zap each other with it. Sort of an electric form of tag. Have you ever done this?
In today’s gospel reading from Luke, verse 19 says that power went out from Jesus when people touched him. I wonder if it was like a static electricity zap?
The Message version describes Jesus’ healing power as “energy surging from” Jesus. Maybe it felt more like tingly goosebumps. Or maybe it was warm and comforting. What would feel healing and comforting to you?
When I was in labor with our oldest daughter Tess, I was dealing with the pain of labor by staying very focused on a little red light on a piece of equipment across the room. My husband Rob had been there with me through the hours and needed a break, so my sister-in-law Sherrie came in. She had just had her first baby a month before, so I think she was extra equipped to be an empathic presence. What I remember most is that she put her hand on my arm. Her hand was cool, and that felt good, and her touch was calming. It was a healing and comforting touch.
The Greek word for touch in verse 19 is haptomai. It is the source for our English word haptic. In technology, haptics help us experience apps and video games with more of our senses, so that we don’t just see and hear, we also feel vibrations. For example, I have an anti-stress app on my phone that does all sorts of fidgety things, and along with the visuals and sounds, the phone vibrates as I tap on the objects. These sensations deepen our connection to what’s happening and make it feel more real.
When our daughters Tabitha and Tess were 5 and 7 years old, we went to Disney World and Epcot Center. In Epcot’s Imagination Theater at that time, there was a 3D experience based on the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. In addition to the usual 3D glasses, there were sensory effects. The audience was sitting on a giant platform that moved up and down and vibrated so that we would feel the action of the film. In the movie, someone accidentally replicates a mouse, and suddenly there are hundreds of mice on the loose on screen, but this is in 3D, so it looks like mice are running around us in the audience. In addition, there were “leg ticklers” under the seats so that it felt like the mice were actually running around our legs. At this point, our girls started screaming at the top of their lungs and couldn’t stop, and before long an usher showed up with a flashlight and guided us out of the building.
Those leg ticklers and moving seats were examples of haptic technology, tactile sensations that make our virtual experiences feel more real. Our sense of touch is an important part of the way we experience the world. We feel things both inside and outside our bodies – temperature, texture, movement, pain, pressure. All of these sensations are a part of life.
Even emotional feelings can cause physical sensations. Stress causes headaches, worry can make our stomachs hurt, sadness and joy make us cry, just to name a few. This brings me back to wondering even more what it felt like to touch Jesus and feel the healing energy coming out of him.
Maybe it was like a hug?
I have grown to love hugs. And I don’t know why everyone freaked out when I tried to hug them at the covid vaccination center. I was just trying to spread some positivity.
We know what a hug feels like on the outside, but did you know that hugs also cause things to happen to us on the inside? Hugs cause our bodies to release the hormone oxytocin. It’s a neurotransmitter that increases empathy, trust, and relationship building.
Hugs have healing power. Maybe touching Jesus did feel like a hug.
Jesus’ words in verses 20 to 22 might have also felt like a hug to those who identified with what he was saying. Jesus says:
“God blesses you who are poor,
for the Kingdom of God is yours.
21 God blesses you who are hungry now,
for you will be satisfied.
God blesses you who weep now,
for in due time you will laugh.
22 What blessings await you when people hate you and exclude you and mock you and curse you as evil because you follow the Son of Man.
Being poor or hungry or sad doesn’t feel like a blessing. Being hated and excluded and mocked doesn’t feel like a blessing either. These are things we often try to hide. Those in the crowd who were poor or hungry or sad might even have been feeling ashamed of their situation.
- We sometimes give the impression that being happy is the only valid emotion, and that being sad is something to be ashamed of. Being sad is not fun. It hurts. But it’s part of life. It’s part of being real.
- We sometimes give the impression that being sad or hungry or poor is a result of doing something wrong, that it’s something we’ve brought upon ourselves.
But Jesus doesn’t say, “You should be ashamed of yourselves.” He says, “God blesses you.” God sees you. God knows what you are feeling and it’s ok. Hearing this might have felt like a hug from Jesus.
Jesus’ words in verses 24 to 26 probably didn’t feel so much like a hug. He says:
“What sorrow awaits you who are rich,
for you have your only happiness now.
25 What sorrow awaits you who are fat and prosperous now,
for a time of awful hunger awaits you.
What sorrow awaits you who laugh now,
for your laughing will turn to mourning and sorrow.
26 What sorrow awaits you who are praised by the crowds,
for their ancestors also praised false prophets.
To those in the crowd who identified with these words, they might have felt like an electric zap. Ouch.
I particularly like the way the Message version puts verse 25:
And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself.
Your self will not satisfy you for long.
And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games.
There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it.
The reality is that life involves both joy and sorrow, comfort and suffering, satisfaction and hunger. In that crowd there were people experiencing all of these things. Among those of you listening right now, there are probably all these different situations and feelings. What are you feeling right now? What do you think the people around you might be feeling right now?
Those of us who are doing well can help those who are not doing well. We can share what we have with those who need it. It’s why we pray for one another, encourage one another with notes and phone calls and visits and hugs and gifts. And why we need to be careful not to get smug about our good fortune, because things can change in an instant, which is good news if you’re in a bad place and need things to change, but not such good news if you’re in a good place and want things to stay that way.
Our reading from Luke sounds similar to the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, but there are some notable differences.
- Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount happens on a mountain, which is why it’s called that, but our reading today in Luke is happening on a level place. This is why this passage is called the Sermon on the Plain. Commentators note the symbolism of this – that everyone is at the same level. By talking about both the blessings and the sorrows in the crowd, Jesus in a sense puts everyone on the same level.
- Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount has 8 beatitudes, 8 blessings, and the Sermon on the Mount has no sorrows. Luke’s Sermon on the Plain has 4 blessings, and 4 sorrows.
Matthew’s beatitudes get more attention than Luke’s blessings and sorrows, and maybe that’s because we don’t like those four sorrows very much. How do they make us feel? We probably prefer the words of the Bible that are comforting and encouraging and that feel like a hug, but some parts make us uncomfortable, maybe even angry. Whenever Jesus’ words make us feel something, we probably ought to stop and pay attention. What exactly are we feeling? Why are we feeling that way? What might that mean? This is one of the ways we wrestle with God. This is one of the ways we grow and change.
When we feel something, we are experiencing that healing power that comes out of Jesus.
There’s a lot of talk going around these days about the idea of “toxic religion.” One of the ways that religion becomes toxic or harmful is when we are told that only happiness and prosperity are blessings from God, or that happiness and prosperity are signs of God’s love. These passages in Luke challenge that idea and turn it upside down. God loves us no matter what we’re feeling. All of our feelings are valid. Having struggles is a normal part of life. Maybe more than anything else, the Bible is the story of all the ways that humans struggle and how God sticks with us through those struggles.
In Psalm 56:8 the psalmist says to God, “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.”
Both blessings and sorrows are a part of life and God knows what we’re going through. Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” God knows when we are in need and God wired us to benefit from contact with one another.
Giving hugs is one of the ways we show God’s love to the people around us. Many churches give hugs in the form of prayer shawls or quilts. There’s a church in Texas that makes little stuffed animals to give to people who are going through a hard time. When we can’t connect with people, studies have found that we can experience similar benefits from things like blankets, pets, and teddy bears.
Teddy bears are not just for kids. The hotel chain Travelodge has had 75,000 bears or stuffed animals left behind in hotel rooms, and knowing how important those can be to their owners, they do their best to track them down and get them returned. In the process, they have asked people about this and found that many adults bring a stuffed animal along as a trusted friend or a reminder of home. They said the toys brought them comfort and helped them sleep better.
There are 97-year-old twin sisters who have spent the last twelve years giving away hundreds of teddy bears. They started when a family in their church had a sick child. They bought a bear and crocheted clothes for the bear. They brought it to church where everyone prayed for the bear and the child. Since then, they have continued to give bears to those who are sick, but now they also give bears to new babies, graduating kindergarteners, and graduating high school seniors. For the graduates, the bear’s clothing is in their school colors. Every single bear is prayed over as the ladies are making its clothing, and also during worship at their church before it is given to the recipient.
What do you think it felt like to touch Jesus? I’ll bet it felt like a hug. Maybe one of the best things about hugs is that no words are required, and yet a hug says so much.
God knows we need each other. God knows we all need hugs.