19 April 2010



A Sermon Preached at the National Cathedral, Washington, DC (video here)
18 April 2010
The Third Sunday of Easter – Year C

“Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”

Grace to you, and peace, in Jesus Christ our Lord! I bring you grace, especially, from the people of my home parish, the Cathedral of St. Philip, in Atlanta, Georgia. And I especially welcome the grace represented by my fellow deans from cathedrals across North America, gathered here at the National Cathedral for the annual North American Conference of Cathedral Deans. We are grateful for the hospitality of the Dean of this cathedral, my old friend Sam Lloyd, and his wife, Marguerite; and I thank the Bishop of Washington, John Chane, another old friend.

When Sam Lloyd invited me to preach today, he mentioned that he was asking me because I “have been doing this dean thing for quite a while.” And he’s right. I have been dean for quite a while, for sixteen years, for two different cathedrals, two different cities, and – at last count—for six or seven different bishops.

Six or seven different bishops! If you count people who were elected bishop but not consecrated, I have worked with seven different bishop types. (If you count standing committees, who were canonically in charge when the bishop’s office was vacant….well.)

This morning, I want to talk first about being a dean in the Episcopal Church. It is simple. Being dean of a cathedral is about dancing. And the first dance that captures our curiosity is the dance between bishop and dean. We have all heard that the relationship between dean and bishop can be awkward, notoriously so. Every cathedral has some variation in its governance, and every dean and bishop is different. What is the same is that successful deans and bishops know how to dance with each other.

But deans dance with a lot of people. We dance with congregations. We dance with cities. We dance with bishops. We dance with churches outside the country. We dance with persons outside the Church. We move from step to step. Sometimes we lead. Sometimes we follow. We look beautifully elegant one moment. The next moment we stumble in the mud. Sometimes we go where we wish; sometimes we go where we do not wish.

I mention dancing today because I think Jesus and Peter knew how to dance with each other. I do not mean walking on the water and then sinking in the water. I mean all their delightful and passionate negotiations between initiative and obedience. Perhaps the most curious example of their “dancing” is this famous “feed my sheep” passage in today’s gospel, when Peter and Jesus do a little linguistic dance with each other.

Many of you here this morning are churchgoers, and you have probably heard the story before. After breakfast one day, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.” Then the interchange is repeated. A second time, Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter says, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.”

Finally, a third time Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” He is starting to sound like a teenaged lover at the dance. This time, Peter feels hurt because Jesus has asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” Peter says, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.” Jesus says a third time, “Feed my sheep.”

Those of you who have heard comment on this passage over the years, probably know that this conversation is actually a bit more complicated than the translation indicates. Since the beginning of Christendom, we have noted that Jesus and Peter are actually using different Greek words for “love.” When Jesus asks Peter the first two times about loving him, Jesus is using the lofty, divine word for “love,” the word agape. But Peter is responding, “Yes I love you,” with another word for love, the Greek word phileo.

“Do you love me with divine, self-giving love?” Jesus is asking Peter. Peter is responding, “Yes, I love you with brotherly love.” At the third question, Jesus actually changes to phileo, –brotherly love, instead of divine love—and, according to some, this is what hurts Peter.

Might there be some hidden meaning in the contrast between the two words? Some Dan Brown secret? Yes, there could be. C. S. Lewis wrote a masterpiece describing four different Greek words for love; it was the book, The Four Loves. For Lewis, each word for love has a holy component.

But what makes this linguistic dance such a delight is that the word “love” is not the only word used in two different ways in the passage. In this marvelous passage, there are not only two different words used for “love,” but also two different words used for “sheep” or “lambs,” and two different words used for the verb “to know,” and even two different words used for “tend” or “feed.” If we are not careful, we will trip over all sorts of translations here. Or we can be so confused, we will sit in our chairs like wallflowers.

No. I am among those who believe that there is no hidden meaning in the various translations of the word “love” here, or in the other words either. It is a dance with many steps; sometimes the feet go one way, and sometimes the feet go another way.

When Peter heard Jesus ask the question, “Do you love me?” he probably heard every note and overtone and variation of meaning that the word contained. And he saw every hue in the color of love. Every minister of the gospel, every follower of God, whether you are lay person, deacon, priest, or bishop, hears that same question: “Do you love me?” And it is fair, it is part of the dance, to interpret that question in all sorts of ways.

Every one of us, even when we have studied the classical definitions – eros, agape, philio, storge—has a different definition of what it means to love. No matter how we interpret the question, the directive of Jesus is the same: Feed my sheep. Take care of my people. Love my people. No matter how we might trip and tangle ourselves in the question, the directive of Jesus is the same. Feed my sheep. No matter how many web sites and news sources we visit, the directive of Jesus is the same. Feed my sheep.

Remember, everyone in this room is a minister. Everyone in this room is called to feed somebody. But we will all feed differently. Some of you feed with exquisite recipes and fine spices. Some of you feed with the latest in nutritious organics. Some of you feed with the same delightful dishes your mother, your grandmother, taught you long ago

Good cooking is like good dancing. It doesn’t happen by magic. It takes work. It takes exercise. It takes practice. Cooking does not come without knowing ingredients and chemistry – how this taste reacts with that spice, how long it takes for bread to rise. “Feed my sheep” means taking the time to learn how to do it well.

Feeding others, like dancing, then, is really an art. From the basic moves and skills, one composes a masterpiece.

I actually don’t cook very well, though I sure love to do it. My wife says I don’t dance very well, either; but I sure love to do it. Personally, my art is music; and every musician knows that, first, we learn our scales. Jazz is wonderful that way. Jazz requires me to learn my scales and then play from my heart. (That’s also a lot like being a priest.) It is an art.

In this city, politics, at its best, is the art. I am aware that, earlier this week, some forty-seven heads of state were negotiating here, dancing maybe, in the interest of nuclear security and peace.

We live for those moments when that mysterious mix of practice and love reaches a certain point that we call Spirit. You know that moment when the meal becomes exquisite, when the dancers are suddenly exalted, when the music transports our souls, when politics actually becomes beloved community. We call those moments holy. We call that point life-giving.

T. S. Eliott called it “the dance along the artery…at the still point, there the dance is…”

It takes a lot of love to learn the scales, to learn the steps, to learn the recipes. That’s why Christian do so much better when we actually love something. Christians do better when we love to dance, when we love to cook, when we love to feed – when we love our people, when we love Jesus.

“Feed my sheep” is the directive of Jesus for anyone, anyone, who wants to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and Peter. “Do you love me?” Jesus asked. “Do you love God?”

Then feed somebody. And feed them well. Learn about recipes and tastes. And learn about nutrition! Feed people with something worthwhile!

Do you love God? Then sing with somebody. Practice your scales. Use your head. And then let your heart go free!

Do you love God? Then dance with somebody. Learn some steps together. Learn to give and to take, to lead and to follow.

Dance with congregations and cities, local dioceses and overseas missions. Feed families and lovers. It doesn’t matter which word for love that you use. Love God and love your neighbor.

The Very Reverend Samuel G. Candler
Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta, Georgia
For the National Cathedral in Washington, DC

04 April 2010




Why do you look for the living among the dead? –Luke 24:5

(a sermon for Easter, 2010. This sermon works better when the preacher wears 3-D movie glasses during the first paragraph!)

Welcome to Easter in 3-D! Yes, this has been a year in which three dimensional movies are making a comeback. Today some of us come back to church, and what we see is Easter in 3-D!

Like many of you, I had to see Johnny Depp in the new 3-D production of Alice in Wonderland. What movement! What realism! The movie combined all sorts of Lewis Carroll images and quotations, delights and imaginations. At one point, Alice turns to the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and says, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Hah! But those lines are not actually in the original book, Alice in Wonderland. Historically, those lines are actually in Lewis Carroll’s second book about Alice, called Through the Looking Glass. Alice is actually complaining to the White Queen. “There’s no use trying,” Alice says to the White Queen. “There’s no use trying,” she says, “one can’t believe impossible things.” “One cannot believe impossible things.”

But the White Queen responds, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

It’s really the White Queen who says these delightful lines, but no matter. The movie takes liberties with the book, and that is fine with me. In fact, it’s better that way. Six impossible things before breakfast. The lines are supposed to be non-sensical and illogical. That’s their alluring delight.

Six impossible things before breakfast.

On this Easter Sunday, we have something in common with Alice. For one, we, too, will probably see a white rabbit today! But, more importantly, on this Easter Sunday, we are gathering to proclaim something impossible, belief in an impossible thing, belief in an impossible truth.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

A few days ago, we heard Pontius Pilate ask the question, “What is truth?” Or was it two thousand years ago he asked that? “What is truth?”

Some of us ask that question every day. Or every night when we are churning through the television channels looking for something of interest. Many of us have graduated from channel surfing to web surfing. It is the internet, now, that has an answer to every question we can possibly ask. And what a wonderland of truth seems to be out there!

Everybody seems to have some new truth they are peddling. No matter how ridiculous the claim is, someone will justify it by saying, “Well, I read it on the internet,” implying that there must be some support for the newest theory on who killed JFK. On the internet, there is a flat earth society on one site. At another site, there are purported photographs of archaeologists examining huge human bones, said to be the actual bones of prehistoric giants, thus proving the Genesis account that giant human beings once inhabited the earth.

The internet reminds me of the old court square surrounding the county courthouse where I grew up. There were all sorts of people, always hanging around there; but not everything said there had the same value. “I heard it at the court square,” had about the same value as saying today, “I saw it on the Internet.” Or “I heard it at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park.”

“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate asked at his court square.

In this world of so many competing claims for truth, what is it that we proclaim today? “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” Is this just another impossible thing we are being asked to believe before breakfast?

Scholars and sceptics have searched for Jesus’s historical absolutes for generations. They look for simplistic absolutes. Was there even a historical Jesus? Can we describe exactly the details of the historical Jesus? Did the resurrection happen? Did it happen in the exact way that the gospels say it did?

Well, the best accounts of Jesus and Resurrection -- the four gospels-- all have different perspectives on how it happened. Then, St. Paul has even more accounts of how Jesus showed up after he was dead. The texts themselves differ. Can we prove the truth of the Resurrection by studying these texts over and over again?

I believe not. I do not believe the Resurrection can be proven historically, because historical proof is two dimensional. The so-called searches for the historical Jesus are similarly limited, like two dimensional realities. Two dimensional reality is true, but it is incomplete in compared with 3-D!

The Resurrection is three dimensional. In fact, the Resurrection is probably four dimensional and five dimensional. The Resurrection is bigger than any dimension we might use to measure it.

When the women friends of Jesus showed up at the tomb on that first Easter morning, they did not see a historical body at all. They saw two men –angels, I believe – in dazzling clothes; and the angels asked them a critical question, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

That’s the question I ask today. Why do we persist in seeking out life from places that are dead? We wake up lonely in the night and stroll through two hundred television channels. We surf page to page on the internet. We cruise from bar to nightclub to restaurant, searching for the next trendy spot. We buy this car, move to that house, dress in these clothes, go to that school, even give to that charity, thinking that maybe this endeavor will finally offer me truth, offer me satisfaction. Why do you seek the living among the dead?

The Resurrection of Jesus will never be proven by poring back over old literature and ancient texts. Oh, I love those texts as much as the next person; in fact, I probably love them more than most people. I actually love the bible.

But the bible does not prove Resurrection. The bible is only two dimensional. It is not wrong; it is just limited to two dimensions. The power of scripture is that it points to something else. The power of the bible is that offers something to our imagination. It inspires us to see another dimension.

Are we supposed to believe impossible things? Yes, because what is impossible in one dimension is very much possible in another dimension.

Mathematicians and physicists know this is true. Martin Gardner used to write regular columns about logic and mathematical puzzles in the magazine Scientific American. They were delightful because they pointed to another reality. People may not realize that Martin Gardner is actually a Lewis Carroll scholar, too. In fact, Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, was himself a mathematics professor, at Oxford.

Martin Gardner, the present-day mathematician, wrote a masterpiece called The Annotated Alice, full of notes and comments about Alice in Wonderland. It was that book and its notes that first pointed me to the old quotation of a second century Christian theologian named Tertullian. Gardner didn’t get it quite right: “I believe, because it is absurd,” he quoted.

What Tertullian actually said, in the second century, was “The Son of God was buried, and rose again. It is certain, because impossible.” It is certain, because impossible. The resurrection of Jesus is impossible in one dimension. But in another dimension, it is certain.

Today, Easter Sunday, we believe an impossible truth: Life comes from death. We are not here merely to say something historical about Jesus, that somehow his body was resuscitated from the dead. The Resurrection of Jesus does not mean the Resuscitation of Jesus. We are not here merely to say something about what has happened in the past. We are here proclaiming something about the present, right now, right in front of us.

So, today, we do not say “Alleluia, Christ WAS risen!” We say “Alleluia, Christ IS risen.” Right now. Christ is risen!

We are not proclaiming the Resurrection of Christ in the past, based on two-dimensional texts (though we do belive that). We are proclaiming the Resurrection of Christ in the present, in full array before us, in living 3-D!

You ask, Where is this three dimensional resurrection? It is all around you. The living community of faith is the real 3-D. People are the real 3-D. Simply reading about something is two dimensional; living it out is three dimensional. Even seeing a movie – even seeing a movie in 3-D! – is two dimensional. Even the virtual reality of internet is two dimensional. Living it out is three dimensional.

Why do you seek the living among the dead? Why do we seek the truth in things that do not give us life?

We find truth in communities of resurrection; and that is the claim I make this morning for the Christian church. At our best, we are a community of resurrection. The best proof of the Resurrection of Christ is not the bible. The best proof of the Resurrection of Christ is the Christian Church, the Body of Christ! We believe in death; and we also believe in life.

Sure, the Christian Church has problems. Sure, we have differences of opinion. We have various perspectives and angles! The very scriptures that we use to inspire our souls are full of various perspectives and differences.

But we live in Resurrection. We believe that Jesus died, and we believe that Jesus is risen. We believe in death and we believe in life. That’s why we observe both Good Friday and Easter. That’s why we sing hymns at funerals. That’s why we search through earthquake debris for signs of life. That’s why the Church builds great schools for intellectual achievement and hospitals for the sick. It is the Church who takes dinner to those who mourn.

Today, we do look for the living among the dead. Because we live in another dimension.We have met Jesus our Lord. We have met the risen Christ before, and we will meet the risen Christ again. We have not just read about Easter. We have seen in Easter in 3-D, in living flesh and blood!

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!


03 April 2010

Deep Thanks on Holy Saturday

Deep Thanks to beautiful church workers across the world today! Many have spent Holy Saturday setting up altars, arranging flowers, polishing, cleaning, washing, cutting grass, rehearsing music, yes-and even writing sermons, preparing for so many others to enjoy Easter tomorrow. Blessings to all of you! Practically speaking, Holy Saturday is actually a marvelously holy day of preparation in the Christian Church.