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.