Monday Matters (August 22, 2016)

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Being Ananias

I try to read some of the Bible each day. Sometimes I don’t get much out of it. Other times characters come to life and stir my imagination. That happened when I read about Ananias last week.

His name came up in the daily readings as our lectionary makes its way through the New Testament book of the Act of the Apostles. That book tells the story of the early church. If the book were a movie, Ananias would not even be considered for supporting actor. He gets a cameo role at best. He fails to qualify for Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. You get the idea. But without him, or someone like him, the story of the church would be really different.

Here’s a recap of his story which you can find below. Ananias lived in Damascus, at the end of the road where Saul (henceforth referred to as Paul) had a dramatic conversion experience. On that road, Paul became a penitent former-persecutor of Jesus (which is one definition of a Christian, according to the theologian James Alison). Paul was struck blind in the conversion process and stumbled his way into town, where he starts praying. Ananias hears a call from God to go and bring healing to Paul. Ananias wonders if the call is a wrong number, as is true in many biblical accounts of call stories. Ananias knows of Paul’s reputation as someone out to get Christians. It was not safe to be around Paul. Ananias could not believe Paul could be changed. But God’s voice spoke of Paul’s mission. So when God told Ananias to go, Ananias went. He prays with Paul, helps him regain his sight, baptizes him, welcomes him into the community.

I don’t think we hear about Ananias again. But he’s been on my mind and in my imagination. I sense he has lessons for me this Monday morning. Maybe they’ll resonate with you as well:

Ananias says “Here am I.” Somewhere in his inner being there was a willingness to be of service, even if he has no idea what that would look like. In what sense can I say “Here am I” today?

He listened for God’s voice. Somehow he was paying attention enough to hear God ask him to do something totally counter-intuitive. What would it look like if I was that spiritually attentive today? How can I pay more attention? Some call it mindfulness.

He changed his own mind. At first, he was not open to going, but he was on some level a learner. Where do I find the courage and humility to recognize that a course correction might be in order?

He believed Paul could change, or at least, be changed. Do I deny the possibility that others can change? Or is it just easier for me to slot folks into categories?

He is willing to see possibility, no matter how unlikely that potential was. Do I have the trust and the courage to see a threshold where most people see a dead end?

He welcomes Paul, providing a pathway for Paul’s inclusion in the community. He could have tried to get revenge. He could have savored resentment. It was within his rights. He could have set up litmus tests. He could have stood in the way. But he opened the door. Where am I being called to that kind of ministry?

The fact that we know little about Ananias allows us to wonder, in a way that challenges our faith this morning. His story calls us to think about how we might be useful in someone else’s life, for God’s sake.

Who are the people who have been like Ananias for you?

Is there a way that you can be Ananias for somebody today?

-Jay Sidebotham

From Acts 9:
 
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

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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 (August 15, 2016)

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I have the privilege of officiating at a wedding at the end of this week. It got me thinking about my favorite wedding stories. I’ve got a bunch of them. (A collection will be published upon my retirement.) Here’s one, a kind of a parable:

Before the wedding, I had a long conversation with the photographer, occasional nemesis of officiating clergy. Let’s just say that their mission often differs from the mission of the officiant. We agreed that the photographer would stand in the side aisle, near the back of the sacred space, not move around, not distract from the liturgy.

The procession occurred, a gathering of handsome young people making their way to the chancel steps. I delivered the opening words of the liturgy, several paragraphs about the meaning of marriage. As I delivered them with compelling sincerity, I became aware of a presence looming over my left shoulder. I heard the rapid-fire, digital clicking of a camera. The photographer had moved to stand right behind me, inches away to catch the faces of the couple close up. With him in my personal space, the liturgy continued.

As I invited the congregation to be seated for the readings, I beckoned the photographer to meet me “off stage” in the ambulatory where I proceeded to lose it, expletives included. I was mad. He agreed that he would abide by our agreement for the rest of the service.

I took deep breaths after my tirade, listened for the conclusion of the readings and reached into my pocket to turn my mike back on. Wait a minute. Had it been on throughout my tirade? I wasn’t sure. Had the congregation heard me holler at this guy? How would I know? I couldn’t really ask the congregation, now, could I? What were my options? I could leave. No. that won’t work. I decided that when I returned to the worship space, I would make eye contact with the mother of the bride. If she was smiling, I was okay. If not, I knew Starbucks was hiring.

Turns out I had indeed turned off the mike. The congregation had not heard me cuss. I proceeded to offer my sweet homily about the power of love in human relationships. In my mind, I was still fuming.

This story took place a while ago. But it comes back to me often, a parable with numerous spiritual lessons. I reflect on it, mindful of how close I came to a career ending moment, one that these days would go viral. On one level, there were no winners in my showdown with the photographer. He remains in my mind a jerk, though I’ve forgotten his name. More memorable is the awareness of my own hypocrisy. I almost expected to be struck by lightning as in my homily I rambled on about God’s love.

The story continues to teach me. Here’s one lesson: When people talk to me about the failures of the church, they often say that they can’t be part of church because it’s filled with hypocrites. All I can say (based on this wedding story, and others) is: Guilty as charged. Yet the work of the church goes on. The homily I preached about God’s love got preached, even though the preacher didn’t know enough about that love and was limited in ability to show that love. Maybe in some ironic way, the fraudulence of the preacher underscored the depth of God’s love and mercy and forbearance and grace. Let’s call it accidental preaching.

As I’ve noted before, a church leader I admire has said that he never met a motive that wasn’t mixed. Your spiritual journey and mine, both are marked by mixed motive. I wouldn’t be totally surprised if in each one of us there could be found some measure of hypocrisy.

But we can still proclaim love. On this very Monday. And we should do so in word and action. And we should not be so ego-driven and self-absorbed to allow our own lapses to stop us from doing that. After all, the good news is about God’s faithfulness, not our own.

-Jay Sidebotham

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 God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
-Ephesians 2:8-10
Hypocrites in the Church? Yes, and in the lodge and at the home. Don’t hunt through the Church for a hypocrite. Go home and look in the mirror. Hypocrites? Yes. See that you make the number one less.
-Billy Sunday
Not going to church because of hypocrites is like not going to the gym because of out of shape people.
-found on Facebook

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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 (August 8, 2016)

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Years ago, in my ministry as parish priest, I was charged with design of a new worship service to be held on Sunday nights. It was meant to be innovative, distinct from traditional Sunday morning services. People would be encouraged to dress casually. The mood would be informal. Sermons would be conversational. We would streamline the liturgy. Music would be eclectic. We would bill it as contemporary.

It took discernment, praying and planning over several months. We weren’t exactly sure how it would unfold, so we did a trial service, a dress rehearsal. I remember the date: October 10. There were a lot of rough edges that night. The service went way too long. Some things were confusing to worshippers. Some seemed kind of cheesy.

So after that first service, we met during the week, made adjustments and offered the liturgy again the next Sunday night, October 17, our official debut. It went better, with notable differences from the first night. I was pleased with it. Pleased until I was greeted at the end of the service by angry worshippers: “That’s not how we did it last week.”

It took one week, one service to forge immutable tradition. It reminded me that we are creatures of habit. How quickly we form patterns of ritual! We’re not wild about change.

Two days ago, we observed the Feast of the Transfiguration. It’s a story about change, told in the passage from Luke in the column on the left. Jesus with his best buddies Peter, James and John head to the mountaintop. Something happened up there, something glorious and awesome (in the true sense of the word). It’s scary and wonderful. Jesus gets all radiant (Think Steven Spielberg). Moses and Elijah appear with him (though I’m not sure how the disciples recognized those guys. Nametags?).

Peter, unfettered mouthpiece for the disciples and all of us, thinks it’s grand. He says to Jesus: “Let’s fix this moment in time. We’ll build a shelter, a home, a museum, a religious theme park for you and Moses and Elijah on top of the mountain.” A cloud from heaven intervenes, suggesting that while the moment was indeed marvelous, it was not meant to be fixed in time. The disciples were meant to move.

There are a lot of directions a preacher could go with this story. To me, on this Monday, the story says that in life, in the spiritual journey, nothing is certain but change. We can’t stay where we are. As Pope Francis said in a homily: There is no such thing as a stationary Christian. We may be blessed with extraordinary epiphanies, moments of insight and awe. They are not destinations. They are instruments, leading to the new thing that God has for us, sending us into the world to do God’s work.

This Monday morning, listen to your life. Think about the new thing God might have in store for you. Imagine it. Prepare for it. Are you open to it? It may be a change of circumstances, heading down from the mountain. It might be an interior shift, a movement of the heart, involving forgiveness and healing and grace. We worship a God whose business is apparently to make things new. What will that look like in your journey? Pray for the grace to welcome the new thing God intends. It’s all part of the spiritual adventure.

-Jay Sidebotham

Jesus answered Nicodemus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
-John 3:3, a portion of today’s reading from the Daily Office
 
 
Change is good. You go first.
-Dilbert
 
 
It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. 
-C. S. Lewis
 
 
Luke 9:28-36
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” -not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

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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 (August 1, 2016)

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Maybe it comes with the job. I couldn’t help but notice the ways people prayed at both political conventions. There was a good deal of what I call horizontal praying going on. What do I mean by horizontal praying? Though the message is bracketed with a “Dear God” and an “Amen,” it’s really meant to make a point with those hearing the prayer, for example, the prayer at the dinner table: “Dear God, help my sibling, spouse, parent, child to stop being such a jerk. Amen.”

In the past two weeks at the conventions, I heard some beautiful prayers. I also heard some prayers I thought were really political speeches. Some seemed manipulative. A few seemed heretical. After a long time of trying to sort through the nexus of faith and politics, I am finding this election cycle distinctively vexing and perplexing. How about you?

To address my vexed perplexity, I started reading a new book by Miraslov Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz. I confess that Dr. McAnnally-Linz was new to me, but I’ve admired Dr. Volf for many years. His experience as a political prisoner in Eastern Europe, an ordeal he survived with hope and joy intact, gives him lots of credibility, in my humble opinion. He knows a lot about grace.

Their new book is called Public Faith in Action. The two authors move through a number of key issues for our day, offering ethical questions for the reader to consider, suggesting ways that faith might inform these issues, gracefully recognizing that we as disciples live in a world marked by ambiguity. Noting that Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven, the authors suggest that the message of Jesus cannot be separated from our life in political community. We have a public faith. For that reason, I’m hoping their insights will help me make it to election day. We’ll see.

I was struck with one passage in particular. Authors describe the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960’s, specifically preparations for marchers in Birmingham in 1963. The Southern Christian Leadership organized training for marchers. In order to be permitted to be part of the march, each volunteer had to sign a “commitment card,” promising among other things to do the following:

  1. To pray each day
  2. To meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus
  3. To walk and talk in the manner of love.

In other words, according to the authors, “public engagement with Jesus Christ as the center and norm calls not only for commitment to following Christ, but also for the formation of a certain kind of character.”

This election season calls us to explore public faith in action. We could do worse than to follow the three steps on that commitment card. (I can pray that candidates for political office do the same. Is that a horizontal prayer?) What spiritual practices would be helpful to you, as you think about your public life? What would it mean to have our character as Christians who are also citizens, citizens who are also Jesus-followers, shaped by spiritual practices, backed by spiritual action, offered in a spirit of love.

What would you put on a commitment card?

-Jay Sidebotham

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
-Matthew 6:33
 
Christian faith has an inalienable public dimension. Christians aren’t Christ followers just in their private and communal lives; they are Christ’s followers in the public and political lives as well. Christ must be the center and norm for Christian engagement because Christ and his Spirit are at work, not just in our hearts, families and churches, but also in our nations and the entire world.
 
Jesus’ life and message are unmistakably public, even political, though not in the usual sense of the term. After all, the core of Jesus’ preaching is that “the kingdom of God has come near” (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15). Whatever else it might be, kingdom is surely a political term….The book of Revelation portrays the final advent of God’s reign as the “holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” to be established on earth (Revelation 21:2). We get our word political from the Greek word for city.
-from 
Public Faith in Action
by Miraslov Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz (pp. 3-4)

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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 25, 2016)

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Take it to the Lord in prayer

Yesterday’s gospel (below) has me thinking about the disciples’ request to Jesus: Teach us to pray. I found myself wondering what those lessons were like, and in what ways prayer can be taught.

At the same time, I realize that the more I wade into this praying business, the more I find myself on the edge of deep mysteries that can quickly make me feel like I’m in over my head, facing waves of questions about how prayer works. Clearly, I could use a teacher.

So I picked up a short book by a monk and bishop and deeply spiritual guy named Anthony Bloom. A holy man. The book is entitled: Beginning to Pray. He makes the point in the very first paragraph that he is just a beginner at prayer. If this guy, near the end of a life dedicated to the spiritual journey, is just beginning, is there any hope for me?

Then I turned to another respected spiritual guide, Aretha Franklin. I was driving around town, thinking about preaching about prayer. I put in a CD (remember those?), Aretha Franklin singing hymns. I found myself replaying one hymn in particular: What a friend we have in Jesus. I’ve heard that hymn played a lot. I’ve heard it played badly. Let’s just say its melody ain’t Mozart. But as she often does, Aretha brought it to life. The way she sang, her ministry of music made me focus on this bit of the hymn text:

Oh, what peace we often forfeit.
Oh, what needless pain we bear.
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer.

I thought of how often I forfeit a sense of peace. I thought of the needless pain I bear worrying about stuff. As I watched the political convention, it did not evoke a sense of peace. As I read the newspaper, I am not filled with a sense of peace. As I think about the state of the church, I am not always filled with peace. So I was grateful for the gospel according to St. Luke, the gospel according to St. Anthony, and the gospel according to St. Aretha, which told me, each in their way, to stop forfeiting peace, and build trust, and take it to the Lord in prayer, acknowledging that I am just a beginner.

It doesn’t mean I don’t have lots of questions about prayer. Maybe you do too. Here are a few of mine:

  • If prayer works, why do bad things happen to good people?
    Does the God of all creation really care if I pray?
  • Should I pray if it sometimes feels like I’m talking to the ceiling?
  • What happens if I don’t pray about something? Will it still happen?
  • Should I pray for a parking space?
  • What happens if people at the Republican Convention and people at the Democratic Convention both pray for success?
  • What happens if Chapel Hill fans and Duke fans pray for victory? Yankees and Red Sox? Cubs and Cardinals?
  • How can I do less talking and more listening in prayer?

No easy answers. Deep mysteries. But maybe we don’t need all the answers to just take one step in the journey of prayer. What would that look like today for you? Maybe just sitting for five minutes of silence. For those who are tired of forfeiting peace, it may be worth a try.

-Jay Sidebotham

Luke 11:1-13
 
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
 
And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
 
‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

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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 18, 2016)

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Honor

In the mornings, I get ready for the day by spending time with scripture readings suggested by the Book of Common Prayer. Over the course of a two year cycle, the lectionary leads me to read most of the Bible, the parts I get and those I don’t, the parts I like and those I don’t,

We’re presently making our way through Paul’s letter to the Romans, the longest of his letters, one that contains passages that cry out for editor and/or explicator. To my mind the letter can be divided into two parts.

The first 11 chapters represent Paul’s best attempt at describing the grace of God, a free gift from the Holy One that is meant for all. And Paul does seem to mean all. The second part of the letter (chapters 12-16) represents what I call the so-what factor, the implications of amazing grace, what it looks like when people live their lives believing that grace is true. (Frankly, most of us have a hard time believing grace is true. Our lives are spent trying to prove our worth, trying to prove ourselves better than someone else).

Chapter 12 begins with the word “Therefore” Whenever we run across that word in Paul’s letters, we have to ask what the “therefore” is there for. It is there to say that the way we live our lives is a reflection of the grace that Paul has described in the beginning of the letter. These passages cause me to ask: Have I really grasped grace? Does my life show it? Paul describes in these last chapters what that life looks like. When I read portions from the 12th chapter last Friday morning, here is the phrase that jumped out at me:

Outdo one another in showing honor.

Paul is telling the Roman audience (and us) how to live in community. They are to honor each other. It almost sounds like a competition. See how much honoring you can do. And when you’re done with that, do some more.

So what do you make of that word, honor? I’ve written about it before. It calls for reclamation, as often we reduce its holy meaning to talk about honoring a credit card or coupons. It can mean a virtue to which we aspire, like bravery or courtesy. But here it suggests action.

The word honor, a bit old-fashioned perhaps, appears in the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage. At the exchange of rings, the couple says: With all that I am and all that I have, I honor you. It gives an indication of what the word honor means. It’s relational, not contractual. It says that I seek the best for you, for the other person, in a world that says “me first” or asks “What’s in it for me?” I often tell couples that if they remember nothing else from their wedding liturgy (which sometimes seems like a speed bump on the way to reception and honeymoon), they should hold on to the word honor. Make it a screen saver. Put it on the bathroom mirror. Post it near the door when you leave in the morning. Better yet, post it on the outside of the door, when you’re coming home after a long day.

What does it mean to seek the best for the other? Jesus, the one who came to serve, not to be served, seemed to have a pretty good handle on it. It can come down to the most practical things. Listening before speaking. Forgiving before accusing. Assuming the best in another person, not the worst. Lowering defenses, raising hopes for the other. Blessing, not cursing. Looking at life from the other person’s point of view. Hearing the other person’s story. Imagining what that story feels like.

Carry the word honor with you today, as a response to the grace God has shown you and me. God has honored each one of us. How might we pass that on?

-Jay Sidebotham

Romans 12:1-13
 
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. 
 
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.

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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 11, 2016)

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In the late 1990’s, Desmond Tutu invited members of the Order of the Holy Cross in America to come to South Africa. I’m told he made the request because his country, in the wake of apartheid, needed models of life in community. Tutu believed the presence of a Benedictine monastery could help.

The brothers found a place near Grahamstown, a beautiful part of a beautiful country. They went, not knowing what they would do except to say their prayers, trusting vocation would emerge. Vocation did emerge, in the founding of a school for some of the poorest children in the region. The brothers committed to providing as fine an education as the most expensive schools In South Africa. The brothers came. They prayed together. They did indeed bring community.

After the events of last week, the hunger for community is deep. Funerals in Baton Rouge and Minnesota and Dallas are outward and visible signs of our broken world. What will it take for us to live together, as we retreat into partisan enclaves, imagining walls, breaking alliances? Difficult questions for sure, but they are hardly new.

The questions were top of mind in the 6th century. The Roman empire was falling apart. Fear and deprivation gripped the people. A monk named Benedict retreated to a cave to live out his religious life in peace. He was identified as a spirit-person, and perhaps reluctantly (I picture a raging introvert…that’s partly why I like the guy) was drawn to form communities, shaping pathways for the challenging task of life together, articulated in what is known as his Rule.

Today, July 11, is the feast of St. Benedict. We know a bit about his biography, but just a bit. We celebrate him mostly because of the Rule he established. It offered a way for people to live together, a model of community. People still read the Rule, study it, apply it, inwardly digest it, perhaps more in the last generation than in preceding periods. If you haven’t read it, let me suggest it for summer reading.

The questions which prompted Benedict to write about community are questions asked today. How can we live in community, in a world that doesn’t seem safe, in a world where political and religious institutions seem to fall apart? It’s been my great privilege not only to experience some of the life of a monastery, thin places where distance between heaven and earth diminishes. In parishes, I’ve known groups that meet weekly to study Benedict’s Rule. Out of such study, convening around common text like the spokes of a wagon wheel, new community emerges.

On the one hand, the Rule is mundane. First reading might say there’s no contemporary application. But the Spirit has something else in mind. The call to live in community shines through, though there’s no illusion that it’s easy. So it has to do with intentionality. The prologue opens with this line: Listen with the ear of your heart. That call to listening signals spiritual purposefulness. In our parlance, we might call it mindfulness. It calls us to be learners. It calls us to be guided by the heart, to follow what we love, or more to the point, to follow who we love.

It calls us to look to Christ. One of St. Benedict’s lines that grabs me: Let Christ be the chain that binds you. Esther De Waal, in her book on Benedict’s rule entitled Seeking God says it this way:

St. Benedict points to Christ. Christ is the beginning, the way and the end. The Rule continually points beyond itself to Christ himself, and in this it has allowed, and will continue to allow, men and women in every age to find in what it says depths and levels relevant to their needs and their understanding at any stage on their journey, provided that they are truly seeking God.

And if ever we needed the Lord before, we sure do need him now. Thank you, Benedict.

-Jay Sidebotham

Almighty God, by whose grace St. Benedict, kindled with the fire of your love, became a burning and a shining light in the church: inflame us with the same spirit of discipline and love, that we may walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
-A prayer offered by Esther deWaal
 
Come my children; listen to me: And I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
-Psalm 34:10
 
Listen and attend with the ear of your heart.
-St. Benedict
 
All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt. 25:35).
-St. Benedict

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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 4, 2016)

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Happy Fourth of July. This is a day for thanksgiving, as we stop to consider the many rights, privileges, and joys that come with our national life. We are blessed in many ways. But I find that the biblical injunction to give thanks in all things is put to the test for me these days, given current political discourse. So here’s how I’m responding to that test:

I am unexpectedly thankful for the current campaign as it calls us to debate this question: What makes for the greatness of a nation? We get answers, for sure, from the candidates. Do what you will with those.

But are there any answers which come from scripture? Did Jesus have anything to say on the matter? This holiday gives us opportunity to think about these questions. Independence Day is one of the national holidays that has found its way into the liturgical calendar. July 4 is a feast of the church, with prayers and readings selected to offer a faithful vision of common life.

So on this day, we are asked to consider a reading from the book of Deuteronomy, as the Lord tells the people of Israel what it will mean to be a great nation, as they enter the promised land: “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We might suggest this passage to the platform committees of both parties.

And on Independence Day, we are asked to consider an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his disciples: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” How would such teaching find its way into the political debate? How would MSNBC and Fox exegete such a passage?

Our church asserts that these passages inform our common life on this national holiday. You may or may not agree. But as we hear a call to greatness, I’ve been thinking about what Jesus said when his disciples were getting all political on him, shamelessly jockeying for positions of prominence in the kingdom that Jesus would usher in. (See Mark 10.) “Let me be VP.” “Let me be chief of staff.” “Give me a corner office.” Jesus called the disciples together, called them on the carpet and said the following:

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

As citizens of this nation who are also followers of Jesus, a call to greatness has something to do with service. The quote from Martin Luther King in the column on the left makes that point. Greatness is accessible to all. Dostoevsky said that the greatness of a society can be seen in the way it treats its prisoners. Mahatma Gandhi said it could be seen in the way it treats animals. What would you say?

On this national holiday, can we pause to offer thanksgivings, and dare to dream that a holy greatness will be the mark not only of individuals but it will also be the mark of our communities, our towns, our schools, our workplaces, our churches, our cities, our nation.

-Jay Sidebotham

A prayer 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.
A word from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve…. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.
If you’re interested in reading scripture passages assigned for today, see:
Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48; Psalm 145, or consider psalms and lessons “For the Nation” on page 930 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Not a bad way to observe the holiday, looking up these passages and giving them some thought.
Happy Fourth!

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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 27, 2016)

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I’ve been told that in the journey of faith, we don’t need so much to be instructed as we need to be reminded.

This morning, I’m reminded of the life and ministry and witness of John the Baptist. Last Friday, June 24, the church celebrated his birthday, employing Episco-speak to observe the feast of his nativity. It is also the anniversary of my ordination, so I always pay attention to the guy, and year after year try to let him be my teacher, my reminder. Let’s just say, I’m a slow learner.

On one occasion, Jesus referred to John the Baptist as the greatest person ever born of a woman. I don’t get the sense that Jesus threw around those kinds of compliments unadvisedly or lightly. What made John the Baptist so exceptional in Jesus’ eyes?

The history of Western Christian art depicts John the Baptist pointing beyond himself, often extending arm index finger indicating Christ on the cross. The great theologian, Karl Barth, wrote volumes in a study in his home. (I’m not sure Dr. Barth ever had an unexpressed written thought. He once said that even he had not read everything he had written.) As he wrote and wrote and wrote at his small desk, Barth had a picture of John the Baptist hanging over the workspace, a small reproduction of the Grunewald Altarpiece, reminding him that his impressive efforts only had meaning as they pointed beyond himself to Christ. Maybe we could all use such a reminder in the work we do. How does the work we do point to Christ?

We celebrate the birth of John the Baptist near the summer solstice, when days are longest. I don’t want to dampen summer fun, but the fact is the days have already started to decrease in length, until we come to the winter solstice, near Christmas, the feast of Jesus’ birth. I mention this because the liturgical calendar preaches to us. The timing of Jesus’ birthday and the timing of John’s birthday fulfill what John said when asked whether he was the one people should follow. John said of Jesus: “He must increase but I must decrease.” The days after John’s birthday decrease in length. The days after Jesus’ birthday increase in length. He pointed to Christ.

Make no mistake. John was no shrinking violet. He preached to the elite of the day, and opened sermons by addressing his congregation as a brood of vipers. Try that in stewardship season. He spoke truth to power, calling out the king for scandalous behavior. He lost his head over that one. He was strong in his sense of who he was, with all his eccentricity, all his counter cultural ways. He not only knew who he was. He knew who Jesus was, and found in Jesus the direction for his life.

I need to be taught how to do that. I need to be pointed in the right direction. I need to be reminded of that, day after day, year after year. The longer I am a priest, the more I need the reminder. Maybe you share that sense. If so, take this day to think about the life and ministry and witness of John the Baptist. Then ask: To what does my life point? What would it take to get ego out of the way, to point beyond self, with all our eccentricities, to the one who stretches out arms of love on the hard wood of the cross to draw us into his saving embrace? What would that look like this Monday?

-Jay Sidebotham

The Collect for the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist
 
Almighty God, by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Savior by preaching repentance: Make us so to follow his teaching and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and, following his example, constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
 
 
A reading from the prophet Isaiah:
 
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

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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 20, 2016)

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If this story isn’t true, it ought to be. I ran across this urban legend in one of Brennan Manning’s books. He’s a favorite author who writes with singular focus on the gift of grace, and how grace goes to work in the world. In this troubled time in our world, this story which he told came to mind:

During the Great Depression, on a cold night in New York, Fiorello LaGuardia went to a night court serving one of the poorest parts of town. He sent the sitting judge home and took the judge’s place, apparently something mayors can do. An elderly woman was brought before the bench, accused of stealing food from a local store. She explained that her daughter was sick, her son-in-law had abandoned them, and there was no food in the house to feed the grandchildren, no money to buy food. Despite this compelling story, the store owner insisted on prosecution. He couldn’t afford leniency because there were so many people in so much need. He’d be overrun. The mayor agreed, and told the woman that she had to either pay a fine of ten dollars, or spend ten days in jail.

Then he reached in his pocket and found ten dollars, paying the fine. And he spoke to the group gathered in the courtroom. He said, “I am fining each one of you 50 cents for living in a city where a woman needs to steal bread to feed her family.” Policemen, court officials, those present for traffic violations, even the shop owner paid the fine. The woman ended up with $47.50, a lot in those days. The mayor had made the point that the whole community bore responsibility. Justice and mercy were on display that evening. The story captures my imagination with the mayor’s sense that we are all connected, all responsible and even complicit in the brokenness of our world. What’s our part in it?

Our scripture poses that question, perhaps most famously when St. Paul addresses the religious and the not-so-religious and says that all have fallen short of the glory of God. We’re all in this together. Our liturgy poses that question, when at the beginning of Holy Week, in another courtroom scene, we read the Passion Narrative and the congregation cries “Crucify”. I know parishioners who skip that Sunday, claiming they would never have been part of the crowd, never part of a process that would put love to death. “Never. Not me. I’m not part of it.”

Facebook now echoes with images that say “I am Orlando.” just as a while ago we heard “Je suis Hebdo.” There is sad empathy there. But perhaps also a challenging message to think of our connection and our responsibility to address the brokenness of our world, to work for justice and peace. What part do we play in it? What we can do about it? Speak? Pray? Learn? Listen? Vote? Advocate? Serve? Be present? Pastor the community?

Along with the challenge is hope, perhaps conveyed in St. Paul’s image that we are all part of the body of Christ. All that we do is related to the rest of the body. We need each other. Below, find a message from Martin Luther King to the clergy of his day, well-meaning main-line Christian ministers who remained dangerously silent as Dr. King led the charge. He gave them an image of interconnectedness that speaks to all who would follow Jesus, who would be his hands and feet in the world.

This Monday morning, is there a way that God is calling you to pastor the community, to work for justice and peace, to participate in the healing of a hurting world? Can you see yourself as part of an inescapable network of mutuality, a single garment of destiny? Ask God to show you that way.

-Jay Sidebotham

In a real sense, all life is inter-related. All [men] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.

-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an excerpt from his letter from a Birmingham Jail

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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.