A sermon by the Rev. Brian D. Ellison
NEXT Church Conference, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Text: Ephesians 4:1-7, 14-16, 25-32
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Somewhere later today, a clerk of session from a little church on the Jersey Shore who has been coming to presbytery meetings for 32 years, and who can count on one hand the number of times he has stood up to speak, is going to look over his shoulder to make sure no one is sitting too close, and mark a box that says YES, and the church will be forever changed.
Or maybe it will be a pastor who has actually already done two weddings for same-sex couples in her community in northern New Jersey, who will mark the YES box fully knowing that her good friend who pastors the church one town over is marking her ballot NO, each one canceling the other’s vote, as usual, as they like to say.
Or it might happen Thursday when a youth serving as an elder goes to a tinny microphone at a little church in Clover, South Carolina, says what has been weighing on her heart, and goes back to her seat and raises her hand in favor, all to the surprise of her pastor.
Or it might be Saturday when a nationally known activist, sitting in the grand beauty of the sanctuary of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church shouts a full-throated “aye,” to no one’s surprise at all.
Someone, somewhere, today or some other day this week, will cast a vote. A clerk will scurry off to count ballots. A moderator will make an announcement. Someone will post it on Facebook. Someone will tweet it out to the world. (That might be me, actually.) And the church will be forever changed.
Or will it?
In that moment, some—many—will say the Church has turned a corner, broken new ground, gone down a profoundly different path. They will be saying that with joy or with anger, with tears of a hope you’ve long envisioned finally being realized or with tears of your worst fears coming true.
But will the church have really changed?
I hope so. But not in the way either of them might think.
I hope it will have changed, and that it will change some more the next day, and the next after that. In fact, our very life as the body of Christ depends on it.
What we need to know about Ephesians is that it’s a letter to the church about the church. Some people don’t even think it’s about Ephesus—no specific people are addressed, no specific questions answered. There were ancient copies floating around that didn’t mention Ephesus at all. It’s just a letter to the church. About the church. Maybe even ours.
The words we’ve heard—especially the first part of this chapter—are iconic. We intone them at baptisms, we enshrine them in hymns, we trot them out whenever there is a church conflict to contain about sex or money or power or anything else: “… making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. One body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God.” It’s a beautiful picture—if a little unrealistic. The letter goes on to speak of the gifts God has given and warn of the dangers to our common life and then offers the solution, the simple guide to living out this uncommon unity in the real world—the world populated by people not proverbs, the world where the doves have left their idyllic circle of peace and somehow erupted into a full-fledged cockfighting ring, where there may be one body but there are two or three factions and five or six opinions and eighteen ideas and thousands and thousands of words. The solution is this: “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up into … Christ.”
Speaking the truth in love. This is the change on which the church depends. Our growing up, by speaking the truth in love.
It is easy enough to understand what it means to speak: Words and sometimes actions together are speaking. It is the opposite of silence, which can be a temptation … though perhaps not enough temptation for some of us as it ought to be.
No, the more difficult definition is about what we should be speaking: What is this “truth” which we are called to speak?
Is it Jesus—the Way, the Truth and the Life? Yes, I’m sure it is him.
Is it more broadly the Gospel, the Good News, the truth of God’s work for us in Christ? Yes, I’m sure it’s that, too.
But might we be so bold as to believe that truth isn’t a metaphor here? Could it be that one way to build a church that is together and whole is for its members, its leaders to say things that are literally and plainly true. To say what is real and honest. To state things accurately. “To put away falsehood,” as our text says. To open our eyes and describe what we see. Sure, to proclaim theological truths, too, but first, just to tell the truth?
It’s harder than it seems, apparently. Telling the truth means naming out loud where there is poverty or brokenness, and how we and others have failed to heal it. It means pointing out inequality and challenging those profiting from it. Where there is malfeasance or misconduct by the powerful, it means saying so, and when there is pain among the silenced it means voicing it. When we speak the truth, we will name how lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, no matter how many votes have been cast, still do not stand on equal footing in many of our churches or presbyteries today. When we speak the truth, we will name discrimination against people of color and the role of the church in perpetuating old patterns of racism. All of this is speaking the truth.
And remember, this is a passage about unity. There is no unity in silence. There is no reconciliation in avoidance. There is no “moving on” and calling it “focusing on the gospel.” When we withhold the truth, even when we don’t speak truth because our conversation partners might speak a different truth; when we stifle ourselves from engaging one another; when we refuse to risk the hurt, the conflict, the busted agenda, the lost donors, the messed-up programs—our holding back does not result in one body. It results in NO body … nobody learning, nobody growing, nobody transforming, nobody being church. There will be no “next church,” without speaking the truth.
There is, of course, one problem: We don’t actually all agree on the facts.
The facts of which sanctuary carpet color really would complement those stained glass windows more strikingly. The fact of what our Reformed tradition demands. The facts of what the Bible says or means. People of good and authentic faith, with integrity and honesty and openness to God, hold different facts to be true.
And maybe that’s why the rest of the instructions to the church, our church, are so important. Because I dare say there’s a whole lot of speaking the truth that is not done in love. Like my friend Paul, the apostle, I am the foremost among sinners here: so good at convincing myself that love motivated that tirade, that sharply worded Facebook comment, that snarky aside. Evil talk has occasionally come out of our mouths (or keyboards), has it not? More than occasionally? “I say this in all Christian love,” we say, sometimes we can’t help but wink when we say it. Or, we convince ourselves that our concern for those oppressed should outweigh our concern for the target of our critique … and so we say—with self-righteousness, no less—whatever comes to mind.
But I think the plainer reading is the better one, even if it’s also the more difficult to embody: The way toward unity is to speak the truth … in love. Real love for the one to whom we are speaking. To speak from a place of real compassion and authentic care. Love is concern for its object, and it’s too cheap, too easy, to say that we do have love, it’s just for someone else.
Love is desiring not just the wholeness of the world, but the wholeness of a person, that person. Love is believing that another’s voice, another’s mind, another’s heart is as worthy as one’s own. As Tom Are said in a sermon a few weeks ago, “… Love is never abstract. Love only exists in specific relationships. We don’t love humanity; we love people with names and faces and needs.” And if that’s true, then when we speak the truth in love, it will look different. It can also change the church.
Paul has become my friend—not the apostle, but rather Paul Detterman who is national director of the Fellowship Community. That’s the new organization to emerge from what used to be the Fellowship of Presbyterians and Presbyterians for Renewal. Our disagreements are very stark and very public. Which makes us, you know, an unlikely pair.
But over the past year, we’ve visited a half-dozen presbyteries, with more to come. We’ve each made our case for or against the church’s affirmation of same-sex marriage. We’ve fielded questions from the audience, standing together at the podium. We’ve listened to each other, critiqued each other, gently corrected each other, teased each other. We’ve done all this quite frankly to the astonishment of many in the crowd—people who have sat through many a debate with shouting and tears, discussions where words like “homophobe” and “bigot” were thrown around, or where relationships like the one I’ve shared for 12 years with my partner Troy were treated as one slippery step away from bestiality, or incest. They’ve listened to us speak the truth—each of us, our truth, with and to each other—in actual love. And something amazing has happened.
Late last year, Paul and I visited Donegal Presbytery in southeastern Pennsylvania. This was a presbytery whose vote on the ordination question four years ago was decided by a three-vote margin. They have had some difficult times around their theological differences. And they’re meeting this morning, as we meet here, to vote on the marriage amendment. But back in November, after Paul and I had the opportunity to meet with liberals, conservatives and everything in between, I had one of those conversations that made me love my work and reminded me of how much work we have left to do.
A teaching elder who served a church that had seriously talked about leaving the PCUSA, but had decided at least for now to stay, came up to me with the most sincerity I recall every seeing at a presbytery meeting, and he said to me, “This has changed me. I am committing not to see you as the enemy, and I couldn’t have said that before. I made judgments about you, and it was wrong. I still have a lot to think about, but thank you for showing me something I needed to see.” And that was it. But that was everything. And conversations like that have happened everywhere, for both of us. We’ve watched our known supporters walk past us and on up to the other one to extend hugs and handshakes of peace. That was what happened when both Paul and I (for once, at least) spoke the truth in love.
And that, sisters and brothers, is why I think what happens today, could change the church forever.
The church will be changed if that clerk, those pastors, and all the people around them dare to speak and listen …
The church will be changed when words, even the words we speak to one another gathered here, reflect truth …
The church will be changed when all of it is enfolded in love—real love …
… No matter how the votes go. And I mean that.
In a moment, as the music begins, all will be invited to join in the deconstruction of the symbolic walls that divide us. Those nearest the center aisle can begin the process of tearing the barrier, and passing it around a bit so that every bond may be broken, every link in every chain of division torn open—signs of our being set free from our walls and our fears.
This could well be an historic day in the Presbyterian Church. But my hope, my prayer, is that every day would be one of deep and even more lasting transformation.
As those paper chains are broken, let us also commit to tearing open our hearts, finding in our lives where we must speak, or where our speaking needs more truth, or where our truth needs more love. May each of us, speaking the truth in love, grow up beyond ourselves, even into the likeness of Christ. May it be so. Amen.
 Tom Are, Jr., “Why I Believe Heaven Is Real,” sermon at Village Presbyterian Church, February 8, 2015.