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The Very Rev. Judith A. Sullivan

The Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral is a place of unconditional hospitality and we want to help you find a spiritual home among us. Many come through our doors seeking something more: A way to serve, or to be challenged in their developing faith, or to find solace and relief. Many come seeking caring community or a way that is different from the harsh materialism of the world. Whatever your reason, know that you, your questions, and your journey will be honored and respected. 

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July 10, 2016 Sermon


The Way Out of the Ditch - The Very Rev. Judith Sullivan  

A sermon preached by Dean Judith Sullivan in the Cathedral on the morning of July 10, 2016, the eighth Sunday after Pentecost.

This summer we have witnessed terrible and alarming events:  Mass murders by a self-proclaimed terrorist in a gay nightclub in Orlando, children continuously murdered on the streets of Philadelphia in random gun violence, terrorism and murder in the airport in Istanbul.

And they just keep coming. This week: the bombings directed at Muslims, yes Muslims, in Iraq during the most holy season of Ramadan by ISIS, and the deaths of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, at the hands of police after they were stopped for routine traffic violations. And then the assassination of five police officers who were protecting a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas, Texas.  Horrible.  And I would like to say that this is unbelievable, but that would not be true.

The violence and hatred behind these actions take my breath away.  They leave me reeling in waves of horror, frustration, grief, and anger. The disregard for human life and the carnage shock me and make me wonder what has become of our country and what has become of us.  Was it just last Sunday night that I was one of the 15,000 sitting in front of Independence Hall, listening to the Philly Pops. as we proudly recalled the bold, principled actions that led a young nation to champion to liberty and certain inalienable rights and then to fight a civil war to guarantee them?  The sense of disconnect in the space of a week could not be more acute or more tragic. To paraphrase President Barak Obama from his statement, we must hope and pray that surely, we are better than this.

Have we ever been more divided than we are today? Have we ever before experienced such frightening circumstances?  The answer is yes.  Times have been difficult and frightening before for all of us, though we know that the most vulnerable among us have carried a disproportionate share of that burden for a very long time.

What is different for us today is that because electronic media has few borders and buffers, we are experiencing traumatic, frightening events here and throughout the world in real time. Cell phones give us the vantage point of being in that car, or that nightclub, or theater, or airport.  And whether the events take place within mere miles from our homes or in Ferguson, Dallas, Paris, Istanbul, Tel Aviv, or Baghdad, we see them and feel them with an immediacy and an intensity that previous generations could not imagine.  It is an inviting and exciting reality that the world has become a very much smaller place.  Yet, when the news is terrible, we are drawn in and literally bombarded with painful, frightening moments in the lives of people at great physical distance who may appear to be very different from us but who share our humanity.

 In light of all of this change, all of this turmoil, we must ask ourselves the same question posed by the lawyer to Jesus in this morning’s gospel reading from Luke. He may have been trying to be clever, but we earnestly ask, “Who then is my neighbor?”

On the treacherous road to Jericho, a man is robbed, beaten, and left for dead.  We know nothing about him or where he comes from.  A priest and Levite pass by, but only the Samaritan, the reviled alien, the untouchable “other” stops.  In our English translation, we are told that he is “moved with pity,” but the original Greek tells us so much more.   It’s an odd word, splagchnizomai, translated better as compassion.   It comes from the Greek word for the internal organs of the human body—the stomach, heart, lungs, spleen, liver, and kidneys.   When the Samaritan felt splagchnizomai for the beaten man, he had a sympathetic reaction deep in his gut, a visceral response that overcame any intellectual resistance that he might have had to taking action.  And as he felt with and for that man, instead of moving away, he moved forward. 

Did the priest and the Levite have capacity for this kind of compassion, too, or were they simply irretrievably callous human beings?  Well, as in so many instances when we look for excuses for the failures and shortcomings of others, there were extenuating circumstances:  Both were Temple officials and to touch a man who was dead or dying would be to suffer ritual impurity and to risk removal from their position.  

Extenuating circumstances also have a way of compromising all of us.  In a social psychology experiment done in the 1970’s among seminary students whom we would hope to have a predisposition to help, failed to stop when they were busy, hurried, or conflicted.   With guilt and anxiety, many literally stepped over the victim on their path. The investigators concluded that “conflict rather than callousness can explain the failure to stop.”[1]  That is internal conflicts, fueled by scattered attention and self-interest, that produce a kind of moral paralysis when we don’t know what to do and we don’t think that we have enough time or resources to do anything that will really make a difference.

After all, we are well-intentioned people doing the best we can to follow Jesus on a day to day basis in a rapidly changing, complex, and sometimes dangerous world.  It makes complete sense that we might grow weary of trying to help solve seemingly intractable problems like racial and economic injustice. 

We might even grow resentful when we are asked to give again and again out of our material success and all that God has given to us, even if little real sacrifice is involved.   It makes complete sense, but let’s be clear. Good intentions motivated by obligation and guilt are not the same thing as compassion.  And without true compassion, it’s just too hard.

Compassion comes to us at a cost.  The gut wrenching identification that the Samaritan felt with the wounded, broken man in the ditch grew out of the honest experience of his own vulnerability, his own need for help, his own need and longing for God.  His actions were not a pious, superior hand out or hand down; they were a hand across the common bonds of human suffering from one who knew what it was to be excluded and to be “other,” who knew what it was to lie in the ditch in despair.  Who knew what it was to be helped to find the way out. This is the depth of feeling and identification that is asking from us.

We all have painful stories, moments, from which, by the grace of God, we have emerged. Ditches, residual places of such pain, guilt, and powerlessness, that we may deny them in ourselves and resist experiencing them in others. But they are the touchstones of compassion, of really seeing, hearing, and responding to the real need, not the one that we imagine or that serves our own purposes.

Only when we make peace with ourselves, with these ditches that we carry on our backs, can we find the room to love and give without exhausting ourselves and depleting the reserves of what we think we must have.  Only when we truly seek and accept God’s mercy and forgiveness for ourselves, in our gut, deep in our person, can we be more able to extend that same mercy to the “other”, that neighbor whom we don’t quite understand, who might frighten, enrage, frustrate, or overwhelm us.

Living like the Samaritan is a practice of prayer and repentance, beseeching God to heal and forgive us and to give us the strength, the wisdom, and the sensitivity to show us where to begin to do what is right.  Not for our own ego gratification but for the sake of the suffering souls whose lives are connected to ours and with whom we share this world.

As much as the lawyer in this Gospel reading is seeking the way to eternal life, acting as the Good Samaritan is much more than a single decision or moment when we rise or fall to meet the occasion.  It is really a lifetime of conversion experiences in which, little by little, we are changed and become more like Jesus. 

For those of who of us who have lived and benefitted from white privilege and first world privilege, this is a painful journey in acknowledging not only how we have sinned directly, but for complicity in the sins that have been done on our behalf.  For those of us who have known injury and cruelty because of our race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, sometimes for generations, the journey is a continuing struggle.  A struggle for justice, dignity, and the grace to forgive the rest of us, even when there are not enough tears to cry.  Every day.

Still, it is a journey that we must all make together if this parable of the Good Samaritan can be more than a hackneyed platitude and God’s dream for the world can be realized, not just in words but in action. We ARE better than this and in Jesus we have been given a vision of how God intends us to care for one another beyond hatred, prejudice, injustice, and fear, and any exalted claims that we make about ourselves and our church.  The journey must lead to action, but it begins with compassion and we have a long way to go.  AMEN




[1] Darley, J. M., and Batson, C.D., "From Jerusalem to Jericho": A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior". JPSP, 1973, 27, 100-108.


Dean's Visit to St. Mary Redcliffe Bristol UK

Here at St. Mary Redcliffe Church in Bristol, UK. Beautiful church, wonderful people. Spoke on BBC radio before preaching at the Eucharist this morning. Evensong tonight. Preaching at Chapel dedication Wednesday. Fascinating connection to Philadelphia through the Penn family. Meeting elected officials in Bristol tomorrow.


At the tomb of Admiral Sir William Penn, father of Philadelphia's favorite son. With me are the Rev. Dan Tyndall, rector of St. Mary Redcliffe Church; the Lord Lieutenant of Bristol; the Lord Mayor; and the High Sheriff. I am told that all four Members of Parliament from the area are also women. I might not come home!


Remarks given at a press conference in Love Park in Philadelphia on March 31, 2015.

Mayor Nutter, elected and appointed officials, religious leaders, good people of Philadelphia, my name is Judy Sullivan.  I am the Chair of the Board of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, the Dean of the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, and a proud Philadelphian.

The principle of religious tolerance was at the heart of William Penn’s dream for Philadelphia.  He called it a Holy Experiment, imagining a society where people of different faiths could share the benefits of freedom.  That dream became our gloriously diverse city where persons of all faiths live and work side by side, peacefully and respectfully.

While we support freedom of speech, we will not stand by when our beloved city is threatened by ugly, inflammatory, hateful words and images designed to divide us.  When our children who ride SEPTA buses to school every day are confronted with images of Adolf Hitler that tear at our hearts and at the fabric of our social order, we WILL respond.

The Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia is joined today by a coalition of faith and civic partners from more than twenty groups from across this city, working together to strategize a constructive response.  We invite you, the citizens of our region, to join us in our campaign to Dare to Understand and to be a part of that response.

Please visit our website at daretounderstand.org to find resources and information to learn how you and your family can be part of this movement to promote cooperation and respectful understanding.

As a follower of Jesus, I urge all Christian faith communities to walk with their neighbors of other faiths in empathy and support, especially our Muslim sisters and brothers.  Reach out in love and solidarity in this holy time in the Christian calendar as we walk this week with Jesus to the cross.  As we walk with the one who is our Lord, who knew what it was to be despised and marginalized. Reach out in love and solidarity that all might know the freedom, justice, and fullness of life that God intends for all of God’s children.

May our Holy Experiment in this great city continue to flourish with the blessings of God’s grace, mercy, and peace.

Thank you.

 Septa Press Conference 2

Septa Press Conference 3


Local religious leaders gathered Thursday at SEPTA headquarters to lament anti-Muslim ads that SEPTA will be forced to run, but praised SEPTA's opposition to the ad campaign.

"It's devastating not just to Muslims but to other people, as well," said Imam Muhammad Abdur-Razzaq Miller, of the mosque of Shaikh M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen in Overbrook. He likened the ads to anti-Jewish propaganda of Hitler and Joseph Goebbels in Nazi Germany.

Rabbi David Ackerman, of Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, called the ads "irresponsible speech that inflames hatred."

The Rev. Judith A. Sullivan, an Episcopalian clergywoman who chairs the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, said the ads were designed to incite hatred and prejudice. "We are proud SEPTA tried so very hard to prevent this," she said.

Read more about the ad campaign and SEPTA's response. Go to www.daretounderstand.org to respond.


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