“I Have Decided”
Rev’d. Tanya N. Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis
17 March, 2019
Lent 1C
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1

In 1985, I attended a Campus Crusade for Christ-sponsored youth rally in Washington D.C.  It was there that I made a fateful, faith-filled decision and public declaration that I would “follow Jesus, wherever he leads me.”  I had no idea at the time what that might mean for my life—but it brought me to seminary in Boston, and to suburban Illinois, Denmark, Sweden, the South Shore, England, and eventually—of all places—to Hollis, New Hampshire.  In several of the places, the church or college I served was working through the early stages of launching a capital campaign when I was called away to a new situation.  This is the first church where God has allowed me stay long enough to actually get into the “dog days” of a campaign.

Some, maybe most, of you know that our congregation hired a professional to help us with our capital campaign.  His name is Rev. Bill VanderWyden, and he’s run over 150 church campaigns, helping to raise over $130 million.  In one of our early conversations, Rev. VanderWyden told me that in successful campaigns, a “rule of thumb” is that the pastor will aim to contribute 1% of the total campaign goal.  Well, I thought, that’sdaunting.

He wasn’t saying, and I’m certainly not suggesting, that everyoneneeds to give 1%.  I know some of you may not be able to give anything—at least, not financially.  And that’s okay.  As Tom Hildreth repeated again in his campaign update last week, what’s most important is that everyone feels like they’re a part of our success by giving whatever they can: we need every member’s prayers.  We need your ideas and feedback.  And from those who havethe financial gifts to be able to support this campaign, we hope you’ll share as generously as you can, because it’s a vision and a project worth investing in.   But every single one of us can invest our self in the relationships that are a core component of this vision.  Our Joy of Generosity/Building Our Vision campaign is as much a faith-raising and community-building initiative as it is a capital funds campaign.

But I’m the pastor.  I’ve been called to lead you.  I was inspired by Rev. VanderWyden’s testimonials about the Joy of Generosity as we interviewed him.  But his explicit 1% challenge kept echoing in my mind, partly because it represented a rather boggling figure for Joel and me.  Certainly, it’s more than I’ve ever thought about donating to anything in my life before.

Okay, just so you know: I’m about to talk about money, using real numbers—and some personal matters.  We may both feel a little uncomfortable, because as I keep hearing, “We’re New Englanders.  We don’t like to discuss money matters in church.  Let’s just keep it to spiritual things.”  But given how often and how comfortably Jesus talked about money, it’s clear that money matters and spiritual things are deeply connected, and spiritually healthy congregations are not afraid to talk about money.

Like most of you, my parents were very influential in shaping my attitudes and understandings about money.  Some of you have heard me say before that I was raised in a household that mandated tithing: they made sure that ten percent off the top of everything we earned was put into the offering plate.  Well, as an adult, I’ve not always managed to live up to my parents’ expectations—but then, our circumstances in life have been very different.  So, though I still aspire to, Joel and I haven’t always managed to give a full ten percent.  But we always contribute from our income in ways that demonstrate it’s a clear priority to us.  We currently pledge a little more than $6,000 a year to the annual budget of this church. And although we support several other charities and a church in England as well, the church I’m serving has always received most of our charitable giving.

So . . . I gulped quietly when the BOV settled on a reach goal of $2 million dollars.  Not because I thought the number is too high—I believe it’s the right amount, because the project has been discerned and fleshed out through much thought, prayer, and congregational dialogue.  And it will take at least $2 million to complete the work.  But I swallowed hard because, in addition to what we currently give each year, I just didn’t know how Joel and I could ever come up with $20,000.  We are grateful to have modest pension plans, but we don’t have a massive savings account. We are full-on in the kids-in-college stage of life.  We have a mortgage and taxes and a house that needs as much repair and maintenance as the next person’s.

One percent.  I pondered, and prayed, and acknowledged the knot in my stomach.  I kept praying.  One day, I remembered that we had two ROTH IRAs we had invested about $8,000 in quite some time ago, after my dad’s parents died.  I checked, and was astonished to learn that the combined total was now a little over $20,000.  I talked with Joel about it.  His first response was, “Seriously, Tanya?  How can we possibly afford that?  That’s for our retirement.  Not everyone in this church is all that crazy about you, you know.  Are you sure they’re going to let you stay here?  What if you’re suddenly out of a job?”  Of course, he was just expressing knee-jerk anxieties that I might have entertained myself, only he was saying them out loud.

But he did say he would pray about it.  And we talked about it again.  And another time.  And each time, we felt a little more peace about what seems like the gift God had intended, quite some time ago, for us to commit to making.  After a lot of prayer and many conversations about it, we have decided that one way or another, we will accept the challenge to contribute $20,000 to the capital campaign.  It may be over four years, or we may liquidate the IRAs in one fell swoop; we’re still figuring that out.  Either way, I know that it will sort itself out, because every other time we’ve faced a seemingly impossible financial hurdle we believed God was calling us to respond to in trust, the way has somehow been made clear for us.

When I made a promise in 1985 to follow Jesus wherever he might lead me, I was naïve to what might potentially be asked of me.  Each place I’ve gone has been accompanied by some sort of risk, and some real sacrifice. So far, this calling (to Hollis) has asked the most from my family in terms of the sacrifices we’ve allhad to make in order to respond faithfully to God’s call.  But even deeper and more compelling to me than the undeniable pain that is part of our regular life routine at the moment, is the genuine satisfaction and joy of doing what we know God has called and equipped us to do.  Joel and I are using the unique combinations of gifts we’ve each been blessed with, to minister to the different places God has called us to be—which happen to need our personal sets of gifts just now.  Our sons are doing well in their respective places, too, which is a joy of its own.  What the future holds, I can’t possibly guess.  I continue to hope and pray Joel will be offered a teaching job that doesn’t involve at least six trans-Atlantic flights and two separate lodging places for more than half the year.  But in the meantime, I take deep comfort and reassurance from the experience that God’s love and strength is abiding with us through it all.

The Psalmist said, “The one thing I ask of the LORD—the thing I seek most—is to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life…”[1] I identified with this yearning as a teenager in 1985, and I still resonate with it.

I also relate to his hopeful conclusion when he says: “Yet I am confident I will see the LORD’s goodness while I am here in the land of the living.  Wait patiently for the LORD.  Be brave and courageous.  Yes, wait patiently for the LORD.”[2]  I have seen God’s goodness at work here, in this place.  And, I’ve glimpsed God’s vision for this community’s future. That’s why I am excited about making a sacrificial contribution to something with the potential to transform lives years after I’m gone.  We’re going to feel the pinch of what we’re doing, but it will not cripple us—and it will enrich and strengthen many more than just ourselves, which feels wonderful.

In our New Testament reading, the apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi: “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.”[3]

At first blush, it might sound a bit self-important, self-righteous, even arrogant, for Pastor Paul to suggest that others ought to follow his example like that.  But what I’ve come to understand is that he wanted others to know the same joy, and depth of trust and relationship with God as he himself had. Paul made tremendous sacrifices—personal, material, financial, relational: because he so firmly believed in the truth of Christ’s gospel, it was worth it to him to relinquish worldly security and personal comforts so that others could also learn the truth of the Gospel and experience the joy of it.  He was following the example of Jesus, who first invited disciples to follow him, to join in imitating him so that they could experience a life that was truly alive, deeply meaningful, and fully aware of God’s faithful provision of the things that really matter.

Friends, we are in the Season of Lent, when each of us must decide for ourselves what and how we will commit as we seek to follow Jesus.  We know where his journey leads—to death, yes, but even beyond death, to everlasting life.  How that journey looks for each of us will be different, based on what God has entrusted to us to bring as gifts to bear on the world, and this community.  But what I can tell you with all sincerity and conviction is that making great sacrifices has enriched my life beyond anything this world’s rewards can offer.  And I humbly invite you to experience for yourselves what I have learned, by also joining in imitating the life of faith and sacrifice that Jesus first modeled, and after him Paul, and that I’m doing my best to live as well.

In 1985, I decided to follow Jesus.  That decision hasn’t always been easy, and I’ve not always been successful.  But for me now, in this time and place, that decision means going “all in” on the campaign to make this congregation’s vision a reality, giving as generously as I can to help God’s dream for us to be a stronger, bolder community of love and Christian virtue come alive—now, and for generations after us.

As a symbol of being “all in” for this campaign, I’m going to add this wooden figure to this table—where, over the coming weeks, we’re going to work at drawing the Christ circle wider and wider. When you go to a house party, you’ll be invited to take a figurine for yourself or your household, and when you’ve concluded that you’re “all in”—in whatever way you’re able to contribute and support the campaign—we invite you to place your person in the circle.  [Place figurine on symbolic Christ-circle table.]

May God continue to bless our community richly, as we prepare to bless God’s world with our best.  Amen.

[1]Psalm 27:4a, New Living Translation.

[2]Psalm 27:13-14, NLT.

[3]Philippians 3:17, NRSV.

 

© 2019 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC