(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on June 12, 2016)
The countdown has been on for awhile at our house.
I’m talking about the countdown to freedom, to a break, to summer…to the end of school. Aubrey put an app on her iPod a couple of weeks ago that tells her how many days of school are left, and it’s a symbol of what kids everywhere feel: the celebration of the season of freedom beginning.
We’re not all synchronized on summer break as a family any more, which makes it a little easier on me than it used to be. Elaine works a couple of weeks past the last day of school now; Hayley is in a gap year and Natalie has been on a different college schedule the last four years. I have to be honest that I used to get really grumpy around this time of year, when all four of them were celebrating the freedom of a change in their schedule, a relief from work and an invitation to rest and relaxation…and I stayed in my normal routine.
Because most of us have this longing for a rhythm of regular rest to go with our routine. I’d even go so far as to say that God builds it inside of us, inside not just us but all of this creation God has made.
It’s easy to identify the ways that I celebrate the idea of a break. Even my past grumpiness about the rest of my family getting summer vacation is a sign of it, because I wanted to be experiencing it too. On the positive side, when I started my sabbatical three years ago, the first thing I noticed was how fun I was without the stress of work. “I like this me!!” was the first thing I realized. It’s easy to identify how I appreciate a break.
What is a little more difficult to notice are the ways I actually resist and fight against God’s idea of regular rest.
How I believe if I don’t keep working, it won’t happen, and all sorts of bad things will result. How I let what I accomplish and do creep into my sense of identity. The second thing I learned on my sabbatical was that I could still be just as driven and unhealthy, even while on the trip of a lifetime through Europe with my family.
The truth is that I–like many people, I think–I don’t always trust that I have value if I’m not producing. I don’t always trust that God is the giver of all good gifts, the one who is ACTUALLY indispensable instead of me.
One of my favorite Old Testament scholars, Walter Brueggemann, actually can be poetic when he writes. Today, we’re looking at God’s idea of a Sabbath year, and we’re looking at the ultimate Sabbath, the year of Jubilee: a radical time of rest that re-oriented economics and forced trust and dependence on God. What Brueggemann did for me this week is push me to see how my belief in scarcity, my lack of trust that there is enough…he made me see how that belief warps me, and keeps me from truly resting.
Because despite what God promises, despite the fact that I believe God will care for all of us, I realize I often believe there isn’t enough time or resources. I think there isn’t enough if I don’t strive, if I don’t work, if I don’t do it. And Brueggemann’s writing reminded me how good God is, how giving God is…how much I receive, when I pay attention…how much comes as a gift outside of my working and striving. Listen:
and we take food we did not grow and
life we did not invent and
future that is gift and gift and gift and
families and neighbors who sustain us
when we did not deserve it.
It dawns on us – late rather than soon-
that you “give food in due season
you open your hand
and satisfy the desire of every living thing.”
By your giving, break our cycles of imagined scarcity
override our presumed deficits
quiet our anxieties of lack
transform our perceptual field to see
the abundance………mercy upon mercy
blessing upon blessing. (Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, p. 4)
Practicing Sabbath rest actually opens our eyes to how much God gives, how much of life truly is grace and gift, and not something I earn with my work.
A once a week Sabbath rest can be a difficult enough practice. But what about an entire year for a Sabbath, an entire year of being thrown completely on God’s mercy because we set aside our striving? A Sabbath year is a radical practice of trust in God that is designed to force us into dependence and celebration. Turn with me to Leviticus chapter 25, and I’ll read verses 1-7.
The LORD said to Moses on 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. (Leviticus 25:1-7, TNIV)
The very first thing I noticed about this idea of a Sabbath year is how it would force us into a place of dependence and trust in God. It’s one thing to say “I trust God to provide.” It’s another thing altogether to choose, out of obedience, not to work and see how God does provide.
Farther down in verse 20, it’s very clear God anticipated the worries and questions the ancient Israelites would have. [READ 25:20-21]
You may ask, ‘What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?’ I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. (Leviticus 25:20-21, TNIV)
I love how real the bible can be! God knows their worries. Ummmm…God, you may not have thought this through very well, because, ummm…what are we going to eat for a year if we don’t do our work and plant things?!? And this real fear, this fear God anticipates and answers, this fear expressed in black and white is what made me realize how scary it is for us to truly trust God, instead of our own work, to provide for us.
Doesn’t hearing me just say that sentence out loud cause alarm bells to go off in your head? It’s so against how we see the world. Can’t you imagine yourself arguing with the interpretation of the text because of the culture we live in? “God wouldn’t want us to not pull our weight. God wouldn’t ask us to just sit there and live off the government. Sure, God provides if, you know, we make our best effort but things don’t work out…but God doesn’t ask us to be lazy.”
In fact in the Old Testament God DID ask the Israelites to just sit there. One day out of every seven. One whole year out of every seven! God established an entire society that was not based on maximizing crops or profits, but rather an entire society built on trust that God would give what is needed.
Our economic system is different. Our country is not a theocracy like Israel was, but there are still principles here that can guide us. Sometimes, in order to see how God is trustworty, to see the amazing, unexpected ways God can provide, we have to take a risky step of stopping our own work, our own plans, our own taking care of everything…and in obedience trust God to do it.
I remember in college believing I should quit a job in order to focus on other areas that God had for me; but I had to make that step before I knew how I would have enough money to pay the rest of my tuition. I remember (and I’ve heard so many others say this too) I remember when Elaine and I made the decision to choose to increase our giving to a 10% tithe, without being able to see on paper how that was going to work.
Or countless other practical examples: if I take time to listen to this friend I’ve just bumped into, this friend who is in crisis, how am I going to get my responsibilities done? If I go to my kid’s game instead of working overtime, if I sacrifice for someone else…who’s going to take care of me? Who’s going to meet my needs?
The first thing I thought when I read this teaching about an entire Sabbath year is: how could they afford to do this? How were they brave enough to take that risk?
But perhaps that’s completely upside down. Maybe the reason we don’t see God providing as much as we would hope is that we so often would prefer to trust ourselves and our efforts rather than the risk of obedience when we don’t see how it could add up.
Trust, faith that God can and will provide is like a muscle that needs practice. And I would suggest that in our “can-do, work hard America”, it’s not easy to go against the grain and try to exercise our trust muscle. Our lives are different than ancient Israel, where God was walking so closely with them, teaching them trust as they lived in the land God gave. There aren’t as clear guidelines for us as are here in black and white for them.
I don’t think I am so much saying, “Put God to the test and see the miraculous rewards that come!” I think what I’m trying to say is this: our culture has moved so far away from this built in pattern of weekly and yearly rest, so far away from that deep trust in God’s provision, that we need to be reminded that we aren’t put on this planet to make ourselves financially stable. We aren’t put here to secure our retirement and financial future.
We are placed here on earth to wrap our entire lives around God’s way! That means trust, and that also means justice, living in a way that helps all people live in a healthy way so that they, too, can wrap their lives around God.
Let’s continue reading in Leviticus 25 and see another huge step of trust in God that led to equality and justice. Look with me at verse 8 and learn about Jubilee.
‘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. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.’ (Leviticus 25:8-12, TNIV)
Jubilee is a radical practice that brings justice and returns to equality in ways that seem radically unfair to us. This practice of Jubilee points out how much we’ve allowed our culture’s “you get what you earn” belief to completely overturn God’s “I’ll take care of you with Grace” mentality. Jubilee is so radical, so against the grain of how human society works, that scholars have great difficulty finding any evidence that Israel ever practiced it.
We have to understand the root behind it. No one in ancient Israel truly owned the land; God owned the land, and God gave it to the Israelites to use; gave it in families, tribes, and clans. Land was intended to stay equally distributed among the different tribes, not amassed by the most successful farmers.
Land was never sold. If things went wrong for a person, and they were facing debt and bankruptcy, they could sell the use of the land or they could sell themselves. But it was never intended to be permanent. Jubilee, this radical return every 50 years, leveled the playing field and returned everything to the equality God originally intended.
“Thus,” writes Gordon Wenham, “Once in [a] lifetime the slate was wiped clean. Everyone had the chance to make a fresh start. The rich had to part with the land and slaves they had acquired in the previous forty-nine years, while the poor recovered their land and freedom. The jubilee would have restored some semblance of equality between [people], thereby recapturing something of the relationship that existed between [people] at their creation.”
This is a radical reminder that God’s care often comes through people’s obedience.
And yet human greed and selfishness can and does often curtail that obedience, and contributes to the world being an inequitable and unjust place. I would even go so far as to say that human greed and selfishness demonstrates a lack of trust in God’s grace and equality; and it also contributes to those who get the short end of the stick having difficulty seeing that God is a trustworthy provider.
John Hartley writes:
“Yahweh gave Israel the sabbatical year and the year of Jubilee to curtail the human desire to accumulate more and more by interrupting the continuous activity of sowing and harvesting. Greed prevents [people] from enjoying what [they have], for it drives one to spend all one’s energy on getting more.”
Our continuous striving and work activity damage us and can bring damage to other people in our interrelated economic systems. John Woolman, an 18th century Quaker activist, boldly took two actions that were like a sort of “Jubilee”. First, he recognized how much of life at that time came at the expense of those in slavery. So he made the lifelong commitment to either refuse a meal or any service from a slave, or to pay the slave for the work they had done. He would not let work be only someone else’s sacrifice and his gain.
Second, he recognized that his job as a tailor could keep him from doing the ministry God had given him to do, so he limited himself to only work three or four days a week, choosing to accept a lower standard of living than he could have lived. These two practices were right in line with Sabbath, Jubilee, and trust. These practices fought against greed and accumulation, and enabled Woolman to see God’s hand at work to provide.
Hartley continues writing about this practice of the sabbatical year and of Jubilee:
“If a person can learn to live with what one has and to take periodic times of rest away from work, that person has time to enjoy and appreciate what one has gained with a thankful attitude. In addition, Yahweh was teaching…that the land, like people, needed rest. Here is an early expression of conservation. People must not overwork the land on which they depend for their livelihood by exhausting its fertility for immediate satisfaction. Rather they must manage their use of the land to maintain its fertility through the generations. Such management is an expression of trust in Yahweh to supply [our] needs.”
I intentionally followed last week’s message about work with this message on Sabbatical year and Jubilee.
They both are needed. They both are ways in which we feed the spiritual soil of our lives so that God’s seed can grow. Work done well, with intentionality for how we are joining God the Creator to make the world a better place, increases our sense of partnering with God.
Rest, trust, and dependence…finding ways to let go of striving for more and more and more…these are ways we consciously practice demonstrating our dependence on God’s care for us. These are ways we work for equality so that we don’t take more than we deserve, more than God intends, more than is proper to allow others to live before God.
This is a reminder to not exploit the creation God has given us with our greed, but to tend it, to give it rest, to conserve it for future generations…so that they like we, like the ancient Israelites, can live equally before God in right relationship and with a clear heart of thanksgiving for God’s care.