The sacrament of touch
2 Kings 5.1-14
Let’s start with the Book of Leviticus (13.45-46; from The Message):
The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be dishevelled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean”. He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
‘Leprosy’ was not a good diagnosis to get back in biblical times. It meant you were ‘unclean’. You had to live in isolation, away from human contact. The irony is that these ‘lepers’ didn’t necessarily have what we call leprosy. Today, ‘leprosy’ is the name we give to Hansen’s Disease, an infectious condition caused by certain bacteria. But in biblical times, ‘lepers’ were a mixed bag of people: some may have had fungal infections; others weren’t even infectious, having things like psoriasis or eczema. But they were expelled from the community anyway.
Leprosy was a disease ‘of biblical proportions’. Even today we know what it means to be treated as a leper. And we don’t like it.
A leper comes to Jesus in today’s Gospel story. Whatever he had, whether we’d call it leprosy or eczema, his wasn’t an ordinary illness. His was an illness that made him ‘unclean’—
- unfit for normal human company;
- unable to approach God;
- unsuitable for the companionship of anyone—except those who were also unclean.
Despite what the Book of Leviticus says he should do, we don’t read that the leper cried ‘Unclean’, or that he covered his lip. What he did say was,
If you choose, you can make me clean.
Jesus’ response is
I do choose. Be made clean!
Be made clean.
Well of course, we’re sophisticated, we’re not like those people thousands of years ago. We understand germs and stuff. You can’t help getting sick. We can deal with Hansen’s Disease. We have quick-acting drugs with fancy names like rifampicin and dapsone. We also know that something over 95% of people are naturally immune to Hansen’s Disease. It’s hard to catch it.
We don’t call lepers ‘unclean’. Nothing and no one is unclean to us.
If that’s what you think, stop now! Don’t you believe it.
I mentioned almost two years ago in a sermon that I have depression. Not just any old depression you understand, but an illness with a really catchy name: I have Major Depressive Disorder.
Why did I do that? I did it because people would come to me and tell me they were on antidepressant tablets. Each one of them felt a deep sense of shame. They believed that if they had more faith they’d be able to shake depression. They told me they should be able to get by without pills. I’d tell them I’m on antidepressants too but that didn’t help their feelings of shame.
People who feel a sense of shame feel that they are unclean. We may not officially bar them from church, but they feel a bar.
Since the sense of shame is the feeling of being ‘unclean’, I decided that I should ‘go public’ to establish this one thing:
There is no shame in having depression.
Or, in more biblical terms,
Depression doesn’t make you unclean.
It’s turned out to be the right thing to ‘come out’ as someone with depression. It really is quite a common condition. But sufferers do feel ashamed.
Jesus desires to remove our shame—our sense of uncleanness—from us. Nothing and no one is unclean to him. Recall what Jesus did when the leper called out to him:
Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”
Jesus touched the leper. But he shouldn’t have. You just didn’t touch lepers. The leper was unclean, unfit for human company, yet Jesus touched him. I wonder how long it had been since the leper had felt the touch of someone else’s hand?
This is how shame is dealt with. People touch one another, with their hands, with their words, with their loving actions. Shame can’t long survive once we are touched with care; and once we allow ourselves to receive that touch.
A friend of mine was a hospital chaplain. She used to speak of ‘the sacrament of touch’. Simply put, a sacrament is an effective sign of God’s grace. We received TH into the family of the Church today by the sacrament of Holy Baptism. It’s an effective sign; he is now part of God’s Church, and we each share a responsibility to nurture him in the Christian faith.
My friend would deal with people who were very ill, many of whom were dying. The touch of another human being was very important to them. It said to them, You are not alone. It was an effective sign that brought them the grace that someone was sharing the journey with them. It was indeed sacramental.
When people were declared ‘unclean’ and thrown out of the community, they were alone. When we feel ashamed, we feel very alone. No one is sharing the journey with us. It’s then that we need the touch of another person, whether that is a physical touch, a loving action or a simple smile.
It took me a while a couple of years ago to get the courage to share that I had depression. After all, it’s a mental illness. But really, it’s not too hard to share that I have depression. I can live with depression. We can accept pretty readily that depression isn’t something to be ashamed of. But we need to ask ourselves—are there things we do think people should be ashamed of?
I’ve ‘come out’ as depressed. What if someone were to come out as gay? Or HIV-positive? Would we want to touch that person as Jesus touched the leper? Or would our attitudes towards them change? Would they be ‘unclean’ to us?
The Christian community can be a place of real healing. We start by declaring no one unclean. We start by touching one another with a smile, a word, a hand. And if we ourselves feel a sense of shame, we need to ask for the grace to receive that smile, that word, that hand upon our shoulder. Jesus is reaching out to us as he reached out to the leper.
Let’s receive his touch through others, let us be the people he uses to touch others. We are called to be a sacramental community—a place where there are effective signs of God’s grace in our relationships one with another.