A Personal Response to the APTS Faculty Call to “Mutual Forbearance”

Last Friday, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary issued a letter supported unanimously by its faculty that called for parties to practice “mutual forbearance” in our upcoming PCUSA General Assembly. This is our national denominational meeting and this year one of several key issues at stake is marriage equality. There have been strong reactions to the faculty letter across the board, and I have–with careful thought–written my own letter of response and sent it to the faculty this morning. Though it is a personal letter and the faculty is my intended audience, I recognize that I have been vocally involved in many public conversations about this issue, and so I want to be transparent in my communications. Therefore, I am posting my letter here.

You can find the original APTS faculty statement at this link: http://www.jimrigby.org/letter-from-austin-presbyterian-seminary/ and that site also has posts of a number of other written responses.

Here is mine:

 

To the APTS Faculty:

My teachers, mentors, and friends,

I have known since I first read the letter you released that I wanted to respond to you. I have known that you would receive many other letters and I have wondered whether it was worth anything to add my voice, but you all have taught me that my voice matters, and so I will speak. Others have written from the perspective of the broader issues at stake, and I believe that is an essential part of the conversation. But I want to speak personally, because I believe this is all so deeply personal. In fact, I think somewhere underneath the problematic language of this letter, I imagine you were making the same argument: this is all so deeply personal and we would do well to remember it.

My response to the letter you unanimously stood behind was—like many others’—one of deep hurt and betrayal. In your call to “mutual forbearance” and refrain from “premature resolution”—I heard a scolding and a warning not to push too hard for justice or equality at the risk of others’ comfort or sense of belonging. In response I wondered what value there is in a sense of belonging that founds itself in the exclusion (fully or partially) of others. In the past year, I have just begun to understand the weight of history I will carry by being an out ordained queer pastor in the PCUSA. In your pleas for slow, careful movement and your warnings against “haste”—I saw the decades of struggle and pain and hard-won progress of those who have come before me collapsed into the phrase “too soon.” I heard a call to prioritize kindness over integrity and unity over justice—as if these things did not share one beating heart. As if there could ever be true kindness and unity without justice and equality.

I knew, of course, that this letter was not meant to address only me and others like me. But in as much as it seemed to respond to an assumed possibility of imminent departure, I wondered why it was addressed to us at all. What better example of “forbearance” can you imagine than those who have stayed within this church year after year and decade after decade despite abuse, dismissal, injustice, and inequality? What better example can be identified as commitment to the church than those who have invested their lives and livelihoods to ministry even when their ordination has been denied to them on the basis of their God-given identity? What better show of faith is there than those who have remain true to their calling and committed to the Church, even when it has cost them their families, their communities, their safety? What better picture of kindness is there than those who have stood before couples and joined them together in marriage even while their own marriages go unrecognized?

Might I suggest that such as these have something to teach the whole church about what loving kindness is? That is, we will fight for the Church that God calls us to be. We will speak truth. We will name injustice. And then, when others refuse to listen, when others refuse to respect and include us, when others abuse us in the name of the God who has called us, we will stay. But we will never stay quiet when there are still things in need of saying. We have too much love for the Church to settle for less.

I want to say that what was so deeply hurtful to me about this letter, was that what it seemed to be saying was so contrary to the radical inclusion, love, and embrace that so many of you have offered me in my time here and taught me to embody in my own ministry. You have been parents to me when my own could not be, you have affirmed my call and championed me when my community of origin would not, you have taught me a theology of radical love and grace when the theology I had been raised in made me feel only shame and fear. Over the past week, I have at some point thought of each of you individually—seen images of times spent in your offices and classrooms, moments that have challenged me and shaped me and taught me to believe in and fight for a better church—and I have wept. I have cried so much at the thought that these same professors and mentors who have sat with me in those dark places and taught me to hope in the face of seeming hopelessness, would now sign their names to a document asking me to hope less. To temper my faith in the Church that could be and my call to work for it without compromise.

I have had many conversations about your words over the past several days. On several occasions, I’ve had the opportunity to hear some of you clarify your intent and apologize for the other interpretations the letter has allowed. I have heard you say that your intent with this letter was precisely the opposite of how many of us have read it. That, in fact, you meant for your support of queer persons like myself to be assumed, and that you were urging others to be respectful of us and our need for justice. Some of you have admitted naivete and regret at the pain your words have caused. And hearing these things, I have wept again. I have taken great, gulping breaths of relief at the reassurance that you are not something other than I trusted you to be.

But I want to speak boldly and say, “It is not enough.” Intention is important. But I have learned in my writing and preaching that when words are spoken aloud, intention quickly becomes the shadow of interpretation. There are many who will read and interpret this letter for whom your support of equality, inclusion, and justice is not a foregone conclusion. If this letter created doubt so quickly in hearts like mine who have directly encountered your support and love, imagine what it might stir up in less informed hearts. If it is true—as has been said—that there is no confusion among you about your support for queer people in the church—then I wonder if that too might be worthy of public declaration.

Perhaps no such thing has been done before. But you were some of the first people to tell me that I could be queer and called to ministry—and so let me now tell you that there can be immense power in being first. I know that there is great risk in speaking bold and potentially divisive truth, but I also know that the call to faith is also a call to risk. I have so much hope for what might be accomplished if the wider world—even those who disagree and especially those who could never imagine it—knew the best parts of this institution—the parts that I have seen and been lifted up by.

I’m not really asking for another letter—that is a bit more literal than I am intending to speak. I suppose what I’m asking for is that you be just as public, just as vocal, just as convicted, and just as faithful in naming your support for justice and equality as you have been in this public call to “mutual forbearance.” I do not want you to be who you are not, but rather to live into the truth that you each have so thoroughly taught me: that the best way to do justice AND love kindness is to be fully and unapologetically who you are—who God has called you to be. And who that is—from my experience—is an institution that lifts up its queer students, like myself, as valuable leaders for the future of the church. An institution that believes that we are all called into relationship, and that such relationship is founded, ultimately, not in empty kindness or tempered passions, but in vulnerable authenticity and deep belief in the value of every human being.

Thank you for cultivating in me a faith in the love of God that gives me courage to call out moments when I don’t see that love being embodied—even when those moments come from people I love and respect.

So very sincerely,

 

Layton Williams

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The Longest Day: A Sermon

**Originally preached at Cheapside Church on May 4, 2014.

Luke 24:13-35

The Walk to Emmaus 

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ 19He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ 25Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

 

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

 


They are tired. No… exhausted. Their feet trudge through the dust like it is muddy from three days of rain. They have not slept. They have lain down and they have closed their eyes and they have nearly dreamed. But then a sudden awareness of their current circumstance would strike them and they would sit up. Breathing hard. Eyes wide. Wet with fear and anguish.

Forty-eight hours ago they were hiding in a dark room. But even in the darkness they could almost see the image of their dying Lord at the same moment, on a hill outside of town. Jesus of Nazareth, prophet and messiah—hung on a cross by their own kin. Gasping. And then gone.

With him had gone their courage. Their hope. The daringly and subversively virtuous energy of his ministry and the seeming tangibility of the world he had taught them to yearn for, work for, wait for.

The hours since have run together. They remember this morning’s sunrise only because it was so unusually punctuated by the sudden, breathless arrival of several women in their group of grieving disciples. The women’s eyes were so bright, it was almost hard to look at them. They recounted their story of the empty tomb, the angels. “He is alive!”

The disciples felt the words travel through them like ice on fire. The sudden thrill of impossible hope, quickly dulled by the persistent reality of grief.

How could he be risen? They wonder. The world still feels the same. I still hurt. There is still so much danger. Pain. Uncertainty. Shouldn’t it feel like a whole new world?

They could not remain still in their bewilderment. They could not make peace with it. And so they shouldered their belongings and their weighty grief and set out for Emmaus. And they walked. And walked. And walked.

And here is where we meet them on the road. We meet them, and the stranger who is the unrecognized Jesus meets them. And we are all weary.

It has been the longest day.

As a kid, my memories of Easter involve the anticipation of opening my bedroom door to a newly filled Easter basket, putting on a brightly colored, fancy new dress to wear to church, tackling the Easter egg hunt with—perhaps, too much—gusto, taking family photos, and eating a lot of food. There was probably a sermon in there somewhere too, but to be honest, that’s not what sticks.

In my mind’s eye, my sense of Easter as a child was that it was somewhat less fun that Christmas (because we didn’t get time off from school), but nevertheless a singularly bright, joyful day in the midst of an otherwise unremarkable time of year.

As an adult I’d like to think I know better. I understand more now about our church seasons and the bible story as a whole. I know now that Easter comes at the end a long dark period of Lent. Easter is the culmination of Holy Week which contains the horrific reality of Good Friday and the death of Christ. It symbolizes the triumph of resurrection. The conquering of sin and death, and our reconciliation to God our steadfastly loving Creator who has pursued us beyond the boundaries of our brokenness and death itself.

It is still, even with my adult understanding, something to celebrate. And we do celebrate it. But not just for one day. In fact, we celebrate for 50 days. Longer than Lent. Right up until Pentecost.

In fact, I think you could go so far as to say that truly, for us, Easter is not just a season. I think you could say – we live in a Easter world.

After all we inhabit a world where Jesus has already died and risen. But we yet wait for the day when all brokenness will be overcome and all things will be made new.

And I feel it. What these disciples on the road are feeling. Maybe you feel it too. Easter is the longest day.

And so we live. And so it is Easter. But more often than not, our Easter does not quite resemble the pastel colored, baby chick infested, well-dressed holiday of my childhood memories.

Everyday we wake up, like these disciples, in the world of the risen Christ and we wonder: How can this be? How can Christ be risen in a world that still feels so much the same? How can the world of the risen Christ be the same one where we feel fear, encounter danger, struggle against injustice and hardship, hurt one another, lose one another? Shouldn’t it feel different?

I think it’s a fair question. I think it’s a hard question.

Barbara Lundblad—a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York and one of my favorite preachers—talks about the questions that a biblical passage drives us to ask. She has an amazing sermon on this text. And for her the question it asks is “Do they eat the bread?” That is, after these two disciples have recognized Jesus and he vanishes from their sight, do they eat the bread he gave to them before running back to Jerusalem? Also a fair question. But it’s not quite the one that claims me.

The question I keep asking—the question I’ve been asking for weeks as I’ve read this text—is “Jesus, why don’t you just stay with us? Why do you disappear the second we recognize you?”

Honestly I find myself feeling a little frustrated and indignant on behalf of these disciples. I find myself thinking, “We followed you. We witnessed your crucifixion—at least in our hearts. We’ve wept for you. We’ve grieved for you. We asked you to stay and you said that you would. So why do you vanish, the moment we know you for who you are?”

I think I want the Easter of my childhood back. Or something like it. I want risen Easter Jesus to stroll into the midst of town in his pearly white robes and call out to all of his followers and gather them into a giant hug and then wave his divine right hand and make the whole world different. Better. Pastels and bunnies and good things. Not hard things.

But that’s the not the Easter these disciples get. And it’s not the Easter we get either. It is the longest day.

I don’t believe Jesus does anything by accident. Even when it’s hard for me to understand. And so when I found I could not answer this question by myself—why do you vanish as soon as we recognize you? I put the question to my friends and colleagues. Their answers were many, and beautiful, but there was a common thread. And it was this:

It’s not just about encountering the risen Christ. It’s about how we encounter the world and one another because of the risen Christ. It’s about how Jesus has taught us to see differently.

And indeed, with this in mind, I began to see this story in a different light.

Easter is hard because we want a brand new world—a magically cleaned up world–and we don’t get it. But the world of Easter is different. It’s different because we are different. We have been changed by our encounter with Christ.

We want a world where Jesus stays with us, not only in spirit, but in body—always. Instead we get glimpses of the risen Christ here and there. They seem to vanish the moment we recognize them for what they are.

But Jesus has not left us alone. He has left us with each other. And in our encounters with one another, we have the chance to see Christ and be Christ.

In this story, these disciples encounter a stranger on the road. And as they were taught by the Lord whose death they are still grieving, they encounter the stranger with hospitality. They walk along with him. They share their story and their heartache. They urge the man to stay with them, when the darkening road ahead portends danger. They sit at table together to eat.

And then their eyes are opened and they recognize him. Christ was there all along. With them. In the Other.

This recognition gives them new energy. They rush back to the city to share this news with their friends—too good and joyous to keep to themselves. And there, in that communal space they will encounter Christ again.

On this longest day of Easter, and in this Easter world where things don’t always feel as transformed and celebratory as we want them to—Jesus does not simply leave us. He leaves us with each other. He stays with us through each other.

Because we have seen and known him, we see and know the world and one another differently. We are changed.

As we walk this long, dusty road of faith, we encounter others. We walk along together for some space of time. Whether they are strangers, or family whom we love, or dear friends, they are Jesus’ gift to us. And when see with the eyes that he has given us, we recognize him in one another.

We see him when we dare to share our stories. Our grief. Our fears. And when we take hold of one another in those vulnerable places. We encounter Christ when we invite each other in and walk along together for the time that life allows. When we bless each other and thank God for the gift of our time together. We recognize Christ when we sit together at the table and share food, share of what we have, share our common needs. When we break down the barriers that brokenness seeks to erect between us and embrace one another as we would embrace our God. We see Jesus when we truly see each other. When we recognize that we are each God’s beloved. And when we give ourselves over to this new way of seeing and being in the world so that world, too, feels new.

 

In this way, in this taking and blessing and breaking and giving with one another, we see Christ again and again. We see that he was there all along.

We find that the answer to our question, Why won’t you just stay with us? is I have. Always. Just look around.

Even on the longest days—especially on the longest days—we have something to celebrate.

Christ is risen and He is right here. With us. Walking. Waiting. Staying.

Thanks be to God. Amen.