Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Cleansing Power of a Healing Touch

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Mark 1:40-45

The passages in the Gospels, like our hymns, have four parts. A soprano voice of history. An alto voice, least understood and most potent, of the early church. A tenor voice, of author. A baritone of tradition. What did Jesus do? Why did this matter to the church? How does the writer understand this? What did others make of his work?

1. Soprano: History

Our sister soprano is quiet this week. Other than fitting the general acceptance that Jesus healed, our verses tell us little history. We know not our leper’s name, nor his waist or shirt size, nor his family, nor his medical history, nor his age, nor his condition. We might say something though about being sick, or hurt. There are two maladies in leprosy, as in most illness. One is physical. The other is relational. One is the crusting of the skin, the closing of the eyes, and the debilitation of the body. The other is the isolation, self-imposed or cultural, that attends illness. When we hurt we hide. When we hurt we hide. The lepers lived in caves. For Jesus to have touched one who was so ritually unclean would have been a catastrophic affront to the holiness of the law.

Our colleague David Lubba remembers visiting a leprosarium in the Philippians. The odor, the deformities, the limbs and fingers missing, the pain. And the separation. Here are his words of memory: dark, quiet, enclosed, separated, isolated, searching eyes, furtive glances, lonely, hopelessness, outside, unpleasant odor, disfigurement.

Leprosy meant a wide range of things to both the Hebrews and the Greeks. A skin disease, with the appearance of rough, scaly patches. Psoriasis all the way to true leprosy in our modern sense. Josephus reports, and attacks, the rumor that the Israelites under Moses were expelled from Egypt because they were leprous, and prone to the disease. Caused by infection by a fungus…lumps in the skin, changes in nose and throat, blisters, perforating ulcers, may last 30 years. Namaan, Miriam, even Moses had versions of this malady. Serious leprosy meant banishment from human society.

2. Alto: Church

In the tradition of the prophets before him, Jesus was known as a healer. The alto line tells us two things. Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition, and healing erases isolation.

The stylized memory read today of his healing of the unnamed leper places him by more than coincidence in the tradition of Elijah who did the same for Namaan. The prophets healed, and so did Jesus. Hence, Jesus qualifies as a prophet. Israelite? Male? Willing to itinerate? Strong Voice? Hear the Voice? Healed a leper?

Other than shock and awe, we have no ready response to questions about what actually happened. By now, you also will have seen people get well who were already buried, in someone’s mind. You have watched some who appeared on the edge of eternity return to full life and season tickets at the symphony. You have seen your own children spared mortal harm, by no explicable reason. But you also have seen negative miracles. Young people seized and taken, death coming without reason or warning, like a thief in the night. You have seen cures become partial and impermanent. You have had to sit in the circle of those who hear silence in response to pleading prayer.

With the early church, we have no doubt that faith helps and prayer heals. We have nothing but confidence that God loves and desires healing. We particularly trust Jesus, who on the long path to the cross healed many, including a leper. We just do not really understand how some, why others, how here, why there. On a cold night at, 3 A. M. such pondering can bring pain.

One part of this pain is personal, or even physical. It is what you feel. Feelings matter. They matter a great deal in healing. The other part is relational. You are yourself and your circumstances. Your identity is both personal and communal. Europe, older and wiser, knows this better than America, younger and freer.

What makes historical or metaphorical leprosy so fearsome is the separation, the quarantine, the exclusion from regular life. Touching the leper is a sign of Jesus’ increasing willingness to step outside his tradition, to trump holiness with compassion. For gentiles, unclean by definition, ritually excluded from the holy people, the reach and touch mean, as they did last week, inclusion, acceptance, and new life.

3. Tenor: Author

Again, our author has pictured Jesus quieting any report of his power, or his messianic identity. Mark wants to keep his audience in some suspense as the account of Jesus’ ministry unfolds. As Dr. Weeden has remarked:

Mark is an oral text. He creates it to be read and heard orally. It is a performance text, oral and theological and literary. The secret within the story is withheld from everyone up through chapter 8. Until then only the supernatural beings know him, as God knows him at baptism. Those who are let in, do hear it. The secret is let out by the demons. The hearer wants to know why the silence, and why the disciples don’t get it.

Mark is a parable. In a parable, you get the parabolic jolt where a new world view intersects the first (Caesarea Philippi). Here his identity is unmistakably presented. Mark builds the tempo to a climax, but until the climax, Jesus is only a miracle worker. Even at Mark 8, he tells them to be quiet. There he identifies himself as the suffering servant. From this point on, the disciples understand and the story moves to the passion, though the disciples still prefer triumphal discipleship. Jesus does play the role of the Greco-Roman hero, but not as a power oriented figure. He is a self-giving servant. Jesus disowns the powerful saying, the first will be last. In this gospel, the men always fail; the women and children always succeed. Notice the women at the cross, the burial, the empty tomb. And at other places. The secret essentially ceases after Caesarea Philippi.

The first eight chapters present Jesus as a triumphalist being, power oriented, a lion as in Narnia, not suffering or self giving. Yet here is the theme of the gospel: the first shall be last, and the last shall be first; he who gains his life will lose it, and those who lose their lives shall save it. Shall we conquer evil by defeating it or transforming it?

Likewise, Robert Neville has recently written: In a nation that puts economic greed before justice, the enforcement of alleged national interest through military invasion before peace, the manipulation of information to support ideologies before the uncovering of truth, and self-deluded self-righteousness before love of enemies, a desperate people calls out for prophetic preaching.

4. Bass: Tradition

The healed man’s disobedience is a typical folk motif: the one thing you must do. Bluebeard: do not go behind that door. Hansel and Gretel: go to any house but one. Genesis: you may eat any fruit, any at all, but one. So, do not do this. He does it. Do not tell. He tells.

Matthew and Luke have a more reverential view of Jesus. They come later. They omit Jesus’ attitude, feeling, indignation or anger (which we may take as evidence of its historicity), and which an earlier editor of Mark in one text had also done. Jesus indignant? Let’s say ‘moved with pity’. And they omit the leper’s disobedience (which is disrespectful of Jesus, and implies Jesus’ powerlessness). Yet with Mark they would affirm a view of God like that rendered by Hans Jonas:

Bound up with the concepts of a suffering and a becoming God is that of a caring God—a God not remote and detached and self-contained but involved with what he cares for. Whatever the primordial condition of the Godhead, he ceased to be self-contained once he let himself in for the existence of a world by creating such or world or letting it come to be…God is not a sorcerer who in the act of caring also provides the fulfillment of his concern: he has left something for other agents to do and thereby has made his care dependent on them. He is therefore also an endangered God, a God who runs a risk. Clearly that must be so, or else the world would be in a condition of permanent perfection. The fact that it is not bespeaks one of two things: that either the one God does not exist (though more than one may), or that the one has given to an agency other than himself, though created by him, a power and a right to act on its own and therewith a scope for at least codetermining that which is a concern of his…Somehow he has, by an act of either inscrutable wisdom or love or whatever else the divine motive may have been, foregone the guaranteeing of his self-satisfaction by his own power, after he has first, by the act of creation itself, forgone being ‘all in all’…This is not an omnipotent God.

5. Applications to our Life

Our quartet has assembled. Each voice has warmed up. Now they are ready to sing. What is their melody? Their message applied to you? How do we translate this tradition into insights for effective living?

The meaning of this passage, for our life, lies in the cleansing power of a healing touch. Estrangement from life and others, spiritual separation, is an infection and illness that most of us have experienced. When someone else names our hurt and wills our wellness, we feel it. The church is that healing touch, in voice and presence. Three examples.

A. When we hurt we hide. You can hide for decades if the hurt is hard enough. When your full being is rejected, laid off, when life has become a harsh winter, you can find yourself in years of hibernation. You may isolate yourself more than others ever intended. Yet they too, supporting as they do a culture of competition not compassion, have indirectly helped to exclude. The sense of bitterness, when it is well cooked, and has hardened into a kind of granite fury, can take your life, your health, and your soul. They reject you, you reject them. They exclude you, you exclude them. Roll the stone across the front of the cave. Let the hibernation begin.

In thirty years in upstate New York we have known many men who have lost their jobs. Unemployment is not leprosy. But it hurts. In our culture, though the balances here are quickly changing (2/3 of divorces for couples over 40 are initiated by women), men still find much identity, and health, in work. When you take that away, you bring pain. Real hurt. Your place on the map is removed, along with your office. Your sense of worth is removed, along with your parking place. Your well being, your health, are attenuated, along with your title.

In New Hope, a farmer going under. In Ithaca, a chemist denied tenure. In the North Country, a factory worker terminated. In Syracuse, an engineer laid off. In Rochester, a secretary let go.

Rev., you need to help me. I was laid off three weeks ago but I haven’t told my wife. I get up and make my lunch and drive off. I spend the day drinking coffee at the mall. Then I go home for supper with her and the kids. Will you come with me to tell her? I am so hurt, and so worried. What will we do?

We do not have any reason to treat one another this way. People should not have to spend their earthly lives wondering if they will have a way to feed their kids, and fearing the next round of cuts. It is demeaning, and it is bad business. We are wasting talent, energy, creativity, and good will with every pink slip. One day, we will wake up and learn to take care of one another. Yes, the holiness of responsibility is crucial. No, that holiness is not more important than compassion.

We are people whom Jesus has touched, somehow. Or we would not be here. We know that no matter what company name adorns our paycheck, or whether there is a regular paycheck, a warm hand has touched our estrangement. You may not need to hear this today. You may be gainfully involved in life. But a day may come when you will need to recall the commanding response of the Lord Jesus Christ, “I will. Be healed.” You may need to recall the touch. God loves you right through, whether you are Donald Trump or his latest victim. More, you are part of a community that dimly remembers together the sense of exclusion epitomized by leprosy. On pink slip morning, behold the cleansing power of a healing touch: You matter, you count, you are beloved, accepted, included. Remember Lincoln, serially defeated, who said, “I feel somehow like the boy in Kentucky who stubbed his toe while running to see his sweetheart. The boy said he was too big to cry, and too badly hurt to laugh”.

I can’t go back there. I failed. I can’t go in there. I am sick. I will not know how to act, or what to say. So much has changed. They will pity me. They will turn away from me. I will stay home.

This is a pain that is deeper than words. It resides in the gut. Today the Scripture and its interpretation bring healing by naming and caring.

B. Isolation and exclusion framed the prophetic outburst of Betty Friedan in 1963. It is hard to think of a time when women, generally, were not found in medicine, in the ministry, in public leadership, in positions of authority and power. And there still are several leagues to go for us all. She found that a survey of Smith graduates revealed great ranges of real unhappiness in post-war women. One Nebraskan woman with a Ph.D. in anthropology wrote:

A film made of any typical morning in my house would look like an old Marx Brothers comedy. I wash the dishes, rush the older children off to school, dash out in the yard to cultivate the chrysanthemums, run back in to make a phone call about a committee meeting, help the youngest child build a blockhouse, spend fifteen minutes skimming the newspapers so I can be well informed, then scamper down to the washing machines where my thrice-weekly laundry includes enough clothes to keep a primitive village going for an entire year. By noon I’m ready for a padded cell. Very little of what I have done has been really necessary or important. Outside pressures lash me through the day. Yet I look upon myself as one of the more relaxed housewives in the neighborhood.

This nameless, aching dissatisfaction Friedan called ‘the problem that has no name’. Out of her book (The Feminine Mystique) came the women’s movement. In naming the pain, she opened a window of hope. She expanded the circle of freedom. Lincoln said, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.”

Said St. Augustine, “Hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage.” Wrote Emily Dickinson, “Hope is that thing with feathers that perches in your soul and sings the tunes without words and never stops at all.”

This is a pain that is deeper than words. It resides in the gut. Today the Scripture and its interpretation bring healing by naming and caring.

C. Isolation breeds exclusion. We grant, fully and happily, the great powers and wonders of the internet. E-mail has helped us communicate better, more quickly, more easily, in one sense. But in the shadows of a word about leprosy, about isolation, we may note a darker reality. We are living in e-hell. E-mail is international, indelible, immediate, irretrievable and inhumane. It is aerial bombardment. It is hit and run driving. It is the thief in the night made into the director of communications. There is a darkness, now, over the world and its handmaiden is e-mail. You may trace, in the experience of this church over a decade, a dozen communal experiences that have been worsened by this medium. E-mail has no body, no touch, no voice, no heart. Be careful. Computers need to have not only reply keys, but do not reply, not only reply all but reply to no one, not only forward but backward, not only send, but return to sender. Return to sender. Address unknown. No such number. No such home. By this Gospel, it is touch, healing touch, humanity at its most fleshly, that brings healing. E-mail may gather a meeting, but it is no way to treat a friend.

The Dutch editor who set off a religious blaze by printing funny but disrespectful images said he would not have done it if he had known the consequences. He acted within a holy tradition we readily affirm, that of freedom of expression, yet in a way that revealed again the distance of that tradition from the holiness tradition of Islam. Ortega said: ‘rancor is an outpouring of a feeling of inferiority.’ Sounds timely. The editor had a right to do what he did, and on another day we might extol that right in another sermon. Today, though, watch his finger, as he decides. He recognized that we have freedom of speech, but not without limits. He was reciting Paul’s warning, ‘all things are lawful but not all things are helpful’. Yet what was staggering was his next confession: “as my finger paused over the reply key, I wondered whether I should give permission to print this material”.

What if the medium of his crucial communication had not been email but the delays of snail mail? Would a cooler mind have prevailed? What if the medium were not email but the telephone, where there is interaction? Would a more sober voice have had a hearing? What if the medium were not email but that most rare of communications, an actual conversation? Would the more excellent way have appeared?

We need to be careful about what habits of being we take on ourselves. Religiously, today, we recall this moment when Jesus moves another step away from holiness and toward compassion. The holiness traditions within Islam and Judaism and Christianity have their place. They have their importance. Yet they are not the fullest expression of God, nor the very best we humans can become. In all of world religion, truly, there is no finer Healer of the rigidities of religions than Jesus who stands ready, should this old world accept Him, to heal our holiness with his cleansing compassion. Once in while, you hear a voice like his, “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” (Lincoln)

This is a pain that is deeper than words. It resides in the gut. Today the Scripture and its interpretation bring healing by naming and caring.

6. Coda

Jesus meets us today at the intersection upon the road of life marked by holiness and compassion. He turns down the road to compassion, and invites us to come along. Where holiness would not have touched, compassion has touched and cleansed. May we drive with holiness in the backseat and compassion in the front. There but for the grace of God…

"Twas battered and scared, and the auctioneer
Thought it scarcely worth his while
To waste much time on the old violin,
But he held it up with a smile.
"What am I bidden, good folks," he cried,
"Who'll start bidding for me?
A dollar, a dollar - now who"ll make it two
Two dollars, and who’ll make it three?
"Three dollars once, three dollars twice,
Going for three". . . but no!
From the room far back a gray-haired man
Came forward and picked up the bow;
Then wiping the dust from the old violin,
And tightening up the strings,
He played a melody, pure and sweet,
As sweet as an angel sings.
The music ceased and the auctioneer
With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said: "What am I bidden for the old violin?"
And he held it up with the bow;
"A thousand dollars - and who'll make it two?
Two thousand - and who'll make it three?
Three thousand once, three thousand twice
And going - and gone," said he.
The people cheered, but some of them cried,
"We do not quite understand -
What changed its worth?" The man replied:
"The touch of the masters hand."
And any a man with life out of tune,
And battered and torn with sin,
Is auctioned cheap to a thoughtless crowd.
Much like the old violin.
A "mess of pottage," a glass of wine,
A game and he travels on,
He's going once, and going twice -
He's going - and almost gone!
But the MASTER comes, and the foolish crowd,
Never can quite understand,
The worth of a soul, and the change that's wrought
By the touch of the MASTER'S hand.

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