You have all, no doubt, seen a picture of the most famous touch in the history of art. On the ceiling of the Sistine chapel Michelangelo depicted the creation of Adam. The figure of Adam is lying languidly with his hand outstretched looking like he is chilling out. God the Creator is riding a whirlwind full of passion and energy and stretches out his hand to bestow the spark of life on human creation. Boom. It is the touch that gives life. The news of late and the MeToo movement confronts us with a reminder of how devastating inappropriate touch can be but that should not obscure the beauty of human touch. What is more tender than a mother touching the cheek of her new born child for the first time! What is more head-in-the-clouds happy than a young couple walking hand in hand in their blossoming relationship! What is more poignant that a child reaching up to caress the wrinkled face of her grandfather! All of which helps us to understand the action of Jesus toward the leper in St. Mark’s gospel — “he stretched out his hand and touched him.” When Jesus touched him he bridged a gap. The touch affirmed that the leper belonged, was connected with the rest of humanity. By that touch, Jesus overcame all those divisions that separate us from one another. No wonder the leper disobeyed Jesus’ command to be silent and instead spread the word far and wide. You can imagine him saying, “He touched me. Oh, he touched me and, Oh, the joy that floods my soul. Something happened and now I know, He touched me and made me whole.” The touch of God comes not as a lightning bolt from the blue or like some magician’s magic wand going abracadabra. No, the touch of God is a pity-filled touch, an authentic touch, a compassionate touch, a human touch. The healing occurs when one human being touches another.
Church, we are here today because each of us has been touched by Christ in some way. And we are called to pass on that holy and healing touch to others. For this reason, St. James desires to imitate Jesus and become church that touches, a “hands-on” church. We’re hands-on in making sure that everyone feels welcome. We’re hands on in keeping connected with those who can’t make it to Mass any more due to age or infirmity. We’re hands-on in reaching out to our neighbors in need. We’re a hands-on Church in keeping those who are sick or who are grieving in our circle of our care and compassion. We’re hands on in dealing with matters of justice in an increasingly polarized society. We’re hands on in taking personal responsibility for the future of our community. I suspect that it was the example of the ancestors, of those who have preceded us in the faith, that formed us as a hands-on Church. When the Great Migration was bringing black folk from the South into Chicago St. James became a place which reached out and touched those looking for a Church home. When the days of the troubles were dividing the city, St. James touched everyone with a spirit of reconciliation, a secure oasis. When the sociologists name Sunday morning the most segregated hour in a segregated city, St. James touched all who came through our doors with warmth and welcome. We are a hands-on Church because it is in our bones, in our genes. The African-American heritage of St. James, and of the Catholic Church in general, is not a historical factoid, an interesting artifact from the past. No, our heritage demonstrated that touching, that being a hands-on Church transforms a group of diverse backgrounds into the one body of Christ. St. Paul told the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me.” Our ancestors tell us, Be imitators of us in reaching out and touching all those woven into your orbit. One saying that is part of the heritage of this church continues to guide us today: I am because we are and we are because I am.
Of course, the point of being Church is not limited to our time spent between these four walls. We are church so that we are, our homes, our workplaces, our schools, our playgrounds, will be touched with the divine presence. In a few minutes we will profess that Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God. But if you think about it, he wasn’t just the Son of God when he was working miracles and preaching sermons. He was the Son of God all the time – when he was eating and drinking, when he was brushing his teeth, when he was hanging out with his friends having a glass of wine on a Saturday night. Because Jesus touched these seemingly human things, they have been transformed into divine things. You’ve all heard the story of King Midas. His touch had the ability to transform ordinary objects into gold. Church, we don’t have the Midas touch, we have the Jesus touch. And what we touch is not transformed into gold but into something infinitely better. The touch we possess as the body of Christ transforms the seemingly mundane and ordinary stuff of life into grace-filled and heaven-sent blessings. When we eat and drink we are touching a divine gift and so we use our food and imbibing as a foretaste and promise of the heavenly banquet. When we grasp the hand of a friend we are touching someone precious in the eyes of God so we treat them with reverence. When we reach out and touch someone in need we understand that whatever we do to the least of the brothers and sisters, we are doing to Christ. The end result of being a hands on Church is that one day, we all will be able to say together: He touched me, oh, he touched me and Oh what joy has filled my soul. Something happened and now I know, he touched me and made me whole.