Scripture: Leviticus 25
“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 25:10
Years ago a man named Millard Fuller was living the height of the American dream. A millionaire by age twenty-nine (couldn’t we all be so lucky!), he was a high-powered corporate executive working 24/7 and making close to a million dollars year, adding to his fortune. By all accounts he was a successful man, a man to be admired, a man to be emulated – he was the pro-typical American business man of the 1960s: rich, successful and very, very busy.
But while he was successful and busy, his life around him began to fall apart. Millard’s frenetic schedule was taking a toll on his health, he had developed a severe breathing disorder along with a host of other health issues believed by his doctors to be stress-related and his family was falling apart due to the stress his work had placed on them.
One day Millard heard God calling to him, telling him his life was overfull and his priorities out of whack. So in prayer with his wife one day, Fuller re-committed his life to Christ. He quit his job, sold his shares in his business donating the proceeds to humanitarian causes and moved to the Koinonia Farm, a community dedicated to racial equality and sharing of common goods. He and his wife Linda wondered what they would do next with the new found freedom they had gained from slowing down and finding rest from the crazed pace of the American business landscape.
What he ended up doing next was building affordable houses for low-income families, who could purchase these homes interest-free. Today we are most of us well aware of the great good Habitat for Humanity has done.
Millard Fuller’s life and the legacy he left behind after his death in the ongoing work of Habitat for Humanity are a testament to the liberation that Sabbath, and the ancient understanding of divine rest can bring to individuals and whole groups of people – something our text from Leviticus points to as well today.
Our passage from Leviticus is the portion of the Jewish law regarding the Sabbath year and the subsequent year of Jubilee. Not only was Israel meant to take the seventh day as a day of rest, but here we see that every seventh year they were called to leave their fields fallow, to allow the land time to rest. No sowing, no planting, no pruning – the people of Israel were to do no agricultural work in the seventh year, only relying on what the land naturally produced and on the provisions that God promised he would provide in the previous years.
The people of Israel were called to trust God every seventh year; trust that God would provide for them, trust that God would bless them to carry them over through their Sabbath year; the people of Israel needed to trust that God wanted to give them abundant life and not abandon them as they and the land around them rested.
While that might already be a stretch of our modern sensibilities – the law concerning Jubilee takes it up a couple notches. The people of Israel were meant to count off seven Sabbath years, 49 years in total and then at the beginning of the fiftieth year, on the day of Atonement, a trumpet was to be sounded proclaiming liberty to the land and all its inhabitants.
The fiftieth year, was the year of Jubilee, it was like a Super-Sized Ultra Sabbath year, where all property that had been sold, or taken in exchange for debts was to be returned to its original owner or their families, all debts were to be forgiven no matter how big or small, all people who had been sold into slavery were to be freed from their contracts, and the children of slave families (children likely born into slavery) were to be liberated even if all they had known was slavery.
Built into the notion of Sabbath and into the life of Israel was the idea of liberation. The rest and pausing of the community was not an end to itself, but the holy rest and refreshment was to bring life back to the community, to every corner of the community not just the rich, not the just the people that could afford to rest, but everyone.
Sabbath: the weekly practice, the sabbatical year and the year of Jubilee were rooted in God’s liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt – in fact at the end of Leviticus 25 (the portion we didn’t hear today), God reminds the people of Israel that he redeemed them, all of them from their slavery in Egypt and so just as they had been liberated, the people of Israel were to bring liberation to others through their Sabbath practices.
As Alice mentioned last week, if the practice of weekly Sabbath was in the Ancient world and still is in our day an outrageous concept, then idea of a Sabbath year or a year of Jubilee is even more so – it is on the surface of things completely bonkers.
In fact, we may look back with skepticism and wonder if the people of Israel ever really followed through with these practices of Sabbath years and years of Jubilee – after all who in their right mind would go a whole year without any agricultural work in the entirety of the nation and who would sacrifice all the hard earned property they had accumulated over decades and likely a couple generations just because it magically hit the fiftieth year?
And maybe it never happened, there is no evidence that the year of Jubilee was practiced with regularity – after all by the time of Jesus there were wealthy aristocratic Jews, who clearly had not returned the land to their original owners every fifty years. But whether or not any of it actually happened doesn’t really matter to be honest.
What matters is that the people of Israel had the imagination to believe it was possible, to believe that the very idea of Sabbath, that God’s gift of Sabbath in creation and in their common life together had the power to liberate someone, the power to liberate the whole community; they had the imagination to believe that Sabbath could bring freedom to those who were oppressed and enslaved; they had the imagination to believe that Sabbath could bring equality to their economic and social systems. Perhaps the people of Israel failed to live out God’s Sabbath and Jubilee commandments, but that shouldn’t stop us from seeing the great gift of liberation available to us in God’s gift of Sabbath.
Do we have the same imagination? Do we believe that taking Sabbath seriously can bring us freedom from all that oppresses and ensnares us in this world? Do we believe that pausing, resting, refreshing, renewing and practicing the rhythms of Sabbath on a weekly and even yearly basis can liberate us from the destructive cycle of overwork and burnout, from the anxieties and fears which consume us as we fill our schedules up, as we work without any end in sight?
If you had asked Millard Fuller at the height of his career if rest and pause were the solution to freeing him from his health complications and his family imploding he probably would have laughed in your face. Sometimes we can’t see the good of something because we are so mired in our current reality that we can’t see or imagine anything else. We are taught from an early age that being busy is important, that it is good, and necessary to live a fulfilling life – children’s programs every night of the week, working 60+ work weeks not out of necessity but because we want to get ahead, trying everything under the sun so that our church will succeed and grow in numbers and offering.
But more often than not this kind of constant activity and busyness doesn’t lead to a better more fulfilling life for us as individuals or communities, but rather it becomes a vicious cycle of work followed by exhaustion and burnout, followed by more work with no end in sight. This becomes a prison cell which keeps us from experiencing the abundant goodness and life that God has prepared for us.
Resting, taking Sabbath and living out of a Spirit of Jubilee takes faith, it requires us to trust God that we will have enough to tide us over during our rest, it requires us to trust that God intends to free us from the cycles of work and exhaustion that dominate our world today. It requires us to trust that less work sometimes means more, that rest is just as important as the hard work that we do together in this community of Grace Church.
Over the next year, I hope that you think about and practice ways that you can rest from the busyness and weariness of the world – maybe it’s reclaiming a whole Sabbath day (it doesn’t have to be Sunday!); or maybe it’s finding Sabbath moments each and every day – moments where you pause and let the cares of the world pass you by. Maybe it is picking up a hobby you abandoned because you were busy. Maybe it is spending more intentional time with your friends and family. Whatever it is, may it liberate you from the cycle of exhaustion and bring joy into your life once more.
As a church I hope we can learn to rest as well. I hope we can take time to delight in God’s word – deepening our love of Scripture. I hope we can pause and spend time on our prayer life and our relationship with God – learning over and over again, as if for the first time, that we are God’s beloved. I hope we can learn to enjoy the fruits of God’s creation – learning to delight in the world around us. Finally I hope we can stop the frenetic busyness of the parish and learn to enjoy the company of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
Maybe once we have re-learned the freedom that Sabbath brings into our lives, we will be able to once more bring the good news of God’s liberating love and mercy to our neighbours and community around us. Amen.
Download audio file