Dealing with Division

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Philippians 1: 12-18

Preface: Wilderness

Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage. (thrice repeated). So, at least, thought Augustine of Hippo.

But you already knew that. I mean in your own experience, you already have learned that. In the thickets, brambles, dark paths, wanderings, mistaken trails, and accidents of your life, you already have met the hope family daughters. In the wilderness.

Jesus meets us today in the wilderness. In Lent, Jesus walks with us in the wilderness. I remember during my Junior year abroad in Segovia, learning as Lent began that one of our least religious Spanish friends was reading weekly Ignatius of Loyola’s Ejercicios Espirituales. Surprised, I asked why. ‘Siempre se saca algo bueno de este libro’. One always takes something good from such a book. One learns, guided in the wilderness.

Ours is a winter of discontents already familiar with wilderness. The desert of global terror. The forest of economic collapse. The badlands of political conflict. The sands of personal, existential worry. Ours is a winter of discontents already familiar with wilderness.

One standard, central casting feature of wilderness is division. Discord, dissent, disagreement, difference. In the wilderness, in real human life really lived by those really alive, we are always dealing with division.

How do you deal with division?

This morning, reading Paul, I hope you will deal with division holding hands with both daughters, anger to left and courage to the right. Hope has two beautiful daughters.

But you already know this.

One playwright said of his own work that he was simply holding a mirror up in front of his audience.

The ministry of the word, of preaching, is like that. We are holding up a mirror in which we can see ourselves, perhaps our best selves, maybe our forgotten selves, usually our selves in the manner of feeling the need of redemption.

In other words, this Sunday, come Sunday, any Sunday, the preacher is not primarily here to tell you something you do not know. That may happen. That may be a part of it. In fact, in a pulpit like this one, it should be part of it. So when they ask you at Shaw’s, over the melons and bananas, if you learned anything over at BU, you might say, ‘well, yes’. But that is not the marrow of the ministry of the word.

Here, you hear about something else. Here, you hear, not about something you do not know, but you hear about something you do know. You may have mislaid it, this something. You may have neglected it, this something. You may have forgotten it, this something. You may have avoided it, perjured it, rejected it, dismissed it, this something. But you know it, you know about it.

I am not here to tell you about something you do not know. I am here to tell you about something you do know. I am not here to give you something that you lack and I have. We are here together to receive something we have together, know together, share together, especially at Eucharist.

That is what makes Sunday so joyful. Sunday is like a reunion with your best friends in the world. Sunday is like finding a book you have been missing for a decade. Sunday is like coming upon a town you had forgotten about forever, in which you fell in love. Sunday is like reaching down into a drawer, and feeling the smooth circle of a diamond ring you thought had disappeared forever. Sunday is liking having the chance to talk to a dead parent, a dead lover, a dead friend, when you never thought, ever thought, that chance would come again. That is what makes Sunday, Sunday.

When we offer a prayer, we do not do so as if you could not do so. We offer a prayer with the hope that it will say out, shout out, in a far sharper way than you might have imagined, what is on your own heart, already.

When we sing an anthem, or in this case, a full mass, we do so not because we know something you do not, or understand something you do not, or appreciate something you do not. This is not music appreciation 101. We sing because in our bones we feel and hope that the beauty you know, you recollect down deep, will be truer to your ear than it has ever been, precisely because you have known the feeling before.

When we preach a sermon, we do so not as if you could not say something similar. No, the word is faith speaking to faith, one beggar secreting to another the path to bread. Oft thought, ne’er so well expressed…

Our friends give us back ourselves. Here is the way our old friend F Schleiermacher put it:

Others of us, however, see the task of ministry as that of giving a clear and enlivening description of a common inner experience, and what emerges as doctrinal teaching is really only a preparation and means to this end. We do not fancy that we are introducing into our church communities something completely new…Rather, what is possessed is shared in common, and we serve our brothers only by explaining more clearly to them what it is and so awaken in them the joy in it as well as concern for it. (First Letter, 41)

What is our shared, common inner experience? What is our best past, when we face division?

I give you the witness of a man who knew a bit about conflict, Paul of Tarsus.


Paul offers two divergent means of addressing conflict in his intimate, personal, pastoral letter to the Philippians. On the one hand, Paul displays a magnanimous courage in division, a courageous magnanimity toward his enemies. Hope’s first daughter, courage, takes his hand.

As the letter opens, Paul displays a robust magnanimity with regard to opponents. He is in prison, presumably as a consequence of something he said. His confinement he understands to ‘advance of the gospel’. Guards have been impressed. They have told others of this remarkable apostle. Many know of his willingness to suffer bondage for his Lord. ‘All the rest’ appear to know the story. Their gossip he understands to advance the Gospel, and also to make others the more bold to bear witness, for their own part. Those who know that his imprisonment is for the defense of the gospel preach out of love, and acclaim Christ. Others denigrate his service and suffering. We cannot know for sure, but Paul implies that these others use his bondage to evidence his unworthiness, or untrustworthiness, and find perhaps a kind of rough justice in his confinement, which, in their preaching, also, though contrarily, acclaims Christ. Paul surveys the waterfront. He acknowledges both the sweet and the bitter. Then he serves up his forbearance, his moderation, his equanimity. ‘What then? Either way, Christ is preached, and I rejoice in that.’ Note the difference, find the common ground, celebrate the good, move on. Paul exhibits magnanimity.

Paul offers two divergent means of addressing conflict in his intimate, personal, pastoral letter to the Philippians. On the one hand, courage. On the one hand, Paul displays a heartfelt anger, an angry heart toward his enemies. Hope’s second daughter, anger, takes his hand.

As the letter begins to close, Paul displays a ribald anger with regard to his opponents. It is unclear whether this group is the same group who receive kind treatment earlier. The tone and approach of the two passages are so entirely different that, though no textu
al evidence exists for this, readers and scholars have wondered whether two different letters have here been combined. Beware three groups, says Paul, and then he names the three groups. The dogs. The workers of evil. The mutilators. He has no tolerance for those who encourage gentiles to be circumcised, no tolerance for those who depend on works to achieve salvation, no tolerance for those whose pessimistic, nationalistic, narrow interests keep them sniffing, like dogs, in spiritual refuse. Elsewhere (Gal.) Paul suggests, like Lincoln encouraging slavery supporters to try slavery for and on themselves sometime, that those who want to mutilate others might start by castrating themselves. Paul has barked like this before. His thrice repeated warning, ‘beware’, marks out a brightly colored line of distance from and disdain for his opponents. Note the difference, forget the common ground, attack the evil, move on. Paul exhibits anger.

How shall we understand which of these approaches to employ, ourselves, when confronted with opposition? How shall know to select either courageous magnanimity or heartfelt anger? By what authority shall we choose?

We could, somehow, refer to Scripture, and let the weight of biblical interpretation rightly divide this word of truth. Of course, Paul would not have done so. He makes almost no authoritative reference to his (Hebrew) scripture in the course of his letters, with the exceptions of reliance on Abraham and remembrance of the Psalms.

We could, instead, refer to the words of Jesus, and let the collection of dominical sayings, enshrined in dominical deeds, make us wise like serpents and innocent like doves. Of course, Paul would not have done so. He knows nothing of Jesus, or chooses to know nothing—no teachings, no wisdom sayings, no proverbs, no stories, no histories, no birth or death narratives, not parables, no mount or plain sermons, no beatitudes, no woe oracles, none. If he knew these, they hold no power for him, and if he did not, he did not seem driven by curiosity to acquire them.

We could, then, plunder the Egyptians, or at least the Greeks, and draw on philosophers and other wise teachers. Of course, Paul would not have done so. He makes no appeal to Plato or any of his descendants, to Aristotle, or any of his, nor to any of the lesser figures and schools, although echoes of Stoicism to resound, here and there, in the letters.

No to Scripture, to Jesus, to Socrates. No. How then shall we know? Paul with aplomb and otherworldly courage says: ‘In your own spirited experience you will find the way’.

Let your conscience be your guide.

As you deal with division, in your own experience, you will learn and you will know. Every community, if it is real, knows division. Four roommates in a college dormitory know about division. Six humans throw together in a nuclear family know about division. Five hundred baptized Christians in a church know about division. So do colleges, universities, cities, states, regions, and countries. Even in congress, they deal with division.

How will you know whether the one daughter or the other is your best ally? I have no clue. You will find your way. You know better than any other.

Silver and gold have I none. Two slight suggestions, though. Dealing with division only through anger or only through courage may not work. Any real anger (so easily misdirected by the way), you will want to temper with the courage of magnanimity. Any real courage (so difficult to muster), you will want to temper with heartfelt honesty, even anger. Likewise, take the long view. Is your opponent working toward your own self-same goal, telos, end? Then your sister is courage. Is your opponent dividing you from your own self-same goal, telos, end? Then your sister is anger.

In print this week, in tears, I read the angry response of Elie Wiesel to his fraudulent investor, who had stolen Wiesel’s life savings and ruined his Foundation. He spoke in heartfelt anger, and rightly so. Yet even the punishment he suggested, to fit the crime, I noticed, he judged should have a time limit–last only five years. Anger, tempered with courage.

In print this week, in joy, I read the magnanimous response of Barack Obama to those who voted against him. Yet even the warm embrace of those who opposed was tempered with a little salt, ‘I knew we could find some bilateralism in this chamber’, he chided.

Jesus meets us this week in the wilderness, today the wilderness of division. He brings hope, in courage and anger. He brings hope, in anger and courage. In courage and anger, he brings hope. He is our hope.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

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