Our Spiritual Investments

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 3, 1999

Readings

Psalm 19:7-11 More precious than gold

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever.
The ordinances of the Lord are true
and altogether righteous.
They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
They are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the comb.
By them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

Matthew 25:14-30 The parable of the talents

The kingdom of heaven will be as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one--to each according to his ability. Then he went away.

The one who had received five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.

After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five talents came forward bringing five more talents, saying, "Master, you handed over to me five talents. Look! I have made five more talents."

His master said to him, "Well done, good and trustworthy slave! You have been faithful in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master."

And the one with two talents also came forward, saying, "Master, you handed over to me two talents. Look! I have made two more talents."

His master said to him, "Well done, good and trustworthy slave! You have been faithful in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master."

Then the one who had received one talent also came forward, saying, "Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed. So I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours."

But his master replied, "You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Apocalypse Explained #193b.10 Money and investing

Talents, pounds, and money symbolize the knowledge of what is true and good that we gain from the Bible. To trade, make a profit, invest, and put money in the bank means to use these things to gain for ourselves spiritual life and intelligence. Hiding them in the earth or in a napkin symbolizes merely storing them in our earthly memory--in which case, what we have is taken away from us.

Sermon

You ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. (Matthew 25:27-29)

Brace yourselves, because I am going to say a word that is not usually considered polite in church. Are you ready?

MONEY!

Now relax and take a few deep breaths. It's going to be okay. My main interest this morning is not the green stuff we carry around in our wallets and purses.

Still, I do want to take a swipe at this idea that money-talk is inappropriate in church. Our readings this morning are all about money. In fact, money is one of the most common subjects in the Bible--especially in the New Testament. Jesus talks about money all the time. Treasures in heaven. The hidden treasure. The pearl of great price. The temple tax. The unmerciful servant. The rich young man. The workers in the vineyard. Paying taxes to Caesar. We could go on and on.

Isn't money materialistic and dirty? What does it have to do with religion? And why does the Bible talk about money so much?

Let's think about it. In itself, money means very little. You can't eat it or drink it or wear it or use it to keep yourself warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It is bits of metal and pieces of paper. Not very useful.

Yet ever since we hit upon the idea of using these bits of metal and pieces of paper to make it easier to trade with one another, money has been a focal point of culture. Why? Because money is our measure of value. More specifically, it is our measure of material value. We are worth a lot of money--we are rich--when we possess or control a lot of material things and can hire many people to work for us. We are worth very little money--we are poor--when we possess and control very few material things, and when we have to do most of our work for ourselves. In the material world, money is where the rubber hits the road. We are materially comfortable when we have a lot of it, and materially uncomfortable when we don't have enough of it. This is true, not because money has any great value or usefulness in itself, but because we as a culture have agreed that it has universal value.

We live in a materialistic culture, whose values we have consciously or unconsciously internalized and made a part of ourselves. So we tend to measure ourselves by how much money we have. No matter how often we say "money can't buy happiness," we still tend to assume that we would be happier if we had more money.

Sometimes we even do silly things to get more money. When I was in my early twenties, I decided to try out one of those get-rich-quick chain letter schemes. I sent five dollars to the person on the top of the list, rented a mailing list, and sent the letter out to a hundred people with my own name on the bottom. The letter promised that if I did this, I would soon have thousands of dollars jamming my mailbox.

It didn't quite work out that way. I did get some five dollar bills in my mailbox over the next month or so. In fact, I got almost exactly enough to cover my expenses for this hare-brained scheme! As for my labor--that was a loss. I would have done better spending the time mowing lawns.

Last weekend, at the Cabinet meetings of the Swedenborgian Church, Larry and I had a different experience with money. I usually don't enjoy attending Cabinet meetings. Our job always seems to be to start with the budget everyone wants, and then cut out as much of it as we possibly can in order to arrive at a balanced budget. Not much fun.

This year, it was just the opposite. Under the leadership of the Rev. Ron Brugler, President of the Swedenborgian Church, we went through a very different process. First, each of us present at the meeting spent time thinking about what is least and most important for our particular board or committee to be doing. We thought about our vision for the church, and what the committee we represented could do to further that vision. And we thought about things we are now doing that aren't contributing much to that vision.

We set goals. We set priorities. And then, instead of paring down the budgets we had brought with us, we built up the budgets to accomplish some of those goals and priorities. Of course, this would not have been possible if it hadn't been for the phenomenal growth of the stock market over the past several years, and the consequent growth of our denomination's endowment fund. The difference was that this year, we decided that instead of putting most of the growth in our investments away for our church's retirement, we would use some of it to make our church stronger and younger. Instead of assuming we are in decline--and hanging on for dear life to what we have--we decided to invest some of our wealth in programs that will help make our church grow.

Now you can see why I was drawn like a magnet to today's reading from the Gospels. Here are three slaves, each entrusted with a large sum of money by their master. To give you an idea of just how large a sum of money it was, one "talent," in Biblical terms, was equal to what the average laborer in those days could earn in fifteen years. In other words, the one who received ten talents was getting as much as he would have earned if he had worked steadily for seventy-five years, and then received this extra-long lifetime's worth of pay all in one lump sum! Even the slave who received just one talent was still receiving fifteen years worth of pay--which is nothing to sneeze at.

Yet the response of the third was very different from the first two. The first two put to work the huge sums of money that had been entrusted to them, and doubled their value. The third, acting out of fear, did not put to work the money he had received. Instead, he let it lie uselessly in the ground until his master returned. For that he was severely chastised, whereas the other two were praised and given greater responsibility--and greater joy.

Now, as a parable about investing and money management, this story does have a lesson for us. Money has no value in itself, and accomplishes nothing if we let it lie idle. It is far better to put it to good use so that our material means will increase. We can do that by investing it or putting it to work in other ways.

But we don't come to church to learn about investment strategies. At least, not material investment strategies . . . . Jesus said:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

Jesus was not very concerned with material wealth and poverty. But he was concerned with how we invest our spiritual wealth. What is the spiritual money that is ours to invest? The Psalmist tells us: "The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. . . . The ordinances of the Lord are true and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold." Swedenborg agrees: the priceless gold of the spirit is "the knowledge of what is true and good that we gain from the Bible."

The Lord's teachings and commandments are the "ten talents" that our divine Master has entrusted to us. We learn them in Sunday School and church; we learn them through our parents and mentors; we learn them from our own reading and study; we learn them through the experience of living with one another.

But the test is not how much we know. It is what we do with what we know. We are like the lazy and worthless slave when we bury all of this golden spiritual knowledge in our memory--when we regard the teachings of the Bible merely as interesting knowledge, and make no attempt to put it to use in our lives. This is what we do when we spend our lives focusing on material wealth and pleasure instead of helping to build the Lord's kingdom within and around us. If we do this, in the end we will find that everything we thought we had will be taken away from us. Spiritually, we will find ourselves in the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

That is not where any of us want to be! And we don't have to end out there. Because each of us has been given great treasures of knowledge in the form of the Lord's teachings as found in the Bible. And each one of us can take what we have learned--and what we continue to learn each day--and put it to work in our lives.

We can make our spiritual wealth grow, if we invest it wisely. We can look for ways to grow in kindness and thoughtfulness. We can look for ways to make life grow better and happier for the people around us. We can make our friendships, our relationships, grow closer and more loving as we grow in willingness to care about the other person as much as we care about ourselves. We can grow in closeness to God as we open ourselves up more and more to the endlessly rich gifts of love and wisdom that the Lord lavishes upon us.

If we make the effort to invest God's precious gifts of wisdom in lives of love and service, our spiritual wealth will grow, and we will enter into the joy of our Master. Amen.

 

 

Music: Dimensions
1999 Bruce DeBoer