The Jesus story has been hijacked. Now, I know: this isn’t news to you. For decades now, a particular version of the Jesus story has dominated, and I’ll spare you the retelling of it one more time. You might have grown up with this version of the Jesus story. For many of us, our pulse quickens as we hear it -- it’s the version where those who are lucky enough to get a pass through the pearly gates, and the rest of humanity is subject to eternal fire...
A few weeks ago, a few from a far wing of this aggressive and fiery theology raised the heat even further. Christians around the world were sickened as we literally witnessed the horns of evil forcing its way into our nation’s capital, whipping Christian flags in the air, pumping signs bearing Jesus’ name, and even wearing apparel with phrases like, “God, Guns, and Trump.” We watched in horror that despicable scene and said to ourselves -
“These people don’t know the same Jesus story I know.
I know a story where Jesus commands us to love above all else.
I know a story that tells us that God is love.
And this is not what love does.
This is not what love does.”
On a gut level, what you and I were feeling was an innate sense of St. Augustine’s famous rule of love. St. Augustine articulates this rule in his first century writing, On Christian Doctrine, saying “So anyone who thinks he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up a double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.”
In other words, any interpretation of scripture -- or any theology -- that does not produce love of God and neighbor, simply cannot stand. This rule of love is the litmus test by which we can judge all our Biblical interpretation. If our theology leads us to shame our neighbor, it does not stand up to the rule of love. If our reading of scripture leads us to back away from God in dread, it does not stand up to the Rule of Love.
This week, our country inaugurated a new administration into the White House. It is my deepest prayer, no matter our political affiliation or opinions, that this administration follows this Rule of Love. I pray that these leaders might hold up their words, actions, and policies up to this litmus test: are we duly increasing our country’s love for God/Universe and for Neighbor? Or are we instead increasing division, strife, and fear?
Please dear ones, pray for our country -- that it be filled with more love in the days ahead, and pray that this love begins with us.
The late Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Love is the most durable power in the world.” Love is “durable” you say? In our world today, love can often seem like a fragile thing. Couples break up, marriages end in divorce, friends fall out, church members leave, and family members no longer speak. An acquaintance of mine who works in the office that processes divorce filings in Houston says they are busier than ever -- one can only assume due to the stresses the pandemic and political unrest have layered onto marriages. More than ever, we long for a love that endures.
The Apostle Paul however, tells us that love, however, “never ends” (1 Cor 13:8). True love cannot possibly end because we know that God is love (1 Jn 4:8,16), and we also know that God is eternal. Think about these truths for a moment: God is love. God is eternal. If we believe these statements to be true -- if God is love -- then by the mathematical law of inverse operations, that means that love is God, and if God is also eternal, then love too must be eternal.
But what kind of wondrous love is this, that endures eternally? What love is this, that in King’s words is the “only force capable of turning an enemy into a friend,” of “driving out hate,” and “the very key to the problems of the world?”
This is the love that is God. It is not the kind of love that is a sweet, syrupy sentiment. This love is not a fuzzy feeling. It is not something you just “fall into.” True, divine love is something you choose. It is something you do. It is a strong, active verb. It is the hard work of deep listening, forgiving, showing up, speaking truth, giving, serving, thanking, apologizing, appreciating, letting go, sacrificing, and caring. This love is the very heartbeat of Creation.
And this love is the only path to real joy, yet is also the surest path to grief. So many of you, dearly beloved, are feeling grief right now. You grieve because you have loved someone or something you’ve lost. I know your hearts can’t seem to hold any more right now. If you’re like me, you may feel like you don’t have the heart to do a whole lot more loving right now.
So beginning this Sunday and for next 5 weeks, in our worship series “Love Does,” we will envelop ourselves in the active and divine love of God. Because what has the power to bind up our broken hearts? Love does. What has the ability to bring enemies together? Love does. What has the answers we need to the world’s problems? Love does.
Like you, I too am still in shock and disbelief over what we witnessed unfolding at the capitol building on Wednesday. Mobs of people destroying property; intimidating our Congressional leaders, their staff and other capitol employees; clashing with law enforcement officers; and waving flags that stand for hatred and the oppression, or even outright elimination, of others.
And although I appreciate the restraint of law enforcement during this volatile situation, I cannot deny the white privilege that was on full display given that more peaceful events by our Black friends and neighbors have been met with greater police action -- and in many cases, excessive action. I sat there and cried for our Black American siblings who were being told, yet again, through disproportionate responses that they are not as important as these White Americans. Being told that they don't matter.
Just as I sat and cried earlier this week after talking to several of our members who are nurses and my brother who works IT for one of the local hospital systems. Cried for these and other brave medical and medical support individuals who put their lives on the line everyday during this pandemic. Cried for what it must feel like to be told through the actions of others (like packing 6th street on New Years, not wearing masks and socially distancing, gathering outside of safe agreed upon bubbles) that your life doesn't matter. How that must feel like a slap in the face.
Friends, I don't pretend to have all the answers. In fact, most of the time I feel rather small and unimpactful. Sometimes I have no idea what to do other than to continue to come back to the well of Christ, the well of our faith. To come back and draw in love and hope, peace, and yes even joy. To try seek new and ever changing ways in which God's spirit is calling for action, calling for peace, calling for love. And trusting that any action, even small like the mustard seed parable, works ultimately towards the kin-dom of God.
As we approach Baptism of Christ Sunday, I invite you to have ready some water to play with as we take time to remember our baptisms and/or the meaning of baptism. I pray that we are able to do so in light of the events happening in our world today. And following the service, may we share together through our Holy Conversations our vision and dreams for United Christian Church.
Friends, until Sunday (and always), take care of yourself.
Happy New Year! This New Year comes with it a particular sparkle of hope as we say “goodbye” to a year of grief, and we spy the glimmer of hope on the horizon: the reality of a vaccine is setting in. Still, our hospitals are bursting at the seams, two of our dear elder members have now fallen ill -- we must stay vigilant as our city’s exhausted first responders work under stage 5 conditions. We spy the light of hope, but we are still living in dark times indeed.
You, my church family, have been that light to me. On Christmas Eve, I watched on gallery view as you held your candles to your cameras and sang “Silent Night,” and though I was alone in our sanctuary, I felt surrounded by God’s light and your love. Who would have ever thought Zoom could become such holy ground?
And we have an opportunity again to come together and heal our weary hearts. This Sunday our youth will be presenting an Epiphany drama, and together we will chalk our doors to welcome in the New Year, and hopefully, prepare to welcome more guests in person this year than the last. Chalk was distributed last month in blessing bags, and will be distributed tomorrow at the blessing bag dropoff between 11:30 and 1 as well, or you can just grab some chalk from your home. To learn more about the practice of chalking doors, go to uccaustin.org/epiphany.
And I’m so excited for our third and final Holy Conversation this month, which is the most fun conversation of all. It’s all about our dreams for the church. I encourage you in these conversations to not be limited by the bounds of practicality or feasibility, but to instead dream big audacious dreams, cast sweeping bold visions, and make inspiring wishes for the future of our family of faith. Questions will be posted soon at uccaustin.org/holyconversations. To see what comes next after Holy Conversations, go to uccaustin.org/road-map-of-interim-tasks.
Friends, I am praying for you always, and wishing you a New Year filled with more hugs, more big family dinners, more singing, and more nights of deep peaceful sleep.
St. Francis of Assisi once said, “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of one candle.”
On Christmas Eve each year, year after year, we end our service by holding up candles in a darkened sanctuary and singing together “Silent Night.” What’s more, the light from all of our candles originates from the single Christ Candle at the center of our Advent Wreath, spreading across the entire sanctuary as we pass it from one candle to another until the entire sanctuary is bathed in warm candlelight. Thus a single flame grows and grows until it banishes the darkness of our great hall with light and song.
Last year, as we carried out this tradition as we had done countless times before, none of us would have ever imagined that this year we all lit our candles in our homes. A year ago, we would have never imagined that we would still be without a settled minister, that we would have to disband our choir for a year, that our Vacation Bible School and Pageant would have to be 100% virtual, and that we would have to forgo beloved traditions like the pumpkin patch, trunk-or-treat, potlucks, and caroling.
Even so, amid all this darkness, we would have never dreamed that we would now be strategically allocating a $100,000 surplus. We never would have guessed that our church had such creative talents in music, video editing, music mixing, graphic design, movie-making, and liturgy. We would have never imagined that seeing the pageant in a new way through zoom would touch our hearts like never before. We would have never enjoyed a committee meeting in our pajamas, or gotten to meet Rev. Nikki’s cats.
Last Sunday we sang the Christmas Carol, “Who Would Think That What Was Needed,” which has this line in it: “God surprises Earth with Heaven coming here on Christmas Day.” Christmas is all about surprises. Jesus was quite the surprise savior. And God has certainly surprised us by smashing all our Christmas idols this year. All that is left seems to be the manger.
It’s been a dark and difficult year. But for me, however, this church family has been, as St. Francis describes, like a single candle: all the darkness in the world cannot extinguish our light.
Darkness cannot steal our hope.
It cannot disturb our peace.
It cannot rob our joy.
It cannot squelch our love.
And it certainly cannot undo what was done in Bethlehem, when God became the Christ Child and lived among us.
This is the light: Emmanuel, meaning “God is with you.”
One of the greatest privileges of being a pastor is the privilege of holding stories. From my various calls in ministry over the past decade, I have been humbled to be entrusted with incredible stories of many saints along their journey. Each story bears the image of God.
Layered upon these stories are the stories of our ancestors of the faith -- the stories we come together each week to hear, Sunday after Sunday, season after season, year after year. Our stories become intertwined with their stories, until we become part of God’s one sweeping arc of redemption.
For example, when we face an unknown future, we find strength in Mary’s trust in God. When we want to cut and run, we remember Joseph’s courage to stay by her side. When we tremble with fear like the shepherds, we hear their consolation from the angels: “fear not.”
Narrative theology holds that Christian theology should blossom from the stories of our faith and the great narrative arc of God’s redemption, rather than from a set of propositions or doctrines. Basically, narrative theology says, “look beyond the literal meaning of the text, down to the deeper meaning of the stories.” It emphasizes Biblical storytelling and the use of parables as the strongest tools for spiritual formation over reasoning and indoctrination.
This is one of the reasons I’ve been telling stories as sermons for the past three weeks. Through these stories, I have been amazed how you have easily been able to make connections with your life, your faith, and this strange world we are living in now with so more theological depth than I could ever do for each of you personally. And you will have an opportunity to do this again on Sunday, as we will hear the Christmas story again in a new way through our children in our first digital Christmas pageant.
Stories. Songs. Art. These are the angels getting many of our Spirits through a Covid Christmas.
And the days we are living in now will one day be stories told by generations to come. So let us make them good stories.
Rev. Anna Humble
Friends in faith,
We are once again in the season of waiting and the season of giving. United Christian Church has a very long history of giving time, talents, and funds. This year, our Christmas Eve service collection will be going to Our Church's Wider Mission (OCWM). The United Church of Christ (UCC), in partnership with the Disciples of Christ - Christian Church (DOC), help support Global Ministries (GM). Global Ministries is a project that involves over 270 partner churches and organizations and is involved in 70 countries. The OCWM and Global Ministries support many functions within our denominations. It promotes local church ministries to encourage licensed, ordained, and commissioned ministers to strive for ministerial excellence. Congregations are nurtured by Local Church Ministries through the educational materials that Global Ministries and Our Churches Wider Mission help provide. These funds also help support the Justice and Witness Ministries to encourage a peaceful and compassionate world that honors all of God's creation. Part of these funds are set aside for disaster relief. The OCWM/Global Ministries (OCWM/GM) responded with assistance in Puerto Rico after the earthquake and the following hurricane. They responded with financial aid and supplies immediately after the hurricane that devastated south Texas.
The Justice and Peace Action Network is a UCC grassroots advocacy effort to educate and engage church members and friends to shape public policy. These are but a few of the benefits of the OCWM/GM. There are many bible verses about why you should give, but it comes down to one simple reason. Love. Love of your neighbor, love of the world, love of others, love in Christ. 2020 has been a year when things have been stretched for many families and may continue to be so. My prayer is that you will search your heart and find what you can give to our denomination's vital mission on Christmas Eve.
Prayers and blessings,
Last Sunday, Rev. Anna told a story about a pastor who was less than thrilled about entering the 2020 Advent/Christmas season, and of a congregant, Connie, who gifted the pastor with a handcrafted Advent calendar. The calendar was filled with daily gestures of hope and kindness, some for the pastor to receive and others for him to offer. During the waiting time of Advent, the calendar served as a lifeline of hope for this pastor who, after weathering everything 2020 had to offer, really did not start off the season with much hope. At the conclusion of her story, Rev. Anna posed the wondering question "I wonder what it means to wait well during this season of Advent?"
This question has been on my mind a lot this week especially as we (clergy and staff) continue to re-imagine how to mindfully live well into the season Advent and tell the Christmas story in 2020. How do we hold the grief of what cannot be safely experienced this year while also tapping into the excitement, anticipation and even celebration of the coming of baby Jesus?
A related wondering question that seems particularly salient this year is "what does it mean to live well?" My social media news feed is full of comments like "I refuse to let this virus keep me from living," or "I will not live in fear." So, I wonder if part of contemplating what it means to wait well during this season also includes what it means to live well?
For example, my advent wreath this year may be made with toilet paper rolls, construction paper, and hot glue but that does not diminish the meaning around this holy season. I can still tape my construction paper flame each Sunday of Advent and maybe, just maybe, hear new meaning or assurances of hope, peace, joy, and love.
My children won't get to participate in our usual annual Christmas pageant, but they will be able to tell the story in a new way in the Greatest Digital Christmas Story Ever!...and maybe, just maybe, hear something that they never have before.
And even though I miss the Christmas carols in church, I have the opportunity to ask myself what about them is so special to me anyway? -- other than "we always sing that at Christmas." There is the bonus of being introduced to other variations of these beloved hymns online and in worship. In both thinking about the why and being exposed to new arrangements and sometimes even words, maybe, just maybe, I might wade deeper into meaning to these Holy Days.
So I guess, when people say things like "I will not let this virus keep me from living" my answer is "neither will I!" It just looks a little different this year, and just because it is different does not mean it is not good. In fact, maybe, just maybe, in some ways, even better?
I recognize that this can be a time of immense grief and loss - even more so this year. But even in hard times, we can focus on what it means to wait and live well. To that point, I hope you consider attending our Longest Night Service on Monday, December 21. Pastor Arlene will be leading this set apart time with liturgy written by Rev. Elsa Cook that names our grief and sadness even in the midst of what is supposed to be "the most wonderful time of the year."
Friends, I encourage you to seek out ways to both wait and live well during this season of Advent. Whether it be through one of our church activities (Advent at the Movies, Stations of the Nativity, Reflecting on Advent Devotionals or Advent/Christmas worship services) or through your own re-imagined traditions, I pray you do it well.
With you in hope, peace, joy, and love,
At the very beginning of this pandemic journey, way back in March, I gave my very first Zoom Children’s Sermon. I talked about how things would have to be different, just for a little while, so that we could do our part to help keep each other safe. I had no idea that we would be separated for such a long time, but here we are, about to begin Advent, and we are still doing things differently.
This year, our Christmas Pageant will indeed be different. And while I will miss seeing a crowded chancel full of sheep and cows and monkeys, I actually think we have an exciting opportunity. Because of our need to stay apart, we must think differently about how we can present the story that we know by heart using technology that some of us (that would be me) are still trying to figure out. We have an opportunity to be creative, flexible, and supportive of our children and youth in a new way. We have the chance to make something really beautiful during this challenging season in the life of our world and our church.
Filming will take place over the next few weeks, and we’ll present the Greatest Digital Christmas Pageant EVER! movie on December 20th in Worship. The story of the birth of Jesus, the same story that we hear every year, will still be the same story this year. We will just tell it in a different way. I wonder if that means that we might also come to understand it in a different way. And what a year to understand things differently.
We are all invited to be a part of sharing God’s word in a new way…so let’s choose to embrace the adventure, together. Let’s choose to accept change, to continue to learn technology (hey, after 8 months, I might just be getting the hang of it…), and let’s create, together, the Greatest Digital Christmas Pageant EVER!
I hope your family will participate in this adventure. Check out our website for more information: https://www.uccaustin.org/christmaspageant.html
With love and thanks,
Emily Jamison Guerrero
Each day Thanksgiving grows closer, the numbers of Covid-19 cases multiply. The Center of Disease Control is now urging all Americans to rethink their Thanksgiving plans. A crushing thought, because we are just so tired of living apart, and yet, we still feel an obligation to keep those we love safe and to flatten the curve as global citizens.
The holidays will indeed be different this year. But different, as we have found at United Christian Church, doesn’t have to mean less meaningful -- so many of you these past months have told me you’ve been surprised at how meaningful online worship has been to you.
Even so, there is still something about embodied worship: like breaking bread around a table or standing to pray in a sacred space. We are a people of the incarnation after all! For this reason, your church will be offering two safe ways for you to have a meaningful and embodied holiday season this year, even amid viral spread.
First, this Thanksgiving Thursday at 6 PM, you are warmly invited to participate in a Virtual Thanksgiving Feast, modeled after our popular Maundy Thursday Feast earlier in the pandemic. You may log on for all our part of the Thanksgiving Communion liturgy followed by breakout discussion dinner parties. Though we may have fewer chairs at our tables this year, we will fill our homes with our church family as together we physically light the candles, set out the plates, wash our hands, and break the bread. For more information about our virtual feast and to see the “discussion menu,” go to uccaustin.org/thanksgiving.
And just the day before Thanksgiving, (in addition to hosting our first Advent at the Movies Zoom Discussion at 7PM on The Muppet Christmas Carol led by Meghan Trout) we will also be posting our first station of our Advent Stations of the Nativity, authored by Rev. Elsa Cook. Two paths of yard signs will be posted on church grounds for your devotion throughout the season of Advent through Epiphany: a shorter purple way along paved pathways, and a longer blue path through the outdoor sanctuary. Each stop on this walking devotional includes a yard sign with a scripture reading, reflection, prayer, hymn and an action. New stops will be introduced via livestream Wednesdays and Sundays for the longer path, and on Sundays only for the shorter path. More information is available at uccaustin.org/stationsofthenativity. We warmly invite you to come and pray over these stations whenever and as often as you wish.
Friends, love came down at Christmas, incarnate in a human child. We too are incarnate beings, who yearn for human connection and to touch holiness, especially during the holidays. So I hope you will join your church family in these embodied practices this Thanksgiving and Advent.
Peace be with you,