23 December 2009


(A Sermon for Christmas Eve 2009)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.
..All went to their own towns to be registered. (Luke 2:1-3)

Where are you registered tonight?

Wherever you are on this Christmas evening, here in a glorious church of joy and wonder, or at home, warm and cozy, ready for rest and bed, wherever you are on this Christmas evening, my question is this: Where are you registered?

A “register,” as you know, records things. It records data and names people. And registers are everywhere in the world. At weddings and funerals, guests sign registers. In shopping malls and boutiques, cash registers have been busy, registering the transaction. You have been registered. Your computer software, whether you know it or not, keeps a registry of you.

If, sadly, we are stopped on the highway, by our friendly officer of the law, the officer wants to see both our license and our vehicle registration. If we want to participate in this country’s democratic republic, we register to vote.

The world wants us to register. Every year, I hear of someone who wants to flee the world, to get away from registration and twenty-four hour surveillance systems. I loved the movie, Enemy of the State, for that reason; one of the main characters was truly living off the grid. Right now, there seems to be a famous golfer trying to flee the world; maybe he’s looking for his true identity.

This past year, Wired magazine sponsored a contest, in which one of its writers, Evan Ratliff, would disappear from the world of digital registration and surveillance. He offered five thousand dollars to anyone who could find him between August 15 and September 15; and they could use any means possible. Investigators used all manner of digital searches, GPS systems, and forums. He conjured up all sorts of fake accounts and numbers to mislead them. But, do you know what? They found him. Somebody won five thousand dollars.

We are registered people in our day and time. The world finds us and names us. The world has registered us.

And yet, in each of us, there is also something that does not want to be registered. We don’t want to be known simply as a social security number, or an impersonal category. The world says we are “White Caucasian,” or “African American,” or “Hispanic” or “Asian.”

Our hearts ask us, “Aren’t we something more than those designations?” Aren’t we something more than “Income under fifty thousand dollars a year,” or “Income over one hundred thousand a year”? Aren’t we something more than “straight or gay,” “married or single”? Something in our heart wants to be more than a demographic designation, something more than all these registrations, these worldly measurements of identity!

But our plight is to succumb; over and over again, we submit to the registration. We check the box. We refer back to our hometown and call ourselves “from Atlanta,” or “from New York.”

Often we think that, this time, if we give our official information, then the designation will help us. If I sign this form, I will be helped. I will get the rebate. My neighborhood will receive more government subsidy. I will receive better health care. If I register my wedding at this store, I will receive gifts that I can actually use. If I type in my credit card number here, I will get that new computer for Christmas.

All of us do register. It is the way of the world. The decree has gone out. All the world should be registered. And we have complied, over and over again. When all is said and done, we do want to be known. We do want to be identified, with something or another, and we register everywhere.

Two thousand years ago, Mary and Joseph returned to their hometown, to be registered, because that was where they were known. Many of you have returned to your hometown this Christmas – or at least to where your parents or children are—because that is where you are known. You have come back to your family, even if your family lives this year in another house, or another town. You telephone them; you email them. Somehow, our families and hometowns give us an identity; they place us on the registered grid of the world.

Two thousand years ago, however, there was a birth that occurred off the grid. With no room in the official establishments of the time, Mary and Joseph had their child in a manger, in a stable, where no one was really sure what the census was.

This young child was a puzzle, for he could not be categorized at all. He could not be designated. He could not be registered. People noticed him, of course, but they could not completely name him. He was a Savior, for sure, a Messiah. Angels sang to him. Shepherds and common folk flocked to him. But he was a child. How could a mere child be the fulfillment of so much human expectation? How could a mere child be the answer to so much human need?

Later in his life, this man, Jesus of Nazareth, would be designated by so many other names: king, prophet, healer, rabbi, teacher, even “Son of God.” He would name himself with other images: living water, bread of life, true vine, the door, the way and the truth. With each image, this Jesus registered himself with us; he named himself for us; he imprinted himself on our souls.

After his death, and after his resurrection, we have tried to register this Jesus with still more images. We have categorized him as social activist, good friend, healer.We have tried to register him as fully human, but also as fully divine. Generation after generation, we have tried to contain Jesus with our names and numbers, with our categories and registrations.

Because, for us, registration is the way of the world. Science needs measurement. Biology needs taxonomy. Government needs registration. Society needs names.

But we fall short. We fall short when we try to register ourselves; and we have it backwards when we try to register just who this Jesus is. We can never fully measure ourselves, and we can never fully measure Jesus.

It is not our role to register Jesus. Rather, it is our role to be registered by Jesus, to be registered ourselves by this birth that we observe tonight. We let ourselves be named and ruled and governed by so much these days. We let ourselves be registered by so many companies and promises and fantasies. But the birth of Jesus occurred so that God could register us!

Yes, Mary and Joseph were on their way to be registered; but they would be registered by someone far greater than the Emperor Augustus. It is God, and only God, who can fully measure us. The mystery of Christmas is that God measures us. God identifies us! God registers us!

The early Christian theologian, Saint Augustine, famously said, “Our hearts are restless. Our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in thee.” Who was he speaking to? Was he speaking to his mother, welcoming him back home again? Was he speaking to his lover, resting his heart and his head, upon her lovely presence?

No, Augustine was praying to God. “Our hearts are restless,” he said, “until they find their rest in thee, O God.” That is our prayer tonight, on this one night of the year, when we are as close to home as we will ever be. Some of us travelled far today. Some of us will travel far tomorrow. But tonight, Christmas Eve, we are as close to home as we can be.

Because, tonight, God has found us. God has located us with a registry system that goes far beyond any of the computers or GPS systems or iPhone apps that are for sale during this season.

God located us. God registered us, once and for all time, by being born in the flesh, in Jesus Christ our Lord. That birth means that God is born again and again – wherever human flesh longs for love and pursues peace in the world. In those places which yearn for justice and mercy, God seeks to enlist us; in all those places, God registers us.

A decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. Little did the emperor know, however, when he sent out that decree, what was about to happen. Yes, all the world would be registered, but not in the way, he, or anyone, anticipated.

The world was registered that night in Jesus Christ our Lord. The world was found and redeemed that night, in Jesus Christ, our Lord. The world was touched and sanctified that night, in Jesus Christ our Lord.

So tonight, we rejoice in that event. We rejoice because we know it is still true. We have been registered, recorded, by the only One whose registration truly counts: the creator and redeemer and lover of the world. In your restless search for identity tonight, in your restless search for love, let God touch you. Let God touch you with peace and justice, mercy and love, grace and excellence. And the Word will become flesh, once again, registered, in your heart.


The Very Reverend Samuel G. Candler
Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip

19 December 2009


( Sermon from 29 November 2009, the First Sunday of Advent)

Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”
Luke 21:25-26

If Jesus were speaking today, he might add to these words about the end times. He would say, “Yes, people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” But he would also say, “People will be fascinated with it!”

“People will be fascinated with foreboding about the end time. People will investigate strange calendars from the ancient Mayan civilization. They will believe that, since one Mayan calendar ends in the year 2012, then the world itself will end in 2012. They will make movies about it, and they will call the movie ‘2012.’”

“People will create nuclear weapons and then live in fear that the nuclear weapons will fall into the wrong hands, or go out of control, and the earth as we know it will be destroyed. Fathers and sons will struggle together in the ashen aftermath of destruction. Someone will create a movie describing these future events, and they will call the movie, ‘The Road.’”

There are always signs in the stars, the sun and the moon, or whatever we use to calibrate our lives. Ten years ago, Jesus would have been saying something like this: There will be signs in our computer programs. Our computers made no provision for the second millennium. Y2K may very well bring on the very end of the world; electricity will go dead. Airplanes will fly aimlessly through the sky.

In 1999, Jerry Falwell was telling his followers in Kingsport, Tennessee that he believed the second coming of Christ world would occur in about ten years, because the antichrist was probably already alive on earth somewhere. (In fact, 1999 was the year said to be forecasted by Nostradamus as the end of the world.)

There is always someone, somewhere, predicting the end of the world. And it doesn’t really matter whether they call themselves religious or not! It seems that when human beings ponder our existence in the world, we also ponder the end of our world, too. Whatever we use to measure ourselves –like calendars or computers—and whatever we use as our standards of well-being –like nuclear security or even environmental stewardship – become signs that we will one day die. Everyone has some sort of religion; and every religion, of whatever sort, tells us that we will one day die.

I am amused, for instance, by certain secular leaders of the environmental movement (a movement which I support!). That movement has become a religion for many these days, a sort of caring, but secular, religion. Some elements of that movement, too, are fixated on the end. They see global warming as the very end of civilization as we know it. Or peak oil as the very end of civilization as we know it. Or water scarcity, or whatever. And, of course, they may be right.

We human beings are destined to ponder the end times, no matter what religion we are, and no matter what we use to calibrate or measure our lives.

Signs in the sun and the moon and the stars have always been with us throughout human civilization. There were signs in the sky at the end of the first millennium. Chronicles from the Tenth Century A.D. tell of meteors falling in England which would portend the end of the world. Some folks thought that the winter solstice at the end of the first millennium would be the end, when the night was longest, and the days the shortest. Others thought it would be Good Friday, in the Spring.

Today in the Church is First Sunday of Advent, the day we mark as a transition from one year to the next, a new liturgical year. For many centuries, Advent was a two to four week joyous season of preparing for the Nativity of Christ. But the penitential nature of this season of Advent probably emerges from the 900's AD, the end of that first millennium. As the end of the millennium approached, Advent became a season of fasting and penitence, waiting for the end of the world.

And, as we know, the end of the world has not occurred. At least, not yet.

Yet, for some lovely and eccentric reason, the Christian Church, in particular, produces in each generation those persons who are fascinated with predicting the end times. As some of you know, one of my favorite stories is that of William Miller, in the 1830s. William Miller was probably affected by this great Leonid meteor shower of 1833, and so he calculated the end of the world. He used first the old Archbishop Usher dating system of the world, believing that the earth was created in 4004 BC (and, specifically, in September of 4004 BC). Then he calculated certain numbers in the Book of Daniel and decided that the second advent or coming of Christ would occur April 3, 1843. The date came; nothing happened. Miller recalculated the date. That date came; nothing happened. Did his movement disintegrate?

No, not at all. Some of his followers chose a further date instead, October 22, 1844. There were signs in the sky; a comet was there. But the day came and passed with no second advent; no end times. The resiliency of our human fascination with end times is incredibly strong. One of his followers, Ellen Harmon White moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, and worked out an entire system of adventism and health (the word “advent” means “coming”). Her movement still exists today as the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

Yes, good things often come from our fascinations, naive and silly as they are. One of the early converts to Adventism was a vegetarian named John Kellogg. He is generally acknowledged to have had some rather strange ideas about health; but he also became superintendent of the Adventist Sanitarium in 1876, which later became the Battle Creek Sanitarium. As a part of his health regimen, he urged the consumption of cereal for breakfast instead of the oily hams and meats of the time. So began the Kellogg Cereal Company.

One of the patients at the Battle Creek Sanitarium was a man named C.W Post. Post had disagreements with Kellogg and so started his own company, the Post Cereal Company. That was about a hundred years ago. Today, the United States would be incomplete without the breakfast cereal industry. Maybe it all emerged because someone thought Christ was returning in 1844.

Maybe they were right. But listen again to what Jesus did say, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth distress among nations ... When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

He was saying more than just the end is always near. He was saying that the kingdom of God is near. Yes, we are always observing the end of something. But, for Christians, the end of something always means the beginning of something else. Here, even at the end of our liturgical year, we are actually preparing –again—for the coming of Jesus and his kingdom.

The most important words that Jesus speaks, when he ponders the end times, are the words, “Be alert.” “Be alert at all times,” he says. Those are words for the spiritual life, no matter what season we are in. “Watch.” Look at the stars and world around you; look at the movies and signs. Be attentive to the people and the attitudes around you.

On any one day of our lives, something is ending. And something is beginning, too. Something is dying, but something else is being born, being invented, being developed.

When we are aware, alert, to these changes – these endings that are also beginnings, then the kingdom of God is near. This, I believe, is why Jesus mentions a curious parable right in the middle of his speech about the end times. It is a parable about trees and about growth, and about how the kingdom of God is always near.

“Look at the fig tree,” Jesus said, among his words about the end times, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”


The Very Reverend Samuel G. Candler
Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip