Monday, December 11, 2017

Sermon: Where Do You Find Peace?

         Here we are in Advent—the season of emergence, arrival, revelation.
         A time like the shout of a messenger arriving at an execution at the last moment carrying papers signed by a judge and shouting “innocent, innocent!”
        
         But this season is also like driving your car to a new place for the first time.
         The drive back always feels quicker—because you are no longer looking so carefully, you don’t pay as close attention.
         In fact, by the 100th drive there, it feels like the car drives itself.
         So too Advent—we’ve driven this road a long time—Christians have observed and practiced Advent in some form for at least 1,650 years--and by now we often see our destination as Christmas, so we don’t notice the budding blessings of Advent
--we don’t rest in the strengthening power of Peace,
--We don’t lean into the bracing and crisp wind of Hope,
--we aren’t buoyed up by the enduring buoyancy of Joy,
--we don’t revel in the moving and empowering radiance of Love
We skip over the precious gifts of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.
We don’t let Advent interrogate our lives to help us find its treasures.
But this morning at least, let’s ask, “Where can you find peace?”
Prayer

Where can you find peace?
         Isaiah reminds us that one of the places to find peace is in The astonishing
The unexpected
The startling.
Find peace in 39 chapters of condemnation / cut clean through by the prophet’s clarion call:
“Comfort O Comfort.”
In scripture answering scripture—this response to the Book of Lamentation’s description of the city Jerusalem, “How lonely sits the city, for there was no one to comfort her… no one to comfort Jerusalem.”
To this Isaiah answers, “Comfort, O comfort”
Peace cast over the walls of Babylon, catching the ears of God’s people kidnapped for 40 years, echoing, “Comfort, O Comfort my people.”
For a generation God’s people punished—cast out and exiled…
they were judged for not loving their neighbors but instead
-living off of them,
-selling the poor for a pair of sandals,
-following false prophets and false gods…
Prophets who shouted PEACE PEACE where there was no peace, and leaders who put trust in earthly things, when their help was to come from above.
For a generation—and now a commuted sentence,
an acknowledgement that this estrangement from their God has gone on too long, punishment replaced by peace condemnation with comfort.
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”

Where can you find peace?
         There is wandering wasteland and an impossible desert journey between Babylon and home—it shall be bridged with an expansive road, safe and easy to follow.
         Valleys are places of ambush and hills can be an obstacle too far
—all that leveled out, smoothed so that you may make the journey, that we can meet
—God and the people.
         God and ALL the people—God’s glory revealed!

Where can you find peace?
         There can be a strangeness to peace—when we recognize our faults it is worth stepping back in order to take stock.
When we recognize the faults of our society, it is worth stepping back, assess where we are and where we ought to be
—It is better to get lost in the desert, than to be lost in the safety of the city, and not even notice.
John out there with the sinners who know they are lost—in need of repentance, that is much safer than those hypocrites who confess that they are all right
—that there is nothing to see here, John.
They won’t meet him when he comes—when the one for whom we wait arrives, when the Prince of Peace arrives, they’ll not be in the desert with him.

Where can you find peace?
         “Cry out to my people.”
         “What should I say? We’re dyin’ out here, man.  Didn’t you see it, a whole generation wiped out—what words could I say to them to give them peace?
         I mean, just look at them
—look at them, God! What can you do with a people like this? They’re like grass, if the Word of God showed up, they’d blow away.”
         “Yes, grass withers, flowers fade—but it isn’t about them, it isn’t about you—it is about the Word of God, within there is a peace that surpasses all understanding—my word will stand forever.”

Where can you find peace?
          Jerusalem—City of Peace, pulled apart by every nation and religion and faction
Jerusalem, where the Christian keepers of Christ’s tomb fight with each other so often that the only person trusted with the key to the front door is a Muslim.
Jerusalem where any ill spoken word can cause carnage,
a thoughtless act echoes on and multiplies.
         Jerusalem you lonely city
—in some strange reality beyond my petty imagination—you lift up your voice and fill the world with good news
—in some Godly reality which I can not see—there is no fear.
         God, a mighty warrior comes—warriors and war always seems to come to you, don’t they dear Jerusalem.
         The great soldier steps in to slay enemies—or so we hope, each faction confident they are in the right and that God are ours, and ours alone
—God you step in, fearsome to behold—and feed Your flock…
God gathers the lambs, carries them, leads us on as a mother sheep.

Where can you find peace?
         This week, embrace the unexpected, God might be doing something liberating with it.
         Ask yourself what obstacles are being removed from your path?
         Where are you in the wrong, and in need to make amends, or at least need to step back?
         Look to scripture to that solid foundation in which much peace is found.
         Pray for peace in Jerusalem, that God’s will
—scooping his lambs up and carrying them in his bosom
—might come closer to reality.

         Amen.

Monday, December 04, 2017

What the tax bill might do to Blue State churches

         Before I begin I hastily acknowledge the current tax bill will sabotage the Affordable Care Act, greatly increase inequality, cripple grad students, mortgage our countries future, and was practically written in crayon.
         In addition to all those horrible things, I think it may also harm “Blue State” congregations such as my own.
         I imagine it will be a one two punch. The capping of deductions for property tax and state/local tax (SALT), and the changes to the standard deduction, will put a real squeeze on congregations such as my own (for two articles on this click here and here).
         New Jersey has the highest per capita property tax rate of any state and our state and local taxes aren’t exactly low either. Therefore a lot of New Jersey folk rely on not being taxed on the money they’ve already been taxed on. The capping of such deductions will hurt states like New Jersey especially hard.
         The doubling of the Standard Deduction will likely scramble charitable donations, changing the giving patterns of 25% of taxpayers (30,000,000 people), with 8% of Protestants saying this will cause them to decrease their giving, all of this likely leading to a decrease of charitable giving of between 4.9 billion and 13 billion. Essentially, giving by the very rich would be the only kind our country’s tax system would reward.
        
         Now that’s a lot of stuff… what might this all look like to an average person giving to a congregation?
         I can see the line of reasoning going through a person’s head. “Oh, hey, it’s December, Christmas is coming. I always drop a surprise $5,000 in the collection plate… but it was kinda a rough year, I paid an additional 1,000 bucks in federal taxes this year on account of not being able to take my usual SALT deduction… I can’t even deduct that $5,000 like normal, because the family would have to give away $24,400 in order to do that… I’d love to give that kind of money away, but I can’t do that… I think maybe it makes sense to just give $3,000 this year, instead.”

         No malice from this person, just a squeeze on account of property taxes and our tax system discouraging generosity. But what’s the ripple effect? Last year the average confirmed person in my congregation gave $731 for a total of $130,849... with that information let’s play with three scenarios:
-In one, that “8% of Protestants” fits my congregation like a glove, and they give 10% less. In that case, my congregation would be short $1,022.
-In the second scenario, let’s assume the 25% of people who will be affected by the Standard Deduction stuff are really rattled, because they’re in Jersey and the property tax change hurts them, 25% of my congregation gives 10% less, then we’re short $3,450.
-In the third there is a genuine run on the bank, those 25% are not just rattled, but really hurt by these tax changes and give 25% less. In this case we’d be short $8,235
         Now, those might sound like small numbers to you big church folk who have it all figured out, but our total operating expenses were $141,969 that year and as it is we’re hustling. I’ve been told most congregations that do the kind of stuff we do have a $200,000 budget—we’re hustling, but an extra 1,000 dollars of hustle, or an extra $8,000 of hustle—that becomes a real hurdle.


         All that to say, I worry about this tax bill and how it may reshape American society.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Sermon: Where do you find hope?

Sermon: Where do you find hope?

         Here we are in Advent—the season of emergence, arrival, revelation.
         A time like a tender leafy shoot emerging from a dormant branch.
         A time like the shout of a messenger arriving at an execution at the last moment carrying papers signed by a judge and shouting “innocent, innocent!”
         A time like waiting for a letter, the contents of which will reveal everything—making everything plane.
        
         But this season is also like driving your car to a new place for the first time.
         The drive back always feels quicker—because you are no longer looking so carefully, you don’t pay as close attention.
         In fact, by the 100th drive there, it feels like the car drives itself.
         So too Advent—we’ve driven this road a long time—Christians have observed and practiced Advent in some form for at least 1,650 years--and by now we often see our destination as Christmas so we don’t notice the budding blessing of Advent
--We don’t lean into the bracing and crisp wind of Hope,
--we don’t rest in the strengthening power of Peace,
--we aren’t buoyed up by the enduring buoyancy of Joy,
--we don’t revel in the moving and empowering radiance of Love
We skip over the precious gifts of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.
We don’t let Advent interrogate our lives to help us find its treasures.
But this morning at least, let’s ask, “Where can you find hope?”
Prayer

Where can you find hope?
         The Cosmos itself is falling apart.
         Sun refusing to shine
         Moon muted
         Stars, falling.

Where can you find hope?
         He is near, friends.
         In a world where the powers are crumbling,
         Where heaven, earth, and all things feel so unstable,
         …Are so unstable.
         The earliest followers of Jesus were caught up in the Jewish Revolt against Rome
And they saw slaughter, sieges, and the destruction of Jerusalem.
         We too see slaughter across the globe,
See the mighty falling and the needs of the poor ignored.
         He is near in all these things.
         Christ closer than light to flame or heat to fire.
         God comes to dwell among us
The one who is promised by God is near at hand.

Where can you find hope?
         It is beyond our control.
         Beyond the control of Angels and even the Son.
         He is near…
         The one for whom we hope
         Will he come at evening?
         The midnight hour?
         Dusk or dawn?
         …Waiting and waiting and waiting.
         It will not bring him.
         But he is near!
         He is near, our beloved, so keep awake.

Where can you find hope?
         Maybe just look a little lower!
         Look to the earth and her foliage
         Look to the fig tree
         Look at its reaching out.
         Look at it!
         Take the time to look!
         They’re like the finger nails of a baby—those first bits of green
         Timidly, tentatively, tenderly
         Sprouting out into the world.
         Cold bare air touching it for the first time.
         Leaves tender as human flesh.
         Tentative as a mortal body
         Fragile, emerging under death’s reign
         Emerging into a harsh world.
         Emerging to know that Summer is near.
         He is near!
He is at our very gates!

Where can you find hope?
         This week, look for those emerging leaves of summer.
         Notice what keeps you awake—open to God’s revelation.
         And notice too, those bad things you experience that chase you to Christ.
Be aware when something causes you to lean forward, excited about the future.

Amen.