A Song of Thanksgiving

Holy Eucharist & Baptism
St. Michael’s Anglican Church | Merritt, BC
A reflection on Luke 17:11-19

by Andrew Stephens-Rennie

There we were.

There we were, on that long and dusty road. You know that road. If I know you, you’ve probably heard its stories before. Long, and dusty and dangerous. Robbers always in wait. If ever there was a final frontier, if ever Ancient Israel had a wild, wild west, this would probably have been it.

Into the wild, robbers in wait behind every rock, even Roman soldiers feared to tread the roads of this cringe-worthy fringe of a border town.

And I’ve got to say. I just need to point out, you know, for the sake of clarity, that these robbers weren’t the polite kind. They weren’t the “excuse me, but my family hasn’t eaten today, and I’m so sorry to do this to you, and yes, I can see it’s a slight inconvenience, but acknowledging that, I do believe that I will need to take that loaf of bread” kind of robber.

No. Definitely not. Biker gang might begin to describe it. But even that comes up short. We’re talking about the robbers that would leave you beaten, and dying on the side of the road. These are the folks who’d shoot a man just to watch him die.

And I’ve heard that story, the story of that other Samaritan – maybe you have too. It’s an astonishing, inspirational story, but sadly, it’s another story for another day.

We were there, that day, as Jesus entered the village. Where else would we have been? We were there every day. Where else was there to go? What place did we have to call home, but this? There we were, marginal even to the margins, living and sleeping in the trash dumps of this dead-end town in the armpit of the mighty Roman Empire.

There would be no homecoming. Our destinies were sealed. Our fate assured. We would live, and we would die, by the dump. When you think about it, to say “we would live and die by the sword,” sounds somehow noble. Somehow glorious. But to live and die by the dump? For some reason, people just turn up their noses…

I’ve got to be honest. I’ve got to shoot straight. It’s not as though we were waiting around to be healed. It’s not as though we ever expected to leave our trash-heap home.

You might be asking yourselves, the question might be on the tip of your tongue – when, exactly, was the last time anyone had been healed of leprosy? If the stories are true, and I venture to suggest that they are, no-one had been healed since Naaman, captain of the Syrian army had been healed by the prophet Elisha. Eight hundred, maybe a thousand years, give or take.

As I said, there would be no homecoming. No healing. No lives made whole. This God-damned disease had made sure our destinies were sealed. Who had sinned that we should end up here? I’m not sure I even care anymore.

The weight of it all. The weight of the curse, and condemnation and exclusion. Heavy as a rock. A millstone. Crushed under the weight of it all in these days of dust we’ve always known.

You wouldn’t be caught dead hanging out in a trash heap with a bunch of lepers. Even the quick and the dead need to draw a line somewhere.

And if a Priest were to make his way over. If a Levite were to make his way to this godforsaken town, you can be sure that neither Priest nor Levite would shuffle by anywhere near our side of the road:

Way out on the rim of the broken wheel
Bleeding wound that will not heal
Trial comes before truth’s revealed
So how am I supposed to feel?

Nothing to do. No-one to see. Nobody to talk to, but the other nine.

Way out on the rim of the galaxy
the gifts of God lie torn
into whose charge the gifts were given
Have made it a curse for so many to be born

(Bruce Cockburn, “Broken Wheel” from Inner City Front, 1981)

Out on the rim of the galaxy, the rim of this broken wheel. Out on the rim of the known world, of all that was safe and secure. Never knowing of love, that love is a burning thing, that makes a fiery ring bound by wild desire. Never fell into a ring of fire. Never tasted love so sweet when two hearts meet. If anything, I’d been burned by that ring of fire.

And then one day, everything changed. One day, everything changed for me, for all of us really. That one fateful day when Jesus came, everything changed.

As Jesus entered the village, we went. We went, all ten of us, approaching him. And keeping a respectful distance, we called out. We called out, loudly, wildly, desperately hoping he would hear us.

We cried out, having already heard the stories. How could you not?

The stories of freedom for prisoners and the recovery of sight for the blind. The oppressed set free and the lame who walk.

But what about us? What about us? What about us? 

Perhaps you’ve heard them as well, those stories of Jesus. Perhaps you’ve heard of his concern for the last, the least and the lost. Shunning all conventions, he was seen amongst the outcasts and sinners. Outcasts and sinners like me.

Tax collectors too, they say. Tax collectors! If Jesus could sit down for a drink with the tax man, surely he’d have time for me…

As Jesus entered the village, we called out across the distance, saying “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.” We called out, we waved our hands like a bunch of fools. We may not have been at our most composed. We may not have been the smartest looking bunch. But it was our one opportunity, and we had to make it count.

He was nothing like the Priests or Levites. He was nothing like anyone I’d ever met. From everything we’d heard, this was a man, a teacher, a rabbi unlike any other. This was one who spoke and acted with true authority.

Not the authority of an office. Not the authority of a role. His very presence demanded you listen. Demanded you hear what we was saying, that you understand what he meant.

Surely this was a Son of God.

“Master, have mercy on us,” we clamoured. And as he came closer, as he came to us across the distance, as he bridged the gap, as he closed the divide between sacred and secular, heaven and hell, us and them, all he said were these seven words: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”

And we went. Hurried away, really. It all happened so fast, and we left as soon as he said them. They ran ahead. Excitedly, they ran on ahead.

But I held back. Unsure. Doubtful. What good is a priest for a Samaritan? What business would I have at the temple? I’d be cast out. Heard it all my life. Half-breed, good-for-nothing, stupid son-of-a…

For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.

And yet this Jew, this Jesus, he had made time – if even that moment – for me. Thoughts rattling around, rolling in deep confusion, it was made clear. We could have had it all. My legs went numb – or they would have, if nerve damage from the leprosy hadn’t done it for me. And then slowly, as though creeping through my nerves, coursing through my veins, I started to feel strange.

As we moved on, I looked down. I looked down on my arms and on my legs. I looked down as feeling started to return to my numbed, shell-shocked body, all tattered and torn.

The sensations in my fingertips, the feeling in my toes returned to me. It was happening, happening, all happening…And could it be?

It was in that moment I turned back. It was in that moment I returned to Jesus. Healed by that one, the Messiah, I stood before him. Awed, I returned. Overwhelmed, I fell on my face.

I fell on my face knowing the priests would do me no good. Knowing that the road ahead would be of little ease. And yet knowing, deeply and profoundly knowing that it was in Jesus, that it was in this healing, life giving God-Man that I would find my rest.

Overwhelmed at the magnitude of it all; overwhelmed by the sheer gutsiness of this move; overwhelmed that he would heal someone like me, I found myself headed back to Jesus, a song welling up in my heart:

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Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

Andrew serves on staff at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC as Director of Ministry Innovation, with primary responsibility for St. Brigids, an emerging Christian community where questions are honoured, faith is nurtured, and discipleship pursued.

2 Responses to “A Song of Thanksgiving”

  1. Brian Walsh

    Wow! Now that was a sermon. I was right there in that liminal no-man’s land with that leper. And even though I knew where this story was going, I was anxious for him and his friends, worried that they’d be left in that violent trash dump place of exclusion. Out on the rim of the galaxy indeed. Thanks Andrew.

    Reply
  2. Andrew Stephens-Rennie

    Thanks Brian – I think this is one of my favourite pieces from the past few years. I was incredibly grateful to be invited to share it with an incredible group of young people and their leaders at their annual youth retreat.

    It was a weekend filled with a LOT of Johnny Cash references, as we found ourselves in Merritt BC, and I found myself sleeping in the motel room depicted in the image on this post. It all came together to inspire this retelling.

    Reply

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