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Monday Matters: September 26, 2022

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How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
To you whom for refuge to Jesus have fled?

Fear not, I am with thee; oh, be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid.
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee o’erflow,
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake

Foundation

Everyone, then, who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!
-Matthew 7:24-27

George Burns, comic from a few years back, put it this way: The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible. As a preacher, I take his point. And I have often had that point made to me as I stand at the door and greet congregants at the end of the service.

As we come to the end of the Sermon on the Mount, we note a good beginning (the Beatitudes) and a good ending (today’s passage about foundations). But contrary to what Mr. Burns has to say, there was plenty of good stuff in between. Life changing, history shaping material. At its conclusion, the Sermon on the Mount winds up with a challenge to think about our lives. On what are we building those lives? How would you describe the foundation on which you are building your life?

A priest I admire often tells his congregation that suffering is the promise that life always keeps. Maybe that’s a slightly more dire variation of the saying that into each life some rain must fall. The premise of Jesus’ counsel is that the rain and floods and wind will inevitably happen. That’s not in question. The question is how we will be sustained in those moments.

Are we founded on rock or sand? What would a foundation on rock look like? What does a foundation of sand represent? The great hymn, Christ is Made the Sure Foundation, speaks of a life that finds its stability, its strength in Christ. St. Paul spoke about the importance of being rooted and grounded in love. That stands in contrast to a life built on a foundation that can’t handle the storm and ultimately proves itself insufficient to meet the crisis. We don’t have to look far to find lives built on ever-shifting ground, offering perilous illusion of permanence and stability.

Take some time this week to re-read the whole Sermon on the Mount in one sitting. It’s three chapters (Matthew 5-7). The sermon starts strong, by saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” which has been translated “Blessed are those who know their need of God.” In the guidance that unfolds before the conclusion is reached, there are all kinds of ways to find a solid foundation. Despite what George Burns had to say, focus on the riches of those verses. Which of those ways speak out to you?

Years ago, when our family was going through a crisis, my mother sat us four kids down and made us begin to memorize the text of the hymn printed above. I thought it was kind of a dumb idea. But she was smarter than I am. Needless to say that was a few years ago. But over the years, the words of that hymn have sustained me, in everything from drizzling rain to torrential downpour to hurricane-force winds. May you find grace to discover a firm foundation, one upon which you can build a life, for this life and the next.

-Jay Sidebotham


Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort, or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (September 12, 2022)

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I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:16-19

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

Galatians 5:19-23

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:37-40

Fruits and roots

You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.
-Matthew 7:16-20

James Forbes, former Senior Pastor at Riverside Church, one of the best preachers I ever encountered, put it this way in a sermon (as best I recollect): It’s about the fruits not the roots.

His point was that what matters is how a life is lived, whether the love of God is brought to fruition in that life. As we come to today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had just finished warning about false prophets, calling for discernment between what is true and what is false. That discernment, he seems to say, will come by looking at the fruits, not the roots. In a few verses, he will continue the theme by saying: “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom.”

Too often, we want to focus on the roots. We do it in relationship to religion: What’s your theology? What’s your denomination? To what creed do you subscribe? We do it in other areas of life: Where did you go to school? What’s your zip code? What political party do you belong to? What news programs do you watch? Who are your people?

But our faith indicates that maybe the more important bit of info is not the roots but the fruits. St. Francis of Assisi famously told disciples: Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words. In so saying, he echoed Jesus’ teaching that people would know his followers by the way they showed love to one another. Fruits.

St. Paul wrote a letter to the Galatians, a church that had gotten him hopping mad. In that letter, he sets up a contrast between works of the flesh and fruits of the spirit. Note that he doesn’t talk about works of the spirit. He describes them as fruit. (You can see the list above.) Those fruits grow effortlessly, not the result of works, or what one person described as teeth-gritting Christianity. The fruits are an extension, a reflection, a natural expression of who that person is, someone who has come to know grace in such a deep way that they effortlessly show grace.

They may do so unconsciously. I think of the parable Jesus told later in the gospel of Matthew (25:31-46) about the contrast between sheep and goats brought before the king, who is the judge. The sheep are commended by the judge, because they fed the poor, visited the prisoner, clothed the naked. In so doing, they are told that they had offered those life-giving, loving, liberating ministries to the king himself. The amazing thing is, the sheep did so unconsciously. They ask: Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, sick, imprisoned?

This is not to say that roots don’t matter. A prayer found in the letter to the Ephesians (also above), speaks about the importance of being rooted and grounded in love. Out of that will come fruits that reflect God’s presence and power.

If we are rooted in a mindset that it is all up to us, that we have to prove our worth through our actions, intelligence, income, resume, religious practice, theological or political correctness, those kinds of roots produce fruits that set us apart from one another. Those kinds of roots diminish or even dismiss the power of grace in our lives.

If we are rooted in the love of God, we find our worth, our value, our dignity grounded in the amazing fact that we are made in the image of God and that Christ is present in each one of us and that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit, marked as Christ’s own forever. Those roots will then bear a whole different kind of fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control

Think this week about roots and fruits. Where are you grounded? How is that being expressed in your life? What kind of fruit are you bearing?

-Jay Sidebotham


Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort, or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (September 5, 2022)

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As we give thanks for the life and ministry and witness of Frederick Buechner, and as we mourn his passing (such a loss), some of his thoughts on telling the truth:

Let the preacher tell the truth. Let him make audible the silence of the news of the world with the sound turned off so that in the silence we can hear the tragic truth of the Gospel, which is that the world where God is absent is a dark and echoing emptiness; and the comic truth of the Gospel, which is that it is into the depths of his absence that God makes himself present in such unlikely ways and to such unlikely people that old Sarah and Abraham and maybe when the time comes even Pilate and Job and Lear and Henry Ward Beecher and you and I laugh till the tears run down our cheeks. And finally let him preach this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it that catch of the breath, that beat and lifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears, which I believe is the deepest intuition of truth that we have.

from Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

False prophets

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
-Matthew 7:15

One of my seminary professors, a mentor (and hero) named Christopher Morse wrote a book entitled “Not Every Spirit.” The title takes its cue from a New Testament passage (I John 4:1: Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.). In that book, he made the point that part of the journey of faith, part of the responsibility of Christians, part of the work of discipleship is to evaluate the spirits at work in the world. It presumes that some spirits work counter to God’s purposes, purposes of love. Those spirits can look innocent, wrapped in sheep’s clothing. Underneath there can be danger. Ravenous wolves.

Dr. Morse also talked about the Christian responsibility to commit not only to what we believe but also to what we refuse to believe. As an example, he noted how the theology of apartheid needed its spirit tested. Followers of Jesus needed to reject it. We can apply those principles to our own time. We need to test the spirits, when so much of current public discourse seeks to wrap itself in Christian cloak, or perhaps more precisely, in Christian costume.

It’s tricky stuff. As I think about who I consider to be false prophets, in my experience, it’s usually folks who differ from me on theological, political or social issues. With that in mind, I need to mention again the wisdom of Anne Lamott who said: You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do. So what might be the way to tell the difference between true or false prophet? Perhaps more to the point, in a culture that increasingly distrusts institutions and often speaks of fake news and alternative facts, what is the truth? Would we know a false prophet if we met one?

The Gospel of John provides interesting answers. One of the most riveting moments in that gospel for me is the private exchange between Jesus and Pilate, right before the crucifixion. The conversation ends with Pilate’s question to Jesus: What is truth? Jesus seems like he lets the question hang out there, but he’s said a lot about truth already.

Earlier in that gospel, Jesus said you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. History shows that the message of false prophets often has the opposite effect. Curtailment of freedom stifles the abundant life Jesus promised in John 10:10.

In John 10, Jesus talks a lot about sheep, and who they follow. He contrasts himself, the good shepherd, to thieves and hired hands (a.k.a., false prophets). He invites followers into relationship with him, describing himself as the way, the truth and the life. He provides a guide to discernment. He said: By this will all people know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another. I was at a gathering recently where we sang: “They will know we are Christians by our love.” I got the idea of making a video, playing that song, showing images of Christians (and other religious folks) in our world who preach and practice anything but the love of God. You don’t have to look hard to find them. (For my part, a look in my mirror might well reveal one of those.). Want to help me make that video?

In the prologue to John’s gospel, Jesus the word is described as being full of grace and truth. We need both. The true prophet can provide both.

In my years in the church, I’ve met wonderful prophets. Some, for all their wonderfulness, have disappointed. Some have done harm, revealed to be ravenous. Which for me is all the more reason to do my level best to just hang out with Jesus, to savor his teaching, to follow his example, to celebrate and imitate his grace, to be in relationship with him (whatever that looks like). In my own journey, the eucharist taken regularly is a way to stick close. Rhythms of prayer and reflection on scripture do that. Service to those on the margin does that. What are the ways you do that? Let this week, the start of a new season, be a time to explore that question, to do that tricky and wonderful work of discernment.

-Jay Sidebotham


Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort, or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (August 15, 2022)

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Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass
and wither like the green herb.
Trust in  the Lord and do good; live in the land and enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Psalm 37:1-4

Do we know what it means to be struck by grace?… Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life…It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace.

-Paul Tillich from The Shaking of the Foundations

Accept that you are accepted

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for bread, would give a stone? Or if the child asked for a fish, would give a snake? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him
-Matthew 7:9-11

What is your image of God? Where did that come from? Is it good news or bad news?
There are a host of forces in our world that tell us we’re not enough. Not competent enough. Not smart enough. Not attractive enough. Not rich enough. Not spiritual enough. If you’ve never heard those voices, God bless you. You are fortunate.For the rest of us, a big part of the spiritual journey is reckoning with those voices, navigating the times when we refute or affirm them, when we do our level best to tune them out with any number of distractions, some of which can morph into behaviors that are not good for us.

Sometimes we imagine those voices come not only from people and institutions around us. We sometimes imagine that those voices are God speaking to us. We sometimes imagine a God who gives us stones when we need bread, snakes instead of fish. There’s a lot of religion based on that notion of God. (Read Jonathan Edwards sermon “Sinners in the hand of an angry God” if you’re looking for an example.)

But the good news of the gospel, if we have the courage to embrace it, is that God accepts us where we are (even if our own parents/community/church won’t). The good news of the gospel, if we have the courage to embrace it, is that God seeks our good, a God in the business of turning stones into bread and not the other way around. Like a loving parent, not a bully or a boss. The good news of the gospel, repeated throughout scripture, is that God is love.
While human beings in moments of depravity can fail to do good to their own children, or even seek to harm them, there is (I believe, or at least hope) a basic sense that a parent seeks the best for the child. Many parents will do anything for their children. That kind of expansive love gives us a glimmer of the love God has for all of creation, for all people.

So if we can wrap our minds around that, how does that change us?

First, in the context of this passage from the Sermon on the Mount it means that we can be free to ask for what we desire. Psalm 37 has become a favorite guide for me. I’ve included portions of it above. It speaks of God’s intention to fulfill our desires. God wishes for us to know joy.

Second, it means that we can move away from fear-based religion. So much religion, in the Christian tradition, and in others, envisions God just waiting for us to mess up, ready to hurl thunderbolts when we step out of our lane, relishing in suffering inflicted on us. Fear is a motivator and can keep us in line, for sure. But Jesus came to show us another way, stretching out arms of love on the hard wood of the cross to draw us into his saving embrace with a message that perfect love casts out fear. It can be difficult to hear that good word. The voices that tell us we’re not enough can drown it out. But if we can dare to believe it, it changes us. And those around us.

Third and finally, it means that we can be free to show grace as we come to know grace. My experience tells me that people who are animated by fear-based religion end up inflicting that on others, entering into a judgmental frame of mind. Similarly, those animated by grace, who know on some deep level that they have been accepted, can extend that acceptance to others as well.

We live in a grace-starved world, that needs to know God gives us bread, not stones. When we believe that, even just a little bit, we can share it. How might you do that this Monday?

-Jay Sidebotham


Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (July 25, 2022)

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O Dear Lord,
three things I pray:
to see you more clearly,
to love you more dearly
and follow you more nearly,
day by day.

More thoughts on pride from C.S.Lewis:

 

Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.

When man comes into the presence of God he will find, whether he wishes it or not, that all those things which seemed to make him so different from the men of other times, or even from his earlier self, have fallen off. He is back where he always was, where every man always is.

The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility…Accord-ing to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”

Logjam

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
-Matthew 7:3-5

In 1970, Sesame Street recycled an old joke. Bert approaches Ernie who appears on screen with a banana in his ear. Bert says: You have a banana in your ear. Ernie doesn’t respond. Bert repeats: You have a banana in your ear. Nothing from Ernie. Bert finally gets Ernie’s attention, again tells him that he has a banana in his ear. Ernie says: I can’t hear you. I have a banana in my ear.

I wonder if Sesame Street writers had read today’s verse from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus presents his own funny image, one that might lend itself to cartoon. Someone with a log in their eye is trying to fine tune a speck in somebody else’s eye. The log-blinded person seems clueless about what is getting in the way of clear vision, kind of like that Muppet with a banana in his ear.

It’s a reminder of how many times in the gospels Jesus addresses blindness. His many healings of physical blindness provided a way of saying that folks can be blind in other ways as well, blind spiritually, blind in the ways we regard God and each other, blind to the needs of a broken world. That condition seems especially true for really religious folks, the good church-goers of Jesus’ day. Maybe even clergy.

Jesus speaks of hypocrites, which reminds me of what some people have said when I ask if they are part of a church. People will sometimes say that they don’t go to church because it’s just full of hypocrites. To which I can only respond: Guilty as charged. So what’s the answer? What are we to do?

An ancient prayer which became popular in the musical GODSPELL (see above) asked that among other things we would see more clearly. In today’s passage, it seems that if we wish to come to clarity, we need help to make that happen.

And we’ve got work to do on ourselves. The work on ourselves (with a metaphorical log blocking our own vision) can be a lot more extensive than the work we imagine other people need to do (a speck of dust blocking theirs).

I found myself wondering what the log-in-the-eye represents. What is the thing, the big thing, that keeps me from seeing clearly? If I had to boil it down to one thing, I guess it would be the sin of pride. C.S.Lewis wrote a lot about pride and how it blocks vision. He said: A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.

He continues: There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit.

Lewis says that the opposite virtue is humility, which may suggest that the pathway of humility is the key to log removal. Tim Keller, in his book The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness, speaks of gospel-humility. Its essence is “not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less. Gospel-humility is not needing to think about myself. Not needing to connect things with myself. It is an end to thoughts such as, ‘I’m in this room with these people, does that make me look good? Do I want to be here?’ True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.”

We come to this gospel-humility in a number of ways. Worship helps, a way of seeing that our lives unfold in the presence of a power greater than our own. Gratitude helps, a way of seeing that we are on the receiving end of grace, that goodness comes to us not because we’re so magnificent, but because God is. Service helps, a way of seeing that we are connected to each other. Prayer (especially confession) helps, a way of seeing that we don’t always get it right, but that help is available. All of those things help with log-removal. All so we can see more clearly. And love more dearly. And follow more nearly. Day by day.

-Jay Sidebotham


Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (June 27, 2022)

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How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

-Isaiah 52.7

 

O heavenly Father, who hast filled the world with beauty: Open our eyes to behold thy gracious hand in all thy works; that, rejoicing in thy whole creation, we may learn to serve thee with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies, for the love which from our birth, over and around us lies. Christ our Lord, to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise.

 

Do you want to do something beautiful for God? There is a person who needs you. This is your chance.
There is a thing you can do but I can not and there is a thing I can but you can not; so let us make something beautiful for God.
-Mother Teresa

Being considerate

And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
-Matthew 6: 27-30

Consider the lilies, with the glory they effortlessly show. This bit of wisdom is a whole lot more than simply stopping to smell the roses (although that’s an excellent thing to do). In the call to consider the lilies, we’re asked to learn from them, to gain wisdom from them, to imitate them. It’s a call to notice beauty and to celebrate it.

First, we notice beauty as gift. As the collect above indicates, God has filled the world with beauty as an act of grace, one that helps us grasp a power greater than ourselves, one that reveals the holy character as loving attention, one that simply brings us joy. Beauty itself, clearly holy intention in creation, is also there to be our teacher. And so we hear the refrain from the psalm that we are to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Recognizing that holy beauty is indeed key to our worship.

Second, we notice beauty as lens. It provides a way to look at the world around us, appreciation of nature for sure. It also includes the ways we look at each other. I recently came across a photographic study which showed how people reacted when someone told them they were beautiful. Pre-comment, sullen. Post-comment, glowing. It struck me because I’m spending time on crowded subways these days. I have felt called to pay attention to other people in the car. I sometimes will get out my small sketch pad and draw them. Slightly risky, but it’s my way of considering the beauty in each person (not unlike the dignity in each person). Not because they are attractive in any movie star way, or because they are dressed particularly well, but simply because they are. They are beautiful.

Third, we notice beauty as offering. Note that the second prayer above talks about the gifts of musicians and artists who help us glimpse beauty. My own faith journey has been deeply shaped by those gifts as well as architectural beauty. I’m grateful for those who made that possible, for their offerings. Offerings of beauty are not only located in liturgy and sacred space. I’m mindful of the ministry of Mother Teresa who said that her life goal was to offer something beautiful for God. (As a work of art, her ministry was the moral equivalent of the Sistine Ceiling.) My offering will never rise to that level, but I appreciate her sense that we each and all can do something beautiful for God. She once described herself as a pencil in God’s hand, revealing her openness to God’s will for her life. Nice image.

Newsflash: There’s a whole lot these days in our world that is not beautiful. There’s a whole lot to make us worry. That’s why the call to consider beauty and upon consideration to extend it is so important. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, it takes faith to see the beautiful in our grace-starved world, a world that seems to grow more mean-spirited by the minute. It’s a world that can easily make us anxious, a world that can make us think we are not beautiful enough, that we need to work harder and longer and better to solve the things that cause us angst. Truth be told, that over-functioning will not ultimately do the trick. But it seems to me that Jesus is telling us that we can navigate the anxiety with an expression of gratitude and hope that beauty will grow.

We worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness in the conviction that God cares and God provides. Be on the lookout today for beauty. Don’t let the ugliness dominate us. Consider the lilies. Consider how your faith is deepened by attentiveness to that which is beautiful.

-Jay Sidebotham


Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (June 13, 2022)

3-1
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall I correct it?

 

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

 

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

 

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

 

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body and went out into the morning,
and sang.

 

-Mary Oliver

Worry

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
-Matthew 6: 25

Our musical stroll down memory lane continues. Last week, Bob Dylan: “You gotta serve somebody.” This week, Bobby McFerrin: “Don’t worry, be happy.” Great tune. But as life philosophy, does that work?

We come to a portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus reflects on anxiety, a recognition that it is part of the human experience, maybe especially for disciples. Jesus says: Do not worry about your life. Sometimes I think that’s all I do. I’m wondering, as I reflect on times when I’ve been gripped by worry, how helpful it is for Jesus to simply say: Do not worry.

Note that the verse begins with the word “therefore.” I’ve been told that whenever we see that word in scripture, we need to ask: What is the therefore there for? Well into the sermon, what have we heard that equips us for freedom from worry, from anxiety?

We heard the beatitudes, which tell us that even amid worrisome and challenging times, we can have a sense of blessed hope, the promise of the inheritance of God’s life. We’ve heard challenges to get clear about how we worship. Are we worried about what other people think of us? We’ve heard a call to seek God’s kingdom first, to have that as priority and trust that everything else (including our worries) will fall in place. We’ve heard calls to put trust in God, to live in closer relationship with God.

How can we exercise the kind of trust that allows us to live with less worry? When Jesus invites us to live free of worry, he doesn’t say that it will be easy. He does say that we will not be left alone. I don’t know about you, but I am well aware that I am unable to find freedom from worry on my own. I need help.

Which brings us to the message of this season. Coming off of the Feast of Pentecost, we learn that the Holy Spirit is sent to us, helping us address those things that make us anxious, those things that make us worry, those things that drive us nuts, those things that push our buttons, those things that cause us to fear. The Holy Spirit comes as paraclete, which literally means one who comes along side of us. The Holy Spirit comes as advocate, holy presence on our side, holy presence that has our back. The Holy Spirit comes as comforter, which implies that we need comfort. The Holy Spirit comes as guide and teacher, which implies that we need to be shown a way forward.

I’ve been thinking this week of ways that we can invite the Spirit’s help in all of this. I often find it helpful to look in the spiritual rear-view mirror and see the ways that God has acted in the past, even when I didn’t know it was happening. It provides a bit of a track record that helps me relax.

I sometimes find an attitude of gratitude can be helpful, counting blessings, recognizing that the things that keep me up at night are often problems I don’t really need to worry about.

I sometimes find it helpful to think of people who seem free of anxiety, folks who really have something to worry about, taking these folks as models. I think of the New Testament story of Paul and Silas singing hymns all night in prison. I think of the irrepressible joy of people like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, who each faced some of the greatest cruelty that human beings can dish out.

Finally, on days when I have a bit of perspective, I realize that there’s not a lot of productivity in worry, as I hear that life is more than food or clothing, or job title, or zip code, or investments, or reputation, or education, or great sermon review.

So perhaps the best way we can address worry is to say, to pray: Come, Holy Spirit. Try it when faced with worries great and small. Claim the power present along side of us, power around us as advocate, comforter and guide.

-Jay Sidebotham


Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (June 6, 2022)

3-1
You may be an ambassador to England or France.
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance.
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world.
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed.
You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

 

You may be a construction worker working on a home.
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome.
You might own guns and you might even own tanks.
You might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody .
Yes, you’re gonna have to serve somebody .
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody .

 

You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride.
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side.
You may be workin’ in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair.
You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Yes, you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

 

Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk.
Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk.
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread.
You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king sized bed.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody yes indeed.
You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

-Bob Dylan

You gotta serve somebody

No one can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
-Matthew 6: 24

Robert Allen Zimmerman was born in Brooklyn on May 24, 1941. He grew up to be a singer and songwriter more commonly known as Bob Dylan. Of late, for health reasons, he’s been low-profile, but he has been a major figure in popular culture for more than 60 years, with songs that became anthems of the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960’s. Simple greatness, in my humble opinion.

As tends to be the case, a long life like his involved a number of stages. For Mr. Dylan, that included a season which began when he converted to an evangelical Christian faith. That experience resulted in the kind of fervor often found among new converts. It shaped his music in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. It won him a bunch of Grammys.

He produced several albums that reflected his new-found faith. One song in particular always strikes me when I run across the verses from the Sermon on the Mount before us this morning. The song’s refrain: You gotta serve somebody. The song has many stanzas. I’ve included just a few above. But I find myself this morning wondering if you think the premise is true. Do we really have to serve somebody?

A culture that celebrates the mythology of rugged individualism may not warm up to this idea. But let’s kick it around. Does everyone of us live our lives in service to someone or something? The list of potential masters, those people or things we serve, can be long. Purchased politicians bend to the will of those who donate the most money to their campaigns, even when it violates personal convictions or professions of faith. Clergy tailor homilies to avoid offending big donors, even if it mutes inspired voice. Teenagers twist themselves in knots to please the in-crowd, or to fulfill images media provides. (Newsflash: adults do that too.) We slavishly try to live up to expectations of parents, children, neighbors, employers, jumping through all kinds of hoops to get the nod.

To make it all the more complicated, we may find ourselves bifurcated or trifurcated or multifurcated (I’m making up words here) as we try to please the many voices calling to us at the same time. It can get tiring. It can be crazy making. In the end, it can prove to be unfulfilling.

Jesus knew this about us. His answer was simple. He said: Follow me. Stay close. Do what I call you to do. Do what I do. Love God and love neighbor. Put first things first. Seek first God’s kingdom and the rest will fall in place. That may mean that we recognize that we’re not in charge, often a painful realization for those of us who toy with the idea of being masters of our universe.

In the mystery of our faith, we discover our fullest, richest identity when we get the service piece down. Augustine captured that idea in his prayer which said that we serve Christ in whose service is perfect freedom. In other words, we find a life of freedom when we serve the one who came to serve. What does that look like in life?

With an eye on recent history, maybe it means choosing communal responsibility over independent rights, changing our thoughts on masks or guns or any other prerogative. Maybe it means listening more and opining less when we meet someone who disagrees with us. Maybe it means opening our eyes to those nearby and far away who might be hungry or homeless or lonely, and doing something about those desperate situations. Maybe it means looking around at those closest to us each morning and asking: How can I help you today?

We will always face multiple vocations. We go to work. We need money. We deal with expectations of others. We have aspirations. But perhaps we are being called to place all of those potential “masters” in the context of discipleship, i.e., the way we follow Jesus. What would it look like this week to take a step in that direction, to make that our goal?

-Jay Sidebotham


Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (May 30, 2022)

3-1

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

(Philippians 4.8)
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God exalted him even more highly and gave him the name that is above every other name, so that at the name given to Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2.5-11)

You are what you see

The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If, then, the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
-Matthew 6: 22-23

I hear Jesus saying that you are what you see. Or maybe that you become what you look at. Do you think that is the case?

On the one hand, we have the chance to make choices about where we give our attention, about what we see. The wisdom of Albert Einstein comes to mind. He said: “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” We can choose, in a way that goes well beyond simply looking at the glass half full or half empty.

A friend attended a conference where the leader offered this exercise: Write the story of your life from three perspectives, as hero, victim and learner. Every one of us has the raw material to see our lives in these three ways. We all, at some point, fancy ourselves hero. The world and the Lord are lucky to have us on the team. We all, at some point, have been injured by someone (and we’re pretty good at remembering those). We all, at all times, have opportunity to learn something new. It depends on how we see things, how we see ourselves. In many ways, we become what we see.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he talks about choosing where we give our attention. (See verses above.) Earlier in the letter, he tells this community to let the mind of Christ rule in their hearts. That strikes me as another way of saying that we can choose the way we look at life. As you think about where you get your news, your entertainment, your updates on friends, your advice, what are you choosing to see, to look at, to watch? Those choices shape us. Are those choices healthy?

Truth be told, some of us with unhealthy vision feel powerless to do anything about it. Our blindness does not feel like a choice. We need help from a power greater than ourselves. Think of the number of times Jesus addressed blindness, granting vision for the first time to those stuck in darkness. One of the lengthiest of these stories is told in John 9, where Jesus heals a man born blind. Disciples want to know what the man did wrong to be blind. Jesus says that is the wrong question.

From that encounter, we hear Jesus say: “I am the light of the world.” That says to me that healthy vision will come as we tap into relationship with him. He will show us the way, giving grace to help in time of need. As the psalmist said: “Your word is a lantern to my feet, a light along my path.” In our tradition, Jesus is that light-giving, life-giving word made flesh.

John 9 also tells us that there are those of us who may just prefer blindness. Jesus comes under criticism from religious leaders. He uses that encounter to make the point that some of the most religious people of his day were blind guides. It’s just one of the several places where he comes down on folks who pretend that they see but really don’t see much at all.

Such willful blindness is not limited to biblical times. Just think about the news since last Monday, revealing the darkness in our body politic. With the heaviness on all of our hearts in the wake of another senseless shooting, some leaders turn blind eye to the woefully exceptional American experience of mass shootings, more than 220 this year, way more than any other nation on the globe. Religious leaders in the largest Protestant denomination in the country have turned a blind eye to sexual abuse for decades. Every week, we collectively turn blind eye to divisions caused by persistent systemic racism and widening economic disparity. This kind of blindness is not just a communal experience. With blinders on, we practice it as individuals, with indifference to needs around us in our families, neighborhoods, churches, communities.

Jesus calls us to look at life another way, expressed by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry as he concluded his communication to the church after the shooting in Buffalo two weeks ago: “Even amid tragedy, even when manifestations of evil threaten to overwhelm, let us hold fast to the good. It is the only way that leads to life. As you gather with friends and family, and in worship on Sunday, pray for the strength to hold fast to the good. Yet we must also strive for good, and as citizens demand that more can be done to protect our elders, our young people, and our children from such horror.”

I am grateful for his vision. It’s healthy and healing. We sure do need it now.

-Jay Sidebotham


Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (May 23, 2022)

3-1

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth.

Colossians 3:1,2

 

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before Jesus and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. You shall not defraud. Honor your father and mother.’ ” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Mark 10:17-22

 

Love people. Use things. The opposite never works.
-the Minimalists

Where is your treasure?

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
-Matthew 6: 19-21

We hear this passage each year on Ash Wednesday, as it launches the season of Lent, a time for self-examination. The punchline to the gospel reading about the connection of treasure and heart hits me hard every time. It swirls around in my head, often in an unsettling way.

Jesus really knows how to get to us. With his statement about treasure and heart, we are called to take the following questions through the season of Lent, and beyond. We’re called to ask: Where is our heart? What do we really treasure?

Our treasure may be stuff: Fine collectibles. Savings, investments and assets. Highly valued toys. Our treasure may be less tangible. Our reputation, relationships or resume. Our pride at accomplishment. Our distasteful sense of being better than somebody, anybody.

Jesus’ challenging words make me think about related counsel from a desert father, Abba Poemem. To his students, he offered this timeless challenge: Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart. Which leads back to the question: Where are we giving our hearts?

I found myself wondering if what Jesus was really saying was that we do not always own our treasures. We may think we do, but often, they own us. They shape us. They make us behave in ways we would not otherwise behave.

Case in point: The history of slavery in our nation. Clearly, many people over those centuries knew it was horrific, that what they were doing was out of line with God’s intention for all people. But slavery was key to the economic health of the nation at the time. That sense of treasure made people behave in ways they would not have otherwise behaved. It made people make excuses, twist logic and deny fact to hold on to wealth. Change was not in the cards. I’m wondering in what ways do we do the same things these days. Any thoughts?

Above, find the story of Jesus’ encounter with a rich young man. It says Jesus loved this guy. That is not said of every person Jesus encountered. Not that he didn’t love them all, but there was special affinity here. As the young man asks what was required of him, he shared the ways he’d done all the right things, checked all the boxes. Jesus says there’s just one thing more. If he wanted to follow Jesus he needed to shift his treasure, surrendering his material possessions. He needed a change of heart that meant thinking in new ways about his treasure.

The young man can’t make the shift. He goes away sad. Jesus is sad. The whole thing is sad, as sad as the many ways that we give our hearts (our souls, our minds, our strength) to that which will not satisfy our hearts, to things that will not remain, to things that are not good for us.

While there’s plenty of challenge here, there’s also opportunity. It begins with gaining clarity about where our treasure lies. There are a number of measures we can consider. Start with a look at credit card statements. Look at calendars. They may not tell the whole story, but they offer insight into where we’re giving time, talent and treasure.

When it comes to where we locate our treasure, a lot of us diversify. We are pulled in many directions. That may be a good investment strategy, but when we take it to the level of what we worship and who we follow, we may uncover competing vocations calling to us. We can be about everything and about nothing. How can we gain more focus in what we treasure?

Later in this sermon, Jesus will say seek first the kingdom of God, with the promise that all the rest will fall in place (my paraphrase). I’m feeling like the answer to all this is to think each day about how we can with gladness and singleness of heart give our heart to the kingdom, the rule, the reign of God. How can we give our heart to the way of love articulated by Jesus, that which will satisfy our heart? Jesus promises that when we do that, everything else we need will be added. Dare we believe it?

Let me close with two brief parables to chew on today: The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and reburied; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:44, 45)

-Jay Sidebotham


Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.