“Invest in Peace”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
9 December, 2018
Advent 2C
Malachai 3:1-4
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

This has not been a very peaceful week for anyone who’s invested in the stock market and keeps a watchful eye on it.  And the experts are saying the bumpy ride is likely to continue.

After my grandfather died, Joel and I inherited some shares of Chevron stock—not an enormous sum, about $16,000—but it felt like a fortune to us at the time.  I recall receiving a note with the gift, acknowledging that my grandparents felt very fortunate to be able to present each of their grandchildren with the shares of stock, which represented a portion of their investment from when they were younger; they hoped that we, too, would invest wisely and prosper.

My parents had instilled in all eight of their children strict fiscal discipline.  When I was a teenager, I spent almost every weekend and many weeknights babysitting, and my parents made sure that 10% of what I earned went into the offering plate, and a minimum of 25% went into my savings account.  I worked multiple jobs throughout college to pay for my portion of undergraduate costs, and my 3-year seminary graduate degree was entirely on my own.  At the time Joel and I received this inheritance, I was four years out of seminary.  Joel had just started a full-time Ph.D. program, we were expecting our second child, and I held “half time” jobs at two different churches.  Medical and dental insurance had to be paid out of my combined salaries. Needless to say, we watched every penny, just as I had had to do my entire life thus far.  So, when we received what amounted to more than half my annual compensation, we were starry-eyed.  We prayed and talked about what to do with the inheritance.

We decided to liquidate the Chevron stock, pay off my student loans, and diversify the remainder of our investment across a variety of stocks and mutual funds. And that commenced my education in how stressful it can be to focus on the stock market as a source of security. But focus on it I did—I watched it every single day, spent hours each week poring over the numbers and reading articles about latest investing tips.  I rejoiced when tech and communications stocks continued rising in value, and despaired when medical device stocks declined.  Joel commented periodically that he thought I might be spending a little too muchtime focusing on them, but I couldn’t help myself: I had spent so much of my life working hard and pinching pennies, I couldn’t get over how easy it seemed to watch the sums in our account grow in front of my eyes without me doing a thing.  Occasionally, there were precipitous drops, which prompted all sorts of anxiety.  But mostly, the portfolio seemed like a magical balloon.

Eventually, we sold our stocks for the down payment on our first home.  We sold that house only two years after we’d purchased it, for almost $50,000 more than what we’d paid for it.  It was a heady experience, and I remember being amazed both amazed and perplexed, because at the time I was working with my church to advocate for affordable housing in our community.

We moved from that home into an antique fixer-upper.  Joel and I thought, and talked, and prayed long and hard about whether we were doing the right thing: at the time it certainly seemed like we were.  Joel’s parents were retiring and had started looking for houses near us, but couldn’t afford a single-family home.  So, our plan was to restore a dilapidated 1760 Georgian Hip-roof Colonial that other buyers just wanted to bulldoze.  We were making room for Joel’s parents to live with us so that the boys could grow up with their grandparents, my in-laws would have care into their elder years, and one day Joel and I would move into the in-law suite and one of our sons would take care of us the same way.  We planned to retire there, so we reasoned it was okay that we’d stretched ourselves extremely thin in order to pay for it: it was an investment for the long-term, and it wasn’t only benefitting us.  At the time, I was very happy in the church I was serving, and we assumed that Joel would soon find a full-time job in the Boston area.  But as the old saying goes, “If you want to make God laugh, just start explaining your plans.”

Joel was offered his job in Oxford right as the housing bubble burst.  No one imagined the housing peak could become so deep a valley so very quickly.  Our house would not sell.  For almost a decade, what had seemed a sensible investment at the time began to feel like an albatross (to me) and a possible gift (to Joel): we seriously wondered whether God’s desire was for us to retire there, after all.  Finally, when we purchased our home here in Hollis, we managed to find buyers.  Today, Joel jokes that his investment philosophy obviously is, “Buy high, sell low.” Although the market had recovered, the investment we had spent so much money, time, energy, and anguished thought on still represented a net loss.

My point in sharing all of this lies in the indelible lessons I’ve learned through the financial ups and downs of my life’s journey so far.  First is that our relationship with money can profoundly affect our spiritual story, depending on how much influence we allow it to have. Jesus obviously understood this, which is why he spent more than half his teaching time talking about money-related issues, warning his disciples to beware of mammon’s ability to become the focus of our devotional attentions, even when we know better.  And the second lesson, like the first, is this: the material investments of my life have never brought me lasting or soul-penetrating peace. For peace—for the profound assurance that everything will be okay, come what may—I’ve learned that prayer and trust in God’s grace and promises are the only investment securities that unfailinglypay dividends.

Although I don’t believe they would have faulted us, my grandparents’ wish that we should invest wisely and prosper certainly has had its challenges with respect to the financial bequest they gifted to us.  But my grandparents didn’t just bequeath a financial inheritance. In fact, the substantially more valuable legacy they handed on to their children and grandchildren is a spiritual inheritance.  Because financial largesse is never what brings lasting peace or assurance: markets are volatile, and as the past week has demonstrated, material “security” is anything but secure when an investment can lose a majority of its value in a single day or week.  That simply isn’t the case with a spiritual life that has been invested in faithfully and wisely.

My grandparents were even more disciplined spiritually than they were financially, and they shared their spiritual and theological wealth with their daughter, my mother.  At every meal—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—Grandpa and Grandma would begin with a prayer of blessing, and would end by reading a passage from the Bible and close with a prayer. The whole day for them was seasoned by prayer and deepening their understanding of God’s word.  It was a serious investment of time!  But, despite my grandfather’s long and excruciating decline with ALS, and my grandmother’s descent into the cloudy places of dementia, they were radiant, peaceful, non-anxious individuals to their dying days.

My parents continued the tradition of mealtime prayers and Bible reading after supper.  And on Sundays, we went to morning and evening worship, with Sunday School in between.  During the week there was either catechism or Bible study, and choir practice on Wednesday evenings.  You see, my parents and grandparents alike both showed me that—unlike the stock or housing markets—when you invest resources into your spiritual life, it always pay off.  When I complained about how boring church was, they pointed out that worship is not meant to be entertainment: in order to get something out of church, I had to put something into it.  If I didn’t “buy in” with prayerful thought or spiritual reflection, then of course there would be nothing gained.

As a pastor who’s served many congregations in diverse places, I know now that my experience was exceptional. Today, I recognize that my grandparents, my parents, and many of my Sunday school teachers and youth leaders were, in the prophet Malachai’s words, messengers “preparing the way before God” in my life.  There were moments when what I learned from them felt like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.  It wasn’t always what I would have chosen for myself.  But purifying agents tend to strengthen and improve us.

Who have been the messengers of spiritual strength—of peace and hope, of joy and divine love—in yourlife?  Who has taught you that it is by giving that you receive the things your heart truly longs for?  That by making room for peace, you discover the joy of God’s steady presence in your life? And how have youbeen—or, how might you beor become—a messenger of God’s gifts and dependable lessons to others? Because in addition to the observation about the stock market’s ongoing volatility, another comment I heard across the past week is that our world is desperately in need of prophets who boldly call us back the better angels of our nature, who remind us of our God-given instruction to be active among a thousand points of light in a world shrouded in darkness.

Here is the mystery and wonder of Advent: Each year, we watch again and wait for the One who was promised to us by prophets of old, and prophets of today. The One who has come to us as one of us (and therefore thoroughly understands our human experience), and the One who has promised to come again.  We watch, and we wait.  We pray and we anticipate.  And God’s Messiah doescome to us, especially if we are devoting our time and resources in order to prepare the way for his arrival, if we truly are trusting in the One who has begun a good work in us so that we can receive his hope, his peace, his joy, and his love.

Friends, Jesus came to show us how to invest in the ways and practices that make for lasting peace.  He devoted all his resources—down to his very last breath—to helping others understand how precious each life is, and empowering them to share with others the love and healing they themselves had experienced. Want to experience peace?  Invest in the things that make room for peace—in your life, and in this world.  Amen.

© 2019 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC