“The Great Tulip Boom and Bust”

This was the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 19 September 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 8: 19 – 9: 1, 1 Timothy 2: 1 – 7, and Luke 16: 1 – 13.


There is a certain irony to the parables and encounters with Jesus. The problem is that we do not often see the irony. A woman comes to the village well at mid-day, seeking both to gather water for her family and, as it turns out, to avoid the crowds that would be at the well in the early morning. When she leaves the well and her encounter with Jesus, she seeks out crowds to proclaim the majesty and the glory that is Christ.

A group comes to Jesus, seeking his wisdom and guidance. It seems that they have caught a woman in the act of adultery and they wanted to know if stoning is the appropriate punishment. Yet, they all leave when Jesus allows that the one who is without sin may cast the first stone. They came expecting to find that the power to control granted them righteousness but left finding out that righteousness was not a product of earthly power.

Throughout Jesus’ entire ministry, the people sought a kingdom on the earth and missed the message of the eternal kingdom in Heaven that was theirs for the asking. As I said, there was a certain irony in what Jesus said and did and what we heard and did in return.

The same is true for the parable for today. We read of a foreman who has been charged with squandering the property of his master. The master, apparently believing those around him, fires the foreman. The foreman immediately slashes the amounts owed the owner in order to settle the accounts and close the books. And as Jesus is telling this parable, he is commending the foreman for what are seemingly illegal or, at least, unethical acts.

We school our children to be honest and here is a passage where Jesus commends dishonesty. Did something get lost in the translation? Did Luke, in writing the stories of Jesus miss something? Or was it that something was left out?

This was a time of the Roman occupation of Israel. It was a time of high and oppressive taxes. Remember that tax collectors were considered sinners, not only because they were for the most part Israelites working for the Romans but also because they often collected more than was required, keeping the balance. In about a month, we shall encounter Zacchaeus, the tax collector. In repenting, Zacchaeus gives back up to four times what he collected, so it is clear that what he had collected was far more than was needed.

It has been suggested that those who had to pay the taxes had to do the same; that is, they had to raise the prices of the goods they made and sold far above their true worth in order to pay their taxes and have something left over. So it is that when the foreman slashes the prices that his manager is owed, he is merely asking for what is actually owed.  (Adapted from "Belated Ingenuity" by James Howell – sermon notes for September 19, 2004 — additional notes by John Howard Yoder, "The Politics of Jesus")

It was, if you will, the popping of the bubble. We have come out of what financial people call the "great dot.com collapse." During the past few years, the price for various Internet and telecom related stocks rose far more rapidly than the actual value of the material and goods that the companies were producing. But this financial bubble was not the first time; prices for goods were far in excess of the value of the goods. We can look back to Holland in the 16th century and see that people have placed greater value on things than the things were actually worth.

Tulips came to the Low Countries (Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg) from Turkey in 1559. Within ten years, single bulbs were fetching prices approaching the million-dollar range in today’s prices. Driven by the thought of instance wealth, individuals in the middle and lower classes were mortgaging their homes and businesses in order to buy the bulbs. But market collapsed, leaving investors penniless and worse.

But apparently, nobody learned from this boom and bust cycle. In the early 1700’s investors in Great Britain, including Isaac Newton, were pouring all of their savings into what became known as the South Sea Bubble. Based on unrealistic expectations of future profits, prices paid for shares reached extraordinary levels. And then the petals fell off. ("Investment bubble blues" by Bruce Cameron, published on the web at http://www.persfin.co.za on 11 July 2003)

There have been schemes and plans throughout the ages. The one I like was the one where what was being sold and what it would do were unknown. Yet, people poured their money into it. And this was in the 1700’s. Our own economic history is documented by great schemes and plans which only culminated in the bubbles bursting in 1929, 1967, and most recently in the 1990’s. All have been based on the notion of large profits from very little investment. And when the truth becomes apparent, when it becomes apparent that deception is more the driving force than reality, the bubble bursts and we are faced with the crisis of the moment.

Go back and read the Gospel messages for the past few weeks. These readings have spoken about the friends we choose, how we spend our time, and how we use our wealth. In this, the sixteenth chapter of Luke, we are familiar with who Jesus eats dinner with and how He feels about wealth. We sympathize with the rich young ruler who has been turned away because he cannot give up his wealth; we have watched in amazement and perhaps delight as the prostitute washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. We even possibly made notes about the proper place to sit if invited to eat at someone else’s house.

Now we read of a worker faced with a crisis; a crisis not too different from what many workers today are encountering. This worker must quickly determine a course of action that will secure his future. Urgency defines his reality. But is this crisis any less urgent than the crisis others face each day, the crisis that Jesus interjects into our lives? Some how, to hear Jesus say "follow me" doesn’t pack the same punch as Donald Trump saying, "you’re fired!"

Yet, even if "follow me" sounds subtler, it too has high urgency and it too requires a life-changing response from us. Today, Jesus is telling us — one more time — that how we live right now has important consequences for God’s kingdom.

The presence of Jesus places a crisis in our midst. We cannot hear the call and give no answer. Even silence is answer, after all in silence we are saying no. And if our answer is yes, the decision to follow Jesus is not the end of the crisis but only the beginning. The crisis confronts us daily through the values we hold, the relationships we form, and even the way we use our money. Each little choice we make every day has important repercussions for God’s future. The time is at hand. How we will live into God’s future now that we know God’s expectations of us for the present? (Adapted from "Shrewd Investment" by Jennifer E. Copeland, Christian Century, September 7, 2004)

The words of Jeremiah speak to us today. Jeremiah speaks of the people of Israel trying to find solace and hope in other things. One of the commentaries that I use says that the Hebrew words for "foreign idols" was "foreign futilities." Jeremiah was noting that the people looked for deliverance in useless and motionless images. Instead of trusting in the covenant with God, they sought their future elsewhere. And they quickly found out that there was no future, no hope. We sing of the balm in Gilead but it is gone; the one thing that will ease our pain is not there.

Paul reminds us that our future is not found on earth but in Heaven and that whatever price we may wish to pay for admission, it is not enough. The price to pay has been paid by the blood of Christ. No matter what we do, God will have God’s future.

So what shall we do? We are called to take care of God’s world, to know our lives are God’s. But we have spent so many hours and days living for ourselves. We like to have money, to eat and drink, to enjoy the rewards of the powerful. Pray each day, reflect on God’s word, or serve the poor? Those are the actions of fools in this day and time. But are those not the things that we should be doing? Have we not squandered our master’s gifts? (Adapted from "Belated Ingenuity" by James Howell – sermon notes for September 19, 2004)

I always hope that these words go beyond the boundaries of this building, for that is what the Gospel is supposed to do. We live in a time when the response to violence is more violence. We live in a time and a society where a person’s appearance is more important than what is inside that person.

I know that I have told this story before, though perhaps not here. In November of 1965, Linda Fuller told her husband that she was leaving him. So absorbed had he been in his business and the making of 1 million dollars a year that he failed to see her slipping away from him. Panicked by this wake-up call, he gathered together his children and took them and his wife south to Florida.

On the way, they stopped to visit friends in Georgia. This was how Millard Fuller came to meet Clarence Jordan. And from this meeting and from the challenge that Clarence Jordan put before Millard Fuller came the idea for Habitat for Humanity.

We are not called to do something spectacular. But we are called to be resourceful and use what we have been given. At our disposal we have hope in God’s justice, faith in God’s peace, and trust in God’s grace. These are the best possible resources. In using them, others will say, "the master commended them because they acted shrewdly."

Those that bought into the great tulip craze of the 16th century and all the other great speculative ventures that have transpired and got out before the market collapsed were all "shrewd" investors. But somewhere along the line, there was that one person who was the last person left; the one person who would lose it all when the market collapsed. The foreman in the gospel was the last in line.

But his actions allow him to acquire the greater rewards of friendship and the gratitude of his neighbors and those from whom he acted unkindly. Jesus declared "practice the jubilee which I am announcing. By liberating others from their debts to you, liberate yourself from the bonds that keep you from being ready for the kingdom of God."1

The interesting thing about the great Tulip Boom and Bust was that you bought the tulips before they bloomed. Your expectations of great wealth and security were based on something that had not happened. And there was every bit the chance that instead of a spectacular bloom, it would be a bust and your fortune would be wiped out. Would it not be a great thing if, through our faith in God and the uses of the resources given to us, that we have the most beautiful bloom ever known?

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