Sermon: Lepers & Blisters
A few years ago, I went in for my yearly doctor’s visit and met with my awesome nurse practitioner. It was a slightly stressful time. Bob was in Cox hospital, it was really cold outside, right before Christmas, which was always busy, and Alex and I were getting ready to spend our first Christmas together. At the end of the visit, she asked me if there was anything else I wanted to talk about, and I told her there was something wrong with my index fingers. She looked at my hair and my freckles. She looked at my index fingers. Then she looked at the rest of my hand. She said, “Do you knit?”
I said, “Does the Pope wear a funny hat?”
She asked, “What are you knitting?”
I said, “I’m knitting Alex a wide scarf for Christmas with allover cables.”
She asked, “Are you using the same yarn you always use?”
I scoffed. There is no “same yarn I always use.”
“No! I bought this gorgeous hand dyed merino wool yarn from South Ameri…ohhhhh.”
She said, “You have contact dermatitis.”
I asked, “How do I get rid of it?”
She said, “Stop knitting.”
Yeah, that’s not going to happen… unless I’m crocheting.
Fast forward to a month ago. We’re walking into the hospital to see Charlie Bunting, and all of the sudden I notice that my index finger is hot and it feels like sandpaper. Oh, I had that thing again. Switched yarns. The next day, when walking into the hospital, I realized my middle finger felt hot, and there it was… tiny blisters on my middle finger. And then the next day, they popped up on the other hand as I sat on the back porch. By Sunday, I had a few isolated blisters on my palm and ring finger. I tried not working with yarn. Didn’t help. I tried benadryl and claritin. Didn’t help. I tried topical benadryl. Nothing. I stopped eating yeast and wheat, which I’m allergic to… fewer, but still…blisters. Cortisone cream helped, but as soon as I stopped using it… more blisters. Every day, as soon as I hit the sun, more blisters on my hands. And peeling. And more blisters. I searched online for a different cause… eczema, psoriasis, a parasite, leprosy? Nope. It looks just like contact dermatitis. So what was I touching?
Leprosy is not a huge problem in the United States, although there are still leper colonies in other parts of the world. It is still a problem in many countries, including Brazil and India. Leprosy effects twice as many men as women, researchers are still unsure how it is spread, and a treatment was not developed until the late 1940s. But from the time people started keeping records, leprosy is mentioned.
In Jesus’ day, if anyone had seen my hands, I probably would have been sent to live outside the community for a week until a priest could see if it was leprosy. There are leprosy diagnosis rules in Leviticus 13. Every disease or affliction of the skin was treated as potential leprosy, and sufferers were isolated until it could be determined that they were safe. In a way, kinda smart… it was a way of keeping the whole tribe safe from communicable diseases. If you were part of the tribe, this rule makes sense. If you were the gal with the contact dermatitis, or the guy with leprosy, this rule stinks.
If it was determined that you had “leprosy,” you were completely isolated from anyone but other lepers. You were forced to live outside the community, have no contact with your family up close. No one touched you, no one saw you… except a few other people you were stuck with because they had the same illness. If you were around in the 80s and 90s, this might sound a little familiar, although the disease was different.
In seminary, we used to run through case studies from our professors’ time in churches to discuss how to handle big issues. In a hypothetical church, a registered child abuser shows up and wants to join the church. The church is well-known to have awesome children’s ministries. How do you offer them grace and welcome and maintain both a safe sanctuary and the integrity of the church’s ministries? In another hypothetical church, the fathers of an alleged murderer and the murder victim sing in the choir together. The father of the victim starts leaving notes for the father of the alleged perpetrator. People start taking sides, wanting the alleged perpetrator’s father to leave… how do you do that?
Whether or not we struggle with the actual illness of leprosy in this country, we have to acknowledge that there are lepers in our midst, people who have been estranged from the community by the community’s choice or pressure… don’t believe me? Get convicted of a felony, and then try to get a job. Try homelessness for awhile, and you’ll be amazed at how people can suddenly see through you. Be gay and Christian in a conservative denomination. And suddenly, the UMC’s theme of “open minds, open hearts, open doors” starts to be more relevant.
A few years ago, the District Superintendent came here for a church conference with a lesson prepared on welcome. He gave us a list of different kinds of people that might find difficulty finding a welcome because of their situation, job, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. People some communities might consider leprous. We were supposed to rank our church’s welcome of all of these different kinds of people. A few minutes after he gave us the assignment, Terri Manley asked if we were supposed to write the names of people in our congregation who met these criteria. The DS gave her the funniest look. Then Gregg Johnson piped up that he had to get halfway down the second page before he found a description of someone we hadn’t had in our congregation. It was “young Arab male.” Then we started suggesting other kinds of people that the list didn’t include. After the workshop, the DS said that the exercise hadn’t gone how he had planned. Then he said he could only think of two other UMCs in the state that would answer that survey like we did.
So on Friday night, Emily comes up to me and asks what those blisters on my hand look like. And then she shows me a knuckle of her hand… and there it is. And I freaked out. O…M…goodness. She hasn’t crocheted in days. It’s contagious! Gingers can spread it to each other. I need to be isolated in the backyard. So I went online, found a forum of people with these blisters. And no matter what their diagnosis, it took reading about 30 entries to realize they all had the same first instruction: Don’t use hand sanitizer.
And then it hit me. “Emily,” I asked. “Did you use the hand sanitizer at Walnut Lawn when we went to see Charlie on Tuesday?”
She answered, “Of course.” Alex piped up, “I never use that stuff, but you always hit the pump on your way into Cox.” And there it was…
Everytime I get contact dermatitis I’ve been knitting, but I’ve also been visiting several days in a row in a Cox hospital facility, and using their hospital grade hand sanitizer on my way in and on my way out. The first time this happened, I was visiting Bob every day. The second time, I was visiting Charlie every day.
And it’s ironic, right? The thing that’s supposed to make me clean would have made me considered ritually unclean in the days of Levitical law.
Jesus is walking between Samaria, the land of the outsiders, and Galilee, when a group of lepers addresses him from a distance. “Have mercy on us, Jesus!” What does he tell them to do? He tells them to go to the Priest because, in Judaism, according to the Levitical law, it is a priest who has to declare them free of leprosy. But it is just this one samaritan guy, not a jewish guy, who realizes on the way there that… hey. I don’t have leprosy anymore. It doesn’t matter what the ritual says, I’ve been made whole. So instead of going to a Jewish priest, he turns around and goes back to Jesus. Instead of standing at a distance and yelling at him, as lepers were required to do, he throws himself at Jesus’ feet and thanks HIM for making him clean. After Jesus wonders why only this guy came back… which we’ll talk about next week… he tells the guy his faith has made him… not clean… but well.
Jesus always asks his disciples if they don’t have eyes to see and ears to hear. Don’t you get it? This Samaritan, foreign, leper… he saw. He actually looked at himself and saw a well person. And he realized that it didn’t matter if he was made “ritually clean” by Jewish law. It mattered that Jesus had made him well. He didn’t need hand sanitizer. He had been washed in the mercy of Jesus Christ.
There are no lepers in the house of God. There are no lepers in his kingdom. Not because “lepers” aren’t welcome, but because he takes away our leprosy, whatever it may be.
There’s a saying that churches are not supposed to be museums of saints but hospitals for sinners. At this hospital, where we all have been made well or are in the process of being made well… you will not find hand sanitizer at the doors. But you will be washed in the mercy of Jesus Christ in the pews. Amen.