Staunton Mennonite Church
Leviticus 25:8-13; 39-42
8You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. 9Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. 10And 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. 11That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. 12For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces. 13In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property.
39If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves. 40They shall remain with you as hired or bound laborers. They shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. 41Then they and their children with them shall be free from your authority; they shall go back to their own family and return to their ancestral property. 42For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves are sold.
A vacuum salesman, desperate to make a sale, approaches the last house on the block. He had a plan: he had a garbage bag of dirt, he would dump it on the carpet, and he would show how powerful his vacuum is.
He rings the doorbell, springs through the door and begins dumping the dirt on the floor. And he proclaims proudly to the woman, “If my vacuum can’t clean this up, I will eat it up!”
The woman looks at the man and she says, “Sonny, if I had the money to buy your vacuum, I would have paid my electric bill before they cut it off. Now would you prefer a spoon or a fork?”
But seriously, poverty isn’t a laughing matter. And unfortunately, with all of the economic turmoil in our nation today, we are going to see more and more of it. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and I think we have the answer to poverty: Jubilee. Today I want to look at the scripture above and see how we can help our economic condition by enacting communities of Jubilee.
Our scripture for today comes from Leviticus (When was the last time you heard a sermon from Leviticus?). Leviticus is chock-full of holiness codes, purity laws, and ritual observances of holy days, many of which we as 21st century Christians do not observe. Included in that list of things we don’t observe is today’s scripture on the Year of Jubilee.
Leading up to our scripture in verses 1-8, we find the instructions given to Moses for the Sabbatical Year. After entering into the Promised Land, the Israelites were to plant and harvest for a period of six years. Then in the seventh year the land was to be left fallow meaning you don’t plant anything. And the reason for this is given in verse 4 when we find that this is meant as a time of rest for the land.
This primitive nation of Israel didn’t know about fertilizers, this primitive nation didn’t know about checking the soil pH, this primitive nation didn’t know about the cation exchange capacity of the soil. So in order to prevent the soil from becoming depleted, God gave a year of rest for the land. God instituted the Sabbatical Year.
So if the Sabbatical Year was instituted for the well-being of the land, the year of Jubilee was instituted for the people. Our scripture tells us that the Israelites are to count off seven times seven years, or 49 years. And then on the 50thyear, on Yom Kippur, the trumpet will be sounded loudly announcing the beginning of the year of Jubilee. There are three aspects of the year of Jubilee that I would like to bring your attention to: The cancelling of all debts, returning the land to the original owners and releasing the indentured servants.
The Israelites didn’t live in a perfect society. There were some people who were rich and there were some who were poor, with most people falling somewhere in between. When someone runs out of money and their back is against the wall you have to do what you have to do to put food on the table. So usually the first thing to do is to take out an operating loan, thinking, “All I have to do is get by until harvest. Then we will be okay.”
But harvest comes and harvest goes, and you are still without enough money to support your family. You sell your things. What good is a possession if you are not around to enjoy it? But it isn’t enough. So in times of extreme poverty, the Israelites would sell something that would bring a good price; something that was only available in a limited quantity. They would sell the land that was given to them upon entering into the Promised Land.
But what if poverty continued to strike your family after you sold all of your land? Where are you to get food from if you don’t have land to grow it on or money to buy food? In this case an Israelite would become a servant to land owners, often working in the fields that they themselves had once owned. They worked for food or for a modest wage. They worked for others until the Year of Jubilee.
When that 50th year came around, all debt was erased, all servants were released, and all land was returned to the original owners. If you had made some financial mistakes in your past, this was a chance for you to start all over again. If you had fallen victim to famine or flood, drought or locust, you could have the chance to get your feet back under yourself. Your family wouldn’t have to pay for your mistakes or bad fortune for generations to come. And I think we have seen how poverty breeds poverty generation after generation. If you are poor, your children are likely to be poor because you can’t afford education; you can’t pass on land and property. Poverty is a binding chain that keeps the poor poor. The Year of Jubilee was meant to be a way to break those binding chains of poverty through the forgiveness of debt, return of land to the original owners, and the release of indentured servants.
If you look in my backyard, it is clear to see that one object dominates the landscape: our big pin oak tree. It is tall; it is taller than our house. It is strong having survived years of drought and years of flooding; it has survived extreme heat and it has survived extreme cold. It has been around for some time and it would take a lot to kill such a strong tree.
But this week I did something to weaken that tree, to take away from some of its dominance. I pruned its branches. I got out my 6’ step ladder and I cut all of the branches that I could reach from the ladder. I even climbed on the top step of my step ladder, you know the one that says “Do not stand on or above this step” and trimmed that tree real well. The reason for pruning the tree is because I wanted to reduce the dominance of this mighty oak.
Because of the size, width, and all-around healthy nature of this tree, it produces a large number of long branches with many, many leaves. These leaves help the tree to collect sunrays and convert the rays into energy that will be used for future growth and sustainability for the tree. But because there were so many branches and leaves, other plants were not getting the sunlight that they needed. The mighty, powerful, dominant oak tree was shading the grass and it cast a big shadow over my future garden. So I asked the mighty oak to give up some of her dominance for the sake of the weaker plants attempting to grow in her shadow.
It seems to be the case that the strong, the powerful, and the mighty always get what they need. Just like my tree is acquiring all of the sunlight that it needs, the strong, powerful, and mighty people in our society always find a way to have food, shelter, water, and clothing. But sometimes the powerful in our society take more than they need, not leaving enough for the poor, the weak, and the small.
And we don’t even think about it. We are just out sunning ourselves and we notice the brown patches of grass developing below us. “Poor things” we think to ourselves, not realizing that, perhaps, we are a part of the problem. It couldn’t be that CEO’s are making billions while their employees are struggling to get by while earning minimum wage, could it? Maybe it is time that we cut back a bit and make sure that there is enough for everyone.
I spend two days at the church each week keeping office hours. I am there to be available if anyone needs to drop in and talk, ask questions, and to work on various church-related tasks. But I have to admit, something about being here all alone scares me as of lately. Now it isn’t that I am afraid of being here alone just because I am alone. It is because I know that if the phone rings, I am going to be the one who has to answer it. And there are two kinds of phone calls that I get on the church phone. I get telemarketers calling trying to sell me something, and I get the phone calls requesting financial assistance.
Just this past Monday I was sitting in the church when the phone rang. Telemarketer or a request for money? I answer the phone and I hear yet another sad story from a woman whose family member had stolen her wallet and she needed $25.00 for her electric bill or it would be turned off. We went through the normal procedure, I asked if she had contacted the local relief agencies, checked here and checked there, and finally I did pay her electric bill.
I went to sit down and get back to work and just as my hands were reaching for the keyboard of my computer, the phone rang again. Telemarketer or a request for money? I answer the phone and I hear a story from a woman who had recently lost her job and the engine in her car had blown up. I explained to her how we had just helped someone financially and that we couldn’t help her. “We are a small congregation” I explained to her “and we just can’t help everyone that is looking for assistance.” She talked with me for a few more minutes and she thanked me for listening. I told her I would be praying for her and we both hung up our phones, likely to never speak again.
That is hard for me to do. It is hard to tell someone else that I don’t have any money to spare for them. It is hard…because I do. I could live on less and give more. But when is it enough? When have we given enough and when should we give more? And is giving money to the poor really the answer? Maybe we are asking the wrong questions. Maybe we need to ask, How can we break the cycle of poverty? How can we break the chains that bind the poor?
I expect this winter to be a busy one for our telephone here at Staunton Mennonite Church. I assume that the frequency of phone calls requesting financial help is only going to increase with the high unemployment rate and high heating fuel costs. And I wish we could just come to a year of Jubilee and set everything back to zero, even the playing field, erase all debt, release the land and the servants. I wish that I could proclaim a world-wide Jubilee, but I know that I do not have the authority to do so. But what I can do is I can live out Jubilee and enact communities of Jubilee. I can stop being part of the problem and start being a part of the solution.
I love Jesus’ first sermon in his home town of Nazareth where he reads from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19). It has been noted by many scholars that the year of Jubilee was rarely (if ever) actually practiced. By the first century when Jesus lived, it would have been merely a good idea, but a non-viable option. The year of Jubilee was not being practiced.
But Jesus comes along and he enacts a community of Jubilee. Those that follow him will bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, heal the blind, set the oppressed free, and proclaim the Lord’s favor. And we as the church today must continue in this ministry. We must continue to be communities of Jubilee.
Let’s return briefly to my backyard and the work that I did on the tree. You might be wondering, What is Kevin going to do with all of those branches that he cut off the pin oak tree? Well, I started a pile of branches where they will dry down and I hope to break them into pieces of three foot long or less. Why three foot long? So that they will fit into my compost bin. You see, not only did I cut the branches off the tree to allow the grass and my garden to receive adequate sunlight, I will be able to take some of the nutrients that the tree has been storing up and give that to the very soil that so desperately needs those nutrients. The dominating pin oak has not only stopped being a hindrance to the weaker plants below from receiving the needed nutrients, she has now donated some of her stored reserves to the garden that has not received much in the last number of years.
I have come to appreciate the work of Mennonite Central Committee, or MCC, over the last number of years. MCC is the relief organization of Mennonite Church USA. But MCC doesn’t just send food to the hungry or money to the poor. They teach people sustainable agricultural practices, help them to establish small business including artisan work that is sold in the United States at the various Ten Thousand Villages stores. MCC doesn’t just provide a handout, it helps to transform lives, all in the name of Christ.
Last weekend many of us helped to contribute in some way to the MCC Relief Sale. Some of us bought donuts, some donated items, and more donated their time. Some did all of the above. The Relief Sale this year raised over $310,000, which will make a sizable donation to MCC after expenses are paid.
The thing that impresses me the most about the money raised this year for MCC is that we are in a time of economic turmoil. The stock market is in the gutter, sub-prime mortgage lending has come back to bite us, economic bailout proposals of $700 billion haunt the minds of financial advisors world-wide. Nobody knows what tomorrow will hold, but right now it doesn’t look too good. And those of us that have been accumulating wealth were willing to give $310,000 to help others break the chains of poverty. Rather than being a part of the problem, we are trying to be a part of the solution.
We need to give those who have little reason to hope, whether that is in our own neighborhood or halfway around the globe. And I am not saying that we pay the way for people who choose not to work, but we must help those that cannot make enough to earn a decent living. There are people that are working, but still cannot afford basic necessities. We call these people the “Working Poor” and there are 12.2 million people in the United States that fit this category.
The working poor, the mentally and physically handicapped, those struggling to find work, these are the people that need economic bailout, they are the ones that need Jubilee. Jubilee was put in place to free people from their financial mistakes and the financial mistakes of their forbearers. I don’t pretend to know much about economics, but I hope that as we seek economic stability in this nation, that we will remember to help those who can’t help themselves; again, whether that is in our neighborhood or halfway around the world.
Jubilee, a time to restore equality, a time for men and women to escape enslavement, and a time for every family to gain their fair share of land. Maybe we have been like the pin oak tree in my backyard. Maybe we have grown strong and tall over the years, not realizing that we were doing so at the expense of those that are small and weak. Maybe we have been blocking the Son-light from reaching those below us. Maybe it is time that we trim back our branches and allow others to receive the nutrients that they so desperately need. Maybe we need to give some of what we have accumulated to those that have nothing. Maybe it is time for another Jubilee.
Let us be the church, let us be a community that lives out Jubilee. For the Spirit of the Lord is upon us and has anointed us to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and bring sight to the blind. We are to set the oppressed free and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. May it be so.