Today is a significant day in the life of this congregation, as we will gather this afternoon to make official our pastor-congregation relationship – a relationship already in progress. We’ll gather together with folks from across the presbytery to bless this relationship.
Though you don’t do this often – install a pastor – there are parts of the service that will be familiar. In the installation service, there will be a series of questions – vows – for me, the pastor – and then a series of questions – vows – for you, the congregation. The questions to me are the same questions that we ask every year when we ordain and install deacons and elders. Good and worthy questions:
· Do you trust in Jesus? Yes.
· Do you look to Scripture to see God’s love for all people across history and today? Yes, yes.
· Do you look to the traditions of the church as expressions of how we can live the life of Christ together? Yes.
· Then, there’s everyone’s favorite: Will you serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love? Yes!
· I’m an oddball – my favorite – next to the Jesus question – is hidden in the list: Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry? I hope you experience that in me.
But there’s one of those questions that makes my bones ache – Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church? – because my bones and the bones of so many know how those words – over the history of Christianity – have been used to exclude and to silence marginalized voices and bodies.
Now, that may sound startling at first. They sound harmless enough. But think about “purity.” The Hebrew Scriptures have what are called “purity codes.” At best, we could say that they are ancient tribal rules to control conduct that reflect ancient understandings of what’s good for the tribe as a whole. That’s generous. If we go deeper, we know that they’ve been used over the centuries to reinforce patriarchy and all manner of exclusion and oppression. You are pure; you are not. You are clean; you are not. Your body is worthy; your body is not. “Purity” has been used over the centuries to exclude
· women’s bodies;
· bodies with different abilities and disabilities;
· bodies with illness;
· queer bodies;
· bodies that look different from the dominant class based on what we would now call race.
The notion of “purity” has been misused to harm so many bodies. And, we know that Jesus stood against that understanding of “purity” and the misuse of the “purity codes.”
“Peace” may not be as obvious. “Peace” sounds harmless. But far too often, “peace” gets invoked to mean tranquility, silence, and calm – when marginalized voices are trying to speak up. The problem with “peace” like that is it leaves no room for protest, or for speaking uncomfortable truth in love, or even debating in love questions that are worthy of the struggle. "Why are you so loud, and disagreeable?"
Likewise, “unity” can be invoked to mean conformity. To be in unity, it is said, we must conform – we must each and all believe the same things. If you conform, you are in, and we are in unity. If you don’t, if you think otherwise, well, you’re out – because, after all, the Bible calls for unity.
I think I’ve told this story here before –before I was pastor. As a seminary student I attended a national General Assembly of our denomination as a student delegate. I was so excited. We gathered in small groups at first to discuss our hopes for the Assembly. I ended up in a group with another student, my friend Derrick McQueen. We went around, and it went fine, until one woman said, “My hope is that we don’t do anything that will get us in the newspapers – with Israel/Palestine or the gay issue. I hope we will all just get along.” I didn’t have much to say after that. Afterwards, I said to my friend – now the Rev. Dr. Derrick McQueen –I said, “I feel like we were just told to sit down and shut up.” To which, Derrick – who is gay and Black –replied, “Welcome to my world, honey. Welcome to my world.”
Too often, “peace, unity, and purity” have been used to silence and marginalize voices and bodies and people who are different – different in the eyes of individuals and systems that hold power.
The point of this sermon is to share with you how this morning’s Scripture and other Scriptures and life in the Body of Christ have pointed me to a different understanding, and how they have helped me find my way to “yes.”
This morning’s Scripture comes at a hinge point in the book of Ephesians. It’s right in the middle of Ephesians’ six chapters. For the first three chapters, the writer has been celebrating what God has been doing in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God has chosen to be Christ for the whole world, with a mighty strength stronger than any power that would oppress, so that all might live free. We are God’s own children – created in Christ to do God’s loving work in the world – saved and claimed by grace – so that – rooted and established in love – Christ comes to dwell in our hearts. God, in Christ, in us, able to do more than we could ever ask or imagine.
And then, in chapter 4, verse 1, the writer says, “Therefore..” Therefore, because of God in Jesus, this is how we live. This is how we live as one body – the body of Christ. All that God has done in Jesus, who has come to dwell in our hearts: This is how we live it out. In one body.
We notice pretty quickly that this one body includes many bodies. The writer is pulling all this together in this image of the one body of Christ – one body, one hope, one God, one baptism, one spirit – but it’s not a body of sameness. The body of Christ is a welcoming body – a body made up of many bodies – diverse and different and vibrant – each body created uniquely – particularly and fabulously equipped to bless the world. You. And me. Every body.
And then, we see that this one body isn’t complete – until all bodies – are free. The writer says, remember, Christ descended, and then ascended – and in doing so made captivity itself a captive. The work of Jesus was and is the liberation of all bodies – making “captivity itself a captive” – dismantling every system and power of oppression – so that all bodies might live free. That is the work of Jesus – the work of the one body of Christ.
The body of Christ is not complete until all bodies are free.
It’s only when all bodies are freed that we can together “grow into the fullness of Christ.” And the writer of Ephesians describes what that looks like. Each of us is created uniquely – with our own particular set of gifts and talent and wisdom – some called to be teachers, some prophets, some deacons, some pastors. Each body – each part of the One Body – is needed. The unity of that body is a diversity of bodies freed to be and do all that they are created to do – not silenced, but speaking the truth in love – building each other up in love.
The unity of the body of Christ – the peace, unity and purity of the Body of Christ – it’s not about exclusion; it’s not about silencing; it’s not about us all being the same.
The Welcoming Body of Christ works for the freedom of all bodies so that, individually and together, we can all be all that we are created to be, in love.
This afternoon, you’ll hear from three remarkable people who have worked – and who continue to work – for the freedom of bodies.
You’ll hear from Rev. Dr. Janie Spahr. One of the many blessings of being Janie’s lawyer is that I’ve been able to hear (and help share) the story of her whole ministry. Janie is a feminist, who has worked her whole life for the freedom of women and all people of all genders from the power-over of patriarchy – insisting that we celebrate people of all genders as made in the image of God and as a vital part of the story of God’s liberating work in all humanity. In the 1980s, Rev. Spahr cared for those living and dying with what was coming to be known as AIDS – suffering bodies – when most pastors wouldn’t enter their hospital room. When a church called her as pastor after she came out – the denomination said she couldn’t serve because she was a lesbian, but Janie turned the denomination’s “no” into a ministry called That All May Freely Serve – that said again and again to LGBTQIA+ people and our families: “Yes, yes, yes.” Janie blessed and honored the marriages and families of LGBTQIA+ people long before the church or any state did – at the peril of prosecution by the church she loved and served. And in the past few years – Janie has helped found TransHeartline ministry – to support transgender people who are in the process of reassignment surgery. Janie embodies a lifetime of working for the freedom and dignity of all bodies.
We’ll hear from Rev. Ruth T. West. Ruth is a pastor and preacher, and she’s also a spiritual director. Ruth brings to her ministry a rare gift for speaking truth in love – plainly, unflinchingly, and effectively. Ruth brings her wisdom and the practice of spiritual direction – to sit with persons and institutions – to listen – and then to notice and say out loud how we are enmeshed and participating in systems of oppression. She sees and then articulates how racism is at work, how gender-bias is at work – in the whole of life and in its particulars. And she does this so that everyone can be freed of all that.
And, we’ll hear from Rev. Yolanda Norton – Hebrew Bible scholar and creator and curator of the Beyoncé Mass. In the Beyoncé Mass, Yolanda – gathering other artists – has created a worship experience grounded in the liberative text of the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) that also looks to the music of Beyoncé – a worship experience that articulates the liberating work of Christ in and through the lives and experiences of Black women and girls. That worship experience offers a liberating word broadly – it draws in folks who have given up on the church, it draws in folks living daily in the intersection of racism and gender bias, all the -isms and -phobias, the systems that hurt and harm. I was a roadie when Yolanda took the Beyoncé Mass to NYC – and I remember serving communion, as one woman leaned to take the bread, and said to me, “I never knew church could be like this.” And most recently, Yolanda has launched a new nonprofit – the Global Arts & Theology Network – a home for the Beyoncé Mass, and also a home to build the Black Girl Magic Academy – a global mentoring and cohort experience to center and uplift the lives of Black girls and women.
In and through Jane Spahr, and Ruth T. West, and Yolanda Norton, and in all of us who say “yes,” the Welcoming Body of Christ works for the freedom of all bodies so that, individually and together, we can all be all that we are created to be, in love.
This afternoon, we’ll gather together to worship God – to celebrate God’s love in Jesus Christ, and the work that is ours to do as part of the welcoming body of Christ, as Together We Serve. We will hear and answer those questions – each in its particularity. But here’s the even more important thing: Each of those questions – even more deeply and more fundamentally – in its particularity – is pointing us to Jesus. Each of those questions is asking – Will you be a part of the Body of Christ? – Like. This.
So I want to say this. This afternoon, when answering those questions, the “purity” to which I will say “yes”... is the purity of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ – the singlemindedness of God that from the beginning of time until now has longed for the well-being of every person and that affirms the dignity of every body – and that on out into eternity will make it finally and forever so.
This afternoon, the “peace” to which I will say “yes”... is the peace in which voices long-silenced sing – the peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding – that sometimes is a messy, noisy peace – tearing down systems that oppress and harm – systems of racism, and misogyny, and trans- and homo- phobia – speaking truth in love – so that all bodies can live free and in peace, shalom, and wholeness.
This afternoon, the “unity” to which I will say “yes” is not coerced conformity – but the wild and fabulous celebration of diverse bodies liberated to become one, liberating body – each living out the distinct blessing that we are created to bring to the world – and doing so together, an embodiment of God’s love for the whole world in Jesus Christ.
I’ve known Rev. Ruth T. West for a long time now. I was there when Ruth preached her senior sermon in seminary chapel. My Mom and Dad were there. My Dad loved to quote her. In that senior sermon, Ruth said that she had faced a lot of questions in seminary – a lot of questions that she didn’t know the answer to. Ruth said that what she learned – in seminary – was that when you come to a question that you don’t know the answer to – it’s always a good bet to go with Jesus.
Friends, if every question that we encounter this afternoon points us to Jesus Christ, let’s let our answer – joyfully, lovingly, resoundingly – let’s let our answer be:
“Yes, yes, yes!”
© 2021 Scott Clark
 For general background on this text see Pheme Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. xi(Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), pp. 418-25; Mitzi J. Smith and Yung Suk Kim, Toward Decentering the New Testament A Reintroduction (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018) ("The body is one not because all parts are placed in one organism but because they are all taken care of equally and respectfully."); Richard Carlson, Commentary at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-18-2/commentary-on-ephesians-41-16-6