Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Sermon: The Year of Jubilee

Lev. 25, Luke 4:16-19

As you probably remember, one of the big ten commandments is to take a Sabbath day every week. While many of our commandments are hard, this one is not so much hard, as it is discounted.  I think that we don’t take it very seriously because, in this “protestant work ethic” culture, we don’t honestly see the value in rest. While a Sabbath sermon is really another conversation, the idea of Jubilee is deeply and closely related to Sabbath.  Sabbath is a day of rest every week.  Then, as we heard in today’s passage, the land is also supposed to rest every seven years for a year.  This, by the way, is where the idea of a Sabbatical also comes in.  Most pastors take a sabbatical every seven years, which is an extended period, usually three months, of break, study, family time, or rest.  I’ve never had one because the timing of switching jobs has never really allowed for it.  But I think that time of renewal and rest is usually very renewing for both pastors and congregations when it does take place.  And, frankly, there is biblical support for all of us having time of sabbatical, time of rest.
So that brings us to the third part of the Biblically mandated Sabbath - the year of Jubilee.  What do you know about the year of Jubilee? Was this passage surprising to you?  As you look at it now, what strikes you?
We go from having one day out of seven to rest, to having one year out of seven for the land to rest, for the forgiveness of debts, for the freedom of slaves, to finally, having one year every seven times seven years plus one - every fifty years, for a more complete renewal and regeneration of all that has come to pass.  Several things are to happen in this year of Jubilee.  Again, the freeing of all slaves, again the releasing of the debts, again, the resting of the land.  But also during this time, no land owner has exclusive claim to what is produced on their land: everyone can eat of the land regardless of who owns it.  Wildlife is to be given a chance to repopulate itself.  No interest is to be charged on money loaned: no one is to make money off of another’s need.  But then, if that wasn’t radical enough, we come to the even harder parts. All land is to return to those who owned it originally, and all people are to return to their place of origin.  Again, all land is to return to those who owned it originally, and all people are to return to their place of origin - to their family’s land, to their ancestral home.
The themes of freedom, and of trust are once again the focus of this jubilee year also.  It is a three fold freedom - liberty for the slaves and the imprisoned, liberty from the toil of cultivating the land, and liberty for the person who lost his inheritance and can now return to the land of his or her ancestors.  And again, trust: we trust that God will provide even though there are basically two fallow years in a row for the land (the 49th year, being seven times seven years of sabbatical followed by the fiftieth year, the year of jubilee), even though all debt is erased, even though all slaves are set free, even though everything is open to everyone: all food that grows in this year is open for use by anyone who needs it.
We don’t hear about too many of these jubilee years actually haven taken place over the course of history.  But in the passage from Luke, Biblical scholars believe that Jesus was declaring or re-instituting the year of Jubilee: the year of the Lord’s favor is a phrase that references and proclaims the jubilee year.  And the things Jesus includes to announce the coming of this year tell us much about his priorities for the year of jubilee as well.  Freedom for the imprisoned, sight for the blind, release to the oppressed.  In other words, all who are captive, including prisoners are to be set free.  All who are suffering physically will be freed from their ailments and physical problems.  All who are oppressed shall find justice and be brought into equality.  The releasing of debts and the returning of the land are ways to bring about that justice and equality as well.  Every fifty years, everything is to be forgiven, returned, set free, and allowed to rest.
What do you think practicing the year of jubilee would look like today?  What would we look like if we practiced this, as a country?  As a people?  As individuals?  First of all, if this was practiced at the beginning of the founding of our country, most of us would have needed to vacate the United States and return the land to the Native Americans a long time ago.  If we started the year of Jubilee today just returning to where we were fifty years ago, I wonder where we’d be? Where would you be?  Where was your family fifty years ago that you would need to return to?  Since we are an older congregation, many of us would probably still be here, actually, but if we were to actually practice this each fifty years, where would you have gone back to 100 years ago?  More, what would it mean for people to be completely debt free once every generation - all countries, all individuals, all families, everyone set back to ground zero - with no debts, and with no interest on loans.
But in the face of the reality that instituting the year of jubilee would probably be a big challenge for any of us, we are called to look more deeply at the reasons behind this command to keep a year of jubilee, to look at the purpose behind it and what the call to keep a year of jubilee means for each of us in a world that does not practice Jubilee.
The passage from Leviticus talks about the underlying belief of Jubilee, of the returning of  the land to the original owners.  It begins with a deep recognition that nothing here, nothing here really belongs to any of us - the land, the earth, and all that is on it belong to God.  God in turn has lent it to God’s people and while individuals or families may lose their piece for a while, it is God’s part to decide who the land goes to the end, where it serves, who it serves and how it serves. God doesn’t like a few people accumulating at the expense of the many.  That goes to the very heart of the year of jubilee and the deeper purpose behind it which is about justice: a basic justice which says that the rich should not be getting richer off of the backs of the poor.  Jubilee was an extension of the Sabbath - and began with the Day of Atonement: making amends.  And in the year of Jubilee, this amends is all about correcting the gain of a few at the expense of others. 
Our society is not set up like this. Small farmers are constantly losing their lands to the big corporations who are accumulating at the great cost to the poor. Small companies lose their business to bigger companies. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, especially in this country.  815 million people of the 7.6 billion people in the world, or 10.7%, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2016.  . In the United States, More than 13 million children in the United States live in "food insecure" homes.  In California, a Forbes study said 1/3 of all families here struggle to meet basic needs .  Poorer countries are often stuck in a vicious debt trap in which they cannot afford to repay their national debts without neglecting their people’s basic needs.  For instance, in 2005/06, Kenya’s budget for debt payments was as much as for water, health, agriculture, roads, transportation, and finance combined. 
At the same time as in our churches we ask people to tithe ten percent of their incomes - to give ten percent to the care of others, of the world, of creation, our federal budget gives less than one percent to the care of the poor.  Less than one percent.
In response to this need, and in response to the Biblical mandate to practice the year of Jubilee there has been a movement which many of you may be familiar with.  It focused originally on declaring the year 2000 as a year of jubilee. Since then, the debt of 20 small countries was relieved of debt, countries like Kenya which were being torn apart by the large debts which they had incurred. There is a foundation called Jubilee USA Network and its current grass roots organizer, Brian Swarts wrote in his blog, “God’s creative and redemptive acts are not limited to a single day or confined to “religious” activities or people. The biblical teachings on Sabbath have as much to say about everyday life issues like agriculture, economics and politics as they do about religion. Or more accurately, from a Sabbath perspective there is no distinction between religious practice, and ecological, political and economic practice. .....This redistribution limits… the monopolization of wealth… The Sabbath vision of economics was that each family would be assured enough to meet its needs, but it would discourage people from accumulating significantly more than they need. This, of course, is heretical in today’s economic system where the mantra is ‘more is better.’”
What is interesting about this is that current global research is showing that economic growth only brings us real satisfaction up to the point of meeting our basic needs (which costs about $50,000 a year in California). In other words, the people in this country who make a salary of billions a year are not any happier than those of us who just barely make ends meet.  Does this surprise you?  People deserve a living wage, adequate health care, and food security, but beyond this we spend most of our time working to acquire wealth that does not make us any happier.  What if in recognition of this fact we stopped trying to gain money to buy more for ourselves or our families but instead really put ourselves to the task of caring for the world with the money we make that is beyond providing for basic needs?  Just think what we could do!  It’s the idea of the manna all over again.  God said to the Israelites in the desert, only take what you need for today and tomorrow will be provided for.  Can we do that?
Brian Swarts continued, “Today, the Jubilee … movement is working to restore the vision of Sabbath to the global economic system. This is an international, faith‑inspired movement calling for a jubilee for the world’s most impoverished countries: a cancellation of debts and an end to economic practices tantamount to debt slavery!...In ancient Israel debt often became a vicious trap: The poor ..(would often) lose their land to wealthy creditors. In the end, their only option would be to sell themselves or their children into slavery.  The indefinite continuation of this process and the permanent enslavement of the poor is what jubilee was meant to address.”
Bono, the lead singer for the Christian rock group U2, at the 2006 National Prayer Breakfast spoke eloquently about the need for a year of jubilee, about debt relief and about our job as Christians to care for the poor in this very concrete way.  He told this story:
“A number of years ago, I met a wise man who changed my life. In countless ways, large and small, I was always seeking the Lord's blessing. I was saying, you know, I have a new song, look after it. I have a family, please look after them. I have this crazy idea...
“And this wise man said: ‘stop.’  He said, ‘stop asking God to bless what you're doing. Get involved in what God is doing ‑ because it's already blessed.’

 “Well, God, as I said, is with the poor. That, I believe, is what God is doing.  And that is what He's calling us to do....Look, whatever thoughts you have about God, who He is or if He exists, most will agree that if there is a God, He has a special place for the poor. In fact, the poor are where God lives. Check Judaism. Check Islam. Check pretty much anyone....The one thing we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor.  God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them. ...It's not a coincidence that in the scriptures, poverty is mentioned more than 2,100 times. It's not an accident. That's a lot of air time, 2,100 mentions. (You know, the only time Christ is judgmental is on the subject of (our failing to care for) the poor.) 'As you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me' (Matthew 25:40).”
Bono also points out that we can and have made a large difference as churches to the debt relief programs. As he says, “when churches started demonstrating on debt, governments listened ‑ and acted. When churches starting organizing, petitioning, and even ‑ that most unholy of acts today, God forbid, lobbying...on AIDS and global health, governments listened ‑ and acted.”  But this is not easy.  He continues, “It's not about charity, it's about justice. And that's too bad.  Because we’re good at charity. Justice is a lot harder....It's annoying but justice and equality are mates. Aren't they? Justice always wants to hang out with equality. And equality is a real pain.  You know, think of those Jewish sheep‑herders going to meet the Pharaoh, mud on their shoes, and the Pharaoh says, 'Equal?' A preposterous idea: rich and poor are equal? And they say, 'Yeah, 'equal,' that's what it says here in this book. We're all made in the image of God." And eventually the Pharaoh says, "OK, I can accept that. I can accept the Jews ‑ but not the blacks.'  'Not the women. Not the gays. Not the Irish. No way, man.'...So on we go with our journey of equality. On we go in the pursuit of justice.  Preventing the poorest of the poor from selling their products while we sing the virtues of the free market...that's a justice issue. Holding children to ransom for the debts of their grandparents...that's a justice issue. Withholding life‑saving medicines out of deference to the Office of Patents...that's a justice issue.  And while the law is what we say it is, God is not silent on the subject.”

The Sabbath laws give us clear mandates, that sets before us very clear challenges. First, as a Sabbath day, we are seriously challenged to take a day of rest, prayer and time with your family.

Second, in answer to the call to a Sabbatical, we are called to reflect on debts you hold and to find ways to take a larger break from long term activities, focus some time on forgiving others and find ways to create Sabbath places for others, especially the poor and oppressed.

But when it comes to Jubilee, the call is to really reflect on ways we participate in the injustices in our world and to search for ways in which we can participate in a true Jubilee -freeing the oppressed, bringing sight to the blind, and returning God’s wealth to all God’s people.  Start by asking yourself the question, where did you come from?  How have you gotten to where you are today?  And how can you return the same grace God has given you throughout your life to all the people in God’s world?  Amen.

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