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!