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?”

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.