Carla Bailey, Senior Pastor
November 16, 2008
Last Sunday afternoon, we held a memorial service for Mary Ives, a wonderful 96 year old member of our church. It was easy to speak lovingly of her, of the sorrows she faced and overcame and of her exceptional generosity. Twenty years ago, Mary’s daughter, son-in-law and two grand-daughters were killed when PanAm flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. It was an unimaginable tragedy and those of our congregation who were here at the time surrounded Mary and her husband Al with their love and a gentle but very, very strong layer of protection. In 2003, largely as a political strategy, the Libyan government accepted responsibility for the bombing and began to compensate families financially for their losses. With a mix of bitterness and resolve, Mary received the money and proceeded, immediately, to give it away, to Dartmouth, and Mt. Holyoke Colleges, the Howe Library in Hanover, and to this church for its capital campaign to build and install our new organ. When Mary spoke of receiving the money, a hardness settled across her features. When she spoke of giving the money away, a twinkle returned to her eyes and an irrepressible grin to her face. Thinking of Mary, as of course I have been in these past weeks, I think of how lucky I am that I was allowed to witness the ordeal of receiving the bitter money released at the cost of her family’s lives, and turning it into something that gave her such deep and light joy.
It is unlikely and fortunate that none of us will experience such sudden anguish and then such giddy generosity emerging from one and the same experience. Though Mary’s life ended with the knowledge that she had done tremendous and lasting good with her gifts of money, it came at too high a price, which is why I remember the results of our capital campaign and all that it has accomplished with sober joy. Deep generosity is not a giddy thing. It’s not like treating friends to dinner or assembling the first shiny new bicycle for a child, fun as that it. It has much more to do with relinquishment and release than with planning and divvying. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Feeling wealthy is a relative thing. I remember the first thing I bought when I actually received my first paycheck from my first real, full-time, salaried job. You’ll think this is funny but I bought an iron. I sew as a hobby, and an iron is an important sewing tool. I can probably count on one hand the number of shirts I’ve ironed for Warren over the years, but I remember buying that iron with my first paycheck and feeling as if I had finally made it. I thought of that first purchase when our daughter Matrika who is working as an Americorps volunteer in St. Paul, called to ask us how to open an IRA. Now that she is working full-time, she reasoned, it was time to think of her retirement. As an Americorps worker, Matrika earns about twenty-one cents an hour, receives foodstamps and rent subsidy from the state and county governments, and takes the city bus everywhere she needs to go. But she feels wealthy, wealthy enough to open an IRA.
Warren and I have a friend who is very, very wealthy, family money received from his father and for which he has never needed to work. In fact, his father, a self-made multi-millionaire, could not, for the life of him, understand why our friend wanted to work. He finally gave up trying and now, at the age of 49, he lives the life of wealth and relative freedom from responsibility his father wanted for him. And he is one of the unhappiest people I know. When I was first getting to know him, I envied him the freedom I imagined he enjoyed. He never, never had to make a decision influenced by financial cost. It simply was not germane information. I couldn’t imagine such a life. Travel, cars, homes, clothes, even charitable contributions had nothing to do with actual dollars. He didn’t know how to make financial compromises. He had never experienced the fun of delayed gratification. He never had to dig deep to make a sacrificial gift because the rightness of such a gift outweighed the selfish desire to spend money on himself. When I spoke about tithing, giving ten% of his annual income to the church, that concept had no meaning. So he would determine an amount based on other criteria. Did the church need something of a special project – furnishing a room or a new computer system – that the general operating budget couldn’t absorb? Or, what was the largest gift to the church and he would exceed that amount by, what, a thousand dollars? Or, was there something I wanted to do, some mission project that needed seed money – he would give it. It was all generous thinking, to be sure, but it was sporadic, unreliable, subject entirely to his whims and my ask.
We couldn’t build a church budget on givers like our friend. No, then and now, church budgets are built on the steady, reliable giving of church members who determine an amount to give, raise that amount annually, if they can, try to move toward tithing their annual income, and recognize that their generous giving to the church means something else in their lives needs to be reined in a little bit. That’s the kind of giving on which churches operate – the steadfast and generous gifts of people who, in general, like to give more than they like to receive and who do not need and so do not seek a great deal of attention and who have made giving to the church a high priority in their lives.
Every year, around this time, the Elders talk about asking you for your annual pledge to the church for the coming fiscal/calendar year. You will be receiving pledge cards in the mail this week with a letter from our church president Brian Walsh. Some of you feel differently about giving to the church in November 2008 than you did in November of 2007. Some of you have changed circumstances in your lives that have altered your financial stability – higher in some cases, lower in others. Some of you are new to this church and you’re glad you’ve found it. Some of you have been giving to the church every year for years. Some of you are watching this economic roller coaster and wondering if you can do the things you hoped you could do in 2009. Some of you know, that in spite of the economic roller coaster, your lives, from a financial perspective at least, aren’t going to change one bit. Some of you are working hard to simplify your lives. Some of you are wanting to make your discretionary spending more meaningful. Some of you are carrying mortgages that exceed the value of your homes. Some of you want to retire and won’t be able to do so for a few years yet. Some of you give money to the church and it doesn’t cost you anything to do so in terms of what you have remaining in your accounts after writing your check. Some of you are supporting family members financially, kids, or parents or both. In other words, all of us have some relationship with money. And because you’re here this morning, unless you just popped in because you saw the lights were on, all of us have some relationship with this church. In November, these two relationships converge.
I want to thank you, in advance, for your pledge to our church, whatever the amount and however you make it. I trust you to be generous and steadfast. But my deepest gratitude to you is not for your financial support but for your faithfulness, your trust in God. That is the real gift you give me week after week, the gift you give each other, the gift you give the world. You are not embarrassed to be Christians, to go to church, to act kindly. You want to be better people than you already are which is just an incredible thing since you’re all pretty terrific to begin with. You want to curb your nasty words when they tend to slip out. You want to do the right thing, even when it’s difficult. You like the feeling generosity gives you. You love justice. You like to sing and you really love seeing all the kids come up for the children’s moment, even though you wish they were a little less energetic during the coffee hour. You’re proud of our Christmas Market with a Difference. You think I’m a little nutty sometimes, but then, so does my mother.
So, here’s what I’m asking you to do when you receive your pledge card. Fill it out, increase your pledge if you can. That will help us keep our work here strong and focused. But if you can’t increase your pledge - I mean if you just can’t – ok. But fill the card out and send it in. Don’t wait for one of the Elders to call you to remind you to send the card in. And if you haven’t pledged to our church before, do it this year. Be steadfast and generous because, you know what? God is steadfast and generous to you. Amen.