| Leviticus 25:1-17
|Sun, May 30, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|West Burnaby United Church
Westminster Presbytery Service of Praise The Year of Jubilee
I first preached a sermon almost thirty years ago ... from this same pulpit. So it is indeed a special privilege to ‘back home’ at West Burnaby and in Westminster Presbytery. It was all those years ago that you confirmed my call by naming me a Candidate for Ministry. Can it be that I am already well past the age that George Searcy was when he completed his service here at West Burnaby twenty-nine years ago today? Now I find myself invited to speak a word at this special celebration of the Jubilee ... and not just any word but the Word ... the Word of God. Even after all these years ... perhaps because of all of these years ... I feel more anxious and nervous about such speech than ever. It’s not just the ‘nerves’ that come when preaching to respected friends and colleagues. It is, even more, the sheer terror that always comes when I imagine the enormity of the task. The Word of God ... from my lips. It would be funny ... if it wasn’t a joke. When I wondered aloud with a colleague why I had said been so foolish as to say yes to the request from Vas Saklikar he laughed. Then he said that when the manager walks to the pitching mound, takes the ball from the starting pitcher and points to you, warming up in the bull pen, you say ‘Give me the ball’. Even if you walked five straight batters last time out!" Let’s pray to God for a strike!
To be honest with you, I have been wondering about these texts ever since Vasant called me all those months ago. "The theme will be Jubilee", he said. Jubilee. It seemed appropriate. Everyday in the church mail there seems to be more information about Jubilee. In the ‘Observer’, in ‘Mandate’, in reports from the World Council of Churches 8th Assembly last winter. And more. Even such esteemed news outlets as the National Post and the Globe and Mail have reported the church’s year of Jubilee and the campaign for debt relief. You must have heard about this by now ... about the global campaign to convince the world’s richest nations and banks to free the world’s poorest nations from the crushing burdens of debt that continue to grind our brothers and sisters into the ground while our economies reap the benefits. It fits so well with the slogan I learned so long ago in this church. "Live love" we said then. "Live love". It seemed to catch the mood of the late ‘60s ... and the mood of Jesus from Nazareth for that matter. The problem with ‘living love’ is that its easier said than done ... or so we who were teens in the 60s’ learned as we grew up. That’s where these ancient texts come in. They outline a process for living love. It is right here in Leviticus ... once every fifty years is to be called a Jubilee ... a year of setting everything straight, giving back property, forgiving debt, placing everyone on an equal footing. Well, some would say, that’s in the Old Testament. It is one of those laws that has been done away with in the New Testament. Except that Jesus - wouldn’t you know it - stands up in his home congregation and "proclaims the year of the Lord’s favour". What, you ask, is the year of the Lord’s favour? That’s right ... the year of Jubilee. They year that is good news to the poor and release to the captives and sight for the blind and freedom for the oppressed. There they are. In red letters in the Bible. Jesus said it, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
So, you see, I have been wondering about these texts. Wondering because I can’t see any way to wiggle out of them for you. No matter how I try to avoid it I cannot help but hear them say that God is calling God’s people to practice Jubilee. It’s there in the law. It’s there in the prophets. And it is unmistakeably there in Jesus the Christ. So why isn’t it there in the church? That is what I have been asking myself ever since Vas called. Why isn’t Jubilee practiced in the church? Oh ... the church is calling on the nations to practice Jubilee. And that’s a good thing ... because if it is good for God’s people Israel and good for the church of Jesus Christ then surely it is good for God’s world. But, still, what is stopping us ... you and me ... from practicing Jubilee? It seems straightforward enough. Take a sabbatical from work. Live off of the fat of the land for a year. Return all property. Cancel all debts. In other words, give acquisition and consumption a rest. As near as is possible, return things to their original state. See the wisdom in this. God is not ignorant. Humans are very quickly mired in debt while others are captive to their wealth. Every fifty years it is about time to level the playing field and start again. Anyone who has found themselves at the losing end of an endless game of Monopoly knows the gift of starting afresh on even terms!
The hard truth is that we cannot ‘do’ Jubilee because we are people who don’t really know what Jubilee is. We’ve never done it. We’ve never practiced it. We haven’t warmed up. And now we find ourselves in the on-deck circle as the God of Jubilee calls ‘batter up!’. It is not in our nature to voluntarily practice Jubilee, to let go of privilege and give away wealth that is inevitably accumulated at other’s expense ... just witness the church’s great anxiety in the face of the legal, financial and moral fall-out from our involvement in the Indian Residential School system. So I tried another tack. I decided to figure out, as best as I could, why Jubilee this year? I mean, maybe we can put this whole thing off for a year or two ... maybe when Jesus announces the acceptable year of the Lord he doesn’t mean ‘this’ year. If I’m not mistaken there’s a 98% chance that this isn’t the year of Jubilee. Sure enough, there is nothing in Leviticus or in Luke that points to 1998 ... the year of Jubilee announced by the World Council of Churches (in marking its fiftieth year) ... nor to the year 2000 ... the year of Jubilee announced by the Pope for celebration by the world’s Catholics. Instead, Leviticus lays out a carefully prescribed regimen for determining when to celebrate the year of Jubilee. It says to begin counting down the fifty years with a Sabbath day.
That’s right. Begin, says the Word of God, with a Sabbath day. Begin not by calling on others to legislate Jubilee ... begin by being a Jubilee people who live a Jubilee life, right here, this Sunday night. Begin by doing twenty-four hours of nothing that begins with ‘ought’, ‘should’ or ‘must’. Once a week. Begin by stopping doing. Begin with rest. That’s an order. Can you imagine? Can you imagine us, taking twenty-four hours to do nothing that we have to do. No laundry. No cooking. No housework of any kind ... by anyone in the house. No bills. No paying taxes. No homework. None. And no church work either. No meetings. No planning. No organizing. It is God’s will. Imagine. Twenty-four hours for God. Twenty-four hours to enjoy God. That’s what my local Rabbi tells me. Sabbath is time to sleep ... to eat good food and drink good wine ... to worship ... to play ... to walk ... to be. Time for discussion about things that matter ... and time for silence and prayer. Imagine. It sounds so wonderful, so tantalizing, so necessary ... and yet, have you noticed, inner voices have already begun to say: "It can’t be done ... it’s not possible ... it’s unrealistic ... it’s too hard". No wonder the church does not practice Jubilee. We can hardly imagine practicing even one Sabbath day never mind a Sabbath year of Jubilee. Do you see? If we cannot obey God by practicing Jubilee on such a small scale once a week we will surely never be in shape for the ultimate season of obedience to the God of Jubilee.
There is good reason that the year of Jubilee is fifty years in the making. It takes that much practice. Way more practice time that it took Wayne Gretzky to make the NHL ... so much more practice than it took Karen Kain to become a prima ballerina. Fifty years of weekly practice ... one Sabbath at a time. Practicing over and over again that nothing ... not even our precious time nor cherished property belongs to us. Week after week of practicing letting go of control over ‘getting ahead’. Then, notice that every seventh year comes along as a ‘mini-jubilee’. Every seventh year as a sabbatical year. A year to let the crops lie fallow, to let the church meetings rest, to give the earth and our lives time to restore. Let’s see ... seven times seven years ... equals two thousand five hundred and forty-eight Sabbath practices along with seven sabbatical years before being ready to proclaim the ‘acceptable year of the Lord’. Hey ... we’re off the hook. We don’t have to worry about Jubilee til ... let’s see ... May 30th, 2048. I’ll meet you back here ... alright?
I imagine that about now some of you are thinking to yourselves: "What a lovely sermon. Is this George and Anne’s son?". Then again you may be thinking that Vas made a terrible mistake in inviting me here tonight. After all, it sounds like: (a) I’ve just written off the debt cancellation campaign for the next fifty years and (b) that I have actually been foolish enough to call the church to submit its life to recovering Sabbath practice for the next half-century! Well, to be clear, it seems to me that any of us who seek to subject our lives to the discipline of biblical faith cannot be anything but the strongest of supporters of any proposal to obey God’s Jubilee intentions for the earth ... especially the initiative to free the oppressed from the crushing burden of debt. And sending the letters to Canada’s Minister of Finance which are available here this evening seems the very least of what we can and must do in support of this dream. But, having said that, we cannot be surprised if the world - which does not subscribe to the laws of the Torah or claim Jesus as its Lord - will reject such initiatives as folly. In truth, such a world will only learn the wisdom of the ways of God when it witnesses a people who actually live these ways. Which, if you haven’t guessed already, means that practice for Jubilee begins here and now ... with this Sabbath worship ... with these songs and prayers ... with this time and with our resources freely given to God’s work in the world. It will continue as we re-discover, week by disciplined week ... and year by disciplined year ... to live our lives in obedience to the One who proclaims the day and the year of the Lord’s favour.
A teacher of mine, Walter Brueggemann, likes to say that God’s Word does not come to us in sermons that sound like memos. He says that God’s Word is poetic language that moves like a good fast ball ... that jumps in front of the batter at just the right moment ... breaking open old ways of seeing the world, surprising the church with its abrasion and pace.