it was last september when dr. rick sacra became the patient.
he started exhibiting the symptoms and later received the diagnosis that he and everyone else at that time feared most.
that he had been infected with the ebola virus.
later that fall, in an interview with nbc news’ andrea mitchell, after being treated for and surviving the disease, dr. sacra shared some insight that surprised many.
he said that he wanted to go back.
that he still wanted to help others who were infected the disease that had already almost killed him.
if you think about it though, it shouldn’t have been that surprising.
it was in that same interview that dr. sacra confessed that he had known the risks of traveling to liberia, especially considering his plans there, when he initially decided to go as a missionary and use his expertise to serve those who had been stricken with the disease that summer.
dr. kent brantley knew the risks as well, or at least he knew them before it was too late.
he traveled to do missionary work with samaritan’s purse in liberia before the outbreak of the disease,
however even after he started to see the highly-infectious patients flood into the clinic where he was working, he didn’t pull back in fear, but poured himself even more voraciously into his work,
crossing the divide into the isolation units, and doing everything he could to fight what at the time surely must have felt like a losing battle, and which last july and august almost claimed him as a victim as well.
and while this was going on, back at home, concerns about an outbreak here played on news channels non-stop for weeks,
theories were devised that it was a secret government plot.
the virus was compared to isis,
and the suggestion was made that we should stop all travel, if not everywhere than at least to a third of the world’s largest continent, and that we shut down our borders completely.
in hindsight, that may have been a bit of an overreaction,
when all was said and done, 18,000 times fewer people contracted ebola on american soil than died of the common flu here,
as one intrepid writer, seth borenstein, noted, less americans have contracted ebola on american soil than have married kim kardashian,
or, on the off chance you don’t spend your days watching trashy reality television…
the amount of people who wed elizabeth taylor is more than triple that which were infected with ebola within these borders.
but yeah, stop all flights and shut down the borders, sounds reasonable.
the contrast between those two sets of people is astounding.
by knowing the danger of going/staying in liberia, and treating patients with ebola instead of running around like chickens with their heads cut off, drs. sacra and brantley were making themselves a part of a grand tradition.
the tradition of mother theresa, who opened a home for those who were suffering from leprosy.
the tradition of the christians of the fourteenth century who, at great risk to themselves, provided humanity to the dying when they needed it most while the black death wiped out up to sixty percent of europe’s population.
the tradition as the early church, who cared for the diseased while the romans ran in fear.
that the church did this was one of the primary reasons why the church spread so fast in those early years, by the way.
a tradition that started with christ himself, who routinely went out of his way to seek out and not only heal those whom most people would run away from in fear, but by engaging them would restore their sense of humanity.
if you would turn with me in your bibles to matthew 8.
“when jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him,
and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying,
“lord if you choose, you can make me clean,”
he stretched out his hand and touched him, saying,
“i do choose.
be made clean!”
immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
then jesus said to him,
“see that you say nothing to anyone;
but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
a couple things about leprosy:
there were a lot of things within the hebrew tradition that made someone to be considered unclean.
leviticus is full of situations that would render one unclean.
childbirth made you unclean.
for that matter everything that had anything remotely to do with childbirth made you unclean.
for most of those things though, the person made unclean was only unclean for a short period of time.
you left town for a week or two, then the priest declared you clean and things returned to the status quo.
not so with leprosy.
when you had leprosy, you were unclean forever, or at least until you were cured of your leprosy, and that’s if you were ever healed of you your affliction.
you were made to leave your community, to leave society, and to be by yourself, maybe forever.
also, leprosy wasn’t treated like most diseases.
most diseases, even the really scary ones like ebola, you are “healed” of or you “recover” from.
when you have those diseases you are said to be “sick”, that’s the word we use.
not so with leprosy.
lepers aren’t “healed”, they don’t “recover”, they are “made clean”.
likewise, they aren’t “sick”, they are “unclean”.
this could be us looking back and assuming things based on our own context, but it feels like there would be an extra bit of stigma attached to that word “unclean”, if you catch a stomach bug, it’s no big deal, but if you are “unclean” then you are dirty, you are somehow worse than the rest of us.
also, also, because leprosy was considered to be very contagious, people were terrified to come into contact with someone who had been infected.
which is understandable.
we try to avoid people who have contagious diseases too.
a couple weeks ago one of the girls who works for me at my other job sent me a text message.
“i have pink-eye, i can still come in, but everything i touch will get pink eye on it”.
suffice it to say, we got the shift covered.
i mean, we share a desk, and a computer, and a phone.
i don’t want pink eye.
however, fear of contracting leprosy tended to be closer to “stop all the flights and shut down the border” than it was “take a day off work”.
so terrified were the people that they would catch leprosy, they made those who were already afflicted announce their arrival…loudly, so they would know when to run away.
that was the existence of a leper, not only would you not be allowed to live in the city not be allowed to hang out with people, but anywhere you went, you were required to scream “unclean” so that everyone could scatter away from you like birds hearing a gunshot.
and that’s just what people’s reaction to you becomes, that says nothing about the symptoms of the disease itself, the indirect result of which caused you to have bloody sores over much of your body.
given that reality, a leper could be forgiven if at some point they started to feel as thought they were something less than human.
and into that reality steps jesus.
there is something to be said for the faith of the leper himself.
he is the one who initiates this interaction.
he breaks the rules, instead of warning jesus so that he can run away, the leper approaches jesus, kneeling before who he hopes will be his savior and letting jesus know that he believes that jesus can make him clean.
and jesus does not disappoint.
the verse says “he reached out his hand and touched him”.
now understandably, the fact that jesus heals this man of his leprosy is the big takeaway from the story, and it is a big deal, jesus is essentially giving this man his life back.
but let’s not skip over this clause.
jesus “reached out his hand and touched him”.
i would guess it’s a hand on his shoulder or something.
nothing that we would think is that significant, but then, people touch us all the time.
the verse doesn’t say how long the unnamed man had been afflicted, in theory it could have been but a few minutes.
more likely, it had been weeks or months, it could quite possibly have been years.
and in all that time, he had never had physical contact with another human being.
there is something special about touch, about physical interaction with other people.
when i was in college i lived in this christian house, and my freshman year the older guys made it a point to reach out to me, which was nice.
when i asked about why, one of the upper classmen told me about someone who had lived in the house the year prior, and he had left the house disappointed, depressed and distraught, because by what i’m sure was massive coincidence, at no point during that year had anyone come into physical contact with him.
no hands on the shoulder, no handshakes or high-fives or fist bumps.
and that was a huge deal to this guy.
this man had not come into physical contact with anyone potentially for years.
it’s likely that in all that time nobody had talked to him, except to tell him to stay away.
they might not have even looked at him.
this was a man who was made separate from society, from humanity.
for years, whenever anybody saw or heard this man they ran the opposite way everybody ran.
everybody but one.
instead of running away, instead of pulling back, jesus reached out.
jesus intentionally reached out and gave this man his first physical human contact since he had first gotten sick.
jesus made him clean, but also, by reaching out and touching the man, jesus made him human again.
just as jesus, in sacrificing himself on the cross, and enduring the punishment that we deserved for our sins, made us human again.
that is the tradition that kent brantley and rick sacra, and every one of their colleagues who didn’t get in the news, joined when they braved the dangers of disease and volunteered to help ebola patients in liberia.
they reached out while most people fretted about how they were going to insulate themselves.
now, granted, they have a certain skill set that allowed them to partake in this tradition in a way that most of us cannot.
for most of us, if we were to jump headlong into a medical emergency situation, we’d just end up being in the way, and being a danger, both to ourselves and to those in need of medical attention.
i know that i certainly wouldn’t be much help in the operating room.
i faint at the sight of blood, i don’t know what are body parts are really named, or where they are, i don’t know what medicines are called, it’d be a disaster.
but there are ways to reach out to those in need even without a disease outbreak, and even without medical expertise.
in all honesty, most people, and i would include myself in this, aren’t especially excited to reach out to those who could use it even when their afflictions aren’t contagious.
leprosy would be something that’s probably relatively easy to see.
one of the symptoms was that the nerve endings in your skin would become dead, you couldn’t feel if you were bumping into or rubbing up against a wall, or the jagged surface of a rock.
and so lepers did, rub up against walls and rocks often, and enough of that tears your skin away from your body.
leprosy left its victims with scars and scabs and sores all over their body, and that was before the socially mandated verbal warning siren.
but not all scars are visible.
not all illnesses, or afflictions, not everything that would cause somebody to feel something less than human can be seen by the naked eye, and not all warning sirens that somebody might be, or at least feel like they are, detached from the rest of society can be heard from as far away as the leper screaming “unclean”.
that may be mental illness, emotional difficulties, depression or even just social awkwardness.
we’re very hesitant to move into any space where we fear we will become uncomfortable, aren’t we?
or at least, most of us are.
but what if we weren’t?
what if, when we saw somebody who was talking angrily to themselves, instead of quietly moving to the other side of the road, we engaged, provided that they don’t appear overtly dangerous, of course.
what if when we somebody we knew started to detach themselves from reality, when they started to fall into that deep dark void, we called out to them, and gently walked alongside them, and helped them to get through to the other side of the tunnel.
what if we, like those who came before us, provided that touch of grace to someone who needed it.
what if we were to be the ones to help restore someone’s humanity, like jesus restored the humanity of this man.
by seeking out those who felt like they were outside of humanity, jesus changed the world.
that’s probably setting the bar a little high, but i wonder what we could do.
please pray with me:
papa god, thank you for today.
thank you for the blessings you’ve given us.
thank you for the opportunity to come here and to learn more about you.
thank you that when your son came down to earth, that he sought out the people whom most ran away from, and that he restored their humanity.
and thank you that in dying for our sins, on the cross, he restored our humanity.
i pray that you would be with us and guide us.
that you would show us the people in our lives that need that touch of grace, that feel like they are somehow apart from humanity.
i pray that you would give us the strength to seek those people out.
and i pray that you would guide us, as we strive to follow your example.
in your name we pray,