A MESSAGE FROM REV. J.C. AUSTIN: GETTING IN GOOD TROUBLE
As I’ve mentioned in a few sermons, the concept of “home” is a little complicated for me. I was born in Tennessee but have no memory of those years; I moved around several times in my preschool years. I spent my childhood right here in the Lehigh Valley, living in Allentown for all my elementary school years. Then my family moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and I spent my adolescence there, where my parents and my brother still live.
So as I write this article from the Lehigh Valley, my once and current home, my “other” home is on my mind, because yesterday Atlanta celebrated the life of John Lewis, the iconic civil rights leader, with a funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Ebenezer, as you may know, was the congregation led for four decades by Martin Luther King, Sr., a prominent pastor in both Atlanta and the broader Black church and an influential civil rights leader in his own right. When Martin Luther King, Jr. left his pastorate in Montgomery to devote himself to the Civil Rights Movement, he returned to Atlanta and became co-pastor with his father at Ebenezer to ensure he stayed rooted in the church.
It was also the church home of Lewis when he moved to Atlanta; Lewis was himself an ordained Baptist minister and a devoted Christian, and credits Martin Luther King, Jr. with being the key inspiration that led him to become both a pastor and a civil rights leader.
Lewis is famous for his leadership in the Freedom Rides, the Selma marches, and the March on Washington. But more recently, he is perhaps best known for his refrain of urging people to get in “good trouble.” He returned to that theme in an op-ed he wrote just before his death that was published in the New York Times yesterday, in which he said, “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.”
As a veteran activist who directly confronted some of the most aggressive injustice and hate of our time, he understood that doing good sometimes causes trouble, and in fact, it is often the case that the bigger and more urgent the good is, the bigger the trouble is from pursuing it.
One of the things that convinced me almost three years ago that God was calling me to the pastorate here at First Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem was recognizing that, in our own way, this is a congregation that is willing to get into good trouble, necessary trouble. At the time, this congregation was still immersed in the aftermath of a bitter division over whether we should embrace or reject the equality of LGBTQ people in the life of the Christian church.
Standing for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people at the time resulted in a lot of trouble, to put it mildly. But it was good trouble, necessary trouble, faithful trouble; following Christ, after all, has been causing a lot of trouble since the very beginning of the Christian church! And that was what really drew my attention as I talked with the search committee: that this was a group of people willing to do that for the sake of the gospel. I remember talking to one friend at the time who said to me, “you just need to understand you’ll be stepping into a world of trouble if you say yes.” And I replied, with Lewis on my mind, “yes, but it’s good trouble.”
And it has been, in so many ways! Now, as many of you may remember, I was called and installed here to a three-year term as pastor, largely because it wasn’t clear at the time where that trouble was going to lead us and there needed to be some flexibility to call someone with different gifts in case that was necessary.
With the end of that term now on the horizon (it expires at the end of November 2020), I am delighted and humbled that the Session voted last Sunday to call a congregational meeting to recommend to you that I be retained as pastor without a fixed term. This would shift my call to the standard pastoral relationship in the PC(USA), and would mean there is no “expiration date” on my ministry here.
There will be more about that as we get into the fall, but as I go off for a bit of vacation over the next two weeks, I do so with a heart full of gratitude for all the good trouble we’ve gotten into together over the past few years, and with a mind full of eagerness about what we might do next!
Grace and Peace,