This past week on both the Today Show and NPR radio, I heard a woman being interviewed about a book she had written describing the French way of child rearing. One of the things that I learned is that the French have four magic words that they teach their children, whereas we here in the United States have two magic words – please and thank you. French parents teach their children please and thank you, but they also add hello and goodbye. They do this because they know how important it is for them and their children – for all of us, really – to be in close contact with other people.
Another method of the French way of child rearing is to pause for a few moments before picking up a crying baby in a crib, to see if it the child will calm down on its own. Just a few moments. Apparently French parents do not pick up their babies at the first cry, and neither do they allow them to cry for however it long it takes until the baby stops on its own.
I found that interesting, because I came across another study this week. The Memminger Institute in Topeka, Kansas once had a fascinating experiment. They identified a group of crib babies who did not cry. Babies cry because they instinctively know that this is the way to get attention. Crying is their way of calling out.
These babies, however, came from homes where their parents let them cry for hours on end and never responded. Do you know what happened? The babies eventually quit crying. It is almost as if they had learned that it was not worth trying.
So the Memminger Institute came in for an experiment. They got some people from retirement and from nursing homes, and every day these people held these babies and rocked them. The object was to get these babies to start crying again. And you know, it worked! These babies connected with these folks who held them and rocked them. Physical touch had made the difference.
This is not a sermon on child rearing, but a sermon on the touch that comes from Jesus. I think we can all agree that whether we’re talking about babies or adults, we know that healthy, physical touch is important. However, as important as physical touch is there is another kind of touch that is even more important. It is spiritual touch. This is that special touch that influences and impacts the lives of people, and leads to transformation.
The telephone company some years ago had a slogan that you may recall: “Reach out and touch someone.” Do you remember that one? Well, I couldn’t help thinking about this when I read in our Gospel lesson today that that’s what Jesus did. A man comes to Jesus with leprosy, and Jesus reaches out to the man and touches him. The man is healed. His leprosy is gone.
Thankfully, in our day leprosy has almost everywhere been wiped out. It is a curable disease today, but in Jesus’ day it was the most feared of all diseases. It is a disease that is highly contagious. So much so, lepers were not allowed to live in their own towns or villages – their own homes!
So naturally, lepers were avoided. They were outcasts of the worst kind. And that’s where we find this particular man with leprosy in our Gospel reading today. He is an outcast, living without hope. No hope that is, until one day Jesus comes walking by.
The Scriptures tell us that Jesus healed many people. Sometimes he just spoke a word. Sometimes people were healed just by touching the fringe of his garments. But here, Jesus touches the man. He does more than just heal him. He touches him. Jesus touches the man when no one else would. Please do not overlook that. This is a touch that we should not forget.
You see, if Jesus was willing to reach out to touch someone who – quite frankly – was untouchable according to the social standards of his day – then it seems to me that Jesus is also willing to reach out and touch each one of us as well – willing to reach out and touch you no matter where you are – no matter what you’ve done – no matter how long you’ve been away.
And that goes for our family members – our friends – our neighbors – who have removed themselves from the faith community. Maybe they grew up in a loving, Christ-centered family. Attended church. Professed their faith in Christ Jesus, but for whatever reason – have chosen to live as outcasts from the faith community in which they were raised – or where they may have once been a part of.
I am here to tell you that Jesus does not give up on them and neither should we.
You see, it is His desire to reach out – and to touch – to touch all who are hurting – all who live without hope – all who have wandered away – all who have yet to experience his loving touch for the first time. Jesus wants to reach out and touch them. There is no one – no one who is an outcast in the eyes of Jesus. There is no one in this room who is an outcast in the eyes of Jesus.
And there is not a one of us today who is not in need of the Jesus touch. And let me tell you – that’s exactly what Jesus desires to do. When Jesus touched the man with leprosy, we are told that Jesus was “moved with pity.” Jesus was moved with compassion. And it is with that same pity – that same compassion – that Jesus reaches out and touches you.
Let me share a story about Michael Wayne Hunter who was put on death row in California in 1983, in San Quentin Prison. After his third year on death row something happened. One day he was getting ready to spend time exercising when the guard said, “You're going to miss Mother Teresa. She's coming today to see you guys.” “Yea, sure,” he said. A little later he heard more commotion about it and thought it might be true.
Another guard said, “Don't go into your cells and lock up. Mother Teresa stayed to see you guys.” So Michael jogged up to the front in gym shorts and a tattered basketball shirt with the arms ripped out, and on the other side of the security screen was this tiny woman who looked 100 years old. Yes, it was Mother Teresa.
This hardened prisoner wrote about his experience. He said, “You have to understand that, basically, I'm a dead man. I don't have to observe any sort of social convention; and as a result, I can break all the rules, say what I want. But one look at this Nobel Prize winner, this woman so many people view as a living saint, and I was speechless.”
Incredible vitality and warmth came from her wizened, piercing eyes. She smiled at him, blessed a religious medal, and put it in his hands. This murderer who wouldn't have walked voluntarily down the hall to see the Warden, the Governor, the President, or the Pope, stood before this woman, and all he could say was, “Thank you, Mother Teresa.”
That day was a turning point in the life of Michael Wayne Hunter. This San Quentin Death Row prisoner was cleansed by that experience. Life changed. Suddenly there was meaning to it. So drastic was the change a new trial was set and the death penalty was not sought. The verdict was guilty on both counts of first degree murder but a new sentence was given: Life without the possibility of parole.
Prosecution did not seek the death penalty because Mr. Hunter was now a model prisoner and an award-winning writer. He is one other thing: A testimony that Christ still is willing to heal, still willing to touch the untouchable, and to make us whole.
Through a woman name Mother Teresa, Jesus was able to touch Michael Wayne Hunter, and turn his life around. Now, I know, you and I will never think of ourselves as being in the same league with Mother Teresa, but if Jesus has touched your life, does it not make sense that we too should reach out to others with the healing touch of Jesus?
Sometimes all it takes is a handshake – or maybe even a hug. Who among us couldn’t use a hug once in awhile – or maybe even every day? Or a listening, compassionate ear. A touch. Whatever it is – never underestimate the power of healthy touch.
And one more thing. Since Jesus could not pass by people who were hurting – they in turn could not help talking about the wonderful things he had done for them. And the more they talked, the more of their friends came to Jesus as well. Jesus simply cared so much, and people who encountered him were so touched by him they simply could not keep it to themselves even when he told them to be quiet.
Remember what I said earlier. That in addition to the physical touch, there is a spiritual touch – that special touch that influences and impacts the lives of people, and leads towards transformation. Folks – I am here today to tell you that Jesus wants to come to you – speak a word of grace and forgiveness to you – and most importantly – to touch you today. To touch you at the point of your need – no matter what it is. And once we have been so touched – whether it is a physical touch or a spiritual touch or both – once we experience the love and the joy and the compassion of Christ – then it seems to me that we cannot keep it to ourselves. We cannot keep it from the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely.
That’s our job. That’s our calling. And to do so in the name of Jesus. It is the compassionate – it is the caring thing to do.