The hymn that we sang just before the scripture reading today was written back in 1997. Ruth Duck, a professor of worship, had been asked by a colleague to provide a congregational hymn to be sung at a service focussing on battering and abuse.
Ruth, whose knowledge of church hymnody is extensive, searched the repertoire and found nothing to speak of that experience. She realized that despite what we know to be true, which is that an inordinate number of women, men and children do experience physical and sexual assault in their lifetimes, there was a silence about these experiences in the church, or at least in church music. Ruth found this quite odd, because of course, the scriptures speak of the sacred nature of our bodies, the holy vessels that contain our spirits and the church itself is referred to as the Body of Christ. So, she wrote the hymn Sacred the Body that we just sang to reflect that what happens in and to our physical bodies, our holy vessels, matters to God. It matters to the One who gave us life and created our bodies and therefore it should matter to us both as individuals and as church. In writing this hymn Ruth Duck gave voice to a subject that over the centuries had become taboo in both the church and society: the holiness of our bodies and how they are often violated.
Today’s scripture reading brings us a story of an unnamed leper, whose physical condition had literally made him taboo, putting him outside the boundaries of the temple. His place of worship that should have exemplified God’s gracious welcome had become for him a place of rejection. That’s because in the time of Jesus, anyone who had a visible skin ailment was considered ritually unclean. Those ailments included what we know today as leprosy or Hansen’s disease but also other common skin ailments such as psoraiasis, diseases and conditions that individuals contracted due to no fault of their own. To touch someone with one of these conditions made you unclean and would bar your entrance to the temple as well. You can imagine the wide berth people suffering from leprosy and other skin conditions would have been given.
Easy for us to think that we don’t have those kinds of restrictions or taboos in our day and age, but as I pondered the way we experience the story of the leper in our time, the ways we isolate and reject people, or feel isolated because of our physical condition, all kinds of examples came to mind.
This fall, one of the young adults in my life was diagnosed with Covid-19. I have no idea where she contracted it and its possible she doesn’t know either. I don’t know because we don’t talk about it. What I do know is that when she was diagnosed, she had to tell the handful of people with whom she had come in contact that she had it. Some of them were very angry with her. So she closed herself off and stopped telling people about having Covid-19 because she didn’t want to experience being further ostracized. Even though she was already self-isolating due to public health orders, she became even more isolated refusing to tell even those closest to her what she was going through. In her greatest time of need, there she was sitting alone outside her community of support.
As someone who has lived with a cancer diagnosis. I know first hand what it is like to feel like people are looking at you differently because you have been told something about your body that none of us ever wants to be told. I know the kind of judgements we can lay on ourselves when it seems our bodies have betrayed us. As someone who has always identified myself as healthy and strong, I know the stigma we can place on ourselves when we are wounded and weak, let alone the stigma we often place on one another. And it isn’t just illness that causes us to judge ourselves and our bodies. We have a very hard time treasuring our bodies just the way they are. Sometimes we are the ones who place ourselves on the outside of our communities.
It’s quite remarkable really, how isolating illness or physical disability can make us feel. If we think about that in terms of what we have been through this past year, this time in which we have literally had to isolate ourselves from one another and then on top of that deal with the reality of our individual and societal woundedness, it can feel even more isolating. We really are broken vessels. It is these broken vessels Jesus chooses to reach out and touch.
Keeping in mind that to touch a person considered unclean in Jesus time meant that you yourself would become unclean, the scene from today’s scripture reading really is quite powerful. The Leper calls out to him: “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean” and Jesus, without any apparent hesitation stretches out his hand, touches him and then replies “I do choose. Be made clean.” Jesus first response is to touch the one who in all likelihood has gone months, perhaps years without feeling the warmth of physical touch. There’s a sense in which Jesus identifies himself with the Leper in this story.
Many of you, like me, remember vividly the photos and television coverage of Princess Diana reaching out and touching, often embracing children and men diagnosed with AIDS. One can’t help but wonder in retrospect if her own sense of alienation and isolation helped her to know the importance of being treasured for the fullness of who we are as human beings including our physical ailments, disabilities and differences. When Jesus reaches out to touch the leper and heal him these are the kinds of barriers he crosses.
The topic of healing in the bible is always a bit controversial. People who have prayed and prayed and not received healing from physical conditions are easily offended at the notion of a God who with the touch of a hand or the wave of a finger can suddenly make someone physically well. It’s important to know that although it seems that Jesus was a healer who at times enabled physical healing, the healing stories that we have in the gospel are more often than not meant to point us towards something other than miraculous physical healing. Often what is being healed is something deeper than a physical wound. Often it’s the wound the physical wound causes in us.
A question we might hold on our Lenten journey this year is how can we allow ourselves to be healed whatever our physical state might be and how might that healing bring to our physical bodies a sense of greater wellbeing.
Among the greatest privileges I have had in ministry is the opportunity to journey with people who despite the decline in their physical health or their day to day struggle with a long term disability, have nevertheless exhibited a sense of wellness that transcended their physical state. They may not have been physically cured but they nevertheless found healing of their deeper wounds. Often this came through the grace and companionship of friends, family and even strangers who touched and cared for them. In the words of our scripture reading today, in the presence of those who bore with them their infirmities and disease and treasured them for who they were broken body and all.
I know, for example, that Dilys Sostad, a beloved member of our community of faith who died before Christmas, found healing through the cards, letters and window visits she had in her last days knowing that she was beautifully companioned in her death, even though she did not experience a physical cure on this side of life.
It’s interesting that in many ways, today’s biblical story about Jesus touching the Leper clean and casting out demons and spirits from the many who were possessed, isn’t really a story about individual or physical healing at all. The way Matthew tells it, it’s a story about institutional healing. Although it seems that it is leprosy Jesus is cleaning in this passage, at another level what he is cleaning is the laws of the temple. By reaching out and touching the leper he crosses the barriers put down by the religious authorities of his day put up to protect their community from illness. In trying to protect their community, the religious leaders had managed to marginalize and exclude those who longed to be welcomed. It makes me wonder who we are marginalizing and excluding.
Boundaries can be a good thing. We need to wear masks right now, we need to limit our contact with one another, we can’t meet in person as a community. But boundaries that go unchecked, that fail to take into consideration those who might be harmed or left out because of them are not such a good thing. It’s compassionate human touch whether that is literal touch or the simple act of seeing and noticing one another that indicates to us that we are cared for and treasured and brings to us the kind of healing and wholeness that we long for in our deepest being.
So as church and as individuals we need to be ever mindful of those we are excluding because perhaps nothing is more painful in this world than the pain of rejection. It our choosing to reach out across boundaries and barriers to love and include that have the capacity to transform our physical brokenness, even when we can’t change or remove the circumstances that have caused it. It is in treasuring ourselves and treasuring others that our broken lives are made whole.