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.