As we approach all Hallow’s Eve and All Saint’s Day, we find ourselves in the midst of another season in the rhythm of life in these United States. You may think that I am talking about Fundraising Season, but that is not exactly what I had in mind. Of course this is the time when every non-profit organization from public and Christian radio stations to organizations that promote physical health and social well being are hunting for donors. If you have ever supported any cause then this is the time of year that every communication device you use seems to have a target on it.
The church is, of course, complicit in the mix – yet we do have the audacity to suggest that we should come first. For most of my life, that argument has been boiled down to, “because the Bible says so,” even though there is a lot that the Bible says to do that we simply do not do. I think the question that should be on our minds and hearts is not one of obligation, but rather a question about priority and transformation.
Do we believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is truly transformative? If we do, are we willing to be transformed by it – as a people and as individuals? Are we even willing to dedicate our time, our money, our skills, and our wills to a purpose that we cannot see, anticipate, or determine the end results of?
That’s what the Prophet Jeremiah told the exiled community of Jewish leaders to do. These captured citizens of Judah were the elite. They were the literate scholars and decision makers. They were the makers of infrastructure – the keepers of identity for God’s people. Among them a false prophet arose to console them with words about Babylon’s destruction. So Jeremiah, the true prophet of God, wrote them and said, “Hunker down.”
Perhaps it is only history that proves the false prophet from the true, and we will never know how much of the stories of prophets were written down after the events they foretold, so (as I have said before) I want to encourage you with the idea that a prophet is not a fortune teller. A prophet is a truth teller. A prophet is one who has the courage to speak the obvious truth that no one wants to hear. A prophet is one who demonstrates a new way to listen to God’s active presence. A way of listening that convicts and consoles our conscience and moves us from complacency to action.
As we listen, the Lord says, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Are we not, for the most part, exiles in this community? Even if you have lived here for a generation, there are very few among us that are natives of Lafayette. So, we too have been sent here to encourage the welfare of this community in all of its complexity and diversity. Many of you do this in your own way, and to some extent the congregation is more of a launching pad for those who serve in their own way.
Yet the church is not simply a non-profit among non-prophets. We exist to demonstrate something more. We exist to offer a collective witness to the truth of salvation and wholeness through faith in Jesus! But what does that mean, exactly? Does it mean that we simply tell people about this man Jesus, and that his deaths made God – the author of all existence – decide not to destroy us for the times that we have already tried to destroy ourselves?
No. The truth of salvation is so much more! Not only does it mean that our soul, our life force, our very will to be, will continue living long after our bodies are dead and gone; it also means that we have been set aside for a very special purpose. That’s the season I never got around to describing earlier – election. Paul says that his suffering benefits the elect. Who could that be?
Well, as one of the oldest controversies in Christian history, I’ll simply say that “the elect” could be anyone. In fact, my hope rests on the idea that it is everyone – whether we know it or not. For Paul, there were but a handful of people in the world (even though thousands had been said to believe) that had received the revealed knowledge of God offered by Jesus. Logically, this meant that there were some to whom God had revealed Godself, and some to whom God had not. It had to be this way in order to demonstrate that God was not like any other deity. That is how God worked through the years. Over and over again God chose the weakest link within a covenant people through which to be revealed. God wanted to make it clear that whatever happened wasn’t from the strength of men and women, but only through the grace of God.
As time went on the idea of election was interpreted to mean that God knew, and therefore ordered or at least allowed, that some would repent and believe and some would not. Because we do not earn God’s love and forgiveness, then it is only by God’s action that some will be saved and enter eternal bliss and some will instead receive torment. For over a thousand years this has made sense, and to some it still does. The grand critique has always been free will, and the most historic answer is from St. Augustine, who said something like “we cannot even want apart from the will of God that makes it so.”
I have to say that I find that hard to swallow. Of course, St. Augustine lived in a time of violence and upheaval, so I can’t really say that he had no clue how bad things might get. I think the place where many of us struggle in this day and age is with the idea of a good, just, and merciful God that is limited by human concepts of salvation. On the one hand it makes absolutely no sense for God to be so capricious that salvation and good works have no connection. Good works may flow from salvation, but according to tradition, that’s no assurance that you are indeed of the elect. Still, if there were some kind of eternal kick back for good behavior, even the most saintly among us have anxieties and limitations that keep us from living a life that is worthy of salvation. So, if some are elected for salvation and some not, what does that say about God? That is why I rest my hope in the God of Isaiah who said, “Is there anything for which my hand is too short to redeem?”
That leads us to the most dangerous part of the gospel – the part with Jesus in it. Jesus is the one who sees the ten men who are leprous. In the NRSV it says, “ten lepers,” but the Greek indicates they were men who were leprous. That’s the first and most dangerous thing. The gospel of Jesus makes us see people for their humanity. Not only does he see them for their humanity, but he removes the thing that keeps others from seeing them as human. He sends them to the priest to fulfill the social obligations of healing, but also to be clear that what he is doing is a part of what God is doing.
Then the Samaritan turns back. The Samaritan – the one who personifies defilement – comes back to thank him. Jesus asks, “Weren’t ten healed? Where are the other nine?!” Of course they were off doing what he told them to do. The Samaritan, on the other hand, was not bound by religious expectation. He was bound only by his gratitude, and it was his gratitude that transformed him and redirected his life!
That, my friends, is why the gospel is dangerous. It removes the masks we put up to keep others from seeing our flaws. It demands that we see others for their humanity – not for their masks of beauty and of shame, but for their character as reflections of the heart of God.
The truly dangerous thing about all of this is that we are challenged to look at the things we do that invite, that discourage, that transform, and that resist transformation. The nine leprous men did not come back because they were too busy fulfilling what they expected were the requirements of God! They were so anxious to get back to being and doing who and what they did beforehand that they missed out on the reality of God’s active presence.
The question they missed, and the question staring us in the face, is how to be a people of God instead of people who do what they think God wants them to do. How does being seen and touched and known by God help us to see and know and touch the humanity in someone else?
Today we will elect officers to guide us in this pursuit. The important thing to remember is that we believe in “The election of the people of God for service as well as for salvation.” That is not a statement about church officers that we elect. That is about those whom God has chosen. Take a moment and look to the person to your left. Take a moment and look to the person on your right. When you go home, take a good look in the mirror as well. Officers may serve in a certain capacity, but all of the people have rolls to fulfill in proclaiming our collective public witness!
As we continue our holy conversations about the need for connections and relationships and resources in our community, let us not be so caught up in being the church that we neglect being the people of God. I would say that there is not a person in the room I would not vote for, but my vote does not count. You have been elected by God for service and salvation through the self offering love of Jesus Christ, and so have I. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!