We've had the pleasure of journeying with Layton E. Williams as part of our LGBTQ Future Pastors program over the last few years, so it was a joy to be a part of Rev. Williams ordination service.
Our new Executive Director Rev. John Russell Stanger preached at her service at Central Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX on Saturday, November 15, 2014. We congratulate Layton on this new phase of her ministry as she continues to pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago.
Check out Rev. Stanger's sermon below! The Scripture readings were 1 Corinthians 12: 12–27 and Esther 1:10-22.
Today we say… Yes. We have actually gathered from north, south, east and west. To say Yes. We, those who have held and nurtured Layton Williams in community—friends and family from Georgia, colleagues from Austin Seminary, the community you have known as Presbyterian Welcome, this incredible Central Church, the vast Presbytery of Mission, new colleagues from Fourth Church in Chicago—we have all gathered to say Yes.
Today we say Yes to the call to ordained ministry that the Holy Spirit has stirred in Layton. The call we have witnessed grow from curiosity to discernment, from trepidation to confidence, from dream to reality. As a community we gather to celebrate the Mystery of a Maker who journeys alongside us, who nudges us all through our beautiful imperfection, who says…
“Yes, you, Layton Williams.”
In a matter of minutes, Layton, you will say Yes. This won’t be the first time. God knows our ordination process makes sure you’ve thought this through. And that we’ve thought it through. But the Yes—and there are actually nine—that you will commit to as you answer the constitutional questions is the kind of Yes that takes an enormous amount of faith in the One greater than yourself. Which is why we don’t leave you to do it alone. That is why we each, individually and collectively, say Yes alongside you. Today the Body of Christ stands as one and says Yes.
So how queer that we pause in this holy moment to listen to the Queen Who Refused, Queen Who Said No.
We meet this Queen Vashti as she too is in the midst of a celebration, but one of a very different spirit than today’s.
In a banquet that stretches on for six months, Queen Vashti’s worse half celebrates his own grandeur as king. While that is going on the Queen throws a separate party for all of the women, which is no wonder seeing how things turn out.
During the final week of the king’s banquet, when he was feeling particularly pleased with himself, he got the bright, drunken idea to turn his wife’s beauty into something to be taken in along with the wine. Queen Vashti, knowing better than us what being paraded through the king’s court would entail, refused.
From the little we know of her, I’m thinking fabulous Queen Vashti was a clever enough woman to understand what her No would mean. And I’m wondering… ok, hoping, she just didn’t care. Because underneath that No that would change her life forever—for he stripped her of her power, home, and relationships—underneath that No was a Yes.
When she said No to the king, she said Yes to herself. Vashti said Yes to her own worth as a daughter of God. She said Yes to having control of her own body. She said Yes to her innate power as a woman apart from that of her husband’s. She said Yes to an risky and unknown future.
The writers of the Book of Esther tell us she said No, but can’t you hear her saying Yes?
We are a people of choice: Listen to the snake or the one who created him? Build the boat or ignore the voice in your head? Return to your homeland or stay in exile? Follow the carpenter or write him off as a lunatic? Persecute the these fanatics or join them?
Yes and No aren’t the dichotomy we assume. It seems to me that when saying Yes or No we can’t help saying the other as well. With choice, from the sacred… to the trivial—Is Harry or Zayne your favorite One Direction member?—Yes requires No and vice versa. Because we are finite and actually cannot have it all, much to the disappointment of people like myself and Layton. We live in the space between the Yes and No. The And space. Yes and No.
Today we join Queen Vashti.
Today we say No. We have gathered from the corners of this country. To say No. We, those who have been with Layton as community—from Atlanta, seminary, Parity, Central, Mission, Fourth—we have all gathered to say No.
Today we say No to the calls of those other spirits that have occasionally stirred within us. Those voices that would discourage us from supporting her:
- “There are too many pastors and too few churches.” No.
- “But being a pastor is exhausting work with little reward.” No.
- “This religion thing has become nothing more than fairy tales.” No.
- “But isn’t she too… what is it?... Ah! Female. Queer. Honest. Too herself.” Nope!
As a community we gather to banish the whispers of demons who would have us privilege our doubt over our hope for Layton. And so we say No.
In a matter of minutes, Layton, you will say No. You will say No to all the spirits that lurk in the corners even now. I can see them. It’s like they haven’t left since I was here last year.
- “Are you really ready?”
- “What makes you think you are called to ministry with all flaws and weaknesses?”
- “Will there be a job for you after this first one?
- “It’s a fluke right?”
NOPE! Not today, Satan!
You will come up here and by the power of the Holy Spirit you will say No once more.
You are strong enough to do it because you’ve done it time and time again from that first visit to Austin Seminary, and that first Parity retreat, and then meeting with Central’s Session, and Mission’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry, and Chicago’s Committee on Ministry. Every step along the way you’ve said No to the demons of sexism and heterosexism that have tried with all their might to seduce you into believing you aren’t worthy.
And so as you say Yes to these constitutional questions, you will also say No. As the tattoo on your ankle says, you will DARE to say No. An impossible thing to do without the faith that has led you thus far. And that is why we won’t leave you to do it alone. That is why we and Queen Vashti say No alongside you. Today the Body of Christ holds you up and says No.
What happens here today is specific. It is particular, but it is also common. Each of us in this space—whether elders, deacons, pastors, priests, educators, lawyers, care-givers—each of us has felt a nudge similar to the one that led Layton to this moment. The Holy Spirit that steadily reminds us we are called despite all the other spirits shouting RUN! The same Spirit that strengthened Queen Vashti against the violence of laws that demanded she submit her body for the pleasure of men.
Today is particular to Layton’s journey of following her calling. But we are each called by Christ to say Yes and follow our savior into a lifetime of discipleship. A lifetime of being strengthened by the Spirit, given the Wisdom to know good and evil. A lifetime of navigating Yes and No. A lifetime of being made into Christians.
By standing, gathering around Layton as she takes this monumental step on her journey, we become the body of Christ described in that letter to the Corinthians.
It goes against everything the culture we swim in begs of us. In a time—not that unique it seems—when those in power seem desperate to set us against each other—U.S. Americans against Latin Americans and West Africans; white Americans against Americans of color; the wealthy against the working poor; Christians against Muslims; …Christians against Christians—and on and on. We become the body of Christ by saying Yes to each other as God says Yes to all of us.
It is a bold decision every time we gather in holy spaces to become Church. Because in saying Yes to Christ we say No to all the spirits to seek to seduce us. Those spirits that whisper that there is not enough, that we are not enough. Those spirits that try to convince us that we do not need forgiveness, that we do not need each other. Those spirits that coax us into complacency, coax us into silos of self-interest.
No, we say. And yes, to the truth of the gospel: that there is enough, that we are enough, that we are in need of grace and one another, that we only become our true selves in caring for self and neighbor.
Layton, today you are ordained as a leader in this Body of Christ. Today the community recognizes your authority and responsibility to remind us of this good news for the rest of your life. Through your incredible way with words to awaken us to the need to say Yes and No. Through your stewardship of the mystery that is Church, to strength us from table, font, and pulpit for the journey. And to sit with us when we miss the mark, reminding us that the grace of God’s Yes in Christ is everlasting.