Jubilee: Totally Impractical
Pastor Megan preaches the second in a three part series on Biblical Jubilee: her first ever sermon on the riveting and inspiring (*ahem*) book of Leviticus.
Seattle Mennonite Church
25 September 2016
Sermon: Biblical Jubilee: Totally Impractical
Megan M. Ramer
Leviticus 25-26, excerpts
Having preached most Sundays of the past dozen years,
today—remarkably—marks a preaching first:
I am 95% certain this is the first sermon I have ever preached on Leviticus…
the riveting, inspiring book of Leviticus.
I jest, of course, about the “riveting and inspiring” bit.
My earliest experience of the book of Leviticus is that it was boredom-inducing
and, therefore, the thwarter of many a read-through-the-Bible endeavor.
I was a relatively pious young person and tried to read through my Bible many times.
What this means practically is that I’ve read Genesis and Exodus many times.
I’m not sure that I ever successfully powered the whole way through Leviticus.
And so my pious efforts would die somewhere therein.
And my pious effort wasn’t the only thing dying in Leviticus.
After all, the first bull slaughter appears only 5 verses in (not chapters…5 verses),
and by the 6th verse, we hear details about how the bull shall be “flayed”
and “cut up into its parts.”
Two verses later includes specific instructions for the decapitated head,
and the entrails appear in verse 9.
These first 9 verses aren’t exactly boring…
the boring stuff comes later…
but neither are they particularly appetizing.
I confess that I experienced a bit of déjà vu this week
when I attempted to read the 2.5 page introduction to Leviticus
in my Harper Collins Study Bible.
Total snooze fest.
It was only 2.5 pages,
and I had skin in the game—given that a sermon needed to be written,
but I totally zoned out.
And I’m a fair bit of a Bible geek.
So, my first experience of Leviticus:
boring and an insurmountable hurdle to my would-be piety; plus a little gory.
As I got a bit older and the debates about “homosexuality” began to rage in the church,
I came to know Leviticus as home to a couple of the “clobber texts”
used by many to claim “homosexuality” not only as a “sin” but as an “abomination.”
Not long thereafter, I also came to know Leviticus as home, also, to the clever rebuttal.
Because if homosexuality was an abomination based on Leviticus,
then so were the cotton/polyester blends hanging in all our closets,
and so were the mixed-crop fields I grew up surrounded by in northern Indiana,
and so were the shrimps on my “Shrimp, Shrimp, & More Shrimp” plate at Red Lobster.
In fact, the Leviticus-as-clever-rebuttal took a turn for the viral
when radio personality Dr. Laura Schlesinger stated publically that,
speaking as an observant Orthodox Jew,
homosexuality was an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22,
and could not be condoned under any circumstance.
Someone wrote a cheeky open letter to Dr. Laura thanking her for her biblical insight,
and asking her opinion on how to abide by other parts of Leviticus in contemporary life.
Thelma reminded me of the quite humorous letter this week.
I will resist the temptation to read this letter to you,
but one excerpt is particularly relevant to us at SMC, given our pastoral team…
“Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves [the author writes], both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?”
First, Leviticus was boring and blocked my attempts at piety.
Second, Leviticus was home to some clobber texts wielded against my LGBTQ kin.
Next, Leviticus was home to its own clever rebuttal for such would-be clobbering.
But honestly? It’s never been much more than that to me.
I can’t recall the last time I tried to read it through.
And I don’t think I’ve ever turned to it for comfort or edification or inspiration.
That seems to make Leviticus quite the unlikely companion
for our Season of Jubilee discernment regarding our wealth;
our wealth of money, property, and staff.
Except…Except that the Biblical Jubilee vision
is first and most comprehensively captured by Leviticus.
And while it gets rather detailed, I don’t find it boring at all;
maybe it’s even on the way toward “riveting and inspiring…”
In Adult Forum last week we reflected on what assumptions and impressions we bring
to conversations about Biblical Jubilee.
One person in my triad shared with us and then with the larger group
that it’s an idea we humans have a long history of ignoring.
Indeed, there’s a very long and not-so-esteemed tradition of ignoring Biblical Jubilee,
as described in Leviticus.
Until—it can be argued—Jesus came along.
Amy began with some thoughtful reflections on Jesus and Jubilee last week,
and we’ll pick up the theme of Jesus and Jubilee again next week.
For now, we dig into this unlikely companion…Leviticus.
Amy succinctly and helpfully described for us the 50-year cycle detailed in Leviticus:
Every seven days is a Sabbath day of rest.
Every seven years is a Sabbath year of “complete rest” and allowing fields to lie fallow.
Every seven cycles of seven years, on the 50th year, is a Jubilee.
In the Jubilee year,
1) slaves were to be freed—all slaves, no exceptions;
2) debts were to be forgiven—all debts, no exceptions;
3) and each person was to return to their original land—
each person, all land, redistributed, no exceptions.
A fresh start.
The 50th year was to be hallowed as a year of liberty and liberation for all people,
a year of liberty and liberation for the land itself,
a year of refreshment for all people and all creatures and all lands,
and the voice of God in Leviticus proclaims that the Jubilee “shall be holy to you.”
This vision of Biblical Jubilee detailed in Leviticus is rooted in the story of the Exodus.
As liberated Hebrew slaves wandered in the wilderness,
God sent sustenance in the form of manna,
commanding them to gather only what they would need each day,
urging them to trust that today’s manna would be enough for today
and tomorrow’s manna enough for tomorrow.
Give us this day our daily bread—
Jesus taught his disciples to pray many years later—
give us this day…our daily bread.
In Leviticus, God reminds the Hebrew people over and over:
I am HaShem, your God, who [brought you out of the land of Egypt]. (x2-3)
There’s no way to understand Jubilee, then,
without understanding its roots in the Exodus,
and the character of God revealed in the story of the Exodus:
God is a God of liberation, freedom from slavery;
God is a God of returning home, or homebringing—
the literal meaning of yovel, the Hebrew word for “Jubilee”;
and God is a God of manna,
a God of enough,
a God of sustenance
a God who proclaims and provides sufficiency,
instructing the people not to accumulate or store up for the future.
Jubilee is the celebration of an Exodus-God who liberates,
a manna-people who trust each day will provide enough,
and a redeemed land that is regularly granted rest.
Jubilee is very good idea…
that we humans have a long history of ignoring.
Indeed, scholars mostly agree that Jubilee—on the large scale—
was probably never practiced.
Why not…if God commanded it…?
Well, it’s totally impractical.
And if Jubilee was never fully realized in its original context,
then it’s got to be exponentially more impractical
to imagine realizing it now in our context,
given the global population boom and long and complex migration patterns.
I would, however, like to say a word on behalf of impracticality.
We Mennonites have a long history with impracticalities.
Very good and impractical ideas that have long histories of being ignored
are sort of our bread and butter.
Impracticalities are central to our uniquely Anabaptist Christological focus.
I’m talking, of course, about the Sermon on the Mount
and understanding nonviolence as the heart of the gospel of Jesus.
What could be more impractical than loving your enemies
and praying for those who persecute you?
Others have extolled the impracticalities—in this world at least—
of turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, giving your cloak along with your coat,
giving to everyone who begs from you, and loving your enemies.
But Mennonites, over and over, broken-record style, have insisted
that these teachings of Jesus are decidedly this-worldly.
Not just something to look forward to in some heaven light years away.
But to be proclaimed and practiced and lived here and now.
I don’t need to tell you that we’ve never done this perfectly.
Because you know that.
But our Anabaptist Mennonite insistence that,
“The church is called to be now what the world is called to be ultimately,”
has given birth to some pretty amazing stuff.
Like victim-offender reconciliation programs
and Christian Peacemaker Teams waging a just peace in international conflict zones.
Totally impractical in theory, and breathtaking when incarnated,
however falteringly and imperfectly.
Yes, charges of “impracticality” should not frighten us off.
That’s who we are and that’s what we do, even in the face of naysayers.
I was listening to some archived episodes of the Iconocast this week—
a podcast produced by a collective of radical Jesus-followers,
many of whom identify as Anabaptist,
exploring the way of Jesus in the Empire.
In one, Ched Myers reflected poignantly about the need to build resiliency,
as disciples of Jesus,
in the face of being called impractical and unrealistic.
Because if we’re going to walk in the Way of Jesus
while surrounded by the Way of Empire,
we’re going to be called impractical and unrealistic.
And if we’re going to walk in the Way of Jesus
while we ourselves are possessed by the Way of Empire—and we are!—
then we’re going to have be resilient in the face of our own internal critic,
that will seek to silence and stop us
from pursuing the seemingly impractical and unrealistic.
On a sort of side note, though I wonder if there’s some connection here…
As Amy and I were discussing the impracticalities of Mennonite Christology this week,
she made the point that our lived theology
has been incredibly practical and earthy and concrete.
For example, our cookbooks; starting with More-with-Less.
As farmer, writer, mother, veterinarian, and former classmate of mine,
Abbie Gascho Landis, wrote in Paste Magazine:
“Blessed are the peacemakers, my Mennonite upbringing still whispers to me, for they will grow large gardens, preserve produce in glass jars, and dog-ear their More-with-Less cookbooks. Food is patient. Food is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. Love your neighbor with your casserole.”
Even in this congregation,
I know that several of you found your way to Mennonite community and faith through
Spicy Split Pea Soup, Pilgrim’s Bread, and Savory Rice Loaf,
or your own personal favorite More-with-Less recipes.
I wonder if there’s something to the combo of a supposedly impractical Christology
with a totally concretely practical lived theology.
Both are incarnational and earthy. Perhaps that’s the link?
Regardless…Like loving enemies and praying for persecutors,
Biblical Jubilee is a very good, if impractical and unrealistic, idea…
that we humans have a long history of ignoring.
But we ignore Biblical Jubilee at our own peril.
Hannah Notess read from Leviticus a vision of the earth with Jubilee practices:
The land shall yield bounty…there will be peace…
no one shall make you afraid…God will dwell in our midst…
It’s a beautiful vision.
Biblical Jubilee insists that proper ownership of anything, notably land,
must include concrete actions that protect and ultimately prosper the poor.
Jubilee is a “reversal of the mechanisms of wealth accumulation and marginalization…
[practiced] to overcome the usual [human] tendencies toward exclusion.”
And the result is simply lovely. Idyllic even.
Hannah Haag read from Leviticus a vision of earth with Jubilee practices ignored:
There will be terror…consumption will waste our eyes and cause life to pine away…
enemies will reap what we sow…we shall flee in fear though no one pursues…
our pride and glory will be broken…our sky like iron and earth like copper…
our strength will be spent and our land barren…God’s face seemingly set against us.
While it sounds as though God is going to do some old-fashioned smiting & vengeance,
when I read this vision in Leviticus, it doesn’t sound prescriptive to me…
like something God will do if we don’t get our collective act together…
it sounds to me descriptive of the world we’re living in.
Though at first glance it may sometimes seem this way,
God doesn’t smite and curse with the wave of a divine wand.
God doesn’t need to.
What is described in Leviticus is HaShem teaching the Hebrew people
“the natural consequences of living in obedience or disobedience
to the Creator’s ways.”
[That footnote goes to our own Wes Howard-Brook in his book Come Out, My People!]
Even if never fully realized on the large scale,
how has Biblical Jubilee—this good, impractical idea, largely ignored—
been lived in the life of Jesus, and in the life of contemporary discipleship communities?
More on Jesus next week.
And one lived example this week.
In another Iconocast episode:
Mark Van Steenwyck, co-founder of the Mennonite Worker in Minneapolis ,
interviews Thomas Gokey, a professor at Syracuse University and part of Strike Debt ,
a nationwide movement of debt resistors that emerged from Occupy Wall Street.
Rolling Jubilee is a Strike Debt project that buys debt for pennies on the dollar,
(because this is a thing—buying and selling debt as a commodity),
but instead of collecting the debt, “Rolling Jubilee” forgives it…abolishes it.
As of today, they’ve raised just over $700,000 and abolished nearly $32 million debt.
Obviously that’s a drop in the bucket of our collective debt,
but to those whose debts were in the $32 million abolished,
I’m sure it means the world.
A fresh start, if ever I’ve seen one.
Turns out that with a bit of cash, some will and ingenuity,
Jubilee isn’t so wholly impractical or unrealistic as it at first seems.
There’s thousands of small-scale Jubilee stories just like this one—
which isn’t really all that small-scale, truth be told—
being practiced and lived the world over.
And where Jubilee is lived, just like Leviticus states:
The land yields bounty…there is peace…
people are made less afraid…and God dwells in our midst…
As we move into discernment about our relationship to our own resources,
may we be blessed with Holy Spirit eyes
to look at seemingly crazy, impractical, and unrealistic ideas,
and see possibility.
May we be blessed with Holy Spirit ears
to hear seemingly crazy, impractical, and unrealistic ideas,
and hear invitation.
May we be blessed with Holy Spirit hands
to take seemingly crazy, impractical, and unrealistic ideas,
and craft a Jubilee community.
May the Holy Spirit free us from fears of impracticality.
May we be released and liberated by an Exodus-God
to be a manna-people of sufficiency and enough,
living with joy what others dismiss as “unrealistic.”
May it be so.
Leviticus 25.1-4, 10-12, 23-24, 54-55; 26.2-7, 9-20, 40-45
NRSV, slightly modified to be inclusive
HaShem (“The Name”) used when YHWH appears
A: HaShem spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for HaShem. For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for HaShem.
B: …And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.
A: …The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land…And if [any] have not been redeemed in any of these ways, they and their children with them shall go free in the jubilee year. For to me the people of Israel are servants; they are my servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt: I am HaShem, your God.
C: …You shall keep my sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am HaShem. If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and the vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your bread to the full, and live securely in your land. And I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and no one shall make you afraid; I will remove dangerous animals from the land, and no sword shall go through your land. You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword…I will look with favor upon you and make you fruitful and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you. You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make way for the new. I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people. I am HaShem, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.
D: But if you will not obey me, and do not observe all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes, and abhor my ordinances, so that you will not observe all my commandments, and you break my covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will bring terror on you; consumption and fever that waste the eyes and cause life to pine away. You shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set my face against you, and you shall be struck down by your enemies; your foes shall rule over you, and you shall flee though no one pursues you. And if in spite of this you will not obey me, I will continue to punish you sevenfold for your sins. I will break your proud glory, and I will make your sky like iron and your earth like copper. Your strength shall be spent to no purpose: your land shall not yield its produce, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit.
B: …But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their ancestors…if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then will I remember my covenant with Leah and Rachel and Jacob; I will remember also my covenant with Rebecca and Isaac and also my covenant with Sarah and Abraham, and I will remember the land. For the land shall be deserted by them, and enjoy its sabbath years by lying desolate without them, while they shall make amends for their iniquity, because they dared to spurn my ordinances, and they abhorred my statutes.
A: Yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not spurn them, or abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them; for I am HaShem their God; but I will remember in their favor the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, to be their God: I am HaShem.