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Investing in People
August 7, 2022
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Dr. Addison Leitch was a Presbyterian missionary, professor and biblical scholar who died shortly after I entered college, although I’m pretty sure those two events are unrelated. He once wrote about a trip he made to the Holy Land, at a time when those types of pilgrimages were relatively rare.
During his trip, he spotted a bus leaving Jerusalem that had a sign on the front reading “Beer-Sheba via Bethlehem.” If he’d seen a bus with the names of two different towns on it anywhere else in the world, he probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it.
However, he was in Israel and both of those were towns mentioned in the Bible. The incongruence between those ancient place names and that modern form of transportation instantaneously struck him. So he wrote, “I guarantee that you will get a jolt when you read names like Bethlehem on the front a bus.”
He went on to explain his reaction this way: “The reason we get the jolt is because of our normal religious habit of elevating things which maybe ought not to be elevated. We put on pedestals things that ought to be earthy. As I understand the incarnation, God entered into human life. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us in order that we might really know that God is relevant to all the things that happen on the dusty roads of Bethlehem or the main street of your town and that he is not unrelated to a bus full of peasants and chickens cutting through Bethlehem on the weary road to Beer-Sheba. The reason we are shocked by the ordinary in our holy faith is because we have tried to shove our religion out of the daily round. It seems much safer when we can put religion ‘out there’ some place.”
Isn’t that also essentially the story of our Old Testament passage from Isaiah? It is a picture of God’s anger at the hollow rituals of worship in Isaiah’s time — worship that never had any impact on the way people live their lives after they left the worship service.
Because of that, Isaiah quotes God as saying in essence that he will ignore their worship until they chose to repent and change their ways. As Isaiah put it, “remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Clearly that’s a lesson the human race has had to learn over and over again throughout our history. So, for example, in Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth inaugural address in 1945 — near the end of the bloodiest war in U.S. history — here’s how our longest-serving president summed up the lessons of that terrible conflict:
“We have learned that we cannot live alone at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. We have learned that we must live as [human beings], and not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger. We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community.”
Nearly 30 years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson quoted those words, adding, “Now […] must we learn that lesson all over again — the hard way? I hope that we go forward on a steady course — playing our proper role in the world, bearing our fair share, carrying our rightful burden. For if we once again fail to do so, we will — as the Bible says — sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind.”
The ancient Israelites taught that you don’t truly know something until you act on it. And they felt that was especially true of faith. Having a faith which has no impact on your life is like buying a diet book, putting it on your shelf at home without opening it and still expecting to lose weight.
Think of the shock the ancient Israelites must have experienced when they heard Isaiah applying that insight to their religion. After all, the Temple in Jerusalem was the focal point of their national existence, while prayers and solemn rituals provided the rhythm of their individual daily lives.
And yet Isaiah was warning them that those things were worse than meaningless if they didn’t result in repentance and in an honest pursuit of justice. Isaiah’s point was that true worship will inevitably express itself in working to bring about the kind of world that God envisions for all his children to enjoy. As Allison Cline puts it, “Our worship of God is not something that is to be kept locked up in a drawer. God encourages us to, indeed pushes us to, take our hope, our faith and our love out into the world and use them to make a difference in the lives of others.
“What are your hopes? Take a moment to consider that question: some hopes are large, involving the world; some are small, involving our families, [or] the communities in which we work and play. What is odd is that many people have become afraid to hope — our world has an ambivalent, almost fearful attitude in the future.
“As Christians, we dare to hope! We may not see all our hopes fulfilled on this earth, but we know that in some way God will bring to completion those hopes at some point in the future.”
Herbert O’Driscoll makes a similar point when he writes, “Be the kind of person whose life is directed out beyond the self towards the lives and needs of others, and who feels accountable to God for one’s life.”
The Bible tells us that we have all been created in the image of God. Unlike what most people think, that doesn’t mean we look like God or that God looks like us. Instead, it means that, like God, we have been given the gift of creativity.
We have the power to slowly shape the world into the kind of place we want to live in and we’re called to use that gift to benefit all people, not just ourselves. But to do that, we need to invest our time and our finances in support of a world ruled by justice and peace. Actually doing that requires imagination since most of us see ourselves as being too insignificant to have any real impact.
My father once talked about a man he knew whose aunt had left him some money in her will. That man was already living comfortably on his own income, so he decided to put much of his inheritance into stocks as a hedge against inflation.
He hired a very reputable broker and followed the broker’s advice. Unfortunately, the stocks they chose not only didn’t keep pace with inflation, and actually declined so much in value that if the man were to sell them at the time my father was talking about, he would have received less than ⅔ of his original investment. In addition, his return would have been in dollars which couldn’t buy as much as those same dollars would have bought at the time he invested them.
On the other hand, that man heard about a student from Africa who was in trouble because he had taken a temporary job when he was in this country on a student visa. To keep him from being deported, the man had taken that young African into his home and had promised the immigration authorities that he would provide sufficient funds to keep him in school.
In addition, because the man’s aunt had been a school teacher, he also gave some money in her name to buy books for the library of a small college.
In the end, the money he kept to invest decreased in value but the money he donated increased in value. Why? Because that young African man returned to his own country with a college degree, ready to work for the betterment of his homeland and bringing with him a positive attitude toward the USA and its citizens.
And who knows how many students will have benefitted from the books he gave to that college library? It is possible to put your riches where they will never decrease.
Of course, it’s true that things might have worked out differently than they did. His investments could have soared in value; that African student could have proved to have been problematic in some way; and those college books might have rapidly lost their value due to technological advances or other changes.
However, none of those things would have changed the real point, which is that time and money invested in helping other people can never be wasted. St. Lawrence, who was martyred in the third century in Rome, certainly understood that.
Lawrence was a deacon. His job was to distribute the common funds of the church to those who were in need. During an especially savage time of persecution, the Emperor Valerian arrested the leader of the Church in Rome, Bishop Sixtus, and demanded that Sixtus turn the wealth of the church over to him. Sixtus said that Lawrence was in charge of those funds, so the Emperor had Lawrence arrested and demanded the church’s treasure from him.
Lawrence replied, “Give me three days and I will bring it to you.” So Lawrence was released, only to return three days later, bringing with him not bags of gold as the Emperor had hoped but a crowd of people — bedraggled, poor, sick, widowed, all those to whom the church’s money had been given. “Here are the treasures of the church,” he said to the Emperor “you see them in these people.”
The Emperor was decidedly not impressed and promptly had Lawrence executed. But Lawrence was right. The real treasure of this world may be found in its people.
Most of us understand that to some degree, but we prefer to hedge our bets in the name of personal security. For good or bad, we want to feel that we’re in control of our own lives and as a result, we tend to carefully husband our resources and our time, rather than being truly generous in the way we share with others.
But it’s ironic that we try to save our energy by limiting the work we do in the church or in the community for others, because God has designed human beings in such a way that we actually rebuild our energies most completely by doing God’s work.
It’s when we give of ourselves and of our possessions that we loosen our grip on those things we can control and allow ourselves to build our relationship with God by giving ourselves over to his invisible guidance. When we allow God to approach closer to the center of our being, we open ourselves up to our greatest chance to reach our potential for wholeness and health.
When we continually make excuses for ourselves, those excuses end up denying us the opportunity to build our faith and to grasp more firmly onto God’s kingdom here in this life.
Are we willing to join together with people of faith in other places to begin to heal some of the grave social ills plaguing our world? If we are, we will begin to catch a vision of the incredible power that God has placed at our disposable on behalf of his kingdom.
Isaiah has told us that such self giving on behalf of those in need is the heart of true worship. So let us worship together. Amen.
by Jim McCrea
Rev. Jim McCrea
Sundays, 10 a.m.
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