Sunday, December 1, 2013

Advent One: Rethinking Portfolios

It’s Advent One, the first day of the liturgical year.

Time to rethink the investment portfolio.

Over the holidays, with four generations gathered over coffee and pie, our conversation turned to houses bought and sold, stocks that have tanked and prospered, investments that yielded good returns, others that left that gnawing feeling of regret.

Interesting, then, to have this morning’s sermon focus tightly on investment: investments in the present, investments in the future.

The service was the culmination of a series inviting participation in a capital campaign to improve our church’s education wing, pay off some debt accrued in our last major renovation, upgrade our heating system, and provide a tithe of funds for sister churches in other places.

The official readings for this Advent Sunday include Isaiah2:1-5,  a reminder of the coming kingdom of justice and peace: 
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.
 And Psalm 122, a song of ascents:   
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
    “May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
    and security within your citadels.
The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.
Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.  But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.  So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
The focus of Advent One, every year, is the coming Kingdom of God, a reminder that the Christ who came as a child will come again to establish a kingdom of justice, peace, and love.

And the challenge, every year, is to reorient ourselves to that coming kingdom, to learn to live more faithfully in light of values far beyond the clamor of Black Friday or Cyber Monday.

So the question of this morning’s sermon was this: What will you invest in?

The immediate question asked for a dollar amount on a pledge form.

But the larger, deeper, more puzzling question is this: What does wise investment look like?

How do we balance the legitimate needs of our own local church against the needs of churches in the Philippines, flattened by Typhoon Haiyan?

How do we balance investment in bricks and mortar, tighter windows and more efficient furnace, against investment in food for the hungry, clean water for those without?

I sometimes wish I were an investment genius. I listen with slight pangs of envy to a younger relative describe his stocks in Apple, Solar City, Whole Foods, a new 3D printing firm, with yields this year of 50%.

I am not particularly good with money. Not good at earning it, not good at investing it. Not very methodical about how to give it. Fortunately, my husband Whitney is better at all those things than me. I do my part by keeping expenses low and trying to record my ATM withdrawals.

I’ve decided that’s okay. Just as the body is made up of hands, feet, eyes, ears, different areas of the brain, the church is made up of meticulous money managers, visionary thinkers, poets, painters, and people like me, who will wash dishes when needed and listen over coffee to awkward confessions and dubious evasions.

Even so, I need to rethink my portfolio: financial, spiritual, emotional, even physical.

If I’m here for a certain span of years, I want to be healthy for as many of those as possible. So I need to up my investment in some form of exercise with more cardiac benefit than my weekly birdwalks.

I need to re-calibrate my level of investment in friends, family, activities that bring me joy, re-energize and renew me.

I need to rethink my investments of time. Just as a healthy portfolio holds both short and long-term investment, with a careful balance of risk and security, I need to invest in short-term and longer-term goals, with some benefits realized now, some later, some trusted to eternity.

And money: yes, we pledged a healthy amount to the church capital campaign, but how can we invest better in the church beyond our own local gathering? And how can we invest more wisely in the kingdom to come?

At the close of this morning’s service, we stood to sing an old, familiar hymn, written by Francis Havergal, a brilliant English invalid who wrote 80 hymns before dying at the age of 42. 
Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee.
Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King.
Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect, and use every power as Thou shalt choose.
Take my will, and make it Thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own; it shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour at Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.
Singing the familiar words, I found myself considering people around me, and the ways I see them living out their own investments:

Those committed to creating beauty, through instruments, paint, weaving, wood, words.

Those committed to easing the suffering of others, through medicine, therapy, social work, travel to help install water treatment systems in places with no clean water.

Those deeply invested in next generations: caring for children, teaching or mentoring teens, educating and encouraging younger leaders.

Those gifted at making and managing money, creatively investing in mission and ministry in ways far beyond my more modest contributions.

Some investments give immediate return: a well-executed Sunday service, a festive meal enjoyed by many.

Some are enjoyed later: how many contributed, in how many ways, to the sunlit atrium where we gather for Sunday lunches? How many invested, in how many ways, in the lives of the young adults leading worship, or manning the sound board, or standing with their parents on this holiday weekend home?

Some investments may seem pointless for decades, with benefit never seen by those making the investment: time spent with a troubled kid, dollars spent on a summer mission trip with no quantifiable return.

I’m honored, and grateful, to be part of a community that takes investment seriously.

None of us get it quite right.

All of us come at it from different directions, with different ideas about what’s most important, what mix is best, what will yield the most lasting return.

But the commitment is there -

The longing to invest well -

to make visible the values of an invisible kingdom -

to give as we’ve been given.
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
 You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
  (from Suscipe, St. Ignatius of Loyola)

Other Advent Posts:

Metanoia,  Dec 4, 2011
Voice in the Wilderness,  Dec. 11, 2011 
Common Miracles,  Dec. 18, 2011 
The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011

Marys' Song,  Dec. 19, 2010 
Christmas Hope,  Dec. 24, 2010