(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved

Most of us have seen or heard MasterCard commercials.  Their recurring tagline is: “There are some things in life money can’t buy.  For everything else, there’s MasterCard.”  This slogan has been used for almost twenty years – one of the longest advertising campaigns by any company, at any time.  It has won numerous awards.  It’s been translated into multiple languages and shown around the world.  The campaign has flourished under the leadership of four different MasterCard CEO’s.  As many analysts note, the ads takes a simple and universal truth and applies it to real life.

The first commercial in the campaign was shown during the 1997 World Series.  It showed a father and son cheering, laughing and enjoying a baseball game together.  The voice over words to that scene were short and simple.  “Two tickets: $46; two hot dogs, two popcorns, two sodas: $27; one autographed baseball: $50; real conversation with 11-year-old son: Priceless.”  And then the MasterCard logo appears on the screen with the famous tagline.  That’s all there was to it, and yet the commercial became one of the most successful ads ever.

What is profound about the commercial is that it touches on how we might think about money and material things.  As an example, the current Apple I-Phone 7 costs $225 to manufacture, advertise and sell.  But the retail price of the phone, which is never discounted, is $649.  Even for high priced products, that is a huge increase.  Allowing for a reasonable profit margin, an I-Phone should be priced around $350 to $400.  But, despite its premium price, tens of millions of people around the world buy one.

Why do people pay such a price for I-Phones?  Because most consumers believe they add tremendous value to their lives.  For me, I use my I-Phone 6 as my banker.  I’ve not set foot in a bank for years.  I deposit checks, pay bills, and manage my finances on it.  I also use it as my GPS driving guide.  I read the New York Times on it.  I watch movies on it.  I text, email and even write parts of Sunday messages on it.  It is almost invaluable to me.  I am more than willing to pay a high premium for an I-Phone.

Economists say that the goal for any organization is to maximize the value of what they provide that is well above the cost to produce it.  As consumers, we don’t judge a product on the cost of its component parts and the labor put into it.  We judge a product based on the value it does or does not provide.  The MasterCard commercial speaks to this point.  A credit card enables someone to pay for the cost of baseball tickets.  Most games are fun experiences, but they are often barely remembered two weeks later.  More importantly, however, is the idea that a credit card also enables someone to reap the increased value of a baseball game.  If it allows you to share meaningful time with someone you love – your daughter or son for example – the cost of the tickets are trivial.  You’d gladly spend thousands if they helped create valuable lifetime memories.  As Warren Buffet – who is one of the world’s most successful businessmen says, “Price is what you pay.  VALUE is what you get.”

And that frames my message theme for this month of Thanksgiving. How can sharing the three primary things we “own” in life – our treasure, our time and our talent – help us have a stronger attitude of gratitude?  Yes, we should each be grateful for these three life gifts but, more importantly, how does sharing these things help us live with an attitude of gratitude?

  Jennifer Schmahl and Dave Hester just spoke to us about the importance of today’s celebration.  Today is our annual event to share and pledge our treasure in order to insure that this place will be well funded for another year.   As we think about that, today IS a reason to celebrate!

But I also understand how some people might think their church’s pledge Sunday is not one to celebrate.  In some churches, Pledge Sunday might as well be called “Stick-up Sunday”.  In those churches, the minister and other leaders command members to part with larges sums of their hard earned money.  At one church I won’t name, on a recent pledge Sunday, the minister shouted to his congregation, “You all are going to think I’m crazy, but God says give again!  God says give everything; don’t hold anything back!”

The church band then played very upbeat music and this minister shouted, “God says run to the altar and give!”  Members surged forward and gave not just lots of money, but their expensive shoes, watches and diamond rings.

A church like that employs guilt, obligation and religious bribery to cajole people into giving.  God will withhold her blessings if you don’t give enough, they say.  She will reward you if you give a lot.

But an important question needs to be asked.  What motivates such church members to give?  Is it because they deeply want to give?  Is it because they value and are grateful for all of the things they gain from being a member?  Or, are they giving out of compulsion and a desire not to look bad in the eyes of others – or to somehow gain admission to heaven? 

Fortunately, Celebration or Pledge Sundays are not like that here.  Nor is any other Sunday.  We trust one another to give according to what our hearts and minds honestly lead us to give.  No guilt.  No judgement.  No false bribery.

But if we are to use our hearts and minds to guide us in what our annual pledge should be, I encourage us each to remember the universal truth found in the MasterCard commercial.  That advertising message speaks about our treasure – our money and material things – but it also importantly addresses the idea of gratitude for our countless priceless blessings.  Such are things money can’t buy like contentment, health, love, a life legacy, or meaning and purpose.  And, just like those rewards, so too are the blessings we receive here – the kinds of things which money makes happen but which are of intangible value.    

In that regard, perhaps we might re-frame the MasterCard commercial in a way that speaks to the Gathering at Northern Hills.  Building maintenance and repairs: $10,000; Office supplies, internet and telephone: $7250; Sunday morning music supplies, guest speaker fees and Quimby room hospitality supplies: $6795; staff payroll and benefits: $85,000; empowering and changing lives for the better, Priceless.”

Or, regarding our charitable outreach work, a commercial might say, Lunch food for 125 children, $256; gasoline to transport the food, supplies, and twelve volunteers, $30; cost of staff time to plan and implement the outreach, $185; cooking for, serving, loving on and eating lunch with 125 kids who have no place to call home, Priceless.”

And these are but two examples of many other MasterCard-like commercials that could be produced about us.  The cost of things provided here are substantial.  It costs a lot to heat and cool our building.  My salary and health insurance make up approximately 35% of this year’s budget.   The supplies we use in our office, the computer and copier we use to help make Sundays happen, they are not cheap.

But the most important line item in those calculations, one that is impossible to put in our budget, is the intangible value this congregation gains as a result of money spent.  What is the value of experiences you have here?  What is the value of the friends you’ve made here and the time you spend with them?  What value do you place on the feelings and experiences you gain from serving on a committee, teaching our children, managing our hospitality or volunteering with us at the Freestore, Lighthouse Center for Youth, UpSpring or Inter-Faith Hospitality Network? 

How much value do you apply to insights or ways you might be moved by a message from me or a guest speaker? How valuable to you is Michael’s music that entertains and inspires you?  How valuable are the many ways this congregation affects all of our lives – how GNH challenges us to listen to our better angels, how it prompts our compassion impulses, how it enables us to serve the least of those in our society?

I imagine the value of all of these things are priceless.  Many of them are hopefully invaluable to you.  They are things that have helped determine who you are, how you think and how you strive to be at home, work and play. 

Our budget for the current year is approximately $150,000.  It will likely be higher in 2017 and, as Dave reported, we’re losing income from no longer renting our space.  Whatever the 2017 budget is, I believe with all of my heart that all we offer and do here in a year’s time, that all we do for ourselves, our families, our children, and those who live on the margins of life – that all of these things add up to a year’s value far, far in excess of $150,000.

If that is the case, then how do we determine what to pledge according to the cost plus extra value that we receive?  The Unitarian Universalist Association has prepared a tool that helps anyone reasonably determine what to pledge based on two factors.  First: what can you or your family afford to give based on annual income?  Second: what is the value you or your family believe you get from this community?

If you will, please look at the Fair Share table that is an insert in your programs.  As you will note on the first page, if one is a “Supporter” of the Gathering at Northern Hills, that means the congregation is a significant part of his or her life.  At the next level, one is a “Sustainer” of the congregation if it is a central part of one’s life.  A person is a “Visionary” if the congregation has a unique or special importance in one’s life.  Finally, one is a “Transformer” if the he or she is fully and totally committed to the success of the congregation.

Once you determine what the Gathering at Northern Hills means to you – which is the extra value you believe you get here – it is then a matter of finding your monthly income level and pledging the Fair Share per cent of that income.   

       For example, someone who considers himself or herself to be a “Sustainer”, and who makes $50,000 annually, can see that the Fair Share table recommends a pledge of 4% of monthly income – or $160.00 per month.  That person has reasonably determined this congregation enjoys a central role in his or her life and that, most likely, he or she believes the value of its services exceeds the costs.  A “Visionary” or “Transforming” giver believes the value received greatly exceeds the budgeted costs.

The beauty of the Fair Share table is that you determine how much value you believe you get.  The Board has no idea what category you place yourself.  I don’t either.  Only our Treasurer knows who pledges what and is kept strictly confidential.  Ministers can and should speak to the importance of supporting a community like ours.  But ministers should never have access to church bank accounts nor should they know who gives, and the amounts given.  In my eyes, every member and every visitor is equal, no matter what they give.  I am able to treat everyone with the same respect and love precisely because I have no idea who pledges and the amount they pledge.

The ultimate point in this message is to remind each of us that money is a tool by which we pay for goods and services.  As a tool, however, it serves its purpose objectively, but without feeling and heart.  Money is a great tool for determining the cost of things, but it’s imperfect in determining the intangible value of things.  My encouragement to us all is that when we consider the gratitude for all that we have – family, friends, this congregation, life itself – we cannot just think of their costs.  Money can buy a house, but it cannot make a home.  Money can pay for a minister and a church building, but it cannot create a beloved and inspirational community.  If you live in a house that is also a nurturing home because of the people in it, you have a thing of priceless value.  If we are a part of a congregation that inspires and deeply cares for others, then we a part of something with priceless value.

I encourage us each to contemplate the value of this community and then use the Fair Share table to pledge accordingly.  If we do that, I believe the gratitude we have for ALL things in life will lead us to greater contentment, and a realization of the priceless wealth we possess.

And I wish you each much peace and joy.

While Michael plays some background music, let us now take a few minutes to quietly reflect on the value we receive from this community.  At the conclusion of this service, if you wish, you may drop a completed 2017 pledge sheet into the locked box at the sanctuary exit.  Thank you all!