24 December 2011


A Sermon For Christmas Eve
24 December 2011

We all have our favorite Christmas Pageant story. A few hours ago, in this very church, hundreds of children gathered to re-enact the Christmas story, and many more hundreds of parents and friends looked on with tears and laughter and pride. As usual, it was crazy, chaotic, and beautiful.

There are four gospels in the New Testament, and, thus, four very different ways of telling the mystery of the birth of Jesus. But if you know church life at all, you know there is a fifth way of witnessing the birth of Jesus, a fifth gospel: the Christmas Pageant!

Children, it turns out, do a fine job of proclaiming mystery. They don’t have to know exactly what the words mean. The Holy Spirit came upon Mary, and she conceived a bore a child. Do not be afraid. Shepherds walk in dressed in old bathrobes. Everybody wants to be a king with Christmas presents. And all the friendly beasts are with us. And then we all walk out singing “Joy to the World.” The story works, and it hardly needs a rehearsal at all.

About a month ago, I saw a sad church bulletin, from a church with apparently very few children involved. “Notice,” it said, “A small skit will be presented at the early service on Christmas Eve. Children are needed.” How sad, I thought, that they even needed to ask, as if children were not already whining and pining to be in the pageant. But then the notice shocked me further: “Three Rehearsals Required.”

Three rehearsals? What is the need for that? I know churches with great Christmas Pageants who have no rehearsals at all. In fact, they pride themselves on that fact, as well they should.

Well, I do remember one particular church which definitely needed a pageant rehearsal. They did not have many children in their congregation either, and so the pageant turned into a way for the adults to showcase their design and theatre skill. The organist was maybe the most clever and mischievous person of the bunch. Not only had he rigged the organ to evoke strange sounds at certain points in the pageant, but he rigged up a zip line. Yes, unbeknownst to none but the most observant parishioner, he had rigged up a cable running from the back balcony right above the middle aisle, and right down to the manger where the baby Jesus would lie.

“The time came for her to deliver her child,” recited the young narrator; and, with that, a papier-mache Holy Spirit dove came flying down the cable from the back balcony, straight down to a spot somewhere between Mary and a manger. No need trying to explain the mystery of the Virgin Birth to those youngsters! They got it.

Apart from the true extravaganzas, no rehearsals are required for the Christmas Pageant. For, how do you rehearse what to do when two shepherds start hitting each other with their crooks? How could we possibly rehearse for the moment when Susie does not like her angel costume and wants the one that Janey is wearing? How do you rehearse for the moment when King Melchior trips on the steps and spills frankincense all over the baby Jesus? How do you rehearse for disciplining the boys in the back who, when the lights are dim, are singing, “Silent Night, Holy Night, Shepherds quack, at the sight”?

For that matter, how could we possibly rehearse for what really happens when life begins, or when an unexpected pregnancy occurs? How do we rehearse for the night when we have no place to sleep in peace? How do we rehearse for the times in life when the inn has no room for us? How do we rehearse for those ugly things that occur after Christmas morning, for instance: Herod slaughtering the holy and innocent children of the land?

Most of us in life do not get a rehearsal. When the first time comes to really change the diaper, we don’t get a rehearsal. On the first day the child comes home crying from school, we don’t get a rehearsal. When our teen-ager misses his, or her, first curfew. When our new boss is upset with us for the first time.

When we ourselves are asked to give the speech, when we have to step up to the plate, …..we do not get a rehearsal. When our lover is sick, we do not have the luxury of a rehearsal. When our mother dies, we do not get to rehearse the event first.

When the time came for the child to be born….there was no rehearsal.

We do not get a rehearsal; and yet, every time we invoke the Holy Spirit, every time we cry out to the divine for help, we are practicing. Every time we trudge on through disappointment, we are practicing. Every time we suffer loss, we are practicing.

There is no rehearsal. And yet, everything we do is a rehearsal. A rehearsal for the realization of love.

Our being present tonight, here in this church, in churches across the world tonight, in churches across the world every Sunday, is practice. It is rehearsing.

Because Jesus showed up one day, unannounced, in a forlorn and forgotten place, because Jesus showed up there – Jesus can show up anywhere. And Jesus does show up  -- unannounced  and unrehearsed. Un-choreographed and un-vergered. Jesus does not wait for things to be perfect before he arrives; he shows up in the imperfected things.

In other words, Jesus shows up all the time. In that sickness of our child. In that death of our father. Even in that broken commitment, that divorce, in that lost election, that failed deal, that cracked contract.

“There is a crack, a crack, in everything,” sings my old hero, Leonard Cohen:

“Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”   

[from Leonard Cohen, “Anthem,” and the album, The Future, 1992.]

There are lots of cracks in the world right now. There are cracks in our once reliable institutions and countries. This year, the Occupy Movement people seem to be finding those cracks; and their presence in our parks and streets is presenting some true moral dilemmas.

And at our churches. The presence of the Occupy movement at some of our churches is truly presenting a justice dilemma. For the Church really does exist to serve the poor and the disenfranchised. Our natural inclination is for the outcast; our call is to lift up the lowly and to fill the hungry with good things. What happens, then, when our churches, too, are vulnerable to the charge of serving the system instead of serving the poor? Yes, it is true that we occupy several things. We occupy both a position of wealth and resources and a humble history of serving the poor. What happens when our churches become the tension point, and maybe the cracking point, between social justice and social order?

Maybe love happens. This Christmas, we remember that we are all vulnerable. We are vulnerable to the charges of expediency and imperfection. We crack and sometimes break. Like an ordinary Christmas Pageant, we are both cracked and beautiful.

Yes, we Christians occupy several tensions. But we Christians are ourselves also occupied. And our occupation is the salvation of the world tonight.

The original Occupier is the God who came un-invited, and barely announced, into humanity over two thousand years ago. The original Occupier came into the world not with violence or fanfare, but in humility and surrender.

Imagine what God gives up in order to enter the reality of humanity. It is a surrender, even a sacrifice, so that the world might be saved, so that the world might learn love. Christmas is about God lowering himself to occupy humanity itself; and it is a descent which saves the world.

Tonight, we remember that God has honored humanity by occupying us, by becoming one of us, and so, person by person, becoming love in the world.

With God in us, Emmanuel, we have the choice tonight of who we will occupy. With whom will we be in relationship? What structures and organizations will we choose, and within which we can change the world? For we all must occupy something; we all serve from particular relationships, particular structures, even particular corporations.

We don’t get to rehearse which relationships and structures work best. Even God did not get to rehearse. God simply chose. And God chose humanity. God chose us. It is up to us, now, to keep the Christmas Pageant going, to continue the drama of love being born into the world. Our lives are the drama. We are the Christmas Pageant that has no rehearsal.

There are not just four ways, or five ways, of proclaiming the mystery of the birth of Jesus. There are millions of ways. You! You and I, are occupied by the love of God tonight. Rehearse! Practice, and that love grows a million times into the world around us. Joy to the world! The Lord is come!

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

18 November 2011


Naturally, most of us enjoy giving thanks at Thanksgiving for the good things of life.

But what if Thanksgiving rolls around this year, and all we can remember is loss? A few days ago, for instance, barely a week before Thanksgiving, I did a funeral service for another child who had died. We know, most of us do, that death is inevitable in this life; but none of us is prepared when a child dies before his parents do.

I think of other deaths during this past year. As Thanksgiving rolls around this year, some places at the table will be empty. Some good people died this year, some truly good people died. Some of us lost a marriage recently; even if we knew divorce was necessary, we still lost something. Some of us had children leave home, or friends leave town.

Some of us lost jobs this year, even as the economy was trying to sputter back to life. Some of us had business deals fall through, sales that didn’t happen. Some of us lost cases, or made poor investments, or lost our appeals.

And some of us simply lost a few inspiring dreams and hopes. What we expected in the Spring has faded in the Fall. What we hoped for in the Summer, even if we knew it was a long shot, is cold and forgotten as Winter arrives. We live with as many lost hopes as we do lost realities.

How, then, do we give thanks in the midst of loss?  Well, we do it the same way we give thanks in the midst of gain. We think outside of ourselves; we think bigger than ourselves. “Giving thanks” means being willing to focus attention on something or Someone larger than ourselves. It is hard, if not impossible, to give thanks to a non-entity, to give thanks to No One.

I am thinking, of course, of God as that Someone who is larger than ourselves. And even if some of us do not believe in God, we usually give thanks to someone outside ourselves – to a friend or family member. But the point is that “giving thanks,” necessarily leads us to think outside of ourselves. When things are going well, it is good and healthy to give away self-centeredness and self-absorption; it is good to focus attention on someone else.

The same principle is true when things are not going well. To give thanks in the midst of loss is to focus attention outside ourselves. I do not mean thanking God for something gone bad, or for some tragedy. I do not think God wills tragedy and senseless loss. But God does know loss. And God does know the pain of our sadness when we lose. The God I love and believe in, is the God who knows the height of my elation, but who also knows the depth of my loss.

Following ancient Jewish tradition, I have always thought that “giving thanks” is related to “blessing.” For instance, we Christians bless the bread and wine of Eucharist by giving thanks for God in a prayer called “The Great Thanksgiving.” At meal times, many of us say a prayer whose title alternates between “The Blessing” and “Returning Thanks.” We use two different titles for the same prayer over food because, indeed, blessing and giving thanks are related.

To give thanks is to bless. When we ask God to bless our successes in life, we are thanking God for being present in the midst of those events. In the same way, we can also ask God to bless our failures in life. When we ask God to bless our losses, we are thanking God for being present in the midst of those events.

Thanksgiving, then, means blessing God as we remember both the gains and the losses of this past year. Bring both the gains and the losses to the Thanksgiving table this year; bring successes and failures. As you ask God to bless those events, even the most painful ones can be transformed. They will be transformed by a divine love, a holy presence, a peace, that passes all understanding.

08 November 2011


Today is the occasionally observed feast day of John Milton, a poet and a genius.

On Time
by John Milton 

Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race,   
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,   
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;   
And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,   
Which is no more then what is false and vain,  
And meerly mortal dross;   
So little is our loss,   
So little is thy gain.   
For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb'd,   
And last of all, thy greedy self consum'd,
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss   
With an individual kiss;   
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,   
When every thing that is sincerely good   
And perfectly divine,  
With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine   
About the supreme Throne   
Of him, t'whose happy-making sight alone,   
When once our heav'nly-guided soul shall clime,   
Then all this Earthy grosnes quit,  
Attir'd with Stars, we shall for ever sit,   
  Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.

01 November 2011


a sermon for The Memorial Church
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
30 October 2011

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. –Matthew 23:1-12

So, what are you wearing to the Halloween costume party?

If nothing else comes from your attendance at church today, perhaps you have at least been offered a suggestion of what to wear at this year’s Halloween party. Well, of course! Wear your phylacteries broad and your fringes long!

What in the world is Jesus speaking of when he mentions “phylacteries” here in the Gospel of Matthew? Let your mind wander no longer. Phylacteries, in the first century CE, were small, square, black leather boxes, containing passages of scripture – which some strictly observant Jews still wear on the forehead, and on the left arm. This tradition arose because of what those biblical verses actually said, especially at Deuteronomy 6:6-8, “Keep these words that I am commanding you in your heart…bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem, or frontlet, on your forehead – or between your eyes.”

So developed the sincere custom of literally wearing the bible verses on one’s forehead. There is nothing wrong with that. Maybe there is nothing wrong with Tim Tebow, when he was the quarterback of the University of Florida football team actually printing and wearing the Bible verse, Phillippian 4:13, on his face during the games.

There shouldn’t be anything inherently wrong with wearing our faith on our foreheads, or about our wearing particular insignias of our office, either. Here am I, a priest in the Episcopal Church, often wearing broad and long fringes! Maybe one of the attendant advantages of being a priest in today’s culture, is that I usually have something easy to wear to Halloween costume party.

In today’s gospel, it is obvious that Jesus considered the wearing of broad phylacteries and long fringes and lofty titles, to be hypocritical for some people. “These religious authorities,” he said, “they sit in important places of tradition and history. They even teach the right things. Do what they say, but do not do as they do.”

Who among us has not said that sort of thing before? We’ve been saying those things about our authority figures for some time, now! We began with our parents. Our fathers, for instance, just as Jesus indicated in this passage. Then we said the same things about our teachers. Certainly about our elected officials, and about our church authorities today. “You look so fancy all dressed up like that! You seem so comfortable with your title – father, teacher, instructor—but you don’t even carry the same burdens you place on us!”

The more we grow up in this world, the more hypocrisy we become aware of. And so it is, that we are tempted, we truly consider, trying not to become part of that authoritative culture around us. We’d rather not wear the cloaks of corporate authority; the business suit, for instance. The religious vestments, maybe. The mantles of manna and finance. Or even the academic gowns and hoods of our professors. Maybe we don’t even want to live in the same sort of family, or community, that seemed so hypocritical to us. So we swear to forego the uniform. We would rather work outside the system that has failed us.

This seems to be the very understandable sentiment of our recent Occupy Movements –Occupy Wall Street, and Occupy London Stock Exchange-- willing even to congregate outside the boundaries of law and order. They don’t want the uniform! Many of us really do support their sentiment, against economic inequality and financial injustice, even if their coherency has yet to be formed.

I remember seeing the old rock musician Frank Zappa in concert one day, sometime in the 60s or 70s. He was as iconoclastic as they come. He enjoyed deconstructing any structure he could find. During the concert, he gazed out at everyone in blue jeans and tie-dyed tee shirts, all being cool and countercultural and rebellious. So he said, “Don’t kid yourselves! You’re all in uniform.”

Yes, inevitably, we all wear some sort of uniform, some sort of costume, even when we are trying our hardest not to wear a uniform. Inevitably, most of us take on some sort of title, some sort of name, some sort of role.

Part of our education in life, part of our growing up, is discovering which uniform, which costume, we want to wear willingly. And it takes time. That uniform will reveal what structure we choose to live in. Ludwig Wittgenstein might have called these structures “forms of life.” They will be important, because the structure we choose – the form of life we choose—will also be the platform from which we might serve the world.

Some members of the Occupy movements, in their raw and sometimes unformed energy, have yet to choose a structure. That can be a problem. Down in Atlanta a few weeks ago, they couldn’t even decide if they would allow the great civil rights hero, Congressman John Lewis, to speak.

I believe that our God actually does need structures, forms of life, in which and from which God’s people serve the world. Surely you have heard the phrase, so popular lately, “I am spiritual, but I’m not religious.” We all know what that means. It means that I want to enjoy and appreciate my own, personal, spiritual life – but I do not want to be part of a larger, more corporate structure. “A structure like religion! Religion seems to be too much about broad phylacteries and long fringes, that have nothing to do with what I really face in life.”

But what about other people? The moment we become spiritual with “other people” is the moment we become religious. The moment we actually talk about “God” and “the Good” with other people, we have entered a structure of conversation – a religious conversation. And the moment we engage others in a spiritual way, to serve the world, we form a “religious” structure! The word “religion” comes from the same root word as “ligament;” it means to tie together. The moment we tie together, or weave together, our common spiritual threads, we become religious. We design a uniform. We create a structure. We might even form a church.

Yes, Jesus is right. Beware those who flaunt only the uniform or the title, without filling that uniform or that title with something good and holy. Or without realizing that all of us, no matter what our title, have only one true teacher, one true instructor, one true father, who is God. But don’t forget, either, that those structures that we are inevitably a part of, those bodies, are how we serve the world in the name of a good and merciful God.

It is probable that everyone in this room is wearing, or will wear, some insignia of structure and authority. You will have titles and names associated with you, if you don’t already. And let me tell you, if you don’t already know: the very word, “Harvard,” associated with one’s name –and, now, my name, too – is quite a powerful phylactery.

Yes, sometimes it is a phylactery. Perhaps some of you have been thinking of another word every time I have been saying the word, “phylactery.” Well, the meaning of the word “phylactery” is close to the meaning of the word, “prophylactic.” In the time of Jesus, the notion of a phylactery was associated with being a safeguard, a means of protection, even a sort of magical amulet.

The danger of all our costumes, our uniforms, our phylacteries is that we do use them as safeguards, even as hiding places, to protect us from truly engaging the world. To hide from truly encountering, and serving the world.

You know, in one of my youthful church bible studies, we used to play a little game. We would read the story, the passage, and then ask: Which character in the story do you relate to? Who do you identify with?

Usually, we relate to one of the onlookers, or the person in need. It’s usually hard to identify with Jesus. But today’s passage is different. Because it might be easier to identify with Jesus in today’s story, criticizing the instructors and the fathers among us. It’s more embarrassing to be the scribes and Pharisees.

What if we are the scribes and Pharisees? What do we do with these words and warnings of Jesus when we are the ones tempted to hide behind our structures, our titles, our privileges, our phylacteries?

Jesus’ answer is simple: learn to be humble again.

With Jesus, the only authority by which we serve the world, the only authority which can spiritually govern our behavior is the authority of humility. The way of Jesus is the way of humility.

Humility comes from the word, “humus,” which means dirt. It means good dirt. It means someone who is down to earth. Real. Down South, where I grew up, we had a saying for those who flaunted their high-sounding spiritual notions, and titles and uniforms. We’d say that person “is so heavenly minded that he is no earthly good.”

Jesus would have us be down to earth, humble, and authentic – in our choice of uniform and in our choice of how we will serve the world. We all wear some sort of uniform. We join some structure in which we will serve the world. We all wear some sort of phylactery and fringe.

But today we are reminded not to let our phylacteries get so broad, or our fringes so long, or our titles so haughty, that they overwhelm our true selves, our down-to-earth selves, our humble selves. We are here on this earth to serve, in the name of the one God, without letting our phylacteries and fringes get in the way.

Jesus said, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”


The Very Reverend Samuel G. Candler
Dean of The Cathedral of St. Philip
Atlanta, Georgia

30 September 2011


My old college roommate is Nels Cline, now the master guitarist for Wilco. Blessings to him for his generous spirit last night in Atlanta! I was proud to see and hear him playing Duane Allman's 1957 Les Paul. Sweet!

11 September 2011


(a sermon for 11 September 2011)
(and the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11)

Proper 19A in the Revised Common Lectionary

“Then his master summoned the first slave and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.” (Matthew 18:32-34)

Maybe like you…..I am horrified by some of the language in today’s gospel!

In anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt? So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart?

That is just terrible! Terrifying! Why is this parable of our loving Jesus using such vile images as slavery and torture?

A man had a slave who owed him money, Jesus says, as if such a cultural arrangement is perfectly acceptable. And then, the so-called master threw the first slave into prison and torture.

It is one of the outstanding developments of Christianity, and especially of Anglican Christianity, that we condemn the practices of both slavery and torture. They are parts of the old culture, the old empire, the old life.

And, yet, when these particularly hard words –slavery and torture— occur, year after year, in our scripture lessons, we do not re-translate them. One reason we don’t re-translate them is because they serve as a warning. They remind us that even the best people, even the best countries, even the best religions, run the risk of returning to evil patterns. Even good people can backslide, can fall back into thinking that slavery and torture might be necessary and even normal.

But the other reason we keep these words is figurative and symbolic. It is even a spiritual reason.

For, at one level, all of us are slaves. We are all slaves to something, beholden to something. We are even imprisoned and in bondage. I don’t mean, of course, that our physical lives belong to some human tyrant or master. I mean, for instance, addictions and habits. I mean obligations and debts. The poor slave in today’s parable owed his master money.

But each one of us, here today, also owes something to somebody. Maybe we simply owe money to the bank, for our house or for our car or for our business. Maybe we have an outstanding debt on our credit card bill, month after month. Maybe we carry old student loans. Those are particular, financial debts. We are slaves to that debt, working monthly to pay it off, or, at least, worrying about paying it off.

But each of us also carries emotional debt and psychological obligation, too. We have offended people, sometimes the very people we love the most. We work, emotionally, to pay off our debt. Maybe if we just acted better, we would not worry whenever we run into so-and-so.

We also carry the old psychological pain that others have laid upon us. That old friend betrayed me once, years ago, and I am wary today. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I wake up afraid, at a loss, that this old friend will betray me again. Or maybe it was my brother or sister, my husband or wife.

We are slaves to so many memories, so many memories of loss and betrayal. Of wrongs done to us, and some wrongs that we have done to others. And, if we are honest about some of those memories, we realize that those issues still torture us. Yes, they torture us. They grind into our hearts. They keep us tied up. They restrain us from enjoying the fullness of life.

So, sadly, slavery and torture are not just physical events of the past. We have renounced those practices in our culture, which is well and good. But many of us still suffer slavery and torture in our emotional lives, our psychological lives, our spiritual lives.

That is one reason why this parable of Jesus is still so important, so critical, today. Jesus offers release. Jesus offers freedom from slavery, and Jesus offers relief from torture.

This release that Jesus offers, is, I believe, at the heart of our Christian religion. It is what distinguishes our practice of religion from so many other practices. It is what makes Christianity authentic and real. Christianity proclaims that Jesus offers freedom and release, freedom and release from what enslaves us. We call that freedom and release, “salvation.”

Each of us, every one of us, is that middle character in today’s parable. The first slave. We are in need of release of what has bound us. It may not be money. It may be anger and resentment. Whether we deserved it or not, our soul needs to be relieved. And the master hears our travail and sets us free. It is a wonderful moment! A moment of salvation!

But, if we are not careful, it can be a fleeting moment. The middle character in today’s parable, the first slave, leaves his master’s house and encounters the third character, another slave –maybe a lesser slave—who owes the middle character money. In order for this salvation to truly last, the middle character must, in turn, forgive the debts of this third character. Alas, the first slave cannot forgive the second slave. Because of his unwillingness to pass on the forgiveness, to pass on the release, this first slave is thrown into prison. But, specifically, he throws himself into prison.

The graphic description of his suffering is embarrassing and horrible. But those of us who have found ourselves unable to forgive in life, know that this description can be fairly accurate.

The inability to forgive another person is to suffer torture ourselves. The inability to forgive another person is to be a slave to sin ourselves. The inability to release the pain of the past, is to to enslave ourselves to the past, forever.

As almost every American knows, today, September 11, 2011, is the tenth anniversary of one of most evil attacks in history upon the United States of America. Almost everyone over a certain age, can remember where we were on that bewildering and confusing and absolutely horrible and despicable morning.

We have spent ten years, and we have spent the last week in particular, analyzing that event and reviewing our responses to that event. Some of the analysis and response has been helpful; some has probably not been helpful. At a foundational level, my own analysis is quite simple. On that morning, the United States of America was ambushed by evil. I do not mean that any particular country, or any particular people, and certainly no particular religion, can be labeled “evil,” once and for all. But I do mean that evil can be manifest by most any person, and most any country, and most any religion. None of us is immune from evil. And no one of us is immune from sin.

Our parable today (which is the assigned lectionary for this day) reminds us that even good people can find ourselves enslaving and torturing others. But this parable of Jesus, one of the most important ones in the New Testament, also teaches us something powerful about Christianity.

The Christian faith is about forgiveness. It is about freedom and release. It is about letting go.

Sadly, evil does exist in this world. Unfortunately, evil exists in this world. Slavery and sin exist in this world. It can horrible and vile.

The way of Jesus, however, overcomes evil and sin, by one distinctive method. The way of Jesus refuses to pass on that evil and sin and slavery to the next person. The way of Jesus refuses to pass on that evil and sin and slavery to the next generation, or the next country, or the next religion.

We all find ourselves at some level of slavery to debt and bondage to sin. Like the first slave in today’s parable, we owe things to some masters, and we are owed things by other slaves. We are all at some middle level, some in-between level, between what we owe and what is owed us.

It can be an utterly vicious cycle, an utterly evil cycle.

The one way out, the one way forward, the one way of salvation, is to pass on the forgiveness and release that have from God, to the next person. The way of salvation is to pass it on.

If we simply continue “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” then the cycle of evil and torture continues, too, just like the first slave discovered in today’s parable.

“How often should I forgive?” asked, dear Peter, asking on behalf us, on behalf of you and me! “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22).

Mercy! Lord, have mercy. That means for the rest of our lives. Yes, it does. Forgiveness is not just a one-time event in Christianity. It is our daily practice.

It means letting go, letting go of pain and suffering and loss, letting go of whatever sin tortures and terrifies us. To forgive is to let go. And then, to let others go. How often must we let go of what terrifies us? Over and over again.

Sin and evil do exist in the world. There is no denying that reality. Jesus teaches us that forgiveness and freedom exist in the world, too. They are real, and they change people. Forgiveness and freedom change relationships. Forgiveness and freedom even change countries and religions.

This is why we pray, daily, “Our father, who art in heaven… forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”


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

06 July 2011

On the Feast Day of St. Thomas More

(The Church of England recognizes Thomas More on this day.)

Said Robert Whittington, in 1520: "More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of a sad gravity. A man for all seasons."

04 July 2011


God blesses all sorts and conditions of humanity today; God blesses America! Enjoy!

(You might have to click through to Photo 6 of 12 in this Atlanta Journal Constitution Photo Gallery. )

Gallery | 2011 AJC Peachtree Road Race: The scene | ajc.com

19 June 2011


(a sermon for Trinity Sunday, 19 June 2011)

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.  – 2 Corinthians 13.13

Thank you for being here this morning. I believe in the communion of the Holy Spirit, koinonia as it is called in the New Testament, spiritual community. And this morning, I am very glad to enjoy the community of the Cathedral of St. Philip: the “communion” of the Cathedral of St. Philip.

Many of you know that, in recent months, I have been a candidate for election as Bishop of Washington. It was an arduous process, even to imagine being called somewhere else; and it was a good one for me. I learned a lot about myself, and I learned a lot about a great diocese.

Yesterday, that faithful diocese elected someone else, an excellent priest. I was not elected, and I return today to a new chapter of my life here at the Cathedral of St. Philip. I am disappointed, for sure. I would have enjoyed the Diocese of Washington.

But today, I am preaching here on Trinity Sunday. No matter what the outcome was in the Diocese of Washington, whether I was elected or not, I knew that I wanted to preach here at the Cathedral of St. Philip on Trinity Sunday. Contrary to a lot of priests, I enjoy preaching on Trinity Sunday! It’s become an old joke that senior ministers tend to assign their young curates the task of preaching on Trinity Sunday; everyone enjoys seeing the young curate try to explain an irrational doctrine. We’ve all heard some excellent analogies: to love, to the three states of water, to three-leaved clover.

But I actually prefer to be the one preaching on this great day, because this is a day for relationship. As I prepared to preach today, I glanced back at the sermons I have preached here at the Cathedral on Trinity Sunday, in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, and 2009. Let me review them…since some of you were not here on those days!

In 2002, I presented an atomic model of the doctrine of the Trinity. God is one atom, indivisible, of three particles: proton, neutron, and electron. These three particles, or persons, if you will, swirl around one another in endless adoration and respect. They need each other to exist.

From a distance, the reality of God appears solid and unified. Up close, God is still solid and unified, but God is also always in motion, always swirling about. One can never pinpoint exactly where God is, or what are the stable components of God

In 2003, I compared the Trinity to the waves in the poetry of Psalm 93, verse 4:

 “The waters have lifted up, O Lord.,
The waters have lifted up their voice;
the waters have lifted up their pounding waves.”

Where I gaze at the waters lifted up, God is Source. Where I hear the steady voice of God in the waves, God is the Word. Then, after I have gazed into the infinite sea, and after I have heard the steady voice of Word in the waves, there remains the one important movement of diving into the ocean. I must participate. I must me washed in the water. “The waters have lifted up their pounding waves,” said the psalmist. Thus, God is Spirit, who washes over us and even pounds us like an exquisite massage; God the Spirit who invites us to participate. God is Source, Voice, and Washing.

In 2004, I used one of my favorite analogies of the Doctrine of the Trinity. The Doctrine of the Trinity is like Neopolitan ice cream! It is not just vanilla ice cream, not just chocolate ice cream, not just strawberry ice cream! God is the best of all ice creams, all together!

In 2007, I said that the Doctrine of the Trinity serves to remind us that we can never take language about God to be literal. Is God a shepherd? Is God a literal rock? Is God a son? Is God a heavenly dove?

Yes, God is all these things, but God is not all those things literally. That year, I praised the dogma of the Trinity. It is not a literal dogma. It is a dogma that allows the image of God to be more than one image. The spirit of the very doctrine speaks against narrow literalism. The doctrine itself proclaims various points of view about God!

In 2008, I preached on the Trinity by using an image presented by Bill Bishop, in his book called The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. “It’s counterintuitive,” Bishop wrote, “but people grow more extreme within homogenous groups as a way to conform.”[1]  People grow more extreme when they congregate in homogenous groups.The Doctrine of the Trinity, I claimed, teaches us that even God is not homogenous!

Two years ago, 2009, I said that the Trinity is a story, a story about relationship. “It is not in a particular verse of scripture, but in countless different stories of scripture, that Christians –over time—came to understand the Trinity of God.”

“In the stories of scripture, we learn that the God who created the world is a personal creator, like a Father or Mother. In scripture we also realize that God actually became manifest and real among us, became flesh among us, in Jesus Christ. In scripture, we learn that God also moves and inspires and sets on fire ordinary people; this force, orthodox Christians call “Spirit.” God is all three of these persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

In all these ways of describing the Trinity, I have tried to reiterate one basic principle: God, the Holy One of God, God, is nevertheless in relationship. Even God, who is above all and in all, lives in relationship. In fact, God is relationship. God does not fit inside just one person. God is three persons living in the ongoing event of relationship.

So, today, in 2011, I am honored to preach again on Trinity Sunday. For me, the very doctrine of the Trinity is always moving. It is not static. Preachers who try to preach it in only one way miss the entire point of the doctrine. It is NOT a static, unchanging doctrine, just as the Trinity itself does not describe a static, unchanging God.

The Trinity is about relationship. God lives in relationship. Indeed, God lives as relationship, as should we.

These last several months, I offered myself to wider service as a possible bishop in the Episcopal Church. It was an arduous and soul-searching process. But I am a man who knows God in community. I have found God in these recent months, in the communion of the Holy Spirit, in the community of three wonderful relationships.

The first is my relationship with family. On this Father’s Day, I think of my own father who was lovingly bewildered that I would consider moving to Washington. (His prayers were definitely answered yesterday.) Most of you also know that my wife, Boog, is truly wonderful. She might be evidence that God really can fit inside one person! She has been a faithful friend during this process, and she helped me see God.

Secondly, I saw God in the people of the Diocese of Washington. It is quite a diverse, and very challenging, community. I liked meeting them and engaging them. Their questions, and their challenges, were good for me. Yesterday, their votes determined that someone other than me should be their next bishop, and I wish them well. I am grateful for the relationship I have with that diocese.

Finally, however, I have seen God in my relationship with you, the people of this parish, the Cathedral of St. Philip, and other friends across this area. You are truly a loving and beloved community. You have been magnificent to Boog and to me. You have been supportive, understanding, gracious, and faithful; and I so appreciate that.

Many of you (especially in my family relationships!) admitted ambiguous feelings about the possibility of my leaving, but you were willing to see me as bishop in Washington. Now that I have not been elected, I will need you to take me back!

This has been a true discernment process for me, and I sense that this has been a valuable discernment process for the Cathedral of St. Philip. Both of us have imagined new possibilities, even if they were challenging ones. Now, we do, indeed, have new possibilities: God has led us to remain together, and I am excited about that relationship. The Cathedral of St. Philip is one of the strongest and most vigorous parishes in the country, and I am honored to continue my ministry here with renewed energy and great love for all of you.

God lives in relationship, and God lives in our relationships. Because it is in relationships that we go through change together. When we change together, when we go through joy and sadness together, and gain and loss together, when we go through death and resurrection together, God blesses us; and God grows us into true community. I have been honored to go through those chances with so many of you, pastorally, in the past years, and I hope will go through them with you in the future.

“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion—community—of the Holy Spirit be with all of us, always!”


[1] From The Utne Reader magazine, May-June 2008, page 46.


I wrote this letter to my congregation on 18 June 2011, and it was also distributed to the "Good Faith and Common Good" list.
Dear Friends,

Grace and peace to you, in Jesus Christ our Lord! With much gratitude for your recent prayer and support, I inform you that I have not been elected by the Diocese of Washington to be their next bishop. On June 18, 2011, the Reverend Dr. Mariann Budde was elected to be the next Bishop of Washington.

I congratulate Mariann, and her husband, Paul, both of whom Boog and I got to know during our Walkabout week. The Reverend Mariann Budde has the experience and poise to be a fine Bishop of Washington, and I salute her. I also offer her my prayers!

As many of you know, my decision to offer myself for candidacy as bishop was a strenuous one. I have had no desire to leave the Cathedral of St. Philip, or Atlanta; but I did begin to realize that the Diocese of Washington and The Episcopal Church needed me to be part of this important bishop election. The Diocese of Washington is a great diocese, and many people said that I have the gifts and strengths to be bishop there.

Thus, I let my name go forward in the Episcopal search process. I discovered that I rather enjoyed the journey! I learned much about myself in this process, and I learned much about the Diocese of Washington, for whom I will continue to pray.

I have also learned much about relationships in the process. And the relationship I am most thankful for (besides the one with my wife!) is the relationship I have with the people of The Cathedral of St. Philip. Each of you, almost to a person, has been magnificent to Boog and to me. You have been supportive, understanding, gracious, and faithful; and I so appreciate that.

Many of you admitted ambiguous feelings about the possibility of my leaving, but you were willing to see me as bishop in Washington. Of course, many of you were wagering that I would be elected! Such was the value you placed on my ministry, and such was your support. Now that I have not been elected, I will need those same people—you!—to take me back!

I have known that, as of June 18, 2011, God would be leading me to a new thing—either in Atlanta or in Washington, Now, the answer is clear. I am ready for a new thing here in Atlanta. I am so looking forward to a new chapter in my time and ministry at the Cathedral of St. Philip.

This has been a true discernment process for me, and I sense that this has been a valuable discernment process for the Cathedral of St. Philip. Both of us have imagined new possibilities, even if they were challenging ones. Now, we do, indeed, have new possibilities: God has led us to remain together, and I am excited about that. The Cathedral of St. Philip is one of the strongest and most vigorous parishes in the country, and I am honored to continue my ministry here with renewed energy and great love for all of you!

Again, thank you deeply for your prayers and support. I will always be grateful for the community of The Cathedral of St. Philip, a Christian community of grace and excellence and hospitality. As usual, I will take some time away from the Cathedral during the summer, but I will be around. And I will certainly be here on the Fourth of July to bless the runners of the Peachtree Road Race!

Please do keep me in your prayers. And keep Boog in your prayers! As you know, this process was an arduous one for her, too; and she has been her usual wonderful self. She joins me in thanking you for your great love and support.

Love to you, always, in Jesus Christ our Lord,
Sam Candler

03 May 2011


Events of this past week have caused everything from terror and fear, to fascination and awe. And the power of quick global media coverage enabled local events to affect people around the world.

First, tornadoes swept across the southeastern United States. Here in Atlanta, we are wary and familiar with those turbulent weather patterns. Most of us know how to behave. But these tornadoes were fierce and terrifying, wandering indiscriminately across our region. They destroyed everything from college towns to historic churches to leisurely lakeside mansions, and many of our neighbors died.

We reacted with fear and fascination, some of us tuned to our weather reports and radar screens for hours. Violent weather fascinates us. Then, we reacted with sorrow and aid. Good and beautiful relief appeared from neighbors and strangers.

The royal wedding was next in line. Of course, any wedding is a fun and fascinating celebration. But this one almost made us Americans believe in constitutional monarchies! Weddings give us hope – whether we are the young flower girl or the distant cousin or even the old bachelor. The commitment of two people to love and honor each other for the rest of their lives fascinates us.

Done well, wedding liturgies show us beauty and mystery; and the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton did just that. We Anglican Christians were especially proud of a service that combined drama, music, and fine words into an event of powerful grace. In fact, God’s graceful blessing turned two individuals into a couple, turned them into the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Finally, on Sunday evening, just as a new week was beginning, the world heard the startling rumor that Osama bin Laden was dead. The President of the United States was to deliver a speech late that night. Many of us stayed up late to hear the official news. Others rushed to the White House or to Ground Zero to celebrate. At a baseball game, the crowd learned the news on their smartphones and begin chanting spontaneously, “USA, USA.”

How were we supposed to react to the news and details of Osama bin Laden’s death? I heard everything from jubilation to vengeance. I heard both revenge and justice. Some religious people were quoting that the one who lives by the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52). Others remembered Ezekiel 23:11, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” We were all fascinated; and, in the end, I heard careful relief.

I was one of those with somber relief. Violent death should never be a source of our fascination and awe. But it is worth cheering when a war is over, no matter who started or ended it; I hope this event signals the end of something. And it is certainly worth saluting the brave operation that found the person responsible for decades of terror and fear. I give thanks for such courage.

Unfortunately, violence is a part of this fallen world; and, unfortunately, violence fascinates us. We have a choice to remain fascinated with it or to focus on the mystery of healing and hope. The mystery of healing and hope is harder, but it is much more gratifying. It turns our fascination into the energy of grace and blessing. May grace and blessing be with us during these weeks to come.

22 April 2011


(a sermon for Good Friday, 22 April 2011)

“My kingdom is not from this world.” -- Jesus to Pilate, in The Gospel of John, 18:36

“My kingdom,” said Jesus, “is not from this world.” This “world.”

This “world” has a hard time calling this day “Good.” Today, well-intentioned reporters and newscasters note that Christians commemorate Good Friday as the day when Jesus was crucified and died. Well, that’s a start. But it says little about why we call this Friday “Good.”

The “world” cannot call this Friday good; the “world” is unable to call this Friday good. When I say the “world,” I mean that world around us which is unable to hear the spirit of Jesus. I mean “the world,” in the way Jesus meant it when he said to his disciples, “you do not belong to the world” (John 15:19), and “the world does not know the Father” (John 17:25), and “in the world, you will have tribulation, but be of good courage, for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

For, the “world” is unable to accept death. Wherever we look in this world, we see attempts to deny death. We read about this latest health plan, or this new elixir, or diet plan or workout plan, which will extend our youth. We get excited about the temptation. Wouldn’t it be great to live forever? We dye the gray out of our hair and feel younger!

Some of the most holy moments of our lives occur when we are sitting with someone who is about to die. I was there. I have sat in somber hospital rooms, and quiet hospice rooms, even in people’s homes, with families who are waiting for their loved one to die. During these times, everyone knows death is imminent; but no one can slow down, or speed up, the process. Time, in fact, seems to stand still.

Were you there? These are holy moments. I remember, when I was younger, my own grandmother dying. Of course, I had known her throughout my childhood. Almost every week, it seemed, we drove up from the country and had supper in her fine home. As we would leave her house, all piled into the family station wagon, we would look at her in the front door. She would always, always, be standing there silently in the door, with her hand raised, giving us a silent blessing as we left. We loved that blessing, that precious wave good-bye. God bless.

Years later, she was dying; and I sat on the bed with her, I asked her to give me a blessing again. And she did. Just like she had always done from the front door. This time, she was not standing up, and her body had become withdrawn and fragile; but she raised her hand and blessed me. It was one of the most powerful blessings I have ever received, from a dying and holy woman. When a dying person blesses you, you are truly blessed.

Many of us have sat with people about to die. Were you there? Yes, some of those moments are unexpected and truly tragic. An accident. A wicked disease. Some horror takes away our loved one at too young an age, long before we ever thought death would intrude. Some of the moments, however, are more gentle. An old man lives a long and good life, and the time simply arrives; he slips away.

No matter how our minds interpret the event –unexpected or expected—the moments before death are emotionally draining. Even when our minds, our intellects, accept the reality of death, its moment makes our hearts grieve, its moment saddens our souls.

All this is why we gather on Good Friday. Today is not a day to remember something about Jesus; today is a day to remember something about ourselves. Obviously, we do remember Jesus today; we hear the long gospel, a horrible narrative about his last hours. We imagine him carrying a cross, then on the cross, then dying. We see some vague image in our prayers. We are there.

But what we really do, today, is remember something about ourselves. Because there are many days in our lives that feel more like Good Friday than Easter. Maybe if we had our way, we would choose the naïve and innocent joy of Easter every day. Again, the “world,” the “world,” sure wants to make every day feel like naïve Easter joy!

But there are many days that we do not feel like waking up for Easter morning. On some mornings, the night has been too long. Maybe there is too much sadness in our lives. Maybe someone we love has died.

Maybe someone we love has been horribly inconsiderate to us, maybe even mean to us, has maybe even betrayed us. Maybe that someone who was so mean was the person we thought we could trust the most. Maybe a friend has turned out to be an enemy. Jesus knew these events.

Maybe that someone who has been so incomprehensible, or so unconscionable, seems to be God, God himself – or God herself, whatever gender we are imagining right now.

Today is a day to remember those events. The death that we experience today is not simply the death of Jesus long ago. It is the death of those we know, and have known, today. To walk the way of Jesus today is to follow Jesus to the cross with our own lives, with our own memories, and with our own deaths. It is only because of today that we can truly know new life. Saint Paul understood; in his Epistle to the Romans he said, “If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Romans 6:8).

Ultimately, Good Friday is about accepting death. And the “world” around us would rather not accept the reality of death. It is too hard. Dying is hard work.

Today, I remember the words of someone who died only recently. I was not there, at the bedside. It was a daughter and her mother who were there, alone in the hospice care room. For almost two months, the daughter had been travelling back and forth to the hospital room, sometimes on good days –when her mother was quite lively and even enjoyed a gin and tonic. But, more and more, there were bad days, when her mother found it more and more difficult to breathe.

In fact, the mother had lung disease, and even the slightest limp across the room left her exhausted for an hour. Fortunately, the mother’s mental capacity remained quite strong. She could think, and she knew perfectly well she was dying.

On the last day of her life, only the daughter and her mother were in the room. In fact, the mother had asked the nurses to leave. Together, the daughter and mother spent those holy moments. Woman, behold your daughter; daughter, behold your mother. Together.

“It’s okay,” said the daughter. “You’re doing a great job,” said the daughter. And the mother looked up and said, “Dying is hard work.” To which the daughter replied, “Yes, and you are doing a great job.”

The mother was right. “Dying is hard work.” In the next hour, she had died.

We do not believe in resurrection if we do not also believe in death. Dying is hard work. Dying is good, hard, work. We do not believe in Jesus, if we do not believe also in Good Friday. Good Friday is good, hard, work.

Were you there? Were you there, when they crucified my Lord? When they laid him in the tomb? Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Dying is good, hard, work.

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

06 April 2011


Dear Friends,

For the past few months, faithful members of the Diocese of Washington have been in conversation with me about being a candidate for their next bishop. This has been a new and unusual process for me. Many of you know that, in the past, I have resisted most such conversations about running for bishop anywhere. Like other clergy I know, I am among a group who truly enjoys parish ministry. I have been asked to run for bishop countless times, and I have refused those opportunities.

However, this time around, I accepted the invitation to be in discernment about a possible vocation to be Bishop of Washington. Washington, D.C., of course, is the nation’s capital; and the Diocese of Washington (which also includes four counties in Maryland) represents a unique and challenging setting for ministry. The next bishop of that diocese will not only oversee a wide diversity of parishes, and a wide diversity of clergy; but the next bishop will be expected to speak in a very political setting on behalf of the wider church. They have said that they seek a bishop “who is willing and able to have a broad ministry, as a compassionate pastor to parishes and clergy in a diverse diocese, as a leader of complex institutions and as a spokesperson for the Church in the Capital and internationally.”

My past two months of holy discernment have actually shown me that I do have some thoughts, opinions, and even visions for what a bishop should be. Having been a parish priest for over twenty-five years, I find that I do envision what an effective and inspiring bishop could be. Perhaps God is calling me to consider that vocation as the next piece of my life. Perhaps God is calling me to expand my community to include Washington and the wider world.

In turn, the Search Committee of the Diocese of Washington has also been attracted to what my life and ministry might offer that diocese, and, from there, the wider world. Thus, on Thursday, March 31, they will announce that I am one of their final five candidates for Ninth Bishop of Washington. They will publish my biography and my written answers to their original search questions. For two and half months, people will ask me all sorts of further questions. Then, on June 18, 2011, the Diocese of Washington will gather to elect one of their five candidates. I am truly honored to be among that group.

However, this decision to let my name go forward for nomination has been a difficult one. I truly love the Cathedral of St. Philip, I dearly love Atlanta, and I deeply love this entire area of north Georgia, where I grew up. This place has been my community, and I am a man who needs community. God has always called me to oversee and to inspire holy community; and God has always called me to preach and to teach from community. If I am elected, I hope I will not so much be leaving my present community as much as I will be enlarging God’s community. And, of course, if I am not elected, I hope I can vigorously continue a beautiful and fulfilling ministry here in Atlanta.

Wherever God calls me next, even if it is a call to remain happy and challenged here at the Cathedral of St. Philip, I know that God will call me to beloved community. I will appreciate your prayers during this time of holy discernment. Please pray for the Cathedral of St. Philip, as we continue to worship and serve God in Atlanta and in the world. Please join me in praying for the Diocese of Washington as they discern who their next bishop will be. And, finally, as God calls you, do pray for me! I have been blessed with a wonderful ministry here at St. Philip’s, and it is quite a difficult thing even to imagine not being here with you.

Grace and peace to you, in Jesus Christ our Lord,

Sam Candler

25 March 2011


I am glad Flannery O'Connor was born this day, the Feast of the Annunciation; so I read again "A Temple of the Holy Ghost." Brilliant. Tantum ergo Sacramentum Veneremur Cernui.

15 March 2011


With sadness in our hearts, and with horrifying images of devastated Japan still in our minds, many of us began the First Sunday of Lent with a plaintive series of prayers called “The Great Litany.” Here at the Cathedral, we sang it in procession, walking completely around the Cathedral nave, twice, before entering the altar. From The Book of Common Prayer, page 149:

“From lightning and tempest; from earthquake, fire, and flood;
from plague, pestilence, and famine;
Good Lord, deliver us.

….From dying suddenly and unprepared;
Good Lord, deliver us.

The earthquake, then the tsunami, then the loss of power and water, then the nuclear radiation emergency have rolled across Japan just like one earthquake itself, with wave after wave of tremor and terror. As I write these words, and a few days later as you read them, still another emergency may have developed.

We keep the people of Japan in our prayers. We keep the people of the Middle East in our prayers. We keep in our prayers all those threatened by natural disaster and political disaster. Lent is a season for prayer. And Lent is a season for self-examination.

The news media, meanwhile, peddles both news and anxiety; and their tradition goes back a long way. It was George Bernard Shaw who said, “Newspapers are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization” (see The Week magazine, March 11, 2011, page 23).

Obviously, news such as the earthquake in Japan is serious and anxiety provoking enough; it is certainly a collapse. Still, after a few days of reviewing the destruction, one headline on the television caught my eye. “Are We Prepared?” it asked. The newscasters had begun to turn their eye to the United States of America, and, especially to our earthquake preparedness and nuclear emergency preparedness. I knew, immediately, what they would conclude. “No,” they would say, “in many ways, we are not prepared.”

To which I respond, “Of course we are not fully prepared.” There is no way, in this complicated and mysterious world to be fully prepared for every possible disastrous scenario. When we believe we have fully protected ourselves from one sort of calamity, a completely different one will surprise us. Of course, I fully support all our material efforts at protection. I believe in the work of scientists and good politicians who truly seek the common good. It is good to think and to prepare.

But there are other ways of being prepared, than simply scrambling aimlessly to avoid physical death. I notice, for instance, the amazing sense of order and collective good in the Japanese people. I have heard little about looting and opportunistic violence there; on the contrary, people are caring for one another with amazing good will. Such behavior indicates that their spirits have, indeed, been prepared.

“Are we prepared?” True preparation involves much more than just spending on physical infrastructure and stocking food and water in our basements. True preparation involves knowing how to care for other people in the midst of tragedy, even in the most unexpected kinds of tragedy. True preparation involves knowing how to live with grace and honor even in the midst of death.

True preparation is a matter of our spirit, and the Church has been in the business of preparing our spirit for a long time. Our prayer, our coming together for nourishment and service, our spiritual disciplines, are all ways of preparing ourselves. Our Lenten self-examination is a way of preparing ourselves.

Sadly, we will all die. We admitted as much on Ash Wednesday, when the priest touched us and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But “from dying suddenly and unprepared…..Good Lord, deliver us.”

09 March 2011


We burned up some fat last night. Actually, we did not exactly burn it up. We fried batter in it, made pancakes with it, and then ate the result. We consumed it, lavishly and wildly. Pancake suppers, with lively children of all ages, with beads and costumes and craziness, are one of the highlights of fat parish life. “Mardi Gras” means Fat Tuesday, and we were phat last night.

A few hours after our pancake supper, we went to church, for Ash Wednesday. There, of course, the mood changed. The priest said, “I invite you, therefore, in the name of Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination…”

“I invite you to self examination,” the priest said. Yes, I know there were other Lenten disciplines mentioned, but “self-examination” may actually be one the hardest. Ever since our weekly tests of school days, few of us enjoy examinations. To take an exam is to submit ourselves to some test. A true test is rarely easy; when one “tests” metal, one refines it and burns off the impurities. It can be a fiery and dangerous process, like burning off fat.

A further etymology reveals that the word “examine” evolved from the same root as the word “to exact,” which means “to drive out.” Again, “to exact” something is to drive out impurities, to refine. The season of Lent, then, is said to be a season of examination, a season of driving something out, a process which can be painful. We rarely submit ourselves to a voluntary examination.

But the Church asks us to do something even harder. It is not merely “examination” that we are asked to observe, but “self-examination.” Who in the world has the power to test oneself, to voluntarily drive out elements from one’s own character or set of habits?

It’s not just the willpower of self-examination that I lack. It is the actual ability. Consider self-examination of our own bodies. Do you realize how much of our bodies we cannot actually see?

We cannot see our backs, of course. And more importantly, we cannot see our heads, except during those fleeting moments in a mirror a few times a day. We cannot actually see how our eyes and facial muscles reveal our souls.

Thus, a full self-examination of our bodies is close to impossible. The same impossibility probably exists for our souls. A full self-examination of our souls is close to impossible. I, for one, will need help even in performing self-examination. I will need the perspective and wisdom of others.

Without others, I am like one of church children who waltzes into the parish hall with his name proudly scrawled on his name tag, but with the tag upside down on his shirt. He can read it fine, but no one else can. (Actually, some adults do this on occasion, too.) Self-examination is not complete and accurate, unless other people can read me, too. Self-examination is not complete and accurate unless I am reading what other people are saying, too. In short, we need other people in order to perform self-examination.

I was glad to have lots of others around me in the parish hall on Fat Tuesday, when we were burning up fat. We joked and sang and made merry. In doing so, we were burning off some of those outer layers, some of that fat, some of that other stuff which was not really us. Revelling, we were also revealing our inner selves.

So, Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday belong together. The discipline of self-examination is a discipline of burning off that which is does not need to be a part of us. We cannot perform the complete exam, the complete test, alone; so we gather in community on both days. We start on Fat Tuesday; but the fat on Fat Tuesday becomes the ashes on Ash Wednesday. For the next forty days, we might find a way to repeat the process daily. Self-examination, and the burning off of fat, might lead to new life, and Easter self-revelation!

22 February 2011


(a sermon for 20 February 2011)
Jesus said, “Be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect.”  –Matthew 5:48

“I love you, you’re perfect, now change!” About fifteen years ago, a great musical comedy appeared off broadway with that title: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” with words and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music by Jimmy Williams.

It’s one of the great titles of all time, because no one needs to have actually seen the musical in order to appreciate the phrase. In fact, the phrase appeared for the last fifteen years in advertisements all over the sides of New York busses, and inside subway cars.

“I love you. You’re perfect. Now change.”

Any one of us who has ever been in love knows what that phrase means. It means that our love for another person develops in stages.

The first stage, inevitably, is about ourselves. “I love you.” Yes, about ourselves. The first flush of love is usually something inside ourselves. We are aware of desire. Something rises up in us, some rush of hormones or adrenaline; and we call it love.

The next stage, often immediately following the first, is about the object of our desire. “Wow,” we say, “You are perfect. You are the very ideal of perfection. Not a blemish on you!” Now, if we are on the receiving end of love, we really like that stage. Someone is calling us “perfect.” That feels pretty good! Someone has actually been able to look beyond our faults and been able to call us “perfect.” We tend to start believing that projection.

Then. Then... the third stage. First stage: I love you. Second stage: you’re perfect. But third stage: now change. Any of us who has ever been in love knows what this stage means, too. Yes, I love you. Yes, you are wonderful. But, …the way you do such and such really has begun to bug me. In fact, it has always bugged me. Can’t you change that habit?

And what about that other boring thing you do...? And that disgusting thing….? Do you realize you are always…? Grow up! Change!

I love you. You’re perfect. Now change.

Ultimately, those are three incredibly powerful words. Love. Perfection. Change. Wonderful words, but also disturbing words. Well, this morning, they are all gospel words.

During his long and severe Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has prescribed almost impossible behavior. If your right eye offends you, pluck it out, he says. If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek. If someone takes your coat, give them your cloak, too. If you are angry with someone, it’s the same as murder.

We are incredulous, time after time, when we hear those words. No one, not even the greatest saint among us, has ever met those standards, day after day. Jesus has explored the depths of the law and the depths of human conscience; he knows what our thoughts and desires are. And he knows that no one fulfills all the law and the prophets. No one meets every jot and tittle of the law.

Then, at Matthew 5:48, he sums up his severity. “Be perfect,” he says, “as your father in heaven is perfect.”

Is this supposed to be the kind and gentle, ever-understanding Jesus? The one who forgives us and has mercy on us and loves us? How could any one of us ever be perfect as our father in heaven is perfect?

The answer has to do with understanding perfection. I do not believe that Jesus defines perfection as most of us do. For most of us, perfection means we got it all right. We scored one hundred per cent on the test. We met every standard. We had no blemishes or scuff marks. Maybe we all aspire to that sort of perfection, but every one of us should also realize that no one actually attains it.

And, friends, that is not what Jesus means by “perfection.” Being perfect does not mean living a morally sinless and unstained life.

The word for “perfect” here in Matthew chapter five is the Greek word “telios,” which means “the end” or “completed.” So, I believe that when Jesus says “Be perfect,” what he really means, in our language, is “be perfected.” He means for us to carry on, to reach that point that God intends us for us, to reach that perfected end to our life journey He means “Reach maturity. Be completed.” Perfection means to be perfected.

In fact, I believe that when Jesus says this, he is actually continuing his re-definition and re-development of Old Testament law. Remember how he has been re-defining throughout Matthew five? He says, “ you have heard that it was said, ... but I say to you,” over and over again. “You have heard an eye for an eye, but I say to you turn the other cheek.” Right?

Jesus has been changing the meaning of the old law. Jesus has been developing new meaning. And I believe he is doing the same thing here, because his quotation sounds like something out of Leviticus 19:2, “Be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” But Jesus changes the word. Jesus says, in Matthew, “be perfected, as your father in heaven is perfected.” Jesus is implying that to be holy, as Leviticus commanded us, actually means to be completed, to be perfected, to reach that perfected end of our soul’s journey.

Now, look at another version of these words. In today’s gospel, Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “Be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect.” But Luke, another gospel writer, quotes Jesus another way. In both cases, Jesus seems to be referring to the old Leviticus verse: “be holy, as your father in heaven is holy.” But Luke, at 6:36, quotes Jesus as saying, “Be merciful, as your father in heaven is merciful.”

What is going on here? Leviticus says, “be holy, as the Lord your God is holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Matthew says, “be perfected, as your father in heaven is perfected” (Matthew 5:48). Luke says, “Be merciful, as your father in heaven is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

The way I read this succession of bible verses is this: “To be perfect is to be perfected, to be changed, and it is to be changed toward mercy.” Perfection, then, means change. Perfection means change in just the same way that Jesus changed Leviticus. Jesus changed the words. And then, Matthew and Luke both used different words when they were quoting Jesus!

Perfection means change. I can go no further in this sermon without quoting the great nineteenth century theologian on this matter, the Anglican Catholic thinker who taught many of us that Christian doctrine actually develops. True religious doctrine is not static; true doctrine changes. He was John Henry Newman, later John Henry Cardinal Newman, who converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism later in his life. “To live is to change,” he said, “and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. That’s the way he said it in the nineteenth century. And it is still being said.

“I love you, You’re perfect, Now change.” That’s the way the musical comedy show said it. But those words are not merely humorous. They are the truth. None of us is perfect by virtue of having satisfied every jot and tittle of the law. However, every one of us being perfected, because every one of us is changing.

We are changing, with God’s grace, towards God’s grace. We are changing, with God’s mercy, towards God’s mercy. Be holy, said Leviticus. Be perfect, said Matthew. Be merciful, said Luke. They all meant the same thing: Be changed, be changed, be changed, into the same love which is God himself.

“I love you. You’re perfect. Now change.” They are three powerful words; they are three gospel words. “I love you, you’re perfect, now change.”

26 January 2011


How does one live when the image of the good has been shattered? That is one way of phrasing the classical question of theodicy in contemporary terms. Classically, the term "theodicy" means "a justification of God's goodness or power when evil exists." It might be the central problem of theism, which is belief in a personal and good and all-powerful God. If God does exist as all-good and all-powerful, why does evil also exist? A theodicy is a defense of God, or at least an explanation of God, while also acknowledging the existence of evil -- or at least the existence of The Bad.

I have just finished reading one of the best literary versions of theodicy that I have ever read. It is The Sparrow, written by Mary Doria Russell, published in 1996. The book tells the story of Emilio Sandoz, Jesuit priest, who follows his faith in God to become one of the first earth visitors to an alien planet. Yes, the book participates in a science fiction genre. But, like all good science fiction, the book is really describing our current human condition. The best science fiction is always about present humanity! And this one is about, God, too!

In the case of The Sparrow, alien music is detected from the Arecibo Observatory in the year 2019; and it is the Jesuits, among all the governments and organizations of the world, who are fist able to mount an expedition to visit the planet, Rakhat. Emilio Sandoz, superb linguist, and deep man of faith, is on the trip, with his best friends. I was delighted that it is the Jesuits who are the first explorers to the alien planet, as they often were in the history of western civilization -- for better or for worse.

I do not reveal the plot by saying that all of Sandoz's friends die; that fact is declared early in the story. As the story develops, one discovers the intensity and delight of Sandez's faith. But by 2059, when Sandoz has returned to earth and is remembering his journey, his faith is silent and dreadfully damaged. The book is, thus, a theodicy. How does one believe in a good God when all evidence seems contrary to that fact? How does one believe that "not one sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing it?" (Matthew 10:29, from which the title of the book is derived).

Now, jump back to the great J. D. Salinger (author of The Catcher in The Rye, and of my favorite, Franny and Zooey), who died one year ago. Today, I read another slender review of Kenneth Slawenski's new biography of that deeply spiritual writer, J.D. Salinger. I have already mentioned the Wall Street Journal review, by Carl Rollyson . Today, Dierdre Donahue writes in USA Today that

Slawenski has written a terrific literary biography, one that jolts the reader into realizing why Catcher connects with readers 60 years after its publication. It is not about prep school misery. Rather, in its oblique way, Catcher in the Rye touches on the struggle to keep living even if one has lost faith that the world is a good place.

Is that grand adolescent novel, The Catcher in The Rye, also a kind of theodicy? Yes, I think so.

25 January 2011


"Since 2008, nearly 200 religious facilities have been foreclosed on by banks, up from eight during the previous two years and virtually none in the decade before that, according to real-estate services firm CoStar Group, Inc. Analysts and bankers say hundreds of additional churches face financial struggles so severe they could face foreclosure or bankruptcy in the near future."

So reports Shelly Banjo in an article in the Wall Street Journal, 25 January 2011.

Jesus said something like, "those who live by the sword will die by the sword" (Matthew 26.52), which I take to mean that we die the same way we live. If we want to use the prevailing credit markets and bank products for our ministries, we ought to know what we are doing. We ought to use them wisely.

Debt is valuable if used conservatively; it destroys us if we use it unwisely. That applies to individuals, companies, and --yes-- even to churches.

Churches ought to use the wisdom and individual talents of our members. Not all of us preach. Not all of us teach. But some of us do work in the financial field; some of our number are excellent bankers. Use their advice! Don't listen to the preacher when it comes to accumulating debt loads; listen to the (sound and faithful) bankers among you!

22 January 2011

A New Biography on J.D. Salinger

Carl Rollyson says that, "Kenneth Slawenski's insightful and sympathetic biography, "J.D. Salinger," convincingly shows that Salinger felt he had sinned by polluting his early work with worldly ambition. His decision to repudiate the world he had wanted to win over with his writing thus had some of the fervor of a religious quest. In "Franny" (1955), the title character cries out: "I'm just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else's. I'm sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting." Such desires, Salinger eventually concluded, fundamentally contradicted his sense of writing as a sacred craft."

(from Carl Rollyson, "A Phony Who Reformed," Wall Street Journal Book Review, 22 January 2011)

16 January 2011


(a sermon for Epiphany 2A and Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend - a shorter edition of these remarks is published 16 Jan 2011 at Episcopal Cafe.)

Jesus asked, “What are you looking for?” and he said,”Come and see.”
John 1:38, 39

Last weekend, when I heard the devastating news from Tucson about the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of six others, I was on retreat with the Chapter of the Cathedral of St. Philip. (The Chapter is the elected group of eighteen lay leaders of the Church; four canons and I were also there.) We were in the snow-covered mountains of North Georgia, preparing for the year. Obviously, my outlook suddenly saddened. I was struck deeply by the news, not just because the violence was senseless and in such a public space, but because I admire public servants.

We need politicians. We need public servants, who are called and willing to enter our public places and to care for them. Public servants always risk their time, their honor, and their reputation; they are not supposed to be risking their physical lives. On our Cathedral Chapter this year, and on retreat with us, was the sister of one of Georgia’s statewide elected officials; she knows better than I what her brother must endure and care for.

We need politicians, politicians who take challenges and make themselves vulnerable. However, the Tucson events reminded me that, at some level, we are all politicians. We all have a place, politically, in this democratic republic of the United States of America, and we all take risks. The victims of the Tucson shootings, from a federal judge to a nine-year old child, were fulfilling their roles in the public square. They were showing up for a good old-fashioned “Meet your Congressperson” event. People and politicians were doing what we were supposed to be doing.

The theme I presented to the Cathedral Chapter was “Beloved Community.” It is the image with which I view the future. The Cathedral of St. Philip has the gift, in our times, of being a beloved community; all churches in these times have that gift. Our gift of beloved community enriches us, but it can also serve as a model of community for the world around us.

This weekend, our country honors the memory and the witness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., prophet and preacher of this city. Dr. King was fond of the phrase “beloved community,” and I will always associate the image of “beloved community” with him; but he was not its originator. I would claim that its origin goes back to the New Testament itself. “Beloved” is a dear phrase in the New Testament, from the instant in which Jesus is called “beloved” at his baptism, in the gospel lesson we heard last Sunday.

The first thing Jesus does after his baptism, the first thing he does, according to the Gospel of John, is call people to community. According to the Gospel of John, the first recorded words of Jesus are to people hanging around him. “What are you looking for?” Jesus asks them. “Rabbi,” they respond. And Jesus says, “Come and see.”

Come and see. The first thing the beloved Jesus does is call disciples into beloved community. Note, too, the countless instances in which Saint Paul describes his church members as “beloved” (five times in the Corinthian epistles). God really does love Jesus, who called the church into being. The church’s great apostle, Paul, really did love his people. The church is meant to be a community, beloved of God, beloved by each other, and beloved for the world.

But these are times in which our society seems especially confused about community. Our culture too easily accepts shallow community; and we often demand shallow community.Waiters come up to my table and introduce themselves by their first names. Talk show hosts demand that callers use only first names. Our schools and civic organizations and sports teams call themselves “families.” These associations are nice, and valuable to our wider community life. However, using intimate forms of conversation before the hard work of relationship-building can lead to dramatic disappointment. True community takes time and effort and care.

Another area where we are truly confused about community is in our use of television, the internet, and social media. (Can you believe that the term “social media” was not even a phrase a few years ago?) The speed in which we can acquire data, through television and random internet searches, leads us to think that we know all there is to know about a subject or person just with mechanical facts. Our social media sites give us the opportunity to make quick comments, and sometimes biting, vicious comments, about subjects and persons without having to look at other people face to face. These comments create a “form” of community, but that form is astoundingly weaker and less informed than face-to-face community! At their weakest, members of these “internet communities” are actually quite isolated and lonely; they become loners and renegades.

I do admit, of course, that these forms of social media, at their best, are wonderful! I find that, at their best, they reinforce healthy relationships that have already been formed face to face. I love reviewing social media photographs, for instance, which remind me of wonderful past events or which inform me of what my friend or colleague is doing.

Jesus continues to ask us, “What are you looking for? Jesus continues to ask our culture, “What are you looking for?” And we are looking for community, even when we are confused about it. Today, I believe the church has the calling and gift to be true community, to be “Beloved Community.” We are meant to gather together, to learn and laugh together, to love and cry together. And, together, we account for each other. We teach each other and hold each other to standards of civility and grace. We love for the long term, and we live for the long term, not the short term. The Christian Church, at our best, offers true and beloved community.

I am way down the line when it comes to being qualified to speculate about why the Tucson shootings occurred. Like you, I have read and listened to all sorts of reactions. But most of them leave me concerned that our various reactions to the shootings have become further elements of our polarized divisions. Even our various reactions to a tragedy have become occasions for antagonistic extremes.

David Gergen, at CNN.com, made the sad observation on 9 January 2011, just a day after the shootings, that “As of this hour, we have a country that is not only deeply saddened but even more divided than we were before the shooting.”

So, I repeat: Even our various reactions to a tragedy have become occasions for antagonistic extremes. I do not want to speculate too extremely myself. The simplest explanation for the Tucson violence is a deranged person. But I would also suggest that people who resort to violence are not, unfortunately, part of beloved communities. For various reasons, they sadly do not belong to communities who offer measured grace and civil relationship and justice over the long term. People who resort to violence are not part of healthy religious communities, healthy Christian churches, healthy Jewish synagogues, or healthy Muslim mosques. My sad comment about the Tucson shooter is that he did not have beloved community.

The way out of random acts of violence is the way of community. I mean healthy, life-giving, community; and I mean beloved community. It is beloved community that sustains daily interactions of civility and sustenance. With others, face to face, hand in hand, and sometimes arm to arm, we learn how to behave in the world. We learn how to care, and we learn how to express disapproval with peace and honor.

Finally, of course, in a beloved community, our ultimate values are the same values as the One who “beloves” us. And it is a peaceful and just God who beloves us. Such is the God who inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired him to realize that the church’s values of peace and non-violence could be a model for the world around us. That world certainly includes the political world, in which we all play a part. Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community came to include, not just the church, but the world itself. And that is our calling, too. All of us have a part in today’s political world, to risk ourselves, to give ourselves, to the peace and justice, honor and respect, of a truly beloved community. I thank God for everyone who shows up in this church, for beloved community. I thank God for everyone who shows up in the public square, for the common good, to take that risk.

“What are you looking for?” Jesus said, “Come and see.” Beloved community.