(Maple Saplings, October. Painting by Tom Thomson, 1915)
It is a beautiful Canadian Thanksgiving weekend. On Friday as I walked to the church the sun was a blessing on my face and the children were playing in the park and there was that golden light in the trees that is the peculiar beauty of the fall. Nature has conspired with the civic holiday to lift up our heLuke 17:11-19)arts, to make us feel that our Thanksgiving is joined with a greater song: and in this it is pointing to something true.
It is something that the story of the 10 lepers helps us unpack (Luke 17:11-19). What is Thanksgiving about? Certainly it has to do with turkey and family and friends; the acknowledgement that in these things our lives are blessed. Under this, however, lies something more, something beyond our own celebrations and embracing them, something embracing those who have no celebration, a larger story of a world that is beautiful and a world that is lost, and Jesus who comes to save. It is a leper who shows us what thanksgiving is.
When Jesus meets the lepers he is, Luke tells us, on his way to Jerusalem. In fact we already know that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s been on his way to Jerusalem since chapter 9, and this is chapter 17. So Luke’s reminder here is pointed, and we will come back to Jerusalem in a minute. Ten lepers meet Jesus as he walks toward Jerusalem and they stand far off and cry, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
They stand far off because they are lepers, after all, and they are commanded to keep away lest they bring uncleanness upon the people. “They shall live alone,” Leviticus 13 says; “their dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
This is the state of things in their lives when the lepers cry out to Jesus. They are sick and they are alone; they are cast out from they people. They are the ones who are named unclean. Like the scapegoat, cast out of the city with the whole people’s sin on its head, the lepers bear in their bodies the burden of an uncleanness that is, however, not limited to them alone.
This last is a difficult thing to admit.
I still remember a “newspaper article” we read in 7th grade about the people of a primitive place called Latipsoh and how they treated their sick and dying. Like the lepers of ancient Israel, the sick and dying of Latipsoh were cast out, segregated from the healthy in large institutions populated entirely by the sick and dying. We 7th graders were incensed at this unfeeling treatment—and then our teacher revealed the punch line. Read Latipsoh backwards. What does it spell?
It was not a fair treatment of hospitals, where in my experience nurses and doctors work long hours with untold patience and kindness to care for people who are suffering. But the point about our society stands: we too remove the old and sick and dying from our sight. We wish to cast out the uncleanness from the camp, to assure ourselves that is belongs to someone else. But it cannot be done. Every one of us is going to die. This is in part simply a fact of life. But it is also a theological statement. In the midst of life, the BCP funeral service says, we are in death. The BCP is talking to us, and it is talking not just about the physical reality of death but about the darkness of this life. Rwanda, Aleppo; the harm that we do; the recalcitrance or misery that sits from time to time like a raven over our hearts. In the midst of life we are in death. I used to find the BCP’s words morbid, like my friend who collected 19th -century mourning rings. But here’s the thing. It is true. And if our life is to be true, it has to take account not only of the beauty of the world on this Thanksgiving weekend, but of its heartbreak too. What is the life that is true, that shows us how to walk in the joy of a perfect fall day at the beginning of Thanksgiving past the newspaper box from which Aleppo stares out at us in ruins? How shall we sing the Lord’s song in the beautiful and haunted land?
In its own history, Israel comes to see that the leper is an image for the people as a whole. When the people of Israel sit by the waters of Babylon mourning their own devastation, the destruction of the temple and the casting out from the holy city of the holy people of God, they finds in the leper the image for exiled Jerusalem.
“Away! Unclean!” people shouted at them;
“Away! Away! Do not touch!”
So they became fugitives and wanderers;
It was said among the nations,
“They shall stay here no longer” (Lam 4:15)
Now in Luke’s Gospel it is precisely the lepers who come to Jesus. Ten of them, the quorum for a synagogue of Israel. The lepers stand far off, and from their exile they make their cry:
Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.
Jesus, Master. This is the beginning of the song.
For Jesus our Master is on his way to Jerusalem, and in this lies the hope that runs under all things. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and there he will die. He will die as a criminal dies, with a thief on either side of him. He will die outside the city with those who are cast out. He will die on a cross, like the lepers as one unclean.
The lepers who are healed on the road to Jerusalem are signs, promises, anticipations of the great act of healing that is to come. In Jerusalem it will happen. Thief, leper, outcast, every dying woman and man, on the cross Jesus is with all of these. Jesus is for all of these; he is the one who dies the deaths that we die. It is the cross that is our hope. There it is, sign of all the uncleanness that casts out, now the sign of healing.
The lepers are healed on the road to Jerusalem because that is who Jesus is. The knowledge of his love is the joy that runs under all things. Here is the source of all thanksgiving, all our song’s fresh spring. For the joy of the sun on a lovely fall day and the trees and the children playing, the joy of turkey and family and friends, these good blessings of our lives are not made null by the suffering and the sin that is true at the very same time. Jesus stands between. His arms stretched out across the ruined places to draw the outcast in. It is the leper Jesus touches with the mercy of God to write God’s love on his skin. To write God’s love, the will of God to heal, on all the heart’s lost places.
Nine of the lepers find in their healing, in their own skin, the blessing itself. That is enough for them—and it is indeed a great deal—and they go on their way.
One of them hears a greater song. One of them finds the blessing in Jesus, and in a whole world set right.
(Ten Lepers, painting by Bill Hoover. http://billhooverart.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Stir-3.jpg)
It is not just the beauty of the day that we sing, on a Thanksgiving weekend; not just the turkey and the family and the friends. We sing Jesus the Master and his healing cross, the blessing at the heart of all things. There is a song that thrums in the world’s very bones, and the trees of the fall blaze with its joy. Thanksgiving is more than a weekend. It is the word creation sings. For we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power and the wisdom of God. Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus our Lord: it is the word that makes an agèd man more than a paltry thing.
And it is the action at the root of our lives. Eucharisteō: I give thanks. This is what the word Eucharist means. Each week we turn to Jesus with the leper and give thanks, each week at this altar we lift our voices; with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we lift our voices and sing. Thanksgiving is the act, the truth, at the centre of our lives, not just this weekend but always. Our celebrations with the family around the table this weekend are pointers to a larger joy. For Christ has died and Christ is risen, and even our hearts are brought in.
How can we keep from singing?