Rev. Stacy Swain
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
We don’t know how long they had been out there. Maybe months, maybe years, maybe a life time. When their skin had started to erupt in open sores, the priests, as was prescribed by the law, had sent them out. As long as the disease of their skin persisted, they were to live at a distance. The disease was a sentence of social isolation and slow death.
That day was like any other. The ten were sitting a ways off from the main road. They were calling out “spare change” to those who passed by. Then a man rounded the bend in the road. He was talking with a group who were all listening keenly to what he was saying.
The lepers must have heard about a great healer named Jesus for they quickly put two and two together and cry out “Jesus, master, have mercy on us!”
I wonder when they cried out like that if they really thought Jesus would help them or were they expecting that he would ignore them like all the rest?
But he doesn’t of course. He tells them to go show themselves to the priests. So, they get to their feet, pick up their crutches, and limp off as fast as they can, back to the priests, back to town, back to the promise of having their old lives back.
And on the Way, it happens. Their sores are healed. Their skin closes. Strength awakens in long numbed limbs. They toss their crutches down and take off running back home.
All of them, that is, except one. One stops. The others call to him to hurry up. But he, waves them off. He stands there for a heart beat and then two. He stands there at what T.S. Eliot calls “the still point of the turning world.” He stands there in what Paul Tillich calls “the eternal now.” And then he turns, sets his face towards Jesus and rushes back to throw himself down in Thanksgiving at Jesus feet and to cry out in praise to God.
Why did he do it? What made him stop and then turn around?
What is interesting is that when he comes panting down the path and throws himself down in front of Jesus, Jesus doesn’t seem to be the least bit surprised to see him. It is almost as if Jesus was expecting him, expecting all of them.
Jesus says: “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?” And then he goes on to say: “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God…?”
“Was none of them found to return and give praise to God?” This story is often interpreted as one that illustrates the importance of saying thank you. But if Jesus was really most concerned here about the ten coming back and saying thank you, why didn’t he just say something like “Are you the only one who has come back to thank me and to give praise to God…?”
Instead he says “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God…?” It’s a strange sentence construction until we realize that the word “found” here is the very same word that Jesus used in the parable of the lost sheep and in the parable of the lost coin and in the parable of the prodigal son about which we read in the Gospels in recent weeks. In each one, heaven and earth is to celebrate that that “which was lost is found!”
“Was none of them found to return and give praise to God…?” What Jesus seems to be lamenting here is not that nine of them do not know their manners and did not return to say “thank you.” But that nine of the former lepers, despite their healing, do not seem to have been found. Their skin may have been healed, and they may have returned to their families and to their communities, but the deep whole hearted healing that God is offering that would have awakened in them gratitude and praise seems lost on them.
In those parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son, we never get to hear how the sheep, coin and prodigal son experience their “being found.” But here we do! Turns out — gratitude and praise are the whole hearted, human response to being found by the love of God. That’s what those nine missed out on. That is what Jesus is lamenting.
So what is it do you think that got in the way of those nine being found? What was it that kept them from encountering the love of God that was waiting, longing, hoping to rise within them and bathe their heart too with wholeness, hoping to awaken wholehearted gratitude and praise?
We don’t know exactly, the text does not tell us, but I bet it has everything to do with everything they wanted to do, and have again, now that they were healed. I bet that when they saw that their skin was clean they immediately started thinking about what this meant for them. How they could go back and have their old lives back. They were busy making plans. Maybe one was thinking about his wife, how surprised she would be to see him step through the doorway. Maybe one was thinking about how he was going to get the business back from his Uncle who seemed more than happy to take it from him when he had gotten sick. Maybe one was thinking about the smugness of the priest that send him away that day and how shocked he would be to have to take him back now. Each one in some way was busy thinking about themselves…
Their memory of Jesus on the road, with the fire of compassion burning in his eyes and the power of healing in his voice, faded behind all these “me” and “mine.”
Those nine returned to their old lives. They were restored. But one stopped and thought about the man that made it all happen. He turned not to his old life but to Jesus and in doing so, he was not just restored but renewed. He does not return to his old life but goes on to his new life. He is now a new creation, not just healed but made whole, made well!
There is a very strong teaching that Jesus modeled and that is one of letting go, of emptying oneself, so that the transforming power of God love may rise like living water (to borrow that metaphor Jesus uses with the Samaritan woman at the well). The nine could not be filled and transformed by this love because they were already full. They were full of self interest.
This emptying of self is called Kenosis in the Greek and it is what the Apostle Paul describes in that beautiful hymn in the letter to the Philippians. In it Paul speaks of Jesus when he says:
Though his state was that of God,
Yet he did not deem equality with God
Something he should cling to.
Rather, he emptied himself,
And assuming the state of a slave,
He was born in human likeness.
He, being known as one of us,
Humbled himself, obedient unto death,
Even death on the cross.
For this, God raised him on high
And bestowed on him the name
Which is above every other name.
So that at the name of Jesus,
Every knee should bend
In heaven and on earth and under the earth.
And so every tongue should proclaim
“Jesus Christ is Lord!”
To God [our God the] glory.
Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopalian priest, author and teacher writes in her book “The Wisdom Jesus” that it was this “self emptying” that was Jesus’ operational mode. “In whatever life circumstance, Jesus always responded with the same motion of self emptying, — or to put it another way, of the same motion of descent: going lower, taking the lower place, not the higher.”
The Way of Jesus, she writes, is not one of storing up for oneself, of concentrating the life force for one’s own advancement. Instead it is a more reckless and extravagant path of giving it all away for the well-being of others. And it is in the paradoxical emptying of self that one is “back filled” so to speak by the power of love that transforms, renews, makes one (w)holy and fully well. (P.64)
And metaphorically, Kenosis is exactly what is going on in the story of Naaman from the book of second Kings.
Naaman is powerful, mighty and rich. But for all of that he does not have the power to bring about the one thing he wants more than anything and that is to be made well. And in order to get what he so deeply wants, he has to be willing to let go. He literally has to lower himself. First he has to listen to a foreign slave girl (cannot get much lower than that in that time). Then he must come down from his high horse when he feels snubbed when Elisha does not come out to talk with him but sends a messenger instead. And then lower still he must go down into the waters Israel to bath. And what is the result of all this self emptying, of going down?
Like that one leper in the Gospel of Luke, not only is his skin restored to the flesh of a young boy but he too has come to know and be found by God. He too is made well.
The way that Jesus lived, the Way that Jesus opened to us to live, is a way of life that is marked not by clinging but by releasing, not by gathering but by sharing freely for the benefit of all, not by playing it safe and looking out for number one, but by risking compassion for the well being especially of those for whom no one seems to care. When we live in this way, there is a deep healing that happens. Love rises within us and our hearts become whole again. Wellness, deep wellness is ours.
And what does a life look like when it is lived in this way? It’s a life that looks a lot like Maria – radiant with gratitude, bursting with Joy, singing praise and thanks giving whenever she can. Maria may be well into her ninety’s, she may be confined to a wheel chair, living within the confines of the Waban Health Center, but her heart is big and wide and deep. And I am convinced that she is well, deeply and totally well.
And if you were to ask her why she is so joyful, why she is so full of praise and thanksgiving she would cock her head slightly and with a quizzical kind of look on her face, as if to say isn’t it obvious, she would say, “Because I have my Lord.” Because Jesus has found her and she has been found.
So let us practice this way of Kenosis in all our living. Let us practice getting down off any high horses we may be riding, down from thinking we always know what is best, down from running away with our own plans and leaving God behind.
Let us practice this self-emptying Way of Jesus so that we too may know what it is to be washed in the waters of God’s love and know what it is to be deeply and wholeheartedly well, what it is to be found. And then let our lives radiate gratitude. Let praise be on our lips always. Thanks be to God! Amen.