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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

God Still at Work on the Nine - 10/09/2016

One weekend during my internship several years ago, I spent about 24 hours at the Southwest Minnesota Junior High Gathering in Willmar, MN. I'm told it is one of the largest youth gatherings of its kind in North America. And it felt like it. I was surrounded by about 800 12-, 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds. The group comes in on Friday evening, bounces off the walls in every direction and velocity imaginable, and then everyone leaves just before lunch on Saturday and a second wave of 800 comes in that evening to do the whole thing over again.

I think many of you will agree with me when I say this particular age group is the perfect example of something that is beautiful and terrifying all at the same time. They are living in that exhilarating and uncomfortable space between childhood and adulthood. Their brains are busy making leaps toward maturity. By day they are often impatient for independence, relentless in their endeavors to test the system and push the boundaries. And by night they still catch contagious giggle fits and clutch their favorite stuffed animals and blankets as they drift off to sleep and – you guessed it – more brain development.

In fact, this age group is developing new synapses and strengthening existing brain connections at the same rate as toddlers. From what I've been able to understand in my layperson's understanding of the science of the human brain, the rate of brain development at these two times in our lives is at its highest.

So you can imagine all the brain activity going on at that gathering. You could feel it thickening and heating up the air. For chaperones and organizers of the event, it may be one of the most amazing acts of God's continuing creation they ever witness. Because, let's face it, who but God could get some developmental traction among kids this age? What but God's activity could keep up with these youngsters of the Kingdom – creating connections in their brains and hearts – experiences of what it means to be faithful, what it means to be part of a Christ-centered gathering? Through the people who spoke, the music they heard, the worship they participated in, they were given the opportunity to peer into a mirror and see themselves and the rest of creation as God does – beautiful, full of potential, and very, very  good. And they were excited about it.

I went home and I took a nap.

And I have to say, recalling the experience of that whole immersion into the world of those young people causes me to understand our text about the ten lepers a little differently than I used to. You will probably not be surprised to hear that most of the kids at the gathering did not line up to express their thanks. There were a few, but the majority would need coaching and prompting to do so.

Like our story today, maybe one in ten turned away from the excitement and energy of the youth gathering to say thank you to a chaperone or speaker or musician. But I think it's safe to say that faith communities are not going to stop hosting engaging and popular events like this for youth because they didn't show their thanks quickly enough or maybe even sincerely.

Instead, we trust that God is working in them in ways only God can.

Perhaps the same was true for the nine lepers who did not turn back and offer thanksgiving and praise when they were healed. Perhaps for them too we must trust that God was working in their hearts and brains in ways only God could envision and carry out.

“Go and show yourselves to the priest,” (v. 14b) Jesus tells them. And so they go – they are doing as they are told. And they are going to the place that is at the heart of the community from which they have been painfully excluded because of the leprosy.

For us, Jesus Christ is at the heart of our community. For these lepers, most of whom we assume to be Jewish, it was the temple because that's where God lived.

The Samaritan leper who turns back is doing as he is told too, but his familiars are a little different. As an outsider, the Hebrew laws are not part of his spiritual culture, he doesn't find it quite so difficult to break away from that obedient bee-line to the temple.

So really, when we dig into this story a little, it's hard to find a whole lot of fault with the nine who did not turn back and prostrate themselves at Jesus' feet. They were doing what they were supposed to do as faithful Jews who also wanted so desperately to live with their families and talk with their friends. The first step to that was seeing the priest and being ritually cleansed and accepted by the priest.

That might remind you of baptism. There's quite a bit of baptismal imagery and language in our readings today.

From the Old Testament we get a story from the life and ministry of the prophet Elisha, and the healing of Naaman. “Wash and be clean,” V. 13b) Elisha instructs his rather difficult student.

In the reading from the second letter to Timothy, the author of the letter talks about what motivates him to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ even in the face of imprisonment and hardship. “If we have died with him, we will also live with him,” (v. 11b) the evangelist writes to Timothy. You might hear echos of words and images we still use in our celebration of baptism today. “By the baptism of Jesus' death and resurrection you set us free from the power of sin and death and raise us up to live in you,” we say each time we gather around the font.

It is a sacrament that we treasure so much as Christians … the way we are cleansed in baptism ... how its sends us into community freed to serve and love and uphold the neighbor ... freed even from the fear of death.

We live, day in and day out, whether we are thinking about it or not, in the glory of that gift. And how often do we turn back to Jesus and give thanks for it? That's the personal reflection this reading led me to this week, anyway. How often do I completely stop what it is I'm doing, turn myself around and fall at Jesus' feet in gratitude? I suspect the answer to that question is: not often enough. But now I'm aware and feeling called to grow more deeply into that spirit of thankfulness.

It also means that I'll be adding a Thanksgiving for Baptism into our worship together as soon as I can.

I think this realization that we aren't always so thankful for our baptisms – at least on the outside and in full sight of others – makes us not too terribly different from those nine lepers.

As one of the nine then, it's more  astounding than ever to think back over what takes place in this story and what it says about God that the nine lepers who did not turn back and show their gratitude were still healed. We can imagine how liberated and wonderful they must have felt as they made their way toward the temple, restored to health again. Many of us have had those homecoming experiences ourselves. And knowing our own struggles with sin and missteps and narrow vision, we trust God was at work in the lives of those nine people, just as God remains at work in each of us.

As one of the nine, we can also learn from the actions of the one leper who did turn back to Jesus in a more outwardly show of gratitude, because we can see that in doing so,  he actually opened himself up to a second blessing when Jesus says “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” (v. 19b)

Maybe a deeper meaning of this story is that Jesus was not rebuking the nine for failing to turn back and give thanks, but rather he was saddened by the fact that only one of the ten would receive that second blessing, the blessing that went beyond curing the disease and restored the man to wholeness in body, mind and spirit.

When we examine it a little more closely, we can see this is a story less about etiquette and more about the wider abundance of God's graciousness we experience when we let our spirits of thankfulness shine through inwardly and outwardly.

Perhaps the real nugget of this story is that in coaching our young people to live with grateful hearts, in seeing ourselves as one of the nine, in reminding ourselves to be overjoyed with thankfulness at the gift of our baptisms, we open ourselves more fully to receive God's relentless and absurdly abundant grace and healing in our lives. And we trust that God is constantly at work in us and through us to make that happen. 


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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