Karl Jones, August 25, 2019
Scriptures Ecclesiastes 3:1–8; Matthew 25:31–40; Exodus 20:8
If this is your first time here at Plymouth, welcome. If you have been here before but were able to take time off this summer—maybe a trip, time at a lake cabin—welcome back. For those of you who have been here without fail—it’s good to see you again!
To those of you who know me and may be surprised to see me up here, I feel like I should say a few words about how I ended up in the pulpit this morning. Some of you may know that I’m a minister. I was actually ordained as a minister in the United Church of Christ here in this sanctuary. I am guessing that some folks here today were present at that time. Since then I have worked as a chaplain in a variety of health care settings.
One thing that chaplains put special focus on is self-care. An essential part of being able to do the work of caring for others is caring for yourself. You can’t sit day after day with the illness, the loss and the grief of others without actively looking after yourself.
But I have found that doing so can get complicated. I suspect this is true for others as well. After all, we all need to recharge our batteries. So, I thought I would explore one challenge to self-care a bit today, especially as we are moving out of summer and approaching Labor Day.
In becoming a chaplain, you could say that I have learned it’s important to take some kind of sabbath. (I probably should acknowledge that I am using the word “sabbath” loosely here.) I try to routinely do things that refresh my spirits. Just as one example, in my ideal day, I take some time for myself at my favorite coffee shop, reading whatever my current book is for a little while before starting the day.
I do a pretty good job of taking care of myself, but it’s not always simple. I’ve got a story to illustrate that, but, before telling you that story, I feel like I should say a word about my own situation.
I am not part of a family that has a cabin on the lake, but I have had the privilege of doing a fair amount of traveling. When I call it a privilege, I could mean many things, but you could simply say that some friends of mine could not afford to do what I have done. It can be awkward. Do I want to enjoy things when those I care about can’t? So, I consider it a privilege.
Having said that, let me tell you a little about a recent vacation: Earlier this year my wife, Rebecca, and I visited our nephew in Denver. We stayed downtown in a hotel not too far from a renovated train station with a bookstore, a florist, coffee shop, bars and restaurants. It’s really quite a place.
When we checked into the hotel and made our way to the elevators, there was a simple but fascinating video installation that made it more interesting to wait for the elevator. The door to our room had heft and opened in a way that told you someone had given some thought to its design. The bed was huge and wonderfully welcoming. The lighting was subtle and had strategic placement of controls so you could adjust everything to be just so.
I could go on, but, in a word, the place was a study in thoughtfulness. Maybe you know the kind of place.
When we headed out, it took us only a few steps to leave that oasis of comfort and service. Just beyond the drop-off for valet parking, we found ourselves walking past people who had found a corner or a bench near the train station and had their belongings next to them; they had clearly spent the night. As we made our way through the train station, I couldn’t help but notice a man with a severely damaged face milling about. It seemed like the place was a kind of home or second home for him.
I had read about a great bagel place that wasn’t too far away. I thought I would get out and explore other parts of the city by foot. While walking there, I found myself closely watching the darker recesses of buildings and looking down alleys, gauging how safe they were likely to be. On the way, I found myself walking past a vacant lot. Scattered around it were about a dozen tents with people milling about, waking up, starting their day. The police arrived as I continued on my way.
It seemed like any direction I headed I was likely to move into what for me is a bit more familiar side of any city. At almost every turn, I was reminded of the need of that community.
Of course, this isn’t unique to any particular city. This wasn’t an isolated incident.
When I once took a cruise in the Caribbean, we had a stopover in Haiti—though the cruise line didn’t call it Haiti. Parts of the area were certainly lush and beautiful, but my main experience that remains is of the thin curtain between wealth—my wealth—and grueling poverty and desperation. Actually, it wasn’t a curtain, but, at times, it was a tall chain link fence.
For me, many trips out of town start with a different dilemma. As you may know, as convenient as it is, air travel is one of the most damaging things a person can do in terms of the environment. I think about that every time I step into an airport to get away.
While my wife and I were in London a couple years ago, the people of the city were commenting on the record drought, which was obvious everywhere we went in England.
The world’s need does not go away just because we have decided we are ready for some time off.
Setting vacation to the side, whenever I’m not at work, I feel like it’s my time when I can either do some good in the world beyond the career I have chosen, but it’s also it’s my time to rest.
The choices run something like this: Will I write a postcard to my congressperson about matters weighing on my heart, or is it time for a Netflix break? Is this piece of mail that just arrived at my door or appeared in my in-box really part of how I want to spend my money and my life or is it junk mail? What do I say to the guy in the parking lot of my coffee shop who wants to wash the windows of my car while I enjoy reading my book?
In Beth Faeth’s most recent two sermons, she asked how you would fill in the blank: “Nothing matters more than __________.” I’ve been thinking about that from a slightly different angle.
While travelling, I had a couple meals at a restaurant that always had inventive food and drinks, interesting enough to bring me back. On one visit, I stumbled onto something like their mission statement, which was available for customers to read. A phrase caught my eye: “We worship alcohol.”
I don’t know about you, but that seems a bit over the top to me. But I wonder how far off base the sentiment of that phrase is, some of the time. Alcohol may not be your obsession or mine, but I am guessing that if we were to pause for a moment, we might find our own obsession.
Fine food? Art? The pursuit of excellence? Are we obsessed with “enjoying the good life” after a long day’s work or after a fruitful career?
So, I find myself facing a dilemma. How do I get the rest I need when the needs of the rest of the world don’t stop? Is what I turn to for respite truly refreshing? Is the rest that I’m getting in any way at the expense of the lives of others?
I’m not sure I have a resolution to the tension I’m naming or satisfying answers to those questions. Having said that, I have been thinking about it in ways that have started to shift things for me:
In our religious tradition, we are called to do things like care for the stranger, and we are called to take sabbath. We are to actively care about the rest from the world, and we are to rest from our labors in the world. Can we get rest while caring about the rest? What about the rest?
What did Jesus have to say? In the passage I read earlier, he seems to suggest we need to always care for “the least among us,” and he seems to have spent much of his ministry doing just that. But he also said at one point: “You will have the poor with you always.” At times, he himself took a break in the face of unrelenting need; Jesus was known to retreat and pray from time to time. But he also pointed out when others were being self-righteous or self-serving in their observance of sabbath. Generally, rest takes money. When speaking of money, Jesus asserted that you can’t serve two masters, both money and God.
We no longer live in a culture that enforces Sabbath. If we are to take rest, we need to define our own boundaries. For anyone to do any difficult work on a sustainable basis, rest is important: not just sleep, but something that restores us.
It may be a good thing that Sunday is no longer legislated as a day of rest. Beyond the questions of separation of church and state or legislating morality, there may be good reasons for not forcing one another to stop.
As you have no doubt noticed, it is possible to do almost anything in the wrong spirit. One can certainly think one is “observing Sabbath” without experiencing any kind of rest. One can set about doing “good works” without being respectful or strategic or moving things in the right direction.
I’m interested in the tension between observing the Sabbath in a world where the need never stops.
But I realize each of us has unique circumstances.
My wife and I are not parents, but we have been foster parents on a couple occasions. My brief experience of parenting as a foster parent often led to me being exhausted and ready for bed right after it was bedtime for the kids at eight o’clock. There was energy for little else.
I know there are some people here today who are retired. I can imagine that someone in that situation might say “I have done meaningful, rewarding work my entire life. I volunteer my time or give my money in important ways, but this time of life is for rest, a time to savor life and my family.”
I feel sure that there are those here who are most challenged by their own health and the future they envision. That will certainly change one’s focus and approach to day-to-day living.
I won’t presume to define the balance between rest and the rest of the world that others should strive for. Even at its best, maintaining that balance is tricky. Sometimes we will make mistakes. But I do think it’s important for each of us to continually look for a balance.
Especially as people of privilege—and from a global perspective we are all people of privilege—it is especially critical to make sure we are doing what we can for the world with our privilege.
Just as one example, a recent headline in the New York Times was: “A Quarter of Humanity Faces Looming Water Crises.” My guess would be that, for many us, we err toward not really doing as much as we know we are called to do.
We’re not called to live in guilt or to feel that we are insufficient, but we are called to do more than notice all those things that weigh upon our souls. “What is the right thing to do?”
Life is complicated. More and more, I am realizing that there isn’t one right thing to do in any given situation. There isn’t an accurate solution for every problem. Context matters. There isn’t even a single ethical framework that can be universally applied.
On the flip side, being of service to others is not necessarily draining. It can afford its own kind of sabbath.
I am almost always reluctant to give up my free time. But one of the most memorable evenings of the last few months was spent at a rally at the state Capitol with a group pushing for the passage of environmental legislation. As I have found, and I am guessing you have found as well, having plenty of free time is not the same as finding refreshment for your soul.
Finding the balance between Sabbath and service calls for wisdom. Sometimes we plan that balance and sometimes we are forced to improvise. There is a time to plan and a time to abandon all plans. But we need to be looking. Wisdom doesn’t follow consistent rules.
We are bound to each other in ways that are beyond our control. Life is not ours to control—the rest of the world or the rest from the world. Part of wisdom involves seeing how our lives relate to those of the world. For us, a big part of wisdom is seeing and owning our privileges, in terms of the freedoms those privileges afford us.
When things are out of our control, we need to improvise. In jazz groups, improvising is grounded in the practice of working from a common theme, acknowledging what has just happened and listening to what others are doing, being moved to your own actions by theirs and eventually returning to that theme.
We are about to meet as a congregation. We have declared that we are bound to one another. We are bound as a congregation, and we gathering to discuss and try to agree on major steps before taking them. I wish us well.
There is much we do not want to acknowledge or allow in our world, but we are always bound to one another—whether declared or not. We are in a sort of marriage to the world until death do us part.
May God grant us the wisdom to use what we have to care for ourselves, our neighbors and our world.