Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Last Sunday's sermon on Jubilee

(August 17, 2008; Leviticus 25, Luke 4:16-21)
What if I told you that Canada existed only as an act of imagination? That we fight wars, pay taxes and support Olympic teams for an act of imagination. What could that possibly mean? I recently read two books by William Cavanaugh, someone who could very quickly become one of my favourite theologians. Cavanaugh makes just such an assertion. In the opening lines to one of his books he writes the following,
Politics is a practice of the imagination. Sometimes politics is the ‘art of the possible,’ but it is always an art, and engages the imagination just as art does. We are often fooled by the seeming solidity of the materials of politics, its armies and offices, into forgetting that these materials are marshaled by acts of the imagination. How does a provincial farm boy become persuaded that he must travel as a soldier to another part of the world and kill people he knows nothing about? He must be convinced of the reality of borders, and imagine himself deeply, mystically, united to a wider national community that stops abruptly at those borders. . . . Modern politics was not discovered but imagined, invented.

So why am I telling you all this? What does this have to do with our readings this morning? If we hope to accept the Bible and live out of its story and particularly this morning’s story then we are going to need to re-imagine the world around us. We need to the learn the truths and expose the falsehoods of our current story, as it is and step into the biblical story and allow it to shape and transform our expression of church. I believe that our reading this morning offers one such re-imagination. So this morning I am inviting us to consider our story and also the story and imagination that forms the concept of Jubilee.
Early in Canada’s history land was secured by the emerging government and then gifted and sold to those who would be most economically productive and stabilize the government. The legal immigration of people to Canada was developed around their potential benefit to our economic base and so our immigration act still disallows immigrants if they will be taxing on our health care system or are unable to financially support themselves. Land in our system is obtained and maintained by those who have the ability to obtain and maintain more land. This is not how land was imagined in Israel. Land in Israel was not distributed on the basis of a self-interested government but was a gift offered on the basis of a promise. The space and society this opened then was always based on this foundation. The foundation was that the land belonged to God and that every family in Israel had a share in it. It still happened that families fell on hard times and would have to sell their land or work it for someone else. But this was always in relationship to God’s promise. No one was allowed to continually amass more land and wealth. At some point in each generation the family’s promised land was restored to them and people were allowed another opportunity to provide for themselves. God says this to Moses, “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. Throughout the land that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.”
Can you imagine what the American and Canadian landscape would look like if in the 1980s, fifty years after the Great Depression, the children of those who profited from that time, those who acquired all the land from farmers who could not survive returned the land to the children of those who lost it? Economic theory is certainly not my strength but I can’t help but note the irony that it was in the 1980s that we witnessed the rise of huge multinational corporations and the outsourcing of work to economically impoverished counties. It was at this time that land and capital began to be increasingly centralized around fewer and fewer people. This is a movement that the act of Jubilee works directly against. So we need to ask ourselves how can we re-imagine the redemption of the land for all people?
In North America personal security is understood largely in economic terms. Our economic model encourages us to amass wealth infinitely through work and saving. In many cases this can nurture a healthy and responsible work ethics. However, the reality of our current economic model is that increasingly the most wealthy people in the world are making their money without producing any valuable goods or services. Even with the economic slowdown in the U.S. corporate CEOs continue to increase their own compensation despite posting losses and layoffs. Since 1965 CEOs have moved from making an average of 51 times minimum wage to 815 times what a minimum wage employee earns. Others have made millions off others’ adversity in the US mortgage crisis. A number of the most recent billionaires attained their wealth by opening online gambling sites which relies on the addiction we have to the promise of wealth. We live in a system where we find increasing security with increased wealth though the reality is that the most wealthy are not wealthy from hard work and prudent saving but make their fortune all too often off of the misfortune of others.
For Israel, at least as God would have it, wealth simply cannot be an end in itself. What we have flows from God and is not an object to be pursued and obtained. In Deuteronomy it says that even a king, perhaps today’s CEO, should not accumulate large amounts of gold and silver. And every seven years the people are not to plant their fields or gather from their vineyards. They are to eat only from what the earth provides and from what has been provided the following year. Rich and poor trust in God’s provision from the land. Can you imagine if after each six year cycle you would spend the entire year in the basic task of acquiring and preparing food and maintaining your home? Imagine the opportunities for family growth. Imagine the opportunities for personal growth and exploring passions. Imagine the opportunities for fellowship and relationships. How is it that we can we re-imagine our relationship to wealth and time?
In North America freedom is claimed as one of the highest goals in life. In Canada we sing of the true north strong and free while our neighbours to the south sing of the land of free and the home of the brave. Freedom is conceived of as strength and independence. We typically talk of freedom as the ability to live without interference or support, to be independent. We talk about having a free market system with free trade so that we can achieve freedom 55. We encourage free speech and free choice and we have people who call themselves free thinkers. However, this view of freedom is always defined negatively as freedom from something as opposed to freedom towards something. Freedom form constraints as opposed to freedom to construct. The recent movie Into the Wild portrays the true story of Chris McCandless. McCandless was a young man dissatisfied with what he saw as all the trappings and bondage of western society. After he graduated from university he donated the remaining 24,000 dollars of his college fund to charity and spent the next two years of his life wandering around the US with little or no money. His words and actions were constant attempts at freedom. It is a freedom we can all relate to. We daily feel the pressures of work, of the government, of advertising, of television and internet images portraying an ideal life that we seem always to pursue and never attain. McCandless attempted to free himself from what he thought were unnecessary and harmful pressures. The problem with how he approached this freedom was that he was still caught in the mentality and the culture that he was raised in. He kept pushing for freedom from things and not freedom towards things. One of his goals was to survive alone in the Alaskan wilderness and on April 28, 1992 he was dropped off at the head of the Stampede Trail in Alaska where he hiked into the bush and eventually found an abandoned bus where he lived alone for about 200 days before he eventually starved to death. There was no end or goal to his freedom. In some ways he became the ultimate expression of our attempts at freedom, which is isolation.
In one of the final scenes of the movie as he is already declining in health McCandless reflects on his past relationships and the realization of what is happening he pens the words, “Happiness can only be shared.” Our search for freedom must lead towards something and someone if it is not to lead towards isolation.
In Leviticus God says that every fifty years on the Day of Atonement a trumpet is to be sounded and then it says that the people are make the day holy and proclaim freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants. This freedom was based entirely on restoring families and neighbours and space for worshipping and celebrating with God. We often assume in our minds that freedom is attractive and natural to live out but this tends not to be the case. God’s freedom is, from our perspective, a radically unstable way of living. Stanley Hauerwas expresses it as living ‘out of the control.’ It is the daily trust of the Israelites in the wilderness as they often longed to return to slavery in Egypt where at least there was some order and predictability to their lives. We tend to be happy living within the norms of our culture rather then running the risk of being shunned, humiliated or rejected by living outside those norms. This is the type of freedom Jesus announced at the start of his ministry. He proclaims freedom for the prisoner and release for the oppressed. And how did those caught up in the daily work of ‘living in control’ respond to his acts of freedom? Jesus compares these acts of freedom to an extravagant banquet that people are invited to. But when they receive the invitation one says that he must attend to his business, one says he must work his field and another says that he is off to be married. We refuse God’s acts of freedom because we attend to the demands of security and control, the illusions of freedom. Can you imagine if we allowed ourselves to be freed even just a little from the demands of productivity, accumulation, security and control? Can you imagine if we were free to invite friend, neighbour and stranger into our home? Can you imagine if freedom was understood solely in terms of worshipping God and loving our neighbour? How can we re-imagine and proclaim God’s gift of freedom?
In the Old Testament God revealed to Moses that in each generation there should be a time when things would be made right and restored to their original intention, a time of Jubilee it was called. Jesus came and lived his life in the spirit this Jubilee. He came to restore those who were ill to their original health. He came to redistribute the wealth of the few so it could be shared with the many. He lived outside the control of idolatrous temptations of wealth, status and power. And Christ gave his life for and his Spirit to the church that we might live this reality. But where are we now as a church? How do we understand ourselves? Are we a lobby group trying to influence the political process? Are we a social club that meets for fun and friendships? Are we a peer-support group that tries to help each through the difficulties of life? Are we an educational institution trying to form our children in a particular way? Are we a non-profit organization trying to serve the community? By themselves these expressions all have their appropriate place. But even if they were all put together they would still be too narrow to describe the church, the body of Christ.
In his book Cavanaugh asks what it would mean for the church to recover and re-imagine herself as a truly free and public space. Not one expression within in a national body but as the body of Christ within which national, racial and economic boundaries are overcome. In the New Testament language of God’s people took on the broadest terms. The church could have been referred to as a guild or association but instead Christians are called citizens of God’s Kingdom as well as members of God’s household. The calling of the church covers both the private and public life of believers. Recovering this understanding is a call back to a life of discipleship, or what Cavanaugh simply calls discipline. The church is called and equipped to practice the discipline of jubilee living. Oscar Romero the Catholic martyr in Latin America said, that “the church is well aware that anything it can contribute to the process of liberation . . . will have originality and effectiveness only when the church is truly identified as church.” Each local gathering of believers and the lives they live are called to express the social and global vision of God as church, there is no higher calling.
If the church is called to the discipline of Jubilee living then we will need to re-imagine our practices as church and begin to conceive the church, the body of Christ, as the central context for life. We need to re-imagine tithing as an expression of gracious thanksgiving for God’s provision and as our opportunity to distribute wealth in life-giving ways. We need to re-imagine Sabbath as a time to cease our own pursuits of living in control and rest, with our neighbours, in God’s presence and provision. We need to re-imagine the practice of forgiveness so that we can lead one another out of the bondage of guilt and shame. We need to re-imagine the practice of baptism so that those being baptized understand they are gaining a new citizenship in a community that is not bond by the powers of this world. That with baptism we accept and learn to live knowing that we are named as a child of God who is valuable and gifted. And as Mennonites we may need above all to re-imagine the practice of communion. As a Catholic William Cavanaugh has a well developed theological and social role of communion. He states that it is in communion that we consume the body of Christ and in turn we are consumed into the body of Christ which is freedom and equality. Communion is a common practice in which no one is privileged. It is through communion that some Catholics have re-imagined the social space of the church. Cavanaugh quotes Fr Rutilio Grande of El Salvador in a sermon he gave in 1977 in response to dominating expressions of power through wealth that he witnessed. He said,
The Lord God gave us . . . a material world for all, without borders . . . [Some say] ‘I’ll buy half of El Salvador. Look at all my money. That’ll give me the right to it.’ No! That’s denying God! There is no ‘right’ against the masses of the people! A material world for all, then, without borders, without frontiers. A common table, with broad linens, a table for everybody, like this Eucharist. A chair for everybody. And a table setting for everybody. Christ had good reason to talk about his kingdom as a meal. He talked about meals a lot. And he celebrated one the night before his supreme sacrifice . . . And he said that this was the great memorial of the redemption: a table shared in brotherhood, where all have their position and place . . . This is the love of a communion of sisters and brothers that smashes and casts to earth every sort of barrier and prejudice and that one day will overcome hatred itself.
The priest understood the Eucharist to be the ultimate order of reality one that would overcome all political or economic boundaries. In Israel the Jubilee announced that the land was sufficient for all people. In communion we share in the body of Christ which is sufficient for all people. This priest understood communion in the body of Christ as the place where God’s vision of jubilee could be enacted. Fr Grande was gunned by a government sponsored death squad only one month later. In response to this tragedy the Archbishop Oscar Romero declared that there would be only one Mass or service that churches in the area could celebrate on Sunday and it was to be a funeral Mass. All who called themselves faithful, rich and poor, would share in the same table and acknowledge this loss and this attempt to overcome the freedom that God proclaims.
In response to the destructive powers of the world Cavanaugh states that Romero enacted the global and universal vision of the church in that place at that time.
The practices of the church are not magic and they are not clever strategies. They are the gift of God for the salvation of the world. We need to daily recall and re-imagine the story of God’s Jubilee. We need to daily invite Christ to speak freedom over our lives, to release our grip from possessions and from time. To learn to take steps that are in faith and out of control. May we as a church recognize and practice the disciplines of jubilee in our gathering and in our scattering that the trumpet may sound and freedom proclaimed throughout the land. May we begin with this prayer,
O Come, O Come Immanuel and ransom captive Israel.
O Come Desire of Nations bind all peoples in one heart and mind. Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease. Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
And may our days end with this refrain.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to thy O Israel.

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