Monthly Archives: December 2015

Monday Matters (December 28, 2015)


Fear not

On Christmas, it was my joy and delight to preach about Peanuts.

I talked about a moment in the animated classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas, 50 years old this year. In that film, when asked about the meaning of Christmas, Linus in full lisp recites the story as told by St. Luke. He moves to spot-lit center stage and launches into the gospel many of us heard at Christmas services. When he comes to the part where angels appear to the shepherds and, in the artful phrasing of King James, the shepherds are sore afraid, something interesting happens.

Linus drops his blanket. That doesn’t happen often in Schulz’s work. Maybe never, apart from this one moment. Linus soon picks the blanket up again, but for that moment, the proclamation of good news gave freedom from his fears. And since Charles Schulz was not only gifted cartoonist but also insightful theologian, it’s worth paying attention to that detail. In my office/studio, I have framed a quote offered by Charles Schulz, who said: “Cartooning is preaching. And I think we have a right to do some preaching. I hate shallow humor. I hate shallow religious humor. I hate shallowness of any kind.”

I may be straining for homiletic point, but the timing of the dropping of the blanket is key, and anything but shallow. The announcement of the good news of Christmas gives a way to counter fears, allowing for the release of those things we use to fend off fears, our own versions of Linus’ security blanket.

Perhaps more than in other years, the message of Christmas seems to speak to the fears we bring, the hunger for security. Mindful of this season marked by heightened anxiety, I’ve been humming the Advent hymn because of this text:

So when next he comes with glory and the world is wrapped in fear, may he with his mercy shield us and with words of love draw near. (Hark a thrilling voice is sounding, stanza 3).

These days, our world seems pretty well wrapped in fears, with the help of 24/7 news cycle and political candidates making points by scaring us and of course that reminder every time we fly to take off our shoes lest someone blow up the plane with their loafers. Fear is in the air.

The good news of Christmas, as so memorably recited by Linus, is that love breaks into that fearful atmosphere, in keeping with the New Testament affirmation that perfect love casts out fear. So as the new year begins, pay attention to the fears wrapped around you. They may be global concerns. Fear of the future. Fear for safety. Fears that the familiar fades away. They may have a more individual character. Fear that we won’t measure up. Fear that relationships won’t survive. Fear that there won’t be enough. Pay attention to the security blankets we count on. What are you holding onto to help you navigate the fears? Is it up to the task?

And then celebrate the good news that love came down at Christmas, as Christine Rossetti wrote in the poem below. Experiment with this premise, this promise that love casts out fear.

And since Christmas is a season and not just one day, let me extend to readers of this weekly message my prayers, my hopes for a merry Christmas, for joy in this season and blessings in the coming year.

-Jay Sidebotham

Love Came Down at Christmas
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
-Christina Georgina Rossetti



Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.


Monday Matters (December 21, 2015)


It always strikes me, as December 21 rolls around, that doubting Thomas crashes Christmas. His feast day turns up, you guessed it, today. It transports us from holiday preparation, from hopeful Advent observance, to the days after Jesus died, when rumors of resurrection were surfacing, and disciples were locked behind closed doors, for fear of the authorities.

I’m not enough of a scholar to know exactly why his feast day ended up on this day. But one thing it tells me is that fear and doubt are part of the biblical record, from beginning to end. It’s true of the Christmas story, as we’re told shepherds were terrified, or as the King James Version so artfully puts it, they were sore afraid. Angels repeat the message to Joseph and Mary, in separate encounters: “Be not afraid.” Mary wonders: “How can this be?’ She ponders it all in her heart, which makes me imagine that she must have had doubts along the way.

And then Thomas helicopters in, you know, the one who goes down in history as the one who doubts. Skeptic, cynic, loser. That doesn’t always strike me as 100% fair. I imagine that he might well be an Episcopalian if he were around today. He is not alone, for the gospels tell us that fear and doubt surfaced in many of the appearances of Jesus after he was resurrected.

Maybe fear and doubt are part of your story. Fear is in the air, energizing political campaigns as 24/7 news services fuel that fire. This former ad guy will tell you that fear is one of the great motivators. (One of the campaigns I worked on had this tagline: You can pay me now or you can pay me later.)

And there is plenty of reason to doubt. In my own journey, doubts have many sources. It’s just too good to be true. I’ve been disappointed too many times. It doesn’t make sense. If God is in charge of the universe, how can this happen? If God is working through religious people, why isn’t the world a better place? Why do so many religious people of all traditions often seem so mean?

I’m grateful to have found my way to the Episcopal Church, as our Presiding Bishop describes it, a part of the Jesus movement. This denomination has a special vocation to celebrate questions, to welcome skeptics, to work it through. That has been a huge gift in my own spiritual journey, as I’ve resonated with what folks have said about doubt. For instance:

Frederick Buechner called doubt the “ants in the pants of faith.”

Paul Tillich noted that doubt is “not the opposite of faith, it is an element of faith.”

Emily Dickinson said: “We both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believing nimble.”

But doubt is not destination. It is discovery, integral to nimble faith. The fear and doubt the shepherds knew led them to worship at the manger. The fear and doubt Thomas knew led him to see Jesus in a new way, to offer one of the great affirmations in the gospels as he addresses Jesus as “My Lord and my God.”

Our church calendar invites us to recognize fear and doubt as part of the journey. No wonder. How amazing that the word would become flesh and dwell among us! Whatever fears and doubts you bring to this day, whatever their source, see them as a possibility for discovery, for learning, for new life, as we await the arrival of the one called Immanuel, which means “God with us”, with us in our fears and doubts.

-Jay Sidebotham

Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with the other disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

John 20:24-29



Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.


Monday Matters (December 14, 2015)


“We don’t always do what we always do.”

That’s what one of my favorite church musicians said about the liturgy, and about life in the church generally. I appreciated her nod to flexibility in an admittedly traditional context. I sense she was listening to the Spirit, not locked into some rigid vision.

Her comment came to mind when I eavesdropped on the sermon offered by John the Baptist to that crowd in the wilderness, a sermon we read in church yesterday. It’s the crowd he so pastorally labeled a brood of vipers. (I’ve not yet tried that in preaching, though there was occasional temptation. An excerpt from that sermon is below.) I consider his sermon exemplary, because at its conclusion, the crowd asked what they were supposed to do in response. I think a sermon should do that. It’s a wonder they listened to him at all. Yet his truth-telling helped them hear a call to live life differently. It’s an ancient example of what I call the “so-what factor.”

So let’s compare and contrast what John said to what Jesus sometimes said to followers. Jesus told Peter and John to leave their fishing nets and follow him. Give it all up. Matthew got up from his tax collector table and left it all behind to follow Jesus. Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and follow him. John the Baptist didn’t say that. If I put myself in John the Baptist’s shoes, I’d probably tell tax collectors that they needed to quit loathsome, corrupt jobs and do something more holy. Instead John tells them to stay put and transform the place where they are. I’d probably tell Roman soldiers, instruments of oppression, to quit their posts. Instead, John tells them to bring integrity to the place they serve, to be content with what they have. In a certain way, that sounds more spiritually challenging than if he simply told them to quit.

And if you don’t identify this morning with sleazy tax collectors or oppressive soldiers, there’s something in John’s homily for everyone. He tells the crowd to share what they have, something everyone can do, right where they are. His words were echoed by St. Ambrose in the 4th century who said: If you have two shirts in your closet, one belongs to you and the other belongs to the man with no shirt.

Three points here.

First, the call that we hear is not cookie-cutter. It may not be the same for everyone. We may not all be asked to do the same thing as someone else, or the same thing we’ve done in the past. We may not be all asked to make the same sacrifices, to follow the same path. We don’t always do what we always do.

Second, the call that we hear may invite us to spiritual growth right where we are. The call may come to a place that is tough to redeem, a place that is ethically complicated, an office with snarly politics, a home with broken relationships, a community divided by injustice. Our faith tells us that God’s spirit is present in all those places, able to transform, redeem the places in which we live and work. (Not that I always act like I believe that is true, but pretty soon we’ll get to hear Mary say that with God all things are possible.)

Third, we all don’t have to do everything. But we all can do something to help welcome Jesus into our world, to make a difference. What then shall we do this week?

As Advent winds up, place yourself in the crowd, as you hear John announce that Jesus is on the way. Join that crowd in asking about the so-what factor. It may well be a call to move, to grow, to deepen, to serve. It might call you to some totally new place. And it may also mean that you live out that call right where you are, which is often more challenging, and which can begin right now, in some new way this Monday morning.

-Jay Sidebotham

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”
In reply, John the Baptist said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”
Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
-Luke 3


Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.

Monday Matters (December 7, 2015)


You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one.
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.



Several firsts for me this past weekend. I was invited by a friend and colleague, Tracey Lind, to teach and preach at the cathedral in Cleveland, where she ably and artfully serves as Dean. I’ve known of her courageous and creative work for years, in Cleveland and other places, I was pleased and honored to see the place in action for the first time, a vibrant, diverse, inclusive community. In my experience, church isn’t always like that.

Another first. At 9am, I preached at a service with a colorful, wide-ranging musical palette. Yesterday was Beatle’s Mass. “Yellow Submarine” was not on the play list. “Help” perhaps should have been. But with the help of gifted musicians, we explored the liturgical and theological connections of songs like “Let it be” and “All you need is love.” During communion, music leaders and congregation sang “Imagine.” Given what I’ve read in the news of late, it was no wonder that John Lennon’s song brought tears to eyes, lumps in the throat, and wonderment about what a world of fulfilled imagination would look like.

I recalled the many times I’ve walked by the spot in New York where John Lennon’s life suddenly ended, yet another victim of senseless gun violence. I imagined what other songs might have come from his imagination had he been shielded from such deadly intention. I thought about the plaque in the pavement near his apartment, where the single word “Imagine” is embedded, where people make pilgrimage and keep vigil, sing songs, leave flowers and photos and notes, at all times of day.

In that song, John Lennon imagines a world that I might imagine differently. But I was struck with how his call to imagination was really a prayer (though I’m guessing his vision of prayer and God and theology was different than mine would be). In church, I was struck with how potent this song was for these people I didn’t know, how for the people who came forward for communion, there seemed to be a desire for a “better country” as the New Testament describes it (see the column on the left). I’d invite you to think this Monday morning about what you would imagine.

You see, this season of Advent is really about imagination, closely related to hope, closely related to prayer. The contemplation, the intentional quiet, the prayer during the weeks before Christmas are meant to help us imagine hope for a better world marked by peace and generosity. We need that. We have to grab it with intention.

Back to Cleveland. In the Beatle’s Mass, we also sang “Here comes the sun.” Because I’m such a cheesy punster, I thought about how this season anticipates the dawning of a new light with the birth of that son of Joseph and Mary: “Here comes the Son.” For those who feel called to follow Jesus, that journey includes imagination of a world marked by his grace, forgiveness, peace, welcome, inclusion. On this day (Dec. 7), a day that will live in infamy as we remember violence that expanded the war in 1941, take time to imagine something different, something more, something better. As you prepare for Christmas, imagine a new day, a new way: for yourself, your household, your community, our world. Let the imagination become a hope and in turn become a prayer, offered not only with your lips but with your life.

-Jay Sidebotham

A reading from the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, chapter 11:

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Hail! the heav’n born Prince of peace!
Hail! the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.

Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”


Jay SidebothamContact:

Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.