18 November 2015


I was horrified, devastated, by the massacre in Paris on November 13, 2015. The details of that tragedy were almost too gruesome to hear about. I share in the sorrow of so many good citizens – in France and around the world. I want to cry out that the world has far, far, far more good and righteous citizens than it has vicious and evil ones.

However, as I reflect upon that awful event, I have found myself thankful for something. Here in the United States of America, we approach the Thanksgiving holiday; and it is often our practice to prepare for that day by wondering what it is we are thankful for. So, here is what I am thankful for this year:

I am thankful for faithful preachers. In particular, I am thankful for the good and faithful preachers who preached on Sunday, November 15, 2015, less than two days after the Paris horror. Most of them completely revised what they were going to say that day. Some of them didn’t know what they would say until they stood in the pulpit on that Sunday morning.

And they weren’t all Christian preachers. I am thankful for the Muslim imams, and Jewish rabbis, and all sorts of other religious leaders who rose to speak on Saturday and Sunday to their shocked and sad parishioners.

I am thankful for the preachers who are called to speak to us week after week. Some of their sermons get passed around on the internet, or tweeted about, or mentioned in some random media piece. But most of their sermons do not. Most of the good preachers of the world are remembered only locally. They will never be made famous by headlines. The world is filled, FILLED, with great preachers who are known mostly by their local and ordinary and faithful listeners.

And it is precisely in those local and faithful places that the preachers make a difference. Faithful preachers who rise early on Saturday morning to revise their sermons make a difference. Faithful preachers who try to find God’s grace, and God’s gospel, in the midst of sadness and sorrow make a difference. Faithful preachers who cry with their parishioners about injustice and horror make a difference. Faithful preachers who listen to their parishioners all week so that they, the preachers, can assemble some message of relevance in their context – they make a difference.

The world needs something different from what we saw on our television screens this past Friday evening and Saturday, images of violence and evil. In the midst of covert violence and networked terror, the world needs places that gather people of good will and faith and hope. Those places are called churches, and mosques, and synagogues, and all sorts of other names. Most of them, the fantastic overwhelming majority of them, are places where we learn about goodness and love and hope. God wants to defeat violence and terror in the world, and God uses local communities of faith to do that, generation after generation.

I am thankful for the ordinary preacher who gathers the courage and spirit to speak to a wounded congregation every week. I don’t know her name in the church down the road. I don’t know his name in the parish across the country. But I know that those preachers are working, working hard and faithfully to proclaim God’s goodness and love in a world that is often wounded and pained.

So, this Thanksgiving, I give thanks for faithful preachers. Even the bad ones, who stumble and screw up and get the particulars wrong. Their spirit is usually right. They are trying to show us that God is ultimately good. Local congregations are the places where we learn this message the most often, and the most routinely. Churches and synagogues and mosques are where God gathers people who are sorrowed and pained, for just that reason; we need to hear messages of hope and healing.

Across the world, in the days after the Paris massacre, faithful preachers rose to speak good against evil. They rose to speak love against terror. They actually do something like that every week, whether we pay attention to them or not. This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for them.

01 October 2015


John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name,
and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
But Jesus said, “Do not stop him;…whoever is not against us is for us. (Mark 9:38–40)

Whoever is not against us is for us!

This morning, and this past week, I am reminded of one of the great stories of our Bible, from the Book of Numbers – a powerful story, which has much to teach us about leadership in any generation. In short, it is a story about Moses, and two of his more obscure followers, Eldad and Medad.

At Numbers, chapter 11, the story occurs in the desert of Sinai, after Moses has led the Hebrews to freedom from the oppression of the ancient Egyptians. It is an unfortunate feature of life, in any generation, that the newly freed people soon begin to complain about their leader.

“Why have you brought us out to the desert?” they complain. “We would rather be back where the food was delicious. We remember the fish and the melons and the onions and garlic and leeks of Egypt!” Yes, the Hebrews, in their anxiety and distress, are so upset that they are longing to return to the conditions of slavery. Such is the human condition!

Moses, in turn, great leader that he was, turns to deliver the same sort of complaint to his Lord! Moses asks God, “ Why have you treated me so badly? Why have you laid the burden of all these weeping people on me?” “I am not able to carry the burden of this people alone,” Moses says. He is exasperated.

So, according to the story, Yahweh commands Moses to specify seventy people, seventy elders, and take them to the Tent of Meeting. There, Yahweh will take some of the spirit that Moses has and place it upon the heads of the seventy elders. Thus, the leadership assigned to Moses will be distributed and delegated. Moses’ burden will be mitigated, and the people will actually be cared for in a better way, with distributed leadership. It’s a great story about distributed authority, again a story with much to teach us in our own time, and in any time. Authority that rests in only one individual, even if that person is wonderful, is not as effective and healthy as distributed authority!

But something crazy happens! When these newly ordained seventy elders have received the spirit and they are prophesying healthily, why, they hear about two other people. Apparently, Eldad and Medad, way outside the tent, are not with the seventy properly ordained elders; and, yet, some of the spirit has come upon them, too, and they are prophesying! Joshua comes running up to Moses and says, “Moses! Stop them! They are not with us!”

Moses, in his expansive wisdom, recognizes immediately what has occurred. “Are you jealous for my sake?” he asks, “Would that al the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” That is, the Lord’s spirit is larger than any one set of people, or any one system, or any one authority. There is enough of the Lord’s spirit to rest upon all of God’s people, not just those properly delegated and ordained, not just upon the chosen few, not just upon the ideologically pure.

Ideological purity. In many of our strongest institutions today, there exists a self-destructive illness which has been inside humanity for our entire existence. I call it an illness, but it is really a psychological predilection marked by twin viruses: the virus of purity insistence, and the virus of empire arrogance. In politics, in church, in society, purity insistence and empire arrogance clamor for “all or nothing” strategies: “my way or the highway,” they say. “If you are not exactly for me and like me, then I am against you.”

There is a startling similarity between purity insistence and empire arrogance. The church is at its worst when it is tempted towards empire, when it wants to anoint emperors instead of servants, when its leaders think leadership is simply making sweeping and absolutist pronouncements. Even when those pronouncements seem good, and even when we might agree with them, if the nature of those pronouncements is imperial, then a dangerous disease is imminent.

The church is also at its worst when it insists on purity, when it demands that every member follow every jot and tittle of whatever the contemporary standard of law is. And remember: every party, every religious system, contains some sort of law. Democrats have their liberal markers, and republicans have their conservative ones. So do churches. We have little markers, indicators, litmus tests, of whether someone is with us or against us. Those litmus tests are our purity indicators.

Purity indicators in our time might be such issues as abortion, same-sex marriage, for sure. But they are also such issues as opposition to the death penalty and gun control laws. Our temptation is to simply destroy those who are against us.

Whatever your politics, you had to admire the rather sacrificial act of Congressman John Boehner this past week, who found himself running afoul of the purity insisters. In resigning his office, he simply refused to play the game of fruitless polarization.

John Boehner admitted enormous pride and consolation from his association with Pope Francis. The Roman Catholic pope, of course, might be the one leader in this world who would be most prone to purity insistence and empire pride. Christian churches, of whatever denomination, are continually tempted to those illnesses; and the Roman Catholic Church can sure seem like an empire, a power accustomed to demanding and receiving its own way.

But Francis, of course, has brought a different attitude to his leadership, one that is worth emulating, truly trying to mirror the leadership of Christ. In Washington this past week, Pope Francis told his fellow bishops that “the path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. …Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.” (Pope Francis to other bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, Washington, DC, September 23, 2015)

And to the United States Congress, Pope Francis urged our country to avoid polarization. He said that “there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.” (Pope Francis addresses the United States Congress on Thursday, September 24, 2015)

So, this week, I have been reminded that the way of Jesus is not the way of “All or Nothing.” Great governments include strong voices who honor and respect those across the aisle. Great churches recognize that the Spirit of God is larger than any one party or doctrine. While seventy leaders are being ordained in the main tent, let Eldad and Medad prophesy enthusiastically in another place. Our energy and good will need not be diminished because someone else, not with us, is doing something equally good!

The way of Jesus lets other disciples, not only his own, also cast out demons and heal the sick. You don’t have to agree with my politics for me to appreciate the good that you are doing in the world. You don’t have to be a member of my church, or of my religion, or of my group of disciples, for the Spirit of God to be at work in you.


(This was also the sermon preached by the Very Reverend Samuel G. Candler, at the Cathedral of St. Philip, on Sunday, September 27, 2015.)

03 April 2015


Good Friday
3 April 2015

Why do we carry these crosses everywhere?

We wear them around our necks and on our arms. Some are made of the most ordinary materials, and some are made of the most expensive. Some are as simple as two plain lines. Others are ornate and complicated, with no end to their beautiful variation. We lift crosses up into the air, and we process in lines behind them. We place them on our walls and doors.

But what do they actually mean? Do they mean simply that we are pious? That we are warm and cozy, soft-hearted people? Do they mean that we harbor some long lost spiritual dimension in our past? Do they mean simply that we are from a religious family?

No, the cross means more, much more, than those things. Sadly, regrettably, tragically, the cross has also been used wrongly. It has been used, for instance, to justify violence. It has been used in acts of racism and anti-semitism and prejudice. It has been used in ways that are directly antagonistic to the way that Jesus used it.

In his book, Constantine’s Sword, James Carroll delivered a scathing critique of the manner in which the cross has especially been used in anti-semitic ways. Today, some well-meaning Christians are reluctant to display the cross, out of sensitivity to its anti-semitic history.

However, that is one of the attitudes towards the cross that I seek to redeem. The cross means something different. The cross means something that is the very opposite of violence, and it means something that is much more profound than mere emotional pietism.

Today, Good Friday, is the day of the cross. I know that Easter is a lovely and delightful day, but I feel closer to God on Good Friday. Let me tell you why: Good Friday is a day of love. Unfortunately, throughout history, many of us have tried to explain the meaning of the cross without love. We have discussed crude blood sacrifice, and we have developed grand “atonement” theories, and we have tried to explain rationally just how the sacrifice of Jesus, the blood of Jesus, has saved us.

Listen to three of these popular theories.     
A first theory has been called “the fish hook theory.” Some say that “Satan was owed something because of the sinful nature of humanity. Someone had to pay Satan a sort of ransom, and that someone was Jesus. Jesus died on the cross and paid the price. But then Jesus tricked Satan by being resurrected.” This view was once described with the image that Christ was a worm on a fish hook that finally caught Satan. So, this view has also been called the fish hook theory. But this theory has a real problem: why should God have to owe Satan anything at all?

A second type of theory has to do with satisfying God’s justice. Some say that “it wasn't Satan who had to be satisfied. Rather it was God's justice that had to be satis­fied. The perfect righteousness of God demanded that someone suffer for sins which had been committed. Therefore (according to this theory), Jesus's death on the cross satisfies the justice, the righteousness, of God.” But this theory has a similar problem: Would God kill Jesus in order to satisfy a harsh and impersonal justice system? That can’t be.

A third theory is the blood theory. This theory maintains that “sin –somehow—can be transferred to another's blood. The Old Testament sacrificial offerings of lambs and such were designed to be a sort of transference. In those ceremonies, the sins of humanity were transferred to the animal and so offered to God and removed from people. Thus, sins can be transferred to Jesus's blood because he was a perfect and sinless offering; he was able to take away the sins of the world.”

Alas, as Rene Girard has shown us, this theory runs the risk of perpetuating scapegoat systems. When we believe that Jesus’s death is just another example of the scapegoat sacrificial system, we perpetuate scapegoating and violence to other innocent people. We run the risk of making the cross a sign of violence towards others again.

Perhaps you recognize the language of these three sorts of theories. Elements of each theory appear in our theology and in our litur­gy. Some of us may believe parts of all of them.

Let me suggest, however, that none of them captures the essence of what is going on today. The cross is not about a legal contract or a heavenly transaction. It is not “blood for sin.”  We betray the cross if we analyze it in quantifiable and crude transactional terms. Good Friday is not an intellectual day, and the cross cannot be fully explained with an intellectual theory.

The cross goes deeper than our brains. 

The cross, indeed, is a starkly violent image; there is no getting around that. But the point is that Jesus transforms that image. Jesus “made an instrument of shameful death to be for us a means of life and peace.” That transformation declares that even the most painful suffering and most gruesome death are not stronger than God. God is greater. God defeats violence at the cross; and God defeats death at the cross.

Well, how does that transformation happen? Why the cross? Today, I have three words with which to answer that question. The cross, the holy cross, means three things: pain, paradox, and passion. And by “passion,” I mean “love.” Pain, paradox, and love.

Let’s start with the human experience of pain, and death. Why do we suffer pain? Where does evil come from? What is death?  These are eternal questions of humanity, whether that humanity lived two thousand years ago or today. The eternal questions of humanity have had to do with suffering, have dealt with evil, have been about facing death. Wherever we have lived, at the beginning of humanity in sub-Saharan Africa, in the ancient kingdoms and dynasties of China, in the crowded streets of Atlanta, in the comfortable homes and apartments of Buckhead, wherever we humans have lived, we have faced similar questions.

There are some people of the world who do not believe in pain. There are some religions of the world which do not believe in pain. Some do not believe in sickness or disease. Some religions believe that evil is an illusion, that evil does not actually exist. Some religions do not acknowledge death.

Let them be, those religions. Christianity is not among them. Christianity's answer to the eternal questions of pain, death, and evil is not simply to claim that they do not exist.

Rather, Christianity’s answer is the cross.

The pain and suffering of the cross is Christianity’s acknowledgement that suffering, and evil, and death, really do exist. This might seem obvious to you. “Of course evil, suffering, and death exist,” you say. But I am not speaking so simplistically. I have known hundreds of situations in which good-willed people have been unable to acknowledge their pain. Our tendency is to hide those embarrassing parts of ourselves, places which have not matched our ideals of perfection and happiness. Suffering is painful, yes, but it is also embarrassing. Pain is also humiliating.

Our tendency is to hide. We would rather not admit those times when we have been betrayed, when we have lost, when we have been defeated.  Husbands and wives live hidden from one another. We show up to work in misery. We collapse in the evening from fatigue and bewilderment, unable to keep up with our dreams. But somehow, we dare not admit those problems. We are scared.

Then, worse, we tend to explain away evil. Such an act was due to a lost childhood, we say. Such an atrocity was a sign of sickness. Such horrific behavior is a symptom of a sick society, we say. No; pain and suffering are inherent parts of being human.

So, first of all, the cross means that we Christians acknowledge the real existence of pain and suffering.  In fact, we share an important tenet with Buddhism in this regard. Life is suffering. Of course, we believe that life is also much more than that; but life does involve suffering. None of us gets around pain and suffering. The way to the other side of pain and suffering is not around it, but through it.

It is Jesus who shows us how to go through, not around, pain and suffering. The holy cross, then, reminds us that Jesus himself encountered pain, and betrayal and false witness and innocent suffering, too – more so than most of us ever will. We follow Jesus and the cross because they show us the way through. Remember: the cross never gives us permission to inflict pain; it gives us the strength to live through it.

Secondly the cross means paradox. This is more complex. It starts with the very paradox between suffering and joy, and between death and life. The cross means both death and life. Christians are supposed to know how to deal with both. The cross, two simple intersecting lines, represents the truth that life always has two lines going through it, at least two lines, usually many more.

The very shape of the cross, an intersection of two lines, can be seen as paradox, as the meeting of two different worlds. Many people have understood the horizontal axis of the cross to mean reconciliation with each other, and the vertical axis of the cross to mean reconciliation of humanity with God, with the transcendent. Perhaps the cross means the paradox of reconciliation.

Christianity is a deeply spiritual way, not a rational way. People who wear the cross care about the reconciliation of “both/and”, not “either/or.” Paradox means the ability to live with opposites. In Jesus, for instance, we live with both humanity and divinity. Humanity and divinity are concepts that are often seen as opposites; but, to us, paradoxically, they are not.

Finally, passionate love. The cross means love. It was love that brought Jesus into the world, and it was love that led him to the cross. The reason we follow Jesus to the cross is because we want to love like he loved.

In short, wearing the cross around our necks means that we choose to love. In the midst of pain, we choose to love. In the midst of paradox, we choose to love. In the midst of things we cannot hold together, things we cannot understand, we choose to love. In the midst of life, we choose to love, to give ourselves for each other. Love was the choice Jesus made, and he made that choice most powerfully at the cross, the holy cross.

The holy cross means pain, but it means paradox even more; and even more still, the cross means love. Jesus loves us, this we know, for the cross tells us so. The cross is where Jesus sacrifices not just himself, but all of humanity.

But here’s the catch. The word “sacrifice” does not mean to kill something. Sacrifice does not mean violence. The real meaning of sacrifice, the deep meaning that lies behind all the ways the word is used in Scripture, the deep meaning of the word, “sacrifice,” is “to make something holy,” “to bring something close to God,” “to take something near God.”

The sacrifice of Jesus, then, is not simply that he died, or that he shed blood, or that he experienced evil. The sacrifice of Jesus is that he took the human experiences of pain, violence, and death, to God. This is Christianity’s answer to the eternal questions of death, pain, and suffering. Jesus is the evidence that pain and evil really do exist, and even God knows about them. In fact, God has touched pain and evil, and is transforming them.

If Jesus took pain and suffering to the cross, it should be no accident that we today who are in pain should end up in the church, here at the cross with Jesus. Whether we are innocent or guilty with pain, we end up in the same place as Jesus does: before the loving mercy of God.

Again, Christianity is an honest and realistic and incarnate religion. There are places in our lives where we bleed. There are places where we hurt, where we are in pain, where we suffer. Those horrifying, and even gruesome places, are the very places where God –in the person of Jesus Christ—pours out his love for us. God does not love us in theory. God loves us personally, in the person and life of Jesus Christ, in the very blood of Jesus Christ.

Today, we see suffering, but we also see love. It is love that looms so much larger over the landscape of intellectual theories of atonement. It is love that generates the power of Good Friday. It is love that compels Jesus Christ to take the despair and pain and suffering and blood of humanity near to God.

Sacrifice means to make holy. Jesus has made holy the human experiences of torturous pain, or bloody death, by taking them near to the very heart of God.

And Jesus took something else close to the heart of God. He took the human experience of sin. When God was touched so closely with that sin, God was affected. To be passionate means to be moved, to be willing to be moved. God himself suffered when touched by human violence. God was affected.

God’s response, however, was to forgive.

It is at the cross, then, that we discover, the true nature of God. The true nature of God is passionate love. When touched by sin, God forgives – he  does not condemn. When touched by despair, God perseveres. When touched by evil, God instigates the Good. When touched by violence, God turns it into peace. When touched by death, God turns it into life. The true nature of God is passionate love.

This is why we can say with deep conviction that we are saved by this blood of Jesus. This is why we can say with passion that Jesus is the perfect offering for our sins. His offering –his sacrifice—makes holy even the awful aspects of humanity, His offering takes all of human experience to the very heart of God, and in that heart of God we meet ... perfect love.

Jesus on the cross is an offering of love. And there is nothing more perfect than that love, nothing more powerful than that love, nothing more passionate than that love. To be loved by a suffering Jesus, on the cross, is to be loved. To be loved where we suffer is to be loved. That kind of love is deep, and broad, and high; that kind of love is the perfect offering for our sins. That kind of love lifts us close, so very close, to God. That kind of love is why we call this Friday Good.


27 February 2015


This week (February 27), the Episcopal Church will observe the feast of George Herbert, surely one of the finer poets in our tradition. Here is but one example of his work:

        Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staffe to heav’n, and traced fountains:
        But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sinne and Love.

        Who would know Sinne, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
        His skinne, his garments bloudie be.
Sinne is that presse and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruell food through ev’ry vein.

        Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the crosse a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
        If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquour sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.

However, the figure of George Herbert, country parson, has also assumed a legendary and misleading image. In a little treatise called “The Country Parson,” Herbert laid out a set of admirable criteria for what makes a successful parish priest. Those attributes of soft and genteel politeness have often been lambasted and critiqued, recently by Justin Lewis-Anthony in his delightful book, “If you Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him.” Lewis-Anthony noted that Herbert, in reality, was not really such a removed country parson. His little parish church was actually within walking distance of the high culture of Salisbury, and –even then—Herbert served there less than three years. He didn’t really pay his dues!

Here is what Justin Lewis-Anthony wrote in The Guardian, June 2, 2009: “Close your eyes and picture a vicar of the Church of England. Whether you are a regular churchgoer or someone who once watched an episode of The Vicar of Dibley, your mental image will more than likely be this: a smiling, benign, inoffensive and unworldly cleric. This image has its origins in the life and ministry of one man, George Herbert (1594-1633).  … …. Too often Herbertism gets in the way of Christianity. The solution must begin with ridding the false memory of Herbert, who he wasn't and what he didn't do. Much of our reverence for "George Herbert" is the worshipping of a fantasy pastor, an impossible and inaccurate role model, a cause of guilt and anxiety. Like the Zen Master, if we meet George Herbert on the road, we must kill him.” (The Guardian, June 2, 2009).

George Herbert was actually born in Wales, and there is another Welsh-born poet and priest, a more contemporary one, whom I highly recommend for a fine model of country clergy. He is R. S. Thomas, a great giant of a poet. I can print here only a portion of his poem, “The Country Clergy,” but look it up. It is an excellent and rugged juxtaposition to Herbert’s fantasy country parson. From Thomas’s “The Country Clergy:” 

I see them working in old rectories  
…They left no books, 

Memorial to their lonely thought 
In grey parishes; rather they wrote 
On men’s hearts and in the minds 
Of young children sublime words 
Too soon forgotten. God in his time 
Or out of time will correct this.