Sunday, September 26, 2010

Investing Wisely

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
September 26, 2010

Year C, Proper 21: The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

Investing Wisely

I’m terrible at math. Throughout my days as a student math was always my downfall – often keeping me off honors and providing me with many hours of upset stomach and sweaty palms. Pre-Calculus took about five years off my life.

Fortunately, in our family, Sue handles the finances. One exception was a number of years ago when we thought we’d try our hand at some small-scale stock investing. I convinced Sue that we should buy stock in The New York Times Company. To me, my argument seemed flawless. I argued that with the Internet becoming more and more popular people are going to want a brand they can trust for their news – and that brand would be the New York Times. Plus, I added with a flourish, people are always going to read newspapers!

Well, you can imagine how well that’s worked out for us.

Back in my former parish each Friday morning we had a men’s breakfast at a local diner. (Maybe something for us to consider?) Anyway, most of these guys who came to the breakfast worked or had worked in finance. Over the three years I was there they tried their best to tutor me on the ins and outs of the financial world. They tried to teach me how to invest wisely.

The brain trust, as I called them, had some success with me, though I still don’t trust myself to invest wisely. And judging from the way things have gone for many of us these past few years, it looks like most people shouldn’t trust themselves to invest wisely, either.

Money is a touchy subject, isn’t it? It’s very personal. Most of us get uncomfortable, annoyed or even angry if anyone asks us how much money we earn, how much we have, how much we spend, how much we give away. My finances are none of your business.

I’m sure in the ancient world people who had money felt the same way. Yet, Jesus seems to have spent a lot of time talking about wealth – probably making some people awfully uncomfortable, annoyed and even angry. Nevertheless, Jesus seems to have spent a lot of time warning people – teaching people – to invest wisely.

Last week we heard the parable of the dishonest manager. At the conclusion of that parable Luke listed a series of Jesus sayings on wealth concluding with, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Well, in today’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus we can almost hear Luke saying, “See, I told you so.” In this vivid and disturbing parable Jesus gives us a powerful vision of what happens when a person doesn’t invest wisely – when a person chooses to serve wealth rather than God – when a person chooses the love of money over the love of God and of neighbor. And it’s not a pretty sight.

It’s interesting that the first part of the parable contains nothing about morality. The rich man is rich and Lazarus is poor. That’s just the way it is. Luke paints the picture expertly. The rich man “was dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day.” Meanwhile right outside the rich man’s gate, there’s Lazarus who was “covered in sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”

The rich man is about as rich as they come. And Lazarus, probably crippled, and covered with skin ailments and dog saliva that made him ritually unclean, is about as poor as they come.

But, notice, so far there’s nothing about the rich man being particularly bad or Lazarus being particularly saintly.

And then they both die and we see Luke’s very concrete version of the Beatitudes put into action.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

They both die and we see Luke’s very concrete version Beatitudes put into action.

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”

But, this parable is not only – or even mostly – about reversal of fortune. When the scene shifts to hell we get a sense of the rich man’s character and realize that the parable is about investing wisely.

So, the rich man’s in hell, he looks to heaven and sees Abraham with Lazarus beside him. And the rich man reveals a whole lot about his sense of entitlement when, from hell, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus down into the flames to serve him.

In the parable, though, Abraham doesn’t chew out the rich man for his arrogance. Instead, Abraham maintains a sense of moral neutrality, saying essentially, “You had your good times on earth and now it’s Lazarus’ turn.”

It’s the next section that reveals what this parable is all about. The rich man still thinks Lazarus should be at his service. The rich man says to Abraham, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”

There it is. The rich man wants to warn his brothers to change their behavior because he understands he’s in hell because he had misused his fortune on earth. The rich man had not invested wisely.

The rich man had invested in his fine garments and his sumptuous feasts. The rich man had invested in his own pleasure, comfort and security.

And I’m sure the rich man told himself that he deserved these things, that he had worked hard for these things, that actually he didn’t really have that much, that he had to hold on to his wealth because you never know what the future might bring.

In fact, the rich man began living in hell long before he died. By choosing to satisfy himself and ignoring the desperately poor man right outside his gate, he had already begun to live in the hell of selfishness and materialism.

He had not invested wisely.

And in our own culture we don’t have to look too far to find examples of the rich and famous living in the hell of selfishness and materialism. Bernie Madoff, anyone? We don’t have to look too far to find examples of people investing in their own pleasure, comfort and security rather than investing wisely in love and generosity.

Well, what about us?

What kind of investors are we?

I don’t know this community very well, yet, but I’m guessing that none of us consider ourselves fabulously wealthy. Yet, as I’m sure members of the Cuba Committee and everyone else knows, by the standards of the world, we are some of the richest people who have ever lived.

Do we invest our wealth mostly in our own pleasure, comfort and security? Or do we invest our wealth primarily in living lives of loving service to the poorest and the weakest, regardless of their character? Remember, the parable tells us nothing about Lazarus’ character. All we need to know – all the rich man needed to know – was that he was poor and suffering.

This autumn, as we begin our life together, I invite all of us here at St. Michael’s to reflect on our investments. How much do we - individually and as a community - invest in ourselves and how much do we invest in sharing with the poor and suffering? And I invite us to reflect on who are the poor and suffering around us? Who are the people who might be right outside our gate? Who are the people we choose to ignore?

I invite all of us to invest wisely, to live our lives carefully and mindfully, because, just as for the rich man in today’s parable, whether we realize it or not, heaven or hell begin for us right here and now.

May God give us the wisdom to invest wisely.