2014-06-15 by George Kaplan
Preacher: Veronica Zundel
15th June 2014
Reading: 2 Kings 22:3-7
2 Kings 22:3-7
3 In the eighteenth year of his reign, King Josiah sent the secretary, Shaphan son of Azaliah, the son of Meshullam, to the temple of the LORD. He said:
4 “Go up to Hilkiah the high priest and have him get ready the money that has been brought into the temple of the LORD, which the doorkeepers have collected from the people.
5 Have them entrust it to the men appointed to supervise the work on the temple. And have these men pay the workers who repair the temple of the LORD—
6 the carpenters, the builders and the masons. Also have them purchase timber and dressed stone to repair the temple.
7 But they need not account for the money entrusted to them, because they are honest in their dealings.”
A man of great wealth is dying. He doesn’t want to leave all his riches behind, so he begins to bargain with God about whether he can take some to heaven. In the end, God is so worn down by his arguments that it’s agreed he can take as much as he can get in one carrier bag. So he packs a Tesco bag with gold bars – well maybe it was an Ocado bag, Tesco bags aren’t strong enough. And he dies, clutching the bag. He arrives at the pearly gates with his bag, and meets St Peter. “I’m sorry sir,” says Peter, “didn’t they tell you that you can’t bring anything with you?” “It’s all right,” says the man, “I’ve got a special agreement, you can check it.” So Peter sends an angel to check, and sure enough, the man has permission. “Just one thing,” says Peter to the man, “Before you come in, I simply have to see what’s in this bag that’s so special”. So the man opens the bag, and Peter sees the gold bars and immediately starts laughing. All the other residents and officials of heaven come to see, and they all fall about laughing. “What’s so funny?” says the rich man, somewhat offended. Peter can hardly stop laughing, but eventually he manages to get the words out. “I can’t believe,” he says, “‘you brought pavement!”
This is the fourth in our series of sermons on money; today’s topic is ‘how we invest’. When I planned the sermon series, I didn’t expect to have to preach on this subject – it was supposed to be Mike Nimz, but he had another engagement. And I’m not very keen to speak on this. One reason is that the obvious Bible passage for this topic is the parable of the talents, but having heard a radical interpretation of it where it is the man who hid his talent who is the hero, I’m now totally confused about it. Personally I don’t think it’s about money at all, as many of Jesus’ parables featuring money are not really about money, but about grace or discipleship or forgiveness.
The second reason is that I suspect that for most of us in this congregation, investment is rather an academic subject. We might have a mortgage, which is essentially an investment in property, or a pension plan, but that’s probably as far as our ability to invest goes. I used to be able to invest small sums for capital growth or because I believed in the project, but I’m earning a lot less now and once I’ve responded to various financial requests by needy friends, there isn’t anything left to invest.
Nevertheless, I’ve put this subject in the series so I’ll speak on it. The message of that story at the beginning might be ‘You can’t take it with you, so you might as well invest it, if you’ve got it. Then at least others will benefit.’ Alternatively, given the punchline, it might be that what we value so much, money, is worthless in the kingdom of God. By the way, I don’t actually believe in heaven as it’s portrayed in this story, it isn’t a biblical view.
What is investment all about? It seems to me there’s a contradiction right at the heart of the capitalist system. Just as there’s a question around whether industry exists to make useful things, or to make money, so there’s a question around whether investment exists to allow useful enterprises, or simply to make money for the investor. I’m not an economist, but I suspect that in its beginnings, capitalism might have developed with the intention of more efficiently making useful things and offering useful services. However in what many are calling ‘late capitalism’ – which suggests interestingly that it might be nearing the end of its life – it’s increasingly clear that the whole game is about making money. And money, as Symon so powerfully showed us in the first sermon, is not actually a reality in a Kingdom of God perspective. It is, however, a phenomenon we have to live with in this fallen world, so it’s fair to ask what, if we have any disposable income, we might do with it.
Which brings us to our Scripture reading which clearly involves money. There’s been a collection of money from the people of Judah, to restore the Temple. And now it needs to be counted, passed on to the supervisors of the building works, and then to the workers. A form of investment is going on, then – not investment in search of a financial return, though, but investment in a project for the welfare of the people of God. I find it interesting that King Josiah specifies that the Temple workers aren’t to be audited, he seems to know he’s dealing here with an ethical business.
It would be easy, if one were a Prosperity Gospel preacher, to use this story to claim that if you give to the church you will be blessed in every way, including financially. Although not as blessed as the preacher who will probably spend it on a luxury car. Obviously I don’t think that interpretation is justified. I do however think there is a theme here about using our money to advance the Kingdom of God, interpreting that phrase as widely as possible. The money the people were giving for the Temple repairs was not going to the aggrandizement of the high priest or his minions. It was an investment in something which was going to be at the heart of the nation’s communal life, a facility open to all, to support them in their special relationship to God.
What might be the equivalent today? I don’t think it’s giving to the church. I saw a quote on Twitter recently, and I can’t remember who it was from or the exact wording, but the gist was that the church exists because of the presence of the Kingdom in the world. I immediately disagreed, and posted a response saying ‘No – the church is the training ground for the Kingdom.’ In fact this is what my latest blog post is about. It is not the purpose of the Kingdom to bring about the church, but rather the purpose of the church to bring about the Kingdom, though it’s by no means only the church that God can use for that. It’s notable that in John the Divine’s vision of the new Jerusalem, there is no Temple in the city. The temple, or church, is redundant in the new heavens and the new earth, because the Kingdom will have been fully realized.
In the light of this, how do we invest in the Kingdom of God? I think one way might be to support in whatever way we can, any enterprise that is working towards full human flourishing. This is why I was disappointed, when the other day I received a leaflet about a social housing scheme in Somerset, that I didn’t have any spare money to invest in it. This is also why, for the last 30 years or so, I have only put money into ethical funds and social enterprises.
After Ed and I got married, my parents transferred to me a large number of blue chip shares they’d taken out in 1965. Since the shares were in companies like Bass, Cable and Wireless, what was then Smith Kline Beecham, and Marks and Spencer, they had grown enormously in the 25 years or so my parents had had them. I wasn’t happy, however, with having shares in breweries or Big Pharma, and as soon as I could I sold all of them but the Marks and Spencer ones – because as a woman of a certain age I have a fondness for M&S. This money was largely what bought our first rental flat, the beginning of the burgeoning Zundel/Sirett mini-property empire. Yes, we are that often nasty thing, landlords, but we are generally very fair and generous ones, and a year or two ago we agreed that out of our three potential rental properties, we would at any time have one that is let below market rate to someone who can’t afford housing otherwise.
I also made sure that my pension would be in an ethical fund, and have put small sums over the years into Lion Publishing, Shared Interest, which funds fair trade projects, and other enterprises I believed in. My ISAs are with Triodos Bank, possibly the only ethical bank now trading in the UK, after the Co-op fiasco (incidentally, I’m very exercised as to what to do with my Co-op bank account now the Co-op is majority owned by a hedge fund, since Triodos doesn’t do a cheque account). None of these investments are going to bring me huge returns, although ethical funds do actually perform quite well and steadily, but I‘m happy about being connected with them.
I’m aware this does make investment into a form of giving, which spills over into our next sermon on how we share. But then that’s why I chose these two readings, because I do believe investment should be more like giving: that its purpose is not to make loads of money for the investor, but to support worthwhile enterprises. I hate the culture that sees businesses as existing solely for the benefit of the shareholder.
Of course ethical investment funds have both negative and positive criteria for where they put your money. They generally avoid investment in tobacco, alcohol or armaments, although they can be ambivalent about fossil fuels. To put it in spiritual terms, investing in the Kingdom of God, necessarily means divesting from the kingdoms of this world. In Luke 16.9 Jesus tells us, in a saying which I believe has got mistakenly attached to the parable of the dishonest steward – but that’s another sermon – that we should use ‘the mammon of unrighteousness’ to make friends for ourselves. In other words, money in itself tends to evil rather than good, especially if we use it for self-gratification. This is one of the reasons many Christian groups frown on gambling – though oddly enough, few of them seem to frown on the Stock Exchange, which is just a more sophisticated form of gambling. But if we use what money we have to benefit others, it can create blessing. God can redeem everything, even money – though it may involve squirming through the eye of a needle…
What then if we don’t actually have any disposable income which could be invested to help society? That’s where the second reading comes in. When it was first built, the Temple also had to be furnished. Here, instead of money – which they probably didn’t have much of at the time – the people gave whatever possessions or skills they had. I must confess I find the bit about women giving up their earrings painful – that would be a real sacrifice – but I do find it encouraging that the women as well as the men had disposable property. Clearly the law didn’t then state, as it did in Victorian times in Britain, that all of a married woman’s property belonged to her husband.
We don’t all have money we can use to take out shares in a social enterprise, but many of us have clutter we can give to charity shops, or time and skills we can give to local voluntary organizations. You might argue that this is giving rather than investment, but as far as it results in those organizations being able to develop and grown, it is a form of investment – and what’s more, we may find we get real returns in terms of social contact and satisfaction, rather than in more money.
To return however to money, this church has a Koinonia fund which exists for the financial support of members of this church or people known to this church when they are in financial need. Again, though this is made up from offerings, it’s also a form of investment in the life of our church: it’s not exactly radical redistribution of wealth, which is something we might want to think about and which may come up in next week’s sermon, but it goes some of the way towards addressing financial inequality in the church, which I think can be detrimental to our life as a community. So by keeping this fund going, we are investing in our own development as a community of equals, and in however small a way, imitating the church of Acts 2:44: ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.’
Two final questions before I finish. First, if we do have spare money and choose to invest it, even in ethically screened funds or social enterprises, are we actually helping to sustain the capitalist system which in many ways, we deplore? This is a tough one – and I wish Symon was here to help us wrestle with it. I rather hope, that by investing for social good, or indeed by volunteering, we are subtly undermining the culture of Mammon, the culture that says you don’t get anything for nothing and that the profit motive is the root of society. John Wesley said, ‘Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can’, but were he living today, he might have some searching questions about how we earn and how we save.
Second, I’m troubled, in a good way, by what Jesus says to his disciples in Luke 22:25: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you.” The Victorians were very fond of erecting statues or plaques to those who had contributed financially to various public projects – that was, as it were, their non-financial reward. But actually, if I did take out shares in that Somerset affordable housing project, that wouldn’t make it ‘my project’ any more than the baby I prayed for my online friend to have is ‘my baby’, though I like to think of him in that way. Investing in the kingdom of God doesn’t make us better people; it just confirms us as children of God who are working in the family business, the redemption of the world – whether we do that with money, time, skills or ideas.