Author Archives: RenewalWorks Admin

Monday Matters (October 15, 2018)

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Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
-Teresa of Avila
 
 
Matthew 5:13-16  
(A reading chosen for St. Teresa’s feast day)
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Discipleship Matters

I’m excited about this day, as I head for a conference we’ve been planning for almost a year. It will be held at Christ Church in Charlotte, a lively and faithful congregation. The conference is called Discipleship Matters. We’re gathering folks to explore what we talk about each Monday in these emails. What does it mean to be a disciple these days? How can we do that with authenticity and generosity of spirit? How can we do that when it’s difficult or perplexing?

We can answer those questions by learning from folks who seem to have figured out something about discipleship. As the Holy Spirit would have it, today is also the day in which the church remembers the life and ministry and witness of Teresa of Avila, saint of the 16th century. Her quotable quotes reach across the generations with wit and wisdom that has nourished me along the way.

Here’s one of my favorite stories. Teresa would go from town to town in her ministry. On one of her journeys, the wheel fell off the cart in which she was riding. She was thrown from the cart and landed in a mud puddle by the side of the road, at which point she shook her fist at heaven, and said in unfiltered prayer: “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends it’s no wonder you have so few of them.”

I might nominate her as matron saint of cartoonists, as she prayed: “God save us from gloomy saints.”

She models the power of honesty in prayer, when so often we feel like we have to be polite in addressing the Almighty, as if God can’t handle the truth. One of my favorites: “O God I don’t love you. I don’t want to love you, but I want to want to love you.”

She spoke of prayer as nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God. That’s a wondrous way to describe discipleship.

At one particularly challenging passage in the life of our family, when uncertainty and anxiety were strong, we posted one of her prayers by our door: “Let nothing disturb you, Let nothing frighten you, All things are passing away: God never changes. Patience obtains all things. Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.” Teresa ministered to us across the centuries.

And she presented a great vision for discipleship, one that elevates expectations, offers challenge, and suggests the great privilege that Christ uses us as his presence in the world. The vision is printed above, and it invites us to think about discipleship as a way of doing Christ’s work in the world, work that needs to be done.

I invite you to join the conversation taking place in Charlotte over the next few days, wherever you may be, by thinking about why discipleship matters (join us online if you can’t be here in person). Why does it matter to you? Please pray for this conference. Pray that we might get new insights into what it means to be a disciple. And take the feast day of St. Teresa as an opportunity to let her teach about discipleship, as you pray with her wit and wisdom, her honesty and hope.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (October 8, 2018)

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 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
-John 12:21

The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside our Church: The
Eucharist
-Mary Oliver

Something has happened to the bread and the wine
They have been blessed. What now?
The body leans forward to receive the gift from the priest’s hand,
Then the chalice
They are something else now from what they were before this began.
I want to see Jesus
Maybe in the clouds or on the shore,
Just walking
Beautiful man and clearly someone else besides.
On the hard days I ask myself if ever will.
Also there are times my body whispers to me
That I have.

One more church sign that was just sent to me yesterday:

America, the donkey and the elephant won’t help. We must turn back to the lamb.

More on Church Signs

Amid the changes and chances of life, I’m grateful for this example of constancy in my journey. It is the ongoing ministry of friends who send me photos of church signs, spotted in travels around the country. It’s a ministry to be encouraged. It’s a ministry open to all. It began as sort of a hobby, when I saw a church sign posted on a trailer, with movable letters like those on movie marquees, bearing this Easter message: The Lord is risen. No Bingo.

Last week, another seasonal greeting came to me by way of an observant friend. The sign read: Fall for Jesus. He never leaves. Earlier this year, I received a collection of photos of church signs that included this timely message: Tweet others as you would like to be tweeted. Another read: Forgive your enemies. It messes with their heads.

On a recent drive through eastern North Carolina, directed to back roads through small towns because interstates were flooded, I drove by a church sign which read: Jesus is alive. Come into our church to meet him. On the road, I had time to think about that sign, and the ways I would rephrase it. I wasn’t sold on the message.

The fact is: Jesus may or may not be met in church. He may or may not be encountered among really religious people. In fact, in olden days and in current times, the most religious people may provide the greatest obstacle to faith.

The fact is: Jesus cannot be contained in religious space. He spent relatively small amount of time in the temple. When he was there, he had a tendency to rearrange the furniture. That didn’t go over well.

The fact is: Jesus was more likely to be met on the road, out in the desert, at weddings and parties, at a pub, at places he wasn’t supposed to be, with people he shouldn’t be talking to.

Tempted as I was, I didn’t tamper with that church sign. I have too much spiritual work to do on my own life and my own community before I start trying to fix some other church. But that sign, for all its goofy, errant theology, made me think about where it is I would go to meet Jesus.

He is met in scripture. He is met in the bread and wine of the eucharist. He is met in preaching, though I do have a friend who was told as a new rector that she mentioned the name Jesus too often in her sermons. She was told that Episcopalians don’t do that. (Try telling that to Michael Curry!)

In several churches I know, there’s a plaque on the pulpit for just the preacher to see. It reads: We would see Jesus, a citation from the gospel of John noted above . It’s a great aspiration for a sermon for sure. But it’s also a great aspiration for our lives outside of church. What would it mean to focus on that goal this week?

You may well meet Jesus in church. It has been known to happen. But it’s just one of many places for that kind of encounter. In our baptism, we say we will seek Christ in all persons. The implication is that everyone provides an opportunity for that to occur. Matthew 25 tells us that much to our surprise, we can meet Jesus in ministry to the hungry, the imprisoned, those who lack clothing, those who lack health. Too often those people never make it into our churches.

Be ready to meet Jesus this week, wherever that might happen. He shows up in a lot of places.

-Jay Sidebotham

Today is the LAST DAY to register for the  Discipleship Matters Conference

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Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (October 1, 2018)

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 Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.           -I Peter 3:15

 
From the Book of Common Prayer:
 
What is the mission of the Church?
The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
 
How does the Church pursue its mission?
The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel and promotes justice, peace and love.
 
Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.
 
 
Ephesians 2:19-22
 
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
 
 
A prayer for the church:
 
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that
wonderful and sacred mystery, by the working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation: Let the whole world see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new; and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The wisdom of the whys

At the beginning of his book entitled Shaped by the Bible, Will Willimon (at the time chaplain at Duke University) recounts a conversation with a neighbor, a mathematician who approached with a problem she couldn’t figure out. It had to do with church. While the professor said she wasn’t opposed to church, she said her preacher had urged members of the congregation to invite people to church. The professor wanted to know: Why would I invite someone to be part of this?

She went on to note that the church may be caring, but so is the Rotary Club. She added that the Rotary Club met at a more convenient time, and the folks were often nicer. She offered that the Durham Bulls, local baseball team, had done more to bring black and white people together than any church had ever thought about. “Saturday evening at the Durham Bulls is more racially inclusive than a Sunday in any church in town.” So she asked why? Why invite someone to be part of church?

The questions posed to Will Willimon came to mind last week as I facilitated a clergy conference where we talked about the joys and challenges of our work in the times in which we live. One priest named Debbie noted that she had been working with leaders of a small church who were looking for a new priest. Debbie asked the leaders about their hopes and dreams. The answer that came back: We want to grow. Debbie asked: Why do you want to grow?

The folks responded: So that the church will be here for the next generation. Debbie asked: Why is it important that the church be here for the next generation?

The folk responded with comments about the need for pledging units, the sense of friendship among congregants, the beauty of the worship space which should be preserved. Debbie asked: Is there something about the ministry and mission of this church in this location that you think is important? I paraphrase: Why does this place matter? Church members weren’t sure.

She then asked them to tell her what difference their relationship with Jesus and their worship of God in that place was making in their lives and in the lives of their family. They didn’t have a ready answer.

I’ve been thinking of her comments, linked with the neighbor’s comments to Will Willimon. Why would I invite someone to be part of this thing we call church? What difference is it making in my life? What difference is it making in the lives of congregants? What difference is it making in the world?

Answers abound, in great variety. As we work here on the coast to clean up after the storm, I see churches taking the lead in remarkable ways. All year long, I find people are meeting Jesus with his loving, liberating, life-giving power, bringing healing and grace and forgiveness in a world where those are in short supply. We all need a place to know grace. Our world needs a place that shows grace.

All of which is to say: There are good and holy answers to the whys. But there are also some answers that are not compelling. Too often our institutions default to those.

Above, I’ve included notes from scripture and our Prayer Book that provide wisdom of the whys. Take time this week to think about how you might answer questions raised this morning. I’ll do the same thing. If you want to share answers, I’ll compile them in a future Monday message. Every now and then, it’s good to ask why.

-Jay Sidebotham

I want to express my gratitude to the Rev. Debbie Apoldo, Church of the Advent, Spartanburg, SC, for helping me think about the whys.

This is the final week to register for the  Discipleship Matters Conference

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Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (September 24, 2018)

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 Acts 2:43-47

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
 
 
Romans 12
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Community

As we are cleaning up after the hurricane, we sought wisdom of staff at Episcopal Relief and Development, a wonderful organization that has deep experience in response to all kinds of disaster, nearby and far away. (Note: If you want to make a donation to a faithful, well-run organization, I recommend them unreservedly.)

The wise staff person leading the call shared that after a disaster like this hurricane, people need the CIA. Not the Central Intelligence Agency. Not the Culinary Institute of America. The three things people need? Community. Information. Agency.

As it turns out, yesterday I was asked to lead a class at church on words of faith that guide us in the spiritual journey. The word I was assigned? Community. Surrounded by the effects of the storm, we discussed the importance of community. I’ve been privileged to see that community at work over the past week. Groups of folks walking around the neighborhood to clear the road of trees. An elderly retired gentleman delivering hot coffee door to door. Scores of folks coming together to cook meals with World Central Kitchen, serving tens of thousands of meals. (Google that organization to see the amazing work they’ve done here and elsewhere.) Churches organizing to offer whatever they could. Folks in our neck of the woods have been given the chance to see what community means. I have been inspired in a season when inspiration about our common life can be rare.

Ever since the Garden of Eden when the Lord God said that it was not good for a person to be alone, the biblical call to community has been strong. From one lone wandering Aramean named Abraham, God formed a people. The first Christians met together, sharing what they had, meeting weekly for worship. St. Paul spoke about what community looked like, most frequently describing the church as the body of Christ, his hands and feet, with different parts coming together, sometimes in greater harmony than others. Which leads me to note that community is not always easy.

Fact is, the community to which we are called as people of faith is not a club, although there may be wonderful social dimensions. It’s not a gaggle of friends, or a society of agreement. Which means community life is no breeze. Parker Palmer said: Community is that place where the person you least want to live with always lives. He echoes the wisdom of St. Benedict, who organized Christian communities under his monastic rule and noted that if one of the monks is really irritating, don’t kick him out, because the one who replaces him may well be worse.

Church as community, at its best, offers a test of the baptismal claim that Christ can be found in each person. We learn that Christ may come well disguised. The church offers a lab for discovering whether we can live into the command to love neighbor. It tests us to move beyond the adage: I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand. In an increasingly polarized world, where many retreat to gated communities, and TV’s are set to channels that ratify pre-existing ideas, the church gives us a chance to put Jesus’ challenge to love neighbor as self on trial.

Even this introvert has come to believe we can’t be a person of faith, a disciple of Jesus alone. We’re called to community. It sustains us. And it can heal the world. So when the storms of life come sweeping over us, community can be the rock onto which we hold. Give thanks for life in community, even for the annoying people God puts in our way. Bring yourself to community. Invite others in. Ask yourself what you can do this week to strengthen community. In times like this, we need it bad.

-Jay Sidebotham

 

There’s still time to register for the Discipleship Matters Conference

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Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (September 17, 2018)

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 Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Monday, September 17, 2018

I suspect we each have memories that surface upon the anniversary of the 9/11/2001 attacks. For me, there are recollections from that time when I served at a church in Manhattan. I think of the numerous memorial services we conducted throughout the fall, services held not only at our church but in corporate conference rooms and fire houses.

There were services for Episcopalians. There were interfaith services. There were services for really religious people. There were services for a crowd of mixed traditions and theologies. There were services for people with no religious affiliation at all. There were services requested by grieving spouses. There were services commissioned by CEO’s for lost employees. In the face of an unprecedented demand for religious services of one kind or another, not knowing entirely how to find words, I remember that we turned again and again to Psalm 46, (above)

Last week, I was not only led to remember those months in Manhattan. We also spent the week awaiting Hurricane Florence here in North Carolina. I wrote this post in advance not sure of what Monday, September 17, would be like. And I had some time to write last week. I’ve heard it said that waiting for a hurricane is like being stalked by a turtle.

I confess that last week, I spent a sleepless night or two, imagining worrisome scenarios about this hurricane, probably not the most edifying thing to do. And then Psalm 46 came to mind. It had offered me comfort in the wake of terrorism exploding in my hometown. It had offered comfort in 2008 when the wheels seemed to come off the financial system. It had offered me comfort in countless pastoral situations, when it would have been easy to believe God was absent, or on vacation, or distracted, or dead. And it offered comfort as dire scenarios about this hurricane raced through my head in the wee hours of the morning.

I don’t remember many sermons, including my own, but a fine preacher I know offered a sermon after a natural disaster. In this case, the precipitating event was the tsunamis that caused devastation in South East Asia over ten years ago. She spoke of our need to be responsive to the thousands who experience these kinds of catastrophes wherever they happen around the globe. (That’s why I’m so grateful of the ministry of Episcopal Relief and Development.) She also brought it home by reminding us (as if we needed reminding) that probably each one of our lives is marked by personal tsunamis.

So wherever you are, whatever storms you have weathered, whatever storms loom, hear the ancient words of the psalmist: Be still and know that I am God. Hear the words of Jesus who in the face of tempest said: Peace, be still. Hear him speak that peace into your heart, allowing you to withstand even if you can’t always understand.

-Jay Sidebotham

 

There’s still time to register for the Discipleship Matters Conference

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Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (September 10, 2018)

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The deeds you do may be the only sermon some persons will hear today.
-St. Francis of Assisi
 
 
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector 
(Luke 18:9-14)
 
Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

None-sense

An article in the Wall Street Journal last week focused on the “nones,” that growing group of folks who declare no religious affiliation, one of the fastest growing religious groups in our country. Apparently, there are efforts in this election season to harness the political power of the nones. The article highlighted the challenges of coordinating folks who are united by what they don’t believe, who define themselves by what they are not.

In the Episcopal Church, the stream in which I swim, one can find a lot of energy around how we define ourselves in comparison to others. We are not like those fundamentalists. We are different from Roman Catholics. We are not bleeding heart liberals. We are not reactionary conservatives.

Our denomination has no corner on that way of thinking. I knew one family who never set foot in church. They introduced themselves this way: “We are not the kind of people who say grace before meals.” The list could go on: We are not the kind of people who raise their hands in worship or sing praise music. We are not the kind of people who find spiritual nourishment in Anglican chant. We’re not like those people who insist on tithing or use the name Jesus every ten seconds or believe in salvation by historical critical method or believe in salvation by good taste. We’re better than all of that.

As I travel around the church and talk with people about their own spiritual commitments, I’m struck with how often we define ourselves defensively, perhaps reactively. I’m sensing that has limits as an organizing principle. As we work with congregations and pose questions about beliefs and practices, I often hear people say: “I can’t answer your question because that’s not my language.” When they say that, I channel the wisdom of one of my mentors who asked in response: “If that’s not your language, what is your language?”

For many of us, that’s a real question. Like any good question, it’s not new. Jesus told a parable, printed above, in which the Pharisee stands in the front pew and says: “Thank God I’m not like that low-life tax collector!” The tax collector kneeling in the back prays with self-awareness, knowing who God is, knowing who he is, and knowing how he needs to grow.

So ask yourself this week: What is the language I use to talk about what is important to me spiritually? You may well find an easy answer in comparing yourself to someone else. There’s some value in that. But go further and identify in your own mind the beliefs and practices that matter to you, where you give your heart and mind, and how that goes to work in your life. What will you affirm? What will you stand for?

I didn’t get to preach yesterday, so let me weigh in on one way to do that in particular, an insight from the Letter of James, that practical book which talks about faith at work, a book we’re exploring on Sundays. In yesterday’s passage, the writer challenges church members for favoring rich folks. (I know that never happens in church these days.) The writer says: Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? The point I want to make here is that the actions reveal belief. The actions convey the creed. The actions speak louder than words. For better or worse, the actions say what the person believes.

As you think about how you state your faith in positive terms, and not solely in reactivity, think as well about how your life conveys your creed, more specifically, how your life reveals in positive terms where you give your heart, how you stand for love.

-Jay Sidebotham

P.S. There’s still time to register for the Discipleship Matters Conference

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Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (September 3, 2018)

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The collect for Labor Day:

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A selection from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6), chosen for the observance of Labor Day:

Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Other readings suggested to help observe Labor Day:

Ecclesiasticus 38:27-32a
Psalm 107:1-9
Psalm 90
I Corinthians 3:10-14
Matthew 6:19-24

Here’s hoping you’re enjoying this Labor Day holiday, last gasp of summer.

It’s one of the few national holidays that has woven its way into the church calendar, along with Independence Day and Thanksgiving. There are prayers and scriptures chosen for Labor Day (cited above). Among those readings, we find a selection from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus teaches his disciples about what it means to put faith to work in the world. That selection invites us to consider the sacred quality of our varied vocations.

The passage challenges listeners to think about what they are working for, where they are devoting their efforts, where they are giving their hearts. It includes this line that always comes to me as huge, often unsettling, occasionally annoying challenge. Jesus says: Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

It causes me to think about where I am giving my heart, not a bad question for Labor Day. It’s not always an easy one to answer, because in my ADHD spirituality, I’ve got a number of treasures I’m pursuing all at once, some pulling in opposite directions. The fact of the matter is, my heart is not in one place. In our service of Holy Eucharist, we pray for gladness and singleness of heart. I’m guessing the reason we pray for such is because I (we) haven’t quite gotten there yet. Kierkegaard said that purity of heart is to will one thing. Let me repeat: I haven’t gotten there yet. How about you?

A few centuries after Jesus offered his teaching, a desert father offered this equally rigorous challenge, a variation on the theme our Lord and Teacher struck in the Sermon on the Mount. Abba Poemem wrote: Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart. Again, it calls us to think about where we are giving our hearts, and to ponder and puzzle over pursuits that we know or at least suspect won’t satisfy our hearts. Think of those pursuits as spiritual junk-food. Delightfully delicious in the moment (I’m talking cool ranch Doritos) but hardly sustaining, marginally nourishing.

I can see why this passage is selected for Labor Day, as we are asked to reflect on the work we do, whether we get paid for it or not. The passage raises questions not only appropriate for the holiday. They are good questions to explore as we launch into the academic year, a new program year for many churches and schools and organizations. September has something of the feeling of new year, beckoning resolutions and intentions for the next chapter in the journey. It’s not a bad time to embrace Jesus’ question: Where are we giving our hearts? Where is our treasure? Do we give our hearts to that which will not satisfy our hearts?

Perhaps it’s a lifelong journey to arrive at purity of heart, to will one thing. Perhaps we won’t experience that until we reach the other side. But perhaps we can take a step to think about where our treasure lies, about where we are giving our heart.

With that in mind, reflect on this prayer about the work we are given to do, offered this Labor Day but good for just about any day:

This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (August 27, 2018)

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Some of the greatest hits of the Book of Job:

Job 1:21
He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job 5:7
Human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward.

Job 5:9-13
God does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number. God gives rain on the earth and sends waters on the fields; God sets on high those who are lowly, and those who mourn are lifted to safety. God frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands achieve no success. God takes the wise in their own craftiness; and the schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end.

Job 19:25-26
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.

Job 23:10
But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold.

Job 38:1ff
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.

Job 40:1-5
And the Lord said to Job: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.” Then Job answered the Lord: “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.”

If I were to say, “You must feel like Ezra, Nehemiah or Ezekiel,” I’m betting most folks would have little idea what I meant, no idea who these biblical characters were. But I’ve discovered over the years, in all kinds of situations, that if I say: “You must feel like Job,” people know exactly what I’m talking about.

Biblical literacy may be sliding in our culture, but Job remains a character with whom many people identify. Even if we don’t know all the particulars of Job’s story, the challenge of why bad things happen to good people surrounds us, whether we’re watching the news or hearing the stories of neighbors or listening to those sitting across from us at the dining room table or reflecting on our own lives.

Alfred Lord Tennyson described the Book of Job, the 19th book of the Bible, as the greatest poem of ancient or modern times. We’re reading it these days in the Daily Lectionary found in the Book of Common Prayer. (If you want to hear some of it, find a local church offering Morning Prayer on a daily basis.) The book is bracketed by brief narrative passages describing how Job got into his predicament and then how he got out of it. But in the middle, the guts of the book, we find poetry that so moved Tennyson and others, conversations between Job and friends, then conversations between Job and God.

The three friends go down in biblical history as profiles in discourage. They start out okay, sitting in silence for seven days with their beleaguered friend, a commendable ministry of presence. But after a while they can’t take the silence any more. They open their big mouths, which often gets us in trouble. They offer advice and explanations. “Your suffering is your fault.” “Your suffering is your children’s fault.” “You should have done something different.” These friends reveal the difficulties we have when we encounter suffering. We wish to make sense of it all. We nervously want to find an explanation. Basically, we talk too much.

I’ve been helped in reflection on the mystery of suffering by a teacher, J. Christiann Beker who wrote a short book entitled Suffering and Hope: The Biblical Vision and the Human Predicament. Dr. Beker, a theologian and biblical scholar, wrote from the perspective of his time in a slave camp in Holland during World War II. He claims no tidy answers to ancient questions. He notes that the Bible speaks in varied voices on the problem of evil. Sometimes suffering can be explained. Sometimes not. Sometimes it’s the result of human activity. Sometimes it can be redemptive. Often, it is simply mystery. In all of it, Beker affirms that, in the end, love wins. Hence the hope. It’s a call to faithfulness when life makes little sense. Have you ever needed to answer that call?

I’ve been told that in the face of inexplicable suffering, we’re called to withstand when we can’t understand. We’re called to proclaim when we can’t explain. Our withstanding proclamation can best be summed up for me in the language of Paul’s letter to the Romans: Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Another mentor offers this slightly gloomy assessment: Suffering is the promise life keeps. In a culture that seeks to numb us to the effects of pain, to put it at a distance, to rationalize it, our faith calls us to face the rigorous truth that pain comes to each of us, and that God is present with us in that challenge.

As our church reads these days from the Book of Job, grapple with the notion that God is present with us in the suffering we face. Can you believe that? See if you can hold on to the promise that love wins. And if you have a friend who is suffering in some way, great or small, you don’t need to say a lot. But it sure would be great if you could show up.

-Jay Sidebotham

P.S. The Early Bird discount to register for the Discipleship Matters Conference expires on Aug 31st!  Register now and join us for an enlightening conversation about discipleship and spiritual growth

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Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

 

 

Monday Matters (August 20, 2018)

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O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: because his mercy endureth for ever.
Let Israel now say, that his mercy endureth for ever.
Let the house of Aaron now say, that his mercy endureth for ever.
Let them now that fear the Lord say, that his mercy endureth for ever.
-Psalm 118:1-4

Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God: for it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice and mediocrity and materialism and selfishness that have chilled his faith.
-Thomas Merton

I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.
-Mahatma Gandhi, after being refused entrance to a church in Calcutta because he was not from preferred caste

Lord Have Mercy

The prayer of 4th century St. Chrysostom concludes the service of Morning Prayer. It’s a beautiful statement of the power of prayer, written by someone revered by our church. But just about every time I say it, I’m reminded of the fact that the author of this prayer also wrote homilies attacking the Jewish community, sermons brimming with his day’s version of anti-semitism.

Episcopalians owe a great debt to Martin Luther, who inspired Thomas Cranmer as Cranmer assembled the Book of Common Prayer. Luther launched a much-needed reformation in the church and left a legacy of focus on God’s unconditional love, salvation not by our efforts but by the prevenient grace of God. But he also wrote hateful rants against his Jewish neighbors, vile material that often come to mind when I hear “A mighty fortress is our God.”

I was raised in a church with people steeped in scripture, people with deep prayer life. Yet as I reflect on my long life, among my vivid memories are numerous explicitly racist comments and attitudes from those same folks.

One of my earliest memories of Junior High Sunday School is a newsletter from some Christian publishing group that included an article by J. Edgar Hoover excoriating Martin Luther King, claiming he was a communist. I was young but I knew something was out of whack.

All of this came to mind as I shared the tears of a news commentator as the grand jury released results of its investigation into the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania. It described the abuse of more than a thousand children. I wonder how you reacted to the news. Was it news?

I learned recently that a pastor I admire resigned after accusations of sexual misconduct, inappropriate behavior in the sacred workplace. The Me-Too movement came to a church that taught me a lot.

All of it could be enough to make this priest a none (i.e., one of those folks in our culture who claim no religious affiliation). On any given day, we could find reason to make that move. All of it makes me realize that if we’re not outraged, we’re not paying attention. All of it calls into question the power of our faith. Is it as transformative as we say?

Of course, we can fall back on Luther’s line that we are saints and sinners at the same time. And I don’t mean to cast stones. We Episcopalians have built our own glass houses. I feel pretty certain that my foibles are probably neither newsworthy nor remarkable, but let me assure you they are there in full force. I know the dark places in my own heart where one could find racism, jealousy, judgmentalism, hypocrisy, indifference, resentment, schadenfreude, hankering for revenge. We need not go into detail. I generally keep them pretty well hidden. Let’s just say I’ve got a lot of spiritual work to do.

That is part of what draws me to St. Paul, and the letter he wrote to the Romans, where he said that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. He meant all, including and perhaps especially the most religious people of his day. Maybe he was preaching to himself. I also sense that he realized that there’s not that much difference between the best and the worst of us. What St. Paul knew, as he called himself the chief of sinners, is that the mercy of God is bigger than any of our shortcomings. The mercy of God binds the human community. Again, it includes all. It makes me realize why Jesus might have felt that the notorious sinners had more open ears to his message than did the really religious people of his day.

So what keeps me from becoming a none? I still believe that the church at its best can be an instrument to speak of mercy in a world that needs to hear that word. In the meantime, it’s a call to any of us who consider ourselves spiritual or religious to surrender any sense that we’re better than anybody else. And to cling with confidence to the one who modeled sinlessness. And to hold on to the hope that he will carry us to that day when we shall be where we would be, when we shall be what we should be, things that are not now nor could be then shall be our own.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (August 13, 2018)

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Offer these prayers each day this week. They have both been set to music, so feel free to sing along:

I am weak but Thou art strong; Jesus, keep me from all wrong;
I’ll be satisfied as long, As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.

Refrain:
Just a closer walk with Thee, Grant it, Jesus, is my plea,
Daily walking close to Thee, Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

Thro’ this world of toil and snares,
If I falter, Lord, who cares? Who with me my burden shares?
None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee.

When my feeble life is o’er, Time for me will be no more; Guide me gently, safely o’er
To Thy kingdom shore, to Thy shore.

Day by day, day by day, O, dear Lord, three things I pray:
to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly,
follow thee more nearly, day by day.

The prayer of
St. Richard of Chichester

Finding the center

Monday, August 13, 2018

Just a closer walk with thee

Last week, my attention was directed to a Pew Research report, dated August 1. It explored why Americans do or don’t go to religious services. It’s timely material for any of us in mainline denominations who note dramatic decline in membership. Gatherings of clergy often brim with anxiety about these trends, without a clear understanding of how to respond. Over the years, my own response has involved streamlining services, trying to be more contemporary, working on extravagant welcome, providing free parking, serving really good coffee. I wish I’d known about this research.

The Pew research report put it this way. More than any other reason, people say that they attend religious services in order to get closer to God. A majority report that when they attend services, they do indeed experience that greater closeness.

I want to hold that report along side another bit of research, a Gallup poll published last April, which asked what people wanted when they came to church. A quote from that report: “What was the top reason people gave for why they attended worship? Music? Volunteer opportunities? Nope. The top response was sermons. “Sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture” and “Sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life” were nearly tied at 76% and 75% respectively.” People want to grow in their relationship with God. Duh.

I’ve participated in church services, indeed I’ve presided at church services that made me feel closer to God. I will also confess that I’ve participated in and presided at services that I suspect made God feel more distant, for me and others. Sometimes we just bore people.

So think this week about what it might mean to be closer to God. What does that look like? When in your life have you made movement towards that closer relationship with God? What caused that to happen? Was church part of that experience?

I don’t have the street cred of Pew Research, but here’s my own anecdotal reporting after talking with a lot of Episcopalians. The most common answer that I get for what drew people closer to God was some experience of suffering or crisis. In those times, people turned to the community for support and guidance, peace and prayers, teaching of ancient wisdom.

Ironically, when I ask what caused God to feel more distant, I could get the same answer. Suffering or crisis. I served in Manhattan in 2001. We noted an uptick in attendance after 9/11, a sign that people were looking to get closer to the Holy One in the midst of things beyond understanding. As parish priest, aware of who showed up on Sundays, I also noticed a number of people who stopped coming to church because their loss felt too great.

To move closer to God means to know God better. It’s about relationship. When the church is living into its vocation, doing what it is called to do, being what it is called to be, it provides pathways for this kind of spiritual growth, this kind of connection. The church can also get in the way. I’m personally wrestling right now with the ways that church leaders (including yours truly) fall short, leaders who disappoint, leaders who get in the way of spiritual growth.

So perhaps in spite of the foibles of clergy (again, yours truly included), we are called to focus on what helps people grow closer to God. Take this week to imagine what that might be for you. Ask God to show you what a next step might look like. Then dare to take that step.

-Jay Sidebotham

Here are links to the two research reports cited in this column:

Why Americans Go (and Don’t Go) to Religious Services

www.episcopalcafe.com/why-people-go-to-church/

 

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Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org