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The Unity in Community

What a great theme for the summer – Created for Community . I’ll come and talk about community any time. In fact, today, you may find it hard to get me to shut up – because community is just so central to how I understand it is that God loves us in Jesus Christ – it’s pretty much the whole point – God has created us to live in loving and just community with God and with each other.

Now, I learned this from my pastor and mentor back in Birmingham – Eugenia Gamble – who had this mantra that we’d hear her say all the time: “It’s all about community.”

  • If we were talking about Paul’s letter to the Romans ... “It’s all about community.”

  • If Eugenia was trying to get local officials to fund the church’s new shelter for homeless women and children ... “It’s all about community.”

  • If we were arguing over politics – or the casseroles for the Wednesday night church supper ... “It’s all about community.”

And in my life in that community, this sunk into my bones – so much so, that now at home, if I start getting too excited about people gathering together, and working together, and protesting together, my partner Jeff has been known to say, “OK, OK, I get it, Eugenia Junior, It’s all about community.”

And then we come upon this text from Ephesians, with this soaring proclamation and promise of unity – “You who were once far off have been brought near in Jesus Christ. And now you are one body – growing together to be a dwelling place for God.” This is such good stuff!!!

And so I thought I’d talk about “the unity in community.”

But here’s the thing about “unity” as we usually talk about it in the church. When it comes to unity – as we tend to talk about it in the church – I am, at best, ambivalent.

You see, my experience of the word “unity” in the church has primarily been an experience of silencing – a silencing of my sometimes dissenting voice and of the voices of others – all in the name of unity.

A number of years ago, I went to our denomination’s General Assembly – our biennial national gathering – I think this one was in San Jose – as a seminary-student delegate. This was back in the day when there were significant disagreements in the denomination about whether LGBTQ+ people like me could be ordained – when I started seminary, the church’s policy was that we could NOT. And so early on, I became active with the community within the church that was arguing for a change.

So, we came to this General Assembly – commissioners and delegates – and they had an orientation for us. Part of that was a time when we were separated out into small groups and asked to share our hopes for the General Assembly – each group was a mix of regular commissioners form the presbyteries, young adult delegates, and seminary delegates. I just happened to land at table with my friend, Derrick McQueen, who was also a seminary student, at Union Seminary in NYC.

As we started around the table, sharing our hopes, the second person to share was a woman who said something like this, “Oh, at this General Assembly, I hope we can be all about unity. You know, every time GA happens it ends up in disagreement over ... well, controversial issues. And that’s all the newspapers talk about – about our disagreement, and about arguments, and protests. I just hope that we can all get along, and avoid dispute or disagreement over, you know, controversial issues.”

And that kind of set the tone. Nobody said anything much different. I don’t remember what Derrick said, but when it got around to me, believe it or not, I hardly said anything at all. As we walked away from that table, I said to Derrick – who is now the Rev. Dr Derrick McQueen – I said, “Wow. I felt really silenced at that table. Like my just being here is unsettling.” And Derrick – who is both gay and Black replied, “Welcome to my world, honey. Welcome to my world.”

You see – too often in the church – we speak of unity as agreement – as this calm and comforting sense that we all get along – that there’s no real difference or dispute – no controversy, no disagreement, no protest.

But that works well only if you are in the majority. Whenever there is any power imbalance – which is always – thinking about unity-as-agreement only works for our places of power and privilege – where the status quo is a comfort and a balm.

  • When unity is agreement, it is a breach of unity to disagree or to raise controversial issues.

  • At its mildest, unity in that sense works to silence disagreement and dissenting voices, and to keep the body from addressing or even thinking about ... controversial issues.

  • At its very worst, this type of unity can become even more coercive – “There is only one way to think, and dissenters must be actively punished.” Unity in this sense, and in this extreme, becomes an instrument of oppression, and a tool of despots. Think about it.

Last month, I went to a very different kind of General Assembly. Here we were, ten years later, a lot has changed – ordination and marriage are now permitted in the PCUSA – but a lot remains to be done. So this year, More Light Presbyterians, CovNet, and a number of presbyteries brought three overtures related to justice for LGBTQ+ people and our families.

  • One addressed the current controversy over religious freedom. It affirmed that Presbyterians have long affirmed religious liberty AND at the same time we have a longstanding commitment to non-discrimination. So the overture clarified that religious liberty doesn’t mean that you can discriminate against and harm other people.

  • A second overture affirmed the rights of transgender people within the church and world – to serve, and to be, and to live free of violence – it also affirmed the whole spectrum of gender and our growing understanding of all of the ways that gender is embodied in each of us.

  • And a third overture affirmed the gifts of LGBTQ+ people for service, and lamented the church’s historic exclusion of LGBTQ+ people and our families.

All three overtures passed the General Assembly -- unanimously. In fact, they passed on something called the Consent Agenda – which is a list of items and issues that people think won’t be contested or controversial. Any one delegate – out of hundreds – can pull an item off. And no one did. They passed unanimously.

It was a different kind of General Assembly. The Assembly also supported the human rights of Palestinian people, and even started the process for looking at including MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in our Book of Confessions. One big failure of the Assembly was not adequately addressing climate change – another issue that this congregation has been such a strong advocate for.

When we found out that the LGBTQ+ overtures passed on the consent agenda, unanimously, we were surprised. I was standing with friends with whom I’d been working on those issues, and I said, “Is this the same Presbyterian Church?” And a friend replied, “Well, everybody who opposed us has left.”

That comment stood me still. Of course, it’s an overstatement. But it points out another truth about unity. Unity is not about agreement. It’s also not about winning votes. There are many reasons we can celebrate what happened at this year’s GA – there were concrete moves toward justice and inclusion, perhaps the re-emergence of the denomination’s prophetic voice. But we can’t celebrate in the name of unity. We can’t claim unity with authenticity, when we are living in schism – and when we always have. There are the current divides, and before those, the church was split North and South, Old School and New School. We have Presbyterians, and Methodists, and Baptists, and Assemblies of God. We have Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox.

It is an inadequate and inaccurate and impoverished understanding to think of unity as just agreement. There has to be more.

And so we come to this passage from Ephesians that speaks into our deep division: “So remember this – you who were far off – everyone who has been told that you are a stranger or an alien – that you have no hope – remember this: In Christ Jesus– in the flesh and blood and life of Christ – God has broken down every dividing wall. In Jesus Christ, those who were far off have been brought near. You are – we are – no longer strangers or aliens, but citizens and members of the household of God. We are one body – Christ’s own body – being built together and growing together to be a dwelling place for God.”

Now, we’re not quite sure who wrote Ephesians, and we’re not even sure who was the intended audience for the letter. But one thing is clear. The writer of Ephesians is writing to people who have experienced division and exile, and the writer wants to convey some important things about unity:

1. First, and most importantly, our only unity is in Christ. Our unity comes from and exists in God’s love for us in Jesus Christ – and even more specifically, in the blood and suffering and cross of Christ – in Christ’s humanity with us and for us. God loves us so much, and desires unity with us so much, that God came to us in Jesus Christ – and took on our humanity – fully human, fully God – and entered into the whole of life with us – even our suffering and death.

2. Second, this unity we find in Christ is first and foremost about breaking down every dividing wall. In fact, “dividing wall” is a pretty weak translation of what’s written in the Greek. There are actually two words – the one translated “dividing wall,” but then another that is even more concrete – the hedge fence that runs between fields. We might call it a border fence. God, in Christ, has broken down “the dividing wall of our border fences, our hostility.”

3. And then, third, by entering into our experience, into our humanity, God in Jesus Christ has created an entirely new humanity – a humanity of community and unity. This new humanity has structure and architecture – it is embodied – we are one body. We are being built together in Christ, and we are growing together to become the very body of Christ – a dwelling place for God to bless the world God loves.

In Jesus Christ, God has come to stand with us – entering into the fullness of our life and our suffering. The invitation then, to us, is that we come and stand with Jesus. We find our unity when we come to stand with Jesus who has come to stand with us.

The Belhar Confession has an even more specific way of saying this. As you may know, the Belhar Confession is a statement of Christian faith that emerged out of the experience of apartheid in South Africa – it is people of faith standing against policies of legalized, forced racial separation. Out of the experience of apartheid, Belhar emphasizes that unity “must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways” – that unity must be embodied, and that unity requires that we “practice and pursue of community; that we bear each other’s burdens; that we suffer with one another for the sake of justice; that we pray together; and that we together serve God in this world.” Unity is so much more than agreement and a feeling of comfort – it is embodied – it is a way of living – it is standing where Jesus stands.

Belhar says it plain: 1. In a world of injustice and enmity, Jesus stands with the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable. 2. The church must stand where Jesus stands. 3. And so, the church must stand with people in any form of suffering and need, and must stand and strive justice.

Unity is not a feeling of agreement. It is a location, and that location is Jesus. We find our unity when we come to stand with Jesus who always stands with the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable.

Something else happened at the General Assembly that had little to do with Parliamentary procedure and votes. In the middle of the week, we paused all the business, put it on hold, and we took to the streets to protest something called “cash bail.” “Cash Bail” is a system that requires anyone arrested for even minor offenses to pay substantial cash bail or sit in jail, indefinitely, or at least, until they can get a trial on those charges. So someone who can’t pay, just sits there in jail, and they lose their job, and their income, and maybe their home – and it all spirals downward. “Cash bail” policies discriminatorily impact African Americans more than whites – they are part of this nation’s racially discriminatory system of mass incarceration.

So the General Assembly, under the leadership of local community organizers and our Stated Clerk, Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, took up a collection (including money that individual churches had sent), and we marched to the jail, through the streets of St Louis, and took $40k to bail people out of jail. In Luke 4, Jesus says, “I have come to proclaim good news to the poor – release to the captive – and to let the oppressed go free.” More than any vote during the week, in that moment, we experienced and embodied unity.

Since January 2016, I’ve taken to going to protests when I can – as many of you have done. Someone asked me if I really think that makes a difference – and, you know, I don’t believe that the President has changed his mind on anything because Scott Clark showed up at a protest.

But here’s what I have experienced. Something happens when we put our bodies together in one place and stand for something good. Something happens – when one, becomes 2, and then 3, and then hundreds, and then thousands, and then millions, and then those millions somehow miraculously become one. Something happens.

Something changes. In me. And in the gathered community. And hopefully – connected with phone-calling, and letter-writing, and fervent prayer, and running for office – something starts to change in the world.

Our unity isn’t found in calm agreement. It is found in a specific location – when we stand there together. We find our unity when we stand with Jesus, who always stands with the poor, and the oppressed, and the vulnerable.

And we know there are plenty who are vulnerable – the gap between the rich and the poor grows every day under this Administration; the streets of San Francisco are overflowing with folks who have no place to call home; the Administration has rolled back Title IX protections for women and for transgender students; our President sees White Supremacists marching in the streets and suggests that there good people among them; our Government is separating families at the border, and putting children in detention. So many who are vulnerable. So much to do. Together.

It IS all about community. AND, community is about ALL THIS. When people are made vulnerable by the use and abuse of power in the world, our unity is not a feeling of calm agreement. It often must be raucous and disruptive and always, always embodied. We find our unity when we show up in our bodies – and with our whole selves – and stand with Jesus, who always stands with the poor, and the oppressed, and the vulnerable. And I want us to do that now. Let’s stand together and say together what we believe in the words of the Belhar Confession:

We believe that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged.

We believe that God calls the church to follow, for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry;

that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind;

that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly;

that for God pure and undefiled religion is to visit the orphans and widows in their suffering;

that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek the right;

that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need,

which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Copyright 2018, Scott Clark. Reprinted here with permission.

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