“THE EXCELLENT WAY, 11: LOVE FREELY GIVEN”
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
November 6, 2016; non-lectionary sermon
Psalm 25:1-10; Luke 17:11-19

“[Love] does not insist on its own way…”
— 1 Cor. 13:5

This coming Tuesday’s a very big day: Election Day. And this is quite an election, to say the least. Never in my lifetime has there been a Presidential contest that’s left the nation so divided, so torn apart. It’s neighbor against neighbor, family member against family member.

Politics is a contact sport. We all know that. Sure, campaign rhetoric can get overheated. In the passion of competition, candidates sometimes say harsh and demeaning things about each other. Yet, never before — that I can remember — have two candidates and their surrogates so thoroughly demonized each other.

They’re not just saying their opponent would be bad for the country. They’re saying that person’s election would bring about the end of our democracy, the destruction of the American way of life. I’ve heard that from both sides. Cast the contest in such extreme terms, and it’s little wonder the battle lines are so hardened!

My concern is not so much for Election Day, as for the day after. Chances are, at some time Tuesday night — or possibly Wednesday morning — we’ll know which candidate has won. The contest will be over. The campaign staffers — who’ve been criss-crossing the country these past several months — will collect their paychecks and go home: some of them to exult in their victory, others to lick their wounds.

Yet, in every community, large and small, across this great land, neighbors who’ve been glaring at each other over dueling lawn signs will have to talk with each other again. Co-workers who’ve engaged in heated discussions beside the water cooler will have to work together on the same project. In a few weeks it will be Thanksgiving. Extended families will come together, across the miles, and sit down together at the dinner table. Many are dreading the encounter.

One such person is a woman named Deena Winter. Deena’s a journalist. I read about her in a column she wrote online. Not long ago, Deena unfriended her own uncle on Facebook. She’d posted some things she’d written that reflected her own political viewpoint, and what he said about her in response was so harsh, she felt she just had to get out of there. “This is a guy,” she wrote, “who could pass for a gentle, skinny Santa Claus, but I couldn’t take it anymore. And this is just weeks after my brother-in-law threatened to block ME, after I posted several stories about Donald Trump (and a few on Hillary Clinton).”

What Deena said at the conclusion of her column was the real kicker:
“I don’t want to go home for Thanksgiving this year — for the first time in my life. We are not a family that dreads Thanksgiving. We are not a family who fights. We’re a family who loves each other truly, madly, deeply. But I know my father won’t be able to restrain himself from talking politics, no matter who wins the election, and a battle will ensue. This election has exposed a huge divide between us: They don’t trust journalists like me anymore. And I don’t think we can turn back the clock to a time when they did. Not in my family, and not in America.”

*****

Something’s gotta change. And I’m not talking about a change in who occupies the Oval Office. The change we need to see is summed up in the line from 1 Corinthians 13 that’s our text for this morning:

Paul was writing to a church that was deeply divided, along partisan lines. It wasn’t about electing candidates to public office (the Roman Empire was not a democracy, as you may recall). It was about followers of Jesus lining up behind certain highly opinionated religious leaders, divided by a kind of party spirit.

Paul says in chapter 1, verses 12 and 13:

“What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

There are some among us, in our land, who are behaving as though they were baptized in the name of Donald, or Hillary.

To that divided church community, Paul says “Love does not insist on its own way.”

*****

It’s always instructive, when we can, to interpret scripture by means of other scripture: and the text I’d like to bring to bear this morning is the one from the Gospel of Luke about Jesus healing ten lepers.

It’s a simple story. Walking along the road, Jesus encounters a party of ten lepers, coming the other way. They don’t come close to him. They very much want to, but they know they can’t: because they are lepers. They have a disfiguring disease their culture understands to be highly contagious.

And so, they stand on the other side of the road, separated from this man whom they believe has the power to heal them.

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” they cry.

Jesus’ response is to shout back, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”

You know what “chutzpah” is, don’t you? Yiddish word for extreme confidence? It comes straight from the Hebrew, from a similar-sounding word that’s translated “audacity.”

Here’s what’s so audacious about Jesus’ response. People with skin diseases like leprosy were banned from the community, for reasons of public health. They were ostracized. They had a way back, though. If ever they were healed, the Law of Moses says, they could present themselves to a priest, who would examine their skin for sores and lesions. If their skin were clean, if everything checked out, they would be welcomed back into the fellowship.

But — and here’s the significant thing — these lepers in our story haven’t been healed yet! Luke tells us they did set off to visit the priests, “And as they went, they were made clean.” As they went. They weren’t healed yet: but they set off in faith, all the same. And by the time they got to the priests, their skin lesions were gone.

Of those ten lepers, though, only one made his way back to Jesus, to thank him for what he’d done. That one, as it so happened, was a Samaritan, member of an outcast people. Samaritans and Jews, back then, were every bit as divided as Republicans and Democrats, as Trump and Clinton supporters.

“Were not ten made clean?” asks Jesus, in wonderment, when he sees the grateful Samaritan kneeling at his feet. “But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus sends the man on his way, then, with his blessing.

*****

I’ve chosen this passage today because the love Jesus demonstrates, in healing the ten lepers, “does not insist on its own way.” It’s a healing with no strings attached: an act of pure love. Jesus expresses some mild surprise that only one man out of ten returns, but he didn’t perform the miracle in order to be thanked or praised. He didn’t do it on the advice of his press agent, who thought a tenfold healing would surely make the front page of the Jerusalem Daily News. He did it purely for love: for the welfare of those ten men who cried out, “Master, have mercy upon us!” It was, like so many actions of Jesus we read about in the New Testament, an act of selfless giving.

Friends, if you and I — and all of America — are going to make it through this next difficult week with our social fabric intact, it’s not going to be because our candidate won. That’s not going to happen, for all of us. Some of us are going to wake up on Wednesday morning exulting in victory, while others of us will hang our heads in bitter disappointment. Politics is not going to unite us. It cannot unite us. Our unity has got to come from somewhere else.

That group of lepers was likewise diverse. Luke says one of them was a Samaritan, but he doesn’t say they all were. Very likely, there were Jews among them, or Greeks. He meets them while traveling “through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” These are the borderlands, a region where one tribe of people rubs up against the other.

There is something, though, that unites those ten people. It’s the common struggle they have: the struggle against their disease. It’s a struggle so significant, it transcends their nationalities. When those ten call out to Jesus, “Have mercy upon us!,” they have nothing to offer in return. On the contrary, their disease has robbed them of everything: social status, family relationships, even their national identity. They are lepers: and that very word speaks of unimaginable poverty, loss and utter dependence on others.

You and I come to the Table of the Lord, today, in much the same way. It’s as that old hymn, “Rock of Ages,” puts it: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.” We come to this table hungry, knowing there is only one who can fill the aching emptiness in our hearts. And he is here with us today, my friends. He is host at this table. In him we find our unity. In him we discover the precious gift of love!

Let us pray:

Under your law we live, great God,
and by your will we govern ourselves.
Help us as good citizens
to respect neighbors whose views differ from ours,
so that without partisan anger,
we may work out issues that divide us,
and elect candidates to serve the common welfare;
through Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.

Copyright © by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.