Drawn In

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2018

John 12:20-32

Drawn In

He’s one of the world’s most recognizable figures. All the world over people flock to his establishments to get a little taste, just a taste, of his magic. Once you see him, once you get a taste, you never forget him or what he stands for. I mean, with that white hair, the goatee, the horn rimmed glasses, and of course, that perfect bolo tie. Everybody knows Colonel Sanders.

I find this fascinating, because the phenomenon of the whole world recognizing one man is a modern innovation. Think of it – the vast majority of humans that have walked this earth have lived and died and no one has any idea what they looked like. Without cameras the masses were unrecognizable. And before then, only the richest few could afford to have their portraits made. Most people who have walked this earth have been completely unrecognizable.

Even Jesus. At the festival of the Passover in Jerusalem, some Greeks, some non-Jews were there to worship the God of Israel. This was uncommon but not unusual for non-Jews to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And like many people in Jerusalem, these Greeks have heard about Jesus and they want to see him. But notice, they probably don’t know what Jesus looks like.

These Greeks go up to Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples. Maybe they know him because they lived in bordering areas. Anyway, they go up to Philip and say,  “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Jesus had no distinctive look, no bolo tie or recognizable mustache to set him apart. He blended into the crowd, he was part of that mass of humanity. This is also why, later on, Judas kisses Jesus to betray him. It’s because the soldiers and police would not have known who Jesus was. And I think that’s why the Greeks need Philip’s help in finding Jesus.

Imagine that. A man, one of billions of men, is the one that we all seek; this unrecognizable man is the one that we want to see, too. This is an incarnational moment, a little glimpse into how Jesus is not so different from us. He’s part of the anonymous crush of humanity. But if Jesus is not so different from us, we have to ask ourselves – what sets Jesus apart? If it’s not his appearance or his clothes or his hair, then what is it? Why did people follow him? Why do these Greeks want to see him?

Listen to what Jesus says to the crowd: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Jesus will draw all people to himself. And, to be precise, it’s not exactly, “all people,” even though that is a beautiful concept. Rather, the technical translation is, “all.” That’s it, just “all.” Jesus is raised high up on the cross, in perfect love and in perfect agony. And in that moment, who and what is drawn in to Jesus? All.

All is a mind bending concept. All things – the things we like, sure. Your dog, your cat, your pet gerbil. But all also includes every mosquito and fire ant and scorpion and big, hairy, nasty, spider. And if there are aliens out there, I suppose them, too. All means all.

And all people, Jews and Greeks. All people – even the people who don’t think like you do, even the people who don’t look like you do, even the people who don’t worship like you do, even the people who want to kill you. Even the people who wanted to kill Jesus. They too will be drawn to Jesus. Who is drawn to Jesus? All. Yes, even Pontius Pilate, even Caiaphas, even Judas. All meals all.

And that makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Because there are some people that seem far, far from Jesus. There is the old reliable cast of evil characters – Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, the slate of modern terrorists and autocrats. But beyond that, what about all the little anonymous perpetrators of evil? What about the plantation owner who owned humans and whipped them into submission? What about the soldier who indiscriminately massacred women and children at My Lai in Vietnam? What about the employer who refuses equal pay for equal work, who turns a blind eye to harassment? What about the human trafficker that continues to sell humans to this very day, not miles from where we sit now? Do we really mean that they, even they, are drawn to Jesus? Does all mean all?

As much as the words stick in my throat, yes. I believe that Jesus is even drawing them in. And that’s what makes Jesus different. That is what makes Jesus stand out from the crowd. I want to draw lines in the sand. From my perspective, you’re either in or you’re out. But Jesus, with his arms wide open upon the cross, gives us an image of the eternal, loving embrace of humanity. That’s why the Greeks want to see Jesus, and not just anybody else. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” The love of God is so compelling, that all will be drawn in.

Now I want to be precise here. Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that evil deeds will go unnoticed by God. I’m not saying that love is a wishy-washy, happy-clappy, kittens and butterflies sort of feeling. I’m not saying that. When Jesus is lifted up on high and draws the whole world to himself, it’s not for love only, it’s for justice, too. Justice, not necessarily that God will punish, but that will God will make things right.

And that is also what makes Jesus different. When Jesus is lifted high upon the cross, his arms outstretched, it’s not just an image of eternal embrace. It’s also an image of eternal justice. As if his outstretched arms are the scales of justice. Jesus has, and will call evil to account. The cross of Jesus shows us that God has noticed.

Make no mistake – evil deeds will be rectified. And it’s a word of warning – if you choose to inflict evil upon others, if you choose to turn a blind eye – then even you will be drawn in to Jesus. Those who suffered, those on the receiving end of evil will be restored. On the cross, we see a perfect image of why all people are drawn in. For the sake of love, yes, but also for the sake of justice.

Perhaps we can think of it as a divine subpoena. A notion we have all heard about recently. Jesus is so compelling, that eventually our hearts will be broken open to his incredible, radical love. Jesus is so compelling, that one day all the wrongs that have been perpetrated will be brought out of the shadows, and into the light. Jesus will make things right.

In the meantime, this is the work of the Church. It is to strike this finely tuned balance between love and justice. In our own past, here in the Episcopal Church, we have seen when the love and justice of Jesus have gotten out of balance. Sometimes we have preached love without justice. That’s a sort of, “anything goes” mentality. Sometimes we have preached justice without love. That’s when we condemn others without knowing their experiences. The task of the Church is to find the balance. As a church, as followers of Jesus, we must confront the sins that beset our modern world: racism, rampant greed, corruption, privilege, the exploitation of innocent people. We must love with the love of Jesus, so that justice can be accomplished. So that wrongs can be made right. It is hard work, but no one ever said that following the way of the cross would be easy.

The middle way, the path that holds together love and justice is the hardest of paths. It cuts through the old, tired divisions between conservative and liberal. It cuts through the dogmas of left and right. It calls into question the neat little worldviews we’ve made for ourselves. The cross of Jesus breaks open the tired debates between love and justice, and instead brings them together in perfect harmony.

And let’s be honest, it’s not just the work of the Church. It’s part of our own lives, too. You have overlooked someone’s faults and frailties because you loved them deeply. Or, you have refused to love someone because of their faults and frailties.

But remember, Jesus will draw even you in for the sake of love, but also for justice. We must not be so smug as to think that God will overlook the evils that benefit us.  No, the mercy and reckoning is for us, too. As we enter the sacred time of Holy Week, I pray that we all pick up the cross and follow in this way of love and of justice.

And then, I tell you, people will notice. And that, I think, is exactly what this world is looking for. Just like those Greeks two thousand years ago; the people of this age want to know that God loves them, but also that God notices. We wish to see the God who loves us eternally, who calls us his own beloved brothers and sisters. We also wish to see the God who notices every evil deed done, who will make all things right.

Sir, we wish to see Jesus.


Giving Up

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
First Sunday in Lent
February 18, 2018

Mark 1:9-15

“And the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness.” It’s almost bizarre how the temptation of Jesus goes in the Gospel of Mark. The Spirit, the Spirit of God, is the same Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan for forty days.  “Drove.” It’s an intense word. The Spirit did not nudge Jesus, or call Jesus, or ask Jesus. No, the Spirit drove him, pushed him, the Spirit cast him out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan for forty days. When it came to the hardship and temptation of the wilderness, it seems that Jesus did not have a choice. The temptation, the wild beasts, and the wilderness were out of his control.

This week, during Drive-Thru Ashes, I heard many, many stories about people who had no control. Who have had hardship, and temptation to despair thrust upon them by no choice of their own. Throughout the day, I would ask, “how can I pray for you?” And then I heard the stories. “I have the flu.” There was a lot of the flu. But also, “I got laid off.” “My house flooded.” “I was just diagnosed with cancer on Monday.” “My wife left me.” I heard stories of people who were suffering by no decision of their own. They were driven into this despair.

And as the day went on, I started praying as we heard the news from Florida. I’d say, “How can I pray for you?” They would say, “For those students, those teachers, in Florida.” “For my school, for my kids.” “For this world gone mad.”

When confronted with this kind of horror, often we say it’s because of free will. “Well, humans have free will, so sometimes we’re going to make bad decisions that have consequences.” It’s a convenient way to explain mass murder, but I’ve never thought that it amounted to much. There is too much suffering, I have seen and witnessed too much evil and hardship to chalk it all up to free will. No, I think that more often than not, hardship and sadness and terror are thrust upon us. Whether we have been good or bad, it makes no difference. When I look at the faces of those children, those teachers shot dead in their own school, I’m not thinking about their free will or the free will of the murderer. No, I’m thinking about how it seems that there is nothing we can do. It all seems so out of our control.

The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Part of the myth of modern life is that we’re in control. That we make the decisions. That our life is just that, ours. We congratulate the power player who started their own business and rose to the top. We fawn after the “self-made man;” the entrepreneur, who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. We idolize the up and comer who somehow, by fate and oftentimes sheer luck, climbs their way upwards. Then we turn insensitively to those who are still shackled by poverty, disease, illiteracy, and ask, “why can’t you do the same?” I look at so many of those kids over at Salyers Elementary School where we go, and I know they’re going to bed hungry at night. They can’t afford glasses to see and read. They can’t afford shoes that fit. And if you’ve got an empty belly, if you can’t see, if your shoes are too small, that’s not free will. That is evil being thrust upon those kids by no fault of their own.

See, there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. We have got to get past that old tired lie. For even the self-made man at some point couldn’t even feed himself, and still he doesn’t grow his own food, he’s not his own doctor. Even the self-made woman is utterly dependent upon other people. Or, like me, you’re diagnosed with a chronic disease and you realize quite suddenly that you’ve never been in control. It’s a lesson in humility, that we have never been in control of our lives. I think that, for the most part, free will is an illusion.

The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him. This is an icon of our lives – we were not asked to be brought into this world, we did not ask for hardship and temptation, and whether we like to admit it or not – we rely on other people for every breath, for every bite of food, for every dollar in our pockets, for our whole being. We did not make ourselves. We are not in control.

The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. I think of those kids, and those teachers, going to school on Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday. They were not in control, either. They went to school hoping to maybe ask out that girl, or to get a rose from that guy. They went to school with ash on their foreheads as a sign of the fragility of life. A fragility that was all too apparent, as evil was thrust upon by them by no choice of their own. It was out of their control.

And maybe like you, I want to be in control. I want to make this madness stop. I want everybody to stop blaming each other and to start working together. I desperately, desperately want the love of Jesus to call the shots. I want to be in control, even though I know I have no control.

To be honest, I do not know what to do. I’m faced with disease, with poverty, with hopelessness, with joylessness, with death, and I don’t know what to do. I feel so helpless that I don’t know what to do when I don’t know what to do. I feel like I’ve been driven into this wasteland of horror and despair and hate. Our reality seems so very far from what God wants it to be.

So, what do we do? What do we do when we don’t know what to do? What do we do when we hear of another friend who’s been diagnosed with cancer? What do we do when another recession comes and people are laid off? What do we do when I see kids who can’t get enough to eat? What do we do when, and it agonizes me to say it but I fear it will happen – what do we do when we start counting the murdered students again? What do we do when we are faced with things that are so beyond our control?

You can obviously tell that I struggle with this mightily. Because I want to be in control. I want the love of Jesus to be in control. My spiritual director, a wise man, always just smiles at me when I start to list the despair in the world. He says, “Jimmy, don’t think about changing the world, about changing laws, about changing systems. First, change yourself.” And I hate it when he says that, because it’s true. I don’t have the power to cure diseases. I don’t know have the power to create an economy in which people are paid fairly for their work. I can’t stop the next school shooting. But what I can do, is change myself. What we can do, is minuscule step by minuscule step, is to allow the Spirit to change us. To allow the Spirit to drive us, perhaps into the wilderness, so that we come out of it closer to God. We cannot start to fixing the world until we address the sin in our own hearts. I cannot make the world love and live like Jesus, but I can try to love and live like Jesus. As the Daughters of the King say, “I am but one, but I am one.”

The true gift of Lent is that it is thrust upon us, it comes once a year, whether we are ready for it or not. Whether we asked for it or not. During Lent, Jesus holds up a mirror to our lives and asks us if this is how we want to live. We are driven into these forty days, completely out of our own will. Here in this Lenten wilderness, I ask all of us to take these forty days as a time to give up control, because in reality, we never had control anyway. Offer yourselves to God’s will. I’m not asking you to be the self-made Christian. No, all I’m asking is that we allow God to give us new hearts. And the Spirit will start here, with your heart, with your love, with your relationship with Jesus. And then I do believe, that one day I won’t have to stand out there in a parking lot and pray for people who can’t find a job. Who are hungry. Who have been shot. Because the love of Jesus will reign in our hearts and in our world. But it will be God who does that, God who has driven us to give up control.

Passing the Torch

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 11, 2018

2 Kings 2:1-12

Every two years, in Olympia, Greece, there is a ceremony where some people kindle a flame using only the sun and a fancy mirror; like kids starting fires with a magnifying glass. This flame becomes the Olympic torch that, this year, traveled from Greece to South Korea.

And you know, there’s some show, some theater that goes along with the lighting and the passing of the torch. You remember in the 1992 Barcelona games, when that guy shot a flaming arrow to the top of the stadium to light the cauldron? That was awesome. Or, do you remember when Mohammad Ali, quivering from Parkinson’s lit the 1996 flame in Atlanta? Sure, the Olympics is about competition and sports, but there’s also a flair for the dramatic. This year, the Olympic torch was carried by 7,500 different runners, representing the 75 million people living in the Koreas. The torch went on a cable car on a steam train on a sailboat, it was even carried by a robot. The torch relay has a flair for the dramatic, representing the different generations, the different peoples, the different ways of life in Korea.

A flair for the dramatic. Heavenly chariots of fire and horses of fire. In this ancient relay, Elijah and his protégé, Elisha, go from Gilgal, to Bethel, to Jericho, and then across the Jordan River into the wilderness. All along the way Elisha, the young man, stays close to his mentor, Elijah, the seasoned prophet. Elisha is not quite ready to take the grave responsibility of being a prophet; of doing God’s work like Elijah did. Elisha is not quite ready to carry the torch, to pick up the mantle of leadership for himself. That is, until, there is the flair for the dramatic when the chariots of Israel and its horsemen sweep Elijah away.

Elijah’s days of prophesying have come to an end. Elijah, the prophet who showed the priests of the other gods that the only true god was the God of Israel. Elijah, the prophet who stood down the evil king, Ahab and his corrupt wife, Jezebel. Elijah, the prophet who heard God’s voice in the sound of silence. Elijah, the prophet who raised a widow’s son from the dead. This Elijah, the Elijah of might and power, the Elijah of leadership and strength, the days of Elijah the prophet are over in a dramatic flair.

But the days of Elisha the new prophet, are just beginning. Elisha, this new prophet, will cleanse Naaman the Syrian from leprosy. Elisha, this next generation prophet will name the new king for the people of Israel. Elisha, the next prophet in a line of prophets will raise another dead boy to life again.

Take heart, people of Israel. Though Elijah the elder prophet has been carried away by the chariots of fire, God has provided a new prophet, Elisha. And though this new prophet is not exactly the same as the old prophet, Elisha will also do the work of God.

Take heart, all you gathered here today. Though the generations pass, though our loved ones come and go, though once great leaders have been carried away, and new, leaders are raised up, all is not lost. God will provide. The mantle of leadership, Elijah’s mantle, passed to Elisha. This is where we get that phrase, the “mantle of leadership.” A mantle was a type of cloak, or shawl. Like an Olympic torch, it symbolized Elijah’s power, it symbolized God’s appointment of Elijah. But, like the Olympic torch relay it must pass on. Elijah could not take it with him when he rode that fiery chariot. In the relay of prophets, Elijah passed on the mantle to Elisha.

The mantle of leadership passes on to a new generation. Before every Scout Sunday, I meet with our Cub Scout Pack to talk about the church, the funny names we have for everything. This past Tuesday evening, we talked about what I do and what this church does in the community. And we talked about leadership. After I told them that I am an Eagle Scout, one of the boys asked me if I was still active in Scouts the way I used to be. I was honest. I am not active like I used to be, because that mantle of leadership I carried had to be passed on. Elijah and Elisha show us the first lesson in leadership –  always be thinking about your replacement. The mantle is ours for a time, then it is ours to give away to those behind us.

This is hard work. There is great temptation for the ones who have led for a long time to hold on for even longer. For one reason or another, they can’t let go. That’s when things start to stagnate, run afoul, and lose their momentum. But perhaps most of all, we fear that our protégés will do it differently. We fear change.

The rising leaders may do it differently. We saw this recently in Scouting, as a decision to include girls in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts was made. It was a tension of the generations. It was a similar tension we experienced in the Episcopal Church forty years ago, when we finally, finally, after two thousand years, ordained women to the priesthood. It was a tension of generations. We heard, “that’s not how we used to do it. That’s not how things are done around here.” But we heard the voice of Elisha, with that new mantle of leadership saying, “this is a new thing, and God is always doing new things.” I thank God that the voice of Elisha prevailed and that women have a full and equal place in our Church.

So where do we stand now? In this time of societal change and upheaval, the story of Elijah and Elisha is a lesson to take to heart. To those of you who are Elijah, the elder leaders – trust that what you have done and taught is good enough. Trust that as God was present in your leadership, and in your time, God will still be present in the future. The Holy Spirit does not need you to show up.

To those of you who are Elisha, the rising leaders – trust that what you have been taught are good lessons. Be strong, and be very courageous. Invite the Holy Spirit to call you forward as the Holy Spirit is always calling us forward.

And wherever we are on the conveyor belt of life, always remember that we are moving forward, whether we like it or not. The conveyor belt of life – we’re born, we’re raised, we go to college, our children are born, our parents die, we have a mid-life crisis, we retire – the conveyor belt of life will stop for nothing. You can try to jam its gears, you can hold on to your mantle with an iron grip – but even then, eventually your own death will loosen your hold, and that mantle will be passed on whether you are ready or not. Since we are always moving forward, you may as well have the courage to face the future today.

To have the courage to train your children to rise up in your place. Do not wait for tomorrow to teach your children how to pray, or how to spend their money, or how to follow Jesus tomorrow, or how to die – no, do it today. Pass on the mantle, for you do not know when the chariots of fire are coming for you.

Have the courage to let go and to let other people do the work you have trained them to do. Invite someone else take the lead on that project at work, train someone else to run your ministry, identify that new scout leader. And do it today, because one day you will be taken away in a whirlwind.

And, if it is your time, have the courage to pick up the mantle when it is given to you. For if you do not pick it up, if you do not follow Jesus, if you do not carry on the work, who will? Pray about it – is it your time to leave the mantle or to pick it up?

Like the Olympic relay torch, the mantle is yours for a time, but it is not yours forever. Everything we are and everything we have belongs to God. And as God freely gave to you, as followers of Jesus we must give it all away again. And when you put it that way, it sounds like a love, doesn’t it? I mean, that’s the story of Jesus, that’s the story of the cross. Jesus trained his disciples to carry on the work of ministry for when he had ascended into heaven himself, not unlike Elijah before him. He opened wide his arms on the cross and gave away all the love he had. And perhaps that’s the key to this story, perhaps that’s the key to Elijah and Elisha, that’s the key to good leadership – it’s love. As God has so freely loved us, we turn right back around to freely love God and love neighbor. And in that, you will find courage to change.


2018 – Year of Community

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 21, 2018

Rector’s Annual Address

As Charles Dickens said, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” 2017 was one of those years. As many of you know, our home took on water during the Tax Day Flood of 2016. We sold our house at the end of 2016, but could not move into our new home until the end of January 2017. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was good that we had sold our home and that we were moving to higher ground. It was great, that we had good friends and neighbors who opened their doors to us, in the interim. It was the worst of times, because couch surfing is only fun for so long. It was the worst of times and it was the best of times.

2017 was the best of times, as Holy Comforter grew again, bucking the larger, downward trend of the Episcopal Church. New bible studies, new groups, new ministries were started – a women’s bible study, another between jobs ministry, an Advent program on spirituality. During Lent, together we read all four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Deacon Bob yet again expanded our nursing home ministry. We added new staff, new leaders were raised up, Drive-Thru Ashes again was as holy as it has ever been. Financially, Holy Comforter is very strong. And in fact, since 2012, our balance sheet has grown by 1200%. And then there was the ceremonial groundbreaking. Do you remember that day and how good it was? Do you remember, that it rained and stormed both before and after the groundbreaking? Do you remember how the skies parted just long enough for us to consecrate that ground in the name of God? Do you remember how the Holy Spirit drew us all together, holding onto that cord, marking the boundaries of the church, and praying, praying that Jesus would sanctify this church? It was the best of times.

And it was the worst of times, both for what happened and what didn’t happen. Harvey tore through Houston, flooding our parishioners, our neighbors, and our families. For many of us, life was forever changed last August. Our own church was not completely spared. The roof of this building let in the rain and the wind. Our roofers said that the last time the roof was fixed, it was done cheaply. So we had to pay for it this time around. It was also the worst of times for what did not happen. I felt disappointment, a great angst, every time I drove to church and there were no bulldozers. No construction crews. No nothing. I told you that story how one day I was actually running through downtown Houston to submit documents to Harris County, only to have Harris County sit on it. Or how the MUD, whom we need to have access to water and sewer, has their own schedule that is not necessarily our schedule. It was the worst of times.

But none of that is what makes a church anyway. None of that ought to dictate our spirituality. For me, there is one image that I cannot shake from my head in 2017. It was that night, that holy night in which we gathered here behind the church. The Boy Scouts built a bonfire. We held our candles in the darkness. We told stories about how God has delivered God’s people in ages past. The image that defines 2017 for me, and it is the image that defines our entire lives, is the Great Vigil of Easter. For on that holy night we gather to acknowledge the darkness. To acknowledge death. Jesus died. But there is more. We celebrate that God brings us through death, that death is not victorious. The resurrection of Jesus Christ defined 2017, and it will define 2018. Death and darkness and hardship are real. Nevertheless, God will continue to provide a way through to new life.

Take Harvey. We cannot deny its horror. Nevertheless, I saw this congregation filled with the Spirit, a spirit of generosity and love to help our brothers and sisters, to help our neighbors in the name of Jesus. I did not enjoy worshipping in the Parish Hall. Nevertheless, through that experience God invited me to become even more grateful for what we do have, and for what we will have. I saw a resurrection people clean out homes, do countless loads of laundry, take other parishioners into their homes. I saw an Easter people. And I thank you.

Now the building project. Let’s be honest – there is angst and disappointment. Just a few facts. I have been working on this actively since the beginning of 2013. One thousand one hundred and eighty three email conversations about this project are sitting in my email account. Now, we submitted to Harris County for a building permit back in August, before the storm. We only received approval for that permit two weeks ago. And as I said, the MUD has their own timeline that is not necessarily ours. And unfortunately, since the first thing we have to do in our building project is to hook into water and sanitary services, we need the MUD. Our contractors, and this is not an exaggeration, call the construction manager for the MUD three times a day every day. When can we get started? What do you need? When can we meet? This is the blessing and the curse of living in the unincorporated part of the county. It’s a blessing, that here we mostly have to deal with small government. It’s also a curse, that the government we have to deal with is small.

I want to this moment to offer my public thanks and gratitude for the work and ministry of Rick Harris, the chair of our building committee. Not only does Rick have the technical skills and career experience to bless this project, I have seen him approach this for what it is, a spiritual exercise to grow closer to God. Along with the rest of the hardworking Building Committee, I offer my thanks.

Like you, I am faithfully paying my capital campaign pledge, because, I do still believe that this building will happen. And you know what? So does this congregation. Remember, in 2016, we did not hit our capital campaign goal of $785,000. Instead, we received $635,000 in pledges. It was the worst of times, and this had real world consequences on the building plans. But still, it is the best of times. In the fall of 2017, another $75,000 was pledged to the building project. That is you, your brothers and sisters in the pews next to you, who are not daunted by the realities of this world. This is our congregation living as Easter people. Acknowledging that the present is not what we want it to be, but still believing that the future reality is God’s vision.

2014 was Year of Vision when we dreamed about who and what God was calling us to become. 2015 was Year of Commitment, when we doubled down on this new call from God. 2016 was our Year of Gratitude, when we raised the money in gratitude for this new call. 2017 was Year of Joy, as this plan was coming to fruition. And so we come to 2018, our Year of Community.

In 2018 we will think again about the larger community in Spring. How do we build deeper community with Salyers Elementary School, with our nursing homes, with our neighbors? How do we build community in places we have never been before, like Lone Star Community College? How do we build community, even internationally, in potential overseas partnerships? We started this work again last August with our Mission Summit, but much of that work, rightly so, took a backseat to hurricane relief. But still, something more is out there. I sincerely believe that as long as children are going hungry, as long as people are homeless, as long as our community is divided along racial and economic lines, as long as our brothers and sisters are still lonely, addicted, and unemployed, as long as the gospel has not yet been heard, the work of the church is not finished.

But also, notice that when Jesus calls the disciples, he calls them together. They are to be a new community themselves. This is our other work for this year. To grow deeper in our bonds with each other. 2018 is a time given to us by God to discern again who we are, a time to grow together in spirit, a time to connect with each other. Here is the other work we have to do in 2018 – Year of Community. Small groups, prayer groups, spiritual engagement, Christian Formation.

And hear me out on this – we cannot be a community if we do not gather together. We need you to make us stronger. Your presence on Sunday makes us stronger. When you come to bible study, when you show up to your meetings with your ministries, when you go to lead worship at a nursing home, when you follow through on your commitments, it makes us stronger. Your spiritual growth is entwined with ours. When you are not here, we are diminished. When your commitments to God and the Church come in second place, we are weakened. This is a community, and we need each other to make the community.

This is the challenge of being a church our size. A few years ago, we were a pastoral sized church, in which everything revolved around me, the pastor. Hence, pastoral sized church. That was when the Vestry was essentially the unpaid staff of the church. Things are changing rapidly. More and more, the life and ministry of the church revolves around groups of people gathered together for common causes. This is what is called a program sized church, in which the life of the parish revolves around programs and ministries. This is why the church staff has grown, to lead and help foster these programs, with the goal of drawing us closer to Jesus.

And I’m going to be honest – being part of a group, a ministry, a program, is the absolute best way for you to grow in your relationship with God and with each other. This necessitates two things. First, it means that you need to read your church email and announcements about what is happening and what’s coming up. But more importantly, it means you have to invest time and energy to church. Never forget what Jesus said, “the measure you give is the measure you get back.” If you wish to stand on the periphery, to hold some back, then do not expect much spiritual growth in return. The path toward spiritual growth is through commitment – time, money, and energy. And, as our church continues to grow, being part of something is the best way for you to get to know other people; to forge lasting and meaningful relationships.

The other challenge of a church our size is that not everything quite yet fits. We’re like a fourteen year old boy – our clothes fit awkwardly, our voice cracks, we’re growing but we’re growing through turbulence. I want to reiterate – this is okay. We will make our way through it. This happens in every church our size. For instance, we have a ton of kids in our children’s ministry, but not a lot of teenagers in our youth group. We have over two hundred people worshiping on Sunday, but only a handful singing in the choir. We’ve grown financially for sure, but we still cannot afford additional staff or clergy support. The frustration, and the joy of a church our size is that we are on the cusp. And again, the way through this is to recommit ourselves to one another. As our core values say, we commit to worship more than we don’t, give more than we think we should, and pray everyday. The way through our turbulence, as a community, is to show up to church, every Sunday. To financially support our ministry and local charities, and to pray, every single day.

That way, through the best of times and through the worst of times, we remember exactly who we are and why we are here. Our commitment to each other and to this community will guide us through whatever comes next, good or ill; because our focus will be on Jesus, who is Lord both of the living and the dead.

Now, there are a few other housekeeping measures we need to go over. First of all, it is with sadness that I tell you that the Palmer Drug Abuse Program is no longer in operation on our campus. Just a quick history – PDAP is an alternative peer group designed to help teenagers who have substance addiction and their families. PDAP has a number of satellite locations throughout the greater Houston area. PDAP and Holy Comforter partnered over thirty five years ago to establish a PDAP satellite on our campus. And, in fact, of all the PDAP satellites, this is the only location on which PDAP had their own physical structure. As the case may be, PDAP closed its programs on our campus in the spring of 2016. Throughout the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, a working group from the Vestry met with PDAP to discern our partnership. Now, this partnership is multi-faceted. PDAP owns their building, the Diocese of Texas leases the land to them without rent, Holy Comforter covers the cost of utilities as part of our outreach. As I said, PDAP no longer holds programs on our campus, and over the next few months you’ll see PDAP’s physical presence on our campus come to a close.

This is a somber reality, but it only heightens the need for our continued ministry of Mental Health First Aid. We have parishioners who are being trained as trainers in Mental Health First Aid, so that they can provide this course to us and to the community. That way, when we encounter people with mental illness or substance abuse in our communities we have the skills and abilities to make an assessment and get the kind of help they need. We still have a mission to share the reconciling love of Jesus Christ with all people, regardless of their situation.

Here I want to thank Danny Grellner, our Senior Warden who is rolling off. With great diligence and faith, he lent his leadership skills to the conversation with PDAP, the building project, and the ongoing demands of a growing church. I tell you his energy, his enthusiasm, and his courage was infectious for me and for the whole Vestry.

I also want to address clergy and pastoral care. And here is our opportunity to thank Deacon Bob Lowry for all, all that he does. With great poise and faith, he works as a hospice chaplain, a deacon, and most of all, a disciple of Jesus Christ. By far, Deacon Bob is the hardest working deacon in the Diocese of Texas. His four years among us have been a blessing to me. His leadership and commitment to our neighbors in nursing homes and to the unemployed is inspiring. And I thank him.

Speaking for both of us, we are here for you. But if you want to talk or to pray with us, you need to ask us. If you are going into surgery, if you are sick and want prayer, if you are hurting and need someone to talk to, we’re here. But you have to tell us. We are deacon and priest, we are not wizards, we cannot read your minds. Communication goes both ways.

I want to end by telling you about a children’s book I’ve come across called, “The Little House.” This little house is way out in the country. At night you can see the stars and there are no neighbors for miles around. But, with the passage of time, the city grows out toward the little house. First, it’s a new neighbor, then a store, then a larger street, and eventually great big buildings. This is the story of Holy Comforter. Forty years ago, we were way out in the country. To get here from downtown Houston, they used to say, you would drive to Dallas and then turn left. But we are not out in the country anymore. ExxonMobil is north of us. We are inside the Grand Parkway. Spring was the country, then it was a commuter town, now it’s becoming its own place. In the book, they move the little house back out to the country, it fled the community. In our future, we will not flee. No, we will dive in. We will be unafraid of the community around us. We will be unafraid of change.

Personally, I am not afraid of the future. I am not afraid of our community. And I am not afraid to be your rector. Rather, I am honored to be here, to be in this community, and to be serving one of the most exciting parishes in the Episcopal Church. I give thanks to God for each one of you, and I pray that whether it is the best of times or the worst of times, we will be faithful to each other and to the Lord Jesus Christ.


New Year’s Revolution

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Baptism of our Lord
January 7, 2018

Genesis 1:1-5

Last Sunday, Deacon Bob gave us the gloomy statistic that only 8% of people keep their New Year’s Resolution. So, here we are, one week in to 2018. Chances are that by now, if we made a resolution, we are all complete failures. I mean, I’ve already failed miserably at my resolution. So let’s be honest – the New Year’s Resolution is a terrible way to start a new year. You begin with high expectations, high hopes – you’re going to lose weight, go to the gym, eat right – only to have your hopes crushed when you wake up one week in to realize that the holiday pounds are still there, you haven’t made it to the gym, and the fried chicken last night for dinner was not in the plan. New Year’s Resolutions don’t work and they make us miserable.

Maybe it’s because our New Year’s resolutions are about the small things. We fritter around the edges, we tinker with our lives. I’ll eat a piece of fruit of every day. I’ll walk on the treadmill for another twenty minutes. But that stuff, that is not the stuff that makes us who we are. What the gospel of Jesus Christ asks of us is not a resolution, but a revolution. God is not into doing little things. God doesn’t fritter around the edges by encouraging us to start a new diet or to shed a few pounds. It’s not as much about the waistline as it the size of your heart. God doesn’t do the small thing, God does the big thing.

Think about it, God begins by doing the biggest thing. “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This is the description of chaos. A formless void, darkness, water everywhere.

God does not come upon the chaos of the formless void and the darkness covering the face of the waters and fritter away at the edges. It’s not like God makes the waves a little less wild. Or that God makes the darkness a little less dark. God did not make a resolution to make the chaos just a little less chaotic. No, God begins a revolution. “Let there by light!”

This is the biggest thing imaginable. That God would dare, would dare to create something new. God is not content with the way things are. No, God wants things to be better. This is big. And the first thing that God creates is the very thing that all life needs. God creates light. Light makes food grow, light gives warmth, light is everything. Then, God separates the light from the darkness. God calls one Night, the other is called Day. God takes the chaos, the unruly brew of light and dark to create something new. There is evening, there is morning, the first day. God does big things.

Imagine, imagine what it would be like if we started every year by asking God to do the big thing in our life, to create our hearts anew. Rather than asking God to help us with a resolution, ask God to make your life a revolution. Allow God to take the formless void, the darkness, the light, the waters sloshing around in your own life.

Allow God to take your chaos and shape something new. Not a new gym routine or a new diet, but a new person. A new way of life. A new creation. That’s precisely what is going on here in the story from Genesis. This is not a science textbook describing how life came to be – no, this story is more profound than that. This is a story about a god who can take our unruly and chaotic lives and make something beautiful out of it. This is the good news of Jesus Christ. That God loves us so much that God is not willing to let the chaos win. That God is willing to pull apart our lives, to separate the light and the darkness, so that we can have order and peace. The good news of Jesus Christ is that God is always willing to make us new again.

But every bit of good news comes with some hard news. When God pulls apart our lives and makes something new, we do not know what it will look like. We do not know what God will do with us. We can imagine how our life will look if we achieve our New Year’s Resolutions. Our pants will fit better. Great. But imagine if God took the chaos and the darkness and formless void in your life and made something new. Would you be ready for it? Would you be ready for a life in which your only purpose is to love God and love your neighbor? Would you be ready for a life in which every waking minute is devoted to Jesus? Would you be ready to quit your job and become a deacon, a priest, a monk, a nun? Would you be ready for a life that is not controlled by your addiction? Would you be ready for a life in which you are called to give up your chaos, and to embrace the peace of God? Would you be ready for a new life?

See, more often than not, we’re afraid of the newness. Even if the chaos and the darkness and the formless void that stews around in our hearts and our minds is unhealthy, we want to keep it that way. Because the new creation is scary. We would rather hold on to what we know even if it is bad, than open ourselves up to something new, simply because we do not know what it will look like. And that’s the reason our resolutions fail, and it’s the reason we struggle so mightily in our spiritual lives. Because no matter how beautiful that new creation might be, the inertia of our old ways is too strong for us to overcome it.

Here’s where the New Year’s resolution and the God-given revolution are different. When it’s a resolution, it’s all up to you. You are the one who has to give up red meat, you are the one who has to set the alarm clock to go the gym. It’s all on you. But in the revolution, when God is going to make something new out of your life, it’s not up to you alone. In fact, the harder we try, the more elusive it becomes. So, as backwards as it may sound, here’s what I ask you to do for the revolution. Just give up. Surrender. Let go. Allow God to do whatever it is that God wants to do and allow God to do it. The light and the darkness did not separate themselves. The formless void and the chaos did not bring themselves into order. No, God did that. When I think about how I made it through my own stuff to become a priest, I know that must have been God. When I think back on this church, and how it has changed and grown so much, I know that must have been God. God takes the formless void, the chaos around us, and makes something new, something beautiful.

As we begin 2018, I pray that the Lord God takes us and makes us new again. That God takes that swirl of emotions we have – doubt, faith, stress, joy, hope, despair – and makes something new out of it. And not just for you, but for us as a church. There surely has been a swirl, a chaos. As we continue to wrangle with the MUD and the county, it surely seems like the dark formless void. But through that, I pray that our collective heart is opened to the Holy Spirit. I pray that we have the courage, not to just fritter away at the edges of our common life, but to allow God to do something bold. Something new. And that out of this present chaos, God creates something beautiful.

And that’s the hope to hang on to. Whatever God makes will be beautiful. We can get bent out of shape by all the judgments that God makes in the Old testament. But look at the first judgment that God makes in the entire bible – God sees the light, God sees what God has created and calls it good. Whatever God does, whatever God creates, will be good. When God is making you new again and it seems scary and you don’t know what’s happening – remember that it will be good. 92% of us will fail at keeping our resolutions, but God will not fail. With an open heart, and an open mind, God will make us new again.