Counting On God, VII: Fifty
And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.
This is our final sermon in the “Counting on God” sermon series, understanding how the numbers in the Bible can connect you to God in new ways when you look behind the numbers to the stories that give them life and meaning. We have covered 1, 3, 5, 7, 12, and 40. Today we think about the number fifty.
The number fifty, I was interested to learn, is connected to the number seven. Though fifty and seven seem an odd couple, mismatched and unrelated, some funky math gets us to a meaningful connection. Rest on the seventh day and keep it holy, the Bible proclaims. This ancient rhythm of sabbath, of The Lord’s Day, set the people of God apart and reminded them that there were days long past when the Pharaoh would not let them rest. And so the Bible nudges us to remember: in times where you can seek the gift of rest, rest. Rest because you are no longer enslaved. Rest because you have the freedom to rest. Rest because God rests. Rest and let rest be holy.
So, the number seven is holy and we rest on the seventh day. And if the number seven is holy then seven times seven is even more holy. And at the end of every seventh week there was an additional day of celebration added marked by a feast. Seven times seven is forty-nine add an extra day and you have fifty. After seven days rest. After seven weeks celebrate.
In ancient agricultural societies this rhythm of celebrating on the fiftieth day made sense. It was in tune with the harvest schedule: barley, wheat, fall fruits, every good thing that grew in the earth. In fifty day harvest cycles people would gather to honor what had been harvested and to share the abundance of the earth with one another, the poor, the widow, the stranger, the visitor. No one was turned away. All were fed.
These rhythms of rest and celebration every seven and fifty days turned into rhythms of rest and celebration every seven and fifty years. On the seventh year, the whole cycle of harvest was disrupted: the earth was not worked and the land was given rest. Anything that happened to grow in that seventh year from the resting fields could be harvested by anyone, regardless of who owned the land. Profits were laid aside by landowners, workers were given the year off, and the whole society trusted in God’s provisions. Maybe there were good agricultural reasons to do this: my dad grew up on a farm and there were parts of his land that were regularly left unplowed, and there were regular rotations declaring what was planted where in order to keep the soil rich and full of life.
Even the dirt needs to rest the biblical text cries out. Giving the dirt a rest seems risky, but important. Giving the dirt a rest pushes everyone (and every creature, even the worms)to trust in God in a different way.
If you were a small child growing up under this ancient practice, then by the time you were a young adult, you would have lived through two or more of these Sabbath years. You would know what to expect. It would seem normal and anticipated. Every seven days rest. Every fifty days celebrate. Every seven years rest. And finally: Every fifty years celebrate. And that is where today’s text has brought us, to the fiftieth year, a year of celebration, a year of radical rest. May God add a blessing to our hearing of this ancient holy word.
Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property. If you sell land to any of your own people or buy land from them, do not take advantage of each other. You are to buy from your own people on the basis of the number of years since the Jubilee. And they are to sell to you on the basis of the number of years left for harvesting crops. When the years are many, you are to increase the price, and when the years are few, you are to decrease the price, because what is really being sold to you is the number of crops. Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the Lord your God.
If you know me well, you know that I love books. My husband and I have been on a thousand dates to bookstores around the country. A perfect afternoon is unencumbered time at the library—occasionally checking in with each other about what we’ve found or what we’re looking for. Our son knows how to stack books just as well as he knows how to stack blocks. The two new bookshelves in my office are a symbol of possibility of the fruits of long hours spent reading and studying and seeking after just the right way to say something about the mystery of God.
When I was in seminary my first job was at the library. I loved the early hours shelving books, arranging, sneaking a peek into what might be held inside, being attentive to the categories, the numbering systems, and the well ordered places where new research or old poetry was hiding in plain sight.
As I rounded the bend toward graduation from seminary I had accumulated a not-so-little stack of library books in my apartment, and in the rush to finish senior projects and ordination exams and job applications, book by book, I assembled a not-so-little library fine.
When I finally turned the books in, I owed something to the tune of $175, a debt I couldn’t just shake off. Piecing together life in seminary, I was able to pay the bills, buy groceries, and occasionally find my way to the nearby pub, but I was by no means flush with cash. And (was this true of your university too?) I had to pay my library fines before I could be approved to graduate—that’s the library’s way of signaling they mean business: the power to hold up your diploma.
Needless to say I was working on a plan to pay this bill when the surprise announcement came. The seminary library was celebrating fifty years in Hyde Park. For their fifty year celebration they were declaring a Jubilee. All debts were forgiven. All library fines canceled. No one owed them anything. All was forgiven. We were free from financial obligation. Accounts were back to zero.
I was shocked. I was grateful. I was no longer considered delinquent to this place that I loved. And I could graduate. Their fifty year celebration, their Jubilee, restored my relationship with the library. I still had to drag that stack of books back to the library before graduation, but that financial shift in my connection to the library felt like the renewal of a relationship, a freedom, a gift.
And so it begs the question: what could a Jubilee year look like here? If we were to walk right out our sanctuary door and declare a Jubilee what would happen? Maybe we would quit cutting the grass, we would no longer trim the bushes, we would not buy mums for the planters, but instead we would let what grows grow. The gardeners and caretakers of the land would have the year off. If we were to declare a Jubilee year the building would rest, the neighborhood would rest, maybe even the schools would rest, the busy-ness would slow.
No one would be overworked. Everyone would return to their families, in whatever way that is possible. No one would need to go on a business trip. No one would need to cross the country for a soccer game. No one would feel a sense of urgency to get things done that typically linger on the to-do list.
Everyone would have what they need. Everything would be based on trust. No one would owe anyone anything, and everyone would take care of one another.
Debts long held would be forgiven. Financial obligations would fall away. Generosity would emerge in unexpected and delightful ways. The gardens and fields and vineyards would produce whatever harvest came up naturally without human intervention: onions, tomatoes, squash would spill over the sides of our well maintained garden boundaries. No one would tend the garden, no none would get up on a tractor to bring in the grain, the corn, the produce. Those who were hungry would have food to eat.
But ugh the details. How would there be enough? How would what is out in the field today make it here to Kenilworth? Who would help transport the food? Who would help with the planning? If everyone were taking a Jubilee year, a year of celebration, who would manage the spread sheet? Who would drive the semi? Who would load the produce? How would food get from farm to table? How would it all work? It is so easy to get to the impossibility of Jubilee before we even get started. It all seems disruptive, absurd, and impractical.
But Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar, says that it is more important to imagine Jubilee than to design it. If we cannot imagine it, we end up designing nothing anyway. If we cannot imagine Jubilee—a celebration of rest and renewal and pausing and forgiveness and restoration—then we deny the powerful possibility of Jubilee before we’ve even left the starting block. Imagination, theological imagination, prophetic imagination, jubilee imagination, must come first. Then, in imagining that Jubilee, we open ourselves to the possibilities beyond what is currently happening.
My seminary library, however many years later, still does not collect library fines. Something from that Jubilee stuck. Something hung on. Something in that Jubilee transformed them. That wasn’t part of the original design. The Jubilee year was to be just that: a year. In some meeting, some side conversation or anniversary brainstorming session, the librarians wondered: how should we celebrate fifty years here on this corner? And they remembered: fifty is an important number. And they looked to their faith traditions: every fifty years, the ancient people of God celebrated with Jubilee—all rested, all was forgiven, and all was restored. They imagined: what could be forgiven? What might be restored in such forgiveness? And in imagining Jubilee a plan was formed. A seed was planted. An idea emerged. What if just this year we forgive all debts? What if just this year, celebrating fifty, we let go of library fines?
There must have been red tape. There must have been committee meetings, executive sessions, objections, spreadsheets, and worries over financial impact. The imagining continued: what if we really did have a Jubilee? Then from the imagining, something became possible.
I sense that Kenilworth Union Church is in a similar time of imagining. Celebrating 125 years of ministry on this corner produced some of those same kind of questions: what might happen if we open ourselves to what God is calling us to now? The preschool is doing the same, celebrating 25 years. Those who were in preschool the year it began are now in their late 20s, getting married here, having babies baptized here, and there is room for a new set of questions to emerge. What is God calling this church and this preschool toward today? These rhythms of celebration have allowed us to be imaginative in new ways.
Celebration and reflection go hand in hand. Every seven days rest. Every fifty days celebration. Every seven years rest. Every fifty years celebration. Where are you in this cycle of rest and celebration? What part of the Jubilee does your body ache for? Rest? Trust? Freedom? Forgiveness? Financial renewal? Return home? Celebration? A return to what is natural? What part of the Jubilee do the least and lost among you long for? What part of Jubilee do the most vulnerable long for? Rest? Trust? Freedom? Forgiveness? Financial renewal? Return home? Celebration? A return to what is natural?
Have you given yourself permission to imagine? To dream beyond what today seems possible? For yourself? For your beloved? For those you meet every day who need rest? Who needs celebration?
One person said that Jubilee means “time set aside for not-acting, for stillness, for quiet, time to hold sacred, to stop, to savor.” Can you imagine it? May it be so, O God of the Jubilee. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Wijk-Bos, Johanna. Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) 54.
 Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001)
 Harris, Maria. Jubilee Time: Celebrating Women, Spirit, and the Advent of Age (New York: Bantam, 1995) 30.