Category Archives: Uncategorized

Monday Matters (July 23, 2018)

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The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
Mark 6

Rest a while

A recent poll indicated that nearly half (47%) of parents say that they share fewer meals with their family than when they were growing up. 43% say that they have fewer family meals now than they did five years ago. 57% of parents say that when they do eat a meal together, family members are distracted by technology. I suspect we’ve all been at a restaurant and looked over at another table to see a family together, each on the phone, maybe even texting each other. Maybe that’s your family. It could be mine. (I’ve been known to send an email from my office upstairs to my wife working downstairs.)

In our work with congregations, we find that a busy schedule can be one of things that gets in the way of spiritual growth. We’ve learned that being busy with stuff at church is no guarantee of a deeper spiritual life. In fact, that kind of busy-ness can be an obstacle, an impediment, even an off-ramp.

And while there is no mention of smartphones or social media in the Bible, which is a mercy, the gospel reading we heard in church yesterday does have something to say on the subject, once again proving that scripture is a lively word.

There’s this interesting line in the reading from Mark, printed above, which says that Jesus invited the apostles to a retreat. He called them to a quiet place. Many were “coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat.” I suspect every generation thinks it’s the busiest, the most overworked, the one facing greatest schedule demands. For whatever reason, the apostles were busy being busy, with no leisure even to eat. To my mind, as someone who rarely misses a meal, that is busy. Circumstances were of course different than ours. Maybe they had no leisure to eat because they lived at subsistence level. Maybe they didn’t have leisure to eat because they were scrambling to find money to buy food.

But I’ve always taken this passage as timely. When I get all flipped out about a crowded calendar, I recall that there’s nothing new under the sun. I think of all the times Jesus goes off by himself to pray, to rest. How did he have time to do that? He had a world to save. I imagine Jesus looking at the way we live, regarding it with compassion, seeing us coming and going, as we make life choices that forfeit time to sit and (literally or figuratively) have a meal. The gospels tell us that Jesus looked on the crowd who were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. That could be us.

When I served in midtown Manhattan, at a church on a busy avenue, with as much pedestrian traffic in front of it as any church I know, I used to stand on the top steps at rush hour and watch people go by. On a good day, I’d pray for them. The words from the gospel, the description of harassed and helpless sheep without a shepherd seemed to fit that New York crowd. Sure, many were accomplished. Many were wealthy. They still looked like sheep headed in a lot of directions.

As I noted, our work on spiritual growth has indicated that the busy-ness of our lives can impede spiritual growth. People claim that they simply do not have the time to gather for worship, or to sit quietly each day, or to engage in ministries to help people in need. With work now accessible 24/7, with stores open all the time, with sports practices round the clock, we probably do need greater intention about time for retreat, reflection, stillness, peace.

I’m taken with the call of our Presiding Bishop to commit to practice the way of love. At the recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church, he invited Episcopalians to seven practices that help people move toward a life centered on Jesus. (You can learn more about this invitation and read about these practices at www.episcopalchurch.org/way-of-love.)

One of those seven ways: A call to rest. Just like Jesus’ call to come away to a deserted place and rest a while. Maybe summer is a good time for you to do that. Maybe it’s a good time to look at your calendar and consider whether you are busy being busy. Maybe you feel harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. If any of that is true, maybe you need to hear Jesus say to you: Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

Monday Matters (July 16, 2018)

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A favorite hymn text about the church: Hymn #51 in the 1982 Hymnal

We the Lord’s people,
heart and voice uniting, praise him who called us out of sin and darkness into his own light, that he might anoint us a royal priesthood.

This is the Lord’s house, home of all his people, school for the faithful, refuge for the sinner, rest for the pilgrim, haven for the weary; all find a welcome.

This is the Lord’s day, day of God’s own making, day of creation, day of resurrection,
day of the Spirit, sign of heaven’s banquet,
day for rejoicing.

In the Lord’s service
bread and wine are offered, that Christ may take them,
bless them, break and give them to all his people, his own life imparting, food everlasting.

Summer reading assignment

Ah, July in Texas. What a great idea!

Actually, it was great. I’ve just come back from a small gathering in Austin. About 1000 bishops and deputies, and a host of others like me showed up for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Our time together was marked by lots of meetings (What’s church without meetings?), lively conversations, healthy debate, shared learnings, great fellowship, joyful reunions, vats of guacamole, and compelling liturgy, including preaching by our Presiding Bishop and others. I continue to give thanks and praise to God for the ministry and witness of Michael Curry, who inspires us with the loving, life-giving and liberating message of Jesus.

All of it got me thinking about the church: What is the church really about? What is it for? Is it an institution whose time has come and gone? Does it have a future?

We should always be asking those questions. A mentor put it this way. In every generation, the church needs to ask whether it is doing and being what it is called to do and be. Statistics indicate a transitional time for the church in our culture. That makes some folks anxious or fearful. I take it as opportunity to think creatively about our call. This guiding question for me in my ministry comes from Brian McLaren: Is the church a club for the elite who pretend to have arrived or a school of disciples who are still on the way?

The vision of church as school, the belief that a synonym for disciple is student with Jesus as instructor leads me to give a summer reading assignment. For the next few Sundays, our lectionary will offer selections from the New Testament letter to the Ephesians. It has become one of my favorite books, as it speaks of the mystery, marvel, miracle of the church. It speaks of blessing, inheritance, hope and call. Mostly it speaks of grace and how we respond to it.

Take this summer to read, mark, learn, inwardly digest what this letter has to say about the church, and your place in it. I believe the whole letter can be summed up in these few verses,

Ephesians 2:8-10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

These verses tell us that it begins with God’s grace, that our place in the community is not a reflection of our spectacular religious achievement, but is the outgrowth of original blessing. Our life in the church only makes sense as we see that all is gift. How would this week shift if you carried with you this notion of amazing grace?

It goes on to say that we are given gifts for a purpose. We are God’s workmanship, the result of God’s creativity, created for good works. How would your week shift if in whatever you do, you recall that you are God’s creative work, intended for expressions of gratitude and generosity, the response to grace?

It goes on to say that God has called us to a new way of life. God has prepared a way for us, good works in which we are meant to walk. How would your week shift if you woke each morning and asked God to show you clearly the path God would wish you to walk?

There will be no written book report on your summer reading (although if you want to send your comments to me, I’d love to see them). Rather the report will be your life, as people see your good works and give glory to God in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

-Jay Sidebotham

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

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

Monday Matters (July 9, 2018)

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Proverbs 11:17

Those who are kind reward themselves, but the cruel do themselves harm.

Luke 6:35,36
Jesus said: But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Colossians 3:12
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

I Corinthians 13:4
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant.

And then there’s this from the Dalai Lama whose birthday was last Friday:
Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.

The Courage of Kindness

I wasn’t particularly excited about seeing the movie about Mr. Rogers. A goofy comedy or something with themes Jurassic or Jedi would have interested me more. But we heard good things about the movie, and my spouse (way more spiritual evolved than I am) really wanted to see it. So I went. Good husband award.

I was surprised by how it moved me. For someone like me who overly indulges in the toxicity of 24/7 news, it provided an antidote that fed the spirit. The movie is aptly titled “Won’t you be my neighbor?” That’s something I can imagine Jesus asking.

Not that I was asked, but I could suggest an alternative title for the movie. It would be “The Courage of Kindness.” Other members of my family had apparently paid more attention to Mr. Rogers over the years. For me, the movie served as introduction. The little I had known about his show had left me unimpressed with its unpolished simplicity, its quiet, slow pace, its fairly crude production value. As Saturday Night Live demonstrated, it was easy to mock.

I hadn’t realized how brave Mr. Rogers was. He saw a need and followed his instincts to offer a show that was not in the least flashy, a show which so clearly affirmed the dignity of children, a show that took children seriously. In a gentle way, he addressed issues of racial segregation. He spoke honestly about exclusion, about family break-ups, about violence, about death. In the face of all that, he preached grace, the inherent value of each person. I left the movie impressed with the powerful courage of his kind of kind spirit. Who knew?

It made me think about how much we need the courage of kindness in our world. So I cracked open my Bible and was surprised at the number of times the virtue of kindness comes up. I listed a few references to kindness above. One in particular strikes me: Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven us. (Ephesians 4:32) I read in that a call to live life mimicking the kindness of Christ, who called the children to himself when adults were trying to silence the children or shut them out. Jesus took the children in his arms. He blessed them.

Speaking of blessings, a number of years ago, I was introduced to a blessing which I use at the conclusion of liturgies, a blessing which has spread widely. It goes like this:

Life is short and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us. So be swift to love and make haste to be kind. And God’s blessing be with you.

It’s remarkable how many people relate to this blessing. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the rigorous realism that life is short. It may also be that phrase: Make haste to be kind. We could do worse than to wake up each morning and think about how soon kindness can be demonstrated. Opportunities abound.

Our culture is experiencing a drought of kindness. The crudeness of politicians and pundits tempts us to respond in kind. The spirit of Jesus invites us to another way. Jesus said: Don’t respond in kind. Be kind. Treat each other with grace and forgiveness. Affirm the dignity of all persons, especially children.

What would it mean this week for you and me to make haste to be kind? What might it look like to share that spirit not in the reluctant way I went to the movie, but recognizing that there is remarkable power when we practice the courage of kindness.

-Jay Sidebotham

Note to readers:
I wrote this post after I saw the movie last week. Then on Friday, I read an excellent column by David Brooks, published in the NY Times, all about the meaning of this movie. I commend it to you. I wish I’d written it.

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

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

Monday Matters (July 2, 2018)

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Churches should always be two things simultaneously: schools for saints and hospitals for sinners. On the good side, they ought to be schools, helping to draw out of us our best, teaching us the skills and practices that helps us in imitation of our Lord, to be humble, loving and wise. At the same time, in an acknowledgement of the broken place where each of us starts, it ought to be a hospital. There is much sickness in us that needs to be healed on our way to sanctity and it will take time. In any church, we are always going to be surrounded with other recovering sinners like ourselves. Among the great gifts we can give each other is to release the temptation to grumble at each other’s brokenness.
-Christopher Martin
The Restoration Project, a wonderful book published by Forward Movement. Buy it.

Pray for the church. Pray for our country.

Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.

This is one of my favorite prayers in the Prayer Book (page 816). It’s a prayer for the holy catholic church, which I take to mean the church around the world in all its diversity, everyone from Baptist to Presbyterian to Pentecostal to non-denominational to Roman Catholic to Orthodox and my personal fave, Episcopal, to name just a few.

What I love about the prayer is how it begins with rigorous realism, the recognition that the church always stands in need of renewal and reform, maybe even resurrection. It’s a reminder that the institution is not an end in and of itself. It is an instrument for people to come to know the love of God powerfully and graciously expressed in Jesus. It’s a reminder that the church exists to remind the world that love is the way. The prayer acknowledges that the church sometimes does that well, and sometimes, not so much. When it falls short, as it often does, the church needs to change

And we all love change, right?

This prayer has been on my heart as many people wing their way to Austin for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Austin in July. Good idea. The convention will meet from July 5-13. Join me in prayers for this gathering. I’m praying that it will be an occasion where the church grows in its ability to share the news that love is the way.

This prayer has also been on my heart in this week that includes Independence Day, a civic holiday included in the church calendar to give thanks for our nation. There is much to give thanks for in this noble experiment called the United States. There is much to love about our country. And we have a lot to work on. We could apply this prayer to our nation, praying that we will be filled with truth and peace. We can most certainly pray that where there is corruption or error or anything amiss, that we can move forward together.

This week provides opportunity to think about the character of our nation, as the occupant of the Oval Office asks us to consider what makes a nation great. As I think about families being divided, that question has triggered my recollection of what Nelson Mandela said: The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children. As I think about toddlers in cages, I think about what Doestoevsky wrote: The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

The fact is, we have work to do as a church and as a society. Join in prayer for our church gathered in Texas to figure out what it means to be the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement.

And join in prayer for our nation, as divisions mount. Use the collect for Independence Day if that is helpful. It’s printed below. We have much to celebrate in our common life, in church, in nation. We’ve got a lot to work on.

The Collect for Independence Day

Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. 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

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

Monday Matters (June 25, 2018)

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How will you observe the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, a.k.a. his birthday?

Bake a locust and honey cake. I hear it’s delicious. John the Baptist thought so.

Go to work dressed like John the Baptist. Camel’s hair may not be summer attire, but it will be sure to spur conversation.

Read the scriptures chosen for his feast day. Here they are:

  • Isaiah 40:1-11
  • Acts 13:14b-26
  • Psalm 85
  • Luke 1:57-80

Give thanks for someone in your life who points to Christ, to grace and love breaking into the world.

Think about how this day you will point beyond yourself to Christ in the world.

What’s your point?

Today, June 25th, the church observes the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, one of the most eccentric characters in the Bible. And that’s saying something because there are a lot of eccentric characters in the Bible. Happy birthday, John!

We celebrate his birthday right near the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. In contrast, we celebrate the birth of Jesus when days are the shortest. I’ve been told that is not accidental. It’s a way for the calendar to preach, reflecting a story told in the Gospel of John. This may only be of interest to church geeks, but here’s the story:

People came to John the Baptist and asked about his relationship with Jesus. There’s some sense that people wondered if John was the one they should follow. Maybe John was the long awaited messiah. In response to the question, John does what he always does. He points beyond himself to Christ. He has this to say about Jesus: He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30)

The calendar acts that out in this simple way. The days that follow John’s birth shorten in length, while the days which follow Jesus’ birth lengthen. I can’t vouch that this is true. They did not consult me in calendar composition. But if it isn’t true, it ought to be. And it makes it worth our while to consider what John’s example means for us this Monday morning.

At one point in the gospels, Jesus described John the Baptist as the greatest person ever born. He doesn’t say that kind of thing about many people. Most of the disciples were quite often knuckleheads. So I’ve wondered what was so great about John the Baptist.

Let me venture this answer. John, a person of remarkable gifts and magnetism, knew who he was and knew who Jesus was. And he knew those two things should not be confused. He was no shrinking violet and he had a powerful ministry. A lot of ego strength for sure, willing to take on the political and religious authorities. It eventually cost him his head.

But he also knew that there was a power, a presence greater than himself. He chose to have his ministry be one of witness and service, preparing the way of Lord, pointing beyond himself to Jesus, to God present among us, and especially present in the suffering of the world.

In the history of Christian art, John the Baptist is often depicted with arm extended, index finger pointing towards Christ, often to Christ on the cross. With that depiction, John the Baptist becomes spiritual coach for each one of us, inviting us to figure out how to do the same. How will our lives point beyond ourselves to God’s presence in the world, meeting the suffering of the world? Asked another way: What’s our point?

Use John the Baptist’s birthday to reflect on your own life. To what does your life point? What might you do this Monday that would direct someone’s attention, maybe someone’s affection towards Christ? Asked another way, where can you point to grace breaking into the world?

-Jay Sidebotham

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

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

Monday Matters (June 18, 2018)

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Jesus said: 
You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.
-John 5:39 
(New Revised Standard Version)
 
 
Jesus said: You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me!
-John 5:39 
(The Message)
 
 
What makes the church, your congregation and mine, different, utterly essential, without equal, unique? Let me venture a response:
A congregation is Christian to the degree that it is confronted by and attempts to form its life in response to the Word of God.
-Will Willimon
Shaped by the Bible

What does God want from us?

What’s our lens?

Years ago, I officiated at the wedding of a wonderful young couple. The groom-to-be was a child of folks in my church. The bride, a confirmed atheist, with no church background, gracefully agreed to a church wedding as concession to her beloved. They were bright, engaging and interested in lots of conversation before their wedding. Our pre-marital counseling sessions led to lively discussions about religion, probing questions aimed in my direction about how faith made sense in today’s world, especially given the hypocrisy of the church (to which, by the way, I could only reply: Guilty as charged).

After the wedding, the couple gave me a gift to remind me of those conversations. It was a book entitled: “The Bible Tells Me So: The Use and Abuse of Scripture.” You can get the point of the book from the Table of Contents. A sampling of chapter titles:

How scripture was used to endorse slavery
How scripture was used to endorse the abolitionist movement
How scripture was used to deny ordination to women
How scripture was used to promote ordination of women
How scripture was used to challenge the environmental movement
How scripture was used to support the environmental movement.

On the cover of the book, a quote from Shakespeare: “Even the devil can quote scripture,” a reference to the temptation of Jesus where Satan and our Lord joust by citing scripture passages. All of this comes to mind because of the way scripture is being used in the heart-wrenching discussion of separating children from their parents on our southern border, a defining moral crisis for all of us if ever our nation faced one.

It raises questions for me, because I’m convinced that engagement with scripture is key to spiritual vitality in individuals and congregations. So how do we read scripture? How can scripture be cited in support of such opposite positions? I suspect each of us develops our own canon within the canon, our own set of scriptures that ratify what we already think, the way we gravitate towards favorite cable news channel. But the marvelous and mysterious mosaic we call the Bible, this scriptural symphony speaks with many voices. It speaks about revenge and about forgiveness. It speaks about taking up a sword and about turning swords into plowshares. Given all that, how does scripture guide us in times like these?

It’s a challenge of an adult faith. Jesus battled over how to read scripture, not only with the devil, but with leaders who sought to use scripture for their own political advantage. (Nothing new under the sun.) In the Sermon on the Mount, he quoted laws of the Hebrew Scripture this way: You have heard that it was said, but I say to you. He expanded on ancient laws in a way that always tilted towards grace, mercy and love. In one confrontation, he told his opponents “You search the scriptures because in them you think you have life. But they are witnesses to me.”

And what is that witness? You heard it in the famous wedding homily: Love is the way. That’s the lens we need as we read scripture. (John Calvin described the scripture as a set of spectacles.) When in doubt, choose the pathway that leads to grace, love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness? Try out this lens: If it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God.

To be clear: For those who use scripture to justify separation of parents from children, the lens seems to me to be tragically obstructed, clouded or cracked. Maybe the lens cap is still on.

The Bible, in all its complexity and contradiction, is a story of grace, God reaching out to us, God reaching out to include those on the margins, persistently, inexorably, so that in the end, love wins.

At a gathering last week over dinner, our group spoke about whether we had ever heard God speak to us. One gentleman talked about his journey of faith. He said he never felt good enough. He recalled at one time offering this simple prayer: “God, I’m not perfect.” He said that as he uttered that prayer, he heard a voice say to him: “It doesn’t matter. I want you.” I find that divine desire throughout the pages of the Bible, said to you and me and all God’s children. All God’s children.

Said another way:
Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

Monday Matters (June 11, 2018)

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Romans 12:1-2  
(The New Revised Standard Version)
 
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.
 
 
Romans 12:1-2 
(The Message)
 
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life-your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life-and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

What does God want from us?

It’s a question I’ve asked at various times in my life. Maybe you have asked it as well. Jesus got asked the question. In response, he reached back into the scriptures he knew and said it’s simple but not easy. It’s one thing but really two. It’s about love: love of God and love of neighbor. In quiet time last week, I was reading the psalm du jour and this verse struck me. I’ve read it before, but it caught my attention in a new way. Here it is:

Whoever offers me the sacrifice of thanksgiving honors me. Psalm 50:24

I started kicking around the phrase “sacrifice of thanksgiving.” I remembered that on Sundays, when we offer prayer over bread and wine, we often say that we are offering our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. The more I thought about the phrase, the more paradoxical, perhaps oxymoronic it seemed. How do sacrifice and thanksgiving go together?

Look up sacrifice in the dictionary and it’s not a pretty picture. Verbs and nouns suggest something gets killed. It’s bloody. It’s violent. At best, it’s not a whole lot of fun. Even in baseball, somebody loses so somebody else wins. A dutiful parent or spouse or child speaks of the sacrifice he or she has made. It can at times suggest resentment, a teeth-gritting relationship. Where’s the good news in that?

So think with me about what it means to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving? Your response, opinion, guess is as good as mine, but here are a couple thoughts:

Maybe it’s intended to have an ironic twist, a paradox for those of us who think we have to earn God’s grace or favor or approval. For all of us spiritual over-achievers, what would it means to say that the only thing we have to give is our thanks? That is all God wants from us. As the psalmist says, God doesn’t need us to bring us a bunch of cows. Those cows already belong to God. What God seeks is an attitude of gratitude.

Maybe there actually is a dimension of sacrifice in thanksgiving. Maybe we are called to sacrifice our own ego, as we recognize that all we have is gift. There’s an element of dying in that, offering our selves, the kind of language Paul used in Galatians when he said “I have been crucified with Christ.” or in the passage from Romans included below. It’s the kind of language we use in baptism that says we die to self in order to arrive at new life.

Maybe we need to scrap dictionary definitions and shift our thinking so that sacrifice doesn’t mean deprivation or suffering or hardship or violence. Maybe it doesn’t meant that we have to kill something, but rather that our sacrifice can be life giving, life affirming. It suggests the holiness that comes with saying thanks, the holy life that comes with living in mindfulness of all good gifts around us.

These are just some random Monday morning thoughts prompted by a familiar phrase that struck me as if I’d not seen it before. Take this week as an occasion to continue to play with the phrase, in your mind and heart and spirit. Find what it means for you to make a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Discover what your offering of gratitude might be this week.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

Monday Matters (June 4, 2018)

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Then Jesus said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
-Mark 2
 
 
 
A Prayer attributed to St. Francis
 
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
 
 
 
A prayer for humanity

May I be a guard for those who need protection,
A guide for those on the path,
A boat, a raft, a bridge for those who wish to cross the flood,
May I be a lamp in the darkness,
A resting place for the weary,
A healing medicine for all who are sick,
A vase of plenty, a tree of miracles,
And for the boundless multitudes  of living beings
May I bring sustenance and awakening,
Enduring like the earth and sky,
Until all beings are freed from sorrow
And all are awakened.
 
-Shantideva
Indian Buddhist sage
700 A.D.
 
(Note: This would not be a bad prayer for religious institutions)

Sabbath

When I started in ordained ministry (clueless young priest as opposed to clueless aging priest), I sought counsel of a rector I respected, asking how to navigate this new life. The advice as I recall had to do not with work but with not working. He said that he was vigilant in making sure he observed Sabbath each week. Obviously, not Sunday, but another day of rest.

He said it was important because on a weekly basis it reminded him that he was not his work. His identity would be found beyond title or job description. I can’t say I heeded his advice very well throughout my career. (Note major eye-rolls from my family as they read this) I was better in some seasons than others. But his advice came to me yesterday when the readings in church focused on the Sabbath.

Observance of the Sabbath is one of the most important religious institutions in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is noted in the opening verses of the Bible, when after God had completed the work of creation, declaring it to be very good, God rested. Apparently, if that kind of down time was good enough for the Holy One, it’s probably good enough for us. The commandment to observe the Sabbath sits near the top of the list of the Ten Commandments. We’re meant to keep it, observe it. How come?

I think it’s because it says something about who we are, and who God is. Maybe that’s true of all religious institutions, customs, liturgies, scriptures, hymnody, clergy. They are not ends in themselves. They are instruments, signs pointing beyond themselves, intended to remind us of God’s identity and our own.

A sign of my age: I remember a time when Sabbath as religious institution had more buy-in in our culture. A day of rest. No shopping. No movies. No soccer practice. (Acolyte scheduling was definitely easier.) No smart phones or lap tops allowing us to work 24/7. Those days are not coming back, but it seems we’ve lost something. Perhaps what we’ve lost is a window into our own identity, a sense of who we are. Perhaps we’ve lost a sense of who God is, a sense discovered when on a regular basis we stop and recognize a higher power. We are reminded that all is grace.

Jesus spent a lot of time challenging religious institutions of his day. On a day when no work was to be done, Jesus performed miracles. He wasn’t supposed to do that. Was he just trying to shake things up? Maybe. But it seems to me he was reminding people what religion and ritual and spiritual practice are all about. They are occasions, woven into the pattern of our lives, to recall something about who God is, and who we are.

More specifically, they are occasions to recall that God is love, and we are called to show that love. All the time. 24/7. In and through and occasionally in spite of the institutions we set up. The Sabbath (like other religious institutions) is meant to serve the cause of God’s mission in the world. Not vice versa.

What Jesus seems to say about God’s identity revealed in the Sabbath is that showing love and working for healing are way more important than following rules or traditions. And as far as our own identity is concerned, we are meant to be ever open to mercy.

This is not to say that the Sabbath is not important. It is to say that it is not an end in itself. It’s an occasion to know God better, as we see something of God’s identity, and our own. If institutions stand in the way of healing and mercy, they become obstacles not instruments. I fear for the obstacles religious people (clergy like me) put in people’s way.

What does your religious observance, your spiritual practice say about who God is, and who you are? What can we do to make our religious communities, our spiritual lives windows of mercy, instruments of peace, conveyors of grace? How can our institutions, our rules and habits, our liturgies reflect what our Presiding Bishop repeats: If it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God?

-Jay Sidebotham

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

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

Monday Matters (May 28, 2018)

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FOR MEMORIAL DAY 2018: 
 
A prayer for heroic service, from the Book of Common Prayer
 
O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
We will remember them.
 
An excerpt from the poem “The Fallen” by Laurence Binyon, written in 1914.

Memorial Day

It’s been said that praying shapes believing. So here’s what I’m wondering on this Monday morning, as our weekend has been extended with a holiday to remember those who, over the centuries, gave their lives in service to the country. What does the prayer for heroic service, found in the Book of Common Prayer and included above, say about what we believe, about how we live our lives as people of faith?

Like many Monday holidays, Memorial Day becomes a day of relaxation and celebration, a day for parties and fun. For some, it’s a day with retail enticements. Stores will be crowded. The summer is launched. Finally. That’s good.

But it’s also probably a good idea to grab a few minutes to think about the day’s intent, to say prayers for those we love but see no longer, to focus on courage and sacrifice, to see what we all can do to “study war no more.”

As the prayer calls us to observe the day, it asks us to do four things: to remember, to resist rest, to share benefits, to accept disciplines.

First of all, we remember. We would not have a day called Memorial Day if we weren’t so prone to forgetfulness. There’s a part of the Episcopal liturgy which, during the eucharist, recites the good things God has done for us. It’s got a technical term: anamnesis, which literally means not amnesia. Not forgetting. In our bubbles of time and space, we may well forget the great cost. Today, how can we take moments to remember with gratitude the cost of the promise of our common life?

And today, we consider what it would mean to be restless. One of the great challenges I find in our work with congregations is complacency. The sense that we are done, completed. It can be a spirit of self-satisfaction. It can be a spirit of resignation. We honor those we remember by refusing to rest, striving as they did to ensure a better world, to go deeper, to know that God is never finished with us yet, to include more and more people in the experience of God’s justice and freedom, peace and love. How can we embrace that holy restlessness?

Today, we consider what it would mean to share benefits. When Jesus called his disciples to meet him in the least of our brothers and sisters (see Matthew 25), maybe he was talking about sharing the benefits of our common life, recognizing that we are in this together. As we observe a day in which we remember those whose efforts and offerings were intended to lead us to greatness, we note with thanksgiving the gifts and privileges of our common life. Freedom to vote. Freedom of expression. Freedom to worship. Freedom to protest. Freedom to learn. Fighting for such benefits cost lives over the course of our nation’s history. How can we share those benefits now as widely as possible?

Finally, today, we consider what it would mean to accept disciplines in our common life. We have been graced as a nation. Such grace is not cheap. A life of freedom calls for us to live into that grace, with intention, vigilance, practice, prayer, effort. This prayer calls us to accept those disciplines gladly.

Have a great time today. But also take time today to remember. Reflect on holy restlessness. Make a commitment (even a small one) to share benefits you have received. And prepare to accept disciplines that come with being a disciple.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

Monday Matters (May 21, 2018)

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Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.
-Bill Gates
Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths.
-Psalm 25
 
And all the children will be taught of the Lord, and great will be the peace of your children.
-Isaiah 54:13
 
Open my eyes that I may behold the wonders of your law.
-Psalm 119
 
Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
-John 3:2
 
But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.
-John 14:26
 
 Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty. 

Teachers

I was moved by the image of thousands of red t-shirts, worn by teachers walking up Raleigh city streets last week. They gathered from around the state to make the point that these days, we do not sufficiently honor the work teachers do. We fail to recognize the importance of their work.

Yesterday, I participated in a memorial service for a much-loved family member, a person of great gifts who used those gifts for close to 40 years as a teacher. There were other vocations he could have chosen, easier vocations, more lucrative ones. His call was to education, a commitment to raise up the next generation, to draw out the best in young people, a vision of hope, offered with love.

So teachers have been on my mind.

I’ve been made to think about how teachers changed my life. There’s a woman who taught me math in middle school. She taught me about steadfastness, since she taught my father in the same school, probably the same classroom. She sometimes called me by his name. A 27-year-old history teacher taught me in the 9th grade. (I thought he was downright ancient at 27.) He opened my eyes to a broader view of the world, challenging me to think outside the suburban bubble in which I was raised. A college religion professor gave much needed insight into the varied ways we have received the scriptures, deepening my love of text by embracing its complexity and mystery. A gracious (and rigorous) seminary professor, a faithful Christian taught me about grace even as he elevated expectations for more careful thinking and writing.

There were teachers met out of school. A child who asked me in church whether heaven was a place or a feeling. A 95-year-old widow who asked, after her husband’s death, what God was calling her to do with the next chapter of her life.

Each teacher, in his or her way, made a difference in my life. I am grateful.

With teachers on my mind, I invite you this morning to think about your teachers. Who have been your teachers, in school, church, family or workplace? If there is a way to be in touch with them, express your thanks to them. If not, let God know of your gratitude, and maybe the Holy Spirit will pass on the gratitude in some way.

Then think about this: Who are your teachers right now, this Monday morning? How are you still learning? I believe it might be helpful to change the word “disciple” in the New Testament. If I were in charge (apparently I’m not) I think we would do well to replace the word “disciple” with the word “student” or “learner”, at least for a while. I believe that would get across the notion that in the spiritual journey, there is always more for us to learn. We are never done.

And the good news? In that journey, we have a teacher. Jesus is described as such 45 times in the gospels. We have access to his teaching through the gospels which we bring to the center of our community every time we worship. I think specifically of the Sermon on the Mount, a teaching tool for the likes of Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. This teaching changed the world for the better. Lord knows, we could use the teaching of that sermon these days.

And if you are wondering where to find Jesus’ classroom these days, remember that we celebrated the feast of Pentecost yesterday. Readings for that big day indicate that God sent the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth, which sounds a whole lot to me like the goal of education. Marvel of marvels, that same Holy Spirit uses people around us to be our guides, our teachers.

Join me in giving thanks for teachers, especially those we love but see no longer. Find ways to honor them. And continue the process of learning in your own life. God is not finished with us yet.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.