22 December 2014


(a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent - 21 December 2014)

 The angel Gabriel came to Mary and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you…Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:28, 30-31, 35, 37-38)

“Let it be,” said Mary.

About forty-five years ago, there was a man whose business was failing. He was still a member of an amazing partnership –one of its two great stars, in fact—but he knew the partnership was crumbling. In fact, everyone in the business knew it.

The year was 1969. The partnership was the great rock band, The Beatles. The man was Paul McCartney. As he worried about the break-up of The Beatles, McCartney tried more and more desperately to take control of the band.

One night, Paul McCartney had a dream, a dream that featured his mother, his mother Mary. In the dream, his mother, who had died when was fourteen years old, came to him and said just a few words, “Let it be.”

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom, Let it be.

McCartney has said, since, that he did not intend the song to have any explicit religious meaning, but he has also said that people can interpret that song in any way they like, including the religious.  And many of us do just that.

It is my belief that, in the church, today is Mother’s Day. I know that the rest of the country counts the second Sunday in May as Mothers Day, and we here in the church usually make a nod in that direction on the Second Sunday in May. But, in the Christian Church, we already have a Mothers Day, built into our lectionary, our schedule of Bible readings through the year.

It’s today. On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday before Christmas, the Church usually hears the faithful story of the one of the great mothers of our tradition. Mary. Mother Mary. The one who heard the angel announce a miraculous conception. The one who received the Word. And, then, the one who said, “Let it be to me according to your word.” The one who said, Let it be.

Hail, Mary, we say today. Full of grace. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

Many of us know that powerful prayer from the Roman Catholic tradition, and say the prayer to Mother Mary. But we might well speak it to all mothers today. We hail mothers today, those who say yes, those who allow the miracle of new life to be conceived in them. Mothers, who whisper words of wisdom to those they love, especially in times of trouble. Mothers, who speak words of truth.

When I speak “Hail Mary,” today, though, I do not mean that today is just a Roman Catholic day. It is a Protestant Catholic day, too, just as powerfully, because what we observe today is the power of the Word. It is the Word that comes upon Mary. It is a powerful Word, aggressive, energetic – maybe even a male generated – word.   

It is the Word which fills Mary today, and it is the Word which fills us. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh. And the Word fills us.

At some point in every mother’s life, at some point in every father’s life, at some point in every parent’s life, they hear one of the most feared questions of parenthood. “Mommy, Daddy, where do babies come from?”

No matter how old the questioner is, there is always one answer that works. There is one correct answer for the question, “Where do babies come from?” They come from love. Babies come from love. When two people love each other, new life happens. When the divine and the human love each other, new life happens!

And the signs of that love are often words. Words are important. The way we speak to other people matters. The way we speak to our lovers matters.

What did the Word say to Mary? “Greetings! Favored One! The Lord is with you! Do not be afraid!”

The word “Greetings” really means, “Rejoice!” It is one my favorite words in the Bible. The Word of God is always, at one level, a word of rejoicing. What if that were the first word we greet folks with every day? Rejoice!

“Favored one.” Ah, what if each of us called our lover, “favored one.” “You have found favor,” says the angel to Mary.

“Do not fear,” says the angel. Indeed, that is what Love says in every generation. You need not fear. Perfect love casts out fear.” When you find yourself in times of trouble, do not fear.

And Mary accepts this miracle, this sign of divine love, Mary accepts this Word, with her own words. She says “Let it be. Let it be to me according to your word.”

But Mary is not the only person in this story who accepts the Word of new life. The angel says that her “cousin, Elizabeth, in her old age, has also conceived.” And, the gospel of Matthew tells this story another way entirely , with the angel announcing the news not to Mary at all, but to Joseph.

It’s not just Mary’s day today. It’s not just Mothers Day today. It’s Fathers Day, too. It’s cousins day. It’s relatives day. It is a day to welcome the power of grace into our lives, no matter who we are. It’s All Flesh Day.

When the angel hailed Mary as favored one, the angel was announcing favor to all flesh. When Mary said “Let it be to me according to your word,” the Word entered all flesh. That word said, “You are favored. You are graced.”

The mighty, inseminating, conceiving Word of God is always about grace. And there’s not a person in the world who does not need it. Your child needs that word. Your lover. Your friend. Your stranger. Your other. Your enemy. The Annunciation is a word of grace. You are favored, and so are you and you and you.

Do not be afraid! You have found favor with God. The Holy Spirit has come upon you with grace.

The power of God’s grace is that it makes us all feel like virgins. The power of grace is that every time is the first time. It is a new beginning every time it enters into us. It’s like celebrating New Year’s Day.

The story is not just about accepting the seed of life inside us. That’s important, to be true. But the Annunciation is about announcing. It is about speaking the Word. It is about God speaking good words to all flesh. And then it’s about our speaking good words to all flesh.

Speaking good words. The scholarly among you know what the word “benediction” means. Bene means good. Diction means speaking. A benediction is a good word. Believers in the Annunciation are meant to proclaimers of grace and good words. The Church, the community of faith, is meant to be an announcer of blessing and grace to the world.

“Hail, favored one. Rejoice, you have received grace.”

What kind of blessing, what kind of grace, will we give today, tomorrow, and Christmas itself? It is what our children need. It is what our friends need. It is what our parents need.

It is what we need. And when we have received grace, it grows. The nature of grace is that it grows. The proof of grace is that it grows. The way others know you are pregnant with grace, is that it grows. It starts with a whisper, and it grows into a song.

Let it be. Whisper words of wisdom, let it be. That which is conceived in you is holy. It is grace. And it will be the salvation of all flesh.


30 November 2014


(a sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, 30 November 2014)

Mark 13:24-37

Jesus said to his disciples, "about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. ….And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

“Keep awake,” said Jesus.

And, indeed, many of us around the country were awake this past week. We made sure we were awake and watching the news on Monday evening when a grand jury decision was announced in Missouri, a decision not to indict a police officer who shot and killed an unarmed man this past August.

Many of us stayed awake even longer, worried and watching, to see if danger or violence might erupt in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere. Then, we stayed awake worrying about loved ones everywhere across the country.

Others of us were awake simply worrying about our country. Has the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, really revealed that race relations are no better than they were decades ago? Have all our efforts toward racial reconciliation retreated now?

I don’t like staying awake like that. I don’t like worrying about police forces across the United States. I would far rather trust them, because I know that the vast and overwhelming majority of our police do not act in impulsive and ill-considered ways. I don’t like worrying about young black men in our country, worrying about their safety, and worrying for myself, and worried that maybe I continue to harbor unconscious prejudiced attitudes about my safety. I don’t like staying awake like that.

The decision in Missouri last week was another in a series of what people have called “Wake-up” calls in our country. “Wake up,” said the decision. And our country’s various reactions to the decision said the same thing, “Wake up!” Differently skinned people in our country are indeed treated differently. “Wake up!” Differently skinned people in our country interpret actions and decisions differently. Black people recognize and interpret actions differently than white people do.

“Wake up!” said the demonstrations. The grand jury’s decision not to indict will be accepted by many across our country, and it will be criticized and questioned across our country. And around the world, for that matter. And in churches, so many churches, on this very day. Let those conversations and arguments occur. And let the demonstrations, the peaceful and non-violent demonstrations, occur.

Many good comments have been offered this past week. Like many of you, I was especially touched by the honest words of Benjamin Watson, a black football player for the New Orleans Saints. In the midst of his acknowledged anger and fear and embarrasment and sadness, he also said that said that he was both hopeless and hopeful. Yes, some aspects of our race relations in this country seem hopeless. But the best of us do not give up. Those of us who see a better world are hopeful.

Like many of you, I have spent my entire life struggling for just race relations in the communities where I have lived. I was fortunate to have been taught early in my life about equal respect and equal dignity and equal justice for all races, and especially for African-Americans in the South, where I grew up. But, as a white man, I remain sensitive to those times and places where respect and rights do not seem to be equal, even in my own heart.

Yes, I yearn for a community, a world, where the words “black” and “white” are not just categories, where those words are not simple stereotypes. Those descriptions refer to actual and individual people. Ultimately, each of us, individually, is worried about the same things: security in our streets and neighborhoods, wisdom and moderation in our police forces, non-violence and peace in our protests and demonstrations, and justice in our communities.

“Keep awake.” Now, on this First Sunday of Advent, when the Christian Church always focuses on the kingdom to come, we hear Jesus adding his own words to our conversations. “Keep awake,” says Jesus, and we are urged to keep awake to race relations in our communities.

Keep awake. Do not lost heart. Be watchful and alert. This season of Advent, four weeks before Christmas, always signals for Christians a new kingdom. However, I have come to believe that the word, “kingdom,” is not so great a word to describe what we look for in our time, because “kingdom” itself is a rather outmoded word.

We simply don’t have “kings” any more, and it takes too long to try to re-interpret what our kind of “king” is. First of all, of course, “king” is a male word. (Has anyone noticed, by the way, how so many of the players, on both of the violent sides of our race demonstrations are male? It may be that we don’t need any more male anger and male diffidence and male shooting.)

In the same way, we don’t need just another king. Our God, the God we wait for, is not simply another imperial ruler who will bring another system of justice.

The problem with earthly systems of justice is that they exist only for a season. Every country has imagined that its justice system might be ideal. The Protestant Reformation was a revolution in a way. Certainly it was a protest. The French Revolution. The American Revolution. The Civil War. Even the Civil Rights Act, for which we are truly thankful. As advanced as these developments toward justice were, in their own time, there then came a time when elements of those system also failed us.

So, every year, the Christian Church says “keep awake.” There is something greater. We have a God who will not come to us with simply another set of laws. He does not sit as a new judge, settling disputes once and for all.

No, our God comes to earth in  new way. God actually comes as us. The holy mystery of the incarnation is that God is incarnate among all of us!

Justice and peace emerge in our world, not by our depending upon someone else, or someone outside us. Justice and peace emerge in our world by our acting justly and peacefully in every small personal element of our lives. 

Race relationships remain one of the most challenging tests of whether we believe in the incarnation or not. Christianity proclaims that God was incarnate not just in Jesus, but in each of God’s created human beings. We are, each of us, made in the image of God. The reason Christians believe in just race relations is not because of some super-law, or grand jury decision, or new political system at all, but because we believe that God is present, really present, in every human being.

That is a daring proclamation. I dare us to believe it during this season of Advent, waiting for Christmas incarnation. Keep awake. God appears among us, in every day, and in every moment of decision, and in every relationship of our lives.


The Very Reverend Samuel G. Candler

Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip

20 November 2014


(a sermon for 16 November 2014 --Proper 28A)

I Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, "Master, I knew you to be a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours." …And the master said, “ As for this worthless servant, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

There’s an old story about a wise priest listening to the rants of a young atheist. The young atheist claims that he just doesn’t believe in a god with a white beard sitting on a high throne judging everybody, and deciding who gets a reward and who doesn’t. He just doesn’t believe in a god who is severe and mean and casting people into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The wise priest gazes back at the young atheist, and the priest says, simply, “I don’t believe in that kind of god either.” And so the old priest begins to explain the kind of God he does believe in, one who is life-giving and grace-giving and encouraging.

That old story represents a critical principle, for me, of the spiritual life. The kind of god we believe in will determine, very much, the way we behave in the world. People who believe in a loving god generally try to be loving. People who believe in a forgiving god are generally forgiving. But people who believe in an angry god are generally angry themselves. People who believe in a punitive god are generally punitive themselves. People who believe in a discouraging god are discouraging. People who believe in an encouraging god are encouraging.

Which kind of God do you believe in this morning?

My first impression of the gospel parable from Matthew this morning always shocks me. I am accustomed to think that the “Master” in this parable represents “God.” Maybe we all make that assumption. And so I am shocked that the God I believe in call would call a servant “worthless” and throw him into outer darkness.  But I want to interpret this parable differently this morning; I want to claim something else about this parable. This parable is not about the Master! Instead, this parable is about types of belief, types of faith. One type of faith is encouraging and leads to fruitfulness. The other type of faith is discouraging.

Let me talk about this discouraging faith, as represented by the miserable servant. I am saddened by this guy. For I know this poor fellow who received the one talent, and who was so afraid, and who hid the talent in the ground. This poor fellow who received the one talent is the person who believes in a fear-provoking god, a stern and rigid god, a god who makes people afraid, a god who whose grasp is so tight that one is afraid to take risks in life.

While the first two servants, who had received the stewardship of five and two talents, are out trading and investing and making their talents profitable, this third servant is absolutely miserable. He cannot risk this small talent, this tiny resource which has been entrusted to him.

He is afraid that he will fail. He is afraid that he will be exposed to the world as an inept, inefficient, and generally useless fellow. Deep down, he feels worthless. Thus, when others say harsh things about him, those words agree with his innermost feelings: "You are lazy. You are not conscientious. You cannot think. You are a disgrace."

He believes those words. And the more he believes those words, the more they come true. For, again, the way we believe about ourselves is the way we act in the world.

What a tragic parable this is! When this poor and bedraggled servant arrives with the one hidden talent, he actually declares his creed, his statement of belief: “Master, I knew you to be a hard man,” he says. That’s what he believes! And, thus, the master he believes in has no mercy. His kind of master tears into the servant and fulfills exactly what the servant feared. Yes, the master is a harsh man, reaping where he does not sow. Yes, the master takes even this one talent from the poor servant and orders the servant to be cast into the outer darkness. The master behaves in exactly the way the miserable servant expects the master to act. The servant, in his mind, expected the master to be harsh and mean-spirited, and so the master was.

The way we believe about God will be the way we experience God. If we believe God to be harsh and mean-spirited, God will be.

I daresay there is not one person in this room, including myself, who has not felt afraid, like this third servant. Given what we feel is a small talent anyway (what's one talent compared to our neighbor's five?), every one of us has had occasion to just give up. “Why don't I just take this talent and go hide? I'll bury the talent in the ground so it will be safe, and I won't have to risk anything.” We've been afraid before.

I believe that our fear is directly related to our sense of community. Those who do not belong, somehow, to a caring and trusting community, are usually those who are afraid. On the other hand, those who accept community, and who are willing to be vulnerable to that community -- because they trust it --  are usually able to gain courage over fear.

We learn, most of us, the value of a trusting and caring community very early in life. When we began to walk on two legs, we trusted those hands which held us up. And when those hands let go, urging us to go on, we still trusted that voice. We fell, but we knew we could also continue unashamed. We were vulnerable, but we were loved and cared for. We were thereby given courage to take risks.

But we have grown up hearing a myriad of other voices. Somewhere along the line, maybe the voices we gather around us grew harsher and more uncaring. Maybe folks around us lost confidence in us; then we lost confidence in ourselves.

When we act out of our fear and anger, then what we say usually becomes true. Our resources look very meager indeed. Others do strike us as mean-spirited. The master does act harshly and impersonally.

Today, friends, we are called to be part of a community which overcomes fear. We are called to be part of a community which trusts, and loves, and blesses each other.

Yes, we are called to be a blessing community, blessing one another with words of courage and care. It does take courage to live in this world; it does take courage to risk our resources and talents. It takes courage to be vulnerable and trust others with our weakness. That courage can come only from the deep inner belief that someone loves us. God loves us.

Ultimately, the third servant is wrong. His talent is not meager and unsubstantial. The master is not hard and mean-spirited. They both turned out that way only because that is what the servant deeply believed. The way we believe affects the way we act! What we believe affects our talents! What we believe affects our experience of others!

But he is wrong, that third servant. Someone does love him. And it is up to us, the community of faith to prove it. Will we bless and encourage the servants around us? Are we a blessing to those people we say we love? Will we take our place in this blessing community, the Church?

This Church exists to tell the world that the Master is not harsh, that our gifts are not meager. Our God is not harsh, and our gifts are not meager. The Church exists for blessing and encouragement.

This is why so often St. Paul exhorts his churches to encourage one another. He urges encouragement to the Thessalonians in today's epistle reading. The Church exists for encouragement. "En-courage" said St. Paul. Put people "in courage"; don't put them in fear. "Encourage one another," he said, "and build one another up."

Encourage, and every one of our talents will multiply in joy. In courage, every one of our talents will multiply in joy!


20 April 2014


(a sermon for Easter Sunday, 20 April 2014! see John 20:1-18)


You are a beautiful sight to behold! Seeing you this morning is like seeing the resurrection of Jesus!

Actually, the first person to see and behold the resurrected Jesus was Mary, Mary Magdalene. And what a sight that must have been! Imagine seeing Jesus standing right before you! Imagine what you would feel like, when you –and everybody else—knew that Jesus had died, that he had been enclosed in the grave; and then, suddenly, he was standing right before you. Imagine the heavenly light you would see, and the divine joy pumping your heart!

But No. The Gospel of John is very clear that this was not the scenario in which Jesus appeared to Mary. Mary, who was the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus, did not actually recognize Jesus.


Yes, Mary looked up on that first Easter morning and saw Jesus there, but she mistakenly thought he was the gardener. She has a conversation with him, “supposing him to be the gardener” (John 20:15).

How in the world did that happen? How could she have not recognized Jesus? She had been with him for several years, very close to him. (Some have speculated too close to him!) She might have been the one to have washed his feet with her hair. Mary was as close to Jesus as anyone. How in the world did she make that mistake?

One of my favorite paintings of the resurrection is a painting by Rembrandt, which shows this very scene. There is Mary, weeping in the early dawn. And there is someone with her, but it doesn’t look like the Jesus we usually see in religious paintings. When I have shown the slide of that painting to my classes, out of the blue, it is very rare that someone identifies that other person in the painting as Jesus.

They don’t recognize Jesus because Rembrandt painted him wearing a large broad-brimmed hat, a sun hat! And he is clearly carrying some sort of shovel, a gardening spade. He looks like a common ordinary gardener in the painting, just as Mary Magdalene is said to have spotted him.

Yes, Mary mistook Jesus for the gardener on that first Easter, and how could she have made that mistake? She had travelled and ministered with him, maybe for three years. She had witnessed Jesus’ behavior in both hard times and easy times.

She had admired Jesus tenderly picking up children just like … well, just as tenderly as he might be coaxing a young seedling from the ground. She had listened to Jesus carefully explain some stories just like ….well, just like he might be tilling and preparing good soil. In fact, many of Jesus’ stories were about the soil, and seeds, and vines and weeds and rocks.

Yes, that has to be the reason Mary saw a gardener before her! She had witnessed Jesus being a gardener throughout his ministry! Mary had seen Jesus tear into people, especially the Pharisees, just like a gardener might tear into some overgrown thicket, cutting away the old growth. Mary had seen Jesus cut into new growth, too, training and trimming the branches that were his disciples.

Mary thought Jesus was the gardener, because Jesus is a gardener!

I have a friend who is a delightful gardener. In one of my classes last week, I asked people to share a moment recently when something good had happened to them. My gardener friend shared her simple and wondrous surprise as she went outside to check on her garden after the winter cold, to see what was coming out of the ground. She naturally did not know which plants would make it, and which would not. But then, she began to recognize her old plants, one by one emerging in the Spring ground. She exclaimed, personally, to each one, “Oh, you made it!”  “Oh, you made it!” She was delighted at each new sprout.

Her remarks reminded me of the line that Tom Key uses in his musical, Cotton Patch Gospel, the musical drama shaped by the New Testament translations of the Georgian, Clarence Jordan. In that musical, after the pain and suffering of crucixion and death, suddenly there is Jesus on stage, resurrected and back to life. And he is smiling! His smile is as broad and delightful as a Spring flower. In fact, his smile is one of sheer astonishment itself. Jesus himself is surprised at his own resurrection, and the first words out of his resurrection mouth are, “Hey! It worked!” (It sounds wonderful when Tom Key says it!)

Gardeners get delighted when life blossoms forth from the ground. In the garden of life, there is no one more delighted than Jesus when life springs forth. Jesus wants to delight in us today. The gardener Jesus wants to see us grow.

Yes, Jesus is a gardener. It is Jesus who is the one tilling and turning soil in our lives. Sometimes that tilling is painful. He digs into us. He breaks up dirt clods. He turns over the earth below and exposes it to the sun. Those activities are not always comfortable for us.

But if you are having some earth turned over in your life, and if you thought it was just a hindrance, a burden, an obstacle, maybe you are mistaken. Maybe you are mistaken like Mary was mistaken. Maybe the plowing in your life is being done my Jesus. Maybe it’s the gardener Jesus plowing up new soil.

Jesus is the one who plants new seeds in our lives. And sometimes we don’t recognize those seeds. The plants that emerge are unknown and strange to us, and often frightening. Again, don’t be mistaken. Those new seeds might come from Jesus.

And Jesus weeds, too. He casts out weeds and pests just like he casts out demons and illnesses. That’s why Mary thought he was the gardener; he had cast seven demons, seven pests, from her own life!

Jesus is the also the one who cuts back dead limbs; he prunes. Hey, sometimes what is being pruned looked perfectly good to us. What is that, some kind of mistake? No, it isn’t a mistake. It is Jesus. It is Jesus, pruning, grooming you for new life.

Yes, for new life. That new life confuses us just like it confused Mary on that first Easter morning. She mistakenly identified Jesus as the gardener, just like we mistakenly identify the sources of weeding and pruning and tilling and turning in our own lives. We think those travails come from somebody else, or something else.

No. The source of that tilling and pruning is Jesus. It is Jesus cultivating, and preparing you and me, for new life. Jesus is not content merely to be resurrected by himself. Jesus is preparing us for resurrection, too.

Mary, the first witness of resurrection, did not recognize Jesus at first. She remained confused until something else happened, when a holy moment occurred. That moment was when Jesus spoke her name to her. He called her by name. He said one word, “Mary.”

That is when the glory occurred! When Jesus called her by name, she knew that he was the one who had cast out demons and pulled out weeds in her own life. He was the one who had loved and coaxed new seeds out of the ground of her life. He was the one who had pruned her life into shape. Jesus was the gardener, out watching the soil in the Spring, ready to call each new plant by name as soon as it poked its sprout out of the ground. Jesus knew her personally!

Jesus calls each of his new plants by name, and he delights – he delights! – when  we emerge from the darkness of the earth! Jesus says, “Sam!” and “Mary” and “Billy” and “Bubba” and “Juan” and “Maria” and “Mohammed” and “Fatima” and “Chang” and “Ying.” And he calls every single one of us by name.

Jesus knows us like a gardener knows us, like a holy gardener who tends to resurrection in the Spring, like a gardener who knows that seeds don’t die when they slip into the ground and into the darkness of the grave.

Whoever you are, and whatever you have been going through lately, Jesus speaks your name this morning. We may look like the same old people this morning. We may look like we did last year or last season.

But we have been transformed. We have been turned and tilled. We have been weeded and pruned. We have been transformed in these past few days, when we were blinded by crucifixion pain at noon, when we slept in the darkness, and when we wept in the early dawn. When we fall into the ground, we live!

Yes, I am delighted this morning by Easter, delighted by the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus lives! But my delight pales in comparison with the Master Gardener, Jesus the Gardener, who is even more delighted with the resurrection that occurs in each of the plants in his garden.

God wants to share Easter with us today. God wants to delight in us, we who pop our heads up out of sleep and darkness and winter this early morning. “Welcome happy morning,” age to age shall say, and God says it, too.

“Hey, you made it!” “ Hey, it worked!”

Welcome! Christ is risen! We are risen! Alleluia!

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