The Rev. Dianne O’Connell

Leviticus 23:8-17

First Congregational Church

Psalm 15

September 12, 2010

I Peter 2:9-12

1,203 words

Matthew 18: 21-22


Jubilee: Roots and Wings

Good morning and congratulations on your Jubilee year.  First Congregational Church is celebrating its Fiftieth Birthday today, it’s Golden Anniversary, and celebrations are good things – especially when there is ice cream involved, which there will be after the service downstairs.  The cherries jubilee topping was prepared by Kate O'Dell.  Also make sure to take a look at the scrapbooks on the conference room table, courtesy of our historian Irene Stewart, who has been a member of this church for 46 of its 50 years.

The Jewish high holy days of Rosh Ha Shanah, began this past Thursday evening. Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the spiritual calendar and the birth of the world for the Jewish people,serving as a reminder of the special relationship between God and his children, now and always.   Rosh Ha Shanah calls us to look within ourselves – to repent for our sins; recommit ourselves to prayer; and remember the blessings that come from helping those in need. 

Not a bad agenda for Christians, either. It’s not often that a preacher gets a chance, or even wants, to preach a sermon from the Book of Leviticus!  Leviticus is known for its long harangue of often unfathomable laws and punishments.  Generally, it’s no fun to read at all. But I chose today’s Leviticus reading because it has one really good part: it commands the Israelites to Celebrate, have a party, take a year off from laboring, scrabbling and squabbling.  Every fifty years, the Lord God says: Cool It. Start over. Re-boot. Set the slaves free. Give the land itself a break; let it lie fallow without planting or harvesting. Give accumulated property back to the original owners.  Forgive whatever debts are owed to you, and in turn your debts will be forgiven. You won’t starve because you have been saving up for this jubilee for seven years or more.

The laws of the jubilee year enabled each Hebrew to begin life again on an equal basis. If applied perfectly, these provisions would insure that no individual amassed excessive wealth, nor would any Israelite be reduced to perpetual poverty and servitude.

There was a Christian version of the Jubilee, too, which included the provision for the  forgivenness sins and universal pardon.  Pope Boniface VIII developed this aspect of the Jubilee in the year 1300 AD.  Every 25 or 50 years there would be a Christian Jubilee, particularly in the Catholic tradition, involving forgiveness of sins and a pilgrimage to a sacred site, normally the city of Rome.  We might consider a trip to Holy Boston, or Oak Creek, Wisconsin.  But chances are that our pilgrimage will involve both coming together in this sacred space on Northern Lights Boulevard and our own personal pilgrimages to places that are sacred to us as individuals – anywhere where we can take time to remember, reflect, and spiritually rejuvenate in the loving presence of our God. 

You actually began celebrating your 50th year as a congregation when you hosted the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches here in Anchorage earlier this summer. But today’s service, along with ice cream, marks the official beginning of the Congregation’s Jubilee year and kicks off your next 50 years on God’s planet.  Our jubilee year may include honoring our roots and our founders, rejoicing together in our present, and preparing ourselves and our children for a future we may not even yet be able to envision.

I’ve been studying up on Congregationalists.  My father’s mother’s roots were in the Congregational tradition, which I’m learning to call the Congregational Way.   Both Congregationalists and Presbyterians trace their theological roots back to John Calvin in the 16th century.  But roots suggest growth, a process of growing into something bigger, better and more fruitful with time.  I checked into the 17th century and paid my respects to Increase and Cotton Mather, as well as Jonathan Edwards, but thought it best to hurry on.

I met Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century Congregational minister whose ministry, we are told, was directed toward relieving unhappy souls who were weighed down by the gloomy Calvinistic dogma of depravity.  Fully conscious of the reality of sin, Beecher firmly believed that compassion was a more effective remedy for sin than condemnation.  And that it is by the grace of God, freely given forgiveness, that we move forward into the light – not by any great abilities of our own.

 “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood…a people belonging to God – called out of darkness into his marvelous light.”  The New Testament lesson from I Peter echoes the tapestry hanging in the stairwell, the message of Isaiah 3:2:  “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Hopefully, that's us.

Once  we’ve come to terms with the past fifty years, it’s time to plan for the next fifty – a future as much unlike today as today is unlike the days of Cotton Mather or even Henry Ward Beecher.  Life’s questions are different, more complex, and we can’t fall back on ready-made answers from our ancestors.  But we can take guidance from their discernment processes, and their commitment to doing the right thing, as they understood it.  I am thinking of  Beecher’s life-long commitment to the abolition of slavery. Today’s social issues may be different, but equally difficult -- sometimes bringing us to the brink of war or beyond.

You have an adult study group which I am anxious to sit in on. “Living the Questions” is the overall title of the program and some of the best known contemporary theologians have contributed to the discussion.  As one of them observed, “Stagnation, not change, is Christianity’s most deadly enemy, for this is a progressive world.”

In preparing for the future, I am also impressed that your children’s church school staff is developing it’s own curriculum.  And the curriculum is based upon what the children themselves have said they want to learn about.  That’s a unique idea right there.  The  developing Children of the Bible series will focus on Joseph, the child with the colorful coat; and Miriam, the resourceful sister of the baby Moses.

May our children obtain a strong, spiritual foundation from our ancestors, and also develop the critical thinking skills to soar into the future with an ever expanding  understanding of  their place in God’s universe.

No one knows whether or not the Hebrew people ever actually celebrated a jubilee, especially one where land ownership was transferred and large debts were forgiven. But regardless of whether it actually happened, it was a good idea.  And the rules outlined in Leviticus say that a Jubilee was to begin on Rosh Ha-Shanah, when the Shofar (ram's horn) was blown on the Day of Atonement."  We don't have a ram-s horn.  I looked.  But we do have a gong.

So let today be our equivalent of Rosh Ha-Shanah and the gong is our Ram’s Horn. As we prepare ourselves for communion, may we covenant together in the presence of our Lord, to make this next leg of our spiritual journey together.   

I’m going to ask Barbara Bowerman, as our most senior member, to officially ring in our Jubilee year and to call us to the Table. 



PASTORAL PRAYER (Which came earlier in the service)

Let us pray:  Lord God we come to you this morning with our hearts full of joys and concerns. We ask your blessing and healing power for those among us who are facing illness and other life challenges. We give you thanks for the good things in our lives and in the lives of our loved ones. Lord, hear our individual prayers as we bring them to you in silence.

60 seconds silent prayer

God of Love and Grace, you have called us to Celebrate, most particularly to celebrate our fifty years as a church family dedicated to living as you would have us live and dedicated to bringing the Love of God to others in our fractured world.

Lord, you have offered us your Grace, the forgiveness for our errors of both omission and commission. Lord, help us extend that same grace to others as you would have us do.

Lord, this has been an instructive week.  We are reminded of the bumper sticker: 

                                    “God Bless Everybody, No Exceptions.”

Even those who have spitefully misused us; even those whose faith traditions and/or political beliefs are different than ours; even those with whom we strongly disagree on almost everything, and most particularly this morning, those whom we perceive hate us.  Lord, God Bless Everybody, No Exceptions.

Lord, bless the memories of those who lost their lives nine years ago in the terrible attacks on our country in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. Lord, be with their loved ones and bring them peace. Lord, we also offer a prayer of overwhelming gratitude that some sort of sanity, tolerance, enlightened self-interest, prevailed this week, a week where we each were forced to review our understanding of, and commitment to, both freedom of religion and the knowledge that our freedom to swing our arms ends at the tip of another person’s nose.

The miracle, O Lord, was that leaders from the political left, the political center, and the political right all came together to denounce the desecrating of one faith group’s holy writings.  The miracle, O Lord, was that both military leaders and spokespeople for peace, leaders from all the major world religions, all came together to denounce acts of hatred toward one another.  Lord, we give you thanks.

Lord, we have a long way to go as we seek a world of peace.  But we must recognize small steps and give thanks for the glimmers of possibility offered to us.

For as we pray for others, we pray for ourselves, for we are all one. Creator come dwell within us, calm us, heal us, change us, and bless us all, no exceptions.  In the name of the Prince of Peace, Christ Jesus, we pray.  Amen

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