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.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph,
Plymouth Congregational Church UCC Fort Collins, Colorado
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, our God, our rock, and our redeemer. Amen.
I bet by now you can guess what I am preaching on today: Sabbath! Today, preaching on Sabbath, I am really having to admit that I am very worried. I am worried for all of you. I am worried for our country and our world. I think we need a bigger Sabbath than just Sundays in pews. I believe that many of you are nearing burnout in one part of your lives or another—with how much you do, with the stress of work, the stress of keeping up with technology alone, the stress of caregiving, and the stress of carrying the political burn of an unprecedented time… all need Sabbaths. Perhaps we are even at a place of cultural burnout. Today, I will share a humble word on this topic, but I hope that you make it your own. As a minister, my starting place for these hard topics is always to go to Scripture:
“On the sabbath, he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.” I love this passage of the Gospel of Mark about Jesus and his disciples on a road trip. Imagine with me what this would be like if it took place in modern times! Let’s retell this story together: Picture Jesus on a car trip with his best friends! Can’t you picture them making their way through the cornfields of an ancient Iowa in the same way that many of you will on trips of your own this summer. Iowa is the promised land after all! I mean, who doesn’t love a good summer road trip with their very best friends? Right?
Imagine Jesus and the disciples piled into the equivalent of an ancient church van, which I guess we could call be more of a “caravan.” They have a favorite book on tape in the cassette player (maybe Deuteronomy), and a road trip custom mixtape. For those who don’t know what a mixtape is; think of a Spotify station that repeats itself every hour! Finally, we envision the open road ahead of them. We can almost hear them singing along to their favorite track as they went along the countryside. [Singing to Congregation]: “On the road again, just can’t wait to get on the road again. The life I love is making disciples with my friends. Just can’t wait to get on the road again.” You always knew that Willie Nelson looked a lot like Jesus for a reason—both like car trips!
Like any road trip with friends, there is always one person who needs to stop at EVERY gas station or camel watering hole, right? This person in the group needs to stop at every oasis rest stop to use the restroom. In Jesus’ group, I imagine that person was Philip. Philip calls out, “Can we stop again please. I need to use the bathroom?” “Of course, you do,” sarcastically grumbles Judas, who is stewing in the back row. He is sitting next to a very carsick James and John. Judas isn’t much for these group trips anyway. Peter, who was always hungry, replies from the co-pilot seat next to Jesus, “Yes, please, let’s stop… I need a snack!” “We haven’t stopped since Nazareth at that Runza.” Who here is the one on a road trip who likes to stop for a snack?
So, Jesus pulls the camel caravan over to the watering hole, and the disciples get out/ or off. At this cornfield rest stop, the disciples try to buy some ancient near eastern popcorn and crackerjacks before hitting the road again. When they go to pick the grain, however, the local minister is standing guard at the door of the 7-11. “Who are you and what do you think you are doing on the Sabbath?”
They are scolded by the local authorities because it is the Sabbath, the day of rest—and the old rules say no snacks allowed on this day! This town’s clergy have decided to not allow the sale of food on Sundays to the traveling, hungry group of disciples and their leader Jesus. They would rather see this group just move along hungry than break a rule. “Get out of here now, the ministers say, 'it is the Sabbath, and we don’t like sinful eating today.'”
Jesus steps-up and confronts the local minister in the cornfield, who looks startled by being confronted and backs away, “Hey, Sabbath is for people, for rest, for good things, and not just for the sake of self-denial. What is this nonsense about not snacking on Sundays?” “Come on friends,” Jesus says turning to his unhappy disciples, “let’s get back on the road, this isn’t our kind of town anyway.” They pile back in the caravan, and they leave the town in the dust!
Jesus yells out the window as they drive away (tires squealing), “The sabbath was made for people, and people were not made simply to serve the silly, antiquated rules of sabbath. I am the lord of rest…”
Our story continues in the next village. Since it is Sunday, Jesus and his disciples decide to stop by a local church as part of their cornfield car trip adventure. I mean, it is never a bad thing to go to church even when on vacation, right Plymouth? Everything was going fine until coffee hour. That is when all of the trouble started. It usually is. During coffee hour, a man starts to choke on a donut. Now, this sounds like a joke, but I have heard of people choking during coffee hours. How many of you know the Heimlich Maneuver? Well lucky for that church, Jesus knew the Heimlich and rushed over and saved the man’s life! This was all much to the horror of the minister who came over to criticize Jesus for saving a life on Sunday! This was the day of rest after all. “How dare you.” “He would have been lucky to die on a Sunday… in church!”
Jesus replied, now a little spooked because all of this was just a little Children of the Corn, “Is it okay to do good or bad on the day of sabbath rest, to save a life or to kill?” The whole congregation, holding their coffee cups, just stared at Jesus in zombie-like silence. Now, this just made Jesus angry and deeply sad to see how rigid they were about some antiquated rules! Jesus didn’t have much patience for extremists or fundamentalists, you see. He didn’t have patience for them 2,000 years ago and doesn’t have patience for them today either. As Jesus and the disciples ran back to the van to get away from the crowd and sped at full speed out of the church parking lot, the congregation followed them determined to kill them. Like I said, this story is VERY Children of the Corn. For the word of God in Scripture… for the word of God among us, for the word of God and stories made relevant for our time. Thanks be to God.
How did we all become so dogmatic about Sabbath and what makes “good” sabbath behavior and what makes “bad” sabbath behavior? Yes, even in the progressive Church this is a problem.
In preparation for this sermon, I read several Christian blogs on the subject from Christians on both the progressive and conservative side of the spectrum, and you know what they all had in common: dogmatic views. Yes, especially the UCC clergy people were dogmatic about this topic. Sabbath, in their opinion, is about removing ourselves from stress but not allowing ourselves to be distracted. Basically, my clergy colleagues from many traditions have made sabbath unattainable for the average 21st Century Christian. Again, the way Sabbath is being defined as “done well and correctly” is unattainable for modern life. Only those who are naturally introverted, have a lot of spare time, and are good at centering prayer can achieve true sabbath. Do you all know this Sabbath is for Introverts narrative? That, Plymouth, is a bunch of hooey. It is the same sort of extremist nonsense that Jesus and his car-trip friends encountered at the rest stop and in the coffee hour.
One minister Christian blogger has laid out three rules for Sabbath: 1. Sabbath is not about entertainment. 2. Sabbath is not about being lazy or sleepy. 3. Sabbath is not only about going to church, although that is a big part of her argument. 4. Sabbath is not for recreation. She then lays out what sabbath is: 5. Sabbath is for purposeful, undistracted, pure rest.
What I see in this is something called clergy-privilege. The focus of our lives in Spiritual formation. We even get time in our contracts for retreat and restorative practices. That is not the case for most of you. How many of you have paid time off for retreat?
Okay, I am an extreme extrovert, and when reading what that minister describes as “Sabbath,” self-isolation, meditation, maybe some church attendance, but basically quiet introverted peace sounds like it would leave someone like me more exhausted than refreshed. Sabbath is for all people and not just for introverted people. Sabbath friends isn’t God’s way of showing preference to one personality type over others. It isn’t an unattainable level of enlightenment borrowed from other traditions and applied to Christianity. The Christian or Jewish concepts of doing Sabbath right is not the same as Buddhism’s idea of enlightenment or Karma. While we should find common ground with other traditions, false equivalencies don’t do justice to either tradition.
In Christianity, there is no such thing as a “correct” way to do Sabbath. Sabbath is rather whatever makes you heart sing and brings you closer to God. It doesn’t even have to be confined to Sunday. Jesus wants to liberate all of us from guilt, from shame, from self-imposed oppression on the subject of Sabbath observance.
Plymouth, as your minister, it is my observation that many of you live stressed, full to capacity, busy, complicated lives. You juggle so much, and yet still find time to be in fellowship with each other and to bless this congregation as volunteers. The last thing I want to give today is a sermon that says that anyway you spend your Sabbath is wrong. Sabbath is for people. Sabbath is for how you need to spend your free time in order to feel whole, to be well, to be complete with community, with yourself, and with God. Never let anyone tell you that your way of doing Sabbath work isn’t right. Jesus shows us otherwise in this story today about his car trip with the disciples.
As an extreme extrovert, Sabbath for me is walking door to door for political campaigns in my free time and talking with random strangers. Every new door to knock on is endless opportunity for random conversations. FUN! Don’t worry, I won’t ever knock on your door. I skip Plymouth houses out of principle as your minister. That certainly is NOT real Sabbath behavior according to the sages of introverted Christianity like Dianna Butler Bass, Belden Lane, and others. Retreat is only as restorative as the human interactions I have. Some of you are introverts and need quiet, neutral time. If that is you, embrace it. If that doesn’t sound like you, then find your own way to restore your soul.
What does your Sabbath look like? What do you need to feel whole? Are you taking the time to get coffee or tea with a favorite friend? Do you take the time to be alone if needed? Do you know what Sabbath means for you?
I know that some of you work on Sundays, or you are nearing burnout from caring for a spouse who is aging faster than you, taking care of parents or grandchildren who need your support and your financial resources, being responsible for whole local movements for justice in areas from food to homelessness to youth. I know some of you are nearing technological burnout as yet another data reboot upends your computer or phone. Some of you are at burnout at work either from over work or being in the wrong field for your skills or maybe a lack of institutional vison that you need to thrive. Burnout, remember isn’t when things stop happening—it is when things speed up in the wrong direction: divorce, break-down, hurt, loss, etc. Burnout isn’t running out of gas, it is usually hitting the peddle to the metal full speed ahead in whatever direction you are facing.
Jesus and the disciples went on a road trip. They found different communities with rigid rules and concepts about what made for a correct Sabbath. What they found was that nobody could make their rules for them, so Jesus inadvertently started Christianity over this issue above all others: Sabbath. It was his changing the rules around work-life balance that made them want to kill him in the first place. This Sabbath business is that important. It is so important that a whole religion, ours, was partially founded over its substance. What will you do with your Sabbath?
 I went to Grinnell College and loved Iowa, so this comment is in all seriousness and love.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.