Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Beatitudes in One OT Sentence: A Sermon for 4A Epiphany

This is the Sunday of my second Annual Meeting. But that's not the focus of my sermon. I always hated it when the rector would use the sermon time to basically deliver a "state of the church" address instead of talking about the readings. Not everyone coming to worship is a member and wanting to know the sausage-making process of the church. They're there to worship. So focus on the readings and leave the insider-baseball for the meeting. 

And I had a lot to wrestle with, both with the readings and the events of the day. So, dear reader, proceed to the sermon and you'll see...

Texts: Micah 6:1-8; Ps. 15; 1 Cor. 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12


The a capella singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock has been among my favorite muses.

When I was a reporter… I used to listen to their music every morning on my way to cover the state legislature in Florida.

It was church for me.

I enjoyed their renditions of traditional Gospel songs such as Balm in Gilead.

Sometimes…I’d hum along to one of their original tunes reminding me of something life affirming…like that each child born is like a morning star rising.

Their songs provided me with the soundtrack antidote for my soul as did my job of being the public witness to the often-callous policies pushed by state lawmakers.

They sang a beautiful rendition of Matthew’s Beatitudes…rising and falling with each blessing. The words really lend themselves to song… because they are so lyrical.

They are lovely words.

They are also difficult words.

Difficult because they don’t sound like the type of thing that gains us a whole lot of recognition or riches or rewards.

Last time I checked… there is no Most Valuable Meek Person prize.

By any reasonable person’s standards… the traits described here are not the most desirable.

And to be clear: what Jesus is talking about here isn’t a recipe for how to be a good Christian.

It’s important to remember the scene that is taking place…as we consider what it means in our own time.

Jesus is addressing his disciples… the people he just collected along the path he walked by the Sea of Galilee….Andrew…Peter… the sons of Zebedee… and some of their friends and others who were curious.

He takes them up on to the mountain… sits down… and begins what has become known as The Sermon on the Mount.

And what he’s telling them isn’t about some future time. He’s laying out what is the case now.

He’s speaking to people who are living in an oppressive situation with a Roman Empire that doesn’t care… and religious leaders that…for this group of people… have failed them.

This prayer… then… is an acknowledgment.

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners’ is a recognition of who is in front of him. The people who have taken up his invitation to fish for people are those who are not the egotistical, the self-important, or the power hungry.

The ones in front of Jesus are the people who recognize that there is disparity and brokenness in the world… and they have a thirst and a hunger to see a new reality… one where all people are liberated from those things that diminish and demean them.

The mourners… in this instance… are not people who are experiencing the death of a loved one.

This mourning is the lament of seeing a world out of kilter with what is God’s will.

And what is God’s will?

Well… if we return to the First Reading from this morning… we get it summed up in that last verse:

Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

Carol Dempsey… a Biblical scholar at the University of Portland in Oregon… describes justice as “a transformative virtue that seeks to restore community.”

“Justice seeks a balance between what is good for us personally… and what supports the common good.”

We might give some consideration of that for a moment as we think about all that is happening around us… and what comes across our TV screens.

A man… Tyre Nichols… was killed in Memphis.

The people who savagely beat him on a routine traffic stop were the men who took an oath to protect him.

Tyre Nichols… a skateboarder, a photographer and FedEx employee…who was on his way to dinner at his mama’s house… died of his injuries three days later.

That’s a disruption to community.

We haven’t even finished the month of January and there have already been 36 mass shootings in the United States.

The most high-profiled one being just last week at a dance studio in Monterey Park California.

A place where senior citizens went to have a night out on the town.

Couples enjoying the eve of the Lunar New Year in a largely Asian entertainment district…ran for their lives. Eleven of them died.

That’s another disruption to community.

Now some see and hear these stories… and they’ll shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, that’s just how it is.”

Some will look for the reasons “why” things… such as what happened to Tyre Nichols… occur.

But Justice… in the way Micah expresses it… leaves no room for rationalization.

Justice…as expressed here… recognizes that there are wrongs in the world, and we are never to give up looking for the way to stem this violence…and make things right.

We do that out of a sense of loving-kindness, or in Hebrew chesed.

Chesed is that love and concern for our neighbor… the call to us to be a people who build up others… share the light of Christ with those around us.

This is the love we pass on to others because God has loved us… in all of our perfect imperfections.

And that is the humility. The realization that we make mistakes…honestly admit to that…and remain open to God’s compassion for us…and rededicate ourselves to letting God serve as the guide along our path.

When we do justice and love kindness and mercy… we are able to walk humbly with God.

Everything about the Beatitudes is tied directly to this sentiment.

Jesus’ prayer in these words is a recognition of the struggle… and a reminder that the reward is there for those who will commit to wrestling with these difficulties.

Or… in the words of another song from Sweet Honey in the Rock…

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

In the name of God…F/S/HS.



Friday, January 27, 2023

Bless Their Hearts: A Sermon for 3A Epiphany

 I was relieved to see that the Epistle lesson this week was from the start of the First Letter to the Corinithians. During a week in which I was leading a funeral for a parishioner who was one of our matriarchs, I knew I was not up for a difficult wrestling match with the scriptures. But, fortunately, this pericope is one with each I had great familiarity. And just the week before, when I was prepping for my sermon, I had read the lines before it and had found a great deal of humor in what I was reading. Humor that I thought might work for a congregation located in South Georgia. 

This Sunday was also the one-year anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. And so it was a delight to have my spouse and a good friend present for the service. We also had the family of my late matriarch with us. They provided ample amounts of Italian food for the reception, we had a chocolate cake, and it was overall a very joyous Sunday. 

Texts: Isaiah 9:1-4; Ps. 27: 1, 5-13; 1 Cor. 1:10-18; Matt. 4:12-23


As some have been quick to note, today is a special day in my life.

It was on this date—just last year—that we were celebrating my ordination to the Sacred Order of Priests.

It was a joyous moment not just for me…and Isabelle and my friends…it was also a great celebration in the life of our parish.

In the ordination service… among the many pledges I made before the bishop… was a vow that I would “persevere in prayer both in public and private.” The expectation of priests… and really all clergy… is that we will commit to a prayer practice every day.

As luck would have it… I was already doing the Morning Daily Prayer Office… more or less regularly… on my own.

But…as I’m sure some of you may have discovered… it’s a heck of lot easier to make a practice of regular prayer if you are doing it with somebody or somebodies. I think it’s an accountability thing.

Fortunately… through the wonders of Facebook… I discovered that one of our sister churches in the diocese—Trinity Statesboro—offers both Morning and Evening Prayer online.

I have faithfully participated with them… every weekday morning at 7am… for about a year and a half.

That’s how I learned that the week… beginning with Wednesday the 18th and lasting until this coming Wednesday… has been designated as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

The World Council of Churches started this ecumenical practice about a 100 years ago with the intent of having all Christians… across denominations… pull closer together and closer to God.

How perfect to have the reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians fall during this time when we’re seeking unity in Christ!

I don’t know how many of you took me up on the suggestion last Sunday to take home the bulletin insert and spend some time with those readings during the week.

But just in case you didn’t… I want to remind you of the way this letter to the Church at Corinth begins.

Because—honestly—when I read it, I hadn’t realized how… Southern… Paul is.

In his opening paragraph… Paul tells the Corinthians that God has strengthened them through grace of Jesus Christ…and then he specifically mentions how they’ve been “enriched” with “speech and knowledge of every kind”… how they are not “lacking in any spiritual gift” as they wait for the “revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

It could be easy to shrug off these words….

But they are very intentional.

Paul has a Southern streak going on in him.

Southerners know how to make flattery into a sharp-sword of critique.

And that’s what Paul is doing.

The Church at Corinth was… as we say in these parts… a hot mess.

There were different factions in the church. And each one had their own particular gifts:

There were the very learned ones who took pride in their knowledge.

There were those who could speak in tongues who took pride in their speech.

There were those who felt they’re gift of prophecy made them superior.

It was also a church of the upper crust… some likely earning their wealth through their trades as metal workers and glass artisans.

And in all of these… there was a sense that they had no need of their fellow Corinthian Christians.

And so Paul comes to them with a letter… shaking his head… and mumbling:

Bless your hearts.

After his kind opening of giving thanks for all these wonderful “gifts” they possess… he begins to call them out:

What is all this I’m hearing about “I belong to Paul” “I belong to Apollos” “I belong to Cephas” or “I belong to Christ”?

Was I… Paul… a mere mortal who writes in lengthy compound sentences… the one crucified?!

No, I was not!

Were you baptized in the name of Paul?

No, you were not!

I… Paul… did not baptize you; it isn’t my baptism you received.

If you were baptized in my name… or any name other than the Trinity… it would rob Jesus of that loving, liberating and life-giving power he won through overcoming death on the cross!”

Now… I know Paul isn’t really a Southerner…and probably never drank sweet tea or ate grits in the Middle East.

But I find if we add a little humanity to the reading of Scripture… we can begin to see that these aren’t dead letters on a page of a dusty old book.

Rather these are echoes from our ancestors to let us know that the human tendency to create factions and divisions and separations have been with us forever.

And it’s not OK.

One of the places where it has been particularly hurtful and awful is in the church.

Throughout history… Christians have not always played well with others.

I’m not talking about the crusades which pitted Christians against Muslims… or the Inquisition where Christians tormented Jews in Spain.

Certainly, that was bad. And those hurts and prejudices have lived on between the Abrahamic religions.

But I’m thinking of how we’ve treated each other… Christian to Christian… throughout the centuries.

Just like that Church in Corinth… we’ve had our internal fights as well…with various Reformation movements in the 15-hundreds…all the way up to today.

In our diocese of Georgia… in 1907…Bishop Cleland Nelson ordained Anna Alexander as the first… and only… African-American deaconess in the Episcopal Church.

The following year… Georgia split into two dioceses: Atlanta and parts to the north and west became its own diocese. Everything in Georgia south and east from the Chattahoochee to the Savannah River in Augusta became the new diocese of Georgia.

It made sense…given the large geography of the state.

But in that process… Bishop Nelson went to Atlanta.

There was a man elected bishop of Georgia…Frederick Reese… who didn’t know Deaconess Anna Alexander.

And he moved to exclude African-Americans in the restructured diocese…not allowing them to participate in church governance at convention.

Fortunately… Anna Alexander…was a formidable deaconess.

Despite the discrimination… she made sure there were Episcopal schools and churches to educate black children and sought funding for her mission outside of the diocese. And even while being placed in the “separate and not necessarily equal box” African-American worshippers remained faithful to the Episcopal Church…until a new bishop reunited the two groups after World War II.

The Episcopal Church has weathered the storms of schism in our denomination over issues of human sexuality. Other parts of the Anglican Communion are still wrestling with the idea of all the sacraments for all the baptized.

Meanwhile…we here at St. Barnabas… are providing a home to local United Methodists currently living through that same painful break up over human sexuality.

I wonder sometimes if the Christian Church needs another St. Paul to walk into the churches… shake his head… and mumble:

“Bless your hearts.”

I do have hope for the church.

Despite what might make the headlines… I am hopeful that there are those people who have sat in darkness and are now seeing a great light.

People who understand that we are a better church… a better community… a better world… if we work together.

Our diversity of difference is not a liability.

It’s a gift of God to be honored…explored… and ultimately unites us in the common denominator: Love.  

I go back to that question Jesus posed to the disciples in John’s Gospel:

“What are you looking for?”

May this be a week where we discover Love in corners… places and people where we least expect it.

In the name of God…F/S/HS.




Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Feast on Life: A Homily Honoring the Life of Sally

There are always a bunch of "firsts" in the life of a rookie priest. In these past two weeks, I've experienced several of them. 

It seems fitting that my companion on all of these firsts was my feisty "Little Italian Lady" Sally Ippolito. 

This was the first time I have been called to the bedside of someone dying and asked to give her last rites. I drove the two hours to the hospital in Lakeland, GA, arriving at about 5:30pm and stayed until 7:30pm. I needed to get home because my spouse was arriving back from being with her ailing mother in France. I met Sally and her family late the next afternoon at Langdale Hospice Center, giving her the assurance that she was loved and could "go home." 

This was the first time since my own parents' declines that I have been involved with a family going through that gut-wrenching and extremely frustrating experience of America's medical system and its ruthless approach to human beings vs. what is the most dignified and peaceful way for a person to die and a family to grieve. 

It was my first time being in the room with a person as they took their last breath. It was my first time praying the vigil at the time of death, and joining in a tradition of taking a swig of Amaretto in honor of a life well-lived.  

It was my first time leading a funeral at a funeral home with the body present and not ashes. And it was the first time... and perhaps the only time... that we didn't hear the standard Easter hymns by the Wesleys. But we did hear Frank Sinatra singing "Never Walk Alone." 

As I told everyone at the start of the service, this was the Episcopal Church meets Sinatra. That was what Sally wanted. And we did it her way. 

Texts: Isaiah 25:1-9; Ps. 121; 1 Corinthians 15:51-58; John 14:1-6


When I was talking with Guy and Jodie about the service… and what readings we would do… they made one thing clear:

They wanted this to be about life!

Because…let’s face it… Sally was a life force!

We batted around a few ideas… Wisdom of Solomon… meh, nah.

Did we want to do Job?…oh, no, no!

But Isaiah’s 25th chapter…with that description of a banquet…with rich food and wine…

That was the ticket!

And it works on so many levels.

I mean…there’s the obvious that we’re hearing about a feast of rich food… must have been the hand-rolled ravioli.

The tears are wiped away from the faces.

Death is swallowed up…

It’s a regular party up there on the mountain…

We can almost see people kicking up their heels and dancing…and celebrating.

Can’t we see Sally enjoying that scene?!

And we know she is.

But this Isaiah reading works for Sally in another way.

Because…Isaiah is writing to a people who had been through terrible hardships.

They were a people who’d been invaded.

Been pushed around.


Life wasn’t easy for them.

We could say the same for Sally.

She had to learn her English on the streets of New York… because neither of her parents spoke English.

A Jewish family in her neighborhood became like a second family to her. She told me they’d call her their little “Said-lee”.

She faced prejudice among her own Italian-American classmates when they moved to Staten Island because her family weren’t Roman Catholics.

But nobody… and no amount of prejudice… was going to keep her down.

She loved being a member of the police department here in Valdosta.

 She hadn’t finished high school and so they weren’t going to hire her.  

But she was determined!

She earned that G-E-D and made it onto the force as a crossing guard… became the first female dispatcher in Valdosta… and finished her career back helping kids make it safely across the street to Valwood.

She wrapped up her career by earning the Crossing Guard of the Year award.

She had fun on the job…wasn’t afraid of bank robbers…and she’d slap at the cars that wouldn’t slow down in a school zone!

Her life might not have been easy.

But that spark of life in her… that light of Christ in heart… wasn’t going to be hidden away.

And she looked for that same spark in others…and she found it in the friends she made at the Senior Center…and playing multiple Bingo cards at the Knights of Columbus.

Her search for those other lights of Christ is how she ultimately ended up at St. Barnabas…a community that immediately embraced her…and as she told me so many times,

“They made me feel like family.”

The Gospel lesson Guy and Jody picked from John reminds us that in the House of God there are many dwelling places.

So don’t let your hearts be troubled.

This is Jesus’ way of saying to all of us that there’s plenty of room for each and every one of us.

That’s especially true for those who have sometimes felt out of place… or have had to endure more than their share of learning in the school of hard knocks.

In the Father’s house…

on that mountaintop…

in our immortality…

there is a place.

For the dancer.

For the singer.

For the helpers.

For those who whistle when they work and play.

For the hard-nosed and the soft-touch.

For the determined and the doubtful.

For the good-humored and those who need to laugh a little more.

There is a place for every single one of us…

And in that place… there is rich food and fine wine.

And we can begin to experience just a taste of it as Sally did:

By living into…and dining on the sampler platter... right now.

Smiling and enjoying life right now.

Loving each other a little more right now.

Keeping our light shining bright no matter what storms come that try to blow it out.

Jesus showed Sally the way… the truth and the life… and she lived it large for us… and has now taken her seat at the head of the heavenly banquet table.

The best way we can honor that feisty Sicilian life is by putting more of our light and love back into the world.

And feasting at this banquet we call “life.”

Mangia! Mangia!


Sunday, January 15, 2023

What Are You Looking For? A Sermon for 2 Epiphany Year A

It felt as if there were several directions I could have gone with this sermon. But the line "What are you looking for?" wouldn't leave me alone. And, just to make it a little more fun, I did a demonstration of the way I generally walk into a room...look around cluelessly... until the question "What are you looking for?" from Isabelle. 

It also opened some room to talk about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on this, what would have been his 94th birthday. 

Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7; Ps.40: 1-12; John 1: 29-42


Prayer: God be in our heads, God be in our hearts, God be on our lips, and may God’s Word be heard. Amen.

“What are you looking for?”

If your households are anything like mine, this is one of the most common questions getting asked.

And it usually looks something like this… (demonstrate walking around, puzzled, looking high and low)

Typically…what are we looking for?



Am I right?


“What are you looking for?”

In John’s Gospel… these are the first words we hear Jesus speak.

Prior to this…we have that beautiful prologue…where John does a remix of the opening lines of Genesis to tell the story of the Word made Flesh coming into the world and dwelling among us.

Now we have John’s version of what happened at the River Jordan with Jesus’ baptism.

These past couple weeks…we’ve heard Matthew’s telling of the story. We’ve seen John the Baptist out there on the river bank...first as a firebrand screaming at the Sadducees and Pharisees and then as a somewhat confused but compliant participant in Jesus’ baptism. 

Today… John the Baptist recounts what he saw as he brought Jesus up out of the water.

He tells his disciples, “I didn’t know this one, but God had told me that I was going to know who is the one when I see the Holy Spirit descend and remain with him. And then…wouldn’t you know?!… it happened! The Holy Spirit descended like a dove and remained over this guy. He’s it! He’s the Lamb of God! This is the one I’ve been telling y’all was coming!”

John is basically telling his followers, “Go on! I’ve done my part. You must now go after Jesus!”

We’re seeing a passing of the torch. John the Baptist knows that it’s time for him to step back and give way to Jesus to be the leader.

And so, John’s disciples…including Andrew and Peter…go off to follow Jesus.

And Jesus… realizing that he’s suddenly picked up some traveling companions… turns to them and—in good Rabbinic fashion—asks a question:

“What are you looking for?”

Interestingly…what the disciples do is to ask another question:

“Rabbi, where are you staying?”

And Jesus…again doesn’t give them a direct answer…but instead gives them the invitation

“Come and see.”

It’s a very curious exchange…

What the heck are they looking for?

We might get a clue if we go behind our English translation and check the Greek translation of these lines.

In the Greek… the verb John the Baptist uses to describe the Holy Spirit’s descent and “remaining with” Jesus is the verb “meno.”

“Meno” can mean remain, to stay, to be present with.

So when the disciples ask where Jesus is staying… the verb used again is “meno.”

Meno can also mean “abide”

So it will be the verb of choice much later in John’s Gospel as Jesus tells his disciples to be like the branches on the vine and “abide” in him.

By abiding in him… those branches will bear much fruit.

What is it about this one… this person in whom the Holy Spirit abides… remains… meno?

Do they follow after him just because John the Baptist says so?

My guess is that for Andrew and Peter… and maybe for you and certainly for me… what pulls us in and makes us want to seek out Jesus cannot necessarily be put into words.

Mostly because words sometimes feel empty or inadequate.

There’s something about Jesus… the way he lives and moves and his being… that is attractive.

Maybe it’s because his life and mission is one that speaks to integrity.

His is a life that we can see is closely tied to the servant song we heard this morning in Isaiah.

Just like the servant… Jesus’ life is a response to that call to bring light to the nations and empower and lift up those who have been despised and abhorred.

It’s a life and mission that has motivated and provided comfort and strength to so many who have dared to take a stand for the have-nots in the face of the powerful haves of the world.

This weekend… our nation honors the life and struggle of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior.

Every school child in the United States by now has learned something about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Many will quote Dr. King’s words from his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

But many of those same people will have little clue that Dr. King… the Reverend Dr. King… employed a rhetorical device in that speech derived from the source of his strength: Jesus.

King’s beautiful oratory about a dream where all people… white men and black men…Jews and Gentiles… Protestants and Catholics… could proclaim the words “free at last” has its foundation in the Gospel.

We’ll be hearing in a few weeks the teachings of Jesus as he delivered his Sermon on the Mount.

Dr. King patterned his “I Have a Dream” address on those words.

That became clear to me when I was in a philosophy class in college.

Our professor had assigned us to read King’s speech and then look at the Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew.

Jesus recognizes the wrongs done against the people of God… the indignities and the oppression of the Roman Empire.

But he also redirects that hurt and anger toward a resolve to remain steadfast in Love.

King’s speech also acknowledges the promises that the nation had made to African Americans that were unfulfilled.

But like Jesus… he encouraged holding the nation accountable through Love not violence.

As Dr. King said in that speech, “Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

King placed his trust in the Lamb of God.

King’s dream was in line with God’s dream.

And during the times when Dr. King was sometimes at his greatest doubt about his ministry of social justice… it was that deep-seated faith in him that kept him going… kept him marching… kept him praying for a day when we would all finally see each other as the beloved children of God that we are.

His dream…which is God’s dream… hasn’t been realized yet.

But it’s also not lost.

“What are you looking for?”

Perhaps on this weekend we should consider that question.

Are we looking for a champion for goodness?

For justice?

For righteousness?

Are we looking for a spiritual guide?

For peace?

It’s tempting to answer that question right away.

I encourage us to pay attention to the words of the psalmist and wait patiently on that question.

Take the bulletin insert home if you’re so moved… and pay attention to the readings during these next several weeks during  this “After The Epiphany” period.  

Consider what it is that we might be looking for from Jesus…from the church… and from ourselves.

Let that question linger…and see where it leads.

What are you looking for?

Come and see what is this next step in this journey with God.

In the name of God…F/S/HS.