I don’t often post my sermons here, for a variety of theological and practical reasons. Yesterday’s sermon on jubilee economics felt a bit of a mix of personal story, exegesis, and community-informed–perhaps how all sermons should be–and “translates” a bit better into this space.
Two years ago, Justin and I were negotiating a contract on our soon-to-be new-to-us house on Berwyn Drive in Madison. When we were here in Sept. ’19 for my candidating weekend, we spent several days touring houses and settled on one property in particular with its “blank canvas” of a front yard, the gorgeous oak tree out back, and with ideas that we could do some remodeling inside to achieve what we were looking for in a home…namely, a space that could hold lots of people for extended evenings and dinner parties and committee meetings where we would plot out paths of justice and agendas of peace.
Even at our closing, we never met the previous owners. We heard snippets about them from their realtor and a few neighbors. We occasionally still get mail for “Laura” and “Brian”. They weren’t the original owners—they had only lived there for a couple years. Our neighbor, Kelly, who has lived in her house for nearly 30 years, mentioned that we were probably the 5th or 6th owners since she’s lived next door.
Of course, we also know that this land hasn’t always been “owned” but is a 112′ x 83′ portion of a much larger story of colonization and imperialist expansion.
In late October of 2019, Justin, Maggie, and I moved into that larger story—aware of the Doctrine of Discovery and European colonization of this “nation”, but in some ways, too excited or distracted to reckon with that history.
And, of course, it wasn’t the first time that as a white, European woman, I found a home in a place once—and still—inhabited by people who have lived here much longer than my people. But Wisconsin was foreign territory to me, a land I had no connection to prior to summer of 2019; I didn’t know this land’s story. I hadn’t needed to. But there was something good here that I wanted to be a part of. And so we landed and put down roots.
Which is not too far off from the experience of the Hebrew people in Leviticus 25, as they lingered on the borders of the promised land.
As I read through the passage from Leviticus, I was struck by a common thread that runs through our scriptures these past three weeks. Yes, of course, they all revolve around Sabbath and why and how Sabbath is celebrated. Meanwhile, there’s another thread connecting these passages.
The early verses of Leviticus 25 offer their hint, “When you enter the land that I am giving you, …” “When you enter” implies that the Israelites are still wandering in the desert. The instructions from God about Sabbath, about Jubilee, are all given prior to entering the promised land. On this side of the story, the ordinances sound like a blueprint for living in the way of God. A blueprint which is intended for the Israelites’ flourishing, beginning with a 7-day cycle that culminates in rest and expanding to a 7-year cycle of renewal and finally, Jubilee, following the 49th year.
When we read the story from the vantage point of the Hebrew people, or how the authors of the text “imagined” that part of their history, Sabbath is a gift, clearly meant for a people who don’t have it all together. A people who have not yet arrived. And the concept of a Jubilee—for the land and for Israelites—beautifully imagines how good things will be and will stay in the promised land.
But what happens when that promised land is already inhabited? How does Jubilee work then?
Sarah Augustine, a Tewa descendant and Mennonite, writes in her book, The Land Is Not Empty, of her perspective of the Hebrew exodus story of the Old Testament. When she hears the 10 commandments of Deuteronomy 5 that we heard two weeks ago, she cannot help but remember that the land that the Israelites were “promised” was already inhabited. And the instructions God gives in Deut. 7 and beyond are for the elimination of the original inhabitants.
“The exodus story” Augustine writes, continues a cycle of “genocide” (124). She goes on, “[I]n my cosmology as a woman indigenous to North America, I am one of them invaded by the people presumed to be chosen of God.” (119-120) As an Indigenous Person, Augustine identifies most closely with the Canaanites. Her interpretation of these pre-promise land Sabbath texts is sobering to a white woman like me.
The challenge is holding both my story and Sarah Augustine’s story. For here I am, already settled in a promised land, and could easily live oblivious to the impact my presence has here. And as there is no evidence that Jubilee was ever truly practiced by our Israelite ancestors, it seems possible to imagine that those of the dominant society—of any dominant society—could live oblivious to the deeper truth and justice that Leviticus 25 so clearly outlines.
For starters, we today might question applying anything that comes out of Leviticus. That makes sense—there are significant portions of Leviticus that, when held in the light of the biblical story and the life of Jesus, fall far outside of the cosmic arc, or the “grain of the universe”, as Denny would say.
Leviticus 25 is a curious chapter and dips its toes into themes that permeate the New Testament — themes of healing, redemption, salvation (communal/cosmic sense), liberation, renewal, right relationship. In a nutshell, Leviticus 25 precedes and reflects the Gospel idea we’re so familiar with: the kin[g]dom of God being realized on earth. Granted, Leviticus 25 accounts for that realization in full every 50 years…a little less frequently than we believe is possible in Christ.
The portion of the chapter we heard focuses largely on land and land as property; the rest of the chapter expands into relationships between humans — debts canceled, manumission for those enslaved. Jubilee, that 50th year of extended Sabbath, is intended as a system that embeds economic justice into a society’s rhythms. Jubilee makes inequality temporary. This Great Reset is integral to the heart of Sabbath-keeping.
In the Jubilee system, land is not owned by any one person or household in perpetuity; rather, the setup more closely resembles a lease, where, during the Jubilee year, the land is returned to the “original” inhabitant (though “original” here is always assumed to mean the original Israelite). It’s a radical idea that, I imagine, would shape a community’s sense of mutuality—with one another, surely, and also with the generations that would come after, as well as the land itself. The Year of Jubilee, the Great Reset, is the reign of God experienced on earth.
But Sarah Augustine’s interpretation remains: The reign of God for whom? What of those displaced? Will the land ever return to them? Does economic justice have limits?
In the May 2021 issue of The Atlantic magazine, Dan Treuer wrote an article titled, “Return the National Parks to the Tribes” in which Treuer argues that land stolen from Indigenous Peoples of North America —now national park property—should be returned to Indigenous Peoples as restitution. He proposes,
”All 85 million acres of national-park sites should be turned over to a consortium of federally recognized tribes in the United States. … The total acreage would not quite make up for the General Allotment Act, which robbed us of 90 million acres, but it would ensure that we have unfettered access to our tribal homelands. And it would restore dignity that was rightfully ours. To be entrusted with the stewardship of America’s most precious landscapes would be a deeply meaningful form of restitution.”
Treuer is proposing a year of Jubilee.
Reparations of this scale have been successful in some places, including Australia, New Zealand, and between the US and Panama. Yet they are infrequent, often partial and tenuous.
Like buying our home on Berwyn Drive, the idea of reparations asks a lot of those in the dominant society who tend to feel entitled to what one privately owns.
It’s been longer than 50 years since white colonizers stole the land through trickery, manipulation, and military aggression. That could be an excuse to let Jubilee principles recede into myth. But when, in Luke 4, Jesus enters the synagogue in Nazareth, it’s clear that it doesn’t matter to him if it’s been 500 years or 5 minutes. Oppression, slavery, captivity are called out for what they are and sent packing.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” …which is to say, for those who walk in the way of Jesus, to participate in Jubilee economics is an everyday action. Through Christ, Jubilee is a communal action that embeds economic justice into a society’s rhythms. Into a church’s rhythms.
In the Jewish calendar and according to Leviticus 25, Jubilee was to begin on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Friends, a year and one day from today—Oct. 4, 2022—is Yom Kippur. Over the next 366 days, I want to imagine with you, with this community, how we participate in the Great Reset. I want to imagine how we hold our diverse stories and stories like Sarah Augustine’s together: dismantling systems of oppression and fostering systems of economic justice. Will you join me? Will you let me join you?