Monthly Archives: November 2021

Monday Matters (Novmeber 29, 2021)

Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way.
-I Corinthians 12:31


There are few practical roadmaps to show us how to generate and integrate grace in our lives. When I decided to make grace my touchstone, I unknowingly fell back on flawed Christian teaching that has left many of us throwing up our hands and declaring grace an unachievable and impractical goal. I imagined that by engaging in Olympian amounts of prayer, meditation, church attendance, and consumption of spiritual texts I would be so filled up with the love of God, I’d just overflow with the stuff. I’d be a veritable human Pez dispenser of grace. The contempt coursing through my veins would drain out of me, and I’d be a new person. I’ll cut to the chase. It didn’t work.
-Kristen Powers, Saving Grace


We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds.
-Martin Luther


There are only two kinds of [men]: the righteous who think they are sinners and the sinners who think they are righteous.
-Blaise Pascal


Inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received. The needed change within is God’s work, not ours. The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside. We cannot attain or earn this righteousness of the kingdom of God; it is a grace that is given.
-Richard Foster

Exceeding righteousness

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
-Matthew 5:19-20

When I embarked on a journey through the Sermon on the Mount, I knew there would be Mondays that would leave me saying, “Huh?” Today’s one of those days.

Let’s get right to it, with that bit about righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees. As I scanned commentaries, I found I’m not the only one who finds this perplexing. The whole narrative of the gospels seems to be that the scribes and the Pharisees, the really religious people of the day are clueless. (Let’s just say I hear that as a caution to those of us who serve as clergy.) Little children and promiscuous persons and tax collectors and outsiders have more understanding of the kingdom than religious leaders. Is Jesus saying that we need to try to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees, whose hypocrisy is in plain view? Are we supposed to follow their script when Jesus has called them blind guides and whited sepulchers? That’s one possibility.

Another possibility is that Jesus is asking disciples to consider these questions: What race are you running? In what stream are you swimming? What do you think will get you where you want to go? What do you value?

If you want to play the scribes and Pharisees game, which is to try to get your theology right, try to get your practice right, try to cross every “t” and dot every “i”, to never make a mistake, go for it. But that’s a big mountain to climb, that teeth-gritting effort to be a spiritual super-hero. Trying to make sure we get it all right can be a rat race and it’s been noted that the problem with winning a rat race is that at the end, you’re still a rat. We can enter into that kind of righteous rat race, if we so choose. It can all be so exhausting.

But there is another way, which in my mind is what the Sermon on the Mount is laying out for us. That way says that the way to the righteousness of spiritual over-achievement is simply the way of love (which is the commandment Jesus embraces). It begins with understanding righteousness not so much as a moral checklist as a matter of relationship, being rightly related. And that way (St. Paul called it a more excellent way in the lead-in to his hymn about love in I Corinthians 13) exceeds the righteousness of scribes and Pharisees. By way of a sneak preview, the verses we’ll look at in the coming weeks talk about lives lived in righteousness. Jesus says it’s not as much a matter of outward actions as it is a matter of the heart that sets us in right relationship with God and with each other.

If this is indeed what Jesus had in mind (and folks, I could be wrong), then we are called to pursue a righteousness that comes by faith in the power of God’s grace to make us what we were created to be. It begins by recognizing that we can’t do this on our own, by our own willfulness. We need help because we will fall short. It continues with expressions of gratitude (which we observed over the past weekend) that it’s not all up to us. We will with God’s help. And then it finds expression in the practice of love of God and neighbor, the two being inseparable, the two commandments that sum up all the law, even the least of the laws. That practice is a reflection of the grace that has been shown to us. When we all get around to that kind of practice, I imagine that is what the kingdom of heaven will be like.

Give it some thought, give it a shot this first week of Advent.

-Jay Sidebotham

Ready to help the folks in your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys?  Join our January cohort of RenewalWorks participants…

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (November 22, 2021)


Jesus said: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

John 13:34, 35


Oh to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee;
prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it,
Seal it for the courts above.
-Hymn 686, Stanza 3


For the love of God is broader
than the measure of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.
-Hymn 469 Stanza 3

Jesus and the law

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
-Matthew 5:17-18

In discussions in church, I often run across the opinion that the God of the Old Testament underwent some kind of personality change in the New Testament. That’s based on associations people have with some stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, where God seems to resemble Zeus throwing lightning bolts down on unsuspecting earthlings, or perhaps a more recent image, a Gary Larson cartoon where God is depicted sitting at his computer. On the screen, we see that a street scene. A rope lifting a grand piano has snapped. The Steinway, plummeting earthward, is about to smash a pedestrian. God is pressing the smite button on his keyboard. Does that ever fit your image of God?

No doubt about it, there is judgment in the earliest books of the Bible. But there is also judgment in the New Testament (Have you read some of Jesus’ parables of judgment, or the Book of Revelation recently?) And while the God of the New Testament is associated with grace and mercy, there is plenty of grace and mercy to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures, surfacing in the oft-repeated word hesed which means lovingkindness.

All of which is to say that we often pit grace and law, mercy and judgment against each other. Our faith seems to be either about rules or relationship, about laws or love. You can have one or the other. Our proclivity for dualistic thinking tells us you can’t have it both ways. But Jesus shows us another way.

As we continue reflection on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we can imagine listeners, including critics, imagining that he was trying to scrap tradition. In today’s verses, he makes the point that he comes to fulfill the tradition, not abolish it. Fulfillment is the keyword.

We get a glimpse of what he meant by it when he was asked about the most important commandment. Jesus didn’t come up with some new-fangled vision. He returned to the first pages of the Bible to find that all the law and prophets is summed up in grace, in love of God and neighbor.

It is apparently easy for religious folks to turn the law into a matter of rules, and thus a source of division, using the law as a bludgeon. Jesus chooses another way, as he speaks about embracing the law given by Moses. He says that those laws are key to the healing of our souls, and the healing of the world. Those laws (the word teaching may be a helpful synonym for law) given by God, we’re all about helping people, coaching people, leading people in the way of love. And when those laws seemed to butt up against each other (e.g., when Jesus is led to heal long-term illnesses on the Sabbath), the law of love and compassion takes precedence. Lord knows we could use that kind of guidance in the wilderness of our broken world.

So what’s the so-what factor in all of this? Religious rules are ultimately about relationship. When they divide us, or damage relationship, the law is not fulfilled. But even the nit-pickiest, most persnickety religious rule can be seen as an expression of love of God and neighbor and self. When that happens, we see the law fulfilled.

Sure, we can turn our faith, our religious practice, the scripture, even a theology of grace, into something that divides people, into a source of pride. But Jesus calls us to see everything we do through the lens of love of God and neighbor, a fairly rigorous standard (perhaps even a law) which turns out to be a pretty good way to look at the world. It’s a good lens to regard our religious practice, whatever that may be, to think about how we put faith to work in the world, as a response to God’s call to the way of love. It’s a good lens to bring into this week when we’re asked to think about thanksgivings. How will you be a follower of Jesus, fulfilling the law?

-Jay Sidebotham

Ready to help the folks in your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys?  Join our January cohort of RenewalWorks participants…

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (November 15, 2021)


This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.


How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.
-William Shakespeare


Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
-Leonard Cohen


Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.
-Brene Brown


It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but that you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.
-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


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… 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 1:6-9, 14


For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
– Ephesians 2:8-10


You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
-Matthew 5:14-16

Jesus doesn’t say: Try to be the light of the world. You ought to be the light of the world. You better be the light of the world. He offers a declarative, unequivocal statement. A statement of fact to his followers. This is who you are. So be who you are.

Do you feel like a light this morning? I often feel like a dim bulb, stumbling in the dark. That makes it hard to believe that I can provide light for anybody else. Not enough wattage.

But Jesus says let the light that you have shine. Not so that people will say: What a great person that guy is! Our lights are meant to point beyond ourselves to an experience of God (see bit about John the Baptist above). Our lights are meant for people to see good works and by the light of those good works, to have a sense of the glory of God.

What do we know about the glory of God? In reflection on these verses, I kept thinking about St. Irenaeus, who, in the second century said that the glory of God is the human being fully alive. We shine a light on the glory of God when we live fully into what God has called us to do and be. Jesus said that he came to bring life and to bring it in abundance (John 10:10). Our good work is to live into that abundant life, to love God and love neighbor, to be fully alive in a world where powers of death are strong. The letter to the Romans (6.11) speaks about how we formerly were dead to sin. The letter to the Ephesians (2.1) says we were dead in trespasses but are made alive in Christ by grace.

So we, beloved children of God, objects of grace, are called to let that light shine, not because we’re so awesome ourselves (though you are a great group of readers) but because God is awesome. We can be light because Jesus is light.

Of course, that old ego (You know that ego is really an acronym for edging God out) finds its way into our psyche, into our hearts. I find it almost impossible to avoid self-consciousness about good works. (How lucky God is to have me on the team!) When I become aware of a good work, the next step often can be to compare and contrast with others, asking why don’t those folks do the kind of good works I do? Why don’t they care about causes I care about? What’s wrong with those spiritually deficient folks? The good works clearly can become fertile ground for the most unattractive qualities of religious folk

But thanks be to God, All Saints’ Day is still fresh in mind. I love the phrase from the Prayer Book that speaks about saints as lights in their generation. For all the saints (i.e., all of us) have light to share, as I often hear at the end of yoga practice, where the teacher will say some version of the following: The light in me sees and honors the light in you. How will you let your light shine so that people can see something of God’s activity, so that people can come to understand something of the love of God, the grace of God, the glory of God? How will you live into that call to reveal the glory of God by being fully alive this week?

Here’s what I propose for this Monday morning: Confess that there are always mixed motives. Our light can flicker. Get over that and then think about how your own life can point to the glory of God, how you can let your light shine this week.

You are the light. Be the light.

-Jay Sidebotham

Ready to help the folks in your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys?  Join our January cohort of RenewalWorks participants…

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (November 8, 2021)

Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.
from Eucharistic Prayer C in the Book of Common Prayer


I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
-Romans 12:1,2


You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
-Matthew 5:13

After a talk I gave at a church on the topic of spiritual growth, a woman confessed: “I don’t know why all this talk about spiritual growth and transformation. I don’t expect anything to happen to me at church.” As I thought about her comment, I recognized that many people come to church to be comforted, to experience solace, to heal the wounds the world inflicts. In an unsettled world, many people seek stability, constancy, predictability. All good reasons. But maybe not the whole story.

Because if ever there was a change agent, it would be Jesus. He repeats metaphors about growth. He calls his disciples to follow him, not to stay put. He comes offering new life, abundant life and he invites his followers to participate in that process. Which brings us to the salt metaphor which he uses in the Sermon on the Mount.

Over the years, the phrase “salt of the earth” has come to mean what? A mensch? The real deal? I don’t know exactly what Jesus had in mind with the image, but I think of all the properties of salt. It heals and cleanses. It preserves. It melts coldness. It makes stuff taste better. In Jesus’ culture, it was highly valuable. It makes life more interesting. Put all that together, and whatever Jesus had in mind, it seems that transformation is intended. His disciples were meant to bring growth, to bring change to their contexts, to make life more interesting, more appetizing, more healing. To make a difference.

So this morning, take this opportunity to look in your own spiritual rear-view mirror. How over the course of your life have you been transformed? Compare your spiritual life this morning to where you were spiritually five years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago. Are you in the same place? Have you changed? How so? What were the catalysts for that change?

Then think about whether you expect to be changed now. Are you open to the possibility that God has something new in store for you? That you can keep on growing? One church that was identified as being a particularly complacent crafted this tongue-in-cheek tagline: “We’re spiritually shallow and fine with that.” The call of the gospel is to keep on growing. As disciples, we are learners, and there is always more to learn.

Finally, think about how you might be that agent of change in your own context. What are the opportunities for you to be a healing, cleansing agent? What opportunities are there for you to preserve? What opportunities are there for you to melt coldness of heart? What opportunities are there for you to simply make life more interesting for the sake of those around you?

When I was serving as a rector, someone once asked me: “If tomorrow morning your church disappeared from your community, would anyone notice? What would be the difference?” We can ask that about our faith communities. We could ask that about the impact we have as individuals. Jesus calls us to be salt in a world that is hungry, hurting, calling for healing, preservation, interest. How will you live out that kind of saltiness?

-Jay Sidebotham

Ready to help the folks in your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys?  Join our January cohort of RenewalWorks participants…

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (November 1, 2021)

For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!
-Hymn 287

All Saints

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
-Matthew 5:10-12

William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury once said: “When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.” So here’s a holy coincidence. We come in our weekly series to this beatitude which speaks of those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. And it happens to fall on All Saints Day, one of the great feasts of the church. On All Saints Day, we celebrate a great cloud of witnesses, especially those who knew the greatest persecution, whose lives ended in martyrdom for the sake of the gospel.

On this day, we often sing a song of the saints of God. When I hear that hymn, I think of a presentation I heard from a nurse who had spent time serving in another country. At a time of civil unrest, a number of Christians were being treated in her hospital. Soldiers burst in and dragged these Christians from their beds, took them out and shot them. In the presentation I attended, the woman reflected on the phrase from that hymn: “One was slain by a fierce wild beast.” I had often thought of this as a quaint, sweet, perhaps irrelevant hymn about having tea with the queen or something. It took on new meaning as she spoke of how she encountered that wild beast in the form of those soldiers.

At a bible study I led years ago, we had a steady, faithful crowd. One of our members asked if he could bring a friend. I said sure. This quiet, slight guest sat silently through our hour-long discussion. The passage before us was about persecution that comes to disciples. We talked about how we as people of faith experienced persecution. Friends and family and co-workers making fun of us. A conflict between church and a sporting event. Towards the end of the study, the guest asked if he could speak. It turns out he was a clergyman from Africa. A gang, part of a movement opposed to the Christian faith, had kidnapped him, taken him out of the city, handed him a shovel to dig his own grave. At gunpoint, looking down at that hole in the ground, he was told to renounce his faith. He stood face to face with a wild beast. This tiny man refused. For whatever holy reason, the kidnappers put down their guns and let him go.

At another bible study, ten years ago, a young man sat as a guest with a group that met weekly. The gathering is described in a book I just finished, entitled “Grace Will Lead Us Home.” It’s about the massacre at the Charleston church, Mother Emmanuel. That wild beast of a young man radicalized by white supremacists took the lives of those saints. They were saints blessed by families who witnessed to God’s life and love through their forgiveness. Into that horrific situation, something of the blessedness of the kingdom of God surfaced.

So we hear of blessings for those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Sometimes religious people are persecuted but it’s because they are being jerks in one way, being arrogant or close-minded, using the gospel to feed their ego. I believe Jesus is talking about something else, about taking a stand for God’s ways in a world with devil’s filled that threaten to undo us, to borrow language from Martin Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress.”

As you think about this beatitude, have you ever experienced persecution for righteousness’ sake? Is so, how so? If not, why not? Do you know people who have? Was it a blessing? A cause for rejoicing? Maybe we’ve escaped persecution because we keep our faith under wraps. A preacher in my youth once asked: “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict?” No need to go looking for trouble, but pray for those who face persecution right now. And if that’s you, know that you are not alone in the struggle. And if it’s not you, think about what you’d be willing to give up for sake of God’s righteousness.

-Jay Sidebotham

Please join us Thursday, November 4th at 7pm Eastern

RenewalWorks: Connect with Jerusalem Greer and Jay Sidebotham
to discuss My Way of Love for Small Groups

Join our RenewalWorks: Connect email list to receive more details and the Zoom link