Pastor Amy preaches the first in a three part series on Biblical Jubilee.
I think the first time I encountered the word or idea of jubilee was my grandparents’ golden jubilee wedding anniversary. I was maybe 8 or 9 years old. The grandkids all ran around in the back yard of my grandparents’ house while adults dropped in for coffee out of fancy cups. There were fancy sandwiches with the crusts all cut off and my grandma and grandpa used a fancy knife to cut a big sheet cake. Therefore, Jubilee means fancy party for old people. Right?
Later I encountered the idea of Jubilee as debt relief. The church and social justice organizations were making a big push in the late 90’s for global financial institutions and nations to forgive the debts of developing countries. The Jubilee 2000 initiative. And through that realized (or possibly in the bible college studies) that actually Jubilee is a Biblical idea. Although both of these ideas – the fancy party, the global debt forgiveness – dilute the Biblical principle (especially the party for old people one) Jubilee is indeed a great joy, a celebration and it is release, forgiveness and a sharing of enough for all.
It was when talking about our upcoming 50th anniversary that the idea of Jubilee a framework or foundation arose out of Spiritual Leadership Team. In that 50 years, a generation has passed. We have moved, grown in number, amassed land and wealth and become not a young and scrappy group in South Seattle, but an established and known force in Lake City.
SLT realized that God had set the table before us – Jubilee as a celebration, yes, a joyful recognition of all that Seattle Mennonite Church has been in this past half century – and also an opportunity as we anticipate it, to enter careful discernment of the questions that have long been before us. What will be our approach to our endowment? How will be use our property and buildings? What ministries do we want to continue and pursue and how will our pastoral team reflect that? How will be approach personal and household giving. With these economic questions before us, we saw that the Spirit has put before us a Biblical economic principle. A principle that is both joyous and celebrative and disruptive but transformative.
Just as we chose Luke’s gospel as a foundation for our season, the Jesus depicted uses the text of Isaiah to lay the foundation for his ministry. He has already been preaching and speaking in synagogues all over Galilee. We are told by the Gospel writer that he was filled with the Spirit and that everyone was pleased with him everywhere he went. He was doing some impressive preaching. And his winning streak continued as he rose in his home congregation in Nazareth.
I get a flutter of pride and a welling of joy when someone like Thalia, or Lacey, or Sam gets up in front of our congregation and speaks the words of Scripture. These are our beloved children and not to embarrass you kids or single you out, but you just do such a lovely job. You are composed and authoritative and you read so well. And the words coming out of your mouth are God’s word! [sigh]
This is how Jesus is received. Loving, possessive awe.
And rightly so, the words that he offers from Isaiah are words of joy, comfort, beauty, assurance. You might remember that Isaiah is actually three distinct sections which address God’s people before they are exiled, during the exile in Babylon and then when they have return but the city of Jerusalem is in ruins. These words addressed to a community that has returned from exile, but their expectation of what return will be like doesn’t line up with their experience. There has been destruction that will take generations to rebuild. There are political and religious factions. The overarching feeling is of humiliation and despair. The Prophet who speaks into this context is called to name the vision of God for release and freedom from the captivity to that way of being.
Just as Jesus echoes Isaiah, Isaiah echoes Leviticus. It is in Leviticus that the Jubilee is mandated on a rhythm (Pastor Megan will get into the details of that next week). That’s where the 50 year cycle comes from – Sabbath day every 7 days, Sabbath year every 7 years, Sabbath of Sabbaths every 7 7’s and finally Jubilee in the 50th year. All will be made level. The returned exiles are assured: the rhythm is off but now is the time of restoration. God’s vision of a new world starts now and In God’s vision of a new world Sabbath year is every year.
All is new. All is restored. You will be known for building up, for being pillars of righteousness and justice, what starts here will only grow into new and new and new.
Luke is strategic with the words Jesus quotes and with the examples that he uses. Perhaps we too are lulled by the beauty of the imagery and the idyllic and comforting promise. We like to think that we will be oaks of righteousness and that should we mourn we will receive a garland and anointing oil. Well, Jesus does a bit of a bait and switch here. He endears himself to his home folk and has them all “Aww, that’s Joseph’s son. Look at him all grown up and preaching in places.” But hold up!
Jesus is God’s beloved son as well, in fact not (at least according to Luke) Joseph’s biological son at all. And that same Spirit which proclaims him beloved son at his baptism, he claims to be upon him now. And that same Spirit compels him to say more, to keep talking. Jesus takes the beautiful and comforting words of Isaiah meant for a nation in ruins and rubble and he changes it slightly for the benefit of his by now quite comfortable audience.
First, Luke’s Jesus plucks up an additional clause from earlier in Isaiah – that’s the line about letting the oppressed go free – and then he leaves off the bit about vengeance. Then he goes on to add examples. The justice and mercy that God’s servants offered in the stories of the prophets, as Luke’s Jesus tells it, are not for the people of Israel, but for foreigners.
Luke’s whole gospel pushes the good news outside of the hometown and into foreign territory, but here Jesus is specific: Namaan the Syrian, the widow of Zarephath. Indeed, “there were many lepers in Israel…but none of them was cleansed.”
Well, that just makes Jesus folks mad. If God’s vision of abundant blessing is for those people they don’t even want to hear it. Not only is there no recompense for those non-God-fearers, those foreigners – God’s mercy and justice is for them too? It’s got them all, “What does that mean for us?” “If Jubilee is real, and Jesus is calling himself the prophet who is declaring “this is it!” well alright, but not if it means we might have to give up a portion of our blessedness, the comfort that has been promised to us.” “What did they do to deserve it. It’s ours!”
I can’t understand the level of threat and revulsion that people felt at hearing Jesus say that God’s gift/favor was not for them. Can’t understand the transition from loving awe to brow of the hill. The feeling of threat must be very real. Even though this is integral to the Biblical tradition that Jesus and his people have been steeped in the idea that God’s love is wide enough, God’s blessing is wide enough, God’s economy – God’s house – is wide enough for all.
Some of you have heard me and/or Megan wax on about our obsession with Hamilton, the musical. It is no spoiler to say that it ends with the death of Alexander Hamilton at the hand of Aaron Burr, whose friendship turned to rivalry and ultimately detest because of Burr’s jealously and resentment of Hamilton’s success. After all is said and done, Burr sings, “Now I’m the villain in your history, I was too young and blind to see. I should have known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.”
The world is wide enough. God is absolutely wide enough. Jubilee is wide enough for both the ‘them’ and the ‘us’. This concept of enough-ness is a part of why SLT so felt that the Spirit was upon us as we talked more and more about the rightness of Jubilee as our framing idea. How will our wealth – both that of the church and that of each of us personally (and that is that part that makes me wiggle a little) – how will it be a part of the enough?
It is no small thing that we have already used much of the money we received from Walter Thieme to build a ministry to people experiencing homelessness – to partner in services, housing, welcoming space, staff accompaniment, more. Now what? Where will our call to Radical Hospitality take us next? (And again, I don’t mean just really awesome hospitality, I mean Jubilee Hospitality, hospitality that plants us firmly and sends strong roots down into the ground of God’s justice).
We may feel like leading Jesus to the cliff ourselves when we hear his Word proclaimed in our midst. When we are challenged about our personal giving, when we raise the idea of reparation. We’re going to give our money to who? We had nothing to do with slavery or land-stealing. We’re Mennonites! This is ours. They don’t deserve it.
When we consider creating a new space out of the rubble of this building which will look radically different, or consider having no space at all, the ideas that the Spirit leads us to might make us uncomfortable and even angry. And the fact is, we have called this two year period our Jubilee Season, but Jubilee, in Jesus’ vision is not two years. It is all the years. It is now and then and always. When we talk about the Kingdom of God – the Kin-dom of God – we are talking about Jubilee. That is a theme that will take us to eternity (literally). May God’s Spirit be upon us and may we proclaim with confident that this is the year of the Lord’s favor!