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by Mike Kinman, Rector of All Saints Church, Pasadena

“During supper Jesus… got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.”

Touch has power.

Touch has the power of life.

Touch has the power of death.

We crave touch.

We fear touch.

Touch can be pleasure.

Touch can be pain.

Touch can be liberation, setting our hearts to dancing.

Touch can be violation, sending our hearts fleeing deep into caves fearful ever to emerge.

Touch can heal.

Touch can kill.

A baby who isn’t touched, who isn’t nuzzled, held, caressed enough will stop growing and, even though she is given proper nutrition, die. Our earliest experiences of nurturing touch teach our brains to connect human contact with pleasure. The seeds of touch, planted lovingly in us, flower into deep empathy for one another, that feeling of connection. That though we are separate we are not alone. That what we feel, others share. That what others feel, we share.

Touch can teach us safety. Touch can teach us trust.

And yet…

Touch can also teach us how unsafe, how untrustworthy our world can be.

Unwelcome touch. Touch that takes and never gives. Touch that tries to silence, to rob us of agency over our own bodies.

Touch that commodifies us, dehumanizes us. Touch that lashes out at us, hurting instead of healing.

Touch that we recoil from, touch that we try to hide from but which always seems to hunt us down and find us and sweetly tell us that it will be all right even though something deep inside us tells us this is not right at all.

Touch that is followed by “don’t tell anyone.”

That touch teaches us, too. Teaches us lessons that can take a lifetime or more to unlearn.

Touch can teach us fear. Touch can teach us unworthiness.

Touch has power.

Touch has the power of life.

Touch has the power of death.

This night in the church is different from all other nights. Not just because we are entering the Triduum, the great three days that will take us from the table to the garden to the cross to the tomb and finally to the stone rolled away on Easter morning.

This night is different from all other nights because this night Jesus invites us to touch and to be touched.

This night is different from all other nights because we don’t just hear the story, we are invited to be the story for one another. And it is a story about touch.

“During supper Jesus… got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.”

This is a story about touch. Powerful touch. Intimate touch.

There’s something about the feet. They’re intimate and private. I really don’t know why it is. Washing feet is about letting our guards down and letting each other into our lives in an intimate way. It is literally putting ourselves, the weight of our lives, in each others’ hands.

That’s why Jesus said to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” It’s not about washing feet. It’s the power of intimate touch. It’s about saying “Unless you let your guard down, let go of your fear, let go of everything and let me in, you can’t fully experience who I am and what I bring.”

It is beautiful. But it can also be scary. Because for many of us, touch has not always been beautiful. Touch has not always been safe.

Washing one another’s feet is powerful, deep, intimate touch. And because it is the touch of Jesus, it is safe touch. It is holy touch. But we come to this night with all our other experiences of touch.

With our hungers for touch.

With our fears of touch.

With our dreams of touch that can be liberation. With our memories of touch that ¬has been violation.

We come to this night of touch bearing the weight of all the touch we have ever had and all the touch we have ever been denied. And we are invited to bring all of that before God, before Christ and before each other. We are invited to place ourselves in each other’s hands and in Jesus’ hands and to believe that touch can be about safety, that touch can be about healing, that touch can be about a passionate, healing, beautiful safe love for each of us, for all of us and through us for our world.

We come to this night of touch bearing the weight of all the touch we have ever had and all the touch we have ever been denied. And Jesus knows that. And that’s why Jesus never forces touch on us. The choice to receive is always our own. It is our choice to say yes … or no… or not now … or not yet … or maybe later.

The choice to receive touch is always our own.

And that is especially important to say in the church, because throughout the centuries we as the church have far too often not been a place of safe touch, but precisely the opposite We have sheltered and excused abusers – denying abuser and victim alike the healing power of confession, reparation, reconciliation and absolution. We have given a theological foundation to rape and enslavement cultures that particularly treat the bodies of women and people of color as objects to be used instead of images of God to be honored. We have silenced those who have tried to speak their truths about touch that wounded and in so doing have blasphemed the name of Jesus, the name of the one whose touch should only bring healing and safety and love.

And then we invite people into this space, into this night of intimate touch and we say – trust us. And, make no mistake, we need to be that place of trust. We need to be that place where touch is always only about God’s safe love in Jesus. But trust must be earned. And so especially after centuries of complicity in abuse, if we are truly to become God’s beloved community, we as the church must earn trust with our absolute commitment to a culture of consent. That the choice to allow ourselves to be touched is always our own.

In a few moments, we will invite one another into a place of powerful, intimate touch … the washing of one another’s feet. We invite one another into this space as a sign of the deep, powerful, intimate servant love we are called to have for one another, as a sign of the deep, powerful, intimate love Christ has for us. We invite one another into this space of powerful intimate touch so that we can experience the love of Christ.

And … the choice is yours. The choice is always yours.

Touch is life. And the church should be a place of God’s safe, powerful, intimate, holy touch. Touch that gives life. Touch that is liberation, setting our hearts to dancing. Touch that heals the wounds that the touch of violation has left throughout the years. The church should be a place of safe, powerful, intimate, holy, healing touch, but the choice to allow someone to touch you is always yours. The choice to allow someone to touch you must always be yours.

It’s why at the peace or at the church door or anywhere else, the fact that I might be “a hugger” doesn’t mean that I get to hug you. I am never entitled to any part of your body. It means I can offer in love, and the choice is yours to receive or not without judgment or sanction. The choice over allowing someone to touch your body is always yours. And the choice over allowing you to touch my body is always mine. Because even though my intent might be to show love, the touch I offer in love might feel like an attack. The touch I offer in safety might feel incredibly unsafe to you. Your body is a precious, holy, divine gift that deserves to be treated with love, honor and dignity and we do that to each other by following Jesus’ example and respecting each other’s authority and agency over our own bodies.

We do that by creating and maintaining a culture of holy consent when it comes to touch.

The choice to be touched must always be yours.

This night is different from all other nights because this night Jesus invites us to touch and to be touched. My prayer for us this night is that Christ will indeed touch us, each of us and all of us – recognizing that for some of us that will be through the act of putting our feet in one another’s hands and our hands on one another’s feet and experiencing the powerful, intimate holy servant’s touch of this night. Recognizing that for some of us that will be through the act of claiming our God-given agency over our own bodies and choosing not to be touched or allowing ourselves to be touched in a different way, a hug, a handshake, a shared gaze and a loving smile. Recognizing that for some of us, Christ touching us will be claiming that power over our own bodies and experiencing the love of Christ that tells us that we are indeed powerful and holy and worthy to choose when to be touched and even not to be touched at all.

Because the love of Jesus is always God’s safe love. The love of Jesus is never the touch of violation. The love of Jesus always honors that the choice to be touched is yours.

Amen.

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