Back to the Future

“Back to the Future,” Bob Ryder

A few quotes …

“I thought I was a bad Christian. I found out I’m a progressive Christian.” Scott

“We’re going to have to be light on our feet.” Chris

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

I think about our congregation a lot. That probably sounds obvious given it’s my job, but I think about us because it’s helpful to me as much as because it’s required of me. This is an important little community, and it’s good to reflect on our life together now and then so we can keep it relevant and available; so we can be responsible with it while it’s entrusted to our care. Our steering committee met yesterday for a half-day retreat to think about who we are and where we’re going, how to proceed as responsibly as we can. I want to share some of the thoughts we traded.

Whenever I describe our community to someone who doesn’t know much about us, I tend to mention the same 3 characteristics, and it’s satisfying when others express a similar take on what we’re about, as happened yesterday. It seems to me the first thing to notice is that we were founded by and have always catered to those who’ve not found a comfortable fit in more traditional churches. Many of those who were here early noted they’d felt put-off by requirements to profess specific beliefs, and by manipulative fund-raising campaigns. We have always valued the opportunity to think and articulate our faith experience for ourselves, and we’ve always practiced a decidedly low-profile approach to soliciting contributions. Having a sense of belonging is among the most important of human experiences, and I’m convinced the single trait for which Jesus was most appreciated and remembered was being able to convey that experience of belonging to people from whom it had been withheld. It is no small thing for a congregation welcome to those who can’t experience the sacred through the uniform language and concepts trademarked by institutional Christianity. It’s no small thing to take an interest in another’s well-being without prior consideration for what he or she can afford to contribute financially.

Second – When I tell people where I work, I share that we’re trying to be as inclusive and diverse as we can figure out how to be. It’s always meant a lot to me that NCC was the first congregation in the area to be fully welcoming of our GLBTQA neighbors. It still means a lot to me since even today congregations who truly welcome people of all gender identities and sexual orientations remain few and far between. So too, we’ve always been interested in and respectful toward other faith traditions. We appreciate that Jewish people and Muslim people and Hindu people and Buddhist people and native people all have approaches to spirituality as valid as our own, and we’re open to learning what we can from those traditions. We also aspire to become more racially and ethnically diverse, even though it’s tricky to pull that off. My percussion teacher uses a phrase often when he talks about studying music. “You never get to the bottom of it.” There is always more to learn, even about the simplest patterns and rhythms. You can always find a way to express a phrase more subtly, with new nuance and depth. That seems likely to be true of our experience pursuing diversity. Diversity is about more than just achieving statistical balance, although that might be a beginning. It’s also about taking a genuine interest in the experience of another for their own sake. It’s about understanding how someone has been shaped by their culture. It’s being curious about the wisdom available in circumstances different from our own, while looking for common ground in our shared humanity. I’m grateful for what New Covenant Community has accomplished so far, and hopeful for what we can still accomplish in the next 25 years of our life together.

Third, I tell people interested in my work that NCC cares about social justice. We support causes such as a local shelter for women at risk of domestic violence, we educate ourselves about fair trade practices, we contribute to organizations that provide micro-credit lending services to people living in economically under-developed places, we support a program teaching young people from societies plagued by mistrust and animosity to become peacemakers by living together. And almost all of us have worked and/or still are working in careers and volunteer positions dedicated to improving the lives of others – in education, in food pantries, mental health services, legal advocacy for undocumented immigrants, caring for orphans, resettling refugees, providing health and wellness services, working in risk management. I said in another reflection recently that I don’t know anyone in this congregation who isn’t saving the world in their own way. To be sure – there are days when I get frustrated and weary with some of the inevitable mundane, petty details and distractions that come with any job. But when I find myself getting bogged down in minutia, I call to mind the myriad ways people of this congregation dedicate themselves to the needs of others with generosity and determination, and I remember what a privilege it is to work for a group of friends and neighbors who give of themselves as you all do.

Now, at risk of stating the obvious again, NCC is much more than just that short bullet point list. Yesterday, at Devon’s suggestion, the steering committee began our time together with each of us sharing something she or he really values about the congregation. Some mentioned how the liturgy and reflections helped them find purpose in their work and family life. Some mentioned being glad for the chance to be authentic with very personal aspects of their identities and still feel welcomed. Some mentioned gratitude for the opportunity to take part in service projects with friends and neighbors. Some mentioned appreciation for being challenged to think critically about complicated issues. I am confident any of us here this morning could share our own particular thought about what this congregation has meant to us. And the reason I’m reciting all of these assets is not at all to be self-congratulatory. On the contrary, I’m as aware of our deficits as I am of our strengths and I have no illusions about this being a very human congregation. Rather, I call attention to our assets because our steering committee continues to work thoughtfully discerning NCC’s future, preparing for challenges, identifying needs in the larger community we might to address, considering what ought to remain the same and what might need to be adjusted in order to make the bread and cup and all that it represents available to those who need it most. As your leaders study and deliberate and research to hone the recommendations they’ll present to us in the months ahead, we shall be well served for being able to articulate what we value most about our community.

As we turn our attention back to the future, there will be appealing possibilities, and no doubt some stressful challenges. We occupy a building that’s gets older every year. We tend not to be very attractive for families with young children. We’re still mostly white in a community and nation losing ground is its struggle with racism. NCC has surely made some worthy contributions in our history, yet there is still much that needs to be addressed in our neighborhood and our world, and it is work that can only be accomplished by spiritual communities.   So I want us to be realistic – in addition to the joy we find making our way in one another’s company, the way ahead will surely include the need for adaptations and new learning curves. To express the obvious yet again, that’s going to be true no matter how intentional we are or are not moving forward. It isn’t as if one of our options is just to cruise comfortably into the years ahead with no need to navigate difficulties. But would we choose such an option even if it were available to us? Of course, we would not.

I have abundant faith in the leadership we’ve elected, and you can have faith in them, too. Once again, we are being guided women and men of excellent character and vision, and they are worthy of our trust. The people we have asked to serve on our steering committee are the right people at the right time to discern how our congregation can be a responsible steward of Jesus’ open table. As we look to the future with the interesting possibilities and responsibilities we are bound to encounter, it’s important to appreciate what has gotten us to this point. So, as we hear from them throughout the coming year, you and I continuing to practice those habits of radical acceptance and inclusivity and generosity with one another will serve us well as we discern how to practice them in the wider world.

As I said earlier, the steering committee began our time yesterday with each of us sharing something she or he valued about this congregation. It was a moving exercise for all of us to hear other voices around the table share what is important to them about NCC. It helped inspire the work we have ahead of us. While we don’t have time to hear from all of you, as we come around the table together this morning, this centerpiece of who we are, I invite a few of you to consider the same question Devon posed yesterday. What is one thing you value about our life together as a community?

I’ll conclude my remarks with a proverb that says, “The most regrettable failures are failures of kindness.” As we sing our hymn, see if something comes mind that you find really important about your relationship with this community, and we’ll hear from a few of us when we’ve finished singing.