September 27, 2020

“Inclusive, Compassionate, Joyful,” Bob Ryder


Matthew 5:13-16 (partial/paraphrased)
You are the light of the world. No one lights a lamp and hides it under a blanket. You hang it from the ceiling, so it lights up the room. Likewise, let your inner light shine so others may see it and be drawn to the sacred coming into the world through you.

Matthew 6:1-4
Resist practicing your piety before others to be seen – there’s no virtue in that. When you give to charity, don’t make a production of it so others will praise you. Those who do such things have received all the reward coming to them. When you give, be so private about it even your left hand doesn’t know what your right hand is doing. Let your charity be between you and God.

New Covenant Community just had its 28th anniversary of ministry in Bloomington/Normal, “continuing in our time what Jesus began in his – working for the healing of our world as an inclusive, compassionate, and joyful community” as our mission statement puts it. As we begin our 29th year, NCC finds itself at a pivotal moment as we navigate the COVID pandemic, get used to digital worship and fellowship, seek a new location, and search for an interim pastor as Susan and I prepare to retire at the end of the year. With all that going on it’s a good moment to consider NCC’s viability and financial health in the face of change and uncertainty.

The founders of New Covenant Community got a lot right as they took their first steps together back in 1992, including our informal, low-key approach to soliciting financial support. Like some of the founders, I’ve had lots of experience with congregations who’ve approached fundraising in a heavy-handed, manipulative way. I cringe recalling some of the stewardship campaigns I’ve seen. There were admonitions to “think not in terms of how much of our own money we’re willing to contribute, but how much of God’s money we’d keep for ourselves.” There were suggestions that the more generously we give the more generously God will reward us. Susan remembers a Sunday in her home church when a member gave testimony about the rewards of tithing – he claimed God had gifted him with a Porsche for his increased giving – ouch! There’s been guilt mongering, grandiose challenges to “make disciples of all nations,” holding up the example of the poor widow who gave all she had to live on, and so forth. Perhaps some of you recall stewardship themes that seem over the top looking back on them, as well.

This isn’t to suggest that talk of financial responsibility and one’s contributions to the work of the sacred in the world has no place in a congregation’s life. There are times any of us might need to be challenged to more generosity than we’d practice left to our own inclinations. I can accept respectful reminders that I’m faring well compared to lots of others; that there are worthy causes and people no less deserving than I who could do with some assistance. Yet because it’s easy to get pushy when suggesting how others ought to spend their money, from the beginning NCC adopted a deliberately minimalist policy in its fundraising practices. Even when we’re together for worship we don’t mention an offering beyond a brief note in the bulletin and a collection plate set by the door. Since we’ve been meeting online there is no offering plate, and our giving has been down a bit as we have to remember on our own to mail in our contributions. Still, we only make brief mention of it in our weekly E-news. There is no heavy-handedness, no season-long worship theme coordinated with repeated appeals for pledges. We just send a polite annual letter from the elected leaders and offer one reflection per year.

This is that reflection. Later this week that letter will be emailed from the Steering Committee asking for your financial pledge so they can draft a budget for 2021. That budget proposal will be shared soon after, and approved by vote of the congregation at a meeting in December. So, in keeping with our low-key fund raising tradition, I take the opportunity this morning to offer the reflection – respectfully and gently – on why one might choose to contribute to NCC in the coming year. Rather than formulas for levels of giving, guilt inducing appeals to the conscience or promises of a divine return on investment (YOU get a car, and YOU get a car…), I’ll simply highlight a few of the good things this congregation has to offer to one another, to our neighbors, and to various projects we support, which I hope you may consider worthy of your generosity as NCC ventures into a new chapter of its life.

First, our inclusivity is important. Many people benefit from our open-minded and deliberately speculative approach to Christianity. There are lots of folks who’ve been immensely relieved to learn of our indiscriminate inclusivity for people of every sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s also easy to underestimate the significance of a progressive Christian voice in McLean County. Because it’s normal for us, it’s easy to assume what we’re doing is more widely available than it is. We were founded by a campus ministry connected to an excellent university, and accustomed to a culture of education. We avail ourselves of scholarship from some of the most accomplished theologians and historians in the world, and we share that learning methodically through the Pruyne Lectures. The opportunity to consider Jesus’ life and message disentangled from two millennia worth of tradition; to consider with some degree of confidence what Jesus might have supported and what he’d likely have challenged in our own society – this is a regular experience for us.

For many of our neighbors these approaches are not so regular, indeed not even available if not for NCC. The understanding that sexual and gender diversity are gifts to be celebrated rather than abominations to be scourged is a given for us. That’s not the case for many of our neighbors. Susan and I occasionally receive words of heartfelt thanks – even astonishment – from visitors and readers of our “From the Pulpit” articles in the Pantagraph that there’s a congregation where such ideas are permitted at all let alone embraced and valued. It seems quite clear that there are significant numbers of people in our area who are helped along on their faith journeys by what we share around Jesus’ table week by week. Folks who don’t match conventional ideas of normal have a place at God’s table; a place in God’s heart. Many congregations in our small corner of the world discourage members from articulating faith on their own terms or considering their doubts as a valid and healthy aspect of faith. Thinking critically and exploring doubts isn’t the opposite of faith – it’s the essence of it. That is really good news for a lot of people. Finding new ways to get these messages out there would be to the community’s benefit as well as our own. It’s not going too far to say we have helped save a few lives – I happen to know it for a fact. Our approach to faith and worship could be an oasis for a lot more people in this area. NCC is a cause worthy of support.

Additionally, there are projects we support as a group through our mission line items, including: the Immigration Project, which provides services to undocumented immigrants in our area; Friends Forever, who work to building peace and understanding among young people from conflicted parts of the world; Doctors without Borders; the Progressive Christian Network, the “More Light” and “Open & Affirming” projects who work for inclusivity and equality within our affiliated denominations; the general mission funds and administrative budgets of those denominations; the scholarship program at Irving School; the Prairie Pride Coalition, just to name a few. I suppose the point is that the money we contribute to New Covenant Community gets around. In addition to paying for staff and administrative items, almost 10% of our budget is directed to other ministries and projects “working for the healing of our world” just as we hope to do in our careers, relationships and personal habits. NCC is a cause worthy of support.

Finally, I hope what we share in our reflections and liturgy, in the bread and cup, in joys and concerns, in book studies, even in casual greetings and chit chat and joking around with one another – it is my hope that all of this provides part of the nourishment and healing we each need to do our work in the world; to let our individual lights shine. It’s certainly the case for me. I am regularly blessed by the integrity and dedication and talents you all bring to the table. I’m a better husband, a better pastor, a better training consultant, a better friend and neighbor and citizen of the world than I would otherwise be because of what we give and take as part of NCC. I intend and hope this goes both ways. We all have responsibilities and opportunities, distractions and temptations. To the extent being together each week inspires is us to navigate life with more intentionality to be a better teacher, a more enlightened entrepreneur, a better-informed voter, a more articulate advocate for human rights and the preservation of the planet, to that extent NCC’s ministry is worthy of support.

There’s a saying that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” It’s widely attributed to ancient China and is thought to have been intended as a curse, although the actual origin and intent are uncertain. Wherever it comes from, it’s intriguing. “May you live in interesting times.”  We certainly live in interesting times. The world struggles with a pandemic. Our nation struggles with racial injustice and political corruption and economic challenges all at once. Any of these challenges would be daunting by all by itself. On top of that Susan and I are retiring, leaving NCC to find new leadership in the midst of it all. Hey, at least we’re not going to be bored for a while!

With all that’s happening, it’s tempting to despair. Hear me as I say again – not for the last time – that this congregation has so much to offer now. You have the potential for a strong and important future. NCC is such a valuable resource for its members and friends, for Bloomington/Normal, and for a myriad of neighbors and organizations we support. Even now at this all too interesting moment in history, there is no reason NCC can’t become and even better, more substantial version of itself in the months years to come. I hope as you consider making a financial pledge to the budget for next year, you’ll be mindful of all that NCC has done in its 28 years of ministry, and what it can yet contribute to making Jesus’ open table available to those who need to share the feast. As you consider privately what you might contribute, I invite you to contemplate how NCC will continue in a new time what Jesus began in his, working for the healing of the world as an inclusive, compassionate, joyful community. Amen.