(Leviticus 25: 3-4)
Six years you shall sow your field and prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield,
But in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest of the land,
And you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.
For a year.
Tell me something, people of God: what do you imagine this looked like? To let the land go for an entire year without so much as a hint of a back hoe or a lawnmower or a weed eater. What’d that look like? I mean, the Bible is chopped full of all kinds of amazing stories and evocative images: the parting of the Red Sea, the walls of Jericho, the chariot of fire, the baptisms at the Jordan River. It’s one thing to read about them in black and white, but it’s another to try to engage them with all five senses. What did Leviticus 25: 3-4 look, feel, taste, touch, smell like?
Maybe it was like my lawn has been these past few weeks. I inherited a lawn of mostly bermuda grass, which I don’t particularly care for but like more than a lawn of fescue that has to be watered daily in the heat of the summer. I refuse to install an irrigation system and watch my water bill go out of control, so instead its my lawn that goes out of control in these hot summer months, the warm bermuda grass growing quite unruly when it goes just a few days past its preferred mowing cycle.
Maybe it looked something like that. Or maybe Leviticus 25:3-4 looked like the “garden” we had in the backyard of our home in Mount Airy. And I use air quotes around “garden” because truth be told, it was pretty much a disaster. Where green peppers and tomatoes and beans and lettuce should have been were instead a vast cornucopia of weeds and grass and more weeds that I couldn’t have grown if I tried. It was actually impressive as far as weeds go; I feel certain we created new stands of weeds the world had never seen before.
Such an odd commandment, this “land-sabbath” thing. But we’ve got to pay attention to it, don’t we? Because A.J. Jacobs did. He paid attention to it as part of his year-long living biblically journey, where he tried in the course of a year to follow the Bible as literally as possible. So let’s see what A.J. Jacobs has to say about this land-sabbath, and perhaps what it might have to say to us; because my hunch is that, in the end, it’s about a lot more than just the land. Listen:
So – land sabbath. Here’s how it works: The Bible says that years—like days of the week—belong in a cycle of seven. The seventh year is called the Sabbath year, and big things happen.
First, that entire year, you must stop working. No farming is allowed. This is so the land can rest, and the needy can come and eat all they want from the vines and olive trees. Second, you must forgive your neighbor’s debts. All IOUs are erased.
But there’s more. After seven consecutive Sabbath cycles – forty-nine years – something even more radical happens: the Jubilee year. And during the Jubilee year, you must return all property to its original owner (Leviticus 25:10).
Now imagine that! We’re not just talking about unmowed lawns or garden disasters, are we? The needy grazing in our yards? Forgiving all debts? Returning property? What kind of madness is this??
I know I’ve brought up before in this sermon series that, if nothing else, A.J.’s year-long journey into living biblically shines a spotlight on our tendency as people of faith to do a fair bit of cherry-picking commandments. And oftentimes the ones we choose are ones that already fit our lifestyle and our life: the “Do not kill” and “Do not steal” types tend to line up pretty easily with the way most of us are already functioning.
But we ignore commandments like our scripture reading today because the consequences of following through on them are not only counter-intuitive to the way our world works but, frankly, dangerous. As A.J. recognizes, erasing all debts and returning property would throw the world’s financial markets into chaos. And letting the poor graze on our land and eat from the crops we once planted, taking advantage of our work and our labor while doing none of their own – well, there’s a term for that often thrown around in our highly-charged political rhetoric, and it’s not a flattering one.
So it’s hard to personalize a commandment like this, can we agree on that? A.J. did. And so here’s what he decided to do about that:
Even on a personal level, I’ve found (jubilee) a challenge to practice. Consider the not-working part. I’ve worked for sixteen years straight, so I’m long overdue for a yearlong hiatus. The problem is, I’ve got a deadline for this book and a kid who is obsessed with offensively pricey Thomas the Tank Engine toys.
And as for forgiving debts, well, I try two things:
1) Since bonds are debts, I try to forgive a bond I have owned for nine years. It was issued by the New York State Dormitory Authority. “We’ve never had a request like this before,” says the fourth guy I was sent to. He finally suggests that I donate some money to my favorite State University of New York school. Oh well.
2) To my recollection, the only other outstanding debt that stretches more than seven years is the one owed by my sophomore-year college roommate. He owed me at least twenty dollars. The weasel would buy yogurt with the communal house money, then hide it from the rest of us in paper bags labeled “Photo Equipment— Do Not Touch.” I’ve always held a grudge. I let it go.
Well, I don’t know that forgiving a college roommate for his great yogurt transgression is quite what the writer of Leviticus had in mind, but he makes his point: it is hard to internalize commandments like this when they operate on such a grandiose scale and in a context that is quite foreign to us.
Which is why you and I have to dig a little deeper into the fabric of this passage; beyond what it tells us to do to who it is calling us to be. And see, when we dig deeper into Jubilee, when we journey to its heart and see that single strand that runs through it all, we come upon this timeless truth: all that we have, all that we have worked to acquire in our lives, all that we gain, really does not belong to us. It all belongs to God. All of it. And that is a tremendously powerful and extremely unsettling truth.
I think about this truth every time I think about the theology of our pledge or the offering plates we pass in worship. I think about how we put our dollar bills or checks in there, or give online through our church website or ChurchLife app, and the fact that it’s not really a “giving to God” as much as a “giving backto God;” since all we have belongs to God anyway, and what we are doing in this highly spiritual act is returning a portion of what we have to its rightful owner.
And it’s not just our “stuff” that belongs to God. You know, it’s easy to feel good about ourselves, feel validated when we work hard in the fields – or in the office, or in the classroom. But to stop doing that for a whole year, to stop doing the very thing that validates us – that is when we realize that webelong to God as well. Despite what some in our culture try so desperately to convince us of, despite what we try to convince ourselves, we are not unto ourselves. We belong to the God who validates us and calls us children even in our rest; even when the fields go untamed for a year.
So if this is the heart of jubilee – if it is, in fact, a complete redefining of who we are and whose we are – then what other crazy things might this commandment be commanding us to do?
Back a few decades ago, two British evangelists named Martin Dent and Bill Peters put this commandment into practice as it related to the weighty (and sometimes contentious) issue of third-world debt. Billing themselves as “Jubilee Network,” they lobbied some of the larger nations of the world – including England, France and the United States – to forgive debts on monies loaned to third-world countries.
The movement got quite a boost when Bono, lead singer for a little rock band named U2, joined the cause. And not just as a celebrity face, but as a full-fledged Jubilee activist. In 2006, Bono spoke about his work with Jubilee at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC, saying this:
It is such an important idea, Jubilee, that Jesus begins his ministry with it. Jesus is a young man, he’s met with the rabbis, he’s a clever guy; but he hasn’t done much yet. When he does, his first words are from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, setting the oppressed free – to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the year of Jubilee.” And he closed the scroll and said, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
And listen to what Bono says next:
What Jesus was really talking about in this year of the Lord’s favor, this year of Jubilee, was an era of grace. And we’re still in it.
An era of grace. Now that’s something we can sink our teeth into, isn’t it? More than fields and crops, vineyards and grapes, lawns and lawnmowers. Grace. Begun in the year of Jubilee, brought to completion through none other than Jesus himself. Resting and letting go and starting over. An era of grace.
How hard it is to live in this era of grace! How difficult to grant someone something they did not earn; something they very well may not deserve. How challenging to not only turn our lives over to God in a holy period of rest, but to then share our lives with others, even though they have no claim over it, even though we don’t have claim over it ourselves.
How hard that kind of grace is. But not as the one giving it. No, the harder grace for you and for me is as the one receiving it.
And here’s why: you and I operate in a world where people work and not rest, where folks grab hold and not let go, where we continue down the dead-end road instead of turning around and starting over. We live in a world that is so caught up in rugged individualism and personal pride that we make it near impossible for grace to be a two-way street. We love God and we love others. The part we struggle with is letting God and others love us.
There’s this wonderful little story about an African tribe and what they do when a member of that community breaks tribal customs and rules. That person is brought to the center of the village. All work ceases and every man, woman and child gathers in a large mass around the accused, encircling them completely so they have no way of escape. They are trapped.
And you know what happens next? The tribe bombards the rejected person with words of affirmation. That wasn’t what you were expecting, was it? One at a time, friends and family expound on all the good that person has done. Every incident, every experience is recounted with detail and accuracy. All their positive attributes, their strengths and kindnesses. Finally, the circle is broken, and a joyous celebration ensues, and the outcast is welcomed back. And the village is made whole again.
Now that, folks, is some jubilee grace! For everyone.
So here’s the deal: if you want to let your lawn or garden go rogue for a year, and risk the wrath of the homeowners association, have at it! But how about doing something really biblical? Forgive debts. Share your bounty with others who, like you, don’t own it.
Give grace. But most importantly, receive it.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.