Jesus Reaches Forth His Hand

 Saint Matthew structures his gospel so that we will see the movement from teaching to action, from word to deed. It is set out in large form in chapters 5 through 9. Chapters 5 to 7 are the Sermon on the Mount, that magnificent body of teaching that begins with “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and contains at its very center the Lord’s Prayer. The Sermon on the Mount gives us Jesus’ teaching in depth. Then chapters 8 and 9 give us his healings and other actions in particular detail.
    It is well-crafted, and worth close attention.
    The deeds of Jesus begin with a simple healing story, but what depths are in the simplicity! Jesus comes down from the mountain of teaching, and a leper comes to him, falls down before him, and states his belief to Jesus: if you want to, I know you can make me clean. What this leprosy was, we don’t know for sure, but in the text it is understood as an uncleanness, some sort of contagious something that insinuated itself into one’s skin. Consequently, the leper was shunned and stayed to the edges of society. People kept their distance from the leper, to try to be safe and not to contract the disease themselves.
    The leper’s faith is well-placed. Jesus can heal him, and he does want to. But before Jesus speaks, he performs an action. You, dear reader, can imagine having an infectious condition that people are afraid of. You can imagine a healer coming to you who, maybe, has the wherewithal to make you clean. But how will you imagine that healer coming to you? In the year of our Lord 2021 you will imagine: he stops outside your room, washes his hands carefully, puts on a gown, puts on a hood, puts on a mask, covers his face with a shield, and covers his hands with gloves. Then he comes in to see you.
    Jesus had no PPE. But the situation was as emotionally fraught, and you can imagine a gasp ran through the crowd. The leper came forth and everyone else, instinctively, pulled back, but Jesus stood his ground. And as the crowd stared,Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him. And then Jesus spoke. Immediately, Saint Matthew says, the man’s leprosy was cleansed.
    The man was cleansed when Jesus spoke: be thou clean. When Jesus first put forth his hand, and touched him, he was not yet cleansed.
    Don’t get me wrong: I’m not making a point against PPE; for those of us who are not Jesus, I think PPE is good stuff! My point is about Jesus, and about human touch. The immediate action that flows forth out of the word of Jesus is the deed of touch. Jesus comes down from the mountain of teaching and stands his ground and touches a man no one else would have touched. The isolated, feared, shunned, unclean human being feels on his body the touch of God.
    That touch of Jesus restores his humanity.
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    Our humanity has been grievously challenged by the Blasted Virus. We have been told to “practice” social distancing. But being distant from one another is not what we humans are created by God to be; to avoid touching one another is not what Jesus restored us to be. It surely seems important for us to keep physical distancing at this time—I myself believe it is very important—but we should not get used to it. It needs to feel wrong, to be only an emergency measure, not something we “practice” in order to get good at it. We practice virtues in order to grow into them. We dare not grow into physical distancing.
    As we look forward to a time of “re-emergence,” let us keep in front of us the very first action that flows out of the teaching of Jesus: the hand stretched forth to touch, to heal, to restore to human fellowship the person everyone else was afraid to touch.
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    Readers Write: In response to last week’s post, a professor of psychology and ethics told me there was a local storm online amongst social psychologists back when “social distancing” began to be promoted. They were wondering whether to intervene around the term. (Obviously, social psychology was not part of the science governing the early pandemic response.) And another reader told me that the first time he heard someone say “physical distancing” (rather than “social”) was by our presiding bishop, Michael Curry. This also was early on, and striking; my correspondent thought, “Good for him.” Amen.
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    Out & About, Virtually & Otherwise. I am to preach at the Church of the Redeemer in Sarasota, Florida, this weekend (Feb. 6/7) and to speak to a widow(er)s’ group and the adult Sunday class. This will also be on their website. When I lived in the Hudson Valley I used to badmouth Florida (see a remark or two in A Priest’s Journal), but I’m happy to eat those words.
    Sunday, February 14, I will be preaching at the 10 o'clock eucharist at Our Merciful Savior in Kaufman, Tex. This is an exclusively in-person experience. It has charmed me to see that the diocese of Dallas has had three churches dedicated to the Savior, to our Savior, and to our merciful Savior. I am campaigning for a church plant dedicated to either “Your Savior” or “Our Unmerciful Savior.” The latter could have a special devotion to Oscar the Grouch, no?
    After such thoughts I clearly need to confess sins. I’m to preach on Ash Wednesday (February 17) at various services including two services outdoors “in the lot.” I suppose that entails a lot of ashes? (Sorry; how many Hail Marys for a bad pun?)

 

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."