24 December 2010


(a sermon for 19 December 2010,
the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A)

Matthew 1.18-25

It was a few days before Christmas. A woman woke up one morning and told her husband, "I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" “Oh,” he replied, “you’ll know the day after tomorrow.”

The next morning, she turned to her husband and said the same thing, "I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" "You'll know tomorrow." he said.

On the third morning, the woman woke up and smiled at her husband, "I just dreamed again that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" He smiled back, “Oh, you’ll know tonight.”

That evening, the man came home with a small package and presented it to his wife. She was delighted. She opened it gently. But when she did, she found -- a book! It was titled "The Meaning of Dreams."

What have you been dreaming about lately?

Some of us are dreaming about wonderful possibilities. We’re dreaming of pearl necklaces and sugar plum fairies, new bicycles and upgraded computers. I hope all those dreams come true!

As I consider my own dreams, I realize that I dream in two major categories. I have two kinds of dreams. Sometimes, my dreams are dreadful. I imagine painful relationships. I live out meetings and deadlines that I have missed. I am standing in a pulpit, for instance, with nothing to say. These are nights that I spend wrestling like my ancestor, the patriarch, Jacob.

But on other occasions, my dreams are the most refreshing I can imagine. I have also dreamed about reconciliation. I have dreamed that enemies are at my table, and we are living convivially. I have dreamed of flying fancily through the air. I have dreamed of new life and hope. I have dreamed of lean years followed by wonderful years. These are nights that I dream like my ancestor, the patriarch, Joseph. Yes, Joseph in the Old Testament, too, was a dreamer.

During this past year, researchers at Harvard University “asked people to navigate a maze, and found that those who both napped and dreamed about their maze experience, in any way, showed a tenfold improvement when they did the maze a second time.” (The Week magazine, Dec 24, 2010, page 32.) The suggestion is that dreams make you smarter. The magazine called The Week, said that the process “isn’t necessarily rational or literal—but reflects a deeper process in which the unconscious mind consolidates what it has learned and produces new insights.” (The Week Magazine, Dec 24, 2010, page 32).

That is my answer to the question, “Why do we need sleep?” We need sleep in order to dream. We need to dream.

Today’s gospel lesson, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, is about a dream, Joseph’s dream. Besides the wise men, a few verses later, Joseph is the only person in the New Testament who dreams. Other characters have visions, and the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary in the Gospel of Luke. But only Joseph dreams.

And only Matthew tells Joseph’s story. The more familiar story, which we have known for as long as we have seen Christmas pageants, is about Mary receiving the word of the Lord, from an angel. But that story is only in the Gospel of Luke.

The Gospel of Matthew tells the story from another point of view, maybe a forgotten point of view these days. Matthew tells the story from the man’s point of view, Joseph’s point of view. All the action in Matthew’s birth narrative revolves around Joseph taking action. Nothing against Mary and Luke, of course! But it’s good, once every three years in our lectionary cycle, to hear the story from Joseph’s point of view!

(By the way, in our two other gospels, Mark and John, there is no account whatsoever of the physical birth of Jesus. We have four gospels, and they differ dramatically in how they tell the story of Jesus’s birth. That’s why we have four gospels. And that’s why we have many types of Christians!)

Surely, Joseph was in a troubled way. Joseph, a man of decency and responsibility, realized that his betrothed was actually pregnant before they were married. What should he do?

Well, he took time to sleep. He took time to rest. He took time to dream. Somehow, it was in his dream that Joseph consolidated things; he put it all together. He realized something wonderful and astounding. Ancient scriptures, an angel, all sorts of theologizing, came flooding into his soul. Yes, God would enter the world. Immanuel, “God With Us” would be born to his wife, as crazy as that was to understand.

Joseph had to trust the angel in his dream, but Joseph also had to trust someone else. Joseph had to trust Mary. I know Mary would be his wife, and surely Joseph must have loved Mary. But still, this took a lot of trust! For Joseph, the way of salvation meant trusting someone else.

This is why Joseph’s dream is so important. Joseph dreamed of the salvation of the world. And he dreamed that true salvation comes through someone else.

That is the lesson for us, too. Like Joseph sometimes, we are supposed to trust God and then get out of the way. Trust that God is working through our wife, and then get out of the way. Trust that God is working in our children, and then get out of the way.

Imagine young Mary, minding her own business, suddenly being overcome with news of a great conception, a great presence of the divine. It’s something to have an angel speak to you. Wouldn’t it be great to know that such a revelation might happen again?

Well, you know what? It did happen again.

The angel did appear to someone besides Mary. The story is recorded right in the Bible, but not in Luke. It appears in Matthew. The angel did appear to someone else. The angel appeared to Joseph.

Now, if the angel can appear to Mary, and then also appear to Joseph, that means that the angel can appear to you and me, too. In the Bible, the annunciation does not occur only once, but twice – not just to a woman, but also to a man. Not just to Mary and Joseph, but also to you and to me!

What are you giving for Christmas this year? I do not mean what are you getting. We all want something wonderful, I am sure. But what are you giving for Christmas?

The greatest gift you can give this year is to believe in somebody, to believe in someone’s dreams, to believe that God is working in the person beside you. That’s the gift that Joseph gave Mary, and, thus, the gift that Joseph gave the entire world.

Likewise, the great gift you can give is to have faith in someone else; believe in their dreams. Believe in the dreams of the person you love. Believe in the dream of your husband. Believe in the dream of your wife. Believe in the dreams of your children. Believe in the dream of your hero, your leader, your friend. Believe in their dreams!

And sleep comfortably this season. I know some folks do not sleep well. Too much worry. Too much food and drink. Take time to sleep.

The reason we sleep is to dream; and the reason we have relationships is so that we will have someone who will believe our dreams.

God works through those relationships. God works through both Mary and Joseph. God needs both Luke’s story of the annunciation and Matthew’s story of Joseph’s dream. They are miracle stories.

God works through a young and wonderful woman, and her husband believes in her. It is a miracle repeated again and again. Believe in the dreams of the person you love. Believe in dreams this Christmas, and Jesus will be born again. Believe in dreams this Christmas, and God will appear in the world.


The Very Reverend Sam Candler

21 December 2010


(a sermon for 2 Advent, 5 December 2010)
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
And a branch shall grow out of his roots. (Isaiah 11.1)

My wife and I were watching a television newscast last week. At least I think it was a newscast. It was host with two guests. But the host was doing most of the talking –loudly, too, and commanding the conversation so roughly that the so-called guests could hardly get a word in edgewise. My wife finally noticed, “All they are doing is yelling. They are just yelling at each other. Turn it off,” she said. We did.

We were left with a question that many people are asking these days, “Can we have political engagement at all without yelling?” Without being enemies?

Maybe not. We live in hard times, high anxiety times with high decibel enemies. I do not need to review all of our anxiety for you. Maybe it starts with economic uncertainty, and the fear that we will not see the restoration of jobs and economic growth any time soon. It continues as we walk through airport security pat-downs. Anxiety seeps up through vast internet connections, whose messages are now known as leaks, screams, and bullying.

And, if you want to sense mere anxiety in the world, simply turn on the television news any night between the hours of five o clock and ten o clock.

It does not matter which network you watch, and it does not matter whether you are watching local news coverage or world news coverage. What sells is anxiety and enemies. The global economic situation is often too complicated to cover in a thirty minute broadcast, and so the local news stations cover fires and automobile wrecks, and traffic – oh the traffic! – and the inequity of salaries, and potholes in the roads, and flimsiest of threats to our well-being. We are a threatened people.

But if anything good might come out of the past three years of economic crisis and emotional anxiety, it should be an ability to relate to the tension times, and the crisis times, in the Bible itself. Most of us may not realize that much of the Bible was written during threatening times, especially during politically threatening and economically threatening times.

The New Testament, for instance, is not written from a country that knows power or dominion. The New Testament was written in a dominated, poor, obscure little area, far away from the powers of Rome, or of ancient Greece, and the previous powers of Babylon and Assyria. It was an area tossed this way and that, always under the threat of being captured and taxed to death, or of even being destroyed.

Most of the Bible was written during treacherous and politically uncertain times. Maybe there were calmer moments, during which editors compiled all the prophecies and pronouncements and rituals and liturgies into a smoother narrative; but the actual times were tough.

Isaiah, the great prophet Isaiah, wrote during one of these tumultuous and politically threatening times. We hear one of his great passages this morning, a passage we have come to associate with Christmas, or, at least with Advent. Advent would not be complete unless we heard these words,”

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
4 …with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
5 …Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:1-10)

Of course, we have come to associate this prophecy with the messiah, Jesus. But that comparison is too easy. It is too easy to read these words in retrospect and pronounce that they have been fulfilled in Jesus as the messiah.

The times were tough. The times were tough when Isaiah wrote these words.

First of all, remember that the land we now know as “Israel” has very rarely in history been one unified region. There has always been division, among the various tribes, and especially between the North and the South. For most of Old Testament history, the two largest areas were Israel, in the North – and Judah, in the South. Again, we tend to think that “Israel” and “Judah” are just two different names for the same holy land. Not at all. Israel was the northern kingdom, and Judah was the southern kingdom.

The only real time these two kingdoms enjoyed unity, and a degree of peace, was under the great king David. Indeed, he is known as the greatest King in the Hebrew scriptures, because he held together both Israel and Judah. Outside of King David’s time, there is always a tension, in the Old Testament, between the North and the South, between Israel and Judah.

But these were difficult political times beyond the holy land, too. Syria, to the north, was almost always a threat. And, during the time of Isaiah, it was Assyria who was the far larger threat. In the year 738 BC, Tiglath-Pileser, of Assyria, threatened to come down through Syria and Palestine. Therefore, the northern king (that would be Israel) entered into an alliance with Syria. Together, perhaps Israel and Syria could resist Tiglath-Pileser.

But, remember, Judah was the southern kingdom. Judah, under King Ahaz, was not part of this alliance. They were in the south, not threatened by Assyria. So the kings of Syria and Israel tried to replace Ahaz with a king who might join them. What intrigue!

Ahaz, and Judah, were so offended that they did an end run. They sought to form an alliance with Assyria, with the dreaded enemy. And it worked. Assyria defeated Israel in 722 BC, while in alliance with Judah. 722 marked the last record of the northern tribes in human history; all able-bodied Israelites were exiled to Assyria.

Judah was spared, but the threat of foreign occupation still remained. In fact, perhaps the threat was even greater, for Judah had seen what had happened to its brothers in Israel.

It is in this circumstance that Isaiah the prophet meets King Ahaz, of Judah, on several occasions, with oracles of warning and judgement. And it is Isaiah, Isaiah himself, who has three children, three sons, whose names indicate a part of Isaiah’s message. This was not uncommon among the prophets of the Old Testament – to give their own sons names which represented their prophecy.

Isaiah’s first son was named “Shear-jeshub,” which means “a remnant shall return.” Isaiah’s second son was named “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” Isaiah’s third son is named “Maher-shalal-hash-baz”, which means “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens.” That third name indicates imminent threat, doesn’t it? But all this is to confront Ahaz with both the judgement of God, and the long-term care of God.

It is these prophecies, and these names, as you all know, that are so familiar to us Christians around the seasons of Advent and Christmas. Today, on the Second Sunday of Advent, it is critical for us to realize that these names were the names of real people. These prophecies had their roots in real and historical situations.

Isaiah was not simply sitting alone, peacefully, in some holy quiet retreat imagining the birth of Jesus Christ. Prophecy, and the word of God, always emerges from real situations, often from crisis situations, times of struggle and even despair.

And God’s word is the same in those situations. A remnant shall return. No matter what is destroyed, or looks destroyed, a remnant returns. The branch shall grow out of the stump of Jesse, the root of David. There is always, always, the possibility of new birth. And God is with us. No matter what the threat. No matter what the division. God is with us.

“The wolf shall lie down with the lamb,” Isaiah says, the leopard shall lied down with the kid, the calf and lion and fatling together, the cow and the bear, the lion and the ox. The young child shall put its hand on the snake’s den.” Natural enemies enjoying peace together is what Isaiah prophecies.

Today, in our own politics, everyone speaks of non-partisanship, but is it possible? Our political scene, and our nightly newscasts, seem to contain natural enemies who want to completely annihilate the other side. And, thus, it has become the easy reaction to complain –like I am doing right now—to complain of strident voices speaking past each other.

So it is that my wife watch a newscast that devolves into mere yelling at each other. Yes, everyone longs for more civil discourse, more true interaction, communication, even communion, like this beautiful peaceable kingdom that Isaiah imagines. Is it possible?

We need a messiah.

In times of similar anxiety, and even physical exile, Isaiah named his own sons with names of God’s truth. He used the naming of his own sons as a means of getting the point across. But the great truth of his prophecy is that these names had a more dramatic and far-reaching meaning. Isaiah was actually looking for a messiah that would come from history, but who would lead us to a place beyond history.

This is why the Church hears these dramatic lines each year in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The messiah of God is located in history, but the messiah of God is also beyond history.

And, as wonderful as we might consider our contemporary political leaders and messiahs, none of them will be able to lead us to that true peaceable kingdom, where even natural predators lie down with each other, and hold each other’s hands!

Yes, we need a messiah for these hard times. Today, we make alliances with all sorts of leaders and groups and parties and even nations, thinking that we will be delivered. They may fulfill our needs for a season. But they are not the heavenly messiah. No earthly leader should ever be mistaken for this righteous root of David.

The righteous root of David, that branch that grows from the stump of Jesse, is certainly the One we call the Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor, a Sign to the Nations. It is for that true messiah that we wait. Isaiah and Judah waited twenty-seven hundred years ago. We still wait today.

And in three weeks, that messiah will be here. Yes, the messiah was born in human history, in a particular time full of strife and anxiety, but so that he might address the strife and anxiety of every age. In whatever age, in whatever turmoil and defeat and collapse, God’s messiah will be born. God’s messiah will be born, from a root of what is already here, yes, but from above, too, leading us to that ultimate peaceable kingdom of God.


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

11 December 2010


A Sermon from the Very Reverend Sam Candler
for the Buckhead Community Thanksgiving Service, in Atlanta

(With the Churches and Choirs of The Cathedral of St. Philip, Peachtree Presbyterian Church, Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, Wieuca Road Baptist Church, Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church, and the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King.)

At Peachtree Presbyterian Church
21 November 2010

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.  (First Corinthians 12:12–27)

My thanks for you!

I give thanks to our hosts tonight, all who worship and who lead, at Peachtree Presbyterian Church. I give thanks for the excellent and faithful musicians of our six parishes. I give thanks for the Buckhead community. And I certainly give thanks to my five colleagues, the other five senior ministers here tonight – pastors of what have to be the finest Christian parishes in the country!

But I give thanks, mostly, for you – you who are assembled as one body tonight, one body, with very many members.

It is a busy season. Many families and households are getting ready to travel. Some have already left. Many are already preparing to buy gifts and decorate for –dare I say it?—Christmas itself.

But you are here, gathered together as one body. One Body of Christ, from several denominations.

And so I want to remind you of the story I told a few years ago. Some of you have heard it before, but it bears repeating, especially on a night like this.

Do you know how many Christians it takes to change a light bulb?

Well, it depends upon your denomination. If you’re a charismatic Christian, it takes only one. Your hands are already in the air.

If you’re a Pentecostal Christian, the anwer is: Ten. One to change the bulb, and nine to pray against spirit of darkness.

Presbyterians: None. Lights will go on and off at predestined times.

Roman Catholic: None. Candles only.

Baptists: At least 15. One to change the light bulb, and three committees to approve the change and decide who brings the potato salad and fried chicken.

Episcopalians: Three. One to call the electrician, one to mix the drinks, and one to talk about how much better the old one was.

Mormons: Five. One man to change the bulb, and four wives to tell him how to do it.

Unitarians: We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your light bulb for the next Sunday service in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including: incandescent, fluorescent, three way, long-life, and environmentally sustainable, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.

Methodists: Undetermined. Whether your light is bright, dull, or completely out, you are loved. You can be a light bulb, turnip bulb, or tulip bulb. Church-wide lighting service is planned for Sunday. Bring bulb of your choice and a covered dish.

Lutherans: None. Lutherans don't believe in change.

Finally, the Amish: What's a light bulb?

Yes, we all have our ways of changing a light bulb, or lighting the room, or lighting the world with the light of Christ. We all have our ways, and they are good and healthy ways.

Every kind of Christian here tonight has a different way of lighting the world for Christ, and the world needs every one of your ways.

Tonight, in the Spirit of Thanksgiving, I give thanks for all these ways of being a Christian. The body of Christ, as we heard in tonight’s lesson, does not consist of only one sort of member. The complete Body of Christ needs all the members.

The Body of Christ. You know, later this week, there will be lots of concerns about bodies. Thanksgiving seems to be one day of the year when we give ourselves permission to feed our bodies. Families have been planning for weeks what they will eat. Traditions are remembered. Some dare to start new traditions. Then we eat. We drink. We have second helpings. Our great aunt forces us to have third and fourth helpings.

Maybe next week, or next January, when the feasting is over, we begin to care about our bodies in a different way. We go back on diets!

I know the dieting is important. But, tonight, I want to say that the eating is important, too. Bodies are important in Christianity. It is part of our historic, orthodox, and catholic faith that Jesus Christ descended from the heavenly kingdom and was incarnate; he was a real live, flesh and blood, body.

It was through a body that Jesus Christ served and changed the world. It was through a body that God loved the world. And it is through a body that God still loves the world.

God does not work in the world through some dis-embodied spirit, like a kind of ghost. God works through people.

Have you heard the phrase lately, “I am spiritual, but I’m not religious” ? Of course you’ve heard it. Many of us have probably said it. I know what we mean when we say that. We mean that we enjoy the spark and the life of God, the wonderful spirit of love and wonder, but we don’t get so much out of organized religion.

Right. Organized religion can so often get in the way, can’t it? Even though I work in an organized religion, I know what people mean when they make that complaint. Sometimes, the church seems too obsessed with trivial matters.

Maybe that’s why people are always leaving church and looking for something else.

Have you heard about the man they discovered all by himself on a desert island a few years ago. Apparently, he had been living there successfully for years, all by himself. No one else there.

When they found him, they also discovered three buildings on the island, right behind him. They asked him, “What’s this building?” “Why,” he said, “That’s my home, my house. That’s where I live.”

“Oh, that’s good,” they said, “and what’s this second structure?” “Well, the man replied, “that’s my church. That’s where I go to church.”

“Excellent. How beautiful!” the crowd said. “And what’s this third building on the island?”

“Oh,” the man said, “that’s where I used to go to church.”

No matter where we are, it seems, we can find a reason to leave church. We can find a reason to leave organized religion.

Tonight, however, I want to say something about organized and institutional religion. I give thanks for it tonight. I give thanks for churches, and for an important reason. These communities of faith, even if we struggle and fall short time and time again, these communities of faith are exactly the way we are spiritual in the world.

I do not believe it is possible to be a spiritual person in this world without being religious. Oh, I realize along with everyone the great thrill and excitement of feeling one with God. Sometimes we feel that on vacation, or at the mountains, at the lake, or at the beach. Or even on the golf course, or just early on a beautiful morning.

It’s great to feel spiritual. But the moment we try to do something with that spirituality. The moment we try to connect it to other people. The moment we try to take it out into the world – well, right then!—is the moment we become religious.

Religion is spirituality in the flesh. Religion is spirituality when it takes on a body!

The word “religion,” comes from the Latin word “ligio,” meaning “to tie.” The word “ligament” comes from the same word, Ligaments tie together the muscle and the bone in our bodies. “Relgion,” “re-ligio,” means to tie back together. To re-connect. Good religion is about tying things back together.

Can you be spiritual without being religious? I don’t think so. I suppose you could try it, but it’s a very lonely life. Being spiritual without being religious is to be by yourself, maybe enjoying yourself fine, but being removed from the give-and-take matters of community.

Good spirituality is about being religious, about being connected to people, to other bodies, to other denominations, to friends and to strangers.

Tonight, I give thanks for bodies. For muscles and tendons and bones that are tied together in a magnificent Body of Christ. I also give thanks for the traditions and structures and routines that many of us will participate in this Thanksgiving. These are the flesh-and-blood ways we give thanks. And they are good things. They are religious things.

Yes, be spiritual this Thanksgiving! Give thanks in your heart and soul.

But, also be religious. Connect your spirituality with another body of flesh and blood. Be connected. Join a community of faith. Healthy spirituality is always connected. Healthy spirituality is always religious.


The Very Reverend Sam Candler
Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip