Monday, January 2, 2017

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

I was unable to give this sermon on Sunday as we made the decision to cancel church on account of inclement weather--only the second time that we have had to do that in the five-plus years I have been here. But because it is a special sermon, written for the kicking off of my sabbatical that officially begins today, I still wanted to post it and share it. Please enjoy. ~E.A.

Leviticus 25:1-13

The Lord said to Moses on Mount Sinai, 2 Speak to the Israelites and say to them: Once you enter the land that I am giving you, the land must celebrate a sabbath rest to the Lord. 3 You will plant your fields for six years, and prune your vineyards and gather their crops for six years. 4 But in the seventh year the land will have a special sabbath rest, a Sabbath to the Lord: You must not plant your fields or prune your vineyards. 5 You must not harvest the secondary growth of your produce or gather the grapes of your freely growing vines. It will be a year of special rest for the land. 6 Whatever the land produces during its sabbath will be your food—for you, for your male and female servants, and for your hired laborers and foreign guests who live with you, 7 as well as for your livestock and for the wild animals in your land. All of the land’s produce can be eaten.

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 blown on the tenth day of the seventh month. 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 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. (Common English Bible)

New Year’s Day 2017

One of the most life-changing experiences I have ever had the joy to be a part of was a three-week mission trip to sub-Saharan Africa under the auspices of our denomination’s global mission arm, Global Ministries. There, we got to visit mission sites in South Africa, Angola, and Kenya to minister to children, hear from HIV/AIDS activists right in the epicenter of the disease’s epidemic, and, in Kenya, visit a seminary where so many students were dedicating themselves to education and to serving God.

It is exactly what we should hope to see happen in impoverished parts of the world—the setting up of an infrastructure that can give people a means out of extreme poverty while also maintaining their own dignity and autonomy. I cannot stress the importance of that enough: it is one thing to try or want to help another people; it is entirely another to do so in a way that preserves their innate dignity and need for personal decision-making that we all have.

In that vein, I came across this story about a young woman in Kenya named Joice, who was a part of a census performed by a nonprofit charity called GiveDirectly that specialized in providing targeted cash infusions to households to lift those households out of poverty, and trusting those households to use the cash in the best way possible, because they knew more of what they needed than outsiders running a charity. The story goes like this:

The fact (Joice) was receiving a number meant her entire life would change: She’d receive free sums of money and would be required to do nothing in exchange. She could use the money however she wanted; all GiveDirectly wanted was to help people become less impoverished.

Over one year, Joice received three transfers totaling 87,000KSE, or roughly $1,000…The three transfers came in different amounts: one for $80 and two for $460 each.

“What surprised me most was the unconditionality of the money,” (Joice says). “I felt so dignified to be recognized as capable of setting my own priorities in addressing my own needs.”

Joice and her husband used about half of the first sum to buy a goat. The rest they spent on food. As this was happening, Joice was going to school, but knew she couldn’t pay for the education. The fees were mounting. When her larger transfer came through, those debts quickly disappeared.

“In our country, it is very difficult to be recognized as qualified without evidence of education,” Joice says. “This was an opportunity that allowed me to clear the fee arrears from my University and allowed me to be free to compete in the job market.”

I am beginning my sabbatical by trying to see it a little like how the $1,000 affected Joice and her family. Three months is a lot of time, just like $1,000 is a lot of money, but for someone in desperate need of such a resource, a little bit is able to go an awfully long way. To erase student loan debt here in the States often takes tens of thousands of dollars, not several hundred dollars. Goats don’t go for two Andrew Jacksons. And three months of sabbatical, studies have begun to show, can do great wonders in preventing burnout from ministry and losing out on much more than just three months of serving Christ’s church.

Because believe it or not, many pastors live in circumstances of spiritual poverty, even as we are called to be spiritual giants. We end up emotionally and spiritually exhausted and we minister not out of abundance, but out of famine. That is simply no way for us to beuseful  able to do our work.

One of the ways the Israelites had to try to stave off famines was the Sabbath year—in order to let the soil replenish itself, every seventh year the Israelites were commanded to not plant anything and to simply live off of what was grown naturally. It had to be so very hard for them to do, especially when ancient farmers often eked out subsistence-level incomes even in the best of times.

But the alternative, of them completely using the land up, of taking out all of its nutrients and all of its life-giving capacity, was a far worse scenario for them to contemplate. Hence the Sabbath year.

The Sabbath year was not enough to ensure sustainability, though, and so God called for a year of Jubilee as well. After every seventh seven years—so, on every fiftieth year, all families were to return to their original land, which is to say that the land would return to being the property of that family.

The purpose of the year of Jubilee, then, is twofold: one is to prevent the establishment of a small, landed aristocracy that controlled all of the arable or useful land in ancient Israel. The other was to provide every household, every family, a fresh start every so often regardless of poverty or indebtedness. It was to do for the ancient Israelites what an organization like GiveDirectly did for Joice and her husband, or, spiritually, what this congregation is doing for its pastor with a sabbatical.

Not just for me, though, but also for you. You’ve got New Year’s Resolutions to either make, break, or try to keep until, say, President’s Day or, if you’re really on a roll, Easter. So why not seek newness that is a bit more enduring, and far more hopeful, for the Jubilee comes not from us, but from God, a God who sees our own need for a Jubilee because God Himself once needed one too.

Our need for renewal and revitalization comes not simply from exhaustion or fatigue, it comes from God. It is Godlike. On the seventh day, God rested. It wasn’t until the third day that Jesus rose.

And from their examples, we are given the Sabbath and the year of Jubilee. Not just for ourselves, but for our entire communities. So while our community will look and function differently for the next three months—I will not be here leading worship on Sunday mornings or in my office during the week—my hope and prayer is that this will indeed be a year of Jubilee for us, of us finding Sabbath rest from the many labors that we have undertaken joyfully together for the past five years to revitalize both our church and our wider community.

Those soul-sized labors do not cease. So it falls to us to ensure that we rest so that such labors continue to inspire us, not burn us out. Truthfully, burnout is the simple way that such labor ends.

But the far better way for our labor to end is to still have the heart for it when the Lord comes again.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 1, 2017

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful. Hope your sabbatical provides much rest and spiritual sustenance.