A MESSAGE FROM REV. J.C. AUSTIN: Re-centering ourselves

A little over a year ago, the Session approved a new set of core values and a mission statement to articulate our deepest identity as a congregation and the particular calling that we have discerned from God for us to answer as a congregation. I think it is important, in this moment we find ourselves in as a congregation, to recall and re-center ourselves in those important statements.

As you will recall, we identified four core values that are essential to who we are. That doesn’t mean there are not other important values we have; it means that if we were to turn away from any of these four, we would be turning away from our very being as a church. In a very real sense, we cannot be who we are if these four values do not ground our life and work together. Those values are that we are a Christ-centered church that is welcoming to all, and that we seek and practice an inquiring faith and an active faith. That is who we are and who we always strive to be.

Our mission statement defines the work we are called to and how we are called to do it. It says:

As a diverse and joyful community of Christ’s followers, we explore how God’s gracious love gives meaning to our lives and faith and inspires us to address the needs of our world. Through our worship, learning, and service, God fills us with purpose, compassion, courage, and hope.

Any mission statement is both descriptive and aspirational; it recognizes the essence of the work we do and why and how we do it, and it also calls us to greater faithfulness in that work. In a sense, our mission is never ultimately accomplished, but always points us towards what we are to do, and do more of, even while assuring us that it is our work to do and we are particularly gifted and sent to do it “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).

With that in mind, I want to say two important things to you at this time. First, the Session spent a great deal of time in its meeting last Monday discussing how the church can and should respond to not simply the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but to the deep and unhealed wounds of racial injustice in the body of our nation that Mr. Floyd’s killing represents.

You will be hearing more about that in a separate pastoral letter that I will be sending shortly, but as you will see, that work arises directly from the values and mission described above. It is essential to who we are and what we do as the disciples of Jesus Christ who have been called together as the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, and particularly to our identity as a Christ-centered congregation with an inquiring and active faith, and to our mission to explore how God’s gracious love gives meaning to our lives and faith and inspires us to address the needs of our world.

Second, I want to say that I am launching a new sermon series this Sunday that I am calling, “Sermons in Extraordinary Time.” Pentecost does not begin a new liturgical season on the Christian calendar; as I mentioned in the sermon last Sunday, we are in what is known as “Ordinary Time.” But if anything is clear at the moment, it is that we are not in ordinary time.

As we transition into a new time of struggle with a global pandemic, as we simultaneously find ourselves in a time of reckoning with the history and ongoing reality of systemic racial injustice in the United States, we are certainly in “Extraordinary Time.” And so, for at least the month of June, we are going to focus our attention in worship on what the gospel of Jesus Christ says to us here and now, in this extraordinary time, about what God is up to and how we are called to follow and share in that.

As a part of that series, I am also going to convene a “Sermon Response” gathering by Zoom after each worship service. These will be opportunities for you to engage with each other and with me about the morning’s Scripture and the content of the sermon: reactions, reflections, questions, concerns, even rejections! I hope that you all know me well enough by now to know that one of the things I love most about this church is how we do not all think and believe the same things the same way, and yet we are all striving to be faithful in what we think and believe and do.

In this moment, we are all struggling in new and deeper ways with how to feel, what to do, what we think and believe, in light of what’s going on in the world. And that includes me! And yet because of the pandemic, we have to be intentional about creating space to talk directly with one another on these crucial concerns, because we won’t simply run into each other in the Hospitality Hour or the parking lot. So we’re going to experiment with this by Zoom for at least the month of June during the “Sermons in Extraordinary Time” series.

These sessions will be about thirty minutes long: from 10-10:30 a.m., and from 12-12:30 p.m. That will allow me a few minutes to get to a computer or device after each services ends (we’re generally running at about 50 minutes for worship time in the digital services). The second one can run a little longer if we’re still in a good discussion, but I will have to excuse myself promptly at 10:30 a.m. regardless to get ready for the 11 a.m. service.

I hope if you attend you will be able to be present from the start and through to the end (or at least the official thirty minutes), so that you can not only offer your own thoughts, but hear and respond to those of others. And this is an opportunity for you; I will be mostly listening or responding to questions, but I will have already talked for 18 minutes or so! So I will not be offering more content, but rather helping facilitate you being able to reflect on the sermon Scripture, topic, and content of the day.

Thank you for your faithfulness in this extraordinary time. I am inexpressibly grateful to be in ministry with you, and look forward to deepening our work together in the weeks to come.

Grace and peace,


PS – A reminder that this is Communion Sunday, so if you want to participate we ask that you prepare your elements. Some kind of flour-based (or gluten-free) item like a bagel, bread, roll, cracker, pita, tortilla, etc. You will also want to have some grape juice, wine, or water to sip. Please, no special trip to a grocery store!