Jubilee

Good morning, Friends!

We’ve got a kind of a perfect storm here today, with Father’s Day and some other things going on. I wasn’t sure what to preach on today.

I thought about telling you about my father, Ed Brown. He died 28 years ago, and I still miss him, every day. Six feet tall, thin as a rail. Old school – always courteous and a great listener. He was a college history professor, which is where I get my love of history from.

A really tough grader, too – I remember watching Dad correcting papers on the kitchen table late at night. All papers had to be typed, and he took of a full letter grade after he found three misspelled words. He was one of the best teachers in the whole college, though. I met students of his years later, who said they learned more from my dad than anyone else.

My dad always wore the same clothes and shoes, hats and jackets, year after year. He said he liked he liked his old things. They were all broke in and comfortable. But we kids always had new shoes and sneakers, and good clothes for school, the whole time I was growing up.

Growing up, I never realized all the sacrifices my dad made for us. During the summer, he taught summer school classes to make extra money. The rest of the family would be up in the mountains, while my dad worked all summer in the heat of the city.

Every two weeks, he’d drive 475 miles to see my mom and my brothers and me. He’d get off work Friday afternoon, and drive 10 or 12 hours, all through the night. Arrive at 4:00 in the morning, catch a few hours’ sleep, just so he could spend the day with us. Sunday after lunch, he’d turn around and head back to the city again.

He sacrificed, so his wife and kids could spend the summer with my grandparents in the mountains, and so his kids could get away from the heat and the unrest in the city. He worked, so I could play Little League, and go to camp, and catch frogs and build tree forts out in the woods all summer.

I’m sure a lot of you have stories about your own dads – who they were, and what they did. I wish I knew yours, and I wish you knew mine.

The other big thing going on this weekend, is my daughter’s birthday. I always remember being there when she was born, and holding her just a few moments after. And all the other years, of telling her stories, and tying her shoes, and looking at her homework and the pictures she brought home to put on the refrigerator. All those things parents do. And I was blessed to be able to do them. Every few years, my daughter’s birthday lands on Father’s Day, and it always feels right somehow. Because that’s how I became a father.

This weekend we also have a new federal holiday. It celebrates the day when the last slaves in the U.S. heard the good news that they were free.

Freedom had been coming gradually, ever since the Emancipation Proclamation. Distant places either didn’t get the word, or the slave owners just didn’t tell them.

Juneteenth has been a big day, a holy day, for many African-American churches, for a long time now. I guess they remember all the years of slavery and injustice, when the rest of the country would just as soon move on.

Today, for our Scripture, I’m going to read a very old passage. This goes way back to the days of Moses, which puts it more than 3,000 years ago.

God’s people had been slaves for centuries, until God set them free. Our ancestors – yours and mine – celebrated like crazy at first. But then, they almost forgot what God had done.

Leviticus isn’t what I’d call everyone’s favorite book of the Bible. Most of it’s details that almost put you to sleep – what to do in cases of leprosy, how to offer sacrifices, what foods are clean and unclean, who can be priests, stuff like that. It’s not what you’d call real zippy reading.

But once in a while, Leviticus has something really interesting to say – jewels in the slag heap, you might call them – and today’s reading is one of them.

In order to understand today’s reading, we need to remember the importance of the sabbath for God’s people back then.

It’s one of the Ten Commandments, which says, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your animals, or the stranger who lives among you; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.”

The sabbath was a day of rest, of enjoying all that God had done, a day of prayer and visiting and quiet joy. It was day to look at the world the way God looked at it, to see that it’s all very good.

For thousands of years, the sabbath helped to define God’s people. It set them apart, and it made them free. Because no matter how much you had to work the rest of the week, you were free on the sabbath. No man was your master.

Anyway, today’s reading takes that basic idea of the sabbath, and pushes it farther. Let’s read it together and see what it says.

The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord.

For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord.

Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest.

Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.

Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years.

Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan.

Leviticus 25:1-10

We don’t know how seriously people took this commandment, or for how long they paid attention to it. But this is a really amazing idea.

Every seven years, God said, is a sabbath, a sabbath for the land. The land itself deserves a rest. In a way, it was an early form of crop rotation. Let the land recover for a year.

It’s something farmers used to. They called it lying fallow. If you had more than one field, you would let a different part of your land take a rest each year, so that your land wouldn’t get worked to death, and so that it would continue to grow crops and provide you with a living.

God said, “Don’t worry during the sabbath year, whether you’ll have enough to eat. I will provide for you, all year. Just as you take a rest once a week on the sabbath day, the land needs a season to rest and recover.”

Then, God pushed it a step farther. Every fifty years, God said, there needed to be a jubilee, a complete release for everyone in the country.

Back in the beginning, each tribe and each family in Israel had it’s own patch of land – for growing crops, for raising animals. Their own place, that God gave them.

But hard times come, everyone knew. And in hard times, a family might fall into debt, and sell their land. Rich people accumulated huge estates, while poor people had nothing to live on. A person or a family might get so desperate, that they’d sell themselves as slaves. Or people might get captured and taken prisoner in war, or wind up destitute and helpless in some other way.

God extended this idea of the sabbath every week, to a sabbath every seven years to the fields and farms. And then God said, every fifty years, we set things right again. Nobody has to stay poor forever. Nobody has to be a slave for eternity.

Once every fifty years, all debts get canceled. All slaves are freed. And even the land gets returned to its original owners, so that everybody has a place, and everyone has a home. Things get restored to the way God made them to be.

The jubilee was God’s answer to the problem of poverty. Every fifty years, human society was to be healed.

It’s not that God was attacking the idea of private property. Property is all right, and it’s there to be cared for and enjoyed. But the jubilee says that nobody is a slave forever. And all the burdens which happen because of hard times and debt, get lifted.

We don’t know whether or for how long the jubilee was actually lived out in Israel. Even though it’s written down as one of God’s commands, my guess is that people tried their best to get around it, or forget it. It was impractical, a dream, one of those things God said that never made it out of the gate.

Yet dreams do have power. For one hundred years, people in this church, in Springfield Friends Meeting, dreamed of a day when all the slaves would be free.

Whole families left their homes and moved to the free states, to get away from the poison of slavery. Many of the people who stayed here at Springfield, risked their homes and risked their own freedom, to help escaping slaves, or broke the law to teach slaves to read.

I remember, when I was a boy, listening to Martin Luther King’s say, “I have a dream. . .” A dream which lifted a whole generation out of despair, a dream which moved mountains of prejudice and resistance to change.

Even if the jubilee is a dream, there is still power in that dream.

It’s clear to anyone who reads the Bible, that God has a special care for the poor, for the forgotten and the lost. That care shines in today’s reading, which says that slavery and poverty are not God’s will, and they should not last forever.

God’s care shows up in the words of Jesus. In his very first sermon, Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, the opening of the prison to those who are bound, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. . .”

Jesus knew all about the jubilee. Jesus’ whole life was a jubilee, proclaiming healing and peace and freedom to everyone who heard his voice.

Next time you watch the news and hear about uprisings or disturbances in any part of the world, remember the dream of the jubilee for a moment.

Many uprisings are on behalf of greed and power. Many are about competing political visions. But a whole lot of uprisings are simply people who have been denied a place to live, or the possibility of making a living.

It would be nice if everything could be settled peaceably. That’s God’s vision, too. God wants peace. But many people haven’t ever thought about God’s idea of the jubilee. Everyone deserves a home. Nobody should be a slave forever.

It’s interesting that in the very next chapter of Leviticus, the one right after today’s reading, God says: “If you walk in my ways and observe my commandments, then I will give you rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase. . .you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your place securely. And I will give you peace in the land, and you shall lie down and none shall make you afraid. . .And I will make my home among you,” says the Lord, “and my soul will not be turned away from you. And I will walk among you, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. . .” (Leviticus 26:3-12)

Let’s look to our own lives and to the life of our churches and the life of our country, and see whether we can bring the jubilee – freedom for all who are bound, land and work to the poor, rest to the land, and healing for everyone.

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