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Sunday, May 9, 2021
Scripture: 1 Kings 3:16-28 & Philippians 2:1-5, 4:2-3
“Better Together” Sermon Series
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Not to be Captain Obvious here, but the world we live in is filled with anger and anxiety. I think the convergence of news at the pace of a tweet, an increasing “if you’re not with me, then you’re against me” mentality, and, of course, the differences over how to respond to the pandemic have raised the temperature to the point that things are boiling over. Six months ago I decided it was time to speak into this cultural fever, but I wanted to do so when things were slightly calmer. That time is now.
This is a time of great cultural anxiety. What kind of nation are we becoming? Will it look anything like our ideals? If things change, what do I stand to lose? This is also a time of great arrogance about our ideas and convictions. Within moments of any breaking news, it’s as though cable news has dragged four experts onto a split screen to tell us all why this particular news item is the newest worst thing to happen and how this is the end of the world as we know it. And if that talking head didn’t make the news, they go straight to social media to vomit their opinions in real time. And for those of us who may not be considered experts on whatever the issue du jour is, then we can just as easily lob opinion bombs back and forth on Facebook. We all believe we’re right, and if we’re right, then those who don’t agree with us are automatically wrong and should be kicked off the island. Sadly, I even see this in our closest family relationships, where people who should love each other unconditionally have stopped talked because of disagreements. Are you sick of it yet? I am.
The purpose of this sermon and this series isn’t to dwell on how divisive things have become. We already know that. The purpose is to show you that we Presbyterian Christians already have a lot of biblical and theological tools to be better about how we live together in disagreement. What we believe and how we operate as a church really can be a model for a better way for our community and world – if only we have ears to listen and the ability to slow down and remember who we are as a church should be reflected in who we are with our neighbors, our family, our community, and even online.
We’re calling this series “Better Together.” It’s actually one of our congregation’s four core values that we have painted on our Gathering Area wall – a beautiful mural that many of you haven’t even seen in person because of the pandemic. Being better together reflects our conviction as Presbyterians that our calling is strengthened in the midst of difference. For the next five weeks we’re going to look at different aspects of what being “better together” means biblically and in practice.
My vision for our church is that we are a Big Tent. What do I mean by that? Well, in my mind the big tent is Jesus. He is what unifies us. But underneath that tent are all of us unruly disciples of Jesus. We look different. We have all sorts of different convictions. There are Republicans. There are Democrats. There are Libertarians and Independents. There are poor and rich. There are veterans and pacifists. There are young and old. And there is space in that tent for all whom God calls to be under that tent. There is unity and difference, but it is the unity that defines us while we lovingly walk with each other in difference. It’s something that is built right into how our Book of Order directs us to oversee the church. Paul Hooker, who teaches on this very subject describes it this way. “We are an organic unity, not a voluntary association of the like-minded. But our unity bears within it a particularity of function that is essential to our common life. And both contribute something essential to our identity as a church.” One of the tragedies of our world is that we have lost that our differences have outpaced our unity. Too many churches are defined as “conservative” or “liberal.” Too many churches just as readily identify with this or that political figure and then try to twist Jesus into their political ideology. It’s the wrong direction, and Jesus has plenty of critique for whatever our politics are. Jesus is our unity, and we lovingly and gracefully work out our different convictions under his lordship. As Paul imagines, “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). As individual members, we all play a vital and unique role. Surely a body made up of only right hands wouldn’t work!
So, in the coming weeks we’re going to hear a fair bit from Paul’s writings because he wrote a lot about the importance of unity in Christ and about how to live well together with our differences. But first, I want to look just a little at the famous Solomon story we heard from 1 Kings 3. It’s a story that is meant to glorify Solomon’s world-class wisdom. Even if you have little biblical knowledge, you’ve probably heard some version of this story or the phrase “splitting the baby.” For today, I am not at all interested in Solomon’s solution – even if he was right. What fascinates me about this text is that the reader is presented with an impossible situation. When you read the story carefully, the reader has no idea which woman is telling the truth, so if we removed Solomon’s verdict, then we’re left with a tragic story. Two women in terrible circumstances have had babies. One of those babies died in the night, and both women are claiming that the living child is her own. There are no pictures. These women live on the edge. They have no advocates. While Solomon’s verdict may have been just, I am struck by how unjust the circumstances of these women’s lives are. They sell their bodies for a living. They have no support network. An obvious outcome of their vocation would be pregnancy, right? Wouldn’t it be better if there was a community that cherished the lives of these women and children? And that’s the calling of the church. Of course, we should want the child to be with the proper mother, but we should equally want to see full life for the mother who lost her child. This is a story that highlights how humans are often good at judgment and not good at all at building a just society. As we work towards unity with our particular opinions, I think it is essential to keep our eyes fixed on God’s work through us to create a beloved community.
That’s what Paul is up to in his letter to the Philippians. This is a community learning to live in a new way – in the manner of Christ. Chapter 2 of this letter is a master class in what this looks like. We see the imperative of unity. “Be of the same mind, having the same love,” Paul urges them and us. There is no space for selfishness, that kind of arrogance that is so present in our world that declares if you’re not for me you’re against me. There is no room for ego. But there is plenty of room for looking to your neighbors and putting their interests ahead of your own. All of this is following the pattern laid out by Jesus himself, who set aside his glory to take on the humiliation of the cross out of love for the whole world. In this humbling, God lifts up Jesus, and this is the same pattern for us. Later in the letter, Paul applies this to a conflict going on between two women, Euodia and Syntyche, who are a part of this church. Paul’s words are not just beautiful theology; they are applicable in that moment and to our world today. Where is our allegiance? To Christ? If not, we are making a “lord” out of something that has no business being Lord. We would do well to spend more time learning Christlikeness than bowing the knee to all the lesser lords clamoring for our attention.
So, in the coming weeks we are going to go into further depth about what it means to be better together – to be a people who bring all of our own individual convictions and stories into this big tent and submit them to the way of Jesus. This is hard work. If it were easy, we’d be better at it. Still, I believe that we have a calling we need to live into. As we live into this calling, I also believe that we can be an example of a better way to our neighbors and to our nation. Paul tells the Philippians that they “shine like stars in the world” (2:15), and I believe that we have that capacity too. I encourage you to share these sermons with your friends. They could be the foundation of how to have a new way to be in the world and could be a way for all of us to throw off the anger that so easily ensnares us in our world. Meditate this week on how you can live in the manner of Jesus, who was far less concerned about being right than he was about bringing healing and life to those he encountered. My earnest prayer for us is that we learn a new way of being in the world, a way of unity in Christ that honors the particularity of all of us.