Sunday, August 30, 2015

Buy Low, Sell High, Give Always

[Sermon from Sunday, Aug. 30, 2015.]
I have to tell you that I’m not a close follower of the stock market or financial news in general.  But last week, even I couldn’t help but pay attention to the economic instability in China and its effects on world markets, including ours.  I knew it was generating serious buzz when my 19-year-old son, who’s not exactly a heavy investor, came back from work at Milburn Country Club talking about China and the Dow and what it all might mean for us.
By Tuesday’s news cycle, the wild ride had led to an 11-percent drop in value on U.S. stock indices.  As I read about that on CNN’s website, I came across what I think may be a modern-day icon of American life – maybe an anti-icon, actually, if icons give us windows into heaven.  The article I was reading referenced CNN’s “Fear & Greed Index.”  Yes, that’s right, the Fear & Greed Index.  It’s a composite of indices reflecting market volatility, demand for junk bonds, stock-price strength and breadth, demand for safe havens, put and call options, and market momentum.  I don’t even know what most of those terms mean.  But put them all together, and apparently you get a metric of which emotion is driving the market at the moment – with fear at one end of the dial and greed at the other. 
So, if fear is at one end and greed is at the other, what’s in the middle?  Boredom and ennui?  I’m not sure where I’d want the needle on that dial to point, if these are our options for what drives our economics.  Neither fear nor greed seem like particularly inviting emotional spaces to inhabit.  All of this probably explains why I’m not a broker or a market analyst. 
I don’t mean to make fun of our collective reaction to last week.  A lot of people, and a lot of us in this room, have a lot riding on the success of the market, whether we really understand it or not.  And that’s no less true for the Church than for any other part of American society.  After all, where does the Church Pension Fund invest my pension contributions?  Not in organic berry farms.  And, by the way, where do your pledge payments come from?  Some come directly from stock transactions; others come from income that won’t be there if the stock market isn’t healthy.  So I don’t mean to minimize the fear we feel when the market takes a dive.
And … when that happens, as all the financial advisers said this week, it’s vital that we stop and take a deep breath.  Come on, let’s do it together.  Slowly.  Breathe in.  Breathe out.  Now, do it again.  Isn’t that better?  Nothing’s changed in the market, or in our personal lives, because we took those deep breaths, but I’ll bet most of our necks and shoulders are looser.
So, where’s the sermon, Fr. John?  What does all this have to do with the Good News of the kingdom of God?
Actually, everything.
Go back to the Old Testament reading we heard today.  Moses, by now a very old man, is standing before the people of God after they’ve wandered 40 years in the wilderness.  They’re about to cross over the Jordan, enter into the promised land, and create a society that was to be all about revealing God’s kingship, God’s authority.  That was God’s whole point in creating Israel – that other peoples around them, worshiping carvings and heavenly bodies, might see and know that this nation of Israel was “a wise and discerning people,” specially blessed with statutes and ordinances written by God’s own hand (Deuteronomy 4:6).  Do not let these things “slip from your mind,” Moses commands the people, but “make them known” – to your children, yes, but also to the rest of the people around you (4:9).  For God’s people are set aside, sanctified as a missionary presence among the nations of the world.
Well, we are the new Israel, God’s missionary people in this time and place.  And being that missionary presence doesn’t exactly jibe with fear and greed.  I don’t recall seeing a “Fear & Greed Index” anywhere in Scripture.  A “Hope & Mercy Index,” absolutely – that’s the index of God’s love, measured in board-feet of a cross.  But a “Fear & Greed Index”?  As followers of Jesus Christ, we’re specifically called to witness against fear and greed as dominant forces in our hearts and in our culture.  The phrase “fear not” appears 62 times in Scripture, and that doesn’t count similar things like “be strong” and “take courage.”1  “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says, “and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27).  And greed?  Well, in addition to making the list of the seven deadly sins, greed comes up 36 times in Scripture.  If you add “avarice” to that search, you get one more – in Jesus’ vice list from today’s Gospel reading (Mark 7:21-22).  It’s one of the “evil things … that defile a person,” Jesus says (Mark 7:23).  So when it comes to fear and greed, I think we’d have to say Jesus is not a fan.
What would Jesus advocate instead?  Well, taking a deep breath is a good place to start.  But from there, I think he might tell us to remember – to remember who we are.  We are the baptized, and that means more than any other mark of identity that competes for our allegiance.  As baptized people, we are God’s own children.  As baptized people, we are born anew, freed from the bonds of sin and death.  As baptized people, we are the head and the heart and the hands of Jesus Christ today, his body blessed and broken and given for the world he redeemed.  As baptized people, we are inheritors of eternal life.  None of those realities appears on the evening news when the stock market tumbles.  But neither the Chinese economy nor the Fed’s Board of Governors can take these truths away.  Remember who you are.
And after we remember, maybe our next step is to take a small, simple, sacramental stand.  Let me offer you the last thing you came to church expecting this morning – a wealth-management tip from your priest.  You already know the conventional wisdom:  Buy low and sell high, right?  Well, here’s your heavenly wealth-management tip to go along with that:  Buy low, sell high, and give always – especially in times of fear and greed.  No matter which direction the dial is pointing on that Fear & Greed Index, it’s a sign to stop and give away a little something extra to remind ourselves where hope and mercy lie.
It’s a lesson we learned from our partners in Haiti a few years ago.  When we were about to replace the roof on our church, we shared that news in worship during a visit to Maniche.  The people of St. Augustin’s pledged to give us their profits from a day at the market, to help us out with our roof.  Not that they had it to give … but they found the faithfulness to offer it.
Giving something extra won’t solve the world’s problems.  But that small gift – the intentional practice of generosity when everything around you says, “Hold tight” – that “generous act of giving,” as the Letter of James calls it, is a sacrament (James 1:17).  It’s an outward and visible sign of the divine reality, the reign and rule of God, just beyond the sometimes toxic bubble of our worldly fears and sins.  Like dipping your fingers in holy water or taking the body and blood of Christ, your small “generous act of giving” is a way be a doer of the Word in real life.  That small, generous act will remind you who you are and whose you are.  In fact, it will heal your heart because it will remind you, when you’re bound by the world’s ground rules, that you’re actually sealed by the Holy Spirt in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever – that you are a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, not a prisoner in the kingdom of anxiety.  For we serve a God who leads faithful people to what seems like certain death at the water’s edge, only to pave their way to freedom in a promised land.  We serve a God whose prophets come out of fiery furnaces and lions’ dens, singing songs of victory.  We serve a God who is whipped and nailed to a cross but calmly stares his tormentors down, knowing the empty tomb awaits. 
If God is for us, what shall we fear?  And how much more security do we really think we need?

1.      Blacketer, Larry.  Musings of a Lifetime Bible TeacherWestBow Press, 2013.  203.

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