“Christianity is not a Non-Contact Sport”
2 Timothy 1:1-14
October 3, 2004
Dr. Jimmy R. Watson, St. Mark UCC
In late December 1974, a few days before my 15th birthday, I wrecked my motorcycle while riding on a dirt trail behind the old depot in my hometown. I almost died. My ruptured right kidney was removed a week later. I spent a month in the hospital and the rest of the school year out of athletics and P. E. class. When I asked my doctor what kind of sports I could and couldn’t play he told me I could never again participate in contact sports. He said, “Jimmy, there are basically three things you can’t do: play football, ride bulls, and chase girls.” So I gave up football, which I didn’t mind because at 120 lbs. I wasn’t exactly the starting linebacker. I never rode bulls so that wasn’t going to be a problem. And, of course, I didn’t have to chase the girls because they were chasing me! Just kidding. On the other hand, I did continue to participate in “non-contact” sports like baseball and basketball.
Let me ask you a rhetorical question: If Christianity were a sport, would it be a contact sport, or a non-contact sport? I bet you’ve never heard that question asked before. The thesis of my sermon this morning is that Christianity is, or should be, like a contact sport rather than like a non-contact sport. By saying this I don’t mean there should be any hitting. I’ve seen people almost come to blows in committee meetings over some trivial disagreement. That’s not the kind of contact I’m talking about. One year my church softball team actually engaged in a bench-clearing brawl against the Presbyterians. (Personally, I preferred to fight the Mormons or Baptists, but no one asked me.)
Despite the occasional flare up of ecclesiastical violence, I do believe Christianity should be like a contact sport. My inspiration for this (admittedly) very strange concept came from my reading of 2 Timothy 1:6: “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.” Apparently, the author of this letter, whether Paul or someone else, wanted to remind Timothy of a special moment of contact between them (probably the conferring of a blessing). As you know, the practice of “laying on of hands” has always been an important part of the Christian experience. The gesture of placing one’s hands on another person’s head has signified such things as a blessing, healing, transmission of the power of the Holy Spirit, ordination to a church ministry, and even the exorcism of demonic powers.
I’ve never been fortunate enough to have my demons exorcised, but I have experienced the laying on of hands for ordained ministry. To have others who had “been there, done that” place their hands on me and pray for me was a very powerful memorable event in my life. I truly believe that I received, as the writer of 2 Timothy says, “a spirit of power and love and self-control.” I received the power to survive one of the most stressful vocations there is, the ability to love even the unlovable, and the self-control and self-discipline to continue to study and grow as a minister of the Gospel. To echo George Bush from the debate Thursday night, “This is hard work.” And I couldn’t do it if I didn’t have the human contact I have received over the years: the laying on of hands for my ordination, the hugs, and the handshakes. Beyond the physical contact there has been the verbal “laying on of hands”: the words of encouragement, the supportive cards and letters, and the prayers offered on my behalf.
To me, Christianity is at its best when it is like a contact sport, when people feel connected to one another. And yet, we now live in a day and time when physical contact between people in a church setting and society in general has become risky business. Just ask the Catholic Church! The recent scandals of sexual abuse by priests (and yes, Protestant ministers) have redefined what is appropriate and what is not appropriate in a faith setting. Because of our awareness of this abuse, every few years UCC clergy are required to attend what we call “boundary training” to help us understand what is appropriate physical and verbal contact and what is not. For this and other reasons, Christianity is becoming more and more like a non-contact sport.
Of course, it’s not just clergy who need to be careful about inappropriate contact. Years ago while I was in college I went with a friend to a non-denominational church. As soon as I walked into the sanctuary a very beautiful older woman greeted me at the door and planted a big kiss on my lips. Startled, I asked, “Why did you do that?” She answered, “The Bible says, ‘Greet everyone with a holy kiss.’” (I wondered later how many other people she had kissed before me, and whether I needed to get a checkup.)
So, yes, Christianity has become more akin to a non-contact sport, partly because of inappropriate behavior in the church and subsequent lawsuits. In some ways, however, the church is simply reflecting what is going on in the larger culture. We live in a non-contact culture. Not only have we created a “hands-off” atmosphere at church, we have done so as well in our schools and workplaces. Our new awareness of sexual harassment has inadvertently led to a non-contact culture.
This is not the case in other cultures around the world. Among the Arabs, Latin Americans, and Southern Europeans, for example, physical contact is still accepted and encouraged. I’ll never forget my visit to Israel in the summer of 1988, observing Palestinian men—old and young alike—walking down the sidewalk holding hands with one another. In these more physically demonstrative cultures, there is more backslapping, cheek kissing, bear hugging and hand holding, whereas our culture prefers a “hands-off” non-contact approach. Consider this: The United States is one of the few countries in the world where massages are not covered by health insurance. (I may have found an issue about which I can get passionate!)
So what does all this mean for the church? I believe it means there is an important ministry of the church in danger of being relegated to the sidelines (to use another sports analogy). The ministry of human contact is not just about an occasional bear hug or “holy kiss.” In a larger sense, to say that Christianity is like a contact sport is to suggest that our focus should be on relationships rather than a focus on the individual.
This includes, of course, the relationships among church members, the relationships between a church and its surrounding community, and the covenantal relationship between sister churches through associations, conferences, and the national body.
The covenantal relationship we have in the United Church of Christ between the churches, associations, conferences, and national body, is necessary because we don’t have very much physical contact between us. Rather than give a hug or a handshake, most of the time our contact with other folks in the UCC is through our covenant—a covenant to be in a supportive relationship with one another. Our covenant is the “contact mechanism” between our churches. It’s not every day we have someone representing the Indiana-Kentucky Conference in our physical presence (like we do today). It’s not every day that the churches in the Wabash Valley Association get to join together in worship and business, like we do today. But every day we get to be in covenant with all those who belong to the United Church of Christ, even if our only contact with one another is through prayer.
Today, we have a unique opportunity to be in contact with other Christians outside of our denominational walls through the celebration of World Communion. World Communion, celebrated on the first Sunday of every October, helps us make contact with the larger body of Christ. We might call this a “symbolic” contact with other Christians, but with a little imagination this symbolic contact can be very meaningful.
As you partake of the elements of bread and wine this morning, imagine that you are laying your hands on the head of a young man from Puerto Rico who has decided to join the ministry. Imagine that you are hugging a mother who lost a child in the school massacre in Russia. Imagine that you are holding hands with a young Palestinian Christian who is caught between the warring ideologies of her people and the Israelis. Imagine that you are shaking hands with an Iraqi man who has decided to join the effort to bring peace to his land. Imagine that you are huddling with those who fear for their lives in the Sudan. And imagine that you are putting your arms around a family in Florida that has recently lost their home to a hurricane. To be Christian means to be in contact with others, to be connected, and to be in support of all God’s children. Just like the “contact mechanism” of a covenantal relationship in the UCC, our celebration of World Communion is a wonderful “contact mechanism” for the worldwide fellowship of Christ.