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"Where is Your Treasure?"

A Sermon Based on Luke 12:22-34

Churches are notorious in America for asking for people’s money. (!) Even TV preachers have a 1-800-number so viewers can pledge from home; (!) But that’s true even here in Alpena… First Congregational UCC survives financially from your “tax deductible” contributions, your tithes and offerings.

In Germany and Switzerland (where Patty & I lived a few years; where I pastored my first church after seminary), churches are supported by a set percentage of tax revenues, so no one has to “pay” anything into a collection plate to be in a parish. (!) The cost of running the church is simply deducted from a person’s payroll taxes, whether or not they attend worship services. (!) In America, however, churches are separate institutions from the government, and we rely on our members’ “charitable donations” to meet our ministry budget.

Two years ago, when the IRS raised the “individual” personal deduction, the tax-deductability of “charitable contributions” became less of an incentive. Now, you have to give away more than $12,000 to charity before it adds anything to your automatic “tax-deduction”. There is no telling how many people chose to give less to charity because that money no longer counts as an additional deduction. I would hope that (here at First Church), if we believe in what we’re doing as a congregation, we probably still want to support it. (!) The values we represent here in Alpena as inclusive, progressive Christians -- and the relationships that we have nurtured over the years -- are priceless.(!) I doubt that our members give to us simply for a “tax write-off”. (!) I believe it’s a deeper commitment than that.

But then, I could be wrong. (!) Please, regardless of the tax implications, continue to give generously! This church is an unique asset in Alpena; our voice is needed. (!) I encourage you, as Jesus put it in today’s reading: to invest your treasures where your heart is!

“Do not seek,” says Jesus, “what you are to eat and drink, nor be of anxious mind. (That is, do not keep worrying!) The nations of the world seek these things, and God (your Father) knows that you need them… Instead, strive for God’s kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Provide for yourselves purses that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

In polite society, we don’t usually speak about “treasures on earth” -- our money -- neither how much we have, nor how we use it. Money is a “private” matter, a lot like sex… We don’t go around telling people how we do it, how often we do it, if we do it, nor with whom we do it. What goes on in your bedroom stays in your bedroom, if you ask me! (OK?)

In the same way, too, most folks don’t know how much money you have, how you spend it or save it, nor what you use it for. (!) Oh, yeah, we see the car you drive; we may know the kind of house you live in, maybe even know something about a second house in Florida… But we don’t know how that’s all financed. You may be up to your ears in debt, and the conspicuous consumption is all for show!

Except for the annual Stewardship campaign in the Fall and the Budget meeting in January, here at First Congregational, I would just as soon we never mention your “Treasure” – your money. That’s because I don’t want any of you to feel guilty because you are not giving enough of your Time, Talents, & Treasures…

… those are the three “T”s that an active member is expected to contribute to our church: (1) your time, attending regularly; (2) your talents as a volunteer, coffee hour host, choir member, or board officer; and (3) your treasure: financial support of our staff & programs. It costs $256,000 a year to run our church as we do now. That’s a lot to ask of a mere 150 members! So, thank you for your gifts, your tithes & offerings. You can be proud of what we are doing.

Some of us may be fairly well-off and feel comfortable with our standard of living; others of us are scarcely scraping by, paycheck to paycheck. Working hard, maybe with two jobs… unable to get ahead.

For many people, this is a time of anxiety about money! Just consider the state of the global economy -- with tariffs on imports from China raising consumer prices in our stores and closing a major market for our agricultural produce… with lowered interest rates on Treasury notes (and hardly anything on our bank CD’s and money-market funds!) … as well as the general decline in our American standard of living (the next generation does not expect to live as well as their parents had done)… with mounting job losses in the automotive industries and in local businesses… with stagnant wages for nearly a decade, and the elimination of employer-provided benefits … and, now, a drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average on Wall Street, where our Pension Funds are invested…

Just this week, The Alpena News reported[1]: “Stocks plunge on Wall Street as US-China trade war escalates” : Stocks are plunging

on Wall Street on worries about how much President Donald Trump’s

escalating trade war with China will damage the economy. Majoy U.S.

indexes are headed for their biggest drops since early last year. … The

escalations in the trade war between the world’s largest economies are

rattling investors already unnerved about a slowing global economy &

falling U.S. corporate profits. … Losses were steep and world-wide as the

sell-off that began Monday in Asia swept westward through Europe to the

Americas. Investors in search of safety herded into U.S. government

bonds, which sent yields plunging lower. The yield on a 10-year Treasury

note … fell… to 1.73%... The yield on the 2-year note sank to 1.58%. …

The Dow Jones Industrial Average sank 861 points (or 3.2%) to 25, 620

… the biggest drop since February 2018. The Standard & Poor 500 lost

3.4% and the Nasdaq composite dropped 4%.”

How are ordinary folks like us expected to ever get a grip on the assumptions and anxieties we have about money, if we don’t look them in the eye and ask God to help us to regain some control over our money -- reclaiming our “treasure on earth” in a pro-active way!?

Last Sunday we talked about a successful farmer who had more wealth stored up than he knew what to do with. With that story from Jesus as a backdrop, I want you to consider your cash this morning -- your assets and investments, your working capital, your “treasure” -- like you would if it were “a friend”. Warm up to it… as a topic that deserves thinking about… deserves some time and attention… yes, even in church!

I want us to think a bit this morning about how we handle our money. Last week it was a case-study on how one short-sighted, self-centered, wealthy man made plans to keep it all for himself, and to build even bigger storehouses for the future. “Take your ease. Eat, drink, and be merry,” he told himself, “for I have ample goods laid up for many years.” (Luke 12:19) But he died the next day. (!) Jesus asked the crowd: So, the things he had prepared for himself, whose will they be? It was something for his inheritors to fight over. – Today, I want you to bring it home to your own assets.

Now, I’m not going to tell you how to spend your money; nor am I going to ask you for it. So relax... (We’re two or three months away from the Stewardship Campaign!)

I want you to get a grip on how you think about money. I want us to pay attention to how we feel about money. You see, with all the anxiety in our society about money & investments, I suspect many of us have a sort of knee-jerk response to “money matters” unlike any other aspect of our lives.

We hold on so tight to every dollar, it seems, we can almost hear the old eagle scream! Why is that? After all, in the daily business news we read about how well our economy is doing just now... The President congratulates himself on the Dow being up! Both Houses of Congress, with both parties agreeing, have just signed a two-year budget with the President to raise the national debt ceiling by another one-and-a-quarter trillion dollars for each of the next two years, so that out-of-control Congressional spending won’t have to be cut. According to the Congressional Budget Office, this higher debt ceiling will allow federal debt this year to equal 78% of our Gross Domestic Product. And the CBO report continues: “The prospect for such high and rising debt poses substantial risks for the nation…”[2]

Every year since the financial melt-down in 2008, more than a trillion new dollars have been printed by our federal government… sent out to the banks & brokerage houses of America – some of it is committed to higher military spending with a matching increase in human welfare “entitlement” spending… and yet money is still in short supply on the local level. Student loan-debt has exploded – college students jusy starting out already owe $1.6 trillion dollars to America’s banks![3] Further, household debt is weighing families down.

You know how it’s said: “We’ve been so low for so long that down looks like up to us.” That’s the relentless bad news so many people are still living with, a decade after the Wall Street debacle.

The good news, though, is that the value of all Wall Street investments has doubled! Just before the Recession hit 11 years ago, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was 13,136 – since then, the Recovery has raised stocks and bonds to almost 26,000 today. The Wall Street banks and investment houses, hedge fund managers and brokers, and shareholders large & small, have doubled their money (on paper) than when it crashed back in 2008. Those who own Wall Street investments (and CEO’s who get bonuses) are tickled pink!

But for ordinary working people, these are uncertain times! And potential hard-times may come at us from any direction: sudden catastrophic illness or chronic health care costs can quickly eat up one’s assets; or a change of jobs, downsizing; retirement. Jesus says: “I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on.” … After all, he says, being anxious “cannot add even a cubit to your span of life”. (!) So, do not be of anxious mind. Easy to advise; hard to do, when one is worried.

People are worried about their shrinking retirement portfolios, the already over-spent Social Security/Medicare program, the ever-ballooning federal deficit, over a trillion dollars each year under the last President and this one as well! – and a federal debt of 22 trillion dollars! Not to mention Michigan’s governor’s plan to increase gas taxes and other fees in the coming fiscal year. (Come on Lansing: how can schools and state offices plan for the future with no budget?)

Consumer buying relies on people having money! The Alpena News article says: “The biggest threat coming out of this past week is that all the uncertainty about trade will scare CEOs and shoppers away from spending… which starts a vicious cycle of less and less economic activity.”[4]

That’s one reason people get nervous when “money” is mentioned. We just don’t feel that we have enough of it!

My sermon title asks: “Where is Your Treasure?” -- Well, Rev. Lance, I wish I had some! The question is moot when you’re in debt! Even if our job is secure, and our house is paid-off, we may still be frightened by all the doom-&-gloom economic “forecasters” for the future. Even if we are comfortable now (like the lucky farmer in last Sunday’s parable), we fear that our retirement annuity, our IRAs and 401(k)s won’t last as long as our lives! We’re afraid to “gamble” with the high cost of medical health care as we age.

Not knowing what to do with our money just now, combined with the fear of not having enough, is only half the story… Frankly, the “money messages” that control our financial behavior may be based in our feelings of having too much money as easily as on our fears of having too little. There may be sub-conscious guilt about doing so well when others have so little. Back in Torrance (after the Recession hit), I went down to ¾ time… and I felt good about it, knowing I was saving the church some money it didn’t have. It was a minimal sacrifice on my part that helped the whole; and it gave me a second day off in the week to get other stuff done. Win-Win!

The bad feeling we may have if we think we have too much money -- too many holdings (when others are losing theirs), too many possessions -- is called “affluenza” -- the social discomfort and ailments that come from being too affluent: symptoms of greed, sloth, over-indulgent gluttony, the pride of conspicuous consumption, things like that. Frankly, those feelings may partly be due to things that we’ve heard in church! How often have we heard stories about the “filthy rich”, or sermons about the “love of money” being “the root of all evil”? What do we do with those uncomfortable feelings, if we can’t talk about them?

Jesus says: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. [Seek that] unfailing treasure in heaven… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In his name, I ask you to think: where is Your Treasure? Have you taken inventory lately?

Jesus says: “Do not keep striving,… and do not keep worrying! All the nations of the world strive after these things… Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.”

Those are nice, reassuring words from Jesus, when we realize that, in fact, we do have enough money. Yes, we can sell some some things, down-size our living habits, cut back on our lifestyle a bit; we can give to charity (alms).

I believe that too much of our “money behavior” is based on our fears, not on reality... and it’s certainly not based on faith. Ask yourself: where is my treasure? -- because Jesus says, that’s where you’ll find your heart.

May it be a good place. Amen.

[1] The Alpena News, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, page 6A

[2] The Alpena News, Star Parker, “Ownership, not government spending, will shrink wealth gap”, Friday, Aug. 2, 2019, page 4-A

[3] The Alpena News, George Will, “What do 2020 Dems and 1919 World Series have in common?”, Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, page 4-A

[4] Op cit, Tuesday, Aug. 6

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