14 October 2012


(from 1999: my first sermon on the Feast of St. Philip the Deacon, before the Episcopal Church had officially recognized Philip the Deacon in our calendar)

Observing the Feast of St. Philip, Deacon and Evangelist
10 October 1999
Isaiah 56:1-8
Acts 8:26-40
John 13:1-15
Acts chapter 8 tells our fascinating story this morning, the story of St. Philip the Deacon, who  found himself wandering one day, down the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. St. Philip was led by God to attach himself to a foreigner, an Ethiopian eunuch, who had been to Jerusalem to worship.
Now, talk of a eunuch in polite society and in the discreet Christian Church is not very common these days. (Though we do seem to talk about everything else!) But eunuchs are mentioned in the Bible some fifty times. The general definition of a eunuch might be this: “males who do not have the ability to reproduce.” The reason for that inability might be genetic, and it might be due to accident. Eunuchs were obviously regarded as different from most; and because they were different, certain roles were denied them.
They were considered blemished,  and so the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus dictated that they could not offer sacrifice, or even be admitted to the assembly of the Lord (Deut 23:1-3 and Lev 21:18-20). In fact, they were considered as foreigners. Any foreigner, too, was not allowed to join the chosen people of God.
But something happens in the development of Scripture, and in the development of God’s people. The prophet Isaiah changes the attitude of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, when he makes the startling pronouncement at chapter 56, verse 3:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
The Lord will surely separate me from his people;
And do not let the eunuch say,
I am just a dry tree.
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
... and the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord
These I will bring to my holy mountain,
And make them joyful in my house of prayer

For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcast of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.
This incredibly provocative passage begins to be fulfilled in the Book of Acts, when Paul and Peter discover that God has poured out the Spirit upon Gentiles, upon people who were not obviously regarded as the people of God.
And St. Philip, the deacon, fulfills the prophecy even more clearly. He attaches himself to someone who is both a foreigner and a eunuch, someone who does not fit the customary description of purity and correctness. And Philip baptizes this Ethiopian eunuch. Philip baptizes him and so makes him part of a new community, a new definition of God’s people – just like we baptize people today and make them part of a new community.
The witness of Philip is a critical one for us. If we are to follow in his footsteps, it will mean at least three things. First of all, we must be willing to move, to follow the Spirit into new territory, even into wilderness places to which we are unaccustomed. Part of my own fascination with Philip is that he is transported from place to place.
It is good that we are named for this kind of Philip, as the cathedral church of a city ...on the move...driving cars and flying airplanes from place to place. The word Philip, in the Greek, translates literally as “lover of horses.” (If you are a horse-lover, you are in the right church!) Philip is a horse-lover; and a horse was the noblest and fastest means of transportation of the day.
Yes, there is good reason for Atlanta, with its dependence upon the automobile, upon the airport, and as a crossroads of transportation, to have a cathedral named for Philip, who used transportation to its fullest extent, who traveled to baptize even the foreigner and the stranger. I believe it is a good thing, too, that this very cathedral has traveled. We were once further south, across the street from the state capital; but we kept on the move. We are meant to be a traveling church.
If we are to follow Philip, we must overcome any fear of travel, but –secondly-- we must also overcome fear of the foreigner and of the stranger, the one who appears blemished, or much different from the norm. This fear seeps through much of American society these days, and it affects us here in Atlanta. North Atlanta fears South Atlanta. We tend to go to church, to go to schools, to go to clubs, with people who are the most similar to us. Indeed, that is easy. But it is not the mission of St. Philip the Deacon.
The mission of St. Philip would be to attach ourselves to the people who are different from us, who speak different languages than us, who are gay or lesbian or straight, but of different sexual orientation than us. The mission of St. Philip would be to serve as a deacon everyone with whom we come into contact.

Thirdly, St. Philip also baptized. We are becoming very good at this. We baptized 101 people last year; and as of today, this cathedral parish has baptized 92 souls this year. I know that not everyone baptized here is immediately energized with the Christian witness; but I believe God honors those baptisms. In baptism, we open our community to a wider and wider constituency. We make people part of the glorious Body of Christ in this place. And we are changed by their presence. The early Christian Church was changed by the influence of different people being baptized, people like this Ethiopian eunuch, people like Timothy whose mother was Jewish, but his father was Greek – a foreigner.

After this baptism of the Ethiopian, St. Philip suddenly found himself at Azotus, a town very far to the north; and the Scripture says he made his way up the Mediterranean coast to Caesarea, where he apparently lived. Later in the Book of Acts, he has four daughters – he has a family– and he is proclaiming the good news.

Proclaiming the good news. That was the mission of St. Philip, and that is our primary task at this cathedral. The good news that Jesus Christ has come among us in love and grace. Jesus loves us, no matter what our ethnic origin or physical description.

In 1933, the Dean of this Cathedral, Raimundo De Ovies preached a sermon in which he claimed that the cathedral was a house of prayer for all people. He said that “from henceforth the keynote of the communicants of this House of God shall be ‘Service.’” “We shall not be respecters of persons,” he said. “One’s possessions, social standing, family affiliations, or any other worldly standard can find no particular value in this place.”

Indeed, we are here to offer another particular value, the value of love. We are here to welcome the lonely and the stranger, the foreigner and the blemished, the rich and the poor, no matter what your wilderness has been. We are here to serve one another with good news: Jesus loves us, no matter where you are in your pilgrimage. This city, where so many are on the move, where so many are strangers, where so many are looking for love –this city-- has a cathedral, a house of prayer for all people.



(a sermon for 8 October 2006)
The Feast of St. Philip, Deacon and Evangelist (transferred from October 11)

Acts 8:26-40 

I have so many things to say today, and I know the service will be noisy. This is a baptism day! But I should say this: baptisms are not noisy. They are just spirited. This is a spirited day.

It might be almost as spirited as last Sunday was. I have been in this marvelous cathedral  for eight years now. My first Sunday was eight years ago last Sunday, when we celebrated with great noise and with great spirit the Feast of St. Francis. We blessed animals on that day, and I heard lots of them.

And I heard soul. I still hear soul in this place, yearning to be set free and released for ministry in the world. I have enjoyed ministry here, because I have enjoyed soul.

Since eight years ago, we have also begun observing a second Sunday in October, after Francis. Today is the observance of blessed Philip, blessed Philip the Deacon. The word “deacon” means servant, and it is Philip’s example of service that I want us to use as a model for our commitment here.

Consider Philip, just going about his business as a disciple of Jesus. When called to do something, he did it. When they needed folks to serve food to the widows, he was called. He was serving. He was serving in Jerusalem, not the friendliest place toward this new Christian Church, but at least it was home.

But then God led Philip away from the comfortable and into the unknown, into the wider world. The story says that Philip was led to the south, down a wilderness road.

Here at the Cathedral of St. Philip, we are much like Philip the Deacon and Evangelist. Most of us here want very much to do the right thing. We are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, but –like Philip was—we are much more comfortable doing the right thing right at home.

It so happened that Philip was led one day away from home. He was led out of Jerusalem and into a wilderness road --  a strange road. There he saw a strange man, a man from Ethiopia, a foreign country. The man had an unusual sexual identity; he was a eunuch. (You young children about to be baptized probably do not know what a eunuch is. Go home and ask your parents. There’s a lot in the Bible that needs to be explained by parents.)

The angel of the Lord instructed Philip to relate, to relate to this strange man, this Other person.

I believe God calls us at the Cathedral to relate to the Other. It may not mean that we leave home for good. But we are called to know the stranger, to relate to folks outside our heritage, outside our situation.

Some of those people might be in another part of the world, Tanzania or Equador. But maybe they are just in a different neighborhood in Atlanta. Maybe they are here in Atlanta from another country: Mexico, or Korea, or the Far East. Maybe some of the folks we are called to know have identities that are different from ours (even sexual identities that are different from ours).

To be members of the Cathedral of St. Philip, we are called to be Philippians, relating to the foreigner, the stranger, the other. Well and good; but what are we supposed to do with them?

Two things. We are supposed to share scripture together. And we are supposed to share baptism together. Word and Sacrament. The foundations of faith. Philip took the initiative to jump up into the chariot with the eunuch. He shared scripture, and then he shared baptism. The same two things I hope we are doing this morning!

I want us to do something else this morning. On this feast day of St. Philip, I want us to share our commitment.

We are beginning today a new year of stewardship. Most of you know that, by stewardship, I mean the graceful care of all that God has given us: the earth, this city, our families and lovers, ourselves.

But most of you know that I also mean money and resources!  In the next three weeks, every one of us –myself included-- will be asked to make another financial pledge to the Cathedral Parish of St. Philip, and I pray that our generosity will be overwhelming.

Strong and committed churches need strong and committed members, members who are like St. Philip. Our stewardship theme this year is “Deep and Wide,” like the River Jordan, like the Kingdom of God itself. Certainly there are some folks here who can give more deeply. And we also need our giving to be wider. Some folks here do not pledge at all, or some do not even give. Our numbers need to widen.

Let me tell you about what you are you giving to, when you give to the Cathedral of St. Philip.

You are giving to an institution who keeps alive the spirit of Philip. We know that Jesus Christ meets us here, when the water washes us clean. We know that Jesus Christ meets us here when that word speaks life-giving gospel to us. But then, we represent the courage to relate to those outside our identity. We represent the courage to meet other people with word and sacrament, scripture and baptism.

Your money, your gifts, enable that gospel of Jesus Christ. It enables our children’s programs, our youth programs, our Bible study programs.

In particular, at the Cathedral of St. Philip, we have an Anglican style of the gospel that the world needs to hear. Our Anglican style, our Episcopal style, is deep and wide. Our biblical study is open and inclusive. It is deep and wide, not shallow and absolutist.

The world has enough absolutism; it has enough narrow-minded and totalitarian interpretation of scripture. The world needs true Anglican handling of the gospel.

The world needs the courage and the spirit of Philip. The world needs the courage and the spirit of Anglican Christianity and the Episcopal Church.

Will these children, whom we are about to baptize, learn to give? Will they learn commitment to Jesus Christ? Will they learn courage and openness to God’s spirit? This baptism trusts that they will.

And they will learn from your example. I am talking not just to parents and godparents when I say “example.” I mean that these children will learn from the example of every single individual in this community, whether you know them or not.

I invite each of you to commit yourself to Jesus Christ this day; and I invite each of you to commit yourself to the Cathedral of St. Philip. That commitment means sharing the word with each other. That commitment means sharing water with each other. That commitment means sharing money with each other.

When we share word, water, and resources (our money!), we are truly sharing ourselves, our heart and soul.

This Cathedral needs soul. It needs heart and soul. And the world needs our heart and soul, too. The world needs the Cathedral of St. Philip, and the Cathedral of St. Philip needs you.



 (a sermon for 14 October 2007)
The Feast of St. Philip, Deacon and Evangelist, observed

Acts 8:26-40

Last Sunday, a group of Jewish high school students visited the Cathedral of St. Philip. They had made polite inquiries and arrangements beforehand, asking one of the clergy to meet with them afterwards; and it was clear they were with us to explore the presence of God in traditions other than theirs. I was glad they were with us, and I explicitly welcomed them during the parish announcements.

What I discovered during their visit was that our service changed. Our service was different because this group of Jewish students was with us. I do not mean, of course, that we said any different prayers or sang any different hymns, or consecrated bread and wine any differently.

No, the difference was within ourselves. When I said my prayers that Sunday, I heard those prayers differently. When I used the name of Jesus (which I do often!), when I used images of the cross, when I sang about resurrection, I found myself reflecting –quickly as it might have been—upon how those notes met Jewish ears. As I spoke and prayed and sang, I did not regret a single word. I simply heard them differently. I might even have heard them more definitely and clearly. I certainly realized the power of the name of Jesus again.

That Sunday, I remembered that context changes the way we hear things. Context even changes our comprehension of things. When any two members of a family, for instance, are discussing a third member of that family, the discussion will be quite different if that third member is actually present. When our nation’s leaders discuss other countries, it matters when we know the other countries are listening!

The Episcopal Church has been re-learning this principle during recent years. When Christians are discussing homosexuality, for instance, the tone and attitude of the conversation changes dramatically if gays and lesbians are actually part of the group! And the same goes for global community. The conversation among global western Christians changes dramatically when global southern Christians are present.  It is probably the case that global western and global southern Christians are, for the most part, just learning how to have such graceful and truthful conversations together!

Many of the more strident arguments occurring globally are occurring because some people did not realize that other people were “over-hearing” the conversation. Some people did not realize that other people were in the room. Of course, these other people weren’t literally in the room. These other people were listening to the television coverage and following internet coverage on the world wide web.

Context changes things. Context changes both the way we say things and the way we hear things. And it should. Our context is our community, and community is where we have civil and graceful and truthful conversation. One of the challenges of our time is that Americans really do not know much about the people who are listening to our conversations. Those listeners might be Muslims or Jews. Those listeners might be Iraqi citizens, they might be Nigerian Anglicans, they might be Palestinians, they might be Chinese village farmers, they might be gays and lesbians (who are certainly, and thankfully, among us already). They are “the stranger,” who is closer to us than we think!

How can the Christian Church meet this challenge? This challenge of understanding other cultures? We cannot do it by watching television and looking up items on the internet.

The Christian answer is mission. We must be strong and courageous enough to leave our homes and comfortable culture and to travel out in mission to the world. That is where we learn. Last week, that group of Jewish high school students learned much more about the Episcopal Church by visiting one (and staying all the way through our worship service!). They didn’t just google the Episcopal Church or read the latest blog about us.

The Episcopal Church has taught me that Christians are being called to mission again. We are being called to go out into the world in the name of grace and service.

Today is the feast day of St. Philip the Deacon and Evangelist, and I am glad once again that our cathedral takes him as our patron saint. Consider Philip who had the courage to leave his comfortable home in Jerusalem and to travel along a wilderness road to the South. (I realize that it may not have been courage that prodded him; Jerusalem was in the midst of a persecution that may also have led him to leave!).

It is Philip the Deacon who dares to speak to a stranger, a stranger in terms of culture, race, and gender. The stranger is an Ethiopian eunuch. But he is reading the same sacred scriptures as Philip knows. Philip is led to teach and to baptize. The Ethiopian eunuch is changed by this encounter, and so is Philip! Philip is snatched away by the spirit and finds himself at Azotus; Philip becomes a new man setting up a new home. The Christian Church itself was changed by Philip’s encounter with the stranger.

Christian mission is not merely about changing other people. Christian mission is also about changing ourselves. Though missionaries throughout history have differed mightily in their tasks and character, they do seem to share one experience. Every missionary has a story of how he or she was changed by serving in another culture. He or she was changed by speaking Christian words in a foreign context.

Our Cathedral celebrates Philip today. And our Cathedral celebrates baptism today. What I have said today also applies to baptism. When we baptize new Christians into our church, and into our families, we ourselves are changed by their presence. You who are having children baptized today: remember, it is you who will be changed by their presence! And you, all of us, will be changed in the Spirit of God for the better!

As we celebrate baptism and Philip the Deacon today, I call upon us to re-engage mission. It is time to travel away from our “comfort zones,” whatever they might be. Several groups in this church are already planning our next mission travels. There will be others.

“Get up and go,” said the angel of the Lord to Philip. “Get up and go,” says the angel to us today. Go to that lonely teen-ager playing video games that you do not understand. Go to the south! Go to south Atlanta; go to the southern hemisphere, to Equador and Brazil.. Get up and go to England, to South Africa, to Tanzania, to China and India.

“Get up and go,” and we will all be changed. We will be changed by that spirit of Jesus who said “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”



 (a sermon for 12 October 2008)
The Feast of Philip, Deacon and Evangelist

Acts 8:26-40

I apologize for being a little late this morning…I was checking our investment portfolio…

Yes, this past week has reminded us that we live in anxious times. Even for those us who do not consult portfolios daily, we know that the bottom line has changed. Even for those of us who do not put our faith in the stock market, we know that we are affected by its wild gyrations and quick falls. Most of us do require some type of financial credit, some type of trusting loan; and, this week, that credit and trust are scarce. Our world is prone to panic and to fear.

So, this past week, I asked several investment experts and financial advisors the same question. They are all friends of mine, and they know I am a priest. I said, “I know you are busy this week, but let me tell you what I have to do on Sunday. I am preaching on the patronal feast day of our church, the Cathedral of St. Philip. I know that my parishioners, when they come to church, are going to have the economy on their minds. They are going to be thinking about global anxiety and financial insecurity.” And so I asked my finance and investment friends, “What should I say to them?”

Every single one of my financial consultants and friends gave me the same sort of answer. They said, “Tell your congregation to focus on the truly important things in life: faith, family, relationships. Remind your congregation to plan for the long term, to focus on things that endure, not on things that are passing away.”

Yes, their answers sounded like sermons! I felt like I should have asked these guys to preach today. The answers they gave are the same things we have been saying in the church for generations! “Pay attention to long-term goals, not quick fixes. Pay attention to the enduring matters of the spirit. Remember that we can achieve great things when we act together. Stay close to communities, like church and family.” One financial advisor, on the front page of the New York Times yesterday, even suggested, “Pray if it helps!”

Now, I can take this sort of advice in two ways. For one: if finance advisors are now turning to religious platitudes, then matters have certainly gotten bad! But, I choose to take a second course: when the world does look confusing and anxious and panic-stricken, people of faith and hope and strength really do have an even larger role to play. The best finance advisors seem to know this.

So, on this morning, the Sunday after the wildest stock market swings in history, and also the Sunday of our patron saint, Philip the Deacon, I want to speak about the enormous responsibility now given to us people of faith. You and I –members of the Christian Church, members of the Cathedral of St. Philip—have just been given our mission for the coming year.

We are called to be people of integrity and hope in the days ahead. There will be many who despair, many who are already too confused, many who will sell into panics. That will not be the behavior of people of faith. Today, it is time for us to “hold fast to that which is good.” It is time for us to help those in need, to help those who may have no community or family to which they can turn.

For, there are people in the world today who have trusted in the wrong things. They have lived too long following the idolatry of irresponsible credit and irresponsible luxury. There are many who have not benefitted from the foundations of a loving community like church. Many may begin seeking the help of the church – not for financial assistance per se-- but for true spiritual assistance. We –you and I-- are to be the people who help them.

The original Philip the Deacon, the saint for whom our church is named, also lived in confusing and anxious times. Foreigners – Romans—had seized the land and the wealth of its citizens. Worse yet, early Christians were beginning to suffer persecution. People began to leave town, to leave Jerusalem, for safer territory. Philip was one of them.

He first travelled to Samaria to preach the gospel. He preached to a strange character named Simon, who was so taken with the power of the gospel that he offered to buy gospel power with money. Yes, this is a strange verse in the Book of Acts, chapter 8, verse 18: it says that “when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered the apostles money, saying ‘Give me some of that power also!’”

And Peter, the chief apostle, said, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money!” (Acts 8:20). Imagine trying to buy God’s power with money! But that is exactly what has been occurring in our time, hasn’t it? The gifts that God has for us – gifts like security and hope and trust and love—have been counterfeited by those who think money can achieve them. Money does not, cannot buy our deepest securities and trusts. It just cannot do it. May your silver perish with you, said Saint Peter.

Philip the Deacon was part of this new gospel message, having been driven out of Jerusalem and led into Samaria and across the world. Philip had been ordained deacon to preach and to serve, and he performed those ministries heartily.

In some strange way, the Spirit said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south, down the wilderness road.” Those of you who have been members of the Cathedral have heard me talk about Philip’s journey before. You have heard me say, before, that just as Philip was called to travel a wilderness road, just as Philip was called to minister to an Ethiopian eunuch, a person who was a stranger in both heritage and gender identity, just as Philip took the initiative to get up into the chariot, so we today –following Philip—are called to enter wilderness willingly and with hope; we today are called to reach out to the Ethiopian eunuch, to the strangers in our midst. Philip’s call is our call. I have noted all this before!

But, today, I want to note another feature of this rich narrative. Note the occupation of the Ethiopian eunuch. What was his task in life? Well, he was in charge of the money. In fact, he was in charge of the entire treasury of the queen of the Ethiopians! Maybe he was the Henry Paulsen of first century Ethiopia!

I am not sure how far that analogy will go. But I am sure of this. The Ethiopian eunuch was in charge of all sorts of money, but he was poor. He lacked something, and he knew it. So he was reading the book of the prophet Isaiah. He did not understand it, but he was reading it.

I believe, in the coming weeks and months, there will be all sorts of new people entering this church, the Cathedral of St. Philip, looking for something they are lacking. They will hear the words of scripture and prayer, but they may not understand them. There will be Ethiopian eunuchs among us.

Our role will be to act as Philip the Deacon acted: to jump into the chariot with them. To explain scripture and tradition. To baptize people into a new gospel reality, where all can find true security and hope.

The assets of this church, the Cathedral of St. Philip, are not the kinds of assets that can be bought. The assets of this church are the free gifts of grace and love in Jesus Christ. We receive them when we baptize. We receive them when we take communion together. We receive them when we sing and pray together, and when we laugh and cry together. We receive them when we serve others in the name of Jesus Christ.

Yes, we receive when we give. We receive when we serve. We receive when we trust.

And those actions are exactly the actions that our world needs right now. The world needs trusting credit, doesn’t it? We can give it. The world needs some calm right now. We can give it. The world needs some stability right now, doesn’t it? We can be that stability. We can be that peace. We can be that trust.

Follow Philip the Deacon today. Join the Cathedral of St. Philip today. Be baptized into the gifts that money cannot buy. Be baptized into love and honor, service and trust.