Sermon: Training for the Jubilee by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons

2021 September 10
by DoMC

Training for the Jubilee
Ana Levy-Lyons
May 23, 2021
First Unitarian, Brooklyn – online

It is said that in the time of King David, a plague was killing 100 people per day. The king and the Jewish sages of the land determined that the plague needed to be countered with a positive spiritual response: the people would recite 100 blessings per day. Once the people had adopted this practice, the plague ended. Whether or not we think this is a true story, it’s a compelling origin myth, given the plagues of today. This hundred blessings per day became part of Jewish tradition, at least as an aspiration. In the most literal sense, to make a blessing is to recite a formula beginning with, “Blessed are you” or “A fountain of blessings are you, Maker of time and space, who _____” (fill-in-the-blank) “brings forth bread from the earth” or “gives strength to the weary” or “makes such beautiful things in the universe.”

There are blessings for every conceivable occasion – upon seeing a rainbow, upon eating every different kind of food, even upon going to the bathroom. The Talmud, which is the many volume interpretation of laws of the Hebrew Bible, specifies that it is forbidden to benefit from the world without making a blessing. And so making blessings as you go through the day becomes a mindfulness practice. It’s a way of pausing, bringing awareness to what you’re about to do and the wonder of what you’re about to receive. “Wow. I’m about to eat this orange. I get to eat this orange. What a fountain of goodness is contained in this orange. What a gift – an explosion of sweetness and color. And how much work by how many human hands has allowed me to hold it right now. A fountain of blessings are you, collective creative power of the universe that manifests this orange.”

If we were to try this – 100 blessings a day – it would entail some sacrifice. First, a sacrifice of time. Let’s say each blessing takes 15 seconds; if you don’t just blow through it, you do it with mindfulness. That’s already 25 minutes a day just on blessings. But there is a deeper sacrifice as well – there’s a letting go of our sense of entitlement to the thing. Releasing ownership for just a moment to acknowledge all of the living beings and forces outside of ourselves that made it possible. We are just passing through here on this earth and everything we are given is a gift. It’s the humility of saying, “this is not mine.” That can be a tough pill to swallow for those of us raised in the industrialized West to believe that if I pay for something, it is mine. And everything is for sale including land and water and health care.

This little micro-practice of releasing ownership and control for a few seconds at a time gets amplified in the Jewish tradition of keeping a Sabbath. The Ten Commandments text that introduces the concept makes the point that it’s not just “you” who shouldn’t work, it’s anyone over whom you may have power, it says “because you were once slaves in the land of Egypt.” The Talmud makes millions of refinements from here but the basic gist of it is this: you’ve got six days to get everything done. For six days you can try to mold the world, control things, get things, succeed and strive and sweat.

But on the seventh day, you’ve got to let go. You’ve got to give the time to God or to what is most holy to you. And you can’t cheat and make other people work for you – your children, your workers, your animals, and the “visitors within your gates” – in other words, the people who are not of your tribe, whatever that tribe may be. They all get to rest. Rather than striving for more, you practice gratitude for what you already have. Rather than struggling for perfection, you live into the world as it is, in all its imperfect beauty. Rather than seeking control, seek amazement at the grandeur of the universe. For this time, receive without owning. Because it’s spiritually vital to remember that ultimately we don’t own anything or anyone. This is not mine.

I’ve been advocating for Sabbath practice in this congregation for many years now. I recommend it to everyone who is able to do it. It’s a profound spiritual practice. I’ve been keeping a Sabbath from sundown Friday to Saturday night, first with my husband Jeff and then with our kids, for about 15 years now. For us, it is one of the greatest blessings in our lives. It’s a very challenging practice because the pressure is intense in our society to be continually working or at least shopping or cleaning or getting things done. It’s a trust exercise to release, to let go, to have faith that you’ve done enough in six days and it will be okay. To make space for gratitude in your life, for your partner or children or friends. To make space to pray, or make music, or have long conversations. To slow down and reconnect with yourself and the Holy.

Of course, there are many people who can’t do this. They have to work seven days a week just to survive. This is one of the cruelties of an economy designed to extract every ounce of life energy from its people. For society as a whole to keep a Sabbath, people would have to be paid a living wage. For society as a whole to keep a Sabbath we would have to believe that there are things more important than churning humans and nature into capital. We would need to believe that we don’t always need more stuff; we don’t always need to fill the silences and spaces of our lives. We would need to believe that at a point, we have enough. We are enough. And we would need to believe that we and our children and our employees and our animals and our visitors from other tribes possess inherent worth and dignity. This is where Sabbath practice becomes not only spiritual but political.

And then the Biblical tradition kicks it up another notch. Just as every seven days you release and let go of control and productivity, every seven years there is an entire year of release. It’s called the Shmita year. “Shmita” in Hebrew means release. Here’s what it says in Leviticus, “Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of God: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.” It goes on to say that it’s okay to eat whatever naturally sprouts, the volunteer crops and wild plants, but not to sell it. And anyone, including strangers, livestock, and wild animals can also eat from the land that year.

Now I know this brings up all kinds of practical questions about how people are supposed to live if you can’t farm for a year and much ink has been spilled on these questions. It gets even trickier when you try to imagine how we could do this today with global food systems and extractive technologies being what they are. But this ancient tradition points to a truth that farmers around the world knew before the agricultural revolution: soil needs to lie fallow. Land needs to rest, just like living beings, so it can replenish its life energy. We now use pesticides and fertilizers to force the land to produce without rest with ever diminishing returns. It’s telling that as soon as tractors were invented, they immediately put headlights on them and farming began to happen day and night.

It’s important to note that this tradition does not say that productivity is bad. To the contrary, most of our time, six out of seven days, we’re supposed to labor and do all our work. And most years, six out of seven, we may work the land. Work is a good thing. But it has to be balanced with unconditional rest. There’s a rhythm here of work and ceasing, engagement and release, grasping and letting go. We recognize the beauty of this rhythm in nature where all creatures wake and sleep. In athletics too, we’ve learned that to build muscle we need to stress the muscles and then rest them in alternation. We work on problems during the day but it’s in our nighttime surrender when they often get untangled. Creativity is unlocked in our dream state.

So, yes, we know that shmita has a practical agricultural function. But it also is another, even more challenging practice of letting go. Living lightly and with humility. Tuning in to the rhythms of nature. Remembering that it’s all a gift and must be treasured and released. This is not mine.

And then the tradition ups the ante again. After seven times seven years, there’s a year known as the Jubilee year. It’s like a shmita year where the land is not planted or harvested, but with an added radical economic dimension. In the Jubilee year, all prisoners are set free, all debts are forgiven, and everyone returns to their family’s original piece of land. So if you’ve lost your land, gone deep into debt, or have fallen on hard times, there’s a limit to how far you can fall. Wealth can’t be concentrated in one family generation after generation because the Jubilee is a circuit breaker. Wealth gets redistributed every 50 years.

Debt in our world today is such a driver of poverty, both here and abroad. Imagine the jubilee of all debts being forgiven. Mass incarceration has become a catastrophic injustice, with 2.3 million people in prison or jail and over half of them people of color. Imagine the jubilee of all but the most violent criminals being released. Income inequality has continued to grow and once poor in this country, it’s very difficult to climb out. Imagine the jubilee of sharing the wealth of this nation so that everyone had enough and no one had to choose between medicine and food. And the ecological devastation brought by our relentless extraction is bringing the earth to the very edge of its ability to sustain life as we know it. Imagine the jubilee of humans stepping back, releasing, allowing regeneration, and saying “this is not mine.”

This is the central message of this entire tradition – the most radical of all. In Leviticus, God explains the Jubilee with these words: “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me.” Friends, we are just passing through. And if the land belongs to God, the land belongs to no one and to everyone – the rich, the poor, the animals, present and future.

Is the Jubilee a utopian vision? Absolutely. There is evidence that early Israelite societies tried to observe the Shmita, but there is no solid evidence that the Jubilee was ever actually put into practice. So far, it has been too much, too radical for human cultures. We haven’t evolved yet spiritually to the point where we can truly share what we have, forgive debt, and walk on the land with reverence. But rather than dismiss Jubilee as a naïve idealism, we can see it as a vision of the true promised land, the Beloved Community, the era when human consciousness is elevated and love rules. The writers of this text must have known that we weren’t ready for it yet. Maybe they even knew we wouldn’t be ready for it three thousand years later.  But they wrote it anyway as a beacon. And they gave us rungs to climb to get there.

How do you spiritually train for the radical economic and ecological revolution of the Jubilee? By practicing the Shmita year. And how do you spiritually train for the Shmita year? By practicing the Sabbath. And how do you spiritually train for the Sabbath? By making blessings every day, maybe even 100 per day. These are all practices designed to build on one another. They are made to support us in transforming our relationship to the earth and to our neighbors.

We have opportunities for blessings all around us all the time; to take moments of mindfulness throughout the day. Sabbath, comes up every week, so there are ample chances to dip a toe in the water and try different versions of it. And as for Shmita, as luck would have it, the next Shmita is actually beginning September 7th this year, right as we are beginning our next program year. I want to invite any and all of you to explore these practices with me in the coming year – to try to imagine what they could look like for us living in this place and time; how we might support each other in opening to the challenges and beauty of these practices.  I can’t predict what this project will look like for us, but if you want to be part of it or talk about it, please reach out to me and we’ll figure it out together.

When you think of where the 100 blessings can lead, it no longer seems so crazy to imagine that when King David’s people started offering the blessings, the plague went away. It could very well be that as we grow in spiritual strength and learn to release what we think we own, that the plagues of our day – of ecological devastation, racism, poverty, and violence – could begin to recede. And ironically, in letting go we may receive more than we could ever have imagined. A fountain of blessings are you, collective creative power of the universe that gives birth to all possibility.

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