At the heart of what I want to share in this sermon is the simple biblical news that God is trustworthy. I take this to be an implication of our scriptural readings: in Genesis, God made promises to Sarah and Abraham; in the gospels we see God fulfilling these promises in ways they could have never imagined. God is trustworthy. That’s the message of Scripture.
Our own experience tells us that this trustworthiness does not mean we should expect God to magically intervene whenever things get tough. That God is trustworthy, doesn’t mean that we will end up healthy and wealthy. That God is trustworthy, doesn’t mean nobody will ever take advantage of us. That God is trustworthy, doesn’t mean that the way things are is the way things should be. That God is trustworthy, doesn’t mean that following God’s Word, following Jesus, will be free of sacrifice.
At point in the early 1600s Mennonite Christians in Amsterdam had what must have been a very interesting debate about investing. Some of you will question if any debate about investing could be interesting, but I think this is. You see, many of these Mennonites were wealthy. Not all of them, but many. And so one of the challenges they faced related to the companies in which they invested. In 1602 the Dutch government had created one of the first modern multi-national companies. As I understand it, this company was also the first in the world to sell stock to the public. As such, it was the first to be traded on an official stock exchange. I’m talking about the Dutch East India Company.
The Dutch East India Company ran for almost two centuries and it held the Dutch monopoly on the spice trade in what we would now call south-east Asia. The company had the power to build forts and to hire armies. It could make treaties. Company ships even seized foreign vessels, the Portuguese in particular, and confiscated their cargo at gunpoint.
The largest single original investor in the Dutch East India Company was a Mennonite named Pieter Lijntgens. Many other Mennonites, individuals whose names appear on church roles and baptismal records, women as well as men, made similar, if smaller, investments. Their hopes were high for a quick profit.
In the long run the profits were significant, but they were not immediate. However, for the Mennonite investors there was another problem: as I said, the company was making money through violence. In his book The Ascent of Money, the British historian, Naill Ferguson writes about the origins of the Dutch East India Company. He also tells us that Pieter Lijntgens sold his shares when he began to understand how much violence the company perpetuated across the East Indies.
Mennonite churches in the vicinity of Amsterdam and nearby Flemish territories were pressed to determine their position on such investments. At this point in time Mennonites were some of the wealthiest people in this part of the world. They were deeply invested in the local economy but also in international trade. And so the question was pressed: was is right to profit, even indirectly, from trade performed at the point of a sword or the muzzle of a canon? How could they possibly be competitive in business if the scope of their investments was limited in a way that didn’t apply to others?
This was a financial question, but it was also a relational question. It was a question that tugged at the substance of what one member of a church could expect of another, what a farmer on one side of the world might expect from a ship owner on the other, what human creatures might expect of a just and loving Creator.
During this Lenten season our congregation has given each of us the assignment of contemplating our relationships. The suggestion comes from the group who planned this season of our worship. We might think of it this through the traditional Lenten practices are prayer, fasting (abstinence) and giving. The idea behind these ancient practices is that they can help us see parts of our lives that need to be reset. Lent is a wonderful time for this.
Deliberately engaging in these spiritual practices can help us gain critical perspective on our own lives. The normal hum of things doesn’t often provide this. For most of us, it’s only when something goes seriously wrong that we give deep consideration to our relationships with others, with creation, with God, even our relationship with our self. The point of Lent, however, is that it is not the normal hum of things. Our visuals, our songs, or confessions, or scripture readings—they all invite critical self-reflection for the sake of renewal.
The truth is that our relationships change us. We cannot be in relationship with another and remain exactly who we are. If you’ve ever went to camp or to university and met someone with whom you really got along well, you know this. That person helped you discover new interests, new jokes, new movies, maybe even new beliefs. The longer we are in these relationships and the more committed we are to them, the more they make us who we are. Some of our relationships make us better people, and some probably make us worse. Not everyone is worthy of our trust. So, as these 17th century Dutch Mennonites discussed among themselves what made for a God-honoring investment, I imagine they considered their relationships.
The stories of Jesus in the gospels are centrally important for all Mennonite Anabaptists and I imagine this was true for the Dutch as well. And so it may well be that our reading today (Mark 8:31-38) came up in those conversations. Jesus tells us that following him means denying ourselves. He says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
You may be familiar with translations of this passage that say ‘soul’ instead of ‘life’ in that last sentence. The intent of the Greek (psyche) is something like ‘living breath’ or ‘energizing spirit’. The problem with using the word ‘soul’ is that it can make it look like Jesus is asking us to give up our bodies in exchange for our souls. That’s not what is going on here. What Jesus is asking is for us to give up our apparent lives for a deeper truer life. To give up a life that fits with the here and now for a life that fits with the new way. This new way of things is the way Jesus brings, a way that may at certain points be at odds with our culture’s priorities.
Maybe those old Dutch Mennonites, the kind who show up in Rembrandt’s paintings, discussed this passage as they thought about their investments. What use is it to us, they might have thought, if we gain all the spices in the Indies, but end up killing those made in God’s image. Is that loving our neighbour? Can we be followers of Jesus and treat people like that, even at arm’s-length through our investments?
What our spiritual forbearers decided was something like this: they could own stock in companies that engaged in international trade. However, they thought it best not to invest in ships that had canons on deck. They didn’t think they should make money by owning a stake in armed vessels.
I’m not sure to what extent they enforced this. We know they weren’t totally rigorous. We know it’s hard for leaders of any organization to criticize major donors. Nevertheless, the idea was that the presence of canon on a ship signified a type of trade in which they could not in good conscience participate. So, Pieter Lijntgens and others sold their stock in the Dutch East India Company.
Full disclosure: the historical nitpickers among us might want to note that Lijntgens was running out of capital at the time. His investment was highly leveraged, which might have given him an additional motive to sell. There are other things going on too . . . we could deconstruct the story, but let’s leave it there for a moment.
What if the basics do hold together? These people of faith thought their relationship with Jesus—their knowing Jesus, their having met Jesus, their following Jesus—was so significant that it affected what they would invest in. That, to any of us saving for university, a down payment or retirement, is not just a little disquieting. Getting out of a good investment because it doesn’t promote peace—that is strange stuff.
I can imagine that some of those Dutch folks might have wondered if the decision was be worth it. How did they know that giving up potentially huge returns, giving up their ‘lives’ in the language of our gospel reading, would net them something better? How could they have known that God was trustworthy? How can any of us, facing the Spirit’s call to make a change in our life, know that God is trustworthy?
I wonder if someone in their midst might have weighed in and said that God is worth trusting because God keeps promises. God is one who makes a covenant and keeps it, even when it becomes costly. After all, a core Christian assumption is that Jesus himself is the fulfillment of promises God made to the ambassador people, those ancient Hebrews, those children of Abraham and Sarah, throughout the Old Testament.
God promised Abram and Sarai that they would have children, even when they were old (Gen. 17:1-7,15-16). God promised that they would be numerous and that they would be God’s people. They would bless the world. And this very thing is what God was making sure of in the person of Jesus. God was keeping a promise. God was honoring a covenant.
The core of the scripture’s witness to God’s trustworthiness is Jesus. And it’s for the sake of this trustworthiness, this love, that Jesus would willingly suffer.
I’m fairly sure most of us have been in a situation where someone has given up on us or given up on being in relationship with us. There is little worse than that. For someone to look at you, for you to see in their eyes the history you share, and to hear them say, “I give up.” Nothing much can make us feel more like a failure or more worthless than hearing “I give up.”
God never says, “I give up.” When God makes a promise it’s a sure thing. When God says you are my people, I will make you fruitful, it makes a difference. It make such a difference that you may as well change your name. That’s exactly what happened to Sarai and Abram. They were joined to God through a covenant, a promise, a contract.
When God makes a commitment to you it changes things. You may as well change your name. Because God doesn’t give up. What God says to all of us is that we are loved: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son.” What God says to us through Jesus is that we are loved. Loved to the extent that in Jesus, God would bear the brunt of death’s power.
A question we might ask ourselves is to what extent our relationship with God is built on the assumption that God is trustworthy. Is our life wrapped in this assumption? Would it make sense without this assumption?
“No longer shall your name be . . . .” No longer shall your name be “one who doubts.” No longer shall your name be “one who is too timid to try.” No longer shall your name be “one who looks for revenge.” No longer shall your name be “one who couldn’t care less about a neighbour.” No longer shall your name be “one who makes money at any cost.” No longer shall your name be “one who is trapped by past mistakes.” No longer shall your name be “one who is hobbled by things done to you.”
In relationship with God, as members of the new covenant, your name shall be “one who trusts in God’s everlasting love.” And under that name, following Jesus, we may well do peculiar things: consider more than profit, work for reconciliation, live with hope, find beauty in the world ripped by violence and wake each morning with a deep sense that we matter to the Creator.
 I’m relying here on essays by the historian Mary Sprunger and others.