Last week, I heard an NPR interview with a woman named Mary Elizabeth Williams. Two years ago, she fought and won a battle with malignant melanoma on her scalp. A year later, the melanoma had returned, this time in her lungs and on her back. She found out she qualified for a medical trial for a new treatment. While she was happy there was hope for her, she also soon discovered her life was not her own. She could not even take an aspirin for a headache without consulting the medical team.
Most of her physicians were excellent and caring, but she experienced one doctor who spoke about her illness to another person as if she were not even in the room. It was as if Mary Elizabeth was a non-person; the melanoma was all that mattered. She quickly changed doctors.
... Lepers in Jesus’ time were like non-persons. We might note that even today, we refer to them in scripture as lepers, not people with leprosy. Leprosy refers to a multitude of skin diseases, psoriasis, eczema, and a few more serious conditions. Some skin diseases were known to be short-lived and not contagious, and the people who had them were not isolated, or were isolated only for a short time.
Those who had more serious diseases, those with illnesses which were contagious and possibly deadly, were isolated for the good of the larger society. If people with skin diseases were healed, they could go to the priests and show their clean skin. The priests would declare them clean and allow them to return to their community and their families. If they were never healed, they spent the rest of their lives living outside of, and maybe far away from, their families and their communities.
You have probably heard the stories: lepers were required to make sure healthy people were aware of their presence by ringing a bell; they had to tear their clothing; they were dependent on nature for shelter and food, and on the good will of healthy family members to leave food for them. They were cut off from the larger community; they could not worship in the synagogue; they were kept away from their families, and could not take care of them; they were non-persons in their society. Except for other lepers, they never received the touch of another human.
Into this world, Jesus came touching the untouchable. The person in the story has no name; let’s call him Benjamin. Jesus could have said, “Benjamin, I do choose to heal you. Be well,” and never touched him. But before Jesus declared Benjamin healed, Jesus reached out and touched him. Can you hear the crowd gasp?! “No one touches lepers!” That is, no one but Jesus touches lepers.
... Most of the time, you and I feel pretty visible and quite touchable. We are relatively healthy and happy, and share our good spirits with hugs and handshakes and laughter. We know we belong to a loving family and are welcome in our community.
But, sometimes, we feel like no one loves us, no one cares anything about us, the whole world is against us. Or, we feel like we are not loveable, not touchable, even if others do try to love and touch us. In those moments, we wish Jesus would come and touch us and heal our broken hearts, but we aren’t sure we are worthy of such touching and healing.
Fortunately, Jesus comes to us in many ways. Jesus comes to us through the Holy Spirit’s presence in our own lives, and through the loving touch of our friends, and even through strangers we encounter. It’s always amazing to me how God puts people in our lives to make God’s presence known.
The Holy Spirit comes to us in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. The forgiveness we receive when we eat the bread and drink the wine of communion is a gift, freely given to us by God. It is a mystery just how Jesus is present in the elements of communion, but we know he is there. I recently heard Holy Communion called a hug from God. This makes it simple enough for children understand it, and it’s really all we need to know. Through the meal of Holy Communion, we know that we are lovable and touchable –and huggable – in God’s eyes.
The Holy Spirit also comes to us in the rite of baptism. Today, as the water touches Emmaclaire’s head, Jesus’ Holy Spirit washes over her, and for the rest of her life, she will know she has been touched by God. Forever, she will be able to remember that she is lovable and touchable, even when she doesn’t think she is so lovable and touchable. And forever, we will be able to remember that Emmaclaire is lovable and touchable, even when her behavior on some days might make us wonder. :-0
On our very good days, we, too, can remember that we are baptized and loved by God, and very touchable. On our bad days, we should remember the same thing. We are always lovable and touchable; we are always God’s beloved children, marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever.
Today, as Emmaclaire is baptized, we all make promises to guide her and support her as she grows in faith. Together we will teach her that she is loved by God, and called to serve God’s people with that same love.
This week, I invite you to remember that you are baptized and claimed by God. Remember in those moments of joy, and especially in those moments when you don’t feel lovable or touchable, that you have been claimed by God as forever lovable and forever touchable.
... Please pray with me. God of love and healing, your Son Jesus touched the leper and healed him. Your Holy Spirit touched Mary Elizabeth with the recognition that no one should treat her as a non-person. Touch us all with your healing and bring us into your loving embrace. Amen