Presence, Produce, and Price-Tags - thrive UMC Official Blog

Presence, Produce, and Price-Tags

I wanted to start off this morning with a question and a challenge. And the question is this: how much do you think it costs you to be an American?  Now, for the sake of what we’ll be talking about today, legal documentation and all of that isn’t the point –what I want us all to think about is the literal, financial price-tag attached to living here in this country.  Or if we want to make the focus even sharper, and because –‘tis the season- let’s talk about taxes. What do you personally pay in taxes? How much does it cost you to fulfill your financial obligations to the governing bodies of the United States of America –including federal, state and county?  How much?

Now don’t worry: I’m not going to ask for a number; but I’m curious to see how many of you feel like you even know how much you pay in taxes.  Raise your hand if you can even ball-park a rough estimate of how much you pay per year in taxes, in total.  Does anyone have any idea of the comprehensive amount they pay per year in taxes?

Of course most of us have at least some idea of how much we “pay” in income tax; and if we all sat down and looked over all of our receipts and budgets, we could probably estimate how much we pay in sales taxes.  And if we own a home, we could look up our property tax amount. But I bet about nobody knows how much they pay per year in additional taxes on things like, gas, liquor, tires, airfare, cell phones, registration fees, disposal fees, utility taxes, and money that might go to us as employees, except our businesses have to pay taxes too (well, your businesses do).  It’s crazy.  If you ever bothered to google it, like I did, you could find a list of 97 different ways Americans are taxed. 97 different ways.  And you start doing the math on how much we’re actually paying each year in subtle and routine taxes, and I bet, for some of us, the hair on the back of our necks starts to rise.  Our faces start to feel a little flushed. We start to get angry —because the government is taking all of our money!

Right?  I mean, when was the last time a presidential candidate has come out and told everyone they’re going to raise taxes and won an election?  Does anyone know: has that even happened, ever?  Definitely not in my lifetime.  All I’ve ever heard from campaign promises when it comes to taxes are cuts –or tax increases for somebody besides the audience being spoken to, like rich people. But what do the rich people say about the tax hike? They say:  “Nu-uh! Try to make us pay for it and we’ll gladly hand our money over to lawyers just so it doesn’t go to the government.” Our own president now is on record for bragging about being so smart for not paying taxes –as a billionaire!  The message there seeming to be that ‘success’ is taking advantage of the system and making other people pay for it. Because nobody wants to pay taxes, right? Taxes are almost universally viewed as being a bummer. They’re like a blight on the American dream. Taxes represent all the stuff that we could, or maybe would buy or do –if only it weren’t for the fact that we have to pay taxes!

And it’s like there’s something a little crazy going on here, both socially and psychologically for us here in America.  Somehow taxes have come to represent a literally negative value for us both as individuals and as a nation –like we look at our paystubs and see that 15 or 20% was taken off the top and we go ‘oh man, that was a new laptop or a car payment!’  Or, ‘golly, I could have had a Venti latte at Starbucks everyday this month if it weren’t for the fact that we have to fund our state government!’ And there are some of us who, if we were given a choice between having a state government and having a Starbucks latte every day, would choose the Starbucks! To which the government would respond by spiking the tax on lattes, thus restoring balance in the Force.

And it’s a strange deal all the way around: that the government has all of these kind of sneaky taxes, most of which were introduced to have us pay for new things we wanted, but didn’t want to pay for.  And here we are, mostly loving and being proud of America, but begrudging the fact that we have to pay for all the stuff that gives us the securities and advantages we enjoy.  And here we are paying for all of it, but doing it with one eye kind of willfully closed to our own positive contributions to society. –And it never even seems to enter our minds that, far from being a burden to painful to even think about, taxes could be could be celebrated as a gift we all give.

Because let’s face it: we could all choose to be really happy about paying taxes.  And perhaps, if we really and truly love America, we should be happy paying taxes!  Because if we felt proud about our own financial contributions to our greater society, we could drive around town and go: ‘—ha!  Look at that huge addition to Valley High School that I helped build –all because of an increase in sales tax that I paid, without even noticing the difference!  Look at the order and economic opportunity and access to education we enjoy!  Look at the clean and aesthetically pleasing urban design, and the well-maintained transportation, and fast access to life-saving services like law enforcement, and emergency medical and fire response teams.  We could actually wake up in the morning and decide to proud of the intricate systems you contribute dollars to so that you don’t have to eliminate bodily waste outside in the winter, for goodness sake! After all, your tax dollars played a crucial role in the creation or maintenance of all of those systems.

Then look at the parks, and libraries, and institutions of higher learning that you’ve invested in, just so the people here can be human beings and maximize our enjoyment and sense of in life! Look at all the ways our society tries to help people who are at a disadvantage (not perfectly, of course –but there are a whole lot of places that don’t even make that attempt).  And lastly, look at all the people you share this with!  No, of course they’re not all happy, shiny people –whatever that means; but there are so many good-hearted people all around you –who for the most part, want good things for our community and nation and world too.  We have all that because we work together and share our gifts.  And taxes are just one of the many, many ways that you contribute, on a very regular basis, to making life a little bit better.

Jesus himself says, as we read a few weeks ago, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  And if our money represents our treasure, then our taxes would tell us that a very significant portion of our hearts is already invested in our community –regardless of whether or not we’re happy about how much we pay and where the dollars actually go.  Which, by the way, I am well aware of the dark-side of politics and lots of the reasons why people may not want to support certain aspects of what our government is choosing to do –and I don’t want to ignore that, though we don’t have time to head down that path before walking tacos.  But my point here this morning is the simple fact that we’re giving way more than we realize is an overlooked sign of hope I think we need to celebrate.

Now the reason I bring this whole businesses about taxes up is two-fold.  First of all, I think we should celebrate all the ways we’re already taking care of one another a little bit more.  Because I believe our relationship with taxes shows us that, at the end of the day, we do support one another in some really important ways.  But I also bring it up because it illustrates a truth that we don’t always want to acknowledge: which is that our presences, and our produce has a price-tag.

Over the past month, we had been talking about living a meaningful life, and so far we’ve talked about how important it is to pray, and be present; and last week we started to talk about growing fruit as a metaphor for having something good to share.  And it’s pretty easy to talk about those things and feel good about it; however, what also comes along is a price-tag.  And this is where most of us get stuck.  Because lots of us love America; but if the government would just come right out and say ‘you want to live here, then it will cost you somewhere between 30 and 50% of everything you make’ and lots of us might say ‘well suddenly Mexico doesn’t sound so bad!’  But instead most of us live in that happy little naïve space where we enjoy all the good stuff and just try not to think too much about how much it all costs. And while that might feel good, that kind of mindset has the nasty side-effect of leaving us financially disempowered, because it sets us up to be taken advantage of.

And while this idea of ‘price-tags’ has lots of other very important implications, we are going to talk about money this morning.  And we’re going to talk about it very directly as it relates to this community, because we too, very literally, have a price-tag.  We literally have to pay to be here –this is not our building; and while the West Des Moines Community School District gets us an extremely reasonable rate to use this beautiful facility on Sunday mornings, it is not free.  And as much as I would love to be able to serve you all full-time for free, I cannot. And while we’d all love to imagine that the heavens parted and walking tacos descended upon us from the sky like rain, that would have been a terrible mess to clean up.  So instead, we bought all the stuff at Sam’s Club. And we have awesome music, and advertising, and we throw events and pay for insurance, and webhosting fees, and all this stuff that, sitting here on Sunday morning, it becomes very easy to not see.  And that’s okay –but this is why we’re talking about it.  After discussing the matter with some of our leaders, we decided the best way to approach the subject is to just be honest about it all and come right out and tell you.

And our price-tag as a community is a little over $140,000 per year. And unlike the government, we only have three ways to generate income.  Right now our biggest source of income comes from a grant we receive every year from the governing body of the United Methodist Church to get our new community going.  And in the beginning, these grants paid for everything.  And like a parent that budgets for the expenses of childhood but not college, these grants will not support us forever.  In fact, the plan is for the grants to end in the year 2020.  So in that time, we’re expected to become self-funded as a community.  But the good news is that, without really even talking about it, we had about $56,000 given to us through gifts and offerings last year.  And offerings and gifts are our second primary source of revenue at the moment.  And then our third source of revenue is through fundraising that we do through public events.  And our only fund-raising event that we do now is our Food Truck 5K race. And last year, that generated about $4,500 of income for thrive, in addition to the $4,500 we gave to Iowa Homeless Youth Centers. So, all totaled, we funded about 40% of our own expenses for 2016, which is awesome.  So I was hoping we could celebrate that.  And I wanted to sincerely thank everyone who gave a gift to support our vision and our work.

But our goal for 2017 is to be over 55% self-sustaining, which means we need to generate at least $17,000 more this year than we did last year.  And our plan right now is to grow toward financial independence by 20% for 2018 and 20% more for 2019 so that by the time we’re ready to enter into 2020, we’ll be more than prepared for the grants to end.  And I’m not gonna lie –it’s going to be a challenge. This won’t be something that will just happen on its own, but it something we’ll have to work for.  But if we work together and unique gift that our community is giving to the world then I have no doubt that we’ll make it.

And one of the things we’re doing to work on that is start our first giving campaign, which will launch later this month. And this campaign will come in two phases: first, we want to challenge all of you who are already participating in our community to consider what you might be able to contribute to help.  And in the second part, we’re going to share a letter with all of you that we’re hoping you’ll pass on to people you know who might care about thrive’s future.  Already I’ve heard of a number of you share stories about parents or relatives who are excited to see their kids excited about church. Or maybe you have friends, like I do, who think the way thrive is trying to reach people is really awesome –but maybe it’s not quite for them, or they’re already committed to a different church?  Would they be willing to make a one-time financial contribution as a show of their support?  These are all simple asks that can make a big difference for us.

So this morning, we’re not asking for more money, we’re just telling you that soon we’ll be asking for more money.  We want to give you time to think about it.  We wanted you to have the chance to consider what this community is, and could be, worth to you.  Because, while a lot of people complain about it, the way church funds what it does is pretty amazing.  Because we operate out of a system of grace –if you want the services we provide, we will serve you, regardless of you give or not.  You could come here every single week and never drop a penny in our weird little offering receptacles, and we will greet you with a happy smile week after week after week –because we’re glad you gave us your time.  But obviously if everyone takes this approach, we won’t be here in a year.  Even knowing that, we, as a community, will commit to not guilting you all into giving, or sneaking dollars out of your pocket, because our underlying belief is that if we’re being who we are –if we’re encouraging and empowering  people to serve the way we’re supposed to, then we have faith that you’ll support us too, because you recognize how valuable we are, and how necessary what we’re doing is for the world.

Because, as great as our country is, and as good as it is to pay taxes, it doesn’t go far enough for us to find our deeper sense of meaning and purpose in this life.  No legislation or political system will ever be able to help us take that extra step, so necessary to living in peace, of learning how to be grateful and love one another.  I mean, just think about it: how different would our political circumstance, and our national attitude, be if everyone had a place where they could have a hands-on school that taught them how to love?  Because, think about it: people who love like Jesus aren’t afraid of their neighbors.  People who have that kind of compassion don’t need to be forced into paying for welfare.  People who forgive don’t need to start trillion dollar wars of retaliation.   America right now needs communities –perhaps now more than ever- where people can gather and build relationships and rediscover –on a regular basis- what really matters in this life.  We need a space to bare our wounds and our flaws for the ways we’ve hurt and neglected one another –so that we can be forgiven. We need people to encourage us and heal us and help us to grow.

I wanted to share with all of you a very short passage from the Gospel of Matthew this morning.  For nearly the last two months we looked at the teachings of Jesus, but today we see the actions of Jesus.  This is his first action after his lesson.  It starts out in the beginning of chapter 8.  It says this:

Now when Jesus had come down from the mountain, large crowds followed him. A man with a skin disease came, kneeled before him, and said, “Lord, if you want, you can make me clean.”

Jesus reached out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do want to. Become clean.” Instantly his skin disease was cleansed. Jesus said to him, “Don’t say anything to anyone. Instead, go and show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded. This will be a testimony to them.”

And this is how the economy of grace works: there was a man who needed help.  His skin was sick –maybe his life in the world had made it just a little thicker than it needed to be; I don’t know.  But Jesus wants to make the man clean.  And because this is where his heart is, power and action follow, and the man is made well.  But the story doesn’t stop there, because the grander story isn’t just about one man being healthy –but instead Jesus charged him to go to the temple and give a gift.  And his gift was offered so that the temple itself might be made well –so that the heart of the religious community might once again recover its sacred purpose.  In other words, that man was healed so that the larger community might also be healed, and thus rediscover its purpose as a community in the first place.

And that’s what we’re all about: we’re here to invest in you, so that you –as renewed and relatively healthy and purposeful people- might inspire and inform our nation, and our world.  We want you to be people who give gifts that testify to God’s grace and goodness, as it’s revealed in humanity.  We want you to show the world what self-giving love looks like –and invite them to become active participants themselves.  So that peace might reign.  So that the hungry might be fed.  So that long-festering wounds might breathe and heal.

But none of it happens without a gift. Even grace has demands it makes –a price-tag of sorts.  May we be the ones to have the courage to give of ourselves, like Jesus did.

Let’s pray.