Monday Matters (February 20, 2017)

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Correction

Back in my ad agency days, one of the principals of the company was also chief copywriter. I recall one meeting when a young assistant, an aspiring writer, suggested an edit on copy the principal had written. The executive responded: “I tend to love what I write.” It was a response not unlike Pilate’s: “I have written what I have written.” The young assistant learned to keep future suggestions to himself.

Last week, I wrote a Monday message which I thought was pretty good. It was based on my recollection of a political event, the meeting of Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat, which I credited to Jimmy Carter. One of the readers kindly pointed out that that was fake news, perhaps alternative fact, since it was Bill Clinton who welcomed those two to the White House lawn. I felt slightly stung for being wrong, for being found out, fearing readers will think less of me, embarrassed for carelessness or cluelessness or both.

A person near and dear to my heart gave me a refrigerator magnet which reads: “I am silently checking your grammar.” That person does indeed remind me on a regular basis that when I write stuff, I’m inclined to not always navigate my grammar that good. When I get these corrections, there’s a part of me that defaults to defensive mode.

My point in this Monday morning confessional is simply to indicate that even though I embrace the gospel articulated by St. Paul, i.e., all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, I hang onto the pride of being right, or at least more right than others. I feel called to embrace the title of one pretty smart theologian, James Alison, who wrote a beautiful book about new ways to think about the doctrine of original sin. The book bears a hopeful title: The Joy of Being Wrong.

I have some distance to go in answering that call and discovering that joy.

Early in my ministry, a parishioner came to me to speak about the spiritual journey. He had Ivy League degrees in philosophy, one of the smartest people I had ever met. Over time, he came to embrace the Christian faith, and one day stopped into my office and said: “I finally get it. The gospel sounds like this: I’m not okay. You’re not okay. But that’s okay. ”

I wanted to unpack that a bit with him, to speak of original blessing, but he was on to a basic truth, which is the good news that God’s blessing comes to us by grace, with forgiveness and mercy, and not because we always have our act together. And even though I signed on to this gospel and pledged to try to follow Jesus years ago, there’s still part of me that wants to cling to being right, and wants God to be reminded of how lucky God is to have me on the team.

Whenever I participate in a service of Holy Baptism, I’m struck with the wording of the second promise in the Baptismal Covenant (p. 304 in the Book of Common Prayer). “Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you sin, repent?” Note that it doesn’t say “if ever.” It says “whenever,” which is to say that we will fall short, as sure as the sun rises. It’s going to happen today, February 20, to each one of us. The hope of our faith is not that we will arrive at the place where we will never fall short. The hope of our faith is that whenever that happens, we have a way home, the possibility of a new start, which is what resurrection is about.

And the hope of our faith is also that we can be gentle with each other. (See Ephesians reading below.) When Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that we are not to judge each other, he says we should pay more attention to the 2 X 4 in our own eye before we critique the speck of sawdust in neighbor’s eye. In touch with our own shortcomings, grateful for grace that looks beyond those foibles, we are called to share that gratitude in kindness and forbearance toward others and their inevitable shortcomings, lapses, failures.

How will you be gentle with yourself and with those around you this week?

-Jay Sidebotham

A reading from the letter to the Ephesians (4:31-32):

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
And to add to that reading from scripture, a favorite cartoon which I’ve shared here before but which bears repeating:
 

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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 (February 13, 2017)

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I’m not watching as much news as I used to, but it’s been a life-long interest (okay, addiction). Prompted by news I am watching, combined with our recent journey through the Sermon on the Mount on Sundays, I’ve been thinking of an image from decades ago, when Jimmy Carter brought Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin together on the White House lawn to broker a peace deal.

It was a brief season when the phrase “Blessed are the peacemakers” seemed like it could be true. Here’s what I remember: the pained expression on Mr. Rabin’s face as he reluctantly shook hands with Mr. Arafat. Rabin went on to say that you don’t make peace with your friends. You make peace with your enemies. It is work.

So we come to the persistent biblical injunction to love your enemies. Okay, it’s not everywhere in the Bible (there’s a gracious plenty of revenge), but it comes up enough to make us pay attention. Hear the first verses of Psalm 109: Hold not your tongue, O God of my praise; for the mouth of the wicked, the mouth of the deceitful, is opened against me. They speak to me with a lying tongue; they encompass me with hateful words and fight against me without a cause. Despite my love, they accuse me; but as for me, I pray for them.

Did you catch that? The psalmist says this about enemies: As for me, I pray for them.

How annoying is that? To be asked to pray for one’s enemies. Jesus said we should do it, and he modeled it when they were torturing him to death, praying that God would forgive those who hurt him. The first martyr of the church, Stephen, prayed the same thing, a tip off that that is what disciples are meant to do. I’ve tried praying for enemies. I confess that my evil twin sometimes would like to pray they’ll get hit by a truck. I don’t think that’s Jesus’ point.

There is something transformative about prayers for enemies. I don’t know how it works, but I know it does. It changes the relationship, softens the heart, drains the poison. It has power to affect relations of nations, the political system, our workplaces, schools, our households. Maybe even our churches.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not good at it. I can hang on to resentments with the best of them. So don’t listen to me. But do listen to great spiritual heroes have shown that this matters:

Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.
– Martin Luther King Jr.

It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business.
-Mahatma Gandhi

Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. ‘The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared’ (Luther).
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.
-The Dalai Lama

This Monday morning, is there someone you can pray for in the spirit of these spiritual leaders, in the spirit of Jesus?

-Jay Sidebotham

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

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

Monday Matters (February 6, 2017)

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Religious, not spiritual

Building on what I wrote last week, a few reflections on words recently heard from Nadia Bolz Webber. She described herself as being religious, but not particularly spiritual. She suggested that she often practiced her faith as a habit, even though she often didn’t really feel all that spiritual, all that holy.

It’s the opposite of what we hear often in a culture filled with nones and dones. (Nones are those who claim no religious affiliation. Dones are those who have given up on organized religion.) Increasingly, religious observance is regarded as quaint, outdated, irrelevant, boring, mindless, offensive, oppressive, and if nothing else, optional. Spirituality is embraced. Religion, not so much.

I have a feeling that, like it or not, we are all religious people. We gather regularly for liturgies of all kinds, upholding traditions which engage our spirits (We’ve just come off one of the largest religious events in our culture, an annual liturgy with Falcons and Patriots in procession, Lady Gaga offering anthems in there somewhere.) So the word “religion” could probably stand some exploration, maybe even redemption.

Accounts vary regarding its etymology. According to Cicero, the word “religion” means to choose again (re + lego), to go over carefully. I’ve liked the sense of the word attributed to Augustine (and Joseph Campbell) by which religion literally means “to bind together again.’ Re: again, Ligio: bind, as in ligaments. We could all stand to be brought together again. Can religion do that? Can it help the center hold?

My take on it: Religion without spirituality can, without a doubt feel empty, routine, soulless. Spirituality without religion can lose its way, veering off into individual experience. Religion, with all its foibles, reminds us that we need to show up. We need each other. We need to be in community with people who will be our teachers. That invariably calls for structure and organization, institutions and habits. Tradition matters. Truth be told, even the most non-traditional folks among us gravitate toward tradition.

But neither religion nor spirituality are ends in themselves. They are instruments, vehicles, channels that by amazing grace, allow us to know something of the God who knows us intimately, to love in some way the God from whose love we can never be separated, to serve, even haltingly, the God who came among us as servant.

With that in mind, religion and spirituality and scriptural engagement and social action and polished liturgy and sacred music and fine architecture and compelling preaching and regular church attendance and generous pledging and successful church growth strategies are not the destination. They are meant to draw us into loving and healed relationship with God and with each other. Religion on a good day does that. Sadly, too often, religion trips over itself. It gets in the way.

It’s interesting to me that the word “religion” is hardly ever used in the Bible. But equally interesting is to note the way that religion is described when it does appear in the New Testament. It’s not about institution or tradition or bureaucracy or rules. It’s about engagement of the heart, showing love to people who need to know love–the least of these. (See biblical citations below.) These days, they seem more threatened than ever.

So whether you are spiritual or religious or some combination of the two, ask today why one should bother with any of it. And try this answer on for size: practice spirit-filled religion that discovers its true nature in serving those in greatest need. There’s no shortage of opportunity to do that.

-Jay Sidebotham

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
James 1:26, 27
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.
-Isaiah 58
Jesus said: “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Matthew 6:1-4

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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 (January 30, 2017)

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Twisted

Best-selling author Nadia Bolz Webber leads a Lutheran church in Denver. It’s called The House for All Sinners and Saints. That covers about all of us.

I heard her speak last week at a conference of folk who serve in churches, a group that does remarkable holy work. It’s also a group that knows well the foibles and failures seen in the pews on Sunday, seen around the table at a church meeting, and of course seen in the mirror. In a season of heightened anxiety, she gave hope for why we do church, why we need church, even with all the foibles and failures.

Ms. Bolz Webber is a big presence, not just because she is tall. She speaks truth to her generation. She has lots of tattoos. She wears a lot of black clothes. Clergy often do that, but this is a bit different with its goth flavor. She cusses some when she speaks publicly. I find that sort of fun and unexpected, but ultimately not that important.

What got my attention was her transparent confessional tone, her witness to the darkness of her own soul, on exhibit when she admitted the twisted nature of her inner life. Just one example she offered: her experience of a kind of religious road rage as she was walking in a prayer labyrinth behind someone who was moving way too slow. I believe she said something like “Get on with it.” And maybe even included an expletive.

The crowd of church folk laughed knowingly. She shone light on the thing that Jesus talked about, oh, all the time. The really religious people are often so tied up in knots, so internally twisted, that they forget that it’s all about love. Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love of self. Jesus needed to remind them that God comes to give us a new heart.

It’s the prayer of David after the prophet shone light on his twisted, murderous, adulterous activity. David prayed: Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me. It’s the teaching of Jesus in Mark, chapter 7: ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me.” He said: “You abandon the commandment of God (i.e., according to Jesus, that command is love of God and neighbor) and hold to human tradition.” Then Jesus said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.’

Ms. Bolz Webber said that the twisted nature was what might be called sin in some other context. She noted that sin is not simply a list of naughty things we should not do. (Sometimes that would just be easier.) It is this inner disposition that puts “hope in poison as if it was medicine.” That was another line that caught my attention, a corollary to what Anne Lamott has said about the inner life which can get pretty twisted, which is that holding on to a resentment is like drinking rat poison in hopes that the rat will die.

It’s all about the heart, and so I repeat the wisdom of the desert father that I have found both helpful and challenging: “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.”

She got me when she spoke about why the faith, why church matters. (In a twist, she said she was religious, not spiritual.) We need to come together and be together to share the transformative power of God’s love, love that identifies each one of us as child of God. We need to come together in a place where the gospel is proclaimed (Love wins), where bread is shared, where water is poured, where forgiveness is pronounced. You don’t get all that anywhere else.

She noted that hurt people hurt people. Conversely, she noted that forgiven people forgive people. The key to untangling, untwisting the inner snarl? Remember that each one of us is a child of God. We can’t hear that often enough. Can you hear it this Monday morning? Can you share that good news?

-Jay Sidebotham

From Psalm 51

You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

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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 (January 23, 2017)

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The Blame Game

On the road last year, my wife and I stopped at a gas station. It was cold and we had the dogs in the car, so I closed the door behind me. My wife went in to use the restroom. The dogs were a little anxious so they jumped up on the armrest to watch me pump gas. When Spirit (my blessed dog and spiritual advisor) jumped up, he pressed the button that locked the car. I heard the click and thought: Okay, got the keys here. Oops. Not so. There they were. Sitting on the front seat. Where I left them. Next to the dogs.

I pleaded with the dogs. If they locked the car, surely they could unlock it. I soon realized that was probably not the answer. The interesting thing I noticed about myself is that as I realized we had a problem, I was immediately eager to blame someone. What were the options? The dog? My wife? The designer of the car? The gas station? Congress? The universe? Not myself, of course.

Why am I telling you this? My point (and I do have one) is that so often in my life, when things go sideways in ways great and small, my initial and strongest reaction is to figure out who to blame, who screwed up, who is wrong (unless it is undeniably me). Flip side: so often in life, when things go sideways, my initial response is to figure out how I am not to blame, how I am not in the wrong, a refusal to own my part. (After all, I could have put the keys in my pocket).

When I cross the Jordan and am ultimately made whole, finally healed, I suspect I won’t focus so much on whether I’m right or wrong, won’t reflexively crouch into defensive position, but will think about how to move forward from strength to strength in service in God’s perfect kingdom.

But for now, in this state of imperfection, where I am so obviously a work in progress, I suspect it would be best to think less about being right and more about being righteous.

The word righteous could use redemption. For many, the word suggests a most unattractive puritan piety, as in self-righteous. But in the Bible it suggests right relationship, the healing of things that divide us. These days, those divisions seem to invite us to participate in the blame game.

The Bible is full of folks who play that game. When Adam and Eve get caught taking fruit from the forbidden tree, Adam says the woman made me do it. Then he actually blames God: “The woman you gave me…” Eve in turn says the serpent made me do it. It’s enough to make me pity the serpent. When Cain kills Abel, God asks where Abel is. Cain says: Am I my brother’s keeper? Deflect. Aaron makes an idol, the golden calf out of melted jewelry. Moses confronts him. Aaron claims the calf just jumped out of the fire. Not my fault. Fast forward to Jesus, whose great complaint against his opponents, political and religious, were that they were always trying to justify themselves, rather than looking at what they could do to contribute to justice, mercy, healing and grace.

I’m working on understanding the difference between being right and being righteous. That work comes out in homilies. One Wednesday after I preached on the theme (preacher preaching to himself), a gracious parishioner sent me the poem included below. It shows that it may be best to forgo defensive posture, and think about what will lead to whole relationships and new life, to growth.

There’s a lot that’s messed up on the national and global scene right now. There’s a lot that can be messed up in our workplaces, churches and families. Things go sideways all the time. The clear call of Jesus to focus on love of God and neighbor (even when that neighbor is the enemy) seems to be a way forward. This Monday morning, consider these questions:
How might you chart that way forward, even in predicaments that tempt you to cast blame on others or to justify yourself?
Can you ask: What is my part?
Can you set your default on mercy, not judgment?
What would it take to view yourself not as hero or victim but as learner?
After my wife and I arrived at a place where we could chuckle about dogs in car, realizing that blame was pointless, the two of us out in the cold, a scruffy looking angel appeared in a pickup with all that was needed to open the door. The dogs were set free. And we could move forward.

-Jay Sidebotham

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow in the spring.
 
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
 
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plow.
 
And a whisper will be heard where the ruined house once stood.
 
by Yehuda Amichai
 
From the Sermon on the Mount:
 
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 5:3-10)
 
 
 
The quality of mercy is not strained; 
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven 
Upon the place beneath. 
It is twice blest; 
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
-Wm. Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice

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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 (January 16, 2017)

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St. Peter and St. Paul are two of the most important figures in the New Testament. And I’m not sure they liked each other very much.

Along with everything going on this week, we celebrate this Wednesday (January 18) the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter, recalling the story of Peter’s acknowledgement that Jesus was the Messiah. A week later, (January 25) we celebrate the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, recalling the story of the Damascus road conversion, and Paul’s affirmation of Christ as Lord. Between these two days, we observe the Week of Prayer for Christian unity. It’s particularly ironic this year because it’s hard to recall a time when the nation has been so divided. If social media is any indication (and not fake news), people of faith are divided as well.

Later this week, an interfaith prayer service will be held at the National Cathedral. That’s not the real name of the cathedral. It’s really called the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. Sculptures, one at the north tower, the other at the south, depict these two saints. Those two depictions are about as far from each other as possible. The architecture tells the story.

You see, as I read the New Testament, and read between the lines, I wonder how much Peter and Paul liked each other. This was no bromance, no ancient near eastern Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid. It sounds like it was often hard for the two to be in the same room, reminding us that church fights are nothing new. The letter to the Galatians tells how Paul publicly dressed down Peter over the issue of who could be included in the church. The Letter of Peter offers snarky comments about the confusing nature of Paul’s letters. Yet each had a vital ministry in the church. Each had an indispensable calling. Each made a huge difference in sharing the gospel.

For me, unity right now feels like a scarce commodity. I’m struggling with the stance some Christians have taken in this politically charged season, stances that differ from mine, struggling because I am so sure I am right. Even the question of whether a prayer service should be held this week has generated heated division, perhaps more heat than light. What can we say that will guide us faithfully through this week? What’s this week focused on unity all about?

First, the week is about prayer, a good place to start. I’m mindful of the first of the beatitudes, which says: Blessed are the poor in spirit. I’m not always sure what that means, and I’ve been helped in understanding that promise by one translation which renders the first beatitude this way: Blessed are those who know their need of God. We dedicate a week (especially this week) to prayer to say that we cannot navigate this on our own. We need help, big time. Maybe we can all agree on that. How will you weave prayer into this week?

Second, the week is about prayer for unity, not uniformity. We are not all going to agree. If we look for communities marked by full agreement, we’ll end up pretty lonely. On the night before he died, the night before he left his disciples, Jesus prayed for their unity, that they might be one, even as he and his Father were one (see below). Not the same. But united in love. I’m working on that. I’m not there yet. How about you? How will you seek unity this week?

Third, this week is about prayer for unity informed by the life and ministry and witness of Martin Luther King. He was a person of prayer. (See prayer attributed to him below.) He prayed for unity with his lips and with his life. He prayed, dreaming of that “inescapable network of mutuality” by which we are tied to one another in a single garment of destiny. His active prayer life did not keep him from working all the time, and giving up his life, for the cause of justice, protesting and resisting and speaking truth to power. How will you follow his example of courageous and prayerful service this week, praying not only with our lips but with our lives?

Give thanks for the witness of Peter and Paul, flawed human beings used mightily by God. As such, they give us hope.

-Jay Sidebotham

A prayer attributed to Martin Luther King:
 
God, we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we will love you with all our hearts, souls and minds, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you, God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments  of joy and in our moments of sorrow, until the day when there shall be no sunset and no dawn. Amen.
 
 
From the Book of Common Prayer, a prayer for unity:
 
O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 
 
 
John 17: 20-23
 
Jesus prayed: “I ask not only on behalf of these (the disciples), but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, a
s you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

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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 (January 9, 2017)

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Danger

Apparently, my loved ones think I need to do more reading. At Christmas, I received a slew of wonderful looking books that now stack up on my bedside table like planes over Laguardia Airport in fog, circling for a landing. The stack is in itself impressive.

I’ve dived into a couple of them, including The Book of Joy, which describes conversations between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. The book is an exploration of joy, notable since both these men have faced extraordinary hardship and hatred. Each man, in his own way, seems to rise above it all with joyful spirit. How does that happen?

I was struck with a story told by the Dalai Lama about a monk he knew before the Dalai Lama was forced into exile. The monk was imprisoned and subjected to torture by his captors. “There was a Soviet-style torture and Japanese-style torture and Chinese-style torture, and at this camp they combined them all into an immensely cruel kind of torture.” When the monk left the camp, only about 20 of 130 prisoners survived. The monk told the Dalai Lama that during those 18 years he had faced real dangers. The Dalai Lama thought the monk meant dangers to his physical well-being. The monk meant something different. He said that he was often in danger of losing his compassion for his Chinese guards.

This week culminates in celebration of the life and ministry of Martin Luther King, who took cues from Mahatma Gandhi in battling hateful forces of injustice that confronted, constrained and ultimately killed. Dr. King chose to confront those forces with soul-force, a refusal to strike back in kind, in large part based on a commitment to the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount (which also guided Mahatma Gandhi). This week couldn’t come at a better time.

We find ourselves in a distinctive season in our common life. It’s no partisan statement to observe that hate speech and hate crimes are on the rise, vitriol from all sides, regard for the other as despicable, dispensable, deplorable, deportable, irredeemable. I have participated in that dim regard for those who see things differently. I sense that the danger to our common life is real. I sense that the danger to my spirit is scary. Is it possible to hold on to compassion?

I’m not just talking about extraordinary circumstances, like a monk having compassion for torturers, or Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela confronting lethal opponents with forgiveness. For most of us the dangers of a compassion deficit surface in smaller ways: How can we hold compassion for those we meet all the time, say, in traffic, or in lines at the airport; those who serve us in restaurants; those we meet at the dinner table or the water cooler; those we meet at church who drive us nuts; those who act out in meetings; those whose theology doesn’t square with ours, those whose votes confound and upset us, those who make their appearance in our interior life, in our memories, in heart and mind where we cherish resentments, placing those resentments on the shelves like trophies.

We have teachers available to us, like Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama, spiritual leaders who held on to compassion but never stopped fighting injustice. Compassion was not passive. They changed the world. I sense in days ahead we will need more teachers like them.

For Jesus-followers, that message of compassion comes not with an embrace of the scripture that says “an eye for an eye”, but with his interpretation that says: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who curse you.” It comes with words of forgiveness.

I recognize the danger. I don’t always have an easy time embracing compassion. I’m grateful for witnesses who show the way. This Monday morning, I’ll do my best to carry with me the words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (another joyful spirit), who said; “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”

Perhaps that will help me write a book of joy.

-Jay Sidebotham

I refuse to accept the view that [mankind] is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.
-The Dalai Lama

We are each made for goodness, love and compassion. Our lives are transformed as much as the world is when we live with these truths.
– Desmond Tutu

May God give you grace never to sell yourself short. Grace to risk something big for something good. Grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.
-William Sloane Coffin
Compassion is not a popular virtue. Very often when I talk to religious people, and mention how important it is that compassion is the key, that it’s the sine-qua-non of religion, people look kind of balked, and stubborn sometimes, as much to say, what’s the point of having religion if you can’t disapprove of other people?
-Karen Armstrong

Do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.
-Psalm 37:9

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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 (January 2, 2017)

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That was the message on the billboard on I-40. The word “real” was in real big letters.

As I sped by, I couldn’t see who paid for the message. I imagined the sponsor worried that too many folks were not following Jesus’ teaching. Too many not-real Christians around. I also imagined that the sponsors were pretty sure they were real Christians, that they had gotten Jesus’ teaching right, and were following that teaching, which included putting up this billboard. I imagined the variety of political or social concerns that might have motivated sponsors.

The intended effect of the sign, was of course, to make folks think about whether they were real Christians. It worked on me. Driving along the highway, I reviewed the challenging nature of Jesus’ teachings and how poorly I follow them. Jesus said things like “sell everything you have and give to the poor.” Was he kidding? Only speaking metaphorically? He called people to care for the marginlized. I haven’t obeyed that one in any substantive way. He declared harsh judgment on those who ignored people in need. I do that on a daily basis. He taught that we should not judge others (perhaps that we shouldn’t even worry about who is a real Christian) because if we do, we will be judged. He taught that we should love enemies, and do good to those who curse. I’m too often consumed with anger and resentment at those who see things differently than I do. He said we should resolve broken relationships before we come to the altar. I’ve let that one slide. He called us to forgive unlimited numbers of times. I consider it a big deal to offer forgiveness just one time, maybe. He said first shall be last, and vice versa. Try that at customer service lines or in traffic. He said you can’t find your life unless you lose it. Put that in a self help book.

You get the point.

The more I thought about what I know of Jesus’ teachings, and how often I fail to follow them, the more I wondered about what it means to be a real Christian, an odd question for a priest. In oh so many ways, I fail to live up to his teaching of love and grace and forgiveness. And in a season when the New York Times introduces a weekly section devoted to hate crimes in our country, I daresay I’m not alone.

When people tell me that they don’t know if they can be part of the church because the church is full of hypocrites, I can only respond: “guilty as charged.” Mahatma Gandhi, on one occasion, tried to attend a church service, as he was exploring the Christian faith. He was turned away at the door because of the color of his skin. Upon reflection on that experience, he said: “I’d be a Christian if it were not for the Christians!” At another point in his life, he said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ” G.K.Chesterton, noted theologian put it this way: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

So what is to be done? Note that the first followers of Jesus were not called Christians. They were called people of the way, suggesting progress not perfection. I came across a passage last week in which Jesus talks to his disciples, teacher guiding students. He said: “By this will all people know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” Maybe that’s all the teaching we need.

Maybe, when all is said and done, there was only one real Christian. We just celebrated his birth. What’s left for the rest of us? Perhaps a New Year’s resolution: Step by step, to be more like Jesus, living into his vision of a community marked by love in all the way that love gets expressed: kindness, compassion, forgiveness, joy, generosity.

His teaching is not easy. But his way with us is marked by grace. We don’t always need to get it right. In fact, we best be careful when we think we’ve gotten it right.

As I contemplate the challenge of being a “real” Christian, in 2017, I’ll try to carry these words from Richard Rohr: “God does not love us because we are good. God loves us because God is good.”

-Jay Sidebotham

Matthew 11:28-30, New Revised Standard Version
Jesus said: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30, The Message
Jesus said: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me-watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

The Summary of the Law (Mark 12:29-31) or in other words, Jesus’ teaching in a nutshell:

Jesus said: The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your  God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

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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 (December 26, 2017)

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Inquiring minds want to know. Who is good King Wenceslaus and what’s so good about the guy?

Tip off: As you know from the opening line, his story takes place on the feast of St. Stephen (a.k.a., today) which Anglophiles will know as Boxing Day, which has nothing to do with Muhammad Ali or Rocky or Raging Bull. It is a day when servants were honored with gifts. Let’s put that all together this Monday morning, the day after Christmas, and see what it says about living a life of faith.

Take them in chronological order. St. Stephen, whose story is told in the book of Acts (see a portion of it below) was the first martyr of the church, stoned to death by a mob, St. Paul on the sidelines holding coats for those who cast stones. I imagine St. Paul wished he could do that one over. But Stephen was also first among the deacons, selected by the church to take care of those who were overlooked, given a ministry to those who had been forgotten.

On Stephen’s feast day, 10th century Bohemian Good King Wenceslaus went out when the snow lay round about, deep and thick and even. Here’s the story the hymn tells. In snowy weather, Wenceslaus went to help a poor man, providing food for the hungry soul. Wenceslaus’ page whines about how cold it is, so the King invites the page to follow in his footsteps through the drifts, in fulfillment of a legend referred to by a preacher in the 12th century:

But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.

Which brings us to Boxing Day, observed in the United Kingdom as a day to give gifts to servants, ostensibly domestics, busy on Christmas Day waiting on the 1%. It is a day to recognize those who serve, and perhaps most especially those who are somehow invisible.

I don’t know how much St. Stephen and King Wenceslaus and Boxing Day are connected, but if they aren’t, they ought to be. They remind us in this Christmas season (remember it’s more than just one day) that Christ is met and known and loved in our encounters with the most vulnerable. Christ is met when we serve. Now more than ever, people of faith will have to look out for those in greatest need, nearby and far away. The Christmas story tells us as much. The starring characters in that story are those who were invisible to those in power. Shepherds on a hillside. Foreign magi. A refugee family looking for shelter. A baby born a king.

Take this day in the Christmas season to say a prayer for those in need, those most vulnerable. Think about those who are invisible, servants in our culture (those who pick up our garbage or recycling, those who wait on us in a restaurant, those who stand on the highway waving signs for post-Christmas sales, those poor souls on the front lines at customer service, those without homes, those whose political allegiances differ, those who watch different news channels, those confined and maybe forgotten in nursing facilities, those without homes or jobs, those who are quietly alone, etc.)

And maybe there’s a way to be a servant like St. Stephen, or to bring warmth in the cold like the 10th century king, or to acknowledge the dignity of someone who serves quietly with a small gift of some sort. Maybe as small as a word of thanks.

My guess is that if you discover that way today, it will be the way of Jesus, and it will make your Christmas merry and bright.

-Jay Sidebotham


From the Service of Holy Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer: 
 Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving neighbor as self?
Will you strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being?

 

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles (6:1-7):
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

 

In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted; Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.
-The last stanza of the carol known as “Good King Wenceslaus”

 

A reading from Matthew (25:40):
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

 

Reading recommendations:
Recent New York Times Columns: Nicholas Kristof interview Tim Keller; Peter Wehner writes a column called Humanizing Jesus.

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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 (December 18, 2016)

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Advent questions

I’ve been struck this year with the questions that pop up in the Advent season. I started thinking about this a couple Sundays ago when we read about John the Baptist in prison. He was no shrinking violet, never afraid to speak truth to power (which is what got him tossed in prison in the first place), never afraid to offend his listeners, addressing his congregation as a brood of vipers. Generally not recommended for preachers.

But earlier in Advent, we met him in a prison cell, maybe having second doubts about the choices he had made. I imagine him asking: Was this the cruise ship I signed up for? Was my call a wrong number? He sends messengers to Jesus (not sure how they did that in first century prisons) with this Advent question: Are you the one we’ve been waiting for or should we look for somebody else? (See Matthew 11 for a better telling of this story.)

Later this week, smack dab in the midst of wrapping Christmas presents and decking the halls with yuletide merriment, we observe the feast of St. Thomas, of doubting fame. He questioned whether Jesus was really raised from the dead. Maybe like John, he wondered as follower of Jesus if he had misplaced his hopes. (See John 20 for a better telling of this story.)
Maybe Thomas should be patron saint of Episcopalians, a denomination graced with a knack for savoring questions. If it’s true what Frederick Buechner says, that doubt is the ants in the pants of faith, Episcopalians should have very lively faith.

As we move to the observance of Christmas, questions persist. Mary responds to the angel’s announcement that she’s going to have a baby: “How can this be?” Refugee parents ask: “Is there any room in the inn?” Magi from the east ask: “Where is the child whose star we have observed?” And some time in the next couple days, we may well all sing: “What child is this?”

So I’m wondering on this Monday morning in this last week of Advent about the questions you bring to Christmas. Maybe like John the Baptist, the limits, even confinements of your life make you wonder if there’s hope to be had, a way out, a way forward. Maybe like Thomas you’ve been disappointed in faith, in the church, in people you trusted, making you wonder whether you can give your heart again. Maybe like Mary, you get a glimpse of the outrageous miracle that is Christmas and wonder: “Really? How can this be?”

In the mystery of our biblical tradition, these kinds of questions are welcomed, sometimes downright celebrated. (It would have been so easy to leave them out of the Bible.) It should be said that the questions are not meant as destination, but as catalysts moving us forward toward answers. And those answers do not come in argument. They do not come in theology or philosophy or recitation of creed. They do not come with some quick fix. The answer comes in the form of a person, a helpless, homeless infant actually, whose biblical nickname is Immanuel, which really means God with us.

So celebrate this week, family and fun and food and music and gifts, all of which orbit around that manger to which we bring ourselves, carrying all of our questions and placing them right there next to the gold, frankincense and myrrh.

-Jay Sidebotham


Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.
 -Matthew 7:7 from the Sermon on the Mount 
 
Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.
-Voltaire
 
Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.  
-Frederick Buechner
 
Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.
-Henri Nouwen

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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.