“Testing Our Faith”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
21 October, 2018
Today is a big day. A culminating day, though not a finale. It’s a day that’s going to examine and make a significant comment our faith—in God, and in ourselves, and in one another. And it’s going to significantly impact the charting of our future. Because after we vote on whether to commence a two million-dollar capital funds campaign, we will either begin moving forward to prove that our faith and confidence in God and one another is warranted. Or, we will begin a process of figuring out where we’ve gone wrong in our discernment across the past several years; or, how we must address the fear that is keeping us from embracing God’s vision for our future.
Three and a half years ago was the last time this congregation significantly tested its faith in the discernment you’d been doing for more than two years at that point in a pastoral search. Then, in the 272ndyear of this congregation’s life, you did what had not been done here before: you voted to call your first woman settled Pastor and Teacher. (That probably felt like more of a risk to some of you than others.)
One thing I saw clearly in your church profile is that you’d been feeling the absence of a compelling vision for this community’s future. Like most churches these days, you’d been noticing declining participation in church community as youth sports and other family activities increasingly get scheduled on Sunday mornings (which were once reserved for church involvement). There are fewer committed volunteers, as people of all ages feel stretched in too many different directions. Competing ideas of what constitutes meaningful or relevant worship—old hymns and established liturgy, versus contemporary music and a more relaxed, interactive services—these are conversations this congregation has been having for the better part of the past decade. How do we meet everyone’s needs and preferences? How do we draw new people in, without alienating those for whom this is their established church home?
You also recognized that, unless things change—unless we dosoon find ways to draw new individuals and families into our fellowship—this church will go the way of so many other churches: struggling to eke out an existence, with a declining number of people who are increasingly burnt out, unable to maintain facilities that may be radiant with warm memories to the long-timers, but look tired and increasingly dilapidated, uninviting to nonmembers.
So for the past three years, we’ve been actively wrestling with these realities. As a congregation, and under the leadership of the Strategic Planning Task Force, we asked questions and listened to one another. We attentively tried to hear and understand what God might be saying tous, and throughus, as a community. We learned that the work of discernment is all about attentiveness—“listening” not only to words, but also to dynamics, to voids, to yearnings. Discernment involves trying hard to articulate these things in ways that help us see how to journey forward. Because these dynamics, the perceived voids, the yearnings: all of these represent glimpses into God’s vision for us, God’s divine plan and invitation.
And that’s what our Strategic Planning Task Force did: based on all the survey feedback and numerous conversations with the congregation, they composed a Report, which laid out the challenges we face, as well as a plan for how to meet those challenges. It included a Vision Statement, and affirmed our Common Commission as our Mission Statement. It named four areas under which we believe God is calling us to organize our work: Welcome, Worship, Learning, and Service. Finally, it included a number of goals and benchmarks by which we could track our progress. This Strategic Planning Task Force Report was accepted and adopted as our “roadmap” for the future at our Annual Congregational Meeting in February, 2017.
Immediately, Boards, Committees, and Ministry Teams set to work talking together and discerning how their area of this church’s ministry might flesh out the Strategic Plan. A little more than a year ago, Church Council appointed a new Task Force to investigate hiring an architect to help us address our significant facilities challenges, and a capital campaign consultant to guide us through a successful campaign. At that point, we had no idea how much money we’d be talking about—some of us guessed it might be as much as a million or a million and a half dollars.
Starting on January 4thof this year (2018), another new Task Force was convened to shape our vision with the congregation. The Building Our Vision team has met on 34 Thursday mornings this year, each time for at least two and a half hours. That’s close to 700 person hours if you combine the time contributed by the eight members of the BOV team—and that doesn’t include the time they spent visiting different Boards, Committees, Ministry Teams, and having Informational and Q&A sessions with the church, or doing the writing, design, and prep work for the printed materials and displays we’ve all benefitted from. They have worked faithfully, tirelessly (well, sometimes we’ve gotten a little tired), with a great deal of prayer, dozens of conversations with the congregation, many excellent and a few challenging conversations with each other, and muchcareful, responsive listening. I am confident that this has been as strong and trustworthy a process of discerning God’s will for us as could possibly have been undertaken.
And I believe that what the BOV has discerned and drafted with words and images is an exciting vision of what God desires for this community. By “this community”, I’m talking not just about those of us here this morning, or even our broader membership rolls, but the wider community of Hollis-Brookline, and the other areas we impact with our mission and ministry. I’m talking about the persons not yet known to uswho will constitute the futurecommunity that stand to benefit from our decision today, if we faithfully stretch toward the transformation that will allow it to happen. What we’re voting on this morning is whether we’re willing to risk believing that we can and will bring forward the money and resources from our collective divine trust, to make it happen.
A number of you have been taken aback by the price tag associated with the project being proposed. And no wonder—two million dollars is a lot of money! But your BOV Team didn’t come up with this number recklessly. It’s based on all of the careful discernment, the prayerful listening for God’s voice and invitation through absolutely everyone who’s contributed. Given what we’ve discovered will need to be done in order to properly restore, equip, and update our facilities to meet the needs of future generations of faithful Christians in Hollis, this is the minimum of what we need to raise. If you’ve looked at the conceptual drawings, you know that they’re not extravagant, but they are both sensible and visionary. They are very carefully considered, and profoundly responsive to what every group has said would enhance their ability to meet our goals for improving our welcome, our worship, our learning, and our service.
Some of you will feel daunted by the idea that God is calling us to raise two million dollars. Some might even doubt it, thinking God would never ask us to do something so costly. But let’s think about it for a second. Among all the Bible stories you know, and of all the stories of faithful people you know of in this lifetime, has God ever asked believers to do things that don’tstretch them, that don’texpect us to trust and risk in faith? Does God ever affirm thinking small, or staying the course when the course is clearly not working?
No—there are no such stories! Although, there areplentyof stories of people responding fearfully and never experiencing the fullness God’s blessing as a result. You see, God has a long history of asking people to do ostensibly outrageous things, expecting them to trust in God’s presence and provision—so that the people could discover just how faithful and amazing God is. Inevitably, God’s invitations involve sacrifice. Invariably, they expect a lot. But God never asks or expects more than we’re truly able to give. Every time, when the people who have discerned what God is asking of them respond with faith, hope, and love, in spite of the world’s response, their faithfulness is rewarded and their sacrifice is more than repaid with exponentially greater blessings.
The writer of the Book of Hebrews knew this and gave us a few Biblical examples, starting with Cain and Abel. Remember them? They were the first two sons of Adam and Eve. Genesis Chapter 4 tells the story of the brothers. Of the two, Abel was a more cheerful and generous giver—he operated from a theology of abundance, whereas Cain lived out of a fearful mentality of scarcity. The text tells us that Abel’s faithfulness pleased God but ticked off his brother, Cain, who killed him out of spite. Still, the author of our lesson today points out, “[Abel] died, but through his faith he still speaks.” Abel will forever be known for his faithful character—whereas Cain will always be remembered for being grudging, jealous, fearful, and petty.
Then there was Noah. He’s the guy who looked utterly crazy, pouring all his resources into building an ark when there wasn’t so much as a lake nearby that could accommodate it. When people asked, he said he was following divine instructions. And they just laughed. But his willingness to look like a fool and to risk all he had, including his dignity and social status in that moment, secured a future for his family and for all the creatures he brought on board when the rains started pouring and the floods swept the doubters away.
Finally, we heard about Abraham (and, I’d like to add, his wife Sarah—who doesn’t usually get the credit she deserves). Our author wrote, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.” In their old age, Abraham and Sarah heard the voice of God saying something to them that was almost unthinkable. “Go from this familiar place where you’ve dwelled for so many decades, to a new place that I’m going to show you,” God told them. “Because I want to bless you with a new life—a better life, even better than you can imagine. One with more descendants than you can count, who will inhabit the place I’m going to let you glimpse. But you’ve got to trust me. I will make good on this promise, not necessarily on your preferred timeline—and only if you faithfully follow my guiding presence.”
The writer of Hebrews summarizes their story, saying: “By faith, [Abraham] stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents [in other words, sacrificing some of their creature comforts], as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person [or two, because Sarah was also involved], and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’”
Friends, we can’t see exactly or completely where we’re going. And that scares a lot of us. We prefer certainty and a sense of control. But that’s the point of walking by faith and not by sight; it tests and strengthens our faith that God is with us and will make the path clear just far enough in front of us to keep moving forward. And by moving forward (as opposed to wistfully gazing back), we will secure a future with hope and abundance, as long as we trust and obey.
I was at the New Hampshire Conference UCC Annual Meeting with several other members of our church yesterday, and the keynote speaker invited us to engage in an exercise I’m going to ask you to repeat. He started by acknowledging that here in New England, we’re pretty good about honoring our ancestors, respecting our history. We like to pay homage to our forbears, to remember them. But at least as much as our ancestors, he pointed out, God wants us to remember our descendants—those who are waiting to come after us. So, please close your eyes just for a moment and visualize the descendants you’d like to see here. [Silence.] Who comprises this community of faith in the heart of the Hollis community? You may not see them clearly, but there’s surely a distant image.
Beloved of God, it has always been the people of faith and courage—those who keep a vision of the descendants in view, not those who cling to the past—who have positively changed the world with God’s help. Our descendants are waiting for usto exercise bold faith in God, in each other, and in our own willingness to sacrifice what feels safe today, so that there will be a place for them to come to, tomorrow. Because if we are not willing to test and prove our faith, then how will they get here?