Sunday, June 9, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "The Year of Jubilee"

Leviticus 25:8-17

8 Count off seven weeks of years—that is, seven times seven—so that the seven weeks of years totals forty-nine years. 9 Then have the trumpet[a] blown on the tenth day of the seventh month.[b] Have the trumpet blown throughout your land on the Day of Reconciliation. 10 You will make the fiftieth year holy, proclaiming freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It will be a Jubilee year[c] for you: each of you must return to your family property and to your extended family. 11 The fiftieth year will be a Jubilee year for you. Do not plant, do not harvest the secondary growth, and do not gather from the freely growing vines 12 because it is a Jubilee: it will be holy to you. You can eat only the produce directly out of the field. 13 Each of you must return to your family property in this year of Jubilee. 14 When you sell something to or buy something from your fellow citizen, you must not cheat each other. 15 You will buy from your fellow citizen according to the number of years since the Jubilee; he will sell to you according to the number of years left for harvests. 16 You will raise the price if there are more years, or lower the price if there are less years because it is the number of harvests that are being sold to you. 17 You must not cheat each other but fear your God because I am the Lord your God. (CEB)

Behold a New Thing: The Tribal Church, Week Two

It has happened nearly 50 times now, in just under a year.  This young man had his brother pass away at only 30 years of age, and was surprised to see this in his brother’s last will and testament: a wish that he—his brother—go out to eat, and leave a hugely extravagant tip.  As he put it in his will: “and I don’t mean 25%.  I mean $500 on a (expletive) pizza.”

Well, this man who had just lost his brother did exactly that: he scrounged up $500, went out to eat with his family, surprised their waitress with the $500 tip, and posted the video to Youtube.

As videos are sometimes wont to do on the internet, this one went viral in a big damn hurry, and suddenly, people were stepping forward, asking if they could donate to make more $500 tips happen.  Enough people, in fact, that the $500 tip has been given 49 times in just under a year.  For those of you keeping score at home, that’s $24,500.  From a man who had just lost a brother.

Each of these tips is on video, and posted on Youtube, and you notice a remarkable, but sorrowful thing: a number of the waiters and waitresses, after they get over the initial shock and joy of receiving such a tip, talk about what they could use the money for, and a great many of them, it involves paying off debts: car payments, student loans, credit cards, you name it.

The videos are heartwarming and inspiring and in every way encouraging to watch.  But they also highlight a new undercurrent running amidst my generation: the sheer amount of debt we face as the price for our educations and our cars in the face of an unyielding economy.

And all of the sudden, this year of $500 tips begins to look a bit like a latter-day Year of Jubilee.

Now, we tell ourselves churches must look a certain way and beat ourselves up when they don’t.  But the church is what I imagine a child must be like—as Tina Fey puts it in her memoir Bossypants, yes, you can teach a child manners and dress her up in embarrassing little sailor outfits, but at some point, that child is going to be whatever she is going to be (which, ironically or no, harkens back to the Divine Name itself--I Will Be What I Will Be!).

And that’s kind of what it is like for us, you know?  Lots of people would say they know what we should look like—they want to tell us which little sailor outfits to dress up in—but at some point, this church is going to be whatever this church is.  And after being here as your pastor for nearly two years, I have found the closest thing possible to describing what this church is, and what we can become: a so-called tribal church, ministering to a missing generation of believers.

This term comes from a 2007 book of the same name by Carol Howard Merritt, a Generation X evangelically-raised Presbyterian pastor and author.  And we will be basing this new six-week sermon series on this book, as we look at what exactly a tribal church is, and what it can truly do.  Last week, we kicked off the series by examining one of the initial—and crucial—tenets of the book: “fostering intergenerational relationships.”  This week, we turn to the next chapter’s theme of “encouraging economic understanding.”  Carol writes in this chapter: 

During stewardship time, when we plan how to encourage giving in our congregations, I often hear, “We are the most prosperous nation to ever live.  We’ve got to teach these young people how to give.”

As a person in her thirties, I wonder how this claim of prosperity holds up for my generation.  Can we be counted as part of this prosperity when our debts so heavily outweigh our assets?  We have lovely commodities available to us, but many young adults do not actually own much.  We are so busy paying off the interest that we rarely get to the principle.

We may need to learn how to give, but there’s something even more basic than that.  Some people in their twenties and thirties need to learn how to be a part of a supportive spiritual economy.  We do not know much about an ecosystem in which we can thrive, where our bodies are cared for and nurtured.  We have difficulty giving and receiving.

While on its face, this passage looks like most of Leviticus: dry, stultifying, and perhaps more than a little Big Brother-esque, it was in fact one of the great innovations of its day, and one that was a source of great hope for more than a few people, because it took the principles of the Sabbath, whirled them through a Scriptural centrifuge, and produced something that actually leveled the playing field for the masses through that difficult means of giving and receiving.

The Sabbath—that seventh day of rest—is incredibly important in Mosaic law—so much so that honoring it is one of the Ten Commandments.  And its importance got extrapolated beyond just the seventh day to the seventh year: Leviticus also commands—just before this passage on the Jubilee year--that every seventh year, farms and fields are to lie fallow.  Centuries before the invention of crop rotation, that was a big deal: to allow for the soil to regenerate itself with nutrients and rest in order to sustain generations more of Israelites to come.  Additionally, Mosaic law mandated that Israelite slaves be granted their freedom at the seventh year of their servitude, ensuring that enslavement did not have to be a lifelong institution.  And for laws which originated over 3,000 years ago, this is all extremely enlightened thinking.

And the Year of Jubilee takes the seventh-year law to the next level.  It says that every seventh seventh year—aka, every 49 years—all property will return to the original owner (or as Leviticus puts it, we shall return to our property).  This served a pair of functions: first, it ensured the prevention of the rise of a landed aristocracy that could simply buy up all the land and keep the people permanently enslaved as serfs or sharecroppers.

But second…think about one of the purposes we use real estate for today: as collateral for our own mortgages and loans.  It would have been exactly the same then as well.  And by returning all property—all collateral—to the original owners, the Year of Jubilee functionally brings about a forgiving of all debts, even debts in default.  If you have lost your property to a loan, it returns to your family sometime within the next 49 years, guaranteed by God’s own law.

Think about that for a minute—an unconditional forgiveness of all debts and defaults.  Does it sound like the action of anybody else we know of?  Of God Himself towards all of us, through Jesus Christ?

God forgives us our own debts because He understands our economic condition, as it were: He knows that we cannot possibly repay all the wrongs that we have ever done to one another, nor repay all the wrongs that we have ever done to Him.  We simply don’t have that kind of spiritual wealth.

Jesus’ death—and here, I’m probably going to shock a few of you with something you might consider heresy—was not payment for that debt.  Nothing can act as payment for that debt, for an entire existence of wronging one another and of wronging God.  It’s too much.

Instead, Jesus’ death represents not a payment of that debt, but a forgiveness of that debt.  Forgiveness is that crucial first step to true reconciliation, to being put back into a right relationship with one another—and the other, in this case, is both God and neighbor alike.

So maybe the takeaway from all of this is that we’ll never again sing the hymn, “Jesus Paid It All.”  But it’s a whole lot bigger than that.  It’s about God guaranteeing for us, just as He did for the Israelites at Sinai, a Year of Jubilee.  A forgiveness of debts.

That is the kind of economic understanding that we have come to hope for from God, but not yet from one another.  And perhaps that is the difference between a divine economy and a materia economy.  But that is also the difference between forgiveness and retribution.

The generosity to forgive is fundamentally borne out of understanding.  And understanding one another’s economic circumstances is a critical part of church vitality and church life.  Just as we understand each other to have a variety of spiritual debts that need to be forgiven, we must recognize that we all likewise have a variety of monetary debts that need to be forgiven.  And that sometimes, those debts are like weights upon our shoulders and chains about our legs.  Understanding that reality is the first step to true generosity and true forgiveness of debt.  So the question then becomes, how can we be as generous in our economic understanding as God is in His for us?

49 times thus far, a $500 tip has been given to a waiter or waitress in the name of a now-deceased young man.  And with every 49 years comes a Year or Jubilee.

There is no longer a civic legal requirement for a Year of Jubilee.  There is no government statute, no Presidential proclamation, no Congressional decree that says we must forgive each other our debts, much less offer any understanding and generosity for them.

And so we create our own Years of Jubilee, such as they are.  We get this radical notion in our heads that maybe, just maybe, we should live out that “do unto others” and “love thy neighbor” maxims the Bible piously says to us, and what happens as a result often goes viral and shocks us.

But it should not.  God has been teaching us these very things for millennia now:  Be generous with your forgiveness.  Be quick with your understanding of circumstance and condition.  Be radical with your generosity.  And everything else will take care of itself.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 9, 2013

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