May 2, 2021
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
YOU ARE WHAT YOU SOW
The fourth in a series of four.
I like numbers. You might say I’m a math nerd. So I was playing with numbers the other day and here’s what I came up with. If you can find a way to invest your money that will earn 7% each year, you will double your money in 10 years. Or if you can find a way to grow your money at 10%, it will double in 7 years.
You might have investments doing that well. Or you might have money invested at the going rate paid these days by most banks, which is 0.01%. How long to double your money at 0.01%? 6,931 years and 10 months. If it was just 6,931 years, I could live with that. But that extra 10 months is a long time to wait.
Today we are going to be talking about another kind of investment. I’ll warn you up front. It is risky. But it’s worth it. We’re going to be talking about investing in people.
This is the final sermon in our Resurrection Life series. In this season of Easter, we’ve been looking at what Easter means for us. “As Christ was raised from the dead . . . we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). In other words, we don’t just believe the good news. We live in such a way that we are the good news. This new life means an inner transformation. We become a new creation in Jesus. What we pay attention to and what we don’t pay attention to is part of this transformation process. So is inviting others to share in this new life. And so is investing our lives in the lives of other people. That’s what we are talking about today.
Jesus said this is the distinguishing characteristic of his followers. This is who we are. This is how people recognize us as Christians.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).
And it’s not just for Christians. It’s a basic principle of life. We need each other. We are not meant to live in isolation from each other. We knew that before the COVID lockdowns, but we know that even better now. I love the way Frederick Buechner puts it:
You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own; but you cannot become human on your own.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development has been going on for a long time. It started in 1938. This project has followed 724 men since they were teenagers. About 60 of them are still alive, all of them in their 90’s. These men came from various backgrounds in the Boston area, from very poor to very rich. President Kennedy was actually one of the original 724. The researchers have meticulously collected data over all these years, on physical and emotional health. Here is one of their conclusions:
When we gathered everything we knew about them at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old, it was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. (Dr. Robert Waldinger)
Investing in people. Investing in relationships. It pays.
Here’s a question. How many of you have made some new good friends since March of 2020? It’s never easy. It always takes effort. But it’s been especially challenging lately. And that was true even before COVID. We just seem to do more things alone or with people we are already comfortable with. You speak to someone you don’t know and it’s like you’re a weirdo.
There’s a meme making its rounds on social media: “Nobody talks about the miracle of Jesus having twelve close friends in his 30’s.” (See featured image 1)
When I got married, Helen asked five close friends to be her bridesmaids. Which meant I had to find five groomsmen. Which assumed that I had five close friends. I practically had to go through the phone book and make cold calls to recruit all five. I look at our wedding pictures now and I can barely remember their names.
Jesus had twelve close friends when he was in his 30’s. We might say that was a miracle, but remember that one of those close friends was Judas who betrayed him. That can happen when we invest in people. Some of those investments turn out really well. Some of them turn out to be a disaster. So is the reward worth the risk? Yes, most definitely it is.
Our scripture today is the parable of the sower. You might be familiar with it. Seed is scattered in various places. Some falls on a hard path. It just sits there on the surface until birds eat it. Some falls on rocky ground where the roots are not able to go down and take hold. The plant grows quickly and then just as quickly it shrivels and dies. Some seed falls among thorns. It doesn’t have a chance competing with the weeds. Weeds win every time. We know that. And some seed falls on good soil. Finally, a good return on investment. Thirty-fold, sixty-fold, even a hundred-fold.
This parable is interpreted in various ways. It is actually one of the rare parables Jesus told that he interprets for us. He says it’s about how receptive we either are or aren’t to God. For some of us, God can’t get through at all. For others, we have an emotional response that is good while it lasts but it doesn’t last. For others, our lives are such a tangled mess that God can’t compete with all the weeds. But some of us allow the seed of God to sink deeply into our hearts and grow. When that happens, it’s another example of Resurrection Life.
I’m going a different direction with this parable today. It can be applied in many ways and the way I want to suggest is that it is about investing in people. You might be able to think of times when your investment in people had similarly frustrating results. Maybe you’ve had a friendship that was a surface level only friendship. Or maybe you’ve had a friendship that was deeper than that but still the soil was so shallow that when things got difficult your friendship couldn’t survive. Or a friendship with so many other things going on that it was like the weeds won. Or a friendship in which the investment paid off. For both of you. Thirty, sixty, maybe even a hundred-fold.
What happens too often is that we remember when things didn’t go so well, and then we decide that we won’t try that again. Or at least we won’t invest that deeply again. Maybe we’ll settle for that 0.01% investment. We’ll have something to show for it in 6,931 years and 10 months. But the truth is, with our money as well as our relationships, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
A lot of people these days go on social media and substitute that for a social life. Lots of Facebook friends means you must have lots of friends. And the political comments are so uplifting and enlightening! Maybe you saw this in our e-news recently. (See featured image 2)
Mark Zuckerberg is the founder and CEO of Facebook. They have a new mission statement. Here’s the old: “To make the world more open and connected.” And here’s the new: “To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
See the difference? The first was about connecting with friends. Except it’s a shallow, superficial connection. Facebook friends are a poor substitute for real life friends. Mark Zuckerberg and his company made a lot of money on this model, but he could see that it didn’t accomplish what he was really after. The world doesn’t need connections for connections’ sake. The world needs community. Listen to what he says here. He’s sounding more like a preacher than a business tycoon.
We all get meaning from our communities. Whether they’re churches, sports teams, or neighborhood groups, they give us the strength to expand our horizons and care about broader issues. Studies have proven the more connected we are, the happier we feel and the healthier we are. People who go to church are more likely to volunteer and give to charity – not just because they’re religious, but because they’re part of a community. That’s why it’s so striking that for decades, membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as 25%. That’s a lot of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else. This is our challenge. We have to build a world where everyone has a sense of purpose and community.
He says the decline in group membership has been as much as 25%. But he said that before the coronavirus caused us to climb deeper into our cocoons. It’s way more than that now. Which tells us that people need the church and what the church has to offer more than ever.
The church has always been about community. Ever since the miracle of Jesus having twelve close friends in his 30’s. Most of the books in the New Testament are personal letters. The kind we used to write before we had e-mail. We read them and it’s like we’re reading someone else’s mail. We kind of are. We see example after example of people investing their lives in the lives of other people. And it doesn’t always go so great. Even in the Bible.
I’ll give you an example. I Timothy 1:19-20. Paul mentions Hymenaeus and Alexander and not in a very flattering way. He accuses them of blasphemy, rejecting their own conscience, and making “a shipwreck of their faith.” He invested in them, but now he is disinvesting. He uses pretty harsh words. “I have delivered them to Satan.” In other words, “They can go to _____.” You fill in the blank.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that Hymenaeus and Alexander weren’t the only two. I’m sure there were many, many times when Paul invested his life in another life and got no return. Or a negative return. Many, many times when the soil was hard, or shallow, or infested with weeds. But Paul didn’t give up. He didn’t get discouraged. He didn’t conclude that investing in people is foolish. He just kept on sowing. He got lots of Hymenaeuses and Alexanders. And then he got a Timothy.
That was a great return on his investment! Young Timothy became his most trusted and faithful missionary partner. Paul and Timothy often traveled together. When Paul couldn’t go to visit a church, he would send Timothy instead. Best of all, Timothy was also sowing. Often the soil was hard, or shallow, or weed infested. But often the soil was good. And so there were new followers of Jesus, who in turn sowed seeds, who in turn sowed seeds, and on and on and on, to the present day.
Remember what I said about doubling your money in 7 years? Or 10 years? Or 6,931 years, 10 months? Jesus is offering a better investment. Much better. Doubling what you start with is nothing, according to Jesus. The seed that falls in the good soil does not yield two-fold, or ten-fold, or even twenty-fold. Remember how the parable ends?
Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundred-fold, some sixty, some thirty (Matthew 13:8).
A thirty-fold yield is the low end. It might be sixty. It might be hundred. It might be nothing.
Investing is never a sure thing. With money or people. There is always a risk. The question always is this: Is the reward worth the risk? With money, you need to talk that over with your financial adviser. With people, the answer is “yes.” Investing in people is not a sure thing, but it is the best thing. It’s what followers of our Risen Savior do. It is how we leverage our new life to create new life in others.
I think back. There were many people who invested in me. I could give you a long list and it wouldn’t scratch the surface. I have been given so many opportunities that I never would have had if someone wasn’t willing to take a chance on me. It didn’t always work out that great, but sometimes by the grace of God I like to think it did. I like to think there was some return on the investment.
I have here volume one of the twelve-volume Interpreter’s Bible that was presented to me on May 1, 1977.
Englewood United Methodist Church in Salem, Oregon took a chance on me. They were looking for a youth worker. I was looking for a paycheck. I don’t think I earned what they paid me. But I tried. I had that job for two years, my junior and senior years at Willamette University. When I started at Englewood, I had no idea what I was going to do after college. When I left Englewood, I was on my way to the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado and, after that 40 years of ministry, including 11 years here.
They gave me these books as an appreciation gift. Every so often I will take this one off my shelf and read what their pastor, Keith Maxwell wrote inside the front cover.
You have been a blessing and a source of inspiration to many of us during the past two years. Although you were employed as a youth assistant, you have made significant contributions to the entire church through your preaching, your prayers, and your counsel. In appreciation, we present you with this set, trusting it will be a valuable tool during your seminary training and throughout your ministry.
It was an investment. Whether a wise investment or not is for others to judge.
I think of the people who invested in me. And I think of the people in whom I have invested. Also a long list. Your name is on that list.
That’s the way it’s supposed to work. That’s what Christians do. We take a chance on people. We invest in relationships. We love, even as Jesus loves us. That’s the way people know who we are. “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own; but you cannot become human on your own.
That’s the way it is with Resurrection Life. We can’t live it on our own. It’s a gift from God that comes to life when shared with others.
We’ve been thinking of those who invested in us, O God. And we are so thankful. We wouldn’t be where we are today without them. But God, we must never forget that you invested in us. And it was the most costly investment. You became one of us and you died a horrible death on the cross. You didn’t have to do that. But you did that, out of your love for us. Thank you, God. You died, and on the third day, you rose. May we die to self, may we rise in you, may we invest in others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.