Happy 25th NCC!

“This is Us,” Bob Ryder

Luke 19:1-10 Jesus was passing through Jericho and a crowd gathered to see him as he passed by. A rich man named Zacchaeus lived there, he was the chief tax-collector. Zacchaeus was also trying to get a glimpse of Jesus, but he was not tall enough to see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to get a better view, because Jesus was about to pass that way. When Jesus approached, he looked up and said, ‘Zacchaeus, come down; for I would visit your home today.’  Zacchaeus hurried down and was happy to welcome him. Everyone who saw this began to grumble, saying, ‘He’s gone to be the guest of a sinner.’ With everyone looking on, Zacchaeus said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to find and save the lost.’

Allegory of the Long Spoons – One day a man said to God, “I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.” God showed the man two doors. Inside the first, in the middle of the room, was a large round table with a large pot of stew. It smelled wonderful and caused the man’s mouth to water, yet the people sitting around the table were thin and gaunt. They appeared to be famished. Their arms were bound with splints so that they could not bend, and they were holding spoons with very long handles such that each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a helping, but because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths and they moved desperately trying to feed themselves to no avail. The man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. Behind the second door, the room appeared exactly the same. There was the large round table with the same large pot of stew that likewise caused the man’s mouth to water. The people had the same splints and long-handled spoons, but they were in good condition and well nourished, laughing and talking among themselves. The man said, “I don’t understand.” God smiled and said, “It is simple, love only requires one skill. These people learned early on to share and feed one another, while those in hell only think of how to feed themselves.” [attributed to Rabbi Haim of Romshishok]

When I was a boy, religion was a perpetual confusion to me.  My mom and dad, each having experienced strange and occasionally tortured religious experiences in the care of their parents, were determined that Scott and I be allowed to make up our own minds about matters of faith as our curiosity lead us.  I picked up bits and pieces vicariously and haphazardly through my friends’, sometimes leaving me bewildered for the “not quite enough” quantity of information that floated my way.  Schoolmates would sometimes share fragments about their religious upbringings.  For instance, my friend Richard would occasionally miss stickball games for Hebrew class, “where you learn to read backwards” he explained.  I had two other friends in special classes because they had to learn not to read backwards, which made me wonder briefly if dyslexia was like a religion that was the opposite being Jewish. My Catholic friends sometimes had parties for their confirmations and first communion.  I knew the internal logic of Catholicism must also have eluded me, as I sensed I’d said something wrong in congratulating a friend for making his first confession.  It turns out communion and confirmation and confession aren’t all the same thing.

My own first experience of communion was Presbyterian style, and it left an impression.  In high-school, at the invitation of friends I joined the Presbyterian Church in my town.  Communion there was observed only quarterly and was the height of austerity, focusing on Christ’s sacrificial suffering to atone for our sins.  No one would mistake it for a joyful occasion – even as Dr. McElwee intoned the words of institution saying, “This is the joyful feast of the people of God!” Ironically, the Lord’s Supper was regarded only as a somber duty, reserved exclusively for those who understood the gravity of their transgressions and were determinedly remorseful about them.  (It’s entertaining to imagine expressions on the faces of my first congregation if they were to see a child taking communion, to say nothing of a child serving communion as happens here from time to time.) To my 15-year-old sensibilities, the austere communion experience seemed the one and only orthodox way to “approach God” and therefor I assumed that such lofty seriousness could not fail to make me a better, more impressive person.  My parents tried often to disabuse me of that notion.  Just the opposite of impressive, I became quite the self-righteous little piece of work!  (Mom, Dad, Scott – I’m really sorry for the way I inflicted my Presbyterianity on you all. My bad!)

Several years later, I had a most enlightening experience when a seminary professor asked my classmates what elements were required for communion.  The class debated among ourselves for a bit whether wafers or bread were the best choice for the loaf, and whether grape juice was really an adequate substitute for wine.  Listening patiently to our guesses, the professor finally asked the class whether we’d be surprised to learn that one could experience the mysteries of communion with Pepsi and potato chips.  We laughed a little uncomfortably as he went on to explain that the only element necessary for authentic communion to be celebrated (celebrated!?), the only thing necessary is that those present be inclined to consider themselves “one people,” and to include all comers with hospitality befitting that idea.  We were scandalized.  “But what if the people taking the sacrament haven’t acknowledged their sins?” one of us asked.  “What if they haven’t accepted Christ as their personal Lord and Savior?” “All that came later” he said. “In your ministries, you will be confidants to those who desperately need to feel forgiven for mistakes they have made in their lives.  Paul has a lot to say about that and you’ll need to understand the doctrine of atonement if you’re going to be of any comfort to them.  But imagine a group of friends is hanging out on the beach having a picnic, and they spontaneously invite a group of strangers passing by to come over and have a beer; that’s communion no less than the carefully carved bits of bread and tiny cups of wine passed from silver trays on any given Sunday.”

“Jesus’ table,” he continued pointing to two sawhorses holding up a piece of plywood and spread with Pringles and a bottle of Pepsi, “is about breaking down the barriers, the psychological prejudices by which we separate ourselves into warring tribes and factions. It’s about transcending our differences and striving to live in peace.  It is our ability to see through our delusions – our willingness to recognize in a stranger, an enemy, an oppressor or victim, a refugee or drug addict, a social elite or common laborer the daughter or son of God – that makes a shared meal into holy communion.  And it is your ability to preside with such an understanding over the elements in whatever form they take that establishes your credentials to officiate the sacrament.”

The question of what constitutes communion and who’s qualified for the giving and taking of it has been a point of contention ever since Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the tree. Before it’s about reconciling with God, it’s about reconciling with our neighbor. Not all of my classmates took to that lesson easily – some still haven’t, I’ll bet.  For me, it was both inspiring and troubling because I knew intuitively that it was correct – radically open commensality made sense to me even before I knew the big words for it. Yet I’d invested a fair amount of ego prior to that lesson supposing that being ordained to share the sacraments was to become a gatekeeper for God’s salvation.  Helping people set aside their prejudices and learn to regard outsiders as neighbors would obviously be less glorified and more tedious.  Fortunately, it’s also more satisfying when you can pull it off.

That class happened in the fall of 1987, and now here I am 30 years and most of a career later. Where does the time go?  How is it even possible I feel like the same guy who’d once upon a time not learned to read Hebrew, who didn’t yet understand the radical essence of communion?  That was me sitting in class experiencing an epiphany about Pepsi and potato chips.  It the same entity – the same consciousness – now as it was then when I was baffled by distinctions between communion and confession. I hope I’m a little more skillful at making the grace of the table available than I was when I started out, and I really hope I’m a little more humble as I get older.  But it’s still me – then and now – once a goofy green kid and this vanilla middle-aged mid-western dude. If I’m lucky and a little bit smart I’ll one day experience myself in a grizzled-old-man version of this same “me” decades on looking back on 50-something. I’m no closer to having a bead on who or what “God” is.  If anything, I’m less able to define the sacred than ever, yet maybe progress is partly about embracing the unknowableness of it all.  At the same time, I feel that I’m a bit more attuned to the sacred mystery when it shows up than I used to be, more likely to notice it and adjust course, more able to acknowledge when I’ve been going the wrong way even if a change is tedious or risky.  Maybe that’s what spiritual growth comes to – appreciating blessings from “the great wherever,” and on their own terms. With all the similarities and differences, it’s still the same me on the same journey. While I certainly I respect those who experience their faith in terms of answers and absolutes, I experience it as hunches and questions, as paradox and an increasingly broad perspective.  For parents and professors and a congregation who gave me room to find my stumbling way along, I am grateful beyond words.  Not all pastors have room to explore like that, not all have a congregation with whom it’s as acceptable to learn as it is to teach; where It’s okay to try on ideas that might be outside our comfort zone. Here, it’s practically expected.

And that’s the gist of what we can celebrate on this 25th anniversary of New Covenant Community – not merely the details of any one particular faith journey, obviously, but the general spiritual orientation we’ve discovered and cultivated together as a congregation. Jim, you’re responsible for this. It is both an honor and a perpetual challenge serving a congregation of educated, liberated, opinionated souls who are just over needing an authority figure telling them what to do and how to think. As the saying goes, “Which way did they go? How many were there? Are they alright? I must find them; I am their leader!” So, thanks for that! Seriously, we owe you our gratitude because starting a congregation like this is as tricky as serving it, with myriad conflicts and red tape and egos to test one’s resolve.   Yet to know, Jim, is to understand he is a hybrid creature, part pastor and part maverick, and nothing motivates him to action more than being told that he must not do something. Convinced that the University community needed a worshipping congregation adjacent to campus as several nearby churches relocated to other parts of town, amid many objections and resistance Gwen and Jim gathered a dozen people one Sunday morning in September of 1992 and held a service in this room. As legend has it, Jim came prepared with a sermon manuscript that ended up feeling like too much for the small gathering who showed up. And so, in what I believe was an impromptu gesture of hospitality he pivoted from a sermon to what we’ve come to call a reflection, sharing a few thoughts in conversational style and offering the rest of the group a chance to respond from their own point of view. It caught on and our worship atmosphere has remained mostly informal and interactive ever since.

Having gotten the ball rolling and expecting to retire before long, Jim recruited Dick and Charline Watts to take the project to next level. Similar to Jim’s talent for recognizing a need and addressing it come hell or high water, Dick had the institutional savvy to navigate institutional bureaucracy and help NCC become an established, bona fide congregation in not one, not two, but three denominations eager to be associated with a successful new church start and willing to support the project financially. Emerging as a program of campus ministry, approaching worship and faith and mission experimentally, New Covenant Community came to be regarded as the research and development arm of the church by our supporting denominations – a neat distinction that kindled our flexibility and creativity for many years. The rest, as they say, is history. We have attracted those who need to experience faith in their own way, free from orthodox requirements of traditional church. We have attracted those who prefer an informal and interactive worship experience. We have welcomed from the beginning neighbors of all sexual orientations and gender identities. We have offered the most advanced scholarship on progressive faith and social justice and the historical Jesus, and we have extended ourselves to the most vulnerable of our neighbors both nearby and throughout the world through our mission budget as well as in group and individual efforts.

And here we are, 25 years and many weddings, baptisms, funerals, conflicts, reconciliations, hellos and goodbyes later. Where does the time go?  How is it even possible we think of ourselves as the same group?  That was us gathering for that first service in ’92, and it’s still us now, those first dozen adventurous souls and every person who’s ever taken a bit of the bread and cup along the way from Normal to Nazareth, from Bloomington to Bethlehem. Hopefully we’re a little more skillful at making the grace of Christ’s table available to the larger community than when we started, and a little more humble in making decisions and resolving conflicts.  And if we’re lucky and a little bit smart it will still be us in 2042 – the seasoned “R and D” branch of the church doing our inclusive, compassionate, joyful thing as called upon by the Lord of the Open Table, working for the healing the world in whatever projects we’re called to take on at the time.

Will that still be us? Will whoever shares the bread and cup identify with what we’re doing today? If we’re lucky and a little bit smart, yeah – probably so. Will we always be this informal and interactive – maybe. Will we always be this small or this big? Maybe. Will we always be in this building or adjacent to ISU’s campus? Maybe. Will we always be working on the same mission projects, advocating for the same causes? Maybe. All of it depends on what’s needed along the way and whether we’re listening as much as we’re speaking. But you know what I hope might be constant about us through the years to come? The hospitality, our striving to experience each other and the world as “one people,” the inclination to care for one another using whatever “long spoons” we’re given to work with as the allegory suggests Heaven is really about. If this congregation is anything, we are an oasis where we show up to put salve on each other’s wounds and feed one another with bread and juice and appreciation and encouragement for the tremendously important work we all do in our own circles. This community is an oasis where we can recover from the challenges of the previous week and refresh ourselves for what lies ahead.

Look around you, call to mind others who are part of NCC who are elsewhere this morning, and see if you can think of anyone who isn’t working for the healing of our world in some meaningful way. Among us are those carving out a place in this town for Congolese refugees to make a new start in the world. Among us are those who teach and nurture difficult students with the patience of saints and the love of Christ in their hearts. Among us are those contributing countless hours advocating for the rights of our neighbors who are immigrants without documentation. Among us are those working with persistence and great courage for the equality of LGBTQ neighbors. Among us are those who put their hearts and backs into causes of animal welfare, those nurturing spirituality and wellness among the ISU community, those helping to revitalize neighborhoods on Bloomington’s west side, those who minister in hospitals, those who look after victims of domestic abuse, those who advocate for the economic needs of fellow students, who work for racial justice and equality, for reproductive rights, for voter registration and informed constituents, for the needs of those preparing for the end of their lives. I could go on and on and on. We are a congregation of educated, liberated, opinionated and committed people, and if what we share around this table Sunday by Sunday can offer aid and comfort to each other for the rest of the week as count me in. This table is our symbiotic oasis. If trading bread and juice, ideas and hugs can give us the boost we need to keep up the good work, I am happy to serve.

Now I have no crystal ball, and there are no guarantees – organizations can change for better or worse, and they can run their course. But if we never succeed at anything more than nurturing one another around the table to go and heal the world each in our own way, we will be living up to the high aspirations of our mission statement and quite likely to attract fellow seekers year after year to carry on the traditions started on our behalf all those years ago. As we look back on 25 years well spent, I trust we will find ways to maximize the chances that some future version of this congregation will look back and see themselves in what we’re doing this morning. This is what we do. This is who we are. This is us. Happy anniversary, New Covenant Community, and Godspeed. Amen.