A Cleaning Touch
When I was little, and we were making a cake I’d always want to dip my finger in the cake batter. And my mom would say get your grimy little fingers out of my cake batter you are going to ruin it! You’ll have to wait; you can lick the spoon later. If my dirty finger touched just part of that cake batter, the whole of the cake would become dirty.
And if I didn’t wipe my feet when I came into the house, anything my muddy shoes touched would get muddy too. It’s a general principle in our world that when something dirty touches something clean, the clean thing becomes dirty. Otherwise we wouldn’t ever need to wash bath towels.
A long time ago I asked my mother what it was like to grow up during the time when schools were being integrated in Tennessee. She said, I don’t know what to say, but I’ll tell you a story. When I was in junior high, a couple years after our school integrated, I had an African-American girl in my P.E. class. She forgot her socks one day. I lent her a pair of mine. When I got home I told my mom that I’d lent my socks to that girl. And she said, “Now don’t you worry about getting those back.”
Do you think that little girl know that just one touch of those socks had made them unclean?
The leper did. He knew that all he had to do was touch someone or something, and it would be unclean. Can you imagine what it was like to be him? To shy away from touching and being touched. For everyone else to not just avoid touching but seeing you, because they believed that your disease was your fault. Would you be afraid to touch your own food? Would you be angry with everyone who talked about you behind your back, who refused to look you in the eye, who pulled their children close when you walked by? How much would it hurt to know that you could never hug your family again?
Maybe you know what it is like to feel unclean. Maybe you have been afraid to touch and to be touched. Maybe you have wanted friendship or love or human contact, but people withheld from you, because you were different, or unimportant, or bad. A friend of mine, when she was younger, went to school one day and all her friends weren’t talking to her, and she didn’t know why. She never knew what caused them to act that way. And they never knew how much it hurt her to be treated like that, how it made her question everything she thought she knew, even who she was. Maybe when this happened to you someone told you you deserved it. Maybe you believed them. Maybe you believed them because that someone was you.
For the leper whom Jesus touched, this shame was his life. He was abandoned by family and friends. He was dependent on charity, because he could not work for himself. And everyone told him that it was his fault, God’s punishment for some sin he’d committed. But he did not give up on hope. So when he heard about Jesus he went to him and he said, “If you want to, you can make me clean.” And Jesus reached out and touched him.
According to the rules of both our society and his, to touch this man should have made Jesus unclean. When someone clean touches someone unclean, they are soiled by that persons dirtiness. But instead, the unclean became clean. When Jesus’s clean hand touched this man’s diseased unclean skin, his skin was healed.
I go camping sometimes, and when I do I’ll bring iodine tablets or a water purifier pump so that we can have clean water. But last time a friend brought this Ultra-Violet pen light. All he had to do was turn it on, dip it into the water, wait ten seconds, and the water was good to drink. All it had to do was touch the water and the water became clean.
For Jesus it is that simple. All Jesus has to do is touch and you will be made clean. The holiness of our God purifies us, as Isaiah’s lips were purified when the angel touched his lips with a hot coal. He said, “This has touched your lips, and now your guilt is done, and your sins are forgiven.” To be touched by Jesus is to be set free from everything that forces us to hide, and to be released into freedom and wholeness.
Pay attention to the way this happened. The leper presented himself to Jesus, and Jesus touched him. Jesus took the initiative. Jesus touched him. All the leper ever did was present himself to be healed. Far too many of us believe that redemption is something that we have to create for ourselves, that it is our own sweat and blood and tears that will redeem us, and not the sweat and blood and tears of the man who died on the cross. To believe that is to believe that Jesus died in vain. But this story holds the truth for us: God will do all the heavy lifting. All we need to do is show up with a desire to be healed.
And pay attention to what Jesus says when he heals the leper. The leper says “If you want to you can make me clean,” and Jesus says, “I do want to. Be clean.” Jesus wants to heal us. Jesus wants to bind up our wounds and unbind our fetters. Too many people are allowed to feel unwanted, even in church. Too many people hear that you can’t have Jesus’ blessings until you have made yourself right with God. But Jesus does not withhold himself from anyone. Jesus wants to heal, and the ones he wants to heal are those who need his healing the most. Those who are well have no need of a doctor. And so Jesus wants to heal any who will be healed by him. His holiness is not some prize we earn at the end of our journey, but what he clothes us in so that we can make our journey.
In our other passage for today, a man comes to Jesus with a withered hand in the synagogue. Some in the synagogue knew that all healing had to come from God. And they had styled themselves God’s representatives on earth, so they proclaimed that all healing had to go through them. They established boundaries on God’s grace, they limited God’s healing to those who they thought deserved God’s healing. And they didn’t mind at all that their control of the means of grace made them powerful and important people. So when Jesus was in the synagogue they were watching to see that all their rules were followed, so that their role as middlemen would not be circumvented. There was a right and good and proper way for this man to be healed, and it involved waiting until Sunday and presenting himself to the priest, and paying the priest to give an offering in his name, and then and only then, God might see fit to heal the man.
But Jesus did not wait for the Sabbath to be over. And he was angry with those who tried to limit God’s power to what they could control, and he was sorry for all who thought that God could be limited in that way. And he said “Stretch our your hand.” And the man did.
Jesus didn’t worry about the rules that men wrote to give them control over God’s laws. Pay attention to what that means. You are under no one’s authority but the authority of Jesus Christ your Lord. That means nobody else controls your salvation. You are not dependent on anyone’s approval, judgment, or permission. Only Jesus can has control over your salvation.
Friends there is no better news than this because it is only Jesus who has the power to grant you that salvation. So take comfort, you who feels like every thing you touch goes wrong, because you need only to touch him and he will make you right. And take hope, you who are shamed and shunned and soiled, because he wants to touch you, and his touch will bring you wholeness once more. And take rest, you who are weary and tired from a life of struggle and strife. Because Jesus does not ask you to come to him, he comes to you, with the power to heal, the desire to make whole, and the authority to bring you to glory. Come and let yourself be touched by him, and be reminded of what has always been true. You are not defined by the labels others give you, or the sins of your past, you are defined by the fact that you are his, and his greatness will make you great in him.