Practicing Hopelessness: An Introduction to Jubilee

Part 1: The Year of Jubilee

This past spring, we had several weeks of bulletin announcements calling for anyone who is interested, to be part of a bible study. These bible studies were organized by those putting together the Anabaptist Community Bible Project – a community bible that will feature notes that anabaptist bible study groups put together, based off their own bible studies of provided scripture.

The first set of scriptures our group was given were from Leviticus. Huh. Leviticus chapters 1-3. Its probably the last book of the bible any of us want to open up.

It is a book that has been used to reinforce modern hetero-patriarchal dominance. And frankly, on the surface, it’s boring because of its lack of stories, and the long list of rituals that are used for purification of one’s self, the tabernacle, and the land. At the literal level, these things that do not pertain to our current situations.

Our study group affirmed this immediately, questioning why we should waste our time reading these texts. The first three chapters of Leviticus are all about animal, and grain sacrifices, and how pleasing the smell of the sacrifices are to God. I didn’t know God had scent preferences, and as far as I know, I don’t think FMC is interested in starting to make sacrifices.

However, as the conversation went on, themes began to surface – “What practices and rituals do we do in the 21st century, in hopes of mediating our connection with the divine?” “How are we struggling as humans today in trying to relate to the divine.” When Leviticus was written down over several hundred years, nearly 2500 years ago, the writers and the humans reading it, were real humans, trying to figure out some of the same things we are still today as humans. How do we stay clean, how do we relate to God, what practices do we do as a community that help shape us?

If we treat this book as less like a rule guide for today, and more of an example of how humans have tried to follow God as a community, we can ask ourselves “how do we live in relation to God today,” and “What can we learn from these ancient human communities?”

Our series this summer is inspired by the year of Jubilee, which comes from a later portion of Leviticus. Leviticus 25. Jubilee- meaning rams horn – which was to be the horn that was blown to kick off the year of Jubilee once every 50 years.

From Leviticus 25:10, out of the common English bible.

You will make the fiftieth year holy, proclaiming freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It will be a Jubilee year for you: each of you must return to your family property and to your extended family. The fiftieth year will be a Jubilee year for you. Do not plant, do not harvest the secondary growth, and do not gather from the freely growing vines because it is a Jubilee: it will be holy to you. You can eat only the produce directly out of the field. Each of you must return to your family property in this year of Jubilee.

A year to let your gardens grow and not plant anything. I think Chaska, Flora, and I will be eating poison ivy next year! Actually, Morris Kaufman has a beautiful serviceberry tree outside the house who’s fruit we have been enjoying this June.

The year of Jubilee gets even more radical. From verse 35:

If one of your fellow Israelites faces financial difficulty and is in a shaky situation with you, you must assist them as you would an immigrant or foreign guest so that they can survive among you. Do not take interest from them, or any kind of profit from interest, but fear your God so that your fellow Israelite can survive among you. Do not lend a poor Israelite money with interest or lend food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt to give you Canaan’s land and to be your God.

The year of Jubilee calls for the Israelites to not take interest. In the year of Jubilee, debts were to be forgiven, and slaves were to be freed.

It was to be a year of liberation for those struggling, and quite honestly for those who were use to having a lot, a year of uncertainty. Will God provide? I do not think I have this kind of trust.

The year of Jubilee, gets referenced throughout the whole bible. Isaiah 61, goes

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me

because the Lord has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives

and release to the prisoners,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

and the day of vengeance of our God,

to comfort all who mourn,

to provide for those who mourn in Zion—

to give them a garland instead of ashes,

the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,

the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.

They shall build up the ancient ruins;

they shall raise up the former devastations;

they shall repair the ruined cities,

the devastations of many generations.

They will rebuild the ancient ruins;

they will restore formerly deserted places;

they will renew ruined cities,

places deserted in generations past.

And this Isaiah Passage is then later quoted by Jesus in Luke 4:16-20. And when Jesus read this in the synagogue. The conversation that commenced after his reading about the year of Jubilee, ended with his listeners filled with rage, hoping to throw him off a cliff. These ideas are radical.

Though the rituals in Leviticus are not ones that we directly follow today, there is much we can learn from exploring what they offered people back then, and exploring how the spirit of some of these concepts, like Jubilee, might inform our faith practices today. The question we will be holding this summer, as we explore different topics through the lens of Jubilee, is how can we embody this spirit of Jubilee in our community. A spirit of forgiveness, of rest, of justice and freedom, of abundance, and finally, the one that I would like to entertain more today, is hopelessness. Yes, I said it, Hopelessness.

Part 2: Sarah Laughs

Today’s passage is the story of 90 year old Sarah learning, after decades of hopelessness, decades of infertility, that she will have a son.

I can imagine that Abraham and Sarah dreamed of having children for decades. And they tried many avenues to get there.

As someone who has personally experienced infertility, and knows the feeling of hopelessness when waiting for years for a kid, I come to this passage, on father’s day, with much trepidation and discomfort.

Yearning to be a parent is an experience that I can imagine many folks in this space hold today. For those of us who have experienced infertility, or for those who do not have a partner or are on a different page than their partner, there is deep grief in the loss of the dream of having kids. As Chaska and I have shared our story with you all and to our broader friends and family, many of you have shared with us your experiences of longing for children and the hopelessness that one can feel when that dream isn’t happening.

So to hear a story of God swooping in to miraculously make Sarah pregnant because of God’s promise to make their offspring numerous, makes me quite frankly, angry at God. Why is God providing for her and not for others? Does God have a preference?

I imagine Sarah’s laughter in response to hearing this news, to be incredulous laughter. (While Laughing) “You think I am going to be pregnant?” Sarah, who is in her 90s, giving birth to a son?

At 90 years old, I am guessing that Sarah worked through her grief of not being able to have a biological child, and no longer hoped for such things.

I have not lived for that long. However, I can guess that when one is in their 80s and 90s, there are some dreams that you have been let go of and you are at peace with, and some dreams that did not come into fruition that still sting a bit when you think about them. Can anyone confirm that?

Hopes for kids or Grandkids. Hopes for friends, for love, for relationships. Hopes for family to even just call. Hopes for enough money for a house. Hopes to retire comfortably. Hopes for a satisfying job. Hopes for healing and good news. Hopes for the healing of mental health.

Why should we hope? It can be so painful to hope, because our hopes can so often be let down.

A waaay less important example of this happened to me this spring, as I would watch my NBA team, the Sixers, gain a lead, and slowly lose it until they lost the game and then the series. I wonder afterwards, why did I put myself through all of that hope.

But I think this feeling applies to important things too. Like when you hope for healing or hope for something to change in your life, and in the end, are let down. And what can settle in is a feeling of hopelessness.

Hope can be the most offensive thing when there is clearly no hope. Like someone telling you you will get better, when the chances are slim. Like telling someone to “just have hope” when you are in cycles of poverty and housing evictions.

When I think of Sarah’s story, I bet it was painful to hear from three strangers that you are going to be pregnant. The audacity.

We know from experiences upon experiences, upon experiences that not everything works out in the end. I do not know if I trust Paul when he writes in Romans 8:28

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

I do not know if I trust the band Jimmy Eat World when they sing their one hit wonder,

“It just takes some time

Little girl,

you’re in the middle of the ride

Everything, everything’ll be just fine

Everything, everything’ll be alright, alright”

We all have friends or family that have died. Tragedies from vehicle accidents, surprise health issues, mental health crisis, and suicide. Hope doesn’t always work out.

The proclamation of the year of jubilee, does not promise that everything will be alright. That all situations will be solved. In Isaiah, the year of the Lord, is to bring comfort to those who mourn. It is an invitation to comfort in the moments where all hope is lost. For friends, family and community to gather around each other, not to fix what is unfixable, but to care for one another in our loss of hope.

I can imagine that Sarah in her decades of infertility needed loved ones to gather around her and care for her. Jubilee is care for one another, in our hopelessness. Care for those who cannot have children. For those with a terminal illness, for those with ongoing mental health issues. Care for those dealing with cycles of addiction.

And forcing hope in a hopeless situation feels empty. In these moments of hopelessness, more hope doesn’t bring comfort. If one ignores hopelessness and puts on a smile and is not dealing with their painful feelings of hopelessness, the opportunity for deeper healing does not happen. This often happens in the hospital. Folks are given a diagnosis – a chaplain tries to explore with patients and family the feelings around a diagnosis. In those moments there are opportunities to express one’s loss of hopes and dreams, one’s frustrations at God, one’s deep grief. To not share one’s loss of hope with friends and family is a lost opportunity for deeper healing and connection.

Spaces of hopelessness call forth spaces of connection. Our hopelessness brings us together. We yearn to be heard and known. We yearn for empathy. We yearn for touch. We yearn to be held. These spaces do not solve our hopelessness. They do not solve our problems. They do not fix our issues. But they help us not go through our hopelessness alone. This is God at work, through each of us as we care for each other.

Spaces of hopelessness call forth connection to the divine. Not for God to fix everything, but that connection to God through each other, and to something bigger than us can bring comfort.

I also know for myself, that in my hopelessness, connection with nature is important. For me, a walk in the woods can do me as much good as a hug, or a prayer.

In Isaiah, The year of Jubilee, calls for

comfort all who mourn,

to provide for those who mourn in Zion—

to give them a garland instead of ashes

Grief will happen. Hopelessness will be something that we all hold. Jubilee calls for comfort.

As Jesus would say centuries later, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

So far I have been thinking about hopelessness on the individual level. But it also exists at the systems level.

The hopelessness of poverty. Of Generational poverty. Just getting enough to barely pay the bills. Or not getting enough and being evicted over and over again. How can people hope?

Theologian and Ethicist Miguel De La Torre writes in his book, Embracing Hopelessness, that hope is an illusion that is responsible for maintaining oppressive structures. He explores how hope when tied to middle class privilege does not force systems to change.

De La Torre holds a radical position that when all is hopeless and there is no chance of establishing justice, then the only option left is to “screw” with the structure. Flip over tables like Jesus. He believes that by upsetting norms that there might arise an opportunity for a more just situation.

For De La Torre, hopelessness can potentially lead to change. The type of change that is named in Isaiah 61’s description of the Year of Jubilee:

“He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives

and release to the prisoners,

In Jubilee, there is a level of hopelessness – A loss of hope in the ways that things have been done. A loss of hope in our prison systems. A loss of hope in food desserts. A loss of hope that our economic systems will come to our aid. A loss of hope as we enter climate change.

Jubilee shows God’s lack of hope in the powers of the world, and instead announces good news to the oppressed.

Jubilee shows God’s lack of hope in our economic systems, and instead announces good news to those who have debt.

Jubilee shows God’s lack of hope in our systems of justice, and instead proclaims release to the prisoners.

Hopelessness can bring forth change.

Today we are celebrating Juneteenth, where we recognized when the last AFrican Americans who were enslaved were liberated on June 19th, nearly 2 years after the emancipation proclamation – 250 years into the White American practice of slavery. I cannot imagine the hopelessness that existed for centuries in African Americans, as white slave owners stole labor, raped, and abused generations African Americans. The White slave owners put hope in a system that would maintain the oppression of slaves. This system was not something for a slave to put hope in. No, it was in the action towards change, through generations of African Americans, that a more hopeful situation was birthed. Though, as you know, many communities of color are still facing hopeless situations today.

Christian Mystic Howard Thurman writes about how African American spirituals gave enslaved African Americans a dream of a different reality. Songs like steal away:

Steal away, steal away,

steal away to Jesus!

Steal away, steal away home,

I ain’t got long to stay here.

Songs like these hold the hopelessness of an enslaved person’s current situation. They hold a desire to sneak away from one’s current, hopeless reality. However, Thurman writes that stealing away to Jesus gave them a “strange new courage” that gave African Americans strength to be able to survive amidst their hopeless situation. Stealing away recognized their hopeless situation, and provided them with comfort – hope in a different reality – one of jubilee.

When Sarah is told she is going to have a kid. She laughs, filled with hopelessness. Like Sarah eventually giving birth, may our hopeless situation give birth to new life – to jubilee. May our hopelessness bring us into connection with each other, with God, and with nature. May our hopelessness spur us towards creating change in our systems of oppression. May a year of Jubilee, bring comfort to those in grief, be good news to the oppressed and to the indebted.