Sunday, July 03, 2016

A Plentiful Harvest

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 3, 2016

Year C, Proper 9: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
Galatians 6:1-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

A Plentiful Harvest
            If you were here last week, you may remember that I mentioned that I love baptizing people. It’s one of my most favorite things to do as a priest.
            One of my other favorite things to do is welcoming people who have never been to St. Paul’s before.
            It’s hard to believe but, one way or another, Sue and I have been associated with this church for 16 or 17 years now. And, when you’ve been someplace for a long time, or if you’re here a lot, it’s easy to not see things any more, it’s easy to take things for granted, it’s easy to not appreciate the amazing gifts – the amazing Gift  - that you and I receive here.
            So, I love to see St. Paul’s through the eyes of people who’ve never been here before.
            They almost always “ooh” and “ah” and comment that the church is much bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside.
            They almost always marvel at the beautiful woodwork, almost disbelieving that such a beautiful structure could be here in the middle of Jersey City, could have been so well maintained, could have survived all this time.
            If they’re here for a service, newcomers often remark on how diverse the congregation is – how with all our different colors and cultures, we look so much like Jersey City.
            They often comment on the friendliness of our welcome and the reverence of our worship.
            And, yes, if they’re at the 10:00 service and work up the courage to go into Carr Hall for coffee hour, they also marvel at the good food and drink that’s offered to all.
            It’s good to see St. Paul’s through the eyes of a newcomer, right?
            Though we’re not perfect, the truth is that this is a pretty special place, one of the most beautiful places I know, one the few places I know where all different kinds of people come together, loving God and loving one another.
            I think the communion rail, where we all gather at the Lord’s Table, with outstretched hands and open hearts, is about as close as we ever get to heaven on earth, so close to the kingdom of God.
            Gathering together here gives us a little taste of what it must have been like for the first disciples who followed Jesus around, the men and women who heard the teachings and parables from Jesus’ lips, who saw with their own eyes demons expelled and the dead raised, who walked with Jesus as he hung around with the wrong kinds of people, who broke bread with Jesus along with tax collectors and prostitutes, fishermen and even the occasional Pharisee.
            Being with Jesus must have been as close as you could get to heaven on earth, so close to the kingdom of God.
            So, I imagine that the disciples wanted to stick as close to Jesus as possible, to not leave his side, if they could help it.
            But, as we heard in today’s gospel lesson, that’s not Jesus’ way.
            Jesus sends us out, not alone but in pairs, carrying very little.
            Jesus sends us out to proclaim through our words and actions that the kingdom of God has come near.
            As much as Jesus invites us to be with him, to walk beside him, he also sends us out into the world, out into the harvest, the plentiful harvest where, he says, the laborers are few.
            And, though you might not think so, we definitely have a plentiful harvest around us here in Jersey City.
            Some of you know that a couple of months ago I was given a FitBit, a device that tracks how many steps you take, how much and what kind of sleep you get, how many calories you burn, etc.
            You can compete with your friends to see who gets the most steps in a week or weekend.
            Since, I have a competitive streak and would like to take care of myself I’ve set a goal of 10,000 steps a day, which, for me, is about five miles.
            I have a route that I follow most days that takes me along Bergen Avenue to the Square then along the Boulevard to Communipaw and then down Monticello and then I make my way home.
            Sometimes I wear my collar and other times, especially lately since it’s been warmer, I dress down, often wearing a Mets cap that seems to also serve as a pretty good disguise.
            More than once, I’ve said hi to some parishioners and it takes them a few seconds to figure out that it’s me.
            Anyway, there’s a lot to be said for following the same route every day with nothing much to do but pray and think, watch and listen. It’s a chance to really see.
            And, over these months, I’ve learned that Jesus is right: the harvest is plentiful.
            There are the people who spend the night sleeping in cardboard boxes, and occasionally in sleeping bags, on the porch of Old Bergen Church.
            There’s the red-faced man sitting on the sidewalk near the Square day and night asking passers-by for change.
            There are all the people heading off to work and not looking too happy about it, with their earbuds in, retreating into their own worlds, preparing to endure whatever they have to endure to pay the bills.
            There are the kids going to school, many of them looking a lot happier about it than I remember feeling, along with their parents, who look pretty happy and excited, too.
            There are the people lined up outside the methadone clinic at Harrison and Monticello, doing what they can to stay clean.
             And there are the kids in their Lincoln High School polo shirts hanging outside the store at the corner of Brinkerhoff and Monticello, smoking pot before school starts, pretty much guaranteeing they’ll learn nothing that day.
            There are the muscular and unfriendly-seeming guys who every morning set up a makeshift gym at Fairmount and Monticello, lay out their weights on the sidewalk, use the scaffolding to do chin-ups, with music thumping from their cars.
            Meanwhile, just a few feet away under that same scaffolding the drinking starts early as people sit at kitchen chairs and even the occasional La-Z-Boy, downing tall cans of beer barely hidden in paper or plastic bags.
            And, there’s always one guy, looking to be maybe Indian or Pakistani, who sits a little off from everyone else sipping what I’d guess to be vodka out of a plastic cup, always talking softly in his own language on his cell phone.
            There are the customers line up early at Royal Liquors on Bergen, beginning a long day of drinking and hanging out, some are there first thing in the morning and are still stumbling around there at closing time.
            There’s the woman in the hoodie who spends all day every day sitting at the same table in Dunkin’ Donuts.
            There are the people even on the toughest blocks who take the trouble to keep up their homes, sweeping the sidewalks of litter for it to only reappear minutes later, planting flowers in the most inhospitable soil, keeping an eye on their block and their neighborhood.
            There are the people who have long since given up, the houses with piles of trash out front, and faded and forlorn Christmas decorations still hanging in the windows.
            There are the churches, so many churches, with their impressive schedules of worship and prayer and Bible Study posted outside, but looking closed and quiet whenever I walk by.
            There are the signs of new life sprouting up along Bergen and Monticello, restaurants, an interior designer, a bike shop, coffee shops, a boutique selling designer clothes.
            I could go on, but one final image: for months I’ve been walking by the community garden on Harrison Ave. Behind the chain-link fence, it’s looked neglected and overrun and I’ve wondered if it was abandoned. I still don’t know, but Somebody’s been at work because in the last few days beautiful blue flowers have bloomed, nearly covering the whole lot.
            A plentiful harvest.
            There’s a plentiful harvest of people out there, frightened and brave, addicted and in recovery, disappointed and hopeful, given up and still trying.
            There is a plentiful harvest of people just as hungry as ever to learn through our words and actions the Good News, the best news ever, that the Kingdom of God has come near.
            Yes, it’s great to be here at St. Paul’s, to be in this beautiful place with our sisters and brothers, as close to heaven on earth as we’re likely to get.
            It’s so great that it’s tempting to just keep our Christian faith and life here.
            But, that’s not the way of Jesus.
            Jesus sends us out.
            So, I’m going to challenge every one of us to grab a fellow parishioner or a friend or a neighbor and get out there, go out and really see what you usually just look at, to really see your neighborhood, your block, or even just your building, pay attention, and report back what you’ve seen and heard, no detail too small.
            I’m going to ask you to write down what you’ve seen and heard, like I’ve done today, and give it to me by Sunday, September 11, and I’ll put it together so we can really know and plan for the harvest that God has prepared for us, out there – so we can really share the Good News that the kingdom of God has come near.
            The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers? Well, we’ll see won’t we?