I Want To Hold Your Hand

Sermon for Sunday, February 12, 2012
Epiphany 6B
2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, Corinthians 9:24-27, Mark 1:40-45
Amy Whitcomb Slemmer

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Mother and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is one of those wonderful weeks when our lectionary – our assigned readings for today’s service – align beautifully to tell a consistent story, offer some insights into God’s expectations for us, explains one of God’s many gifts for us, and taken as a group, begs some relevant questions about how we live our own lives with an implied invitation that God offers us to live a more fulfilled and spiritually connected and rich life if we are mindful of today’s lessons.

This morning’s Old Testament reading is the story of Naaman, a great general and mighty warrior who enjoyed a position of social prominence and lived a life wielding power and influence.  But here, in this morning’s story, he has leprosy, a bad attitude, and is seeking a cure.  The cure offered is much easier than he expects and he nearly misses his opportunity for healing because he initially rejects it in its simplicity.

Our Psalmist is bewailing an illness and praising God for restoring his health.  This Psalm has beautiful and poetic language and includes one of my very favorite verses – “You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.”  I know that a God who can do THAT is worth following, and just the visual of moving from sobbing to dancing and being clothed in joy – what an exquisite picture of healing!

The letter from Paul to the Corinthians extols the virtues of exercise, games, and running a race, which is certainly the display of a form of health.  And even our Collect suggests that without God we can truly do no good on our own.

Each of these sentiments is echoed in Mark’s gospel which is the familiar story of Jesus healing the leper, who has sought him out and has asked to be made whole.

Even though we have heard of other instances of miraculous healing from Mark – last week Jesus healed Simon’s Mother in law and then cast out demons and healed those who were brought before him — this is an extraordinary moment in Jesus’ public ministry because he is directly associating himself with and healing a person with leprosy, which was not only a visually evident medical condition, but an infection that resulted in a complex social stigma that isolated and cut the infected person off from everyone.

Those with leprosy were not simply known to be “unclean”, which they were required to announce when they were within ear shot of anyone, they were both social pariahs and because the ailment was interpreted as a divine punishment, they were cut off from God as well.  They were refused entrance into the Temple and its rituals and were meant to be completely excluded from holiness.  So the infected were not simply living with a painful, visually apparent medical condition, their infection changed the circumstances and trajectory of their entire lives.

The truly revolutionary and remarkable part of this morning’s gospel is that Jesus physically reaches out a hand to the leper, touches him and heals him.

In ancient tradition, Jesus literally and figuratively took on the man’s leprosy, restored his health, and in one generous and loving act, restored the man’s social standing – as would be confirmed by the priests to whom Jesus sent the man for verification.

In the parlance of today, Jesus met the man where he was.  He didn’t require a sacrifice, a change of heart or behavior.  He simply met and healed the man where and as he was.

While leprosy may seem like an ancient ailment and the drama played out in this morning’s reading a distant concern, there are a host of modern day equivalents that challenge us today.

For those of us who loved and cared for people who were infected with HIV or had AIDS in the ‘80s and ‘90s there is a direct correlation, as we were dealing with people who, similar to the man in today’s gospel had to deal with far more than the physical manifestations of the virus.  Many of those who were infected at the beginning of the epidemic had Kaposi’s Sarcoma — dark red or purplish spots on their skin, which were hard to miss and were the tell tale signs of HIV infection.

All of us had to put up with religious leaders who opined about the causal sins committed and the virus as God’s punishment.   Social and religious stigma attached to those infected, and when people were hospitalized for treatment they were kept in near isolation or wards that had giant scary signs requiring universal precautions, or barring entrance altogether to patients’ rooms.

I joined the Episcopal Caring Response to AIDS thinking that I could try to meet someone where they were in their disease.  As a volunteer I spent a significant amount of time at Children’s National Medical Center where there was one whole corridor with rooms full of HIV infected youngsters.

I remember going in to see the child who would eventually become my son.  Following protocol as all caregivers were required to, I was gloved, gowned and had bug eyed goggles on.  But when Charles saw me – so small in his giant crib – he burst into tears.  I realized that I was scaring him, the outfit that must have looked like something from the movie Contagion was physically separating us and he couldn’t tell who I was.

I quickly shed the yellow paper garb, and glasses and took his hand.  He looked at me deeply in the eyes, and while still crying, took a deep breath and relaxed.  We were a pair from that moment on – and I never fully suited up again.  I took precautions when a situation or emergency required, but I never again appeared as a sterile stranger or foreigner to him.

My sisters Katie and Taylor who joined me for frequent visits and I, took it upon ourselves to make people welcome in that room.  From the Chinese food deliverymen to the orderlies who came for the nightly linen, we asked everyone to come in and we introduced them to Charles and tried to allay misplaced fear.  We knew that the contact with people made a difference in our baby’s outlook and helped his healing.

Sometimes it wasn’t a stranger who would shun us, but a member of the medical staff.  More than one doctor, resident or intern asked how Charles had become infected, and I became adept at delivering my answer that rejected the underlying subtext of the question which I interpreted as “tell me which moral failing infected this child?”  I consistently, and curtly responded “same as everybody else.  He was infected from the virus”.

God was in that hospital room every second of every day that Charles was there.  I prayed vigorously that he would be cured and I left bruised-hearted as he grew sicker.  But I knew that when I took his hand, something miraculous would happen.  I would be connected to this ailing baby, would know him in a different and more profound way, and could convey a deeper level of comfort than would have been possible without that physical connection.

Have you experienced that at someone’s sick or hospital bed?  You may not be able to offer a cure for what has placed them there, but the act of connecting, of taking their hand, or putting a cold washcloth on their forehead, or changing to a fresh pillow case, provides a profound and spirit filled connection.  You are doing what Jesus did.  You are meeting them where they are, loving them and offering respite and a form of healing.

Each of us can think of people who are not touched, are shunned or make us turn away leaving them in isolation.  I think of those struggling with mental illness or substance use issues.  Their diseases isolate them.

I pray that we have moved beyond considering their medical conditions as indications of moral weakness, but I think that we are challenged to meet them where they are, and can find it near impossible to reach out a hand to physically touch or help.  What of our brothers and sisters who are homeless and outcast?  Jesus’ example this morning shows that if we can surmount our discomfort, we will each be changed because of the encounter.

In this morning’s Gospel story, the man who seeks healing is profoundly changed, as is Jesus by the act of offering his hand to the leper.  The man’s health is restored, his place in society changes and he can once again enjoy following the tenets of his faith by participating in rituals at the Temple.  Jesus, we are told, is no longer able to practice his ministry openly in the towns, but must go into the country because his reputation as a healer spread and he was inundated with people seeking him out.

I associate the image of Jesus reaching out his hand to the leper with the most famous panel of Leonardo DaVinci’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — God giving life to Adam.  It is God stretching out his hand to Adam, whose hand is gracefully poised to accept God’s touch.  The hands are beautiful and tell a story of strength and healing and are depicted just before they are joined to one another and will change the course of the world.

I have been a member of a congregation who’s tradition was to hold hands during the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.  This could be incredibly uncomfortable, or to say the least surprising to visitors or newcomers, but the clergy and lay readers would model the behavior up around the altar.  So in the finest tradition of mimicking what the priest does, as the celebrant would grasp the hands of the others serving at the Eucharist, those of us in the pews would do the same.

When my daughter Cynthia was a tween and teenager, this simple act of connection might be the only physical contact with me she would permit all week.  And let me be clear — she did not grasp my hand enthusiastically.  She sort of grudgingly allowed me to hold hers, and then dropped it immediately as the final syllable of the “Amen” had been uttered.  I counted on this connection.  I counted on being able to pray the familiar prayer while connected to both my daughter and whoever happened to be standing next to me.

When we recited the Lord’s Prayer together as part of the celebration of the Eucharist, hand in hand, I felt that we, as a congregation, were all pulling in the same direction.  We were acting as a community, and as participants, rather than as audience members each watching a performance at the altar.  I experience saying grace at meals outside of church in the same way.  Holding hands makes it different and for me, more powerful than when praying silently or alone.

Joining hands during the Lord’s Prayer is not the tradition here at St. Stephens, (I learned that the hard way – and since telling the truth seems a really good policy while preaching, and actually at all times, I’ll share that it took me more than one or two weeks to fall into and embrace our traditions) and I’m not going to spend part of this sermon — my first as a Postulant — advocating such a radical and potentially uncomfortable step.

However, I am going to suggest that you try it out with a family member or close friend in the pews – especially parents of tweens, teens or young adults who may spend the bulk of their week acting as though they really want very little to do with you.  Being connected during the recitation of a familiar prayer offers a new experience for both participants.  Try it in church while we say the Lord’s prayer in preparation for the Eucharist, or try it at home in thanksgiving and appreciation for a meal or at bedtime.

While, as a community, we do not hold hands during the service, we do have a tradition of extending one another a hand.  In a little bit, we will be invited to offer each other a sign of peace – which is the promise of healing and as Margot or Adam will remind us at the end of the service, we are offering peace which passes all understanding.

I invite each of us to experience this part of the service a bit differently today.  What if we considered Jesus’ act in today’s Gospel, and our extending a handshake or hug as the manifestation of what Jesus was inviting each of us to do?  Know that for some the physical connection that we are offering – a kind, open hearted and loving handshake, will not be echoed again until we are here together again next Sunday.

And what if we carried this approach out into the world with us, so that as we traverse our week and encounter friends, co-workers or strangers who are not here with us today, we have the opportunity to greet each with a sign of peace, promised healing and a grace-filled connection?  Rather than the perfunctory or obligatory manner in which that exchange can happen, we consider it as an opportunity for connection and healing.

We are invited to learn from Naaman’s example and to understand that healing can be simpler than we expect.  And while we won’t expect to act like the healed leper in today’s Gospel who told everyone of his experience of Jesus, perhaps we can take a page from the Psalmist and not necessarily dance for joy as a result of a healing or heartfelt encounter, but perhaps we could share our experience with one other person.

Simple healing and connection.  Perhaps it begins with meeting people where they are and offering a meaningful, heartfelt handshake.  I pray that it does.  Amen

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