|Mark 1:40-45; 2 Kings 5:1-19
Getting in Touch
Mark 1:40-45; 2 Kings 5:1-19
Seth E. Weeldreyer
February 12, 2012 – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
"With healing balm my soul is filled." "I touch a distant hand and feel its glow; the hand I hoped was there; at last I know." "… if you'll take my hand, we'll walk together toward the land of freedom" that is life we share in the fullness of God's peace.
We give and receive a healing touch among family, friends, and strangers. It works for youth and adults of all ages much the same way we see it so clearly when children are young. Seems like yesterday … I'd be at the stove making dinner, at the computer sending a message, playing Lego in the playroom, or talking on the phone when a cry arose, like a siren getting ever closer. I'd reach out my arms and move my hand gently over her arm or his back, wherever it is they point. It increased my respect for doctors! As so often amid blubbering tears I couldn’t really tell what’s wrong. Rarely any blood, sometimes a scrape or scratch … usually it’s of matter of what’s under the skin that’s more wounded. Blessedly for me the remedy was also usually quite simple. After a hug and kiss, a little comfort, he’s off with his sister and brother, joining in the fun again.
That’s why the leper knelt before Jesus—so he could join in fun and fullness of life again. We don’t really know what leprosy was in the ancient world. The term could mean many different skin diseases, even mold or mildew that spread from skin to clothes and through houses. Long ago hooded cloaks and masks hid disfigurement. Blessedly, now we have so many remedies for these diseases before deformities set in. Mark doesn’t detail the disease itself or the physical effects. You see, for Jesus what really matters is how it gets under the leper’s skin to affect his mind and heart. Priests declared him unclean, unwelcome in worship or human relationships, unacceptable by the mass of society. As people heard Mark tell the story, they would have understood: whatever pain and discomfort the man felt, he really suffered from being ostracized, judged and rejected – all fun and fullness of life taken away. They would have understood: the emotional consequences hurt far more than anything physical.
I daresay we know how it feels … when a couple is so filled with love inside. They so long to create and nurture life of a little child to hold in their arms, and yet what really gets under their skin is that they’re not able to join in the fun and the fullness of life.
We know how it feels … when a little girl goes to play with the neighbor friend. And whatever the scrapes and bumps and bruises, what really gets under her skin—what's on her mind and heart when she comes home—is all the talk about the devil and how he’s coming to get her … all the fear that takes away any fun and fullness of life she might have had.
How it feels … when a beloved relationship breaks out with lesions of mistrust, insensitivity, infidelity, and then breaks up completely. Beyond physical affects what really gets under the skin is the insecurity and loneliness, the self-questioning and longing for companionship so poignant at times like Christmas and Valentine’s Day when fun and fullness of life is missing.
How it feels … when we hear the news of Whitney Houston's death and other details of her star-studded and troubled life, and we know similar struggles linger beneath the skin and sound of perfection in everyone one of us, really—as youth and adults hearing the messages of society, facing our own insecurities.
How it feels … not quite leprosy, but to have cancer, or heart disease, or AIDS, or even other ailments for so many people not exactly life threatening but still debilitating and despairing as what really gets under their skin is the distance they feel from others they love, from fullness of life they long for, as they lie in a hospital bed, or sit alone at home.
And how it must feel … among those hills Naaman and Jesus once walked as a general of the contemporary Syrian king was assassinated yesterday in the fight for freedom. As Palestinian followers of Jesus still suffer under occupation while a Separation Wall built over their land stolen and houses bulldozed, cuts them off from tending crops, out of touch with family and with Israelis who all really try to cultivate the same hopes and fears, dreams and desires; out of touch with the rest of the world, who doesn’t see unjust realities festering under the façade of security, silently eating away the limbs of a society, taking the very lives of so many, not unlike the worst form of leprosy. I imagine what really gets under their skin is an international community that seems powerless to cease the violence in Syria. Or a long history of American politicians who speak to special interests on trips to holy sights, like Hilary Clinton a few years ago touching the great Wailing Wall—but never entering or speaking with people in Palestine—when she stood with her back to the Separation Wall, and to Palestinians walled in, and declared, “This wall is not against the Palestinian people.”
You see, friends, in these texts today and in our lives everyday, whatever our personal ailments or international injustice, don’t we need healing of what’s under the skin at least as much as whatever’s on the surface? We need the kind of healing Jesus offers when he reaches out his hand to touch the leper; when he reaches out his heart to teach parables, to feed so many people beside the sea, to take water from a Samaritan woman, and break bread with the disciples. It’s the kind of healing we receive when we open our hearts to follow him on our way, to pray with him in a garden when he is betrayed, to stand with the crowd at his crucifixion, and to see his pierced hands at the dawn of his resurrection.
So whatever the physical remedies, how can we share God’s healing of hearts and minds, and restore fullness of life?
Maybe it's a bit like first aid we learn in scouting. More than memorizing and repeating to leaders what we do when someone is choking, has burns, or faints. I remember the sort of things we did—making a splint on another person's arm, tending to someone with blankets as if they were in shock, practicing a way to carry someone with hands gripping another person's arms locked like a seat, stumbling and falling all over ourselves risking a few injuries in the process of learning! We're all both care-givers and receivers, connected in God's healing grace beyond anything of status or privilege or anything else that may separate us.
Did you hear? The young girl helps Naaman and he becomes young (that's the same word) like a boy.
Naaman was a successful leader of a great Syrian army; a charming, privileged, purveyor of the king’s favor. Yet, when he came to his king for a special healing touch, I imagine all that seemed so full in life felt quite fragile under fear of rejection. He goes with the king’s blessing and something like a caravan of stretch Subarbans and armored trucks to emphasize beyond doubt that he expects to earn, to pay for attention and salvation from this man of God. Trouble is that’s not the way God’s healing power works. The king of Israel under a façade of faith he doesn’t fully understand, thinks it’s all a pretext for war from this man who's already conquered him once. And even when Elisha speaks up to offer a panacea, Naaman’s own pride gets in the way. It's a bit cartoonish, really. Imagine this fleet of black polished, window tinted vehicles careening through the desert past dumbstruck shepherds, dust billowing as they pull up to a little shack. Secret service suits leap out, open the doors, and scan the horizon. Naaman steps out, still haughty in his vulnerability, and expects a lot of personal attention – some hand waving and fancy words. So when all he gets is a simple seemingly cryptic message from the prophet, his personal and national ego is insulted. Only when he lets go of pride and special expectations; only when he opens his heart with humility getting in touch with what’s so important to other people—that is, the Jordan River … only then can he get in touch with God. Only when he returns to Elisha and can give nothing in return but his sincere gratitude, then he is touched deeply, his heart is healed with youthful vitality like his flesh, and he is truly blessed with peace.
We hear from Elisha, as so often we see in Jesus, good news that God’s healing touch goes beyond all boundaries of nation or religion or social convention. Blessedly the remedy is usually quite simple and unexpected. We receive healing when we get in touch with God by setting aside pride and opening our hearts like the leper to the compassion of Jesus Christ.
“Moved with pity [or maybe better compassion], Jesus stretched out his hand …”
Just as we receive God’s healing we offer it to others, moved with compassion to go beyond all our own boundaries and get in touch. To really share their burden, the emotions they feel. To take on fullness or absence of life they face. That’s what happened with the Israelite servant girl captured in one of Naaman’s victories. She grows to feel compassion for her captor, and chooses to work for his salvation. That’s what happened with Jesus. He pointedly tells the leper: go do what you’re supposed to. Tell the priest, but don’t spread it too widely because people aren’t ready yet. Their hearts aren’t truly open. They won’t understand and will either feel threatened or have the wrong expectations. And so, Jesus ends up literally, exactly where the leper began—in the country, unable to go into public openly.
Moved with pity (or as some texts read: anger, literally his intestines were twisting and churning) Jesus stretched out his hand … against the politics or religion or social convention – whatever people felt most personally. Just as it was for Jesus and Elisha sometimes for us it will be deeply personal. Sometimes it’s widely political. As I listen to the news and to other people’s stories like yours, so often it seems people just want to be understood and comforted. And often the trouble is there’s too much pride and too little compassion.
Each week, we come into this sanctuary from all around our community and farther away. We come accepted in God’s grace beyond all boundaries. We open our hearts. We extend hands or hugs to one another with the peace of Christ. Friends, we know touch is vital to us humans. Babies will die without touch before they will without food. As we come here to get in touch with God we are reminded to get in touch with others. And then we end extending hands with a blessing that comes from God to go in peace, though peace won't await us wherever we go.
As we go … join me, will you, in extending our hands and hearts to get in touch with all who suffer like lepers long ago?
Reach out at the hospital bedside of someone who’s fallen and broken bones, or has fallen ill with cancer or a heart attack and a broken spirit inside. Join together as we grasp their hand and we try to get in touch with God’s love and share a prayer for healing and peace.
Reach out with me in my office and take the mask of fear off the mother whose daughter runs scared of the devil. Take her hand and talk about how her daughter simply needs to know that while we don’t have all the answers she can trust her mother loves her, God loves her and so she will be safe. Join as we pray to stay in touch with God so fun and fullness of life can return again.
Reach out with me and remove the cloak of loneliness from a single parent who is scared and insecure, working so hard, caring so much, and still wondering about what life may hold ahead. Reach out with a meal, a little conversation by phone or e-mail. Remove the shroud of sadness that hangs over the living room of one who’s much less able than he used to be, and much less connected with others. Join as we reach out our hands in a prayer and presence and the power of God’s healing love and then they and so many others like them can go on in peace.
And in our community or nation or world whenever people have as good as called and treated someone else a leper to run them out of town or political office, when we debate such divisive issues as health care, ironically enough, maybe what we really need to seek is how to comfort one another how to reach out with compassion; to get in touch with the pain and perspectives, the dreams and all the directions of others.
You see, friends when we open our hearts to the Healer of Our Every Ill, we will be touched deeply in our own fears and sadness. And we'll be able to touch others with peace and gladness. Blessedly, the remedy is quite simple. And the result is that all masks and sackcloth and cloaks that hide disfigurement will be removed. So reach out your hands and hearts without pride, full of compassion for every sister and brother, share the "Spirit of all kindness" that brings "hope beyond our sorrow" and "light [of resurrection] to each tomorrow.
Thanks be to God.