Stretch Out My Hand?

Rev. Seth Patterson

June 2, 2024

Scripture: Mark 3:1–6

The man had a beautiful singing voice. A rich baritone singing We Shall Overcome in the weirdly quiet Chicago night. He was standing tall, eyes closed, amid a hundred or so people laying on the ground at the intersection of University Avenue and 55th Street in the Hyde Park neighborhood. This was the culmination of a march in protest of the police killing of Michael Brown in August 2014. The organizer asked everyone to lie down in the street for 4+ minutes of silence to mark the 4+ hours that Mr. Brown’s body was left in the street. Once everyone was on the ground the man decided to sing. After a verse, the organizer said “this isn’t what we are doing right now. We are holding silence.” He looked embarrassed and chided, then she stretched out her hand. He paused, received her hand, and joined the silence.

A stretched-out hand is a gift and an embodied question. To stretch out a hand is an attempt to close the space between, to knit together, to break through an imagined barrier. It is an invitation, but an invitation that needs to be accepted.

Last summer we brought a new puppy into our home. On the day that the foster person dropped him off and left, he immediately snuck out and hid under a parked car. I got down on my belly to see him. He was so small, he was so scared. I stretched out my hand. He yelped and cowered even farther away. The invitation was not safe. The attempt to close space and bring together was a cause of fear and not comfort.

Our world is a powerful place full of love and abuse. We live with the paradoxical reality that for every moment of beauty, there is ugliness. For every act of hate, there is also kindness. There is a question mark in every outstretched hand, and we get to decide whether we will cross that space and make connection.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (a contemporary of MLK in mid-20th century America) names this tension when speaking of two significant spiritual teachers. He says: “I was taught about inexhaustible mines of meaning…[and] I learned to detect immense mountains of absurdity standing in the way. The one taught me song, the other—silence. The one reminded me that there could be a Heaven on earth, the other shocked me into discovering Hell in the alleged Heavenly places in our world.”[1] Theologian Matthew Fox calls Hechel’s description the “polarity we all feel between the joy of living and the pain of living.”[2] We all live in that polarity, that tension, that simultaneous truth. We all hold lament and joy in our own bodies. This sanctuary can hold both memorials and baptisms, prayers of loss and hope, music that pulls us to dance or tears. We can enthusiastically welcome new members and hold contemplative silence. Together we hold the joy of living and the pain of living simultaneously. We are each an outstretched hand that can offer healing or hurt.

I invite you now into an exercise together. This is an invitation, not an obligation, and still, I hope you are willing to try something together.

Please partner with one or more people next to you and place your hands near each other’s without touching. If you are sitting alone—or see someone sitting alone—please join with someone else. You can either place your hands on the seats near each other or if you are up for it, hold your palm up towards the other. Again, not touching but near enough that it would take little effort to connect. Keep them this way for the reading of our scripture and then you can rest if you wish. Or, if you are up for it, keep your hand near the other as long as you feel comfortable doing so, holding awareness of that space between you. We will come back to this.

Our scripture today comes from Mark’s Gospel. May we take a deep breath together as we open our hearts to the words of our spiritual ancestors.

Jesus then entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. The Pharisees were still watching him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. So Jesus said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” They were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

A little bit of context about this passage. Mark is the oldest of the 4 canonized Gospels and is generally focused on Jesus’s miraculous deeds and the ways that he upended traditional religious and societal expectations. This passage is early in the story of Jesus’s ministry and is part of a series of stories in which Jesus did the opposite of what was expected, like eating with tax collectors and those who were seen as sinful. The Pharisees were a consistent foil to Jesus’s message, acting as a stand-in for the cultural mores that Jesus was pushing against.

This story today is a great example of contrasting narratives. Jesus asking if the Sabbath laws should stop him from helping a suffering person and becoming angry at the hard hearts of silence. [Sidenote: This is likely a moment when the Pharisees were portrayed out of character to prove a narrative point. All evidence of Judaism at the time indicates that it was generally understood that the laws of sabbath could be suspended to help another.]

We are all caught in the web of written and unwritten rules about how to engage in our world. Those rules, many of which are in place to keep us safe and communal, may make us not stretch out our hands or reject outstretched hands towards us. When our daughter was born by emergency C-section her condition was immediately poor. The medical team moved like a scrum through the operating room with her tiny, silent body in the center, unintelligible low voices hummed caution. When she finally began to cry out, they set her on a table, and I went there to see her. No one said anything to me so I wasn’t sure if I could touch her or hold her or what. I stared at this tiny new life not knowing what the rules were about my engagement. Then she stretched out her little hand and I ignored the potential rules and reached for her.

Stretch out your hands and restoration is possible. Stretch out your hands and healing is possible. Stretch out your hands knowing that ours is a life of joy and of pain.

Please bring your attention back to your neighbor’s hands once again. Look at your hands—or more specifically the space between them. That small gap that may seem empty but also so full of possibility. The space is in one way insignificant. All you would need to do to fill that space is to stretch out your hand.

That space is also infinite. The Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea presented what he called the Achilles Paradox which contends that every space is infinite. The distance between your hands can be infinitely subdivided, always moving closer and never connecting because there will always be half the distance left to cross. From inches to fractions to nanometers to half nanometer to quarter nanometer and so on. The distance always halving and never connecting.

So, what if, in this infinite space between us is the infinity of God. If we can believe that God is everywhere, if we can believe that God is not a remote, disconnected presence, if we can believe that God is within us, surrounding us and in between us, then God is entirely present in that space between your hands. God fills the spaces between us and all other living things. God is the connective tissue of the interconnected web of life. God is the stretch of the hand through that infinite space.

With consent, go ahead and touch the hand of your partner. Push into that infinite God space and make connection. Stretch out and receive that invitation. Stretch out your hand and find the possibility of restoration, of healing.

How can you stretch out your hand in this one life you are living? How can you receive the invitation of the outstretched hands of others? This is an especially apt question today as we welcome new members. How will we be changed by you and you by us?

How do we continue to stretch out our hands knowing that we are each participants in the joy and the pain of living? Knowing that many of our written and unwritten rules try to tell us when it is acceptable or not to be connected? What does it mean to us that the narrative of Jesus contains this moment of pushing through the rules of the Sabbath and finding a stretched-out hand seeking restoration? How can you participate in the healing and restoration of the people around you?

Sometimes an outstretched hand can make you cower in fear and sometimes it can help you join a moment of meaning and significance. Such is life. And God is present in all of it, within us, surrounding us and holding those spaces between us. Stretch out your hand and join the presence of God in those infinite connecting spaces between us and participate in the possibility of restoration and healing. May we make it so together.

[1]Meister Eckhart: A Mystic Warrior for Our Times. Matthew Fox. Page 3.

[2]Ibid.

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