Monthly Archives: December 2017

Monday Matters (December 25, 2017)


A few years back, as I was working on the Rector’s Christmas Sermon, it suddenly began to rhyme. This morning, I share that seasonal doggerel, based on Luke’s gospel, with apologies to real poets everywhere. The poem/sermon is based on Luke 2:1-14 included below.

Room for Joy

If I could meet the innkeeper,
The thing I’d want to know
Is why he pointed to the barn
Two thousand years ago.

We don’t know much about him.
St. Luke’s account is thin
It’s up to us to speculate.
Could he have let them in?

Perhaps he acted out of spite:
“There’s no space here,” he said,
as if he were some ancient Scrooge.
What’s going through his head?

It could be he’d just had enough.
The day had left him harried.
This couple was the final straw.
And were they even married?

Perhaps it seemed too troublesome
To welcome as a guest
This pregnant child. Her presence
Might deny him beauty rest.

Or was he snidely mocking them?
“A room? Tonight? From me?
What’s the matter?
Can’t you read that sign: NO VACANCY?”

“No wait. There is one open room.
I’ll book you right this minute.
You’ll like it. Lots of nice fresh air.
May I place you in it?”

“No chocolate on the pillows though.
No pillows there at all.
And by the way, you’ll share your suite.
You’re bunking in the stall.”

It may be that he saw a chance
In Joseph’s anxious gaze
To make a couple extra bucks
By renting out that place.

“I wonder if they’ll go for it”
He ponders at the door
“They must be pretty desperate.
Perhaps I should charge more?”

But maybe there’s another way
to think about this guy.
Perhaps he really hoped to help
There’s one more thing to try.

It may be true he had no room.
But could he just say no?
These homeless folks in need of help.
He could not let them go.

“This may sound stupid, Joseph.
I know it might not please.
But I’ve got one small space that’s free.
Do you have allergies?”

The innkeep’s wife would chide him.
“I know that life is hard.
I’m glad to help the homeless,
But not in my backyard.”

We don’t know why he sent them there
What moved him, we’re not sure.
His choice reflects the ways we choose
with motives rarely pure.

It could have been expedience,
Indifference or pity.
But maybe it was grace that moved him
in that crowded city.

For when he pointed to the barn
That night, it’s clear to see.
He made a tiny place for joy
And that made history.

What room do you and I have?
What space for joy, I mean.
It need not be so fancy
It need not be so clean.

We each have got a God-shaped space
(Augustine’s line, not mine)
We’re restless till it’s filled by joy.
That’s how we’ve been designed.

We need not offer up that place
With motives that are best.
We only need to offer it.
Joy sees to the rest.

We’re not unlike that innkeeper
With lives preoccupied.
We may think there’s no room for joy.
Here are some reasons why:

We may think we’re too busy.
Joy will have to wait
It may seem inconvenient.
Please, joy, I’m running late.

I really should make room for joy.
Some time to just be merry
Perhaps a week from Tuesday.
I’ll look in my blackberry.

This busy season crowds out joy
I bet some still are hoping
To make a few more purchases
Is the mall still open?

And what if I receive a gift
And I have none in kind?
What if they spent a whole lot more?
Can joy survive that bind?

Family tensions crowd out joy:
Will siblings start in fighting?
Will parents push my buttons
old arguments igniting?

The fact is, sometimes space concerns
are deepest felt inside.
There’s no room left within closed hearts.
A fact we try to hide.

For many, night is just too dark.
The pain keeps joy at bay.
That’s why this story matters most.
It says: Joy finds a way.

Let every heart prepare a room.
Let heav’n and nature sing.
Joy to the world. Our leap of faith.
The message angels bring.

It’s message of the gospels,
Echoing Isaiah.
Good news to hapless shepherds:
Joy will find a way.

What is this thing called joy, you ask
I’d really like to try some
Can I put it on my credit card?
Is that the way to buy some?

Some suspect that joy is found in
toys that we obtain
Children of all ages look
That way to ease the pain

Is joy found in a fancy car?
Or in the Dow’s expansion?
Is joy found in a zip code
Or in a new macmansion?

Joy can trump our circumstance
For folks who have it all
Can seem, of all, most miserable
How paradoxical!

But joy is not the stuff we own.
It’s not a pedigree.
It’s not a corner office.
It’s not theology.

Joy arrives in person
In this dark world of sin.
Joy shows up in that small boy
Can we let him in?

This holy child of Bethlehem
(the joy for which we pray)
casts out our sin and enters in
Is born in us today.

And when joy grows within our lives
with new life from above,
It brings the news in person,
who tells us: God is love.

It’s not too late to meet him.
He’s met in neighbors now.
And when we offer thanks to God
Joy breaks through somehow.

Joy comes in bleak midwinter.
Joy comes in silent night.
Joy comes in land of darkness deep.
Joy comes with dazzling light.

The innkeeper turns out his lamp.
He’s finished washing dishes
It’s been a busy weekend.
For quitting time he wishes.

He wonders what is going on
With that young couple there.
Maybe he should take a look.
He’s way too tired to care.

But wait, he’s hearing footsteps.
And many happy voices.
A flock of sheep in his backyard
A company rejoices.

As he goes to check it out.
The cry comes: “It’s a boy!”
His barn now a delivery room
A room made just for joy.

“With God all things are possible.”
To Mary, message sounds.
She’s smiling broadly, pondering
Could joy know any bounds?

It’s getting weirder, there’s no doubt.
The innkeeper is nervous.
The gath’ring in his stable’s
looking like a worship service.

The sign that says “NO VACANCY”
Still flashes in the night.
But it seems much, much dimmer now
There is a brighter light.

He simply cannot help himself.
He smiles to see that boy.
Surprised by what he learned that night.
“There’s always room for joy.”

We learn the same thing as we meet
and honor Christmas Day.
For with sweet little Jesus boy
Joy will find a way.

-Jay Sidebotham

 Luke 2:1-14

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see-I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’


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

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


Monday Matters (December 18, 2017)


Bearing witness

If you’ve been hanging around church this December, you couldn’t help but run into John the Baptist. He gets star billing in Advent. He has a lot to say. Jesus spoke about his greatness. That greatness is underscored by the fact that each gospel gives him plenty of air time and that the church calendar tells his story many times throughout the year. So what is it about this guy?

If he came to my church, I’d be more inclined to call security than to invite him into the pulpit. A Dale Carnegie drop out, he opened up sermons calling his congregation a brood of vipers. (Sort of the anti-Joel Osteen.) Flannery O’Connor once said: You shall know the truth and the truth will make you odd. She might have been thinking of John the Baptist.

Yesterday in church, we read about him, as described in the prologue to John’s Gospel, an overture to the grand themes of that soaring gospel. The fact that John the Baptist finds his way into those opening verses suggests his significance. The prologue is included below–it contains this line: John came to bear witness (or testify) to the light. He was not the light but came to bear witness (or testify) to the light.

I have a feeling that’s the key to his significance, and why he has something to teach us. He knew how to bear witness. In the passage from John’s gospel, John is repeatedly asked “Who are you?” He’s not the Messiah. He’s not Elijah. He’s not a prophet. He’s a voice crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord. John the Baptist knew who he was, knew who the Messiah was, and knew they weren’t the same person. Many leaders, religious and otherwise, haven’t gotten that memo. I suspect that many of us, in secret corners of our hearts, conflate the two.

In his book, Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr talks about John the Baptist’s brand of wisdom. He writes: Religions should be understood as only the fingers that point to the moon, not the moon itself. Often in western Christian art, John the Baptist is shown with arm extended, index finger pointing beyond himself. He points to Christ on the cross. In the artist’s eye, John is bearing witness. Would we be depicted that way?

Episcopalians often find language of witness to be foreign, something other traditions do, but not for polite company. Episcopalians often rightly and sometimes reactively resist tendencies of religious folks who seek to confirm they are right by pointing out where others are wrong, by compelling agreement or coercing conversion.

But what if bearing witness is simply about sharing what we have seen of God’s grace in our lives, news a grace-starved world is dying to hear? How would you describe that kind of good news in your own life? When and where have you been graced? How would you talk about that gift? Maybe you want to try that over Christmas dinner?

I’m forever indebted to young people I worked with in Chicago who taught me about God-sightings, noting where in the course of the day, they saw God’s activity, talking freely about it. Simply. Authentically.

And what if bearing witness takes place not only with our lips but with our lives. In one of his sermons, John the Baptist talked to soldiers and tax collectors, people in positions of power. He said if you want to bear witness, stay right where you are and do your work with integrity. Do not abuse your power. Practice justice and mercy. Share if you have more than you need. These are all ways of bearing witness.

Prepare for Christmas this week by thinking of a couple ways you could bear witness to Christ coming into the world, full of grace and truth. Point to the light of the moon, so surrounded by darkness.

-Jay Sidebotham

 The Prologue to John’s Gospel 
(Note the second paragraph which speaks of John the Baptist)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.


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

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

Monday (December 11, 2017)


A recent email reminded me of a favorite book by Will Willimon, Methodist bishop, teacher at Duke Divinity (Sorry, Tarheels), and extraordinarily gifted preacher. When Bishop Willimon lived in Durham, a neighbor asked about church, specifically about what makes the church different from other organizations. The neighbor said his own preacher had asked him to invite folks to church. The neighbor couldn’t figure out a good reason to do that. Why would he invite someone to be part of this? He had nothing against the church, but said he didn’t see anything different or special about what we do on Sunday. “Friendliness? Caring? I get all that at Rotary.”

The neighbor went on to note that the Durham Bulls, the local baseball team, had done more to bring black and white people together than the church ever thought about. “A Saturday evening at the Durham Bulls is more racially inclusive than a Sunday in any church.”

More on Willimon’s book in a minute, but I thought about it when a young, wise friend shared a link to an article that appeared last week in The Atlantic. Its title: “The Consumerist Church of Fitness Classes.” The article notes liturgies involved with gyms and spin classes and yoga studios. These places gather people in community, give rituals to perform, receive tithes. As more and more Americans move away from organized religion (Pew Research tells us that in 2015, 23% of adults identified as religiously unaffiliated, up from 16% in 2007), folks seek “new forms of community building, new ways to seek mental clarity and spiritual experiences.”

The author notes that gyms often mimic the form of traditional religious services. They create community. They create space apart from busy brains. They create a zone, so that fitness is a gateway to a larger, more lasting state of happiness and fulfillment. Gyms offer coaching, elevate expectations and foster accountability, something lacking in many churches. They are transformative.

A parishioner admitted to me recently that she feels more connected with folks in her yoga class than folks in church. Mind you, this is an active member of the congregation. All of it challenges us to think about Will Willimon’s neighbor, to think about what is special about church.

In response to questions asked, Willimon wrote a book called Shaped by the Bible. In the introduction, he says we are left with a question: What makes the church, your congregation and mine, different, utterly essential, without equal, unique?

(Hit pause button before you read his answer: What would you say? Would you have an answer?)

Then consider Willimon’s response: “A congregation is Christian to the degree that it is confronted by and attempts to form its life in response to the Word of God.” He continues: “That does not mean we worship the Bible, or capture God between the pages of the Book. It means that in our life with the Bible, we are confronted by the living Lord.”

For me, the distinctive nature of the church, confronted by the Word, attempting to form its life in response to the Word, has to do with what is in the Word. As Martin Luther said, “The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.” The Bible is a story of God’s relationship with us. It is a story of grace. It promises forgiveness, the persistent opportunity to start over. It’s a story about how love wins. Heaven knows, we need that story. You may or may not get all that at the gym or the yoga studio. But if you’re not getting it at church, church doors should close.

We live in a grace-starved world, filled with folks looking for community, accountability, authenticity, growth. As Christmas nears, maybe our communities can offer graceful gatherings in distinctive ways, so that if you and I were thinking of inviting someone to be part of church, we’d have good reason to do so.

-Jay Sidebotham

 A vision for a church I’d want to join:
(courtesy of St. Paul, from the twelfth chapter of his letter to the Romans)
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.


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

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

Monday Matters (December 4, 2017)


Legend has it that as St. Augustine was shifting from the rather active social life of his youth (euphemism alert) to a life in the church, he prayed to the Lord: “Give me chastity, but not yet.” A variation on that prayer comes to mind as the season of Advent begins: “Give me patience and give it to me right away.”

Advent, a countercultural season invites us to slow down and be quiet as the rest of the world cranks up activity, often with concurrent uptick in crankiness. With long lists of things to do, the church pushes in the opposite direction. The church invites us to do less. The church invites us to wait. The church calls us to patience. Easier said than done. Any ideas on how to become more patient? I’m all ears.

Whether waiting for coffee at Starbucks, or waiting in traffic, or waiting to board a plane, or waiting for a report from the doctor, or waiting for a job offer, or waiting to become a more spiritually evolved person, or waiting for the Kingdom of God, this season can be a challenge. For me, the focus on spiritual expectation and anticipation with its call to patience, represents a growth opportunity. How do we wait? How do we become more patient?

A few thoughts on patience, from someone who knows too little about it:

First of all, patience is apparently a gift. That virtue is described in Paul’s letter to the Galatians as one of the fruits of the spirit. We claim holy activity, divine agency in making it possible for us to live life patiently. With that in mind, give thanks for the measure of patience you have. It’s holiness at work in you. Give thanks for those in your life who regard you with patience. That is God’s work in the community. And if you dare, ask God for the gift of patience. (But be careful, the way that prayer gets answered may try your patience.)

Second, patience is a practice, which is to say that we grow in this particular virtue as we try it out, as we give it our best shot. How might we practice it more fully? What gets in the way of viewing life with patience? Maybe there are ways to act as if we are more patient than we actually are. When tempted to respond with urgency, how can we have the presence of mind and spirit to relax, to breathe, to count to ten, or drink a tall glass of water, to practice forbearance and forgiveness, to ask “What’s the big rush?”

Finally, patience seems to be something of a creed. A disposition of patience says a lot about what we believe. To respond to life with patience suggests some level of trust, an admission that while we may not know the future, we know the one who holds the future. If we can find a way to let go and let God, we find resources for living with patience. We have put faith into action. We have shown what we believe.

Often we confuse patience with tolerance. Putting up with a jerk, who may be a parent, child, sibling, colleague, boss, employee, or on a larger scale, a public figure who makes us nuts. Like any spiritual virtue, we can often find a way to make it something that sets us apart from others, holier than thou and all that.

But if we can remember that patience is a gift, and practice it as such, and share it as such with people and circumstances that call for patience, we may well have lived into the spirit of the season of Advent, as a reflection of the gracious and very patient God we worship.

-Jay Sidebotham

 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
-Galatians 5
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
-Isaiah 40:28-30
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
-Psalm 40:1-3
Why is patience so important? Because it makes us pay attention.
-Paulo Coelho
A waiting person is a patient person. The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.
-Henri J.M. Nouwen
Favorite bumper sticker:
(Please be patient. God is not finished with me yet.)


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

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