Category Archives: Uncategorized

Monday Matters (November 5, 2018)

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 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.

-Matthew 5:16

To be a saint is to be human because we were created to be human. To be a saint is to live with courage and self-restraint. To be a saint is to live not with hands clenched to grasp, to strike, to hold tight to a life that is always slipping away the more tightly we hold it; but it is to live with the hands stretched out both to give and receive with gladness. To be a saint is to work and weep for the broken and suffering of the world, but it is also to be strangely light of heart in the knowledge that there is something greater than the world that mends and renews. Maybe more than anything else, to be a saint is to know joy.
-Frederick Buechner, from The Magnificent Defeat
 

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
-Frederick Buechner
 
God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.
-Soren Kierkegaard

Vessels of grace/lights of our generation

The last few days provided ample opportunity to think about saints. All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween, a.k.a., sugarfest) led to All Saints’ Day (Thursday), then on Friday, All Souls’ Day, bringing us to Sunday, and one more turn at the Feast of All Saints, observed in church with great fanfare and some of the greatest hymns of our tradition, IMHO.

All of it made me think about what makes a saint, and whether I in fact want to be one too. Religious leaders at the helm of religious institutions are not distinguishing themselves in recent days (Understatement alert). It’s no wonder that “nones” and “dones” are among the fastest growing group of folks in terms of religious affiliation. When people say “I’m no saint,” it may not bespeak humility as much as disclaimer. “Don’t accuse me of being one of those religious types. Don’t link me with that hypocritical or judgmental or puritanical streak.” It brings to mind the wisdom of H.L. Mencken who noted that a puritan is someone who is unhappy because somebody somewhere is having a good time.

Thoughts about saints took me to the Prayer Book and one of the prayers which can be included in the eucharist when we remember a saint. Here’s how the Prayer Book describes a saint, They are vessels of grace and lights in their generations.

So think with me about what it means to be a vessel of grace. Someone at least familiar with grace? Someone who holds or carries grace with them? Someone brimming, maybe overflowing with grace? Who do you know who fills that bill, who lives life in the conviction that all is gift? Give thanks for that person in your life. And then listen to your own life. What kind of vessel are you, am I?

With this image of vessel in mind, sainthood does not come as moral accomplishment, a spiritual A+. Sainthood comes as gift, as grace, as we allow ourselves to be filled with the unconditional love of God, as we remove obstacles to that kind of inspiration. Are we open to being that kind of vessel, being that kind of instrument?

As I toyed with that question, it got me thinking about what kind of vessel I might be. It’s a mixed bag at best. If I’m not a vessel of grace, what else is going on? A vessel for righteous certitude and moral superiority, in terms of theology, ethics, politics, fashion, table manners? A vessel for resentment? A vessel for ego? A vessel for indifference or complacency? The bottom line: I suspect we all are vessels for something. It might as well be grace.

But that’s not all the Prayer Book says about sainthood. It claims that grace is not just for our own enjoyment. A saint is not only a vessel of grace. Saints also serve as lights in their generations. Sainthood is intended to make a difference in the world. The toxicity of discourse in our current political season shows the need for less of that heat and more of saintly light. How do we let that light shine? If I’m not shining a light on my generation, am I adding to the darkness? Am I fogging things up? Do I obscure God’s graceful presence in the world? Sometimes, way too often, I suspect that I do, wittingly and unwittingly.

I end up with a pretty expansive view of sainthood. Sainthood is open to anyone who will be a vessel of grace, and a light in their generation. And that happens Monday by Monday. How will you and I be such a vessel this day, this week? How will you and I be a light to our generation?

-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 29, 2018)

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You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Matthew 5:43-45 
an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount
 
 
If it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God.
-Presiding Bishop Michael Curry
 
 
Excerpts from a recent blogpost from Anne Lamott:
 
Every so often, I mention a book I’ve always thought about writing called  “All The People I Still Hate: A Christian Perspective.”Half the people responding roar with laughter and say “I’d read that.” And half are sort of horrified by either the word “hate” or “Christian.’ …
 
You’re not supposed to hate, because hate is ugly and diminishes the soul of the hater. But if I were to be honest, I’d admit that I could still write the book, about some of our leaders and one really special ex-boyfriend. But I got the miracle. …
 
I believe against all odds, that if we stick together, take care of the poor and the very old, get thirsty people water, including our own worried self-obsessed selves, we can dramatically reduce our viral load. We can be love with skin on. We can be present in barbaric times, and at the same time be nourished by the gorgeous and inspiring things all around us. We can be free.

Loving enemies? Do I have to?

You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.
-Anne Lamott

A parable, of sorts. I used to drive a lot in Manhattan when we lived there. It’s probably why I have grey hair and contend with high blood pressure. As I would make my way around town, I remember how frustrated I would be with pedestrians who took their sweet time crossing the avenues. I had important places to go. It was especially challenging if I had my clergy collar on, because I had to conceal my irritation. It’s not a good career move for clergy to roll down the window and cuss. But I confess that behind the wheel, some part of me began to regard pedestrians as obstacles to my forward movement, obstructionists, opponents.

But here’s the interesting thing. I might be driving, fuming about these pedestrians. I would then find a parking space and become a pedestrian myself. As I would cross the street, taking my sweet time because I had right of way, I came to resent drivers. There were too many cars in the city anyway. Why weren’t those dinosaurs using public transportation? Drivers, as a class of human beings, became the opposition as I walked city streets. Road rage became pedestrian rage. It was amazing how quickly the “other” could become the object of disdain. My inner capacity for animosity was stunningly nimble.

Recently I was reading Facebook with commentary on this election season. I came across a post that went something like this: This year, it is not democrat vs. republican. It’s not conservative vs. liberal. It is good vs. evil. Somewhere in the recesses of my unholy mind, savoring my extremely informed political opinions, I thought: You are so right. Until I looked again at who had posted this message. It was someone I knew to be on the absolute opposite of the political spectrum from me. I wondered if that person now regarded me as evil. I’m such a nice guy. How could that be possible?

In recent days, I’ve been praying Psalm 51: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. As a newshound, okay, a news addict, I’ve found my heart sucked into the rancor that seems to dominate discourse. I’ve come to recognize my absolute helplessness in the face of that energy. I’m going to need a new heart, I think, especially if the elections don’t go my way. Especially if I don’t get my way. I’m going to need a new spirit. And dare I say, I’m not alone in that need.

In recent days, I’ve been praying Psalm 37: Put your trust in the Lord and do good. Commit your way to the Lord. Be still before the Lord. Do not fret yourself. It leads only to evil. That psalm is a call to trust that God is in control, that I am not, that goodness will win. That love wins.

In recent days, I’ve been asking Jesus for help, as I consider the things Jesus taught. In his most annoying way, he said love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Turn the other cheek. If someone makes you walk a mile, walk two. He was so clear, which is why it’s so irritating. Truth be told, I’d rather cuss at pedestrians, or smack my umbrella on the hood of the car edging into the crosswalk.

This commandment to love doesn’t mean that we don’t care deeply about issues, about healing the brokenness of our world, about speaking and acting on behalf of those on the margins, about calling out barbaric behavior, about the work for justice and peace mandated by our baptism. It doesn’t keep us from weeping for our brothers and sisters at the Tree of Life Synagogue, or laboring to see that such crimes don’t happen again. It does mean that there should be no place for hate in our hearts.

Simply stated, I’m not there yet. But I believe some day I’ll get there, with God’s help, by God’s grace. Maybe that’s what heaven is about.

-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 22, 2018)

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More than one-fifth of respondents admit they have not had a spiritual conversation at all in the past year. Six in 10 say they had a spiritual conversation only on rare occasions – either “once or twice” (29 percent) or “several times” (29 percent) in the past year. A paltry 7 percent of Americans say they talk about spiritual matters regularly. But here’s the real shocker: Practicing Christians who attend church regularly aren’t faring much better. A mere 13 percent had a spiritual conversation around once a week.
 
According to my survey, a range of internal conflicts is driving Americans from God-talk. Some said these types of conversations create tension or arguments (28 percent); others feel put off by how religion has been politicized (17 percent); others still report not wanting to appear religious (7 percent), sound weird (6 percent) or seem extremist (5 percent). Whatever the reason, for most of us in this majority-Christian nation, our conversations almost never address the spirituality we claim is important.
Jonathan Merritt (@JonathanMerritt) is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and the author, most recently, of “Learning to Speak God From Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing – And How We Can Revive Them

Can we talk?

The rather directive parishioner showed up in my office to inform me that I was coming to her house for dinner. A woman of accomplishment in her profession, an active member of our church, she wanted me to help her solve this puzzle. She worked with dedicated, highly ethical people. They were kind, honest, generous folks. They cared about the pain of the world. And they seemed to have no interest in religious observance. She wondered about that. Why was she so committed to the life of the church and they were not at all committed?

This called for more exploration. So she planned to invite twelve of them to her fancy apartment for dinner to discuss. She would give them fair warning and tell them that there would be a topic of conversation over dinner. They would each be asked to fill in the blank: God in my life…

I was to be there just in case a cleric was needed. She bravely did the inviting, making clear her agenda for dinner conversation, not sure anyone would come. She got twelve affirmative responses. I was nervous. I think she was too, though she didn’t let on. As the dinner unfolded, me and a table full of strangers from varied religious backgrounds, I was amazed. We couldn’t shut them up. Everyone had a story. This one time soiree morphed into an ongoing group that met monthly for several years discussing religious topics. All they needed was someone to give them a chance to speak about spiritual matters.

Our work with congregations asks people about their beliefs, their spiritual practices, the ways they serve in the world. As we speak about these things, we find that often the language of faith is loaded for people who have migrated to the Episcopal Church from other Christian communities. Some as come as refugees. Some seek asylum, as often those folks have been wounded by their traditions of origin. Often the way we speak about faith pushes buttons. I often hear people say: “That’s not my language.”

A wise mentor helped me navigate this. Here’s what he would say to folks when they distanced themselves from particular religious language: “If that’s not your language, what is your language?” He offered a gracious invitation to find words that rang true. It could often be a slow start, but once we got going, it opened up new conversations, life-giving conversations.

Today’s reflections were triggered by a column that recently appeared in the NYTimes, copies of which were sent my way by several people I respect. A small portion of the article is included above. The columnist helped me find the language to say that it’s hard for people to find their language, especially when it comes to things about God.

So having said all this, let me ask: Where in your life are you able to fill in the blank: God in your life….? Where can you talk about that with others?

If you have no such venue, maybe you can be brave and create one. Because the longer I do this work, the more I believe that every one of us has a spiritual story. Each one of us is on a spiritual journey that matters to God so it better matter to us. Everybody has a God-shaped space inside. Our hearts are restless until that space is filled. This week, talk among yourselves about the contours of that space, what it feels like. And talk with someone about where that space is being filled.

-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 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

4

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