Friday, April 22, 2011

Easter 2011 - "Amazed and Confused"

Here's my sermon for Easter.  It's based upon Luke's account.  I first wrote this seven years ago.  Six days before my brother died.  I've not really lived with it since, but kept gravitating to it this year.  My own journeying this Lent had me in a place that I just didn't have it in me to write something new. But I did find some life in these words and some clarifying of points was helpful. After having done this work for so long, I've come to believe that inasmuch as we preachers scoff at those who only return to previous work, or chronically "borrow" someone else's, to be too prideful not to take another look at something that has been preached before to see if the words still have life is more about ego than it is integrity.  If proclamations had not been repeated over time...then there would be no account of Jesus or the resurrection from which to proclaim kerygma...right?

“Amazed and Confused”
Luke 24.l-12 Easter
Rev’d Dr. Jonathan L. Jeffords, OSL, April 11, 2004
Revised April 24, 2011

“But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. Luke 24.11.12

What is this day about?  What does it mean?

Isn’t that at least some of what lives in us at Easter? 
Children are bombarded with influences and understandings of this day that confuse.

I have a minister friend who used to lead the devotionals at the pre-school at the church she served at the time church. She once asked the children if they knew what Easter meant---

The response?  “We get to hunt for eggs and get candy.’

My colleague said, "But isn’t there something else about Easter we remember, something about Jesus?’  And one little girl raised her hand and blurted out, “You mean Jesus gets to hunt for eggs and get candy too?”  

Amazing and a little confusing!

There’s a photograph of me that captures what it means to be “amazed and confused.”  It’s October, 1992, the 7th to be precise.  I’m coming out of the birthing room at Methodist North and into the family waiting area to announce that my first child has been born, Despite holding multiple degrees from institutions of higher learning, despite knowing the biology of human childbirth, seeing it, witnessing it, was, well, in a couple of words, “amazing and confusing.’ 

See, it was the “physics” of it all that blew my mind, And so, there’s this photograph that captures my face before the first words were spoken that Andrew Scott Jeffords had entered the world, It was true, it had happened but that didn’t make it any less amazing or confusing.  Wow!

The number of "amazing and confusing" moments that occur through the journey of life are many - 
Raising children.
Learning how to share your life with someone else.
Those that occur in the workplace.

In my work as pastor - many "amazing and confusing" moments. 
Figuring out how to balance vocation with being a husband, father, son, brother and friend.

Being with people as the breathe their last - as sacred, as "amazing and confusing" a moment as ever there could be.
I wonder how similar my gaze is in those moments when compared to the ones of the entrances to life I've lived.
Maybe not so different. 
Our entrances and exits on the stage of this earthen sod is the stuff of music and poetry, the touch of the artist’s brush and the liturgies of many a religious tradition.

As true as that might be, our culture does not know what to do with death. In fact, we are so much more in the death “avoidance and denial” business than ever we are death as a part of life. We don’t talk about it without squirming, and if we do it’s usually only because someone’s mortality has forced us to deal with it.

Commentator Craig Barnes, remembers his grandmother’s generation where death was an integral part of life.  
Family members died in their own beds.
Wakes were held in their houses. No one hid it.  It was just part of life.

Now death is compartmentalized in our culture and times.
We deal with it only when all other avoidance options are exhausted and we have no other choice,  The transition of life to death is sacred. Bill Coffin says,
“Death cannot be the enemy if it’s death that brings us to life. For just without leave-taking there can be no arrival; without growing old there can be no growing up; without tears, no laughter; so without death there can be no living....he says, Death is the great equalizer, not because it makes us equal, but because it mocks our pretensions at being anything else."

Yes, death is real. 
No getting around it.
But it is also sacred. 
And for we who hold to the unique revelation of God through Jesus of Nazareth, we know that everything we understand as real, common, ordinary is indeed extraordinary. And on this Easter morning we find ourselves in good company with those first witnesses teased by this amazing and confusing question— 

"Why do you look for the living among the dead?"

On that first Easter morning, Luke tells us of the women who went to the tomb to do what must be done to the body to prepare it for burial. The ointment and spices were ready: the sad and noble duty was theirs to carry out.

Death, although sacred, isn’t pretty - it stinks.

In fact the stench of it casts such fear in our culture that we’ll do any and everything to avoid its reality. 
Their only worry was the stone that blocked their way, how could they get to Jesus without help?  How indeed!

The men, the ones we traditionally know as the disciples, fearfully locked away as the dreams of what could be lay dead in the stone cold tombs of their spirits. 
It was what it was.  He was dead, and so too, to their minds, was the revolution, the new Reign, the hopes of tomorrow long gone. The only thing ruling their lives now was grief of lost and fear of what all of this meant for them.

You’ve been there, haven’t you? 
Are you there now? 
There’s something here that transcends time.
Our knowledge of Jesus — who he is, what he taught, what he charges his  companions to do—it seems is not enough. Christians are people most needy of assurance, We need those confirming moments that in spite of the evidence, there’s something more still. What a minute, there’s a church word for that — FAITH!
‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’ Hebrews 11.1
I love Jim Wallis’ definition of faith. Wallis founded the Sojourner’s Community in D.C. He says that -
Faith is believing in spite of the evidence, and watching the evidence change.’
But how many times did we hear Jesus admonish those even closest to him that their lack of faith prevented them from seeing the Truth. Guess what folks?— Lack of faith still does.

The evidence of faith we are called to pivots on three little letters that begin chapter 24.  
It’s an interesting figure of speech, a conjunction, “but.” As in ‘despite what you see, there is something else going on here that you don’t see, and because you don’t see it doesn’t make it any less real,”

“But,” a conjunction - for all of us who grew up with Schoolhouse Rock, we know all about conjunctions, right? 
“Conjunction, junction what’s your function? Hooking up words and phrases and clauses.”

What a bizarre way to start the Easter narrative from Luke.  
The “But” that begins Luke 24  is a sacred intrusion into death. The gospel always turns on a great ‘however.’ I like that very much. It is so consistent with Jesus, who announced the Reign of God again and again by saying ‘you have heard it said,.,, but I tell you." It is a fitting way to announce that all you think is, it just ain't so. 
And what's the best way to do that?  A great big, BUT!

So, the women make their way to the tomb only to find that the problem they anticipated, that the stone wouldn’t allow them access to Jesus’ broken, dead, body, was rolled away. One commentator makes an interesting point, “why was the stone rolled away? 
To let Jesus out of the tomb, or to let us in it and see the magnificent work of God!”

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

The women’s’ encounter with the angel, their remembering what Jesus had told them and their reporting of all these things to the disciples was hardly overwhelming to the disciples. Luke reports that the disciples are left with the thought that it was and ‘idle tale,’ 

I mean, after all, what do the women know? Can’t you just see that? 
You know the role and place of women in that culture and time — status attached only to the men is their lines - couldn’t testify in court — their testimony couldn’t be trusted.

Here's Peter, going to the tomb both to pacify and patronize the women, seeing for himself. 
Seeing the stone rolled away, the linen cloths laying aside. He, amazed and confused, going home. We’re pretty sure he didn’t fully believe the women.  After seeing for himself one wonders if he believed at first either.

The pivotal moment of the Christian faith, where death is both acknowledged and defeated, and he goes home.  Mark’s gospel talks about them being afraid. John has Peter being stupid and John (the beloved one) both faster and smarter than everyone else to know what had happened and why.

Despite what we think, or know, or what we think we know about Jesus and the Resurrection, there is still this — something happened. Something happened that cemented otherwise cowardly disciples to martyrdom for the sake of the Crucified and Risen Lord. The kerygmatic message of Jesus of Nazareth resonated with people moving them from hopelessness to hope, oppression or no.

And something still happens. 
Look at us, here we are. Something brings as here. Something of meaning drives us.  There are many reasons to come and be a part of a church—even this one. 
We choose congregations based upon ideology, theology, political bent, we choose congregations for what they can do for us, provide us, what bells and whistles their program brings — and we find ourselves at churches for what we can bring to them — what of God in us is meant to be offered and shared in the up building of Christian community.  But in the end, none of these reasons matter if they are ends onto themselves.

Ultimately, we must wrestle with this fundamental question - “what do you think of Jesus?” Of what account does the one proclaimed crucified and risen hold sway in your life? In the end—what difference does it make, and how does that difference find expression?

There’s a line in Hebrew Bible, in the Song of Solomon that bears witness to the love of God for humanity. 
Although referring to the love shared between two committed people for one another, metaphorically it holds up.
Set me as a seal upon your heart. For love is strong as death..

But Easter tells us of something else.  Something more. 

Want to know what Easter is all about? 
It’s amazing and confusing, yes, but sisters and brothers in Christ, 
it’s true—not only is love as strong an death...
if Easter proves anything to us it's this is stronger.

Craig Barnes, ‘We’re All Terminal’ April 6, 2004, The Christian Century
Credo- William Sloane Coffin
The Soul of Politics - Jim Wallis

Byzantine Icon 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Maundy Thursday 2011 - "No Greater Love: A Life Made Sacred (Sacrum Facere)"

Only slight modifications from last year's unpreached homily.  It gets preached tonight.

There are moments in life when the actions we take, the engagement of our lives with the world around us reveals something, whether we’re conscious of it or not. We can talk all day about who we are and what we believe – but there’s nothing more revealing or indicting our as action or inaction.

In times of greatest moment – to act or not to act - - “to be or not to be - that is the question.”

Act with haste, that is, without prayerful discernment seeking guidance from trusted voices, and action becomes an end in itself. Those who yearn to be seen as the hero who sweeps in and saves the day act hastily. Ask anyone who has been caught up in the aftermath of one’s hasty pursuit of hero worship and they’ll tell you such action may look good on the surface, but there is collateral damage aplenty.
Is there compassion or consideration in the face of collateral damage, or, willingness to put aside being the hero for the common good?


Inevitably, collateral damage, in whatever form it comes, is considered an acceptable loss, and the price of doing business. The end always justifies the means.

Others live with perpetual inaction.

Able to articulate and argue relevant points of whatever their issue is with passion – they fail to act. They feed so much on the energy generated by the problem itself that their motivation to enact a remedy is muted by the fear that if the problem is solved, the “stuff” that feeds their lives is gone.

They know the issue. They know the problem. But they are crippled to do anything about it.

It's a vicious cycle. Indeed, it is pitiful.

Those who refuse to forgive a wrong because to do so would extinguish the rage that fuels the hellish fire of their every day – there's an example of choosing perpetual inaction. Like the hostage who begins to side with very one who has held them bondage, we, who choose inaction to make right a wrong, or to forgive, suffer from a Stockholm Syndrome of the soul - - loving our pain and anger because it’s what we know. Being liberated from it scares us to death. We love our chains more than being free.

“Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” Jesus would say.
"Repent." "Believe."
"Take" up your cross and "follow."

Action words.

It’s the difference between saying you’re a Christian and actually being a companion of Jesus wherever that leads. Action and inaction. The transcendent truth of either approach to life is self defining and a prophecy perpetually self-fulfilling.

Maundy Thursday is one of those days when the abstract and absolute, the flesh and the spirit, the universal and the particular collide. It is one of those occasions where “the rubber hits the road.” Here, at the end of Lent and the start of the Triduum, the Great Three Days, it reveals through action the character of the One who draws us into this worship space tonight. It confronts us with the real life, real time implications of what a life made sacred looks like. It makes us look at Jesus’ life and consider what we’re doing with our own.

Is life made sacred because it just is…or is life made sacred by what we do with it?

So, action, these actions give meaning to what Jesus has taught. They give meaning to what we believe. They make all this Jesus business real – incarnate.

On this night we focus on an action of Jesus found only in the 4th gospel. The Synoptics don’t have it. John, historically considered the last of the canonical gospels written, has a particular agenda – the writer has a bias, and his bias is always for Jesus – his life, his teaching, and the nature of the Christ that has always been.

Only John tells this story – Jesus, at Passover, after sharing table fellowship, takes upon himself an action that will be self-defining hereon, as it will be for all of us who carry his name.

He, the one called, Rabbi, Teacher, Lord, Messiah, Christ – comes now to assume the role of the menial laborer – literal dirty work is not beneath him – he embraces it...he love us in it.

It defines him. He takes a towel, a basin and a pitcher – and washes his disciples feet.

But why?

Rarely in the observance of Christian liturgy do you find something so profoundly intimate as the washing of feet. Maybe that’s why it’s not a sacrament (which it should be), there’s really no way to observe this liturgy with integrity without literally touching someone.

It’s too close, too intimate. It’s not “churchy.”

Getting on our knees and taking off shoes, using water, towels and basins, it’s beneath the dignity of our erudite gathering.

To which I say, “right.” It is. But it is supremely of Christ.

And if we are going to be “of Christ” with integrity, then our action or inaction proclaims the real truth of who we are and who we follow more loudly than any words our mouths can utter.

And maybe that’s what all this dramatic fuss is about this tonight. If nothing else, we observe integrity at work. That’s an awe inspiring thing. For to live with integrity is joyful, because in it we are complete. We are fully what we’ve been created to become.

Don’t forget, though, that just because we live with integrity, even joyfully, does not mean our work isn't hard.

To do so was not a choice absent other options. Think of those presented to Jesus in the wilderness temptations, – No, this was a matter of Jesus' integrity. He did this thing, both in the upper room with his disciples, as well as walk the Via Dolorosa because that’s who he is.

To have done anything other than to be a servant, than to identify with the suffering of humankind by embracing the cross, would have been to have missed his moment – the moment when his action defined who he was.

This is what a life made sacred looks like:

12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. John 15.12-17
Another way of seeing this night might be this. Jesus did not miss his moment and he’s imploring us not to miss ours. That our lives are gifts, to be sure, but they are only made sacred when we enact self-giving love as every moment's measure.

Look. Ministry is hard.

Giving yourself away is hard. Following Jesus to where ministry leads you is hard.

It is counterintuitive to everything innately part of our being that cries out for self interest self promotion, self validation and self protection.

Placing yourself in the role of servant and not hero is tough. Doing ultimate good without lusting for credit is extraordinarily difficult.

If it were easy, wouldn’t more folks be doing it?

Instead, too many of us play at Church, play at following Jesus, use our religious pursuits as a contrivance of convenience rather than a covenantal commitment.

Listen, people. To live with integrity or not is far more in our control that we'd care to admit.

It’s in your grasp, sisters and brothers – right here, right now.

Jesus gathers with us in this room, as he has done with his companions for millennia and says, “Here’s who I am, here’s what I’m prepared to do, here are the depths I’m prepared to plunge – for you.”

How far are you willing to go? Could it be that tonight we at least declare that “no greater love have I” than to give myself away, even sacrificially, because of love?

What we do tonight, through bread and cup, is a liturgy, an action, you have repeated many, many times. But as important as that action is of coming forward to partake, consider first and most deeply the life gifted to you by God that it be made sacred by what you do with it remembering always the action Jesus took...made his life sacred, for you.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


A lucky number.
The Mick.
Numerological perfection.
Heaven + Earth.

But today?  
The number of years since we lost 
A force of nature.
A twirp.
A son, husband, father, friend.

Miss you.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Reform This!

This is the beginning of a series of posts in which I'll engage in what Bill Coffin calls a "lover's quarrel" with the Church.  Either that, or it's the beginning of vocational suicide.  

I'm not one of those who believes that every answer to our current ills is found in our past. To be sure, what we know of what's been, and what it can teach us in what is can be helpful. In fact, we'd do well to reflect upon what shall be in light of what we find in the rear view mirror.

The "process" theologian in me can honor what's past, but cannot hold it as the sole means to inform, instruct and inspire what is and what will be.

I value orthodoxy, doctrine and canon. I've vowed to honor, keep and teach these things.
But I will not be held captive to it.

"The wind blows where it will. You neither know where it comes from or where it goes."

I find in it something essentially "true" even when I'm convinced some of it, if not all of it is tainted by the marks of human bias, prejudice and the endless lust for exclusive access which, by definition, "excludes" someone - usually always someone not understood because of who they are, where they live, who they love, what language they speak.

As it is with decisions claimed under the banner of divine sanction - our human propensity to royally screw things up is far less "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven," and far more "God, bless this mess----please."

Ask any member of a Bishop's cabinet forced to appoint those whose track record reveals them to be inept in the pastorate while excelling as one person congregational wrecking crews, and you know that "God bless this mess---please" is a petition prayed without ceasing.

The crisis in the stagnation of mainline systems and structures has us languishing for relevance in a world that no longer operates under the 1950's "Leave It to Beaver" simplicity.  And while the world doesn't look like that (and I'm not sure it ever really did) we need to stop acting like the panacea for all our problems is a simple recovery of what's past in order to embrace and respond to what is and what will be.  Our frantic quest for relevance and reform has us doing "leadership summits" that, unless it's just short of 95 Theses being nailed to the General Conference's door, will change nothing.

We have it within us to be more than we are.  We have it within us to reform what we've been.  Ours is a movement whose genesis is reform.

Consider- had we not grown beyond what's been, women would not be clergy in The United Methodist Church.  We pat ourselves on the back that we're so progressive on this front (at least we do now), but let's be honest--we were late to this.  Our Nazarene cousins were forward looking long before we were.

If we were only looking backwards for our future vision, this one would have never happened (unless, of course, we went back to the time of Jesus).  It's one thing to "feel good" about what we've done on this front, it's another thing altogether to have the truth of what we say so fully enmesh into the lifeblood of the Church that it is "truth" no longer in need of an apologist for why it is as it is. It just is.

Some of my United Methodist clergy brothers still struggle with that. They may acquiesce to the concept of women who can be clergy, but see if they want a woman to be their pastor, or even their equal. That women are not appointed to churches with the same consideration as I have been (which is now likely to change, like I care), reveals what we really believe. I have heard a DS  lament his problem of having too many women to appoint in a given year.  The same people who bemoan congregations who don't want women pastors are more likely those who wouldn't want a woman to be their pastor.  The truth is, our system provides rhetorical cover for systemic misogyny carried out every day.  And we all know it.

Let me be clear. Of the very small number of clergy (very small indeed) who I'd seek to be my pastor, there are more women on that list than men.

To be sure, not all women who are clergy are effective.  Not all women ordained clergy should have been.
That puts them in the same company as the men.

I wished cabinets would do more about ineffective clergy content to phone it in while living under the perceived protection of a guaranteed appointment. We don't need an "ineffectiveness policy." We've got one in the Book of Discipline. We haven't the sufficient fortitude to motivate complacency into meaningful ministry or itinerate folks to another means of paying bills, because that's all their appointment is to them. And in the meantime congregations needing someone to help them drink from the well that never shall run dry are parched because their pastor hasn't a damned clue where that well is, and those needing a prophetic swift kick in their status quo aren't getting it for lack of visionary leadership.

Let's have a "leadership summit" on that...shall we?