August 9, 2020

“2020 NCC Bingo,” Susan Ryder

1 Corinthians 12:14ff  For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

Galatians 5:22-23
The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Bob and I began our ministry with New Covenant Community on the last day of August in 1997 – twenty-three years later, the memories of our first morning as your pastors remain fresh in my mind. On that first Sunday, those of you who were there may recall Bob and I processed into the non-air-conditioned Chapel from the back door wearing our heavy black clerical robes, preceded by … I think it was Garrett (?), who carried a large Bible before us. I remember the looks of horror on your faces, as you collectively wondered if you’d accidentally called the wrong pastors. Lloyd Farlee, our pianist at the time, was in on the joke, and so he used the organ setting on the electronic keyboard we had back then and played something very slow and “dirgey,” which didn’t help dispel your concerns. Fortunately, soon after we arrived up in front of the Chapel we invited two NCC members who are no longer with us – Donna Gudeman and Patrick O’Gara – to come up and “defrock us.” Our robes were removed, revealing the usual attire for NCC during the hot summer months back then – shorts for Bob and a skirt for me, and there was laughter and great relief from all who were there.

Bob and I were so excited to be called to serve such a progressive, welcoming congregation. We previously pastored much more traditional Presbyterian congregations in northwest Iowa, and when we decided to leave Sioux City, we intentionally sought a “More Light” congregation who would affirm and accept LGBT members. And boy, did we hit the jackpot with NCC! Not only is NCC “More Light,” the PCUSA designation for welcoming congregations, we are also “Open and Affirming” with the UCC and Disciples. Because of that openness, NCC already had several LGBT members who were integral parts of the community when arrived. We were thrilled to be called to such a progressive congregation and considered ourselves very lucky – and still do. What a blessing to serve in such an open, welcoming, progressive congregation. As I’ve mentioned to some of you over the past couple of weeks, many of our clergy friends have been quite jealous of us over the years.

Soon after we reach the 23 mark as your pastors at the end of this month, NCC will turn 28 years old later in September. While that is a relatively young age for a congregation, when I look back on all that NCC has accomplished during that time, it is definitely something to celebrate. From writing letters and speaking on behalf of LGBT persons to help pass non-discrimination policies for Normal and then Bloomington, to offering theologically progressive speakers and workshops with Jesus Seminar Scholars like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, and many more through the Pruyne Lectureship, including Sister Simone Campbell, the Interfaith Amigos, and Brian McLaren, to helping sponsor an immigrant family in need, NCC has and continues to offer so much to the local and global community. Fortunately there are more progressive and welcoming congregations now than there were 28 years ago, but to our credit NCC was among the first, and that is something to be proud of. As you prepare for the next chapter of NCC’s story, taking a look back at earlier chapters will be helpful.

Here is one of those early stories. Back when Bob and I arrived in 1997, there was a letter from Episcopal priest Jim Adams waiting for us on the desk in our office, inviting NCC to embark on a new project – The Center for Progressive Christianity, founded in 1994 by Rev. Adams. At that time, there was no known organization, scholar, or church leader publicly using the term, “progressive Christianity.” Adams, who was rector of St. Mark’s Church on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. had a vision to create a non-profit organization that encouraged churches to focus their attention on those for whom organized religion had proven to be “ineffectual, irrelevant, or repressive.” Rev. Adams goal was “to keep the churches from drying up and blowing away,” a response to statistics showing that membership in mainline churches had dramatically declined in the 1980s for the third decade in a row. Based on his experience at St. Mark’s, Adams was convinced that if churches were more open about professing progressive beliefs, they could thrive. Adams and a small group of other like-minded peers agreed that they needed to provide a way to help churches find ways to self-identify as “progressive,” which became the genesis of the “Eight Points” defining progressive Christianity. This early founding group also thought it important to provide opportunities for these churches to share “progressive Christian” articles and book reviews, and gather occasionally for conferences and workshops.

Bob and I shared this information, first with the Steering Committee and then the entire congregation, all of whom enthusiastically endorsed the 8 Points – and NCC joined TCPC as a member congregation in late 1997. Soon after Bob became a member of the Executive Board of TCPC, which he served for several years as Secretary, traveling to meetings several times a year helping launch TCPC into a global network. By the late 1990s, TCPC realized that they had tapped into a larger hunger and need than anyone could have imagined. The list of affiliated churches and individual members grew, and interest in the website attracted people beyond professional clergy and church leaders. In 2010, they changed the name to to better reflect their web-based presence and global network (and the fact that they weren’t actually a “center”). I don’t know about you, but I am proud of NCC’s early association with the Progressive Christianity organization, and of Bob’s part during its inception.

Fast forward a few chapters to 2012. As NCC celebrated its 20th birthday, I offered a Reflection called “New Covenant Community Bingo” and invited you to consider the values and priorities of this congregation. I shared the reading from Galatians and imagined if Paul were to create a bingo card reflecting what he felt were the core values of his faith experience, and what he hoped others would focus on as they lived out their faith, he would likely include the words he used to describe the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I shared some words that occurred to me that I would put on my card if we were playing NCC Bingo – words and phrases that reflected some of the values that were important to this community. Then I invited the rest of you to share some words/phrases you would either hear during a Sunday service, or words/phrases you would put on a bingo card to best describe NCC – things you believed were integral to who we are and what we value. Some of those words are here.

As Bob and I end our chapters with NCC after 23 years of sharing ministry together later this year, and as NCC reaches 28 years together as a congregation while seeking new pastoral leadership, perhaps it would be helpful to begin to create a new bingo card of what is important to NCC, a card that could be shared with others who might just like what this congregation has to offer. Maybe there’s an empty space on someone’s card in Bloomington/Normal that one of your words could fill. Maybe the filled card, when read aloud, sounds a lot like an answer to prayer for someone. It may sound a little silly but I envision a worship space – or a Zoom room – filled with people holding Bingo cards and in each square of their card is a meaningful word, and every once in a while, we hear a voice, raised in joy, calling out “Bingo!” And I truly expect, as happened 23 years ago, a new pastor will have a “Bingo!” experience when they see who this congregation is and all you have to offer. What words might you add to our 2020 NCC Bingo Card?

From Zoom Chat: questioning, supportive, empathy, forgiveness, humor, bravery/fearless/audacious, safety, Jesus, compassion, environmentally conscious, believers in science, sanctuary, HOPE, curiosity, authenticity, integrity, social justice, innovative, respect, honesty, acceptance, seeking, God, kindness, seeking over doctrine, resilience, listen patiently, lead

From time to time it is important to acknowledge and celebrate that NCC is a diverse community of seekers who, like Goldilocks, have found NCC to be “just right” as a spiritual home for a variety of reasons. As you embark on a new chapter in the life of this congregation in 2021, it seems like another good time to do so. We know some of you are here because you were rejected by other churches because of progressive beliefs or sexual orientation, or you were turned off by traditional theology. Some are here because their friends are here, and they feel comfortable and cared for, while others come because they were invited by someone who thought NCC might just be their cup of tea. Others are here because they appreciate the encouragement of questioning and doubt, which has strengthened their belief. The list of reasons for each of you being here is rich and varied, and we value all who are part of this community just as Paul admonished the Church at Corinth to value all of its members, even those who were different in form and function from others, using the body as metaphor.

I have seen, and continue to see NCC as beautiful mosaic of people, beliefs, circumstances, expectations, and histories who have all come together because like Goldilocks, you have found in some way, shape, or form that NCC is “just right” for you. It’s exciting to think about who else might find NCC “just right.” As I said earlier, maybe there’s an empty space on someone’s Bingo card in Bloomington/Normal that one of our words could fill. Maybe the filled card, when read aloud, will sound a lot like an answer to prayer for someone. Amen.