Monday Matters (June 4, 2018)

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

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

Sabbath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Sidebotham

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

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

Monday Matters (May 28, 2018)

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

Memorial Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Sidebotham

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

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

Monday Matters (May 21, 2018)

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

Teachers

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

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

So teachers have been on my mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Sidebotham

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

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

Monday Matters (May 14, 2018)

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 Acts 28: The closing verses of the Acts of the Apostles, as Paul makes his way to Rome.
 
Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.
 

The Final Acts: There’s no place like Rome

In college, I spent a semester in Rome, ostensibly studying art history, or Italian, or something. As I recall the most popular course was wine-tasting. I did happen to make some life-long friends, an extraordinary gift that keeps on giving. And I discovered that the moniker “eternal city” developed for a reason. There’s something about the light of Bella Roma. I reflected on those days as I looked at this week’s readings from the Book of Acts, which take us on a trip to Rome.

This week, we conclude our journey through this book, as we’ve been invited by the Presiding Bishop over the Easter season to read Luke’s story of the start of the church. In the final chapters, we read about shy and retiring Paul speaking in front of all kinds of political authorities. We hear about conspiracies to put him to death, with quick thinking youth helping Paul escape. We read about shipwrecks and snake handling (sounds like the makings of a pretty good movie) and finally about his arrival in Rome where the indefatigable apostle finds a way to continue his ministry.

Paul had long hoped to get to Rome, to use it as a launching pad for a westward expansion of his ministry, specifically to Spain. He had it all figured out. I imagine him crafting strategic plan, mission statement, articulation of vision, communications strategies, goals, objectives, metrics, indices, power point presentations, social media, who knows, maybe bumper stickers and coffee mugs.

He had one kind of trip to Rome in mind. The Holy Spirit had another.

As is often the case, life happened instead of what he planned. Yet even under restrictions of imprisonment, the book of Acts tells us he found his way to Rome. He found a way to build community, to preach the kingdom of God. Scripture tells us he did so with confidence. After a long career repeatedly met with resistance, we are told that no one was forbidding him. That must have been a great joy.

I suspect we each and all spend our lives making plans. We may think we have it figured out. If you’re like me, we imagine we can clue God in on what really needs to happen, as if the Holy One were a bit out of touch. Sweet but somewhat clueless. In need of our guidance.

And then we find ourselves in a totally new situation. We face new challenges, for which we may not be prepared or equipped. That’s where God shows up, as we find that we have not been left alone, as we hear a call to trust that next steps will be revealed, as we have opportunity to test whether we really believe that all will be well and all manner of things will be well, to test whether we believe that love wins.

That can be true in our individual lives. How many of us are living the life we would have scripted from the beginning? On what resources can we rely when course changes, when as Garmin says, we have to recalculate?

That can be true for our congregations. We are not gathering in the church in which our parents gathered. Our children will not gather in the church in which we gather. How will we discover an agile faith for a common life that is both new and faithful and pertinent?

That can be true for the wider church. How can we enter into God’s mission for the world, a world that is changing quickly, a world where the church may not command as much attention or influence as in previous generations? (We can start by inviting the Presiding Bishop to preach at a royal wedding. How awesome is that?)

Tradition has it that Paul was martyred in Rome. I’m pretty sure that was not what he’d planned. But the word martyr really means witness. His remarkable witness has changed us all, as he shared the message of grace offered without condition, the message of love from which we can never be separated. That message offers power to move forward amid the changes and chances of life, even and especially when life throws curve balls.

-Jay Sidebotham

Last week of readings for the Good Book Club :

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

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

 

Monday Matters (May 7, 2018)

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Acts 17:22-31
 
Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him-though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
 

God in my life?

The parishioner showed up in my office with an assignment. She was a force, a quite successful lawyer, who wondered about her co-workers who were highly ethical and had no religious affiliation. She was deeply involved in the church. They were not. She was curious about that. So she decided to invite a dozen of these folks to dinner, an invitation with condition. The conversation over dinner would address this question: God in my life? She decided I would be there to help moderate the conversation. I thought it was brave of her to do this. I thought it was brave of me to go. Except that I’m not sure I had a choice.

The table was full, invitations with condition accepted. As I dined with this group of strangers from several faith traditions, mostly non-observant at the time, I was struck with the fact that everyone at the table had something to say. Everyone had a spiritual story. Discussion was lively and enlightening. The group continued to meet once a month for a number of years.

One of my mentors, Dwight Zscheile, writes about the call for followers of Jesus in today’s culture. His book, People of the Way, describes an authentic discipleship in the Episcopal Church these days. He writes that one of the marks of faithful disciples is that they see what God is already up to in the neighborhood. They are not bringing God to the neighborhood. God is already there. That’s a healthy corrective to ways that many religious folks have looked at mission and evangelism. We’re talking about a call to be a listener and a learner. It’s a call to a more humble stance.

It may not be your impression of the guy, but St. Paul knew all about this. As he moved from city to city, he first took the pulse of the place, as he does in one of the readings for this week in our journey through the book of Acts. In chapter 17, he goes to Athens, intellectual center of his day. He seeks a way to connect with the people there. (Find an excerpt of that story above.) He goes to the Areopagus, close to the Parthenon and notes the many statues to the many gods revered in that culture. He notes one in particular, a statue to the unknown God. It strikes me as a kind of blank check/CYA deity, erected just in case the Athenians forgot someone, not to make anyone mad. Paul sees that as opportunity to share what he has learned about the God revealed in Jesus. But it began by his attentiveness to what people already knew and experienced spiritually.

Our Service of Holy Baptism asks a couple pertinent and outrageous questions. It asks us to seek and serve Christ in all persons. It asks us to respect the dignity of every human being. Christ is already in each person, in some way. Every person has God-given dignity. It is the conviction that prompted my parishioner to invite co-workers to share stories of “God in my life.” It is the conviction I’ve come to after a few years in ministry, that everyone has a God-shaped space inside, that everyone is restless until that space is filled. If we can help each other in filling that space, whether we are inside the church or outside the church, it will probably begin with talking less and listening more, sensing the contours of that interior space, sensing where that space hurts, where it indicates brokenness, where that space might be filled.

Think about that dinner conversation. How would you respond to the question: “God in my life?” And then think about how you might listen to someone else this week. Pray for God’s Spirit to lead you to that person. Hear that person’s story. Pray for that person. Learn from that person. Discover something new about God from that person.

-Jay Sidebotham

Good Book Club readings this week:

(Take the Easter season to read the Acts of the Apostles, bit by bit each day. We’ll link the assignments for each day each week.)

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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 (April 30, 2018)

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 Jesus promised his disciples three things-that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.
-William Barclay
The Gospel of Luke
 
I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
-Jesus (see John 15:11)
 
From Acts 16:
They seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
 
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.

Singing in prison

Here’s a mystery: I’ve known people who from outward appearances have everything life could offer, all measures of success met, yet they seem unhappy. Often that unhappiness is contagious. I’ve known people smitten with major, multiple, coincident life challenges, modern-day Job’s, illustrations of the maxim that life is not fair. Yet they seem to navigate life with equanimity and hope. What’s up with that? Specifically, what leads people who are beset with trials to exude joy?

One of the best books I’ve read recently: The Book of Joy. It chronicles a week in which Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama hung out in Nepal. Wouldn’t you like an invite to that gathering? A journalist noted their exchanges. What comes through loud and clear is that these two spiritual giants enjoy each other’s company. They each have encountered suffering and persecution enough to make me wilt. Through it all, they exude joy. They seem to be having a blast.

I thought about that book when I read a favorite story from the Acts of the Apostles, a book we’re invited to read this Easter season (see assignments for this week below) The story, also included above, tells about Paul and Silas thrown in the slammer, victims of unjust political and religious persecution. Just imagine what a first century prison was like. And how do Paul and Silas handle their time? Luke records that they sing and praise God. The other prisoners listen to them. What was the secret to that kind of joy, which had nothing to do with circumstances?

I came up with these three observations about the roots of joy, based on this book, and based on observing folks I’ve known and admired who seem joyful amid difficulty.

Joy grows from a sense of gratitude. These two spiritual leaders say that gratitude allows us to savor life and recognize that much of our good fortune in life comes from others. They propose a gratitude practice by which at the end of the day, one thinks of three things from the day for which one is grateful, and then one writes about those three things in a journal. Worth a try.

Joy grows from a sense of acceptance. When the Dalai Lama was asked how he coped with decades of exile from beloved homeland, he spoke of acceptance. His practice comes from an ancient Indian teacher who said that when you experience some tragic situation, if there’s no way to overcome the tragedy, there is no use in worrying too much. If something can be done about the situation, what need is there for dejection? The journalist noted: This was not denial of pain and suffering but a shift in perspective. I note, with caution: Easier said than done. But I take seriously the witness of this spiritual leader who has been through the mill and found ways to speak of acceptance. It’s Serenity Prayer mindset.

Joy grows from a sense of hope. In a chapter on despair, Desmond Tutu notes all the good reasons to dispense with hope. He knew them well. He says that one must note positive things happening in the world, bearing a sense of proportion and wider perspective. He says that hope is quite different from optimism, which is superficial and liable to become pessimism when circumstances change. Hope is something much deeper. He says: “I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless…to choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that in time, the storm will pass.”

This week, think of someone in your life who exudes joy. It need not be exuberant or flashy. It might be quite quiet. If you have opportunity, ask that person where joy came from, Be your own journalist, crafting your own book of joy.

Then ask God for the gift of joy. St. Paul, often accused of crankiness, actually knew a lot about joy (Read his letter to the Philippians, written from prison, a letter in which every other word seems to be joy or rejoice.) In his letter to the Galatians, he describes joy as a gift of the spirit. Lord knows, our church, our world could use that gift. I could use more of it in my life. How about you?

-Jay Sidebotham

Good Book Club readings this week:

(Take the Easter season to read the Acts of the Apostles, bit by bit each day. We’ll link the assignments for each day each week.)

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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 (April 23, 2016)

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I think God is wanting to be known. And my experience of God wanting to be known is much more in the person who is annoying me at the moment rather than in the sunset.
-Nadia Bolz-Weber
 
A Prayer for the Human Family 
(page 815 in the Book of Common Prayer)
 
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 
Acts 10:34-38
 
Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached- how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”

The Easter Way

I had a birthday recently and my beloved sister sent me a card which repeated a message she’d given me years ago, then in the form of a bumper sticker. She knew I was tickled by that bumper sticker because I’ve quoted it a bunch. So when she saw the message on a card, she couldn’t resist buying the card and sending it to me. Again. As a reminder.

The message read: “Jesus loves you but I’m his favorite.”

It’s something siblings may not verbalize but often feel, whether we’re talking about siblings in a biological family, or siblings in a broader sense, i.e., the brothers and sisters of the whole human family. As one of my seminary teachers once told me, the Bible is just a story of sibling rivalry.

My witty sister is kidding, of course (I think). But humor has its truth, and it makes me think that any of us who speak of having a relationship with God, a commitment of faith, a religious orientation probably have some lurking inner sense that God is kind of lucky to have us on the team. While God may tolerate some real jerks, God is wild about enlightened and decent folks, say, just for instance, like me.

Which brings me to one of the readings chosen to be read on Easter Day, arguably the most important day in the church year. The reading comes from Acts 10, and you can find it above. It’s also one of the passages included in this week’s assignments for those reading through the book of Acts this Easter season as part of the Good Book Club. (Note: It’s not too late to start that spiritual adventure.)

In Acts 10, Peter preaches to fellow church members. He explains insights that have come to him in his leadership role. He affirms a wideness to God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea, much wider than Peter could have ever imagined. Those insights mean that God’s welcome mat is huge.

So think with me about why this reading appears on Easter, again, our biggest day. I suspect it is because the news of resurrection, the news of Easter, is meant to make a change not only in how we relate to God, but how we relate to each other.

The way of life that draws distinctions, that relies on expressions of partiality, that focuses on who is in and who is out, all of that is frankly the way of death. It is limited thinking. It’s a dead end. Pursued to its extension, we’ll end up thinking of ourselves as the only one who has it right. What a lonely place. Perhaps even hellish.

The Easter way, the way of resurrected life, the way of new life embraces an ever-expanding vision of God’s love, reaching to everyone, even folks that annoy us. The Easter way says that we can find the risen Christ in all persons, even when Christ comes very well disguised.

So here’s a thought for this Monday morning: Where in your heart and mind do you draw distinctions? Who, if anyone, in the human family seems beyond the wideness of God’s mercy? (That may include the person you see in the mirror.) Identify that person (or persons). Pray for that person. Pray for the way you regard that person. Ask the Christ of Easter to open your heart to that person.

It’s the Easter way.

-Jay Sidebotham

Good Book Club readings this week:

(Take the Easter season to read the Acts of the Apostles, bit by bit each day. We’ll link the assignments for each day each week.)

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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 (April 16, 2018)

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 Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
-Margaret Mead
 
Acts 9:3-6
As Saul (a.k.a., Paul) neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
 
Acts 10:27-29
While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”
 

Change is good. You go first.
-Dilbert

It may well be true that nothing is certain in life but change. That doesn’t mean any of us like change, or that any of us are good at it. That often seems especially true of church life, organized religion, religious people and the spiritual journey.

I’m wondering this Monday morning when and if you’ve ever experienced change in your life, especially in your spiritual life. Have you ever changed your mind? Have you ever changed patterns of behavior? Were those changes for the better? What caused the change? What were the catalysts?

It’s ironic that we resist change because so many of the stories in the Bible speak about change and growth. In this Easter season, we are reading our way through the New Testament book called the Acts of the Apostles. It’s filled with stories of change as the news of Jesus’ resurrection grabs hold of a small group of disciples. When that happened, the world was changed. (Note Margaret Mead’s quote above. I think she had the early church in mind.) What do we learn about how that kind of change happens from these readings?

Among the stories in this week’s reading (see schedule below), we read about the ways that change came to St. Paul. Paul had dedicated his life to persecuting the church, bringing considerable talents and energy to that task. He was good at it. He got kudos for it. He was on a roll, until a light shone on the road to Damascus and he was set on another course. He pulled a spiritual 180. That change, the individual transformation came with a personal encounter, a voice from heaven calling his name, challenging him to think about what he was doing, making him rethink everything that had given his life meaning. St. Paul had thought he was right. He came to see another way.

Soon after reading about the change that came to St. Paul, we read about a change that came to the early Christian community. Even in its infancy, it had set up institutional rules about who was in and who was out. It doesn’t take long. In Acts 10, we read about how St. Peter, the leader of that community, changed his mind on the issue of whether Gentiles could be included in the Christian community. St. Peter had thought he was right. He came to see another way.

The changes come in close encounters of a spiritual kind. For Paul, it was an encounter with God speaking directly to him. For Peter, it was an encounter with a faithful person outside of his normal circle, another way that God speaks to us. All of which underscores what we are learning about spiritual growth (or change or transformation). It is a process that is fundamentally relational. That change or growth or transformation happens in relationship with God and neighbor. It happens for the good when we are focused on love of God and neighbor. It causes us to listen more closely for God’s voice. It causes us to listen more closely to our neighbors, and what they have to teach us.

I don’t know where God is calling us to change this week. I don’t know how God is calling us to grow. I’m guessing that’s different for each one of us. I am convinced that God is never finished with us, which means that change is always open to us, available to us, beckoning to us. However it happens, we are called to open our hearts to it.

What will that look like for you this week?

-Jay Sidebotham

Good Book Club readings this week:

(Take the Easter season to read the Acts of the Apostles, bit by bit each day. We’ll link the assignments for each day each week.)

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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 (April 9, 2018)

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Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried. 
-G.K.Chesterton
 
Acts 4:32-35
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
 

So what was that all about?

Easter was a grand celebration, in many respects the biggest day of the year for church folk. It’s preceded by Holy Week, with lots of liturgies, lots of time, talent and treasure, lots of holy effort. That’s preceded by 40 days of Lent. People in church give something up, and take on spiritual disciplines in anticipation of the day of resurrection. Again, spiritual crunch time for many.

So what difference does it all make? Does it have lasting impact? Or do we just look at it all in the rear-view mirror and say “Well, that was nice. Done with that for another year.”

This time of year reminds me of the start of my decades-old hobby: collecting photos of church signs. There are many interesting signs out there, especially in this part of the world which Flannery O’Connor described as Christ-haunted. Many of you have been gracious enough to send me such photos which you’ve run across in travels. Keep ’em coming.

The sign that triggered this hobby was perched on a small trailer, in front of a country church. It read: “The Lord is Risen. No Bingo.” As a preacher who unceasingly grazes for sermon material, I used this sign to make the homiletic point that the news of Easter brings transformation. It’s meant to change things. It’s meant to change us.

That may or may not ring true in our culture, or in our churches. That may or may not ring true in your life. Apparently it was definitely the case for the first Christians, which we can discover as we read our way through the New Testament book called the Acts of the Apostles (see Good Book Club readings for this week below.)

The news of the resurrection transformed the first Christians. Thomas went from doubter to worshipper. Peter went from denial to leadership. Paul met the risen Lord on the road to Damascus and went from persecutor to preacher. And as we read in the passage above, assigned for this week, and as many of us heard in church yesterday, the early church had one of the most dramatic transformations. The news of the resurrection made them think differently about their money, about their possessions. Now that is change.

As Luke tells it, the church became a community which has been widely admired and rarely imitated throughout church history. Based on the preaching of the resurrection, equipped with “great grace upon them all”, the early Christians became of one heart and one mind. Outsiders looked at people inside the church and said “See how they love one another.” (Would folks say that today?) These Christians knew each other’s needs and provided for each other’s needs, with reckless generosity. If someone had a lot of stuff, they shared with someone who had a little. It was Easter faith in action.

This is one of those wonderful passages which safeguards us all against biblical literalism. No worry that a whole lot of folks will actually take the early church as a model. I confess I won’t. But if implementation is unlikely to follow, perhaps just a bit of inspiration might.

Maybe in light of this witness of the early church, we can look around and consider what we have to share with those in need, nearby or on the other side of the globe, even if it’s only a small offering. It’s not simply about a way to help other folks. It’s not simply a way to be charitable or benevolent or a nice person. It’s not a way to assuage the guilt of affluenza.

It’s a way to say we believe in the resurrection. It’s a way to be Easter people. It’s a way to say that Easter changes us. It’s a way to say that Easter matters. All year long.

-Jay Sidebotham

Good Book Club readings this week:

(Take the Easter season to read the Acts of the Apostles, bit by bit each day. We’ll link the assignments for each day each week.)

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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 (April 2, 2018)

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Send them into the world in witness to your love.
-A prayer from the service of Holy Baptism, a request for those being baptized.

 

An example of a modern-day apostle:
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth century prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Graeco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town.
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who was killed on April 4, 50 years ago)

The vocation to discipleship and apostleship is given to us in baptism. In baptism, we are joined to our creator God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and sent out into the world in the power of the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s mission. Dying to our old self in the waters of baptism and rising to new life in Jesus, we own anew our calling as followers of Jesus – disciples of Jesus in a new age. Sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever, we’re sent into the world as missionaries, – apostles of the mission of God.
-Ian T. Douglas Bishop of Connecticut

Who me?

In conversations with folks around the church, I often ask people what it means to them to be a disciple. The response I sometimes get: Who me? People are not always sure that they see themselves as a disciple. They are not always sure they want to. After all, in the gospels, it doesn’t always turn out well for disciples. As Flannery O’Connor noted, “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you odd.” Being a disciple is for someone else, thank you very much. Sometimes, I ask folks to help me find synonyms. Instead of talking about being a disciple, they talk about being a Jesus follower, a learner, a student. That’s a bit more accessible. What does the word mean to you?

And once folks get done with that question, I have a follow up. I ask what it means to be an apostle. Then I really get the deer in the headlights look. Again, who me? And folks want to know about the difference between a disciple and an apostle. Aren’t they the same?

We’re shifting seasons now, moving from Lent to Easter. During Lent, we invited readers to read the Gospel of Luke, part of a denomination-wide effort called the Good Book Club. If any of you participated in that (not asking for a show of hands) I’m wondering about your reaction.

But we’re not done with the Good Book Club, just as Easter Day is not the end but the beginning. During the 50-day season of Easter, we invite you to read the New Testament book entitled the Acts of the Apostles. It’s also written by Luke and it tells the story, you guessed it, of the apostles.

So what’s an apostle? It’s often suggested that an apostle is some spiritual superstar, the spiritual 1%, greatly admired, rarely imitated. But the word really suggests someone (anyone) who has been sent, someone (anyone) who is on a mission. The mission is not their own, but in the vision of the Christian faith, it is God’s mission.

So as we begin to read the Acts of the Apostles this week, I’m wondering if you can explore this possibility. What would it mean to consider yourself both disciple and apostle? If these two churchy words get in the way, would it be possible to come at that question from aother angle.

When it comes to being a disciple, ask:

  • Who are my teachers, specifically about spiritual stuff? Is Jesus one of those?
  • What does it look like in my life, day to day, to be a follower of Jesus? What is the evidence of that commitment? Where does it show up?
  • If Jesus has something to teach me, how do I pick up those lessons? On line? In church? On my own?

When it comes to being an apostle, ask:

  • In my life, do I have a sense that there is anything I’ve been sent to do or be?
  • How would I describe that “mission” to a trusted friend?
  • How do I know where I’m being sent? What should I do when I get there?

Disciple and apostle. Not exactly the same thing, though meant to be found in the same person. You and I are candidates. As the season of Easter begins, consider a way that you can both follow Jesus and be sent by him into a world that needs God’s mission.

-Jay Sidebotham

Good Book Club readings this week:

(The readings listed above represent the assignments according to the Lenten Good Book Club. Never too late to join in! And we’re not done. Starting on Easter, we read the book of Acts.)

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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.