Sunday, March 26, 2017

In Plain Sight

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 26, 2017

Year A: The Fourth Sunday in Lent
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

In Plain Sight
            As many of you know, for most of my ordained life before I came back here to St. Paul’s, I served for about five wonderful years at Grace Church out in Madison – a small, beautiful suburban town about twenty miles west from here.
            To be honest, I had never thought I would live and work in a place like that. Sue and I had always seen ourselves as city people and I certainly imagined myself as a city priest.
            So, I wasn’t sure that Madison, with its picture postcard perfect downtown, was the place for me, but, as usual, apparently God had other ideas.
            When I first drove around the town and as I began to learn about the church, I honestly wondered if there was going to be much ministry for me to do! At first glance, everything and everyone looked so good, so well put together.
            I thought to myself, assuming these people accept this guy from Jersey City as their priest, then this might be pretty easy, maybe even kind of boring.
            However, soon enough I learned that things were not as perfect in Madison as they may have appeared.
            I remember learning about the many Hispanic immigrants, the people who did much of the cooking and cleaning and landscaping in town, who lived in close quarters in the apartments above the stores and restaurants on Main Street, sort of hidden away, but really, if you took the time to look, they were in plain sight.
            And, I discovered that the people at Grace Church and their friends and neighbors, just like all of us, had their share of troubles – mistakes that couldn’t be unmade, fears about the future, crumbling relationships, loneliness, grief over what – or who – had been lost.
            Over time, I discovered all of that and more. It was sort of hidden, but if you took a little time to look, the suffering was in plain sight.
            And then, I came back to Jersey City and I thought that, sure, there would be plenty of challenges but, at least here the suffering and the needs won’t be hidden at all, for the most part they’re right out in the open, right out on the street for all to see.
            And that’s partly true, right?
            But, you know what happened after a while?
            Just like I now almost never hear the fire engines as they barrel down Duncan Avenue with their blaring sirens, well, now sometimes I don’t really see the suffering and need on the street as I make my way along Bergen Avenue, barely noticing the addicts hanging around outside of Royal Liquors, don’t really see the suffering and need as I try to get through Journal Square, barely noticing the homeless people spending their days on the benches, don’t really think about the suffering and need behind the rundown houses and apartment buildings all around our neighborhood, across our city.
            All too often, if I notice these people at all, I see them as just problems or obstacles or annoyances or jobs to do or even cautionary tales, but not as people with their own regrets, fears, disappointments, hopes, and dreams.
            All too often, I don’t see them as much-loved brothers and sisters.
            And, maybe you don’t, too.
            In today’s Gospel lesson, the disciples and the neighbors don’t really see the man blind from birth.
            The disciples see him not as a person but as a theological question: did God punish him because of his sins or the sins of his parents?
            And the neighbors don’t really see the blind man. Even though he’s been there with them in plain sight for years, they don’t really know him. I imagine they just think of him as “The Blind Man.”
            In fact, they don’t seem to know his face so after Jesus heals him they’re not really sure if it’s the same person or someone or someone who looks like him.
            And, some of the Pharisees only see the formerly blind man as a way to catch Jesus breaking the law.
            That’s all very bad, right?
            But, you know, what’s even worse than not seeing the blind man – what’s worse than not really seeing the suffering people in plain sight all around us in Madison and Jersey City and all over the place  – what’s even worse than all that is not seeing the glory of God at work all around us.
            Aside from the formerly blind man, pretty much everybody else, all for their own reasons, misses the big, amazing thing: God has given sight to the blind man!
            In and through Jesus, God was at work in that place.
            And, yes, in only slightly less amazing ways, God is at work right here in Jersey City, in plain sight, if we bother to look.
            If you pass through Journal Square, you may have seen an old man who usually begs outside of Duane Reed, near the top of the escalators.
            He’s nearly always there, bent over, leaning on a cane, mumbling words that I assume are pleas for help.
            Seeing him as “Sad Bent-Over Old Homeless Man,” I think I’ve given him a dollar or two, and maybe some of you have, too.
            But, I’ve never talked to him. I don’t know anything about him.
            Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, on my way to the PATH train, I rounded that corner and I saw one of our neighbors talking with him. I stopped to watch, hoping that he wouldn’t notice me.
            It looked to me like this wasn’t their first conversation. They know each other. And, I bet that they know each other’s names.
            After a few moments of conversation, the neighbor placed his hand on the bent-over man’s shoulder, bowed his head, and said a prayer.
            Only after that did he place money in the cup and continue on his way.
            The bent-over man was right there in front of Duane Reed, right there in plain sight – and our neighbor saw him, saw him not as an obstacle or an annoyance or a cautionary tale but as a beloved brother.
            I’ll admit that in the moment I was both moved and a little ashamed, but as I’ve reflected on that scene, I’ve realized that I had the privilege of seeing the glory of God in plain sight right there at Journal Square.
            And, then there’s our parishioner, Gladys.
            Many of you know that this afternoon Jersey City Together is going to have an action here at St. Paul’s, describing the deplorable conditions in buildings owned by one of the largest landlords in our city – deplorable conditions that are sort of hidden until you look more carefully - then they’re right there in plain sight.
            Often, there’s no heat and leaking pipes, holes in the walls and ceilings, and mold in the bathrooms.
            Often, if tenants are even just a day or two late with rent, the landlord takes them to court forcing them to pay expenses for cases that are always just dropped.
            Often, longtime tenants are being forced out so the landlord can illegally raise the rents, and Jersey City continues to lose affordable housing.
            And, often tenants are retaliated against if they dare to complain about any of this.
            So much of this suffering goes on all the time. It’s so much of the backdrop of our city and our neighborhood that we may not even notice.
            Well, as many of you know, for months Jersey City Together has been investigating this landlord’s properties, gathering information on these terrible conditions.
            A couple of our parishioners have been very much involved with this, including Diane, who’s been using her realtor expertise, and Gladys, who’s been using her unpleasant personal experience as a tenant in one of these buildings.
            Despite some personal risk, on Friday morning Gladys attended a meeting with the landlord and Jersey City officials where we discussed these issues.
            And, at the action this afternoon, Gladys is going to stand up in front of the landlord (if she shows up) and I bet well over a hundred residents and she’s going to tell her story, shedding light on these deplorable conditions that, if we look, are in plain sight.
            On Friday, as I looked across the big conference table at Gladys, I realized I had the privilege of seeing the glory of God in plain sight right there in a brave woman determined to take the risk of speaking up for our neighbors who we may not notice, but who are actual people, much-loved sisters and brothers.
            It’s the Fourth Sunday in Lent, the Sunday when I wear rose (not pink!), rejoicing that it will soon be Easter.
            But, we still have a couple of weeks of Lent left, enough time to practice seeing the suffering that’s all around us, enough time to practice seeing the glory of God at work, all around us, in plain sight.