as preached at the First Church in Salem, Unitarian, January 6, 2013
This morning I have the rather dubious distinction of being your first sabbatical preacher. Right now, Jeff’s absence is probably almost barely noticeable and my presence seems more like a regularly scheduled break in his preaching schedule than the beginning of his sabbatical. I suspect that for many of you, that means that the presence of a guest in your pulpit does not yet seem grating. It is possible that at some point that might shift. The steady march of guest preachers may begin to wear upon you. You might start to count the Sundays until your regular preacher returns.
That scenario is probably the secret hope of every minister on sabbatical. If that does not happen it should not prevent a sabbatical from being a special time for both congregation and clergy. For a minister, a sabbatical is an opportunity to retool and rejuvenate after several years of the daily grind of ministry. For a congregation, a sabbatical is a chance to engage in the act of re-imagining itself.
Ministry is tough work. It might not seem like it to lay people, but the job of a parish minister can be grueling. We are blessed to share with people some of the most important, and intimate, moments of their lives. We officiate at weddings. We organize child dedications. We provide pastoral care in times of personal and communal crisis. Perhaps most importantly we accompany the dying, and those who survive them, on the journey to death. This is a great honor. There are few other people in our society–perhaps doctors, nurses or funeral directors–whose role in life includes sitting with people in the final hours and contemplating with them, and with their loved ones, the abyss that separates this world from whatever comes, or does not come, next.
“Time and tide wait for no man,” reads one 16th century proverb. Death is much the same and the cost, for a parish minister, of accompanying the dying is that we must always be on call. I see this more clearly now that I am working on my doctorate rather than serving in a parish. When I worked in the parish my time was never entirely my own. If a congregant was dying, or seriously ill, I had to leave the house to be with them no matter the hour. This impacted my family life. It meant that sometimes I had to stop playing with my son, or doing homework with my step-daughter, in order to be with a parishioner. On several occasions it meant interrupting a holiday meal, for some reason it usually seemed to be Thanksgiving, to dash out the door to the Intensive Care Unit.
I do not have to worry about that now and, for next several months, neither does Jeff. Hopefully he will use his time away his regular pastoral duties to refresh himself so that he can return to you equipped with new skills and new ideas. However Jeff uses his sabbatical, his time away can be a time of renewal not just for him but for you as well. You have had the same minister for the last fifteen years. That is close to half of a generation. Some of the children who were in the nursery when Jeff began his time in Salem are now living independently of their parents. People who were middle aged when he arrived are now elders. Many of the elders who greeted him are now gone.
Fifteen years is a significant period in the life of any congregation. It is long enough for a minister and a congregation to become habituated to each other. For some of you it might be difficult to imagine the congregation without your current minister. Even if you can imagine congregational life without him you are almost certainly not used to functioning in his absence. Longer term ministries like Jeff’s bring with them many special gifts. The average tenure of a contemporary Unitarian Universalist minister is seven years. Minister’s who stay longer than that give their congregations the gifts of stability and intimacy. They know their congregations, and the communities in which they are situated, better than their colleagues.
Jeff’s sabbatical, and his accompanying absence, are an opportunity for you to think carefully about the other gifts of his ministry. It is a time for you to ask yourselves: How has Jeff’s ministry changed this congregation? What are things that Jeff does for us that we could do for ourselves? Which of Jeff’s gifts are we underutilizing? What could we do differently to allow him to spend more time using those gifts?
Asking yourselves such questions might help lessen any anxiety you feel about Jeff’s sabbatical. In a congregation like yours, where the minister has served for so long, there is a natural tendency to defer to him. This means that no matter how careful the planning has been the minister’s sabbatical will lead to a certain sense of uncertainty. People may well asks themselves, “How are things going to get done in the minister’s absence?” And the lack of a regular worship leader can also be unsettling. Over the next several months you might find yourselves wondering what worship is going to look like from one week to the next.
That, however, is for the future. This is merely the first Sunday of your minister’s sabbatical. That it falls on the Epiphany and the first Sunday of the New Year makes it the perfect opportunity to think about the religious roots of sabbatical more broadly and the profoundly radical concept of the jubilee with which those roots are intertwined.
The sabbatical, as you may know, is a profoundly biblical idea. It is closely tied to the concept of the sabbath itself. You might remember how the sabbath is first suggested in Genesis, at the close of a creation story, where it is written, “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation He had done.” This passage suggests that rest and work are linked. Even God wishes to rest after work. And this insight leads to the setting aside one day out every seven for rest and worship.
The sabbath is mentioned in numerous places throughout both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. The sabbatical is not quite as prevalent but, nonetheless, it does receive generous treatment. In both Deuteronomy and Leviticus it appears as a law given by God. For whoever wrote these texts, the keeping of a sabbatical year was a requirement for living a religious life.
The authors of the Hebrew Bible lived in a largely agricultural society. Their understanding of the sabbatical was closely tied to the land. A passage in Leviticus reads, “But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest…” Many traditional farming techniques require letting land lie fallow every few years in order to maintain its fertility. The sabbatical year was meant to ritualize this practice.
A second aspect of the biblical sabbatical can be found in Deuteronomy. There the sabbatical year is tied to the forgiveness of debts. The text reads, “Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts.” The anthropologist David Graeber explains, in his recent book Debt; The First 5,000 Years, that such remissions help maintain social balance in agricultural societies. Such societies frequently function on debt. Each year farmers take out loans in advance of the harvest to help their families survive until the crops come in. Social arrangements, in such situations, are precarious. As Graeber describes them in ancient Mesopotamia, “If for any reason there was a bad harvest, large proportions of the peasantry would fall into debt peonage; families would be broken up. Before long, lands lay abandoned as indebted farmers fled their homes for fear of repossession and joined semi-nomadic bands on the… fringes of urban civilization.”
The sabbatical year, or more likely the legal practice that inspired it, was the solution to this potential chaos. In ancient Mesopotamia, in the civilizations of Sumer and Babylon, the major banking institutions were also the major religious institutions. The large temples at the center of the cities were responsible for loaning farmers what they needed between harvests. These temples were controlled by the royalty. In order to preserve the social fabric it became practice, over time, for a new king to forgive all outstanding debt at the beginning of his reign. Those who reigned long enough might forgive the debt a few times. The sabbatical year, as found in the Hebrew Bible, was probably inspired by this practice.
The jubilee was envisioned as a sort of super sabbatical. It is described in great detail in Leviticus. During the jubilee all members of the various tribes and families were to return to their ancestral lands. Land holdings throughout society were to be broken up and returned to the families who originally possessed it. This reminded people that the land ultimately belonged to God. As the text proclaims, “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers, resident with Me.”
The jubilee was, in short, a radical leveling of society. It returned all members to the same level. After it there were no rich and no poor. Each community member, each family, in the community had essentially the same amount of land. During the jubilee captives and slaves were also to be set free and the land was to be given a rest. Fields were not be planted. People were only supposed to eat, as the text put it, “the growth direct from the ground.”
Looked at from a contemporary perspective, the practice probably seems absurd. We live in a society fueled by debt. And most of us live lives very distant from the land. And most of us live far, very far, from the communities of our ancestors. For the people who authored Leviticus and Deuteronomy the practices of the jubilee and the sabbatical may have seemed equally impractical. Neither is mentioned in the various historical texts in the Hebrew Bible. No place in Samuel, Kings or Chronicles, all of which purport to narrate the history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, is either a sabbatical or jubilee year described as being practiced.
This observation leads to the question: If the communities that authored Leviticus and Deuteronomy did not practice the jubilee then why should we care about their concept? It is hard to take people’s ethical injunctions seriously when they do not live up to their own standards.
There are a couple of different answers to this question. The first is that it is possible that Leviticus and Deuteronomy were not even authored by the same community that created the historical texts. Therefore, even though we conceive of them as part of single Hebrew Bible, the actual relationship between the texts is complicated. This answer can be viewed as a sort of intellectual dodge. It dismisses the issue by turning to biblical textual criticism. In the process it renders the Hebrew Bible something of an inconsistent mess.
A more satisfying answer is that what is contained in Leviticus and Deuteronomy is a moral vision for a community and what is described in historical texts is a chronicle of that community, usually, failing to live into that vision. The great strength of the Bible–both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament–is that it offers us with an alternate moral vision to the one that dominates mainstream culture. Perhaps rather than describe the laws that were followed by the biblical communities portions of Leviticus and Deuteronomy played the same role in ancient times. Certainly the Hebrew prophets seemed to be offering more of an alternative moral vision than proclaiming the mainstream values of the society in which they lived. If you read the prophets you will find that most of the time they went around denouncing the moral failures of their community. In the passage preceding this morning’s text from Isaiah, for example, the prophet listed a litany of sins that his community was guilty of, “Rebellion, faithlessness to the Lord, And turning away from our God, Planning fraud and treachery, Conceiving lies and uttering them with the throat.”
The alternative moral vision found in parts of the Bible is just as useful today as was when recorded in Isaiah, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In order to matter today religious communities must present some sort of alternative moral vision to the one articulated by the dominant institutions in our society. Otherwise, religious communities risk merely becoming social clubs. The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann envisions the role of the religious community this way. He writes, “The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act.” Brueggemann’s solution to the religious community’s conundrum is to turn to the prophetic tradition, found in the Hebrew Bible, as a source for a counter morality to the prevailing social norms. If religion is to matter in our contemporary society it must do so by calling us to some vision larger than the one present in the glow of our digital devices. The morality as presented in the Bible is one such source for this vision. As Unitarian Universalists we know that it is not the only source. But that does mean it is not important source.
Many of the texts in the Bible are confusing and contradictory. The agricultural society which produced them was hugely different from our modern urban culture. Texts are almost always tied to the contexts that created them. This means that we may never truly understand exactly what was meant by one biblical text or another. That is not so important. The presence of biblical texts in our world is, at the very least, a helpful reminder that there have been, and are, other moral systems than the ones that dominate our culture today.
The anthropologist who I mentioned earlier, David Graeber, makes a similar point. Graeber has used anthropology to deconstruct the philosophical, or better theological, assumptions behind the academic discipline of economics. Much of classical economics is built around something called rational choice theory. This is the idea, coming from the Enlightenment, that human beings are inherently rational actors. As rational actors, the theory goes, we try to get the best terms possible out of any situation–be that profit, pleasure or happiness–for the least amount of effort or investment.
The problem with this theory is that people generally do not act this way. Much of the Western Christian theological tradition is founded on precisely the opposite idea. According to Augustine and his intellectual descendants human beings are inherently irrational. We are dominated by our willful impulses and can only turn to the morality of God through the grace of God.
We Unitarian Universalists have always had a problem with the Augustinian tradition. Our forebears wanted a greater role for reason and for free choice than it seems to allow. Fortunately, we do not need to turn to it to see that rational choice theory is flawed. We can look to many examples from non-Western cultures, and even our own, and see that people within them do not behave in such a way that might be described as rational.
One famous example comes from an anthropological study of the Inuit in Greenland that Graeber recounts. A well known anthropologist spent several years living with the Inuit trying to understand their culture. In order to do so he ate what they and procured in the same manner that they procured food. This meant that he hunted a lot. It appears, however, that he wasn’t very good at it. One day he came home hungry after an unsuccessful walrus hunt only to find one of neighbors, a successful hunter, dropping off several hundred pounds of walrus meat. When the anthropologist tried to thank the man he objected profusely: “Up in our country we are human!” said the hunter. “And since we are human we help each other. We don’t like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts make one slaves and by whips one makes dogs.”
For the hunter, Graeber argues, being truly human meant refusing to try to make the kind of calculations that rational choice theory said he should. Instead of trying to get the best deal out of every situation the hunter instead shared his bounty with his anthropologist neighbor. You could argue that was the rational choice to make since at some point because the anthropologist, and not the hunter, might be successful in the hunt. That might be true but it ignores the reality that the anthropologist was probably a bad hunter. It also ignores the fact that in many instances, and for much of the discipline’s history, anthropologists have served as a sort vanguard for the cultural forces seeking to destroy traditional societies like the Inuit. Sometimes the people they study have been aware of this dynamic and provided sustenance for the anthropologists anyway. It is impossible to know exactly what the hunter was thinking but to ascribe to him purely rational motives is almost certainly not seeing him as a complex human being. As Graeber writes, “In any real-life situation, we have propensities that drive us in several different contradictory directions simultaneously. No one is more real than any other. The real question is which we take as the foundation of our humanity, and therefore, make the basis of our civilization.”
This has always been an important question. It certainly is now as we find ourselves in the midst of a fractious political debate over the national debt. One of the core assumptions in the debate is that we should behave rationally and pay back the national debt. And that paying this debt is one of the highest obligations that we have to our children.
I am not so sure. I do not take rationality as the foundation of our humanity. I take it as imagination. Albert Einstein, you might remember, said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” And I agree with him. You see, I believe that we have imagined, that is created, just about everything in our world and that so many of the things we take for granted, take as products of some natural law, are, in fact, products of the human imagination. The building we are worshiping in, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, all began as ideas in someone’s head.
The same is true of debt, especially something as abstract as the national debt. It exists because people believe it exists. It is not that unlike the new Emperor’s clothes. We all agree that it is there. If we were all to agree that it should disappear then it would. It is telling that one of the solutions to the so called debt ceiling being proposed right now is to make up a new form of currency, a platinum coin. It is suggested that the Obama administration should mint a bunch of this coin and keep it in a government vault as surety. The proposal is, in other words, that the government should simply imagine more money to pay for the debt that has been collectively imagined.
Better, I think, to resort to the biblical notion of the jubilee. Instead of continuing with the debt ceiling debate maybe we should agree that most debt is imaginary and, like the Mesopotamian kings of old, forgive it. People affiliated with Occupy Wall St has started to do something like this with what they are calling the rolling jubilee. In this effort they are organizing people to buy up bad consumer debt, credit card and mortgage debt that no expects to be paid, for pennies on the dollar. Instead of then acting like a credit collection agency and making the debtor’s life miserable for years to come they are simply forgiving the debt.
Today is the first Sunday of the New Year. Let’s make this year a jubilee year. What if we were to begin the year by taking the concept of jubilee seriously and forgiving all of our debts? What would that look like? Could we forgive our personal debts? Could we forgive our social and collective debts? Are there small actions each of us could take to begin such a process of forgiveness? What would those actions look like?
As I leave you with those questions, I offer a refrain from Diane di Prima’s poem “Life Chant,” a poem that reminds me that there is more to life that rational choices and seeking maximal gain.
kids laughing on roofs on stoops on the beach in the snow
may it continue
triumphal shout of the newborn
may it continue
deep silence of great rainforests
may it continue
May it continue. Happy New Year. Amen and blessed be.