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Sunday, November 4, 2018
Scripture: I Peter 3:13-17 & Acts 17:21-34
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Today we’re wrapping up our fall series on mission. We’ve covered a ton of ground over the past two months. Mission is such a rich topic, but it’s so much more than an intellectual exercise. It’s something we live out together. My desire this fall has been to deepen our understanding of mission, but I’ll tell you that what gives me the most joy is seeing how we racked up so many hours serving in our community in October. We learn mission by doing. Thank you for doing so much! I’ve had a few people wonder if we could keep going with what we started in October. Of course we can! We’re not expecting you to tally your hours any more, but by all means keep serving and loving others. That’s what we’re all about!
Today we’re talking about building bridges. Jesus was a bridge builder, and so should we be. He connected with all sorts of people he shouldn’t have reached out to, according to the customs of his day. Jesus really made things simple for all of us who follow him. Love God. Love others. That sums up everything. Love reaches out to others. Love includes others. Love builds a bridge from me to you, from you to others, from each person to all. Lord knows we need to build some bridges in these fractious times.
That’s precisely what Paul does in Acts 17. Paul is not given enough credit for being a bridge builder, but did you notice what he does with his audience in our passage? He builds a bridge to them. Paul has learned the art of translating the good news into a foreign context. You see, Paul always tailors his message to his audience. If he’s in a synagogue, he talks about his background as a Pharisee and quotes the Hebrew scriptures. If he’s among Gentiles, he reasons with them, never changing his message but changing his methods. And now Paul finds himself in Athens – no longer a political center but still the beating heart of deep philosophical thought in his world.
They like ideas so much that they spend their days entertaining new ideas. Paul has been wandering around town and sees statues to various gods all over the place. Surely in his good Jewish mind Paul is thinking that these people are idolatrous. They have gods for everything. Some would encounter that and immediately start denouncing them. After all, they’re breaking the second commandment! A lot! But Paul has come to realize that denunciation seldom convinces people to change their minds. Instead of scolding them, he builds a bridge to them. He starts where they are.
“Look around you, people of Athens. Surely you see an order in this beautiful world around you. There has to be some sort of organizing force behind that world.” Paul observes the cultural texts around him and connects those with his message. “I see you that you are so religious that you even have a statue to an unknown god. Have I got a story for you! Let me tell you about this God! This is the God that created everything and ordered it all. This God is not fickle and cruel like the gods you discuss. This God loves the world, including you.” Then Paul goes even further. Instead of quoting the Bible to them, he quotes a poet from Athens. This God is near and present, Paul says. “In him we live and move and have our being. We are his offspring.” Paul translates his message into a text that they understand. He builds a bridge to others. He loves them enough to connect with them. At least these Athenians are searching for something, right? He meets them in their searching, reaching out to any who’d like to connect.
Christians should build bridges. They should have relationships with people who are different from them. These relationships build bridges of trust and common ground. This type of work is certainly risky, but it’s part of our mission, part of what God calls us to. In writing to early Christians, Peter lays things out pretty clearly. No one wants to suffer, but for goodness sake, if you’re going to suffer, do so because you’ve been kind, not because you’ve been a jerk and alienated others. That’s just my paraphrase, by the way. Jesus suffered, and we may be on the receiving end of some hurt because there’s just a lot of nastiness in this world. One commentator put it this way, “’Let them criticize us as foolish or whatever,’ Peter says, ‘but don’t give them further cause to criticize the church by being nasty yourselves.’…You cannot promote racial harmony by joining the Klan. You cannot lecture people on the merits of sobriety while knocking back your fifth martini at a cocktail party. And you cannot present a gentle, suffering servant like Jesus while acting in decidedly non-gentle disrespectful ways.”
Perhaps you’ve noticed that these are pretty contentious times we’re living in. Or is it just me? How do we live in a manner that is consistent with our hope in Jesus? After all we’ve just been reminded that we cannot present a gentle, suffering servant like Jesus while acting in decidedly non-gentle disrespectful ways. Particularly as so much energy around us is wrapped up in Tuesday’s election, what are we called to do? Let me offer three brief thoughts that are framed by the texts we’ve just read. First, vote. As Christians we believe in the individual worth of every person. Part of the core of what it means to be Presbyterian is that we believe that good people of good conscience may reach different conclusions, which is why we have a Session with 21 members. We know we will not always agree, but we agree to be in this together. We need more of that attitude civically, I think. So vote. Encourage all who are eligible to vote do so. Drive them to the polls if that helps. Part of our public witness as Christians is to be good citizens. Good citizens will certainly disagree, but approach disagreement with the heart of Christ, not mimicking the worst hatred that is being channeled at us by our politicians. We’re better than that.
Second, be kind. Paul did not run through Athens and yell at them because he disagreed with them. He did not see them as enemies. He saw them as people worthy of the love of God, and so he took the time to learn about them. He spoke with conviction and kindness. By all means be strong and courageous in your beliefs, but for God’s sake let those beliefs be grounded in the Word of God and in God’s love, not in the 24-hour news cycle. Peter says that suffering for doing good is par for the course. It will happen because evil is real and present and active. But don’t be mean-spirited and then think that people are angry at you because of your beliefs. Be kind.
Finally, we are called to build bridges. Bridges connect things. They connect land to land and person to person. They allow for smoother commerce and for enlarged community. Believe me, I used to live on an actual island in Georgia, and the bridge to the mainland was a lifeline for the people of the island. In the aftermath of the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, we saw some bridges being built, even to the shooter, Robert Bowers, whose hatred drove him to do everything he could to burn bridges between himself and others. Bowers was treated at Allegheny General Hospital, and the head of a team of doctors that treated him was a part of the Tree of Life synagogue. Rather than burning with hatred for Bowers who had done something so intolerably evil to his community, the doctor looked into his eyes and sought to find his humanity. Dr. Cohen wondered who this guy was who could do something so awful. He looked him in the eye. Cohen related, “People say that he’s evil, but he’s just a guy. He’s some mother’s son. And how did he get from that to where he is today?” Cohen was building a bridge to someone whose hatred had burned with violence.
And more bridges were built in the aftermath. Muslim groups in Pittsburgh raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the families of the victims. Vigils were held in churches, often made up of people from many religious backgrounds. In a world that tries to define us against them, red against blue, Muslim against Jew, and so on, here is counter evidence that the world needs far more bridges built on love and compassion.
Lord knows we need so much more of that in our world today, where so much has become us against them, your way is a threat to my way, and political power is seen as license to erode the systems that force us to work with each other through our differences. We can be better, and I pray that this church may be a model for building bridges, for respecting difference, and for living out the love of God both publicly and privately. Tuesday’s elections certainly will matter, but no matter the outcome, we have a calling to be an example of the bridge-building love of God to our community.