October 15, 2023 Sermon – Truth or Consequences

Rev. Rhonda Cooper
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
October 15, 2023
Philippians 4:1-9
John 13:34-35

I have learned from the newspapers that we as Americans have a First Amendment right to lie. We can spread untruths and conjectures, even unfounded hopes and misplaced dreams, if we so choose… and we have a constitutional right to do so. I have lately learned that this is one of our freedoms as American citizens. Well… OK. Clearly, in some quarters, freedom is equated with license, saying and doing as one pleases, as in, “It’s a free country; I can say or do exactly what I want. And nobody can stop me.” Well… OK. That is one way to understand freedom, and apparently it is the understanding of a sizable number of our citizenry.

We commonly think of the opposite of freedom as being shackled, incarcerated, in which estate a person has few if any rights. It is not a “free country” for the imprisoned. Interestingly, the letter to the Philippians was written by just such a prisoner, the Apostle Paul, and here in the 4th chapter on the subject of truth. He was in a place – a Roman prison – where he had little or no freedom or rights. However, he very likely had a better understanding of truth and freedom than the majority of our national and international leaders today, perhaps even a better understanding than some religious leaders, for whom truth is fluid or relative.

From behind bars, the Apostle Paul wrote a beautiful, moving letter to the young church in the city of Philippi, a church he himself founded. Before he closed his letter, here in his parting words in chapter 4, he urged two of the church leaders, Euodia and Syntyche, to be reconciled to one another and “of the same mind.” Actually, Paul was pleading with these leaders to be at peace with each other, not inviting or encouraging or suggesting, but begging them to be reconciled. As co workers of Paul, they likely helped found the church. They clearly had influence and power within the church.

This was not a dispute about what to serve for lunch after church. Whether these were organizational or theological differences between Euodia and Syntyche, Paul knew that there was distress within the fellowship on account of their dispute. These leaders’ differences, rather than being respectfully considered each by the other, had the effect of disturbing the peace. Their sisterhood in Christ, their collegiality, had been disrupted – with the side effect of anxiety taking root within the church. What began as a dispute between two valued leaders mushroomed into the community. And although we would like to know exactly what was at issue, the more important issue, from St. Paul’s perspective, was the disturbing effect on the church. I suspect that his greatest fear was that this young church, his “joy and crown”, would become a church divided, unable to move forward or grow or have an impact on its wider community.

So from behind bars, Paul counseled the church folk of Philippi: “Whatever is true and honorable, just and pure, pleasing and commendable, this should be our mindset as Church. This is the way we express our freedom in Christ,” he would say, “with respect and civility, even in our differences.” This should be the lodestar, he would say, our guide, our rudder for our relating, in our words as well as our thoughts. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable,” he said, “think about these things,” and let them guide your actions. To do otherwise is to remain prisoner in spirit, even though free in the body.

When freedom becomes license for disrespect or disregard for others, or being knowingly dishonest, then distrust, disengagement, disordered-ness, even destruction ensue – whether in church or neighborhood, city or state, country or continent. Whether in the disputes between Democrats and Republicans, Republicans and Republicans, or the malignant distrust between those of differing cultures, colors and ethnic groups, we are witnessing and experiencing the results of a lack of civility and mutual respect. Rather than difference giving rise to creative decision-making and solution-finding, as in a healthy community, rather than difference bringing energy and enthusiasm, the anxiety that ensues from a false understanding of freedom becomes demeaning and destructive.

This past week has brought nothing but heartbreak and tragedy as sisters and brothers in Israel and Palestine have literally maligned and murdered one another. Euodia and Syntyche still live among us and in the Holy Land, their dispute continues to give rise to mayhem and destruction. Disputes about freedom and faith, heritage and hierarchy, territory and terrain, all of this has broken open in a way that we fear may never be healed. The anxiety in the Middle East has erupted with a furious force. We can little afford to be silent and not beseech all sides, to show mercy rather than retribution each to the other.

You may say, Pastor, but there are also disputes and wars and ethnic struggles in other parts of the world, what about these, and yes, this is true. Sudan, the Congo, Ukraine, Iraq, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Syria, Haiti, Venezuela – need we go on? It is true. Yet somehow, the fact that Jesus lived and worked and died in what we think of as the Holy Land, the fact that the patriarchs and matriarchs, prophets and sages of our Holy Scriptures traversed that same territory, this makes it all near and dear to our hearts. Even if we personally have never stepped foot in Jerusalem or Bethlehem or Nazareth or the River Jordan, we think of this land as the place where our faith was born. So yes, this conflict is near and dear to our hearts.

That being said, I do wonder, where does the world’s anxiety begin? What do we contribute to the world’s anxiety through our lack of regard for one another at the local level, even in the Christian community, for those who are “different” from us. How about on the national level, in the halls of Congress; or the international level, in our response to injustice in the world. Do we fail to find our own points of agreement or alignment, within our congregation? Do we fail to speak out for a better way to live together in this city, in this world, on this planet?

Do we stand firm in our faith that God has created all the people on this earth? Spurred on by the wisdom of St. Paul, are we keeping our focus on those things that are true and honorable and just and pure and pleasing and commendable, so that we might find peace, the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, not only in our hearts but in our world. Brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues, let us cling to our idealism that in following the wisdom of the Gospel, there is a better way to live together on this great, wondrous planet we – and many others – call home. For this is the word of God, for the people of God. So be it. Amen.