“Eternal God, heavenly Father, you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and you have fed us with spiritual food in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.”
If you’ve been in Sunday worship sometime during the last couple of months, you have probably received fresh-baked bread at Eucharist, in place of the wafers we often share. (I know that many of you have noticed this switcheroo, because you’ve mentioned it or asked about it.)
Truthfully, I prefer bread to wafers, for a reason I’ll share momentarily. But I didn’t set out to impose a Eucharistic preference on the whole lot of us. At first, we were just beginning our journey through the “bread discourses” in the Gospel of John – a series of 6 weeks during the Lectionary Cycle’s “Year B” when we read passages from the 6th chapter of John, all having to do in some way with “bread.”
After the Sunday we heard about Jesus multiplying 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish in order to feed five-thousand people, I was struck by the irony of what was happening: we were meditating on the abundance of nourishment that Jesus offers (described as more bread than we could possibly need) and then we were coming together at the table for what seemed like a meager meal of thin and tasteless crackers.
In a moment of zeal, I texted a friend for the Communion bread recipe we used to share at the Seminary of the Southwest, drove to the grocery to purchase whole wheat flour, a big jug of honey, and some olive oil, returned home and immediately began baking a first batch of bread. The recipe produces enough for a month, so that batch got us through the “bread discourses” and the month of August.
By the time September was nearing, there had been time to reflect on the experience of using fresh Communion bread in conversation with some others in our community, and also in my own prayers. While we grant that not everyone likes real bread, and not everyone can eat it (as is also true with wafers that are not gluten-free), there is something special about handmade bread, baked by someone in our own fellowship, brought forward as a gift of thanksgiving to be blessed, broken, and shared to nourish and re-member us as Christ’s body in the world. It is something that can be easily lost in factory-made and machine-stamped wafers purchased in bulk.
Just think about it – every time we gather for the holy feast of Eucharist, we are invited to bring our gifts, good and bad: the fruits of our labors and success; the works of our hands; tokens of achievement and celebration; the emptiness of our disappointments and desperation; the scarcity of our transitions and long, winding sojourns; our unrequited love and unfinished dreams! No matter how much or how little, we are invited to bring everything we are and wish we were, along with offerings of bread and wine to the table; so that God can bless and multiply it all to be enough for everyone. Then, we go out as Christ’s body and feed the world. What a glorious taste of God’s grace we share in The Holy Eucharist!
Going forward, we may not use real bread every Sunday*, but when we do, I encourage you to meditate on what you bring as an offering with the gifts of our community, of bread and wine. Meditate on what God can do when blessing and multiplying what you bring in the holy mystery of Communion.
“Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
*If you are interested in learning our bread recipe, practicing with others, and then volunteering to bake a batch or two of Communion bread for a month this year, email Scott at email@example.com.
As a child growing up in the rural Midwest, I did not encounter a lot of difference. Lots of same-ness or very-similar-ness. Our nearby towns were small, my school was small, my world was small. Our community valued conformity and uniformity. We were always a bit suspicious of folks who did things their own way. And we were – almost -- all white. I knew one person in my entire high school who was not Caucasian. Her name was Tina.
You need to know this about me: I was raised in a homogenous community. I didn’t grow up with much diversity.
As a young person, I knew that my world didn’t look like the one I saw on TV. It didn’t look like the world I read about in books. It didn’t sound like all the music I heard on the radio.
As a young Christian, I knew that my experience of church and people in church didn’t look like the world of the Bible. I knew this, though I couldn’t always put it into words, and I longed to encounter the wide variety of all that God made and who the Spirit has called together.
When I left home for college, I set out on a quest to encounter a bigger world. It hasn’t happened fast; but in the 25 years of my adult life I can say that it has happened. And, I cherish the web of difference and diversity that has become woven into my existence.
The first thing I noticed about Grace during discernment of a call to be with you in ministry was the ethnic diversity of this congregation. At the beginning, my eyes were drawn to the beautiful array of color among us. (I later learned that no fewer than a dozen different nations are represented among the people who call Grace their spiritual home. I LOVE THIS!)
As we have begun to walk together, I realize that beyond race or nationality, there is more, very profound diversity among us. There is generational variety, and it is increasing by the week. There is a vast array of religious experiences that many of us bring forward into our hopes and dreams for Grace. There is a beautiful range of sexual orientation and gender identity found among our growing community.
It’s much easier to be with people who are pretty much the same.
It can be a lot of work to stay in community with difference. I’ve learned this because I share in this life together with you. I hear some express frustrations borne out of saying the “wrong thing” or simply having to throw up one’s hands exasperatedly in not knowing what to say. I see how uncomfortable it is to encounter words and signs in a 60-year-old building that seem to exclude some who don’t live in the established categories of the world. I sense the irritation of learning that words and pronouns we’ve used since we started talking are no longer universal and can be used to exclude people we are growing to love.
We have to be intentional about embracing all unique persons. We must purpose to listen to every voice, to seek to understand alternate perspectives. We are invited to be open to the Spirit, who will lead us to embrace new arrivals and expand our circles of love. Our own power inevitably becomes diluted when others are lifted up. Some can experience all this as exhausting—even as an existential threat. (How can we guarantee our own survival if we don’t maintain control on things?!)
God’s vision is for a beloved community in which the walls that divide us are broken down. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul shared this vision when writing that there are no longer simple binary categories of insider-outsider in the community that God is building—no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female.
And after painting this beautiful vision, he went on to address the difficulty people were having in trying to live it out: “I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.” Exasperation!
Dr. King expressed God’s vision when he said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” God will give us grace to adapt to our changing experience of community.
My Siblings in Christ, we must press forward into God’s vision for the church in which all dividing walls are destroyed. God will give us grace to lay down our agendas, our idols, our individual dreams, our frail distinctions, so that we may receive the gift of a beloved community that is a witness to God’s reconciling work in the world.
Please stay with me in this life, in this work; and press forward together toward the light of this call.
Thoughts on Who We Are and Who We are Becoming.
In Rob Bell’s latest book, How to Be Here (which I highly commend to your reading), he shares a word in Japanese that has a powerful way of capturing a special sense of purpose and vocation. That word is ikigai.
Bell writes, “Your ikigai is a web of work and family and play and how you spend your time, what you give your energies to, what you say “yes” to, what you say “no” to, what new challenges you take on, things that come your way that you never wanted or planned for or know what to do with—your ikigai is a work in progress because you are a work in progress” (56-57).
I shared a few weeks ago at the Grace Town Hall, something like my ikigai. My own reason for loving this job called Vicar of Grace comes from a sense of mission in this ministry: “To Challenge and Inspire the People of Grace Episcopal Church to dream God’s Dream for this congregation, neighborhood, city, and the world; and to lead us toward enacting that dream with God, by cultivating a culture of worship & prayer, Christ-centered community, and outreach through partnership and servanthood.”
I’ve been asked many times: “Scott, what is your vision for Grace.” My response has always been pretty much the same: “What is God’s vision for Grace? What is God already doing in and through this congregation? I’m listening and looking.”
I’m not even sure the word ikigai is meant to apply to an organization or a community or a church. And yet, the questions it raises are exactly the things we should be talking about as the people who are Grace Episcopal Church.
How do we spend our time? What do we say “yes” to? What do we say “no” to? What new challenges will we take on? What are we doing or might we do that seem to be completely out of left field – total surprises?
I think I’m starting to get a sense of what makes Grace such a special place, such a special people.
Worship and Prayer. We love to gather for joyful and authentic expressions of worship. We are people who know God as our source of being, as our strength, as our inspiration. We find refreshment and renewal in worship together. We make room for many different musical genres and liturgical expressions and instruments(!), because we know God has called us from many different experiences, cultures, and languages to be church together. We are people of prayer. Many of us find centeredness in gathering to wait on the Lord in quiet contemplation. Others are passionate intercessors and live in such a way as to be praying on behalf of others on a near-constant basis. There is so much more in worship and prayer that God has for us, and I believe we are open to all of it.
Community and Care. The people of Grace care deeply and faithfully for one another. The “greater peace” we share in worship (ha!), our extended coffee hours, and our joy in many other gatherings are signs of our desire to be with one another, to know each other more attentively and deeply. We are a diverse community in almost every way – in religious experience, in cultural heritage, in sexual orientation, in gender identity, in economic status, and the list goes on. Since we find our bonds of affection in Jesus Christ and not in tribal affinities or homogeneity, we are able to stay together and grow in love, even as much of the world finds itself torn apart. And, we care for each other. We take care of one another in times of weakness and loss, in times of sickness and death, in times of grief and in times of want. This is what church is supposed to be, and it is what we strive to be even though we sometimes fail.
Neighborliness and Hospitality. We love our neighbors, and we want to be a church that serves the people around us. Grace2Go and the Community Garden, Interfaith events on the Labyrinth and in Parish Hall, Grace Episcopal School--and free power and wifi for those who seek shelter under our breezeway: these are all wonderful expressions of our commitment to reaching out to others. We take pride in caring for our campus and making it a beautiful and safe place for others to gather. We have lovely spaces for hospitality, and we are always making room for more to be with us, to share with us, to join with us. Hospitality is a wonderful spiritual gift of Grace, and I love to see us flourish in offering it.
What are you seeing and hearing? I offer these observations, but they don’t comprise a finite list. What inspires your joy and commitment in this place? Please share with me! Email at Vicar@GraceinHouston.org or give me a call at 832.667.8601. Let’s talk.
Friends, let’s hear the Spirit calling us to settle into being who we are, and into being here – in this moment, in this place, for this time.
“Stay Close to Jesus”
“Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news[i] of God,[j]and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)
This year we are reading a great deal from the Gospel of Mark together. Our 3-year pattern of Scripture readings, known as the Revised Common Lectionary, ensures we encounter large portions of the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—on Sundays, through Years A, B, and C, before starting again with a new “Year A.”
This year –“Year B” – readings are anchored in the Gospel of Mark. And there are a few points that are important to note about Mark’s Gospel, as we continue to encounter Jesus through it’s lens.
First, chronology. We read Mark in Year B because of its order of appearance in the Christian Scriptures—it comes second, after Matthew. But scholars are in wide agreement that the Gospel of Mark was the first to be written, possibly as early as 50 C.E. This is evidenced by the brevity of the text, by the large portions of writing shared across the other Gospel writings (indicating Mark as likely a “source” for the other Gospels), and by the structure of the narrative itself.
The structure of the narrative of Mark is the second aspect I note as significant. Mark writes directly and succinctly. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t begin with a story about Jesus’ birth, but with his baptism instead. This means Mark jumps right into Jesus’ adult life and ministry, and the world in which he spoke and acted. Mark does not take great pains to over-theologize or explain Jesus’ activity, teachings, or parables. He often lets Jesus stand on his own, or simply in contrast to the response or reaction of those around him in the moment. These are some of the factors that contribute to the brevity of the Markan text.
Finally, Mark’s Jesus is portrayed as downplaying—at times, even outright concealing--his divine nature and Messianic vocation as he teaches, inspires, and heals (like in Mark 8, when Peter confesses Jesus as Christ and Jesus responds with an injunction against saying that to anyone else; or in Mark 7, when Jesus heals a deaf man and then tells him to tell no one). In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus seems up to something that could be undermined or thwarted were folks to jump too fast to the “he-is-God” or “Of-course-because-Messiah” kinds of explanations.
I love the Gospel of Mark! As a text, as a basis for my life of faith, it is my favorite of the four. I love how wide open the text is, allowing my often-ambiguous and open-ended experiences of faith and doubt to linger in Mark’s own refusal to settle for easy explanations. I love how the narrative style zeros right in on the stark words and strong acts of Jesus, without forcing me to go straight to predetermined narratives that could undercut my own questions and observations prematurely. And, I love how clearly political (but not partisan!) Jesus is in the Gospel of Mark. He so very plainly shares a vision of a way of life, a set of values, a hope for the future, and a willingness to oppose and receive a brunt of opposition for the sake of The Kingdom.
Friends, as we move through this summer, come what may (and there is a lot coming at us, each and every day!), I pray that we might find in the Gospel of Mark inspiration and hope to continue pursuing the better way we find in Jesus, to cling to the values of God’s Kingdom (even when they are opposed to the words and actions of others who would demand our allegiance), that we would not lose hope in the future God is bringing (even when we cannot readily see that it is happening), and that we would share in Christ’s willingness to oppose and be opposed for the good of the world God loves.
Keep the faith. Stay close to one another. Stay close to Jesus. The Kingdom of God has come near.
We at Grace were honored to open our doors to brothers and sisters of the Islamic faith last night. We began with an interfaith program that included Christians worshiping in the Episcopal liturgy of Evening Prayer. Then, we moved into Parish Hall and shared in an Iftar dinner, the meal of breaking a daylong fast after sunset. Here are the remarks I shared with all gathered during the interfaith program.
It is an honor for us at Grace Episcopal Church to welcome friends of differing faith-- and friends of no faith--to this wonderful program tonight, and to co-host with our neighbors from the Turquois Center a Ramadan Iftar that we will all share after sunset.
All of this is a high honor for us, because we are Christian: which means we are people seeking God in the way of Jesus of Nazareth, who walked the earth approximately two-thousand years ago. We find in the life and teachings of Jesus, recorded in our Scriptures called the Gospels, a compelling witness for the life of love as the means by which what is lost and broken in this world made for good, may be redeemed and restored.
As a religion that springs from the Abrahamic tradition (something we share with our Muslim siblings), we find in the stories of Creation in Torah, that God made this world and all that is in it out of perfect Divine LOVE: that God created the world to be good, to be in balance, to be free from pain and shame, to be in perfect communion with the Divine.
Ultimately it is this origin in goodness, this perfect communion with the Divine at our beginning, that compels us to find in Jesus Christ a way to recover what is beautiful and true, as God intends.
I said that it is an honor to be here with all of you, because we are Christian. Why did I say this?
Because the way of Jesus, this life of love into which he calls us, is a path of extravagant hospitality toward others.
Our Scriptures record that Jesus once summarized all of Torah and all of the Hebrew Prophets with these words: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength," quoting from the Law itself. He added: "Love your neighbor as your very self. “ When asked by those around him to define who is one’s neighbor, Jesus took great pains to describe that all of one’s fellow human are neighbor, regardless of tribe or nationality or gender or religion. We are called to love our siblings in the human family, with not exception or limitation.
In this way, Christians are called beyond mere tolerance. We are called to embrace our neighbor, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Atheist, and everyone else! So our honor in your presence here emanates from our desire to be faithful Christians, growing in love for God and for our neighbors.
I am learning that hospitality is also an important value in Islam. And so, it is a double portion of joy for us to share this time and this space with you during Ramadan.
An evening of mutual hospitality.
On the Thursday after Pentecost, May 24, I marked my one-hundredth day as Vicar of Grace. While 100 is a somewhat arbitrary number, it is a nice round one—a popular benchmark that organizational thinkers often use to frame the high importance of a new beginning in leadership. The “first hundred days” convey how crucial it is to start well – form relationships, assess the community’s health, share values and priorities, and begin to articulate a vision for the future.
As we pass from those first hundred days into a surer sense of our life and ministry together, I have been reflecting on all the good ground we’ve covered during the se“asons of Lent and Easter. We have worshiped on the beautiful Tree of Life Labyrinth and Garden—on Ash Wednesday, on Good Friday, on Palm Sunday, for an Interfaith Celebration of Music and Dance, and to celebrate the final gathering of our Easter/Spring Book Club. We’ve served more than a thousand cups of juice and coffee, breakfast snacks, and prayer with our Grace2Go “customers” and shared fertile soil and toiling hands to produce fresh vegetables in our Community Garden, yielding nourishment for our neighbors. In worship, we’ve celebrated our diversity and complexity with joyful variety: in music, in liturgical choices, and even retrieving historic vestments and altar vessels to elevate our reverence of The Holy Eucharist. (Many of our congregants had never seen a chasuble or silver chalice at Grace!) We have welcomed more than 100 first-time visitors in Sunday worship at Grace since Ash Wednesday, averaging almost 75 worshipers per week—including many children and youth! (This is a significantly higher Sunday average than several of the last 5 years during the same seasons). Our congregation has received a generous grant from the Diocese of Texas to support renewed ministry in these months following Hurricane Harvey.
All this is only a TASTE of what God has done among us during these first hundred days. I hope you’ll join us in the Nave for a Town Hall on Sunday, June 10 from 12:30-1:15 p.m. so I can share a more robust testimony of our first months in ministry together. We’ll also take time to reflect together in an engagement activity. All this will help us make intentional plans for the beginning of our new program year at the end of August.
I can tell you this: A hundred days isn’t nearly enough! I’m so excited to continue this journey with you in ministry. God has great things in store for our neighborhood and the world through the life and ministry of Grace. Let’s go!
With you on the way,
The Reverend Scott Painter, Vicar of Grace
So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 2 Corinthians 5:20
We at Grace recently enjoyed the annual blessing of a pastoral visit by one of our Bishops. On Sunday, April 22, the Right Reverend Hector Monterroso, Bishop Assistant in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, was with us to lead our worship as Preacher, Celebrant, and especially as Bishop to confirm and receive four people in their faith and membership in The Episcopal Church. It was a great day, capped off with Bishop Monterroso leading us in joyful dedication of the altar stone near our Tree of Life Labyrinth. (I am including a few pictures below, courtesy of Charlie Spruell, so that all can share more fully in the wonder of that day.)
In the weeks leading up to the Bishop’s visit, I had the privilege, along with Vyonne Carter-Johnson, of walking with those seeking to be confirmed (known as “confirmands”) through two Sunday afternoon sessions of storytelling, instruction, and worship, meant to prepare our hearts for Confirmation. It was a blessing to share the stories of our faith journeys together, to recall the rich heritage of our Anglican and Episcopal Church tradition, and to gather for prayer and Eucharist.
A highlight of my time with the confirmands was a discussion about the ministry of the church and “orders” of ministry within the church. The Catechism responds to the question, “What is the ministry of the church?” in this way: “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” In other words, the church exists as an agent of reconciliation in the world. It is our core mission to bring people to God and together. Everything we do—in prayer and worship and proclamation, in working for justice in the world, and in administrating the business of this congregation—is in the service of our call to be reconcilers in the world.
As we went on to read about orders of ministry – laity, bishops, deacons, and priests, we found that as Church, we are not just to call people to be reconciled from afar; rather, we are to grow as an actual example of God’s love and the community that it brings! “The ministry of the laity is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ's work of reconciliation in the world...” The ministries of Bishops, Deacons, and Priests can be understood as vocations of upholding all the church, in various ways, in its core mission of reconciliation.
As your Vicar, I understand my calling as a priest is vitally connected to my ministry among you. With the help of the Holy Spirit, I must do whatever I can to support, equip, and encourage us as we seek to be reconcilers with God and others in this world. No matter what the task at hand – whether sweeping floors, hanging drywall, planting flowers, making music, brewing coffee, walking the labyrinth, picking up trash, or anything else--whatever we do, is to be in the service of this privilege of ministry that is ours in the world. We are in it together! And, God is with us to give grace to accomplish what we have been called to do.
In the coming weeks, we will continue to pray, to share and to learn in ways that will expand our capacity as a congregation to be reconcilers. We are in it together—for the sake of our friends, neighbors, and the whole world! And I am so honored to be with you on the journey.
“Almost nothing that makes any real difference can be proved. I can prove the law of gravity by dropping a shoe out the window. I can prove that the world is round if I’m clever at that sort of thing, that the radio works, that light travels faster than sound. I cannot prove that life is better than death or love better than hate. I cannot prove the greatness of the great or the beauty of the beautiful. I cannot even prove my own free will… Faith can’t prove a damned thing. Or a blessed thing either.” - Frederick Buechner
On April 1st, Easter Sunday and April Fools Day will occur simultaneously – on the same day! The last time it happened was 1956, before this congregation (in any form) even existed! It’s a strange confluence of two radically different days—one, the heart of Christian hope; the other, a deep dive into white lies and petty pranks.
This coincidence is interesting to me in light of several recent conversations I’ve had with folks at Grace. Easter, it turns out, means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, Easter means triumph—that in Jesus’ resurrection God is proved highest and mightiest, once and for all. For some, it means beauty—sunrises and spring flowers and lush green trees. For others, Easter means hope—that new life can come out of the driest, darkest places. And for still more, it calls forth enlightenment—a new consciousness, one that enables those who attain it to live an elevated existence above the broken, violent, impoverished ways that seem to otherwise plague this world in every corner.
I actually like all of these for different reasons. We could make a fairly sound theological case for any of them and, better yet, for all of them combined (and more!). These frames of triumph and beauty and hope and enlightenment hold the potential to point us to a Dream made possible in the wondrous story of Easter. We are inspired to believe that ultimately things will be made right, no matter how wrong they seem in any given moment.
The possibility is very real, when pondering the paschal mystery, that we might get tripped up on April-Fool’s-Day-kinds-ofquestions: Did it really happen just like we read? Did it really happen at all? Is this a trick? Am I being a sucker?
Truthfully, I fear that we might allow such cynicism to keep us from the wonder of things that can’t necessarily be proved, but could be believed and embraced as the Divine Dream for us and this whole world, to awaken with life and beauty and hope and enlightenment and…LOVE! If we can believe in the dream, then we can be part of making it come true.
I pray that we could come to this Easter with eyes wide in wonderful faith, and leave April Fool’s Day altogether, for another year.
Christ is risen! Alleluia! Alleluia!