Date: Sunday Sept. 25, 2016
Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 and 1 Timothy 6:6-19
Sermon: Investment Strategies
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Many times we’ve heard the song, “I’ve got some ocean front property in Arizona, from the front porch you can see the sea. . .” Obviously a bad land deal. Maybe even worse than the land deal that Jeremiah makes in the story we heard this morning.
In a very public display, Jeremiah spends a lot of his own money on a field that will not produce any return for him. No food. No development. No beautification. He will never personally benefit from this transaction. It will not come to fruition of any kind in his lifetime. And he knows it. The land is probably the location for the encampment of the occupying Babylonian army. It is not likely to be under the control of Judah in the foreseeable future. So why is Jeremiah buying this field? He is showing his peers and the authorities and the occupying enemy that despite what they are doing, despite the power they have now, God’s way will prevail. God’s people will live on that land in a way that is just and equitable and compassionate and be a light to the nations. It may take a while, but God will have the last word. Jeremiah would be in agreement with the man in the grocery store checkout line who told me, “Here’s what I know. Good always wins out. Sometimes it’s just a little slow.” So, Jeremiah buys a field but more than that he makes a public display of his investment in God’s dreams for the future.
So what do we see as God’s dreams for the future? For our communities and our country? For humanity and for the Earth? Surely we know God intends for humanity to live in peace. God wants the Earth itself to be clean and healthy and thriving. God desires an end to injustice and poverty and oppression and racism. We can imagine God desiring the flourishing of the human intellect and spirit. Strong relationships and bonds of solidarity in families and communities of mutual support and care. The valuing of each and every life, human and nonhuman as part of a sacred whole. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.” We can think of a world where the children of Israelis and Palestinians, North Koreans and South Koreans, ISIL and Westerners, sit down together at a table of peace.
A closer look at the Jeremiah story will help us to see how we can increase our commitment and our investment in God’s dreams for humanity.
First, Jeremiah takes the long view. That is something we see again and again in scripture. Prophets, teachers, leaders, and people of faith take a long view. Moses never saw the promised land. Abraham didn’t know where he was going to end up when he set out as a ninety-something-year-old for a new land or if he would even get there. They take the long view. Sometimes I think that can hold us back from investing in God’s future. We want to see results. We want quantifiable goals that are achievable. We are acculturated to immediacy; we want everything now, or in the next election cycle. That’s as far as our vision goes. Some years ago, the church hosted an intern from Germany. When she got here and people took her out to eat, she was so surprised that the server came to the table right away. The food was brought so quickly. And the check appeared as soon as the food was finished. She thought it was as if they were trying to get rid of you, get you out of the restaurant. She said in Germany, it would be considered rude to have the service be so fast. People went out to eat as a social event, to talk, visit, tell stories, enjoy their time together. They did not want to be rushed.
Jeremiah was never going to personally benefit from the purchase of the field. The documents are put in an earthenware jar, a sign that they are to be preserved for a very long time – think Dead Sea Scrolls. This was clearly an investment, a symbolic gesture to others, of Jeremiah’s trust in God’s future. When we look at Jeremiah taking the long view, we are reminded that a role of the church is to help us look at a bigger picture, not only in scope, taking in all reality and all of Creation but also all of time. “A thousand ages in God’s sight are but an evening gone,” the psalmist declares. Faith involves taking a long view when it comes to investing in God’s future. It is not about immediate pay off. Maybe we aren’t reconciled with someone for years. Maybe the forgiveness we have offered is not received for decades. Maybe the seeds we plant and tend for peace and justice don’t come to full fruit for years and years, maybe not even in our lifetime. We want to think about what future generations will see when they look back on our ministry. How will they benefit from what we have done to invest in God’s dreams? It can be hard to think about making an investment, particularly a significant investment of time, money, and energy, when we may not see any return. It can be much more satisfying to help someone and see the direct result. There is nothing wrong with that unless we let it prevent us from also taking a long view and investing in the long term hopes and dreams of God for Creation.
Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian and one of the most influential American thinkers of the mid 20th century reminds us, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” He knew the story of Jeremiah and the field at Anathoth.
There is a second thing that we learn from the story of Jeremiah and the purchase of the field. And it comes in part from pairing of this story with the verses from 1 Timothy that are assigned for this week in the lectionary, the three year cycle of scripture readings that we use in church each Sunday. From Timothy, we heard that oft quoted line, “The love of money is the root of all evil.”
Some may be thinking, they’re always talking about money in church. Well, money, wealth, and economic justice are referenced on practically every page of the Bible. So, a church that takes the Bible seriously is going to be talking about money.
We want to note that the Bible does not say that money is bad, that wealth is bad, that having financial resources is bad. The Good Samaritan had to have money to pay for the care of the man in the ditch as Margaret Thatcher reminded us. But the Bible does say that LOVE of money is a sin. Greed is a sin. Letting yourself be controlled by money prevents you from giving yourself completely to God and God’s will. In another verse in the gospel we are told you can’t serve two masters, God and money.
In the story from Jeremiah, we see the prophet buying a field that is worthless, that will not produce, that he will never materially benefit from. In today’s thinking that seems unwise, wasteful, and stupid. Yet he is doing this to demonstrate to his people and to the establishment that has imprisoned him, that he is not captive to them. He submits only to the authority and will of God. He is banking on God. They can do what they like but he knows that God’s way will triumph in the end. He is showing his faith and trust in God and God alone. Jesus does the same thing especially when he is arrested and crucified. It is a statement that he is not controlled by human authority and power but by the power and authority of God alone.
The Bible helps us to be aware and honest about the power of money and the lure of wealth that may draw us away from God, from trust in God, and from service to God. This is a very real and present threat to our devotion and commitment to the way of Jesus. It can undermine our generosity and service. To be closer to God, to live in a way that is in harmony with all of Creation, to find life and joy in the way of Jesus, we need to be take seriously the role of money in our lives and the power that we give to it. The story from Jeremiah reminds us of this, especially in combination with the verses from Timothy.
Money is a tool and we want to be conscious of how we are using it and what we are doing with it. It is a tool that we can use to invest in God’s hopes and dreams. We can use it to love and serve God. We can use it for our health and well-being. We can use it for the good of the Earth and others. This is what our faith asks of us.
On a societal scale it is much more difficult for us to influence the way that money is perceived and used. We see that love of money and excessive greed can do much harm to people and to the Earth. Some of us watched the movie, “Making A Killing: Guns, Greed, and the NRA,” at the Carter Woodson Museum in June. This documentary traces how the love of money drives gun manufacturers to promote gun ownership and laws that protect gun ownership so that they can profit pocketing millions upon millions of dollars. If there were no monetary gain involved in gun ownership, if someone wasn’t profiting financially from gun proliferation, there would be far fewer guns in American homes and cars and trucks. And far fewer gun deaths. Money plays a role in this issue. It is not just about freedom, the Constitution, or self protection. The main factor influencing this issue is money.
The story is similar with energy, oil and coal, specifically, and related industries. If there were not millions of dollars to be made in the fossil fuel energy business we would be off of fossil fuels and on to renewables such as wind and solar in a few years. But those making the millions use their money to buy power over government officials, to support their industry, and to keep alternatives at bay. Instead, they could be investing in alternatives and helping the transition from fossil fuels that might help to preserve the Earth as we know it for future generations. These multinational corporations in the energy industry have the money, resources, and wherewithal to transform the entire US if not the whole world to safe, renewable energy in a short time. But the will is not there. The desire to invest in God’s future is not there. The vision is clouded by greed and love of money. Money is being used as a tool to abuse the Earth rather that to sustain the Earth.
Racism and oppression continue mainly because they have economic implications that benefit some people. Greed and love of money drive much of the suffering in this world. If there was no economic benefit to racism, it would be significantly diminished in short order. I think that is one of the reasons that gay marriage became legal and generally accepted as quickly as it did. It did not have vast economic consequences. It was about rights, legality, and dignity with relatively small financial implications. When vast sums of money are involved things get far more complicated.
Our faith calls us to consider how money can be used to invest in God’s intentions for humanity even though it is very hard to conceive how it might be possible to work for change on a societal level. It is hard enough to think about our own lives, incomes, and roles as investors. We try to be responsible consumers and not let ourselves be overcome by consumerism and debt. Out of a sense of responsibility, we try to foresee what we will need to sustain ourselves in our later years so that we do not become a burden on others or society. We try to be responsible about how we can most effectively use our resources for good in the world. We investigate which organizations have the best track records for using donations effectively. With all of that at a personal level, it can be overwhelming to try think about money issues at the societal level.
Here we are led to a third insight that we are given by the story of the purchase of the field at Anathoth. This buying the field was more than a personal statement or a private investment. Jeremiah was a prophet to the society, and specifically, to the king and the court. His ministry was intended to influence social policy and the government. The same can be said of Jesus. His teachings were not just to help people feel closer to God as individuals. His ministry was about creating the realm of God, the commonwealth of God, the Kingdom of God. It was a communal vision for a social order that was just and compassionate and respectful of the dignity of everyone. So when we think about investing in God’s dreams for humanity, we want to think about the social, communal dimensions of God’s vision as well as the individual and personal aspects of that commitment.
Jeremiah makes a very public display of his purchase of the field. He makes sure the authorities and the community know what he is doing. He makes a display of his trust in God, his investment in God’s future. He is making a very public statement. We are shown that investment in God’s reality involves personal devotion, commitment, and behavior. It also involves having an influence on the society around us, on its values, commitments and policies. There is a very public dimension to our ministry as the church and as individual people of faith.
From this story of Jeremiah, this land deal, we are given guidelines for investing in God’s dreams for humanity. Take the long view. Be intentional about using money as a tool for good. And invest in the wellbeing of humanity on the personal as well as the societal level. This is a significant calling. It may involve changing our attitudes, our behaviors, and our commitments. Sometimes the way we are is well-entrenched and change can be difficult.
This past week, the season shifted, even here in Florida. The Fall equinox occurred marking the separation of Summer and Fall. The cycling of nature continues and brings changes with it though not as drastic here as in some places. When our Florida-raised daughter was in high school, we took a trip to New England in the Fall. The leaves were in full color. Each day, I would point out to her the beauty of the changing leaves. She poo-pooed the whole thing. “Oh mom, do you have to keep bringing that up?” “Yes, I see the leaves.” “What’s the big deal.” Fast forward 7 years and our daughter moved to the Boston area. Her first Fall there, she called me. “Ok, mom. Now I see why you were making such a big deal about the leaves. They are gorgeous.”
The leaves turn their glorious colors and put on a beautiful display of color in the process of dying. From red and yellow and sienna and umber and gold and magenta they will turn to brown and fall to the ground. This makes it possible for the tree to focus its energy in the roots, under the ground, to withstand the winter, so that it can grow new leaves in the Spring. In addition, the dead leaves enrich the soil that feeds the tree. The dying of the leaves sustains the life of the tree.
As we think about how we are called to invest in God’s dreams this first week of Fall, let us be aware that there are things we need to let go of. There are things we need to let die, things we need to shed, so that we may invest freely, with hope and abandon, in God’s vision. There are activities, assumptions, wants, desires, habits, behaviors, relationships, associations, and maybe actual material possessions, that we need to shed, let drop, and allow to wither and fade so that we can be fully rooted and invested in God’s love for the life of the world. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.