Wisdom 3:1-5, 9, Psalm 139:1-11, Revelation 21:2-7, John 6: 37-40
Delivered with all my love, The Rev’d T. Whitfield Stodghill, III – Whit+
Every year, the Church’s calendar rolls round and round like a great wheel. Today we find ourselves at the conjunction of Easter and Pentecost. There is no better time to celebrate the life, and witness of Lee Jefferson. Lee was, and will ever be, a living witness to God’s ability to bring freedom from bondage, life from death. Lee was set on fire by the Holy Spirit. See, God makes all things new.
On the desk of my office is a small, frosted, glass bird. It is a reminder of the day I was ordained a deacon at another Grace church, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. That afternoon, a friend and I had a reception at the seminary to celebrate the day. As we cleaned up, we carried leftovers from the activity room back to the refectory. The doors were propped open. On almost the last trip, I found two small birds, trapped in the dining space. I longed to set them free. They had flown in the open door, and I worked to shoosh them out. One paused – looked directly at me – hopped up the steps – and flew out the door. The other – flew to a scupper window I had opened – paused on the frame – cocked its head - looked me in the eye – and flew to freedom. That night, lying in bed with Dawnell, Bishop Swing’s words from our ordination sermon and the day’s Gospel from Matthew rang loud. “Have no fear, Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father… So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” We are of infinite worth to God. I woke Dawnell, and shared it all, and I wept with thanks-filled tears of joy.
Bishop Swing told us that in life, and in ministry, we would be greatly hurt, even by the Church. But, he said, we would be greatly loved, by God, by others, and by the Church. Lee was greatly hurt by others, and by the world. But Lee was greatly loved by God, by others, and by the Church. The Church got it exactly right for Lee.
Several years ago, Lee came to me, sat in my office. Surely, God was in that place. So, was my little glass bird. Lee said to me, “For a long time, I have wanted to serve the Church. I haven’t known how. I want to help you, too. I think I need to do that now, but I don’t know how, or what to do. Maybe I could be a deacon, a servant?” Without hesitation, I said, “Let’s spend some time thinking, and discerning. Talk to Rita. I think you are called to be a priest.” Lee was speechless.
Lee served as lector, and Eucharistic Minister at St. Alban’s. I knew he struggled to read in front of others, but he was always there. He served in many other ways too. Lee was a person of great faith. In time, he told me that he was dyslexic, how he struggled in school, and how he was told he was stupid, and lazy from a young age. “People see Georgia Tucker school, and talk about what a pretty building it is,” Lee said. “I see a prison.”
Not long after, we took our journey to visit with Bishop Jake, who after listening to Lee’s story, told Lee, “No more excuses! You can do this!” We began EfM – Sewanee’s four year program of Theological Education – with a daunting amount of reading - at Graduate School Level – Old Testament, New Testament, Church History, and Theology. Lee read it ALL, and more – Rita by his side. They read the prayers of the Church, the daily office together, and they served. They drove one nursing home resident to, and from church - week in, and week out. They cooked, cleaned, set up the altar, changed the church’s seasonal colors. Lee and Rita grew in their confidence, and in their love of God, and in their love of one another.
Lee’s life was, and will ever be, a living witness to God’s ability to bring freedom from bondage, life from death. We are set on fire by the Holy Spirit. God makes all things new. I saw it. Others did too. The Church saw it. The Church nurtured it.
The Church got it exactly right for Lee. No more excuses! You can do this! We ALL believed. We are of infinite worth to God.
Lee was ordained deacon, and then priest. Lee was set free. Lee was filled with new life. Lee was set on fire by the Holy Spirit. Lee was a fearless, deacon and priest, of infinite worth to God.
When Lee stumbled to read – people witnessed courage. At St. Luke’s in Grambling – a bastion of the highest learning – in a congregation filled with Doctors of Philosophy, and people whose lives were spent educating generations of students, Lee won their admiration, and respect. One of his proudest moments was when one of pillars of that church, and of Grambling State University told him, “You are the bravest white man I ever meet.” It was Lee’s honorary Ph.D.
When Lee made a reading mistake or verbal gaff, it was often instructive. Like the Yogi Berra of priestcraft, Lee often said something deeply meaningful by accident or perhaps inspiration. He often confused your and our when talking of God. Ours is the kingdom and power and glory – when he did – he inadvertently claimed promises made to us by God through Jesus. Ideas of the Orthodox mystics, Theosis – God’s desire to make all creation ONE. Every time Lee made such a “mistake,” he promised to work on it. Lee laughed at himself, and I learned something new – thought something new.
The Church uses sacraments – outward and visible signs to talk about inward and spiritual things – Things seen to speak of things unseen. We use birds to symbolize the Holy Spirit. Lee’s life was a living symbol of God’s ability to bring freedom from bondage, life from death, and the power of being set on fire by the Holy Spirit. God makes ALL things new. Lee flew into my life, and the lives of countless others to bear witness to God. Let us have confidence in that! May we weep this day, not only with tears of sadness, but with Easter tears – transformed when Jesus calls us each by name. May we have no fear. May we remember that we are of infinite worth to God. And may we remember – this day always – to have no excuses. May we become living witnesses to God’s ability to bring freedom from bondage, and life from death. May we be set on fire by the Holy Spirit. May we remember that God makes all things new! Amen.