The Rev. Laura Nelson is the president of the Fort Collins Interfaith Council and a member of Plymouth. She was ordained here on September 22, 2019.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
By nature, I’m someone who tries to think optimistically. I attempt to track down sugar and water to make lemonade with the lemons life gives, and then to pour a partial glass of lemonade and consider it half-full instead of half-empty.
This pandemic, though, is giving my optimism a run for its money. I’m realizing that we don’t have the answers, the solutions, or even the ingredients for lemonade.
We are in a time when the old, tried-and-true answers don’t work. All of us — teachers, accountants, clergy, HR folks, factory workers, healthcare workers, attorneys, restaurant workers — have been given a brand-new set of challenges that require us to think in different ways.
Ron Heifetz at the Kennedy School at Harvard famously defines the tried-and-true solutions as being applicable to what he calls “technical challenges” — the problems that have a straight-forward fix. You see a lightbulb has burned out, and you replace it. But the situation that all of us are finding ourselves in right now requires out-of-the-box thinking, lots of experimentation and making mistakes, learning as we go. Heifetz refers to this as an “adaptive challenge.” One of the facets of adaptive challenges is that working toward solutions tends not to come from a single expert viewpoint, but from a large body of stakeholders experimenting together and learning from successes and failures.
So, that’s one of the factors that makes living through this pandemic challenging to us. We’re all having to realign our priorities, the way we spend our time and money, finding ways not to become too isolated from the world, and do things differently. You and I are having to figure out new ways to be a community of faith and to maintain our sense of spiritual connection.
Yet, with all of these challenges, we also encounter some opportunities as we do thing in new ways.
If you’ve spent any time perusing the news or flipping through Facebook, you may have seen a few before-and-after photographs of visible air pollution in major cities around the world. I’ve downloaded one, so that you can see for yourself what the atmosphere has looked like in Delhi. We know from personal experience that people are not driving or flying as much as we did. In major European cities, nitrogen dioxide levels have dropped 30-60 percent. That reduction in our use of fossil fuels — not just in transportation, but in industrial production — has had an impact on air quality.
I don’t want to neglect the fact that people are ill with and dying of Covid-19, that millions have become unemployed, that small businesses are struggling mightily, and that many of us have seen retirement savings and other investments tank. But you know the bad news already.
About seven weeks ago, when we were hearing about Covid-19 in China and Italy, my friend, Mike, in Masters Swim class made the comment, “Maybe the planet is telling us we need to unplug it for a few weeks and then try restarting it.” I’ve continued to think about that in the ensuing weeks.
One of the resources that we have in the midst of this crisis is scripture, which can function as a dialogue partner, a comfort, a challenge, a source of stability. I hope that you have a practice of reading the Bible regularly, but in case you don’t, here is something that got me wondering. Both in Exodus and in our reading from Leviticus today, we read about the need of the earth to have a sabbath. The planet needs a break, and the prescribed amount of time is one year out of seven, a sabbath year. What if we are giving God’s planet an unintentional sabbath? Could we make an environmental sabbath intentional?
When you think about the way Orthodox Jews observe the sabbath each week, doing no work, no cooking, no driving to synagogue and living within walking distance — it’s one day a week set aside exclusively for God and community. One day is about 14% of a week. Imagine the impact of God’s planet if we would observe sabbath and reduce humanity’s use of fossil fuels and other sources of pollution by 14%.
Too often, we in developed nations have wasted and taken for granted the opulence of a lifestyle that is very hard on the environment, whether it’s driving a long commute or flying as often as we do, or using paper towels and plastic bags in our kitchens with reckless abandon. We have had a lifestyle that is not worthy of God’s trust in us as stewards. I’m not saying we can never use paper towels or fly anywhere…but what if, in addition to advances in solar and wind power, we gave God’s world an environmental sabbath and cut back by 14%? Maybe telecommuting, online meetings, further investment in renewable energy are a sensible first step, and we’ve proved we can do it.
Personally, there are some things I have liked over the past month, like not having to drive as much and spending more time cooking and baking. I have loved seeing Plymouth members do grocery shopping for others, sew masks for other people, offer to do tech support over the phone, and stay in touch with intergenerational pen pals. I love that our deacons and others are in the process of calling every member of the congregation to check in. Many of us are spending more time doing things like taking walks, offering help to our neighbors, connecting with people, really appreciating and thanking essential workers. And some of us are finding that we get a sense of joy from that shift.
What are the things that you have rediscovered or realized for the first time during this pandemic — activities or ways of being that nourish your soul? How will you hold onto those positive aspects of your life after the pandemic?
As we look ahead, we get to make an intentional choice about the kind of changed world we want to rebuild and create. We can decide that we want to return to the previous North American cycle of rushing everywhere, pushing the limits of our physical and mental health, living life as a highly leveraged business model that has no room for breathing, and destroying God’s planet. We can opt for that. But we don’t have to.
There is an old saying: “Never waste a good conflict,” and that can be really helpful for removing a log-jam in a relationship or in a congregation that is stuck. And I think we have a new corollary in our midst: “Never waste a global crisis.”
This is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink our priorities, our lives, our faith, our place in God’s world. We can examine the things that are working, whether it’s realizing who is an “essential” worker, our city providing shelter for homeless people, more time with your kids, connecting with your neighbors, or just slowing down. We CAN change the things that are not working, whether it’s the broken American system of healthcare, economic inequality, or an administration run by someone who seems to care more about himself than the people he has sworn to serve. We can change the positives and the negatives. But it will take enormous fortitude to stand up to the specter of broken normalcy that already is screaming for our attention and to people literally banging on statehouse doors demanding a return to the old normal while the virus is still rampant…not to mention a president who foments such rebellion. It will cost lives.
Sabbath is calling to us. The kingdom of God is calling to us. We have an alternative vision of life available to us — it’s a vision that includes environmental sabbath and true social justice. Let’s not let this crisis go to waste.
In some ways, we are not so unlike the Hebrew people who are wandering for 40 years in the wilderness (though for us, it’s only been about 40 days, though there are times it’s felt like 40 years!). They are in a dramatic “threshold time,” emerging from the wilderness into a new land, and the writers of Leviticus are structuring the ethical, moral, and religious precepts for a people moving not just into a new place, but into a new chapter of their civilization. They are making intentional decisions about what kind of world God would want them to create, and they answer in part with the idea of “a sabbath of complete rest for the land.” (v.4)
We, too, are in a “threshold time.” Walking through doorways of transition and transformation are never comfortable, but if we are to step across the threshold into newness and faithfulness, we can’t long for the good old days when we were enslaved in Egypt.
My friends, we are a people of resurrection, and we can help bring Christ’s presence into the world if we have the will to do so. We are moving into a new chapter in the history of our civilization, and we can — we must — be intentional about the kind of world we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in. At Plymouth, we talk about and pray for the kingdom of God, here and now and still unfolding. Now is our best chance to help put precepts into practice. With God’s help, we can make it so.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 and Matthew 5:43-48
February 19, 2017; 7th Sunday in Epiphany
Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-1819:1 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
19:2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them:
You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.
19:9 When you reap the harvest of your land,
you shall not reap to the very edges of your field,
or gather the gleanings of your harvest.
19:10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare,
or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard;
you shall leave them for the poor and the alien:
I am the LORD your God.
19:11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely;
and you shall not lie to one another.
19:12 And you shall not swear falsely by my name,
profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.
19:13 You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal;
and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.
19:14 You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind;
you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
19:15 You shall not render an unjust judgment;
you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great:
with justice you shall judge your neighbor.
19:16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people,
and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.
19:17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin;
you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.
19:18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people,
but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
Matthew 5:43-485:43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'
5:44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
5:45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven;
for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good,
and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
5:46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?
Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
5:47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,
what more are you doing than others?
Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
5:48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
I am reading The (Un)Common Good; How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided by Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners community in Washington DC, a Christian community dedicated to living out the gospel together in social justice. Wallis tells the story of Mary Glover. Mary was a cook in a day-care center in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of DC where Sojourners was located in their early days. Only twenty blocks from the White House, Columbia Heights was at that time one of the poorest and most violent areas of DC filled with people considered pejoratively by society to be the “least of these.” But we know how Jesus considered the marginalized, those who are poor, hungry, without shelter, sick, in prison. They were his beloveds and part of his family.
Mary Glover, who was poor herself, was one of the consistent volunteers in Sojourners grocery give away every Saturday morning to help poor families make it through weekend. She was the designated pray-er, because given her Pentecostal roots, she was the best pray-er in the group.
Every Saturday before Sojourners opened their doors to the 200 families that lined up at the door and around the block to receive the free groceries, Mary prayed. Wallis confesses that he got up almost every Sat just to hear Mary pray. “We would hold hands, and Mary would thank the Lord for waking us up that morning and that we were all still alive: “Thank you Lord for another day! That the walls of our rooms were not the walls of our graves! And our beds were not our coolin’ boards!” Then Mary always ended her prayer by saying, “Lord, we know you’ll be coming through this line today; so help us to treat you well.”
For me Mary Glover in this story is an embodiment of the instructions we hear in our texts from Leviticus and Matthew today. Instructions to be “holy” and “perfect” as God is “holy” and “perfect":
“You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. “
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
How many of you think of yourself as holy or perfect? Go ahead, raise your hand! Yea....me too. Not many of us would say we are perfect. Though we may drive ourselves and our loved ones nuts trying to be perfect...without fault...without mistake or blemish. And that word “holy” has real difficulties for us....because we associate it with arrogance...”holier than thou.”
The Hebrew word used in Leviticus for holy, qadosh, does not primarily mean pure or sanctified. It means “set apart.” God says to the people of Israel, “You are set apart as my people for my work.” And in being set apart, God invited them, and invites us today, into a very intimate relationship of holiness. “Be holy, as I am holy.” The people of Israel knew from Genesis that they were made in God’s image. They knew that God had delivered them from slavery and oppression. They knew they were God’s people created to love the God with all their hearts, minds, strength and souls. “Be holy, as I am holy.” This is a relationship of trust and accountability. As God’s people they were and we are accountable for:
And if these sound a bit similar to the Ten Commandments....that is the writer of Leviticus’ intention!
Jesus was steeped in the knowledge of the people of God that we discover in Leviticus. Remember the Torah, the prophets and the psalms were his Bible. He knows the deeper meaning of qadosh, fo being God’s holy people set apart for God’s work. Throughout collection of teaching we call the Sermon on the Mount, he tells the crowds on the mountainside that they are God’s people. They are in an intimate relationship of trust with God. This is not entirely new information to them. Yet Jesus is reinterpreting the law of the Torah in light of the times they were living in, times of oppression of the people of Israel by the Romans. He tells them as God’s people here is how you are accountable to God in this intimate relationship. “Love even your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” In New Testament Greek the word translated as “perfect”, teleios, does not mean “without fault or mistakes”. It means be “healthy, whole, mature, complete.” Jesus gives his commandments to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors in the context of an intimate, growing, healthy, maturing relationship of wholeness with God.
I am privileged, humbled and challenged to be serving a community such as Plymouth who already strives to be holy and perfect. We strive to take seriously our intimate relationship with God that propels us to be holy and perfect in relationship to God and to one another, and to the strangers, and the “least of these” that Jesus loves. John Wimberly, the consultant with us last week, described our congregation as one of the healthiest that he has work with as a community in relationship to one another and to God. He observed that it is in Plymouth’s DNA as a community to do hands on work for God’s kingdom. And I would add to accept the challenges of our texts today.
Taking the Leviticus text and its list....Let us continue to ask ourselves how do we use only what we truly need from the work of our hands and apportion some of the harvest for those less fortunate? Can people glean in our fields? How do we deal justly with all people no matter their economic status? How do we love your neighbor as yourselves through our actions and through extravagant welcome? Let us continue to ask ourselves, where can we reach out in genuine love to our enemies?” Do we have “enemies” as individuals, as a community? Here’s the thing about enemies, we may still not like them....but we have to ask how we find a way to love them as our neighbors, as we love ourselves? What does that love look like?
Respect? No slander? Honesty? Can we pray for those that we vehemently disagree with? Not that they change their minds to think like us! But pray for their highest and best as children of God. And leave them as much without judgment as we can in God’s hands for God to guide their hearts and minds.
We will never to do any of this without mistakes. We will forget at times in the frustrating details and logistics of our life together and our work for God’s realm that God has calls us into intimate relationship and think we have to do everything by ourselves. But that’s the thing about God...the thing about God we know in Jesus the Christ....God keeps coming back over and over offering us God’s love and justice, mercy, grace and presence.
The words of scripture today are words to live by in our troubled times. Yet they boil down to more than following a list of commandments. Being holy, set apart for God’s work, loving our neighbor as our self, and striving to be perfect, to live into wholeness and maturity because we belong to God boils down to the prayer of Mary Glover. “Lord, we know you’ll be coming through this line today; so help us to treat you well.”
Look around you this week. Look for God’s “least of these.” Look for those who may seem to be your enemy. Look in all the lines your encounter as Mary did in free groceries line. Look for the stranger, the marginalized, the ones who seem so different from you in values and lifestyle that you think you could never be in relationship with them. “Lord, we know you’ll be coming through the lines of our lives this week; keep us accountable to you in holiness and wholeness; help us to treat you well.” Amen.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.