Sometimes When We Touch

A poorly thought out email from a health benefits provider. Judas rebuking Mary for her extravagant gift. Both are missing the point.

Sometimes When We Touch
Photo by Oswald Elsaboath on Unsplash
This post was originally presented as a sermon to the congregation of East End United Regional Ministry on Sunday, March 17, 2024. The focus text is John 12:1-8. Like all sermons, these words were intended to be spoken — an audio first experience.

I’ve been an Ordered Minister with the United Church of Canada since May 2021.  However, I generally consider my "paid, accountable ministry" start date to be January 2017. That is when I began working for the United Church in a community ministry setting. It’s also when I started contributing to the pension and benefits plan.  At the time, my husband was a New Media Consultant with his own business and I had been studying, mothering, songwritering, and doing piece contracts here and there. Having access to health benefits was a really big deal for my family.

In October of 2018, thousands of people across the country—anybody across the country whose plan was managed by GreenShield—opened an email from the health insurance provider.  

It was a blog post called “The Elephant in the Waiting Room”.  We were told in the email how many amazing strides pharmaceutical companies had made to help Hepatitis C patients and develop cancer drugs.  However, those drugs are very expensive.  Very, very, very expensive.  And so, Greenshield suggested that there could (should?) be a time in the near future when massage therapy—often the largest health insurance output for employers—be taken off of private insurance plans in order to redistribute funds to cover the pharmaceuticals. Greenshield attempted to shame us into what they felt was a necessary change in priorities.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of folks were absolutely outraged about the threat of losing their massage therapy benefits.  There were letters. There were Twitter wars.  Professional organizations representing Massage Therapists started rallying their people.  

The United Church of Canada's General Council Office fielded so many calls it was compelled to release a communication assuring ministers and staff that although Greenshield manages the benefits program on the United Church of Canada’s behalf, they do not have final say in what is included in our plan and that there were no intention to take massage therapy away as a covered expense.

Personally, I was most outraged by this phrase:

“Now, if you were asked to give up your coverage for massages so that Becky could get the drugs she needs for her daughter so she can stay alive, would you? 
YES or NO”
Listen to this post in podcast format on Sermons from the East End.

Underneath this text is an illustration of a cute little girl.  If you clicked yes, she smiled.  If you clicked no, her face went grey and she looked, well, dead.  She died and it was your 2:00pm massage appointment that killed her—a massage that, according to Greenshield, had no more therapeutic benefit than simply, “a really good nap."

I told this story to my husband, now also a United Church minister. His response was, “Wait, is this a real story? Somebody approved that piece of communication.”

Yes. Yes, they did.

What does this have to do with Jesus?

In our Gospel reading today, we have Jesus visiting and eating with his friends, Lazarus, Martha and Mary.  Mary takes out some very expensive perfume and spreads it over Jesus’ feet.  Judas takes exception. “What extravagant waste! What a prodigal use of resources!  This ointment should have been sold!  We could have given the money to the poor! You hypocritical woman!”  

But Jesus is having none of that and comes to Mary’s defence:  “Judas, you will always have the poor with you. But you will not always have me.”

I have heard these words used, like so many of us have,  to justify many lamentable positions and actions taken against the poor and society.  “Why try to create a stronger social safety net if there are always going to be poor anyway?  There will always be poor people.  Jesus said so himself.”

But that is not really what Jesus is saying here.  Jesus is quoting, as Jesus often does, a piece of scripture from the Book of Deuteronomy. It's a passage that would have been recognizable by all those present at the table.  I won’t read you the whole passage, but the gist of it is this:

Yes, there will always be the poor. There will always be poor people around those who have closed off their hearts to the poor.  There will always be poor people around wealthy people who will not share their resources.  

So, what Jesus is saying is yes, “You, Judas, will always have the poor around you.  Because your heart is closed and your soul is cold to their plight.”  In the Johannine account, Judas doesn’t really care about the poor. John quite clearly states that he is a thief. Judas is trying to deflect, to make the issue something that it is not.

So, why do I bring Judas up alongside misguided health insurance providers?  Well, because it seems as if they were both using the same tactics.  In the same way that Judas tried to make Mary feel guilty about wasting resources when there were so many people in need, Green Shield’s newsletter seemed to be placing the blame and ownership for lack of access to astronomically expensive life saving medication on people who were accessing massage services, completely dismissing the treatment and preventative benefits of massage, while also shifting the responsibility for access to resources away from pharmaceutical companies.  If Becky’s little girl cannot access her life-saving medication, it’s because you...or I...want “a nap”, not because those providing the medication are being exploitive.  It is dishonest...and it is a deflection from a greater ailment which is being swept under the rug.

Naming the benefits of touch

When GreenShield came after massage therapy, there was outrage about it being classified as simply an indulgent relaxation technique.  Users pointed out that they used massage therapy treatment for intense chronic pain, to increase range of motion, to function without needing to take highly addictive opioids.  I use massage therapy for a chronic spine condition and to prevent debilitating migraine headaches.  

However…even if massage therapy was simply a way to relax, to rest, to take a break, to feel some...relief from the day to day...I would be okay with that…while also acknowledging the incredible privilege it is to have complimentary health benefits.  

There are so many academic studies and generations of inherited wisdom that demonstrate the benefits...the necessity really...of human touch...the flesh on flesh interaction that our society has completely sexualized and by extension made taboo.  Massage is a sensual experience, and that sensory input...that human is healing.  I do not think it was by any coincidence that Greenshield chose massage to target.  Their people are smart people, and those smart people know how far we have dismissed and downplayed the necessity of human touch for health and well being.  

For years, Plan Members have been offered a health and wellness program that incorporates podcasts and videos about sleep hygiene. Telephone access to counsellors if experiencing crisis. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that is not facilitated by a human being, but rather a series of videos and AI bots.

But the idea that being therapeutically touched by another person is itself healing and healthful, that’s not something our society often lifts up.

"You are here."

On the roadmap of our Lenten Journey, it is one day before Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem.  Lazarus has just been raised from the dead.  It is six days before the crucifixion.  Both Martha and Mary are serving Jesus.  Martha is serving food.  Mary’s service is in anointing.  The smell of the nard would have been completely can imagine smashing an entire bottle of perfume to the floor.  Mary is anointing Jesus for his burial.  The scent of the nard would have clung to Jesus.  Perhaps he may have even still been able to smell it on the cross. Mary understands where this is all heading, in a way that the 12 disciples do not.  Mary anoints him for burial as a King may be anointed.  

And so we have Mary, who truly sees Jesus for who he is, and what is going to happen.  She pours the oil on his feet.  She lets her hair down.  And she wipes away the extravagant gift in an extravagantly sensual way...her hair, perhaps intermingled with her tears...her body as a comfort and a blessing.  Her own choice and agency are on display here.  

Make no mistake...this would have been a completely scandalous act!  Jewish women did not let their hair down in public, nor did they touch men who were not their husband.  But she does it of her own agency.  Of her own volition.  Her presence and touch an act of sensuous care and compassion.  

Our bodies are amazing

Have any of you here read Harry Potter? There is a moment in the last book of the series (spoiler alerts coming), when Harry understands that he needs to be killed by Voldemort. Neither can live while the other survives. And the moment of death is coming soon. He becomes hyper aware of his body’s function and sensation.  He wonders how many more beats his heart has left.  He feels the breeze upon his skin.  Marvels at the sense of his feet on the ground.  The movement of his hands.  But he knows it will all be over soon, and laments that he never truly understood what a marvel his body was.

Jesus knows what lies ahead.  Mary does too.  He knows his days are numbered.  So I wonder if, like a literary hero created 2000 years after his time, Jesus’ senses would have been even more heightened:  The taste of the food Martha prepared.  The overwhelming smell of the rare perfume.  The sounds of the grumbling.  The sight of so many friends gathered - an unexpected living wake.  

And then the touch, the caress, of Mary’s hands.  The softness of her hair.  Perhaps her cheek passed across his heel. The flesh upon flesh reminder of Jesus’ very human and very fragile body.  A body that will soon be shattered, shred and broken.  Perhaps Jesus took his cue from Mary - this is my body, given for you, and it has already been anointed.

Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

Over the past five weeks, we have made our way towards Jerusalem, and Gethsemane.  We have been exploring Journeys of Change.  We have been preparing for a burial.  And in this preparation, I believe this week, I would like to think about changing priorities.  And often, the ways in which priorities can shift is in naming the hypocrisy around us.  

The hypocrisy seen in using the poor for personal gain, as Judas did in Lazarus’ home.  

The hypocrisy of placing the burden and responsibility for whether children live or die on ordinary workers simply doing the best they can to take care of themselves and their families.  

The hypocrisy when I deflect blame and responsibility in areas of my own life which need tending to.  Making excuses to hold back from giving more of myself - not in a self deprecating or self depleting kind of way, but ways in which the world, perhaps may not understand.  The ways in which I am most needed.

Shifting away from that hypocrisy, and leaning into cultivating…a lavish love.  Completely, unexplainable, unjustifiable lavish love, for those around me.  A love where, perhaps, even my body is on the line as well.  It’s terrifying.   What does that kind of intimate, personal, sensuous healing love look like?

But Mary knew.  She knew.  In a moment, you will hear a song called “These Bodies”, performed by my buddies, The Many.  As you listen, I invite you to think about Jesus’ invitation to change our priorities, change from priorities that benefit the few towards prioritizing love…a love that is for all…and where our bodies and senses might also be vessels of this lavish love.