Sunday, September 26, 2010

Investment 101--a sermon for Ordinary 26C

Rev. Teri Peterson
Investment 101
Jeremiah 32.1-3a, 6-15
26 September 2010, Ordinary 26C

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was imprisoned in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had imprisoned him.
Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.’ Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.’ Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.
And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

I have to confess that, in spite of my sermon title, I don’t know very much about investing. The things I know are, in no particular order: that it involves money, usually large amounts; that the purpose of investing is both to support a company and to make money for myself, preferably lots of money for myself; that we should work to invest responsibly with companies that we trust and that don’t engage in activity or policy we find horrible…and that for many people that last point is optional.
So I’m probably the last person who should be talking about the basics of investing—I need to take that class, not teach it! Except that I think our usual investment strategies and portfolios are missing something—something that Jeremiah might be able to help us out with.
Now I know, you’re all sitting out there thinking that Jeremiah, and especially this story, is even harder to understand than the finer points of finance. Between the hard-to-pronounce names and the fuzzy historical details, the significance of a story like this is easily lost on us. We can barely make out what just happened, let alone why it was an important enough story to be told 2600 years later.

Here’s what happened: Jeremiah was in prison for doing his job well—for speaking the word of God to the people in power. The Babylonian army was camped all around Jerusalem and was using all the surrounding villages and fields to feed the troops. Jeremiah’s cousin came and offered him the deal of a lifetime—to buy a piece of prime real estate smack in the middle of the siege, a piece of real estate conveniently located under the tents and weapons of the Babylonian army. And Jeremiah, never one to pass up a good opportunity for symbolic action and metaphor, paid his cousin actual money for this piece of worthless land.

This is not unlike a Palestinian farmer buying a piece of land from his neighbor—a piece of land that just happens to be located under an Israeli settlement.

Or, if we leave the land part of the story behind for a moment, it’s a little like a conservation worker trying to save the pandas, even though the numbers don’t look good and the bamboo forests are being cut down and the people are moving further and further into the panda habitat.

Or like the architects who designed, and the patrons who financed, and the laborers who built, those cathedrals in Europe—cathedrals that took an average of 150 years—three lifetimes, or 4-5 generations of workers—to build.

The thing all of these people have in common is a vision—a vision of a future that others can’t always see, a vision for life in all its fullness, a vision of the kingdom of God. And they have invested themselves—their time, their imagination, their money, their energy—in that vision.

Just a few chapters ago, God reminded Jeremiah that God has a vision for the people—a vision for a future of hope. But if we really believe this—if we really believe that God keeps promises, that the promise is for a future of hope, that Christ came that we might have life in all its fullness, that the Spirit moves among us bringing life and light and hope, that God is widening the circle of grace even more than we can imagine, or (to use the words of the song we just sang a few minutes ago), “In you, O Lord, I put my trust” / “My hope is in no other save in Thee”…why aren’t we investing too? We’ve even been given investment guidelines: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind, and all our strength—in other words, with everything we are, everything we have, everything we do. This is an all-or-nothing investment strategy, one in which we put God, not ourselves, at the top of our portfolio list. We invest in God’s future of hope, not in securing our own futures. And Jeremiah shows us what that looks like—we put our money where we say our faith is. If we believe that God has a future of hope in store, that houses and fields and vineyards will again be bought, that occupying armies will leave and peace and justice will one day rule, that abundant life is possible and even desirable for every part of God’s creation…if we believe that God’s covenant is for real and we are a part of it, then it’s time to invest. It’s time to spend our money, our time, our reputations, our energy, our creativity, our resources, all our capital, on showing that we believe these things to be true. Because without investment, businesses don’t grow—and in this sense the kingdom of God is a little like a business. When we pray “your kingdom come” that must mean that we want it, so it’s time to back the words up with actions and resources.

Now, unlike most of our investments, the purpose of this one isn’t to improve our own lot in life, to ensure our own security, or make ourselves wealthy. We may not even see the returns on this investment. Like the architect who never saw his cathedral realized in his lifetime, we are people who invest in something that may be a ways down the road. Jeremiah told the scribe to put the deeds in earthenware jars so they might last a long time—and Jeremiah never saw that field in his lifetime. The Palestinian farmer who holds onto the deeds for his land on the other side of the separation barrier may never see his fields or olive trees again, but he has hope. The conservationists may never see the day pandas are successfully reintroduced in the wild, but they work in hope. The patrons and architects and laborers may never see their sanctuary, their refuge, their symbol of God’s presence finished, but they know it will be important for others they’ll never meet. But, as Oscar Romero points out, we are workers, not master builders, so we may never see the end results. We are prophets, and investors, in a future not our own—God’s future of hope.
May we be faithful workers, for the building up of God’s kingdom.

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