The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Installation of the Rev. Christopher Garcia – Christ Church, Port Republic, Maryland
Tuesday, December 5, 2017
At the end of September, my wife and I took our three year old daughter to the beach in Galveston, Texas. Have you ever taken a three year old to the beach? It is something else. A switch went off inside her the instant her toes hit the sand. We had to do everything, and we had to do it right now. We had to build a sand castle, right now. We had to jump in the waves, right now. We had to bury daddy in the sand, right now. And we had to collect seashells, right now.
And that presented a problem. Because she wanted every single seashell on that beach. Because every shell was just a little bit different. This one was smooth on the inside, this one has a cool hole in it, this was one is tiny. And as we kept picking up the shells, we ran out of hands, out of pockets, out of things to carry them in. The harvest was plentiful, the laborers were few.
My name is Jimmy Abbott, and I serve as the rector of Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Spring, Texas. Spring is the first suburb north of Houston. Christopher and I graduated seminary together and I am honored to be here with you this evening. To pray with you and to celebrate with you. To rededicate ourselves as laborers in this abundant harvest. A harvest that is as plentiful in Spring, Texas as it is here in Maryland.
Holy Comforter in Spring, Texas is what you might call, Christ Church’s little sister. My parish is exactly three hundred years younger than this one. You started in 1672, we started in 1972. And for Houston, that’s ancient history. That means that we’ve made it through two oil booms and two oil busts. Which is how Houston measures time. Well, Houstonians also measure their time by which hurricane they remember the most. Alicia, Allison, Rita, Ike, Harvey. We’ve made it through all of them – through the flooding, through the droughts, through the ups and downs of the oil business. As Christopher and I talked about this parish, and as I was preparing to come up here, I thought of all that you have seen. How you have borne witness to the gospel through thick and thin, through revolutions, through wars, through stress, through meager years and through bumper crops.
Like that bumper crop of seashells we had collected. As we were packing up the car, ready to leave the beach in Galveston that day, we had to break the news to our daughter. The harvest of seashells was plentiful, but there was no way we were taking all of them home. With much angst we selected the few shells that made the cut and could come home with us. A few went into our daughter’s room with the rest of her rock collection. A few more went into my closet next to my wallet and keys. And you know, I’ll look at those shells every so often and think back to what a great time we had that day. About that beautiful family moment when it all seemed perfect. It was just the beach, the sun, the water, the seashells, and our family.
But if I’m to be honest with myself, that’s just sentimentality. That’s just me remembering what I want to remember, and not the whole truth. I block out of my memory how swarms of seagulls kept trying to eat our pretzels. I conveniently forget what a pain it is to get sand off a three year old and then get that three year old into a car seat. I block out the memory that our sandcastle was pretty crumby. I erase the memory that the beach in Galveston isn’t actually all that nice, that you have to dodge jellyfish, and that seashells hurt when you step on them. That’s the problem with sentimentality. All memories are not created equal. We long for a past that never was.
Though three and a half centuries separate Christ Church and Holy Comforter, I would imagine we are not all that different. Whether a church has been around for forty-five years or three hundred and forty-five years, we long for the past. We are straddled by sentimentality. I see it in my ministry, and I sense it across the Episcopal Church. We have convinced ourselves that our history is better than our present, and that surely our future is even worse than that. We tell ourselves that, in the good old days, everybody went to church. We tell ourselves that, in the good old days, church was done right. We tell ourselves that, in the good old days, the church never had any problems. We long for a past, a past that never was.
And this longing is the greatest spiritual danger facing the church today. The greatest danger facing the church today is not money, or theology, or liturgy – no, the greatest danger facing the church today is sentimentality. The greatest danger facing the church today is sentimentality. A longing for some past that never actually existed.
The call of God, the call of mission, the call of Jesus, is always forward. “The harvest is plentiful,” Jesus says. The harvest is plentiful. Like a little girl with her toes in the sand who sees the endless seashells before her, Jesus sees before us the endless possibilities for the work of the gospel. But here’s the catch. We cannot get complacent with the memory of the harvest we have already brought in. As if that was enough. We celebrate the memory of the shells we collected. We talk about the glories of the past. But the harvest comes every year, doesn’t it? The work never stops. There is always more out there. I know, it’s near impossible to convince a three year old that you don’t have to take home all the shells, because when we come back next time, there will be still more shells to gather. It’s awfully hard to convince churches, priests, bishops – it’s hard to even convince myself – that there is still a harvest out there. That God is not done with us. That more people are out there, an endless stream of people, who have not yet been gathered. The harvest is plentiful, the harvest is endless.
And Christopher, you know this, the laborers are few. You now step into this moment, into the past, present, and future of this parish. And I tell you – the urge, the temptation toward sentimentality will always be whispering in your ear. You will feel it more than anybody else. On those hard days, when the harvest is all too plentiful and the laborers are woefully few, you might think that it would have been easier to serve in the past. You might look at the harvest that was collected by your predecessors with a misty-eyed sentimentality. You will be tempted to think that surely ministry and leadership would have been easier in 1672, or 1772, or 1872, or even 1972. Maybe it was, probably it wasn’t. And really, that is of no consequence to you. The Holy Spirit has called you here for this moment and for none other.
You are to hold these people, these souls, and carry them with the gentleness of a three year old collecting seashells. And then you are to do what is the hardest thing for any priest to do – to let go. When your hands and your pockets are full of seashells, you will need more hands and more pockets. Jesus sees that the harvest is plentiful but he also sees that you, Christopher, are not the only laborer. You all are the laborers. This work, this ministry, this gospel call of harvesting souls for Jesus is yours. You are the laborers. It is gospel imperative to keep gathering those shells, that harvest, day by day, year by year.
And granted, not all the seashells out there are perfect. In fact, none of them are. And those are precisely the people that God is calling this and every church to go and collect and to bring home. Even the ones with holes in them, even the ones that are half broken, even the ones with imperfect lines, because to God, they are all beautiful. The single mom burning the candle at both ends. The guy hooked on opioids. The kid whose parents don’t care about him. This, this is the harvest that God is sending you out into.
Last year’s harvest belongs to last year. We must never confuse our past with our future. We cannot put our seashells on a table, or in a shrine, or on a plaque, or on a monument, and remember the good old days with a false misty-eyed sentiment. No. The harvest is still out there, waiting, just waiting to be gathered. They are still waiting to hear from somebody, anybody, about the love and the grace and the mercy of Jesus.
And tonight, as we gather for celebration, for dedication, for commitment, we also gather for prayer. Of all things, Christopher, I pray that the Lord of the harvest sends out laborers from this place. I pray for you, Christopher, and for the people you serve, that though you are few, you see God’s bountiful harvest stretched before you.
And with the wild expectation and of a three year old on the beach, I pray that we feel the urgency of it all. That we feel this call, right now. That tonight, this very night, in this very county, a man, a woman, a child is desperately crying out for someone to love them and to know them like Jesus already loves and knows them. You, you all will be the answer to their prayer. Do not be concerned with how few laborers you have. Rather, give thanks to God for the plentiful harvest set before you.