Sunday, February 12, 2012

Touch Anyway!

This Gospel reading is one that has intrigued me for years. I cannot help but think that, if the church - and yes, i speak of the people of the church, be it an institutional church or a church plant, living-room Bible Study group or Emergent cohort - could ever truly lay hold to what it meant when Jesus touched the leper, then nothing would ever be the same. It may sound hyperbolic, but I wonder if that touch isn't the key to bringing the reality of the Kingdom of God into the here-and-now... not just talking about how nice the Kingdom/Heaven/Eternity will be, but making the freedom, joy, reconciliation and salvation a tangible truth right now.

But I digress. The sermon:


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2 Kings 5:1-14
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman's wife. She said to her mistress, "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, "Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel."
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, "When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy." When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, "Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me."
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, "Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel." So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha's house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean." But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?" So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one.So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

Mark 1:40-45
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean." Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Last week, our Gospel reading left us with Jesus traveling all around Galilee, preaching and casting out demons. One can imagine Jesus and his disciples, walking the hot, dusty roads, every day another town, another synagogue, another small crowd gathered, perhaps near the town’s well or cistern, while Jesus preaches the Good News about the now-and coming Kingdom of God.

Maybe they’re so engrossed in what Jesus is saying, they don’t hear it at first – the dingling bell, the hoarse voice calling out, “unclean, unclean!” But soon enough, there’s a gasp from the back of the group, and the crowd parts – well, recoils, really – to reveal a dirty, disheveled man, dressed in rags, his pleading eyes fixed on Jesus. You can almost hear the voices hissing in revulsion, “leper!”

This man had, of course, heard it all before. He knew what he looked like to the townspeople, and he knew what he represented. No one knows how long he’d been like this – cast out, unclean, a source of some pity, and a lot of horror, condemned to wear rags and warn people of his presence by ringing a bell and shouting “unclean!” But today, he’d had enough. This was the day that something had to change.

You see, when we read a couple of weeks back that Jesus’ fame was spreading throughout Galilee following the casting out of the demon, that wasn’t hyperbole: people had been talking. He’d cast out a demon, they said, and cured a woman of a fever, and a bunch of other people in Capernaum had gotten cured that day, too. Somewhere, this leper had gotten wind of this miracle man, and he had felt a stirring of something he hadn’t felt in years.


So when he heard that Jesus would be in a town near where this leper wandered the wilderness, he set off to meet this man, to see if what they said was true.

I wonder if he had come quietly at first, and had listened for a bit to what Jesus was saying. And I wonder if it was the message of Jubilee – the release of the captives, the freedom of the oppressed, the setting right of things – that gave this man the courage to do something that was absolutely, expressly forbidden: he approached Jesus. He got close. He fell to his knees in the Galilean dirt and said, “If you choose to, you can make me clean.”

That’s an interesting choice of words, isn’t it? “You can make me clean,” not “you can heal me.” What he was asking for was healing, yes, but in fact he was asking for so much more.

Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, still exists today. According to the World Health Organization, over 212,000 cases exist worldwide, though those numbers are dropping.

The disease is not very contagious, is quite curable with multiple-drug therapy, and while no one is sure what exactly causes Hansen’s, experts agree across the board that it is unnecessary to ostracize the infected person.

And lest we think that, since we now know so much more about the disease, there’s no need to ostracize and demonize those who are suffering from Hansen’s disease, it’s important to note that leper colonies still exist in countries like India, Japan, Egypt, Nepal, Somalia, South Korea, Vietnam… and the United States.

Small wonder then that leprosy was feared in Jesus’ time. It not only robbed a person of their health, to one degree or another, but it robbed them of their home, their livelihood, their place in the religious community and the culture, and it ultimately robbed them of their very humanity. Notice how  even Mark doesn’t call this kneeling pile of dirty rags at Jesus’ feet a man, or a person, nor does he give him a name; he is identified only by his disease, a “leper.”

But I said that this man, this human, this person, was looking for more than simply a cure for his disease, didn’t I? Leprosy, you see, was more than just a disease.

For the Jews in Jesus’ day, the discussion of leprosy began with the book of Leviticus, the thirteenth and fourteenth chapters. In the thirteenth chapter you’ll find a very detailed discussion about identifying leprosy. You’ll also see the words “clean” and “unclean” used a lot. The word that has been translated as “leprosy” is “Tzaraath,” and it’s a very generic term that is applied to humans, clothing, and houses. It got translated as “leprosy” about 250 years before Christ when the Hebrew Bible was translated from Hebrew to Greek.

“Tzaraath” comes from the Hebrew word for “smiting,” because – and this is important – in the Jewish understanding of the day, the skin diseases and, well, mildew described in Leviticus were thought to be punishment for sin.

Thus a person with leprosy was not “diseased” as opposed to “healthy,” no. They were “unclean” as opposed to “clean” – meaning that, as a leper, they were unacceptable to the community, untouchable, dirty, sinful, ostracized and prohibited from worship. The leper was required by the Law to mess up his hair, tear his clothing, and live away from friends, family, and was prohibited from taking part in the worship of God. As the children of Israel inhabited the Promised Land, and city populations grew, these people were required to ring bells and cry out “unclean, unclean” wherever they went. They could not be touched, could not come into close contact of any kind with any other – “clean” – human being, until the day they died, or until they were somehow cured.

I have to confess to you that I really, really have a problem with this. I know, yes, it’s in Leviticus, except for the bell-ringing and the yelling “unclean” thing, anyway, and yes, Leviticus is part of the Scriptures, and yes, the Scriptures are the written word of God.

And I guess I should understand, because I remember full well the 1980’s, and the terror over the AIDS epidemic, and not knowing if you could catch AIDS from mosquito bites or bathroom doorknobs or being sneezed on.

Yet it still turns my stomach to think of someone being denied their family, their life, their livelihood, and their hope because of something that might well have been a nasty case of psoriasis, we don’t know, and in any case it wasn’t at all about the lepers being sick – it was about the lepers being the walking, talking, embodiment of sin. Keep them away lest their sin infect you through their speech or through their actions or through the very air. Don’t touch them lest the sin rub off on you. They are no longer humans, they are lepers, and their very existence is an abomination!

And this broken man kneels at Jesus’ feet and says “If you choose to, you can remove this sin from me. You can let me go home to my family. You can let me work for a living again. You can let me go to the synagogue with my people and sing Psalms again.”

There’s something fascinating about what happens next. You see, many ancient manuscripts say what our reading this morning says, that Jesus was “moved with pity.” However, there are a lot of ancient manuscripts that use a very different word, a much more uncomfortable, challenging word: they say that Jesus was not moved to pity, but moved to anger.

Jesus saw this disheveled man, reduced to wearing rags and bells, utterly cut off from all human contact, hated, loathed, and feared by everyone, robbed of his humanity, reduced to groveling in the dirt, and begging not for healing but for forgiveness… and it made Jesus mad!

I wonder what would happen if all of us reacted this way whenever, for example, we hear about the violence against civilians in Homs being carried out by the Syrian government? What would happen if we reacted this way when a bullied teenager resorted to suicide? When a child on the Horn of Africa starved to death, or an American child went to be hungry again? I wonder what would happen if it made us mad in exactly the way that this leper made Jesus mad?

You see, when Jesus got angry, things happened, and they happened fast, they happened for good, and they happened in unexpected, breathtaking ways.

That leper knelt at Jesus’ feet and said, “You can make me clean if you want to,” and Jesus did something shocking. Something horrifying to everyone around him.

Jesus did the one thing that a person in first-century Palestine must never, ever do, no ifs, ands, or buts, no discussion groups about the pros and cons, no opposing views on a split-screen on CNN, no questions, I wish there were a way to convey just how disgusting and gruesome and socially unacceptable this thing was, I mean just do not do this ever: you do NOT touch a leper. Ew! Just, I mean, ugh, DON’T!

Jesus knew all of this. Jesus stretched out his hand. Jesus touched him anyway.

“I do choose. Be made clean!”

I think that I is very possible that, in this day and age, one of the most valuable things the church has forgotten how to do – and yes, I speak of the church as an institution, but I also mean, and I am sorry, but I mean the people in the church as well – we may well have completely forgotten how to touch.

We have the internet, we have FaceBook and Twitter and texting and email and Skype and Oovoo, iPhones with FaceTime – I even have a language translator on my BlackBerry, I can type a phrase and my phone will say it in a dozen or more laguages! We are the most highly connected people in history – but in being plugged in to cyberspace, have we forgotten how to connect with one another on the human level?

Jesus reached out and touched, and it changed everything – not just for the man, who was instantly made whole again, restored to his home, family, livelihood and synagogue, but for Jesus, too…

And I have to wonder – in amongst this person and that person arguing over legislation, between this group or that group promoting a program or a plan or another sure-fire strategy to make Everything Better…

What if we reached out and touched? What if we dared to identify the lepers in our own societies, had the courage to confess the types of people we as individuals consider untouchable, and what if we decided to put all that aside – like Jesus did – and reach out to these groups and individuals with healing and wholeness and reconciliation?

What if we decided to touch anyway?

It might be dangerous. It might be dirty. It might change everything for us in inconvenient ways. Certainly, Jesus (being who he was) knew that as soon as this now-clean man left he was going to completely ignore everything Jesus said about keeping it quiet. He knew that very soon, because of this one touch, the crowds would become too large and too unmanageable and he would have to leave the cities and stay in the countryside. He knew that this touch would change everything in inconvenient ways… but Jesus touched anyway.

Because the imperative to live the reality of the now-and-coming Kingdom, setting free the captive, releasing the oppressed, bringing Good News to the poor… that was most important to Jesus. That was the whole point.

And lest we forget, for we who are the body of Christ, that is the whole point for us, too.

So touch anyway.

Almighty God,
Jesus touched the leper. He reached out to the least, the forgotten, the marginalized, the “less than.” Help us to accept the challenge to reach out, to touch, those in our own world who are “less than.” Help us “touch anyway.”
In the name of that Jesus who touched the leper, and who died and rose so that we who are “less than” can be loved and accepted and brought into loving relationship with our loving and eternal God, in the name of Jesus who taught us to pray, saying…


  1. Thank you. My daughter 'came out' a couple years ago, and subsequently I 'came out' as a gay rights supporter. Having spent the last 20 years in a fundamentalist church, I discovered for the first time what it felt like to be an 'outsider'. I'm thankful for that. And I'm thankful for this 'church'...even it's only cyber, because it's where I go on Sundays now.

    1. You cannot imagine how honored I am by your words. I hope that you can find a real-life church body that will love and accept you and your daughter as the beloved children of God that you are.