Last week, we broke bread in spite of our differences.
We shared at the table of the Lord with people who would vote differently than us and with some who would not or could not vote at all.
And we touched [will touch] the waters of baptism and remember our baptism in Christ and that we are all children of God.
And we did so because our heritage… our inheritance as a church… our tradition as people of God… is to overcome any division among us.
Paul exemplified this in the way he gave thanks for the Gentiles in Ephesus… in spite of the vast sea of differences between them.
In today’s scripture reading, Paul is writing to a different community… to the people of Philippi in Greece.
This, too, was a diverse community, and one of the interesting features is that there were many descendants of Roman army veterans living there.
Later on this morning, we will share together in a potluck meal and celebrate and honor our veterans… all of those who have faithfully served our country, who sacrificed in countless ways for us. Every step of the way, they put the rights, the lives, the needs of other people above their own.
I believe that self-giving spirit… that spirit of love that would cause someone to lay down their life for another person… is part of what has made our country great. We don’t sit back when people are in need, but we show up. We have showed up to fight back tyrants and dictators, oppression and evil… and not always because it was on our doorstep, but because it was on the doorsteps of others.
All throughout the letter to the Philippians, you can see that kind of self-giving spirit we honor in our veterans. Practice these things… practice that holy, radical, sacrificial love… Paul writes.
And yet, the context of Philippi was very different. This was the site, if you appreciate history, where Brutus and Cassius were finally defeated by the armies of Marc Antony. And much of the land was taken away from the original inhabitants and given to the soldiers and their families as a reward.
This was a place of division, dislocation, and disparity and the gospel of Jesus Christ took root in the people who were the most vulnerable in this community.
For some, everything had been taken away from them: their citizenship, their land… everything that made them who they were.
Until they found their identity in Christ.
And as Paul writes this letter of encouragement to these displaced people, that identity, that love, that faith is what he reminds them of over and over again.
In chapter 3 he writes: “All these things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him.”
These are not empty words of someone who had privilege… as Paul was. As a Roman citizen, he had rights that many of them had just recently lost and this might have felt like salt thrown onto open wounds…
Except, Paul really did let go of all of his power and privilege for the sake of the gospel.
This letter is being written from a jail cell – because Paul is awaiting trial for preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.
He is living out with his very life every word he writes on the page… including the call to “adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (2:5-8)
Practice these things…
In every part of this letter, Paul reminds the church at Philippi to put others ahead of themselves. To love fiercely, in spite of what might happen. To overcome conflict and difference, anger and fear.
And friends, that’s not easy.
When there are deep divisions in a community it is easy to hunker down with people who are like-minded, to grumble and argue, to weep and be overcome with discouragement or to hold our victories over one another.
But Paul tells us to be grateful.
Paul tells us to rejoice.
Paul tells us to let love reign in our hearts.
The key to unity we heard last week… the key to overcoming division… is gratitude for the people who are different than us.
It is echoed all throughout this letter, too.
“Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.” (2:2-4)
And in our scripture this morning, from the Message translation:
Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them. (4:4-5)
Friends, I need you to know that there is real pain and fear across this nation right now.
There have been acts of hate and violence and aggression in our communities and neighborhoods. And in this neighborhood, there are families who fear they will be separated and there are people who have been targeted because of their gender, or sexual orientation, religion or ethnicity, or even because of the clothes they are wearing. I cannot and will not utter the hateful and horrendous words that have been used to diminish the value of our neighbors.
There have also been acts of violence as a part of generally peaceful protests and marches.
So I need you to know that I am not calling for a unity that blissfully ignores conflict.
Paul is not calling for a unity that ignores the trials and tribulations of our brothers and sisters and siblings OR neglects truth-telling and accountability.
Paul is in prison because he refused to be silent… because he challenged the powers-that-be with the radical love and gospel of Jesus Christ.
No, the type of unity Paul speaks of is a unity of resistance against the forces of this world that seek death, division, oppression, and hatred.
Paul calls us to “be blameless and pure, innocent children of God surrounded by people who are crooked and corrupt. Among these people you shine like stars in the world because you hold on to the word of life.” (2:15-16)
Stand firm in your faith, in spite of your enemies.
Be united in love and compassion.
Be united against injustice.
Be united against hateful rhetoric.
Be united in protection of the most vulnerable.
Put into practice all that we have learned from Paul – and won’t worry about it, don’t be paralyzed by fear, but lift up petitions and supplications and praises to God.
As Paul writes to the people of Phillipi:
Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse… (4:8)
So let me close by telling you a story… a first-hand account from a Muslim woman:
Yesterday my husband and I attended a football game, it was Duhur time and we needed to pray.
Finding a place to pray at a football stadium is tough, but we managed to find an empty corner.
I was a bit nervous to pray because it wasn’t private at all, particularly in front of everyone, maybe i’m silly but i’m always paranoid i will get attacked while focused in prayer. My husband started praying and i get approached by stadium security.
I thought in my head, here comes this guy, he’s gonna escort me out and tell us we can’t do this here.
I was wrong…
he came up to me and said “i am going to stand here and guard you guys to make sure nobody gives you any problems, go ahead and pray.”
He allowed us to pray and stood in front guarding us to make sure we are safe. When i finished he came up to us shook our hands and told us to enjoy the game.
The key to unity… the key to overcoming division… is gratitude for the people who are different than us.
The key to unity is to listen with grateful ears the stories of another person… even if it is a story of hurt and fear and pain… it is holding open spaces for people when they are scared… standing by their side when they are in pain.
The key to unity is to seek out someone who is different from you and to tell your story – even if it causes conflict BECAUSE we are grateful they are part of our community and because we want to continue to be in relationship with them.
The key to unity is to practice what is good and true and holy… putting others before yourself and giving thanks to God that they are in your life…
May it be so.