Sermon “How Much is Your Life Worth?”
Nicodemus appears three times in John’s story of Jesus. He is first of all the Pharisee who comes in the cover of darkness to ask three questions. First, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Second, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” and Third “How can these things be?” So Nicodemus is a person who wonders if it is possible to change one’s life, not just part of it, but all of it.
Nicodemus appears a second time, as a member of the ruling class, and objects to the planned attempt to have Jesus arrested. He says, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” They reply, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” So Nicodemus is a person who believes in playing by the rules, but finds out that politics isn’t played that way.
Six months later Nicodemus appears the third time at the burial of Jesus. “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.” So Nicodemus is a person who had a lot of money. These spices on the open market could have been worth up to half a million dollars.
Now, Nicodemus is a Greek name that means “conqueror of the people.” The name represents his life orientation. The goal of life is to win. Acquisition of money is a sure sign that you have done it, even if it isn’t real.
And Nicodemus would ask, how can money not be real? Well, you just need to be ‘born again’ into the world as it exists in 2018.
Anyone give up something for Lent? I could say I gave up chocolate for Lent, but my dear and lovely wife would tell you I hardly ever eat chocolate anyway. She would say I should give up buying books for Lent. For those of you on Facebook and follow me, you will see at least twice a year a picture of a stack of books I have been reading. Some of them I go through fairly quickly, but My latest purchase by Niall Ferguson, a British historian and Political commentator, has a new book “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook.” It is going to take me at least another month to actually read this.
But I looked at his previous book “The Ascent of Money”, to check and see if it was easier to read. Not really. In that book he points out that in 2006 the “measured economic output of the entire world was around $47 trillion. The total market capitalization of the world’s stock markets was $51 trillion, 10 percent larger. The total value of domestic and international bonds was $68 trillion, 50 percent larger. The amount of derivatives outstanding was $473 trillion, more than ten times larger.”
Easier to understand than derivatives are subprime mortgages. It begins like this. An individual gets a mortgage loan from a broker. Then the broker sells the mortgage to a bank, which in its turn again sells the mortgage to an investment firm on Wall Street. The investment firm then creates a fund and sells shares. So far, so good—shares backed by solid assets and a steady return. But then the demand for these shares grew so great that the investment firms asked the banks for more mortgages who then ask the brokers for more who then gave mortgages to NINA (No Income No Asset) clients, which simply means people with ‘no income and no assets.’ Money that was not real, just the smell of money blowing in the air.
You know that in Hebrew and Greek the words for spirit and air/wind are the same. I found it interesting that Ferguson suggested that the stock market was driven by animal spirits. When the stock market goes up in sync investors are captured by a collective euphoria. Alan Greenspan referred to this as irrational exuberance. However, when the ‘animal spirits’ flip from greed to fear, the bubble of their earlier euphoria can burst with amazing suddenness. When it goes up it is referred to as a bull market and when it goes down it is a bear market.
Now those that know the ways of the animal spirits profit from the neophytes in the forest. Nicodemus was obviously a shrewd investor and did everything by the law. He would have received his bonuses from AIG because it was perfectly legal. It wouldn’t matter that the peasant taxpayers were actually helping his business to stay afloat; it was all according to the rules of the game.
But we are all in the game. It is what it means to live in community. Bonds, stocks, insurance—all are ways to share the risks of living.
Life insurance was originally an idea dreamed up by a couple of Scottish Presbyterian ministers in the 18th century. In those days life expectancy was about 37. Robert Wallace and Alexander Webster, noted that one group of people seemed especially vulnerable to the consequences of premature death. The widow and children of a deceased minister of the Church of Scotland received only half a year’s stipend in the year of a minister’s death. After that nothing. They would be destitute. So they did some calculations and found that there were 930 ministers alive at any given time, 27 died each year, 18 of those left widows, 5 left children without a widow, etc. This meant that at any given time there would be 279 widows, so if each minister paid an annual premium of £2 12s 6d. This would create a fund to be invested to yield enough income to pay annuities to widows and orphans.
A good start to do what the Bible commands—to care for widows and orphans.
In 2005, U.S. hedge fund manager Edward Lampert gained control of Sears Roebuck in the U.S., becoming the controlling shareholder of Sears Canada. He would retain a controlling interest in Sears Canada, through Sears Holdings and later through his hedge fund, ESL & Associates, that has fluctuated, but which continues to this day.
Between Dec. 9, 2005 and Dec. 9, 2013, Sears Canada paid $3.4 billion in dividends to shareholders, including $2 billion in 2005, $377 million in 2010, $102 million in 2012 and $509 million in 2013.
The dividends were being funded by the sale of some of the company’s most important assets, including the Sears Credit and Financial Services operations, which was profitable and contributed a large portion of Sears Canada’s total earnings. It was sold for $2.4 billion in 2005. Sears sold leases to flagship stores in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. Between 2005 and 2011, the average dividend yield for Sears shareholders was 17.8 per cent, compared to the average dividend yield of approximately 3 per cent for companies on the TSX.
Now I imagine that Nicodemus was a hedge fund manager who comes to Jesus in the dark of night and asks if he should pay back half his dividends. He had just seen Jesus in the temple, turning over the tables of the moneychangers, and he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
And Jesus replies, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus, you have let the animal spirits control your life. It is based on greed rather than love. You go out and buy lottery tickets in the vain belief that your numbers will be chosen, a less than one in a million chance, that your life is more deserving to the lottery gods than anyone else. Your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million. Your chances of being killed by a car accident in Canada are one in 11,000.
Nicodemus, if you want real life, God’s eternal life, you need to treasure every day, every person, every moment. For that is the way of God’s kingdom. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-18 NRSV)
Eternal life is allowing love to fill your very being, replacing the greed that now rules your life. It is like being born all over again. And this love is not just for you, as if you have won the love lottery, it is for the whole world. It is for half of the world that live on less than $2 a day. It is for all the creatures whose lives are threatened by global warming. This love is for the whole world.
And just one more thing, says Jesus, this love is so important that I am willing to give my life for it. Now what are you going to do?