A sermon on Luke 12:13-21, 32-34; 2 Cor 9:6-15, delivered at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church
We’re looking at a crowded restaurant, listening to the din of conversations rising up from every table. We happen to catch one distinct line from one of the tables: “well, my broker is E. F. Hutton, and E. F. Hutton says….” And suddenly the room falls into complete silence as no one is interested in their own conversations any more so much as interested to hear what tip will be reported as having fallen from the lips of E. F. Hutton.
What about when Jesus speaks about investment strategies? Do we believe that we’re about to hear a profoundly profitable tip from him?
“Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father is very happy to give you the Kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to those in need; provide money-bags for yourself that won’t wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in the heavens where a thief doesn’t encroach and a moth-worm doesn’t devour. For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.”
The investment strategies of our commercial banking industry and our capitalist economy are all about laying up for ourselves treasure on earth. Every investment planner with a shingle out there will help you lay up your treasure on earth wisely, to diversify your portfolio so as to achieve the right balance of risk and return for your stage of life with a view to preserving capital while gaining sufficient dividends and income to keep you in the lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed. Of course we need “enough” to raise our families and get our children launched; of course we need “enough” to remain self-sufficient to the extent possible. But let’s be honest. We – especially here in America – have a problem defining “enough.” There are strong forces at work all around us trying to make an excess seem insufficient and leave us wanting even more.
That’s where we find the “hero” of Jesus’ parable. He’s a landowner who has apparently managed his estate well and whose crops have done well over the years. He gets to the point where the storage facilities that he once built, anticipating that they would be big enough, aren’t big enough any more for all his assets. His response is to build even bigger storage bins to store the excess, and to think only of how great the rest of his life is going to be with all those assets upon which to draw. It actually sounds enviable. Heck, it could have the makings for a good slogan for an investment company – “Gulf Shores Capital Investments. You’re going to need bigger barns.” But then God shows up, and the man’s real poverty is exposed. “You did very well for yourself. You were living the dream. But now that’s all over and you’re standing before me. What do you have now?”
A lot of Christians hear Scriptures like these (and perhaps sermons like this one) begrudgingly as if Jesus is trying to make us make ourselves poorer. But that’s not the case at all. Jesus is trying to teach us how to make ourselves richer, and to make ourselves richer forever. There is wealth that we can take with us. The trick is that we have to make this kind of wealth before we go. We have to believe enough in “forever” to invest for “forever.”
There is a wonderfully edifying second-century Christian text that almost nobody reads anymore. It’s called the Shepherd of Hermas and, among other things, it contains what is perhaps our earliest surviving homily on the Gospel lesson we heard read today.
“You know that you who are servants of God are living in a foreign country, for your city is far from this city. If, then, you know in what city you are destined to live, why are you furnishing for yourselves plots of land and piles of stuff and buildings and empty rooms here? … So exercise prudence. As a person residing in a foreign country, do not furnish yourself with one thing more than is necessary to be self-sufficient. Instead of buying acreage here, ransom lives that are in distress; look after the vulnerable and don’t neglect them. Spend your wealth and possessions, which you’ve received from God anyway, on goods of this kind, which you will find in your own city when you go home to it…. Don’t practice the same kind of extravagant spending as the unbelievers, but practice your distinctive kind of extravagance, which will bring you joy forever.” (Similitude 1, my paraphrase)
The people whose lives we have touched for the better, personally or from a great distance, constitute our treasure in heaven. The people whose lives we have rescued from or supported in the midst of distress, whose hearts have been opened to God and God’s salvation by our outreach, whose needs we have shouldered as our own so as to help them carry their burdens – we will find these people again on the other side of death, and the love that we expressed for them here, the relief that we brought them here, the spiritual nurture and growth that we facilitated for them here will make of them our treasure in heaven forever.
So Jesus is calling us in to his brokerage office this morning and wants to ask of us: Do you need to diversify your investment portfolio? Are you positioned too strongly in short-term investments, that is to say, investments that will pay off on this side of death? Have you taken adequate thought for your long-term needs and invested accordingly, so that you can enjoy a rich lifestyle for the eternity on the other side of death? Is some reallocation of assets in order?
Jesus keeps calling our attention to good investment opportunities, inviting us to invest in the kingdom of God, to get behind ventures that seek to facilitate the kingdom’s breaking in and becoming real here in this world, so that when we leave this country in which we are merely sojourners and resident aliens, and enter our eternal homeland, we will find and enjoy the fruits of those assets we have invested into the kingdom, the rewards of the time and labor we have committed to the kingdom, the well-deserved rest that follows the energies we have expended for the kingdom.
So, of course, I’m talking, in part at least, about the ministries of this church and our support of the same with, as our membership vows put it, “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.” And I’m, without embarrassment, talking this morning chiefly about our gifts. Supporting the ministries of this church is one instrument in a solid investment strategy for eternity. We offer a somewhat diversified portfolio here – we’re a kind of “balanced assets” mutual fund for the kingdom.
You’re investing in your own growth as a disciple and in the growth that we are all potentially experiencing here together. What you give makes it possible also for others to experience (hopefully) well-crafted and impactful worship, education in the faith, meaningful connections with other Christians that create a network of holy and loving support for your own perseverance in faith to the end. You invest in the faith formation of our children and youth, whose lives have the potential to be set on a strong foundation for this life and for eternity because of this work. You invest in the work of missionaries in foreign lands, in the kingdom fruit of whose missions you have a share. You engage in missions and relief efforts yourself and support the mission and relief work of others. You invest in the much larger mission of the United Methodist Church globally through our church’s apportionments, which, while of course supporting the administrative structures of the UMC, also support the positive kingdom work of those structures as well as a variety of denominational outreach and relief efforts. And we do need to make sure that everything given to support this church is responsibly used to create kingdom dividends. And when we’re not, we expect you, the shareholders, to point out those areas where an audit is in order with a view to maximizing kingdom impact.
But I’m not just talking about investing here. As I said, we’re a good “balanced assets” kingdom fund. But you might also need some good kingdom “growth funds” in your ERA – your “eternal retirement account.” Are there front-line ministries toward which God would direct your attention and some part of the resources that he’s entrusted to you? Perhaps those specialized organizations that seek to bring resources and aid to persecuted Christians and the surviving families of martyrs throughout Asia and Africa, so that they know the support, love, and encouragement of the global family of God and can persevere in their costly witness? Perhaps those organizations dedicated to making the Scriptures freely available to people throughout the world in their own languages, so that the Holy Spirit can do in their lives what the Spirit does in ours when we engage God’s word? Perhaps those relief agencies that work diligently and responsibly to secure a sustainable life for entire villages, or to provide timely relief from starvation or disease? Perhaps those ministries that work with at-risk youth in our cities, or nurture faith and discipleship on college campuses? Perhaps scholarship funds that support the training of a new generation of pastors, missionaries, and theological educators?
You might also consider if you should invest in some individual kingdom stocks for your portfolio as well. Is there a single-parent family that could stand to be informally adopted, both for the relief of a working parent and for the care, nurture, and sound guidance of his or her children? Is there a particular Christian family or community in an under-resourced or even hostile area of the globe, with which you are called to partner?
Our second-century pastor urges us: “Spend your wealth and possessions, which you’ve received from God anyway, on goods of this kind, which you will find in your own city when you go home to it…. Don’t practice the same kind of extravagant spending as the unbelievers, but practice your distinctive kind of extravagance, which will bring you joy forever.” Rightly interpreting Jesus’s advice, he calls us to invest adequately in people, with whom our relationships will therefore outlast our deaths, whom we will enjoy forever in the communion of saints. Ultimately, we are talking about genuinely and fully loving our neighbors as ourselves, and doing so with a view to accomplishing in their lives what God deeply wishes to see accomplished – or even to accomplishing in God’s name what they themselves are praying to God to accomplish for them.
As we leave Jesus’ brokerage firm, his receptionist Paul throws two good words our way. First, he says, remember this: “The one who throws only a little into these investments will only enjoy a small return, but the one who invests heavily in these ventures will have a whopping return” (you can probably tell that I’m taking some liberties with the translation). “But you can invest whatever you decide to invest – it’s up to you; no one’s putting a gun to your head. For God loves the cheerful investor” (2 Cor 9:6-7). In some stewardship campaigns, I’ve heard people talk about tithing, asserting that, according to the Scriptures, ten percent of our income belongs to God, pushing the congregation to keep bumping up their giving closer to ten percent. It would be fabulous to see this congregation tithe. This church would be flush with funds and would have to begin seriously considering what new outreaches and ministries we would need to add, what new missionaries we would need to support, what new relief efforts we would need to undertake in order to spend the income. The expenses of running this place would not increase; only our ability to have a kingdom impact would increase.
But … I don’t see Jesus or Paul in these texts we’ve heard today pushing us to tithe. I’ve simply heard both, in different ways, asking us if we’re using our temporary wealth intelligently with a view to what will make us rich before God, what will accrue eternal dividends because those dividends will be with us forever. I see both of them simply holding out an investment opportunity before us, urging us to make the most of it. (The unavoidable flip side of this is that, if we don’t seriously consider these investment opportunities, we will, in some fashion that we simply cannot envision precisely but that should nevertheless give us pause, be without those dividends forever.) I personally trust the Holy Spirit and each one of you to work out the right level of investment and how the whole portfolio needs to be put together to maximize your kingdom impact.
A second thing Paul shoots at us on our way out is this: “God is able to make all favor abound to you in order that, having enough for your needs, you may abound in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8). Paul makes us ask: Does God bring resources our way to bless us (so that we enjoy its temporary benefits), or to empower us to bless others (so that we enjoy its eternal benefits)? And there’s yet another layer to this. The financial resources that we’re talking about have value to us only as long as we are alive or this world lasts, but God has made it possible for us to use this money now, before it becomes valueless, to purchase what will be of eternal value to us. If you know that a particular government is going down, does it make better sense to hold onto its currency or work out some exchange before it’s too late? We’ve all heard the exclamation, “Hold onto your confederate money! The South will rise again!” No, I think those people who started exchanging their confederate money in 1863 or 1864 for commodities that would still have value on the other side of the Confederacy’s fall were the wise ones. And Jesus doesn’t want us to find ourselves standing before him at the Last Judgment essentially holding bags of confederate money. He wants us surrounded by the commodities of eternal value for which we’ve exchanged the currency of this world and its kingdoms.
When you get to heaven – and I’m not talking about buying or earning your way in, but Jesus’s language should make us think about what it’s going to be like for us on the other side of getting in – do you want to be surrounded by all the good you haven’t done? For eternity? Or will you want to be surrounded by all the good to which you have contributed – in which you have invested – as fully as possible? Maybe, when Jesus, our investment planner, speaks, maybe we should listen.