NCC Framing Story – Place

“We Are Home,” Bob Ryder


Exodus 3:1-5   While Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, he led his flock beyond the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blaze of fire out of a bush.  As he looked, he saw the bush was not consumed by the blaze. Moses said, ‘I must see this marvel up close, and learn why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw Moses approaching, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’ Then the Lord said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’

For this next reading, please consider this fragment from one of Garrison Keillor’s “News from Lake Woebegone” stories that I share from memory. I don’t recall the whole story – nor does it matter.  For our purposes, what matters in the episode is that a group of boys are playing football among tombstones in the town cemetery.  It is the day of a funeral, and the boys, having behaved appropriately in the memorial service, were given leave to amuse themselves as the graveside service takes place nearby.  The boys are friends from school and they play together amicably until one of them accidentally sends a wayward punt bouncing over the fence.  Another of the boys – the kicker’s brother – quickly and nimbly scales the fence to retrieve the ball, but is halted by a handful of his companions who scold him saying, “Hey, that’s the Catholic section; it’s holy ground – get the hell out!”

To begin our reflection, please call to mind someplace you experience as sacred.  Take a moment and think of someplace that fits.  What happened there? Why is it important to you? What does the place do for your well-being or the well-being of others? What sort of use or visitation would you regard as appropriate (never mind whether you have anything to say about it)?  What sort of use or visitation would you regard as a violation of that space?

One location that comes to my mind as holy ground is a stretch of wilderness I experienced on a backpacking trip years ago – a scree slope of car-sized and larger boulders stretching for miles along a mountainside.  I saw it by the light of a full moon while trekking up a difficult mountain trail in Colorado, and it felt like the most exquisite site I’d ever seen – the whole setting seemed to shimmer like it was alive as the combination of aesthetic beauty and physical exhaustion combined so that I had a transcendent psychological experience – a feeling of timelessness and connection to the whole of reality; a knowing that the Earth will survive human activity and the universe will continue to unfold as it should, whatever fate we might come to by our own hand or in the natural course of environmental change.  I was only there once and for a moment, but remains profoundly meaningful for me.

Another sacred place in my experience is a gazebo overlooking the palisade in Laguna Beach, California.  It was there on New Year’s Eve of 1985 where I proposed to Susan.  It’s sacred to me because… well, because she said “yes.”  Yet more than that, it has accumulated holiness in part because of everything we have experienced together, enjoyed and endured together since that night.  If for some reason our marriage had ended early, I doubt I would regard it the same way.

Like the Lake Woebegone kids, there’s a cemetery that means a lot to me.  It sits behind the Presbyterian Church in my own hometown of Caldwell, NJ.  That church has been around since 1796, and among those laid to rest in the grave yard are soldiers who fought in the American Revolution.  There was a time while I was still a part of that congregation when they were considering paving over the grave yard for a parking lot.  That never happened due to the vehement objections of many church members and the local and state historical societies. What makes that place sacred for me, I suppose, is simply my respect for those who worked so hard for American independence.

What makes a location sacred?  Has it existed relatively unchanged for a long time?  Does it harbor the graves of our ancestors, or of important spiritual or political leaders?  Was there some important personal experience that took place there?  What determines which uses and transformations are appropriate?  That gazebo in Laguna Beach has a constant stream of visitors who engage in all sorts of casual uses on the spot where Susan and I pledged ourselves to one another.  I’m not at all bothered by that – it doesn’t detract from the important moment Susan and I shared there, maybe it even enhances it.  But I’d be sad if the City of Laguna Beach sold the property to a developer and allowed say, a Starbucks to go up there.  Think of that graveyard in New Jersey – every summer children play among the tombstones during vacation bible school. That seems quite appropriate in my estimation – a new generation experiencing life among the memories of ancestors from long ago.  Yet the idea of moving the graves to make way for a parking lot feels like an atrocity.  Why?  It bothers me not at all to think of removing monuments to confederate war heroes from public places.  Yet it bothers me a lot that the federal government forcibly removed protestors at Standing Rock and presses forward even now with plans to build the Dakota Access Pipeline through places considered sacred by the Sioux Nation.  Why?  I’ve never been to Standing Rock.  I don’t know what it looks like, or how close the burial sites of their ancestors are to the planned excavation for the pipe line, or what other meaning that place might hold for the Sioux beyond protecting fresh water in the Missouri River, yet I am inclined to regard it as sacred.

Is this building sacred? this property?  In a word, yes- it is to me.  It’s certainly important to our weekly worship experience.  We’ve been married here, baptized here, mourned and remembered each other here.  We’ve celebrated here, fought and reconciled here.  I feel confident saying that in this room, anyone who has invested some time and imagination and effort has become a better version of themselves by virtue of what we share in this room, the bread and cup, music, the will to persist in both misgiving and confidence, despair and hope.  Yeah, this is sacred space, this is holy ground.

What else makes it holy? Those of us who have not been part of the congregation for as long might not know why the bricks are the color that they are.  The Campus Religious Center was built in 1969-70 while the civil rights movement was still fresh in the collective memory of the nation, and indeed was still an active social force.  Racial tensions were high, and as a gesture of solidarity, our congregation’s founder Jim Pruyne persuaded ecclesiastical partners cooperating to finance and construct this building to use these dark bricks. It was a way of saying “Black Lives Matter” decades before that phrase would become part of the national dialogue.  During the early years of the building’s existence, ISU’s campus had to navigate substantial racial tensions that pitted students against students and faculty against faculty. It was due to Jim’s well known and trusted sensibilities for racial justice and equality that this building played host to dialogues striving for reconciliation and changes in policy that healed some of those divisions.  This building is holy ground.

This room is the place where we’ve said goodbye to some of our most beloved members, including Mary Evelyn Moore.  Mary Evelyn served on the steering committee, including a term as president of the congregation. She helped us navigate some very difficult conflicts about which direction our future should take with grace and a sense of humor that I will admire for the rest of my life.  Mary Evelyn was primarily responsible for the beautiful gardens that still thrive in the courtyard these many years later. Her ashes are scattered among the flowers, and a plaque in her memory is fixed to the sitting bench there. This building is sitting on holy ground.

The gifts of other friends we loved and remembered here still influence who we are as a congregation. Those who have been here longest might remember one of the very first Sundays Susan and I were leading the service.  Lloyd Farlee was our musician then, a genius at the keyboard and one of the best friends anyone could hope to have.  As Susan and I came to the front to start the service, he played Sioux City Sue in celebration of our starting work here having moved from Sioux City, Iowa.  This baby grand piano and the stained-glass plaque here on the table up front are dedicated to his memory.  This place is sacred ground in no small part because of what Lloyd shared with us here, because of who he encouraged us to be with his substantial optimism and friendly good nature. Lloyd was among those who helped this place to become holy ground.

With all that longer history in mind, those who may only have been around for a few months might recall one of the most meaningful moments I’ve ever experienced in worship.  It happened as we were sharing responses to a reflection I offered as part of a series on mindfulness.  As an example of the need for “letting go” I described a bronze emblem of Snoopy in his WW1 Fly Ace persona given to me by a friend almost 40 years ago.  The gift was a gesture of affection and affirmation for qualities that my friend liked about me, and that little Snoopy was with me every day since through all the joy and grief of this life.  As I gave the reflection, I had just recently lost the emblem and I was grieving it sorely, an experience I used as an example of the need to recognize that nothing lasts forever and we have to move on.  Without missing a beat, Brian stepped up to meet me here at the podium and he gave me his own small leather Snoopy keychain.  It too depicts Snoopy in his WW1 Flying Ace Persona, and he offered it as a gesture of comfort.  This is the emblem, and like my bronze image, this one had made the rounds through some important moments in Brian’s life.  It’s difficult to imagine a more gracious empathic gesture offered with so much spontaneity. It certainly made this place more holy for the kindness shared within it.

As luck would have it, very soon after that service, I found my original Snoopy emblem. We spent a couple of hours catching up on what we both had been through since the last time we saw each other, and we pledged to take better care not to become separated again. And Snoopy suggested to me that Brian and his Snoopy emblem should be reunited, too, so that they can peruse their adventures in kindness and courage and generosity together again. Brian, I return this to you with my profound thanks. This emblem is its own kind of sacred place. It is holy ground, and I trust that it might be the catalyst for more instances in which you offer your profound goodness to others in their time of need.

This is the sort of thing we do together. It’s the sort of thing that happens here. This place is imbued with grace and forgiveness and generosity that has accumulated and left an impression in the course of our 25 years together. And note the flow of influence. It is not that what we share becomes sacred because of this place, but that the place has become sacred because of what we share. Holiness is a mysterious thing. Our mission as a people is the continue in our time what Jesus began in his, working for the healing of our world as an inclusive, compassionate, joyful community.  However imperfectly, however small our scale, we do that here.  The energy and forgiveness, the generosity and imagination, the tears and laughter we have shared together here has made this a holy place and we dishonor that holiness if we regard the building and property casually or forgetfully, if we are ungrateful for its allowing us to participate in the sacred mystery s we have. But holiness is portable, and we would dishonor the spirit by which this place has become holy if we worship it merely for its own sake instead of maintaining the generosity and hospitality we are called to share as we grow and evolve through the next 25 years. Like our biological lives, like Brian’s and my Snoopy emblems, like our pianos and communion ware, nothing lasts forever. One day sooner or later this building will come to the end of its usefulness. Perhaps it will be because of obsolescence, perhaps because the ways in which we are called to practice our mission require different premises. Whenever that happens, our memory and our appreciation for what happened here, the influence this place has had on our identity as a people, will remain intact. Holiness is portable.

I’ll concluded by attempting to quote one of the most insightful things anyone has ever said about this congregation. Years and years ago, Chris Kaufman and I were talking casually about the future of NCC, speculating about who we might be in the future, and she noted, “This congregation is going to have to be light on its feet.” My goodness I think that’s right. The best of who we are is much more about our transactions than our geography. Our home will always be where we gather together and practice grace inspired by the sacred mystery. It’s determined by our practice more than it will ever be determined by our address, by our hospitality rather than by real estate. Holiness is as holiness does, wherever it takes place. Amen.