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A Wonder-Full Life: Looking In

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Matthew 6:19-21, and 24

 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. . . . No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth.”

One of the difficult things about parenting is that there are no absolutes.  Even the experts have different opinions and what works for one child may be the opposite of what the next one needs.  Experts do seem to agree that infants need to develop the ability to self-soothe—they just disagree on how we teach them to do that.  Babies who learn to comfort themselves can wake up in the middle of the night and go back to sleep without waking a parent.  We don’t outgrow our need for self-soothing or comforting.  We just prefer terms that sound a little more mature, like coping strategies.  I think many of our unhealthy behaviors stem from a need for comfort.  How many of you will admit that you occasionally engage in retail therapy?  I don’t feel good—I’m kind of down—I think I need new shoes.

Psychology Today has a series called “The Why Behind the Buy: Understanding consumerism and why we buy.”  It includes an article by Dr. Kit Yarrow called “Why ‘Retail Therapy’ Works,” and she explains the psychological rewards of shopping.  The first is that it helps during times of transition.  She writes: “Shopping can be a rich source of mental preparation.  As people shop, they’re naturally visualizing how they’ll use the products     they’re considering, and in doing so, they’re also visualizing their new life. . .. It’s no wonder, then, that two of the most shop-intensive times of our lives are also two of life’s greatest transitions: getting married and having a baby.  The purchases themselves are only part of the allure; shopping — and visualizing — is preparation, and it makes people feel more in control and less anxious about these big transitions.”[1]  It helps us feel more secure.

Money often means safety—it’s just that what makes us feel “safe” changes.  When I was thirteen, as long as I had $10 to spend and a quarter to call home, I was fine.  It takes a lot more than $10.25 to make me feel secure today.  Many experts say that those in their working years should have the equivalent of 3-6 months of your income tucked away for emergencies.  Some in this room have way more than that, and others can’t pay this month’s bills, let alone save six months’ worth.  If you’re in the latter group, would that make you feel secure?  If you’re financially “comfortable,” what do you need to feel secure?  Some magic number in your 401k or investment portfolio?  The assurance that you will have enough money to last until you die?  The assurance that you can leave an inheritance for your children?  What do you need to feel safe?  You see, the goal line keeps moving.  As soon as we get near it, then obviously it’s not enough.  We need more and more and more until saving becomes hoarding.

I posted something on Facebook this week that I found astonishing.  If you worked full-time at $2,000 an hour, every year since the birth of Jesus, and you never paid taxes and you never spent a dime of it, you would have 8.3 billion dollars.  And 30 Americans would still have more money than you.

When is enough enough?  Never.  Because we’re using money to serve a purpose it should never serve.  We’re using money to make us feel safe.  I sometimes think we were wrong to put “In God we trust” in our money, because for most of us, it’s the money we trust.  That’s not the only way we misuse money.  We also use money to make us feel valued . . .which is why I hate the term “net worth.”        I understand the concept.  I just hate the term because your worth will never be defined by the property you own or the investments you possess, or the total lack thereof.  This brings us to two important questions:  Are you letting money determine your value?  And are you letting money determine your values?

In our scripture for today Jesus is quoted as saying, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Where is your heart?  What is your heart’s treasure?  If we had screens in our worship space, I would have asked you to send me photos of what you treasure, so that I could project our treasures for all to see.  When I thought this, I envisioned my email full of smiling faces, family memories, new loves and long-term loves and long-gone loves.  I wouldn’t have received a single bank statement.  None of you would have sent me your deeds or titles or stocks.

What else do you treasure?  Friends?  Community?  The arts?  Education?  This church?  Does the way you spend your money accurately reflect what you say you value?  I wouldn’t say that dining out is one of my values, but my bank statement says it is.  Noah benShea, a poet philosopher, scholar and theologian, wisely says “Either the key to a man’s wallet is in his heart, or the key to a man’s heart is in his wallet.”

Our scripture says, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

 Scholars tell me that in Hebraic thought, hate and love “do not mean two extreme and opposite emotions…. They often mean less or more love.  Similarly despise means less devotion.” [2]  So Jesus isn’t saying we have to hate money, or despise wealth, or mistrust those who have it.  We just can’t let money be the boss.  “Jesus seems to know what we know deep down: we are not good spiritual multitaskers.  We have a hard time focusing on two things at once: we cannot serve both God and wealth. [3]

At the continuing education conference I attended last week, we did an exercise where we listed our top ten core values; and then we were supposed to rank them, by comparing each one and seeing which got most votes.  So which do I value more: justice or peace?  One man in my small group had trouble with this exercise.  I had heard him say earlier in the week that one of his core values was excellence.  He values excellence in preaching, excellence in liturgy, excellence in music.  In fact, it’s hard for him to worship other places because they lack excellency.  Then he was forced to choose between excellence and love.  He said, “I mean, obviously, love is more important.  What kind of jerk would I have to be to say excellence was more important than love?”  But I could tell by the look on his face that he was really considering whether he actually practiced what he claimed, or if, in truth, love came second.  You see, we do a pretty good job of compartmentalizing our lives.  This box is work, and this box is family, and this box is church, and this box is everything else.  But everything is connected and affects another.  Have you tried to work when someone in your family was gravely ill?  Have you attended a child’s middle school band concert when you had a major deadline looming at work?  Then you know it’s not easy to separate those feelings and pressures.  And that box containing “everything else” has a lot of important stuff in it—like sexuality and politics and money.  Our money and our faith are not in separate boxes any more than our vote is separate from our faith.  They are connected, interwoven, inextricably linked.

It’s pretty easy for us to say we treasure people above profits and portfolios.  It’s pretty easy for us to say our treasures are the people in our lives.  But that’s not what the scripture says.  It says our treasure should be in heaven.  I was stopped in my sermon preparation—as I often am—by asking “But what does that actually mean?”  It’s hard to say when I doubt we all agree on what heaven is, much less how our treasure should be there.  Some of us believe heaven is a place we go when we die, and others of us probably consider heaven to be a state of being, and others aren’t sure there’s anything after this life.  So what does it mean that our treasure should be in heaven?

The best explanation I’ve come up with isn’t an answer, but another question: what is eternal?  That is what we should invest in.  We invest in what lasts beyond this life.  Some Native American tribes teach that we should make decisions for the seventh generation after us. I’m pretty sure that means taking care of this planet, for future generations.  We invest in what makes the world a better place, in those aspects of our lives that we want to last.  We invest—not just with our money, but with our time and devotion—in mercy, in justice, in love not just for some but for all.  Then we all will have a wonderful life, and a life full of wonder.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-why-behind-the-buy/201305/why-retail-therapy-works

[2] http://www.crivoice.org/matt6b.html

[3] https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-scripture-luke-1232-40-maryann-mckibben-dana/

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