Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Tree

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 30, 2017

Year A, Proper 12: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 3:5-12
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The Tree
            I’ve mentioned to you before that one of my most favorite things is to show off St. Paul’s to people who are here for the first time.
            As you may remember from when you first walked through our front doors, people almost invariably ooh and ah when they first walk in here, marveling at the magnificent woodwork and how beautiful and well-preserved it all is.
            And, it’s not just the church building.
            This year especially we’ve been getting a lot of compliments on the garden, and a few neighbors have even been so inspired that they’ve offered help with planting, and tilling, and watering.
            As you know, last week we were joined by the wonderful choristers from Trinity Church in Los Alamos, who were last here four summers ago – a lot of water under the bridge for them, and for us here at St. Paul’s.
            In fact, their visit got me thinking of all the changes that have happened here since their last visit.
            First of all, we were a lot smaller back then – many of you weren’t even part of our community the last time they were here.
            And, yes, at the same time, there were people here then who are gone now – people who have died, or become too frail, or moved away, or decided this wasn’t the place for them, or who just drifted away from the church.
            Four years ago, there was no choir and there was no Gail (at least not here at St. Paul’s!).
            There was no Sunday School and no air conditioning in the church (the choristers, not used to our humidity, were particularly happy about that improvement!).
            We still had the old, worn red carpet and the dangerously broken front stairs.
            It’s a lot of growth and change in a small time.
            We’ve been blessed.
            At one point during the choir’s visit last weekend, after having been out walking the streets for a while, their director, John Singleton, observed that St. Paul’s is a wonderful oasis in the city.
            And so it is, right?
            That having been said, these old buildings and the grounds require a lot of effort, a lot of sweat and, yes, a lot of money, to keep them looking good and serving our parish and the community so well.
            And, sometimes things go wrong.
            For example, on Wednesday afternoon I went downstairs into the rectory basement and discovered a pond covering about a quarter of the floor: water was spurting from a leaky pipe.
            The plumber arrived and painted a bleak picture, saying it might be necessary to dig up the yard in front of the rectory as well as part of the sidewalk and even the street, which would then need to be re-paved.
            My heart sank, but we had no choice to proceed.
            But, sometimes things work out and by Thursday afternoon the plumber announced that he had been able to solve the problem and that he had saved us “ten thousand dollars.”
            I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ll take it!
            Let the people say, “Amen.”
            And then there were the raccoons.
            As some of you know, a while back a group of raccoons (a group of raccoons is called “a gaze,” by the way. I looked it up!), a gaze of raccoons managed to gnaw their way into the crawlspace at the top of our church tower, where they settled into their own private Duncan Avenue condo, making themselves at home, and making a very big mess.
            And, as you might guess, it turns out that it’s no so easy to dislodge a gaze of raccoons from such prime real estate.
            In fact, because raccoons are not only cute but really smart and clever, it requires experts and a lot of time and effort and, yes, money to get them out and keep them out – and to clean up after them.
            You know, in a natural environment, raccoons often live in the hollows of trees – and so, to the raccoons, our beautiful, old, and wooden, St. Paul’s was just another tree – bigger than some but certainly not the biggest.
            To the raccoons, St. Paul’s was simply a tree, standing ready to offer them shelter from the hard life of the city.
            Well, of course, we’re not raccoons or birds, for that matter, but our church, with all of its many branches, offers us shelter, too – offers us a safe place to make our spiritual nest – a safe place to discover and cherish and nurture the treasure that is God’s kingdom.
            Yes, like a gaze of raccoons, some of us will sometimes make a mess here in our tree – sometimes a literal mess like what the kitchen occasionally looks like after coffee hour or some other event, but more often a spiritual mess caused by us not being as welcoming or as loving or as forgiving as we ought to be, as we know we should be.
            But, unlike how we had to deal with the adorable but destructive raccoons, we don’t drive away our brothers and sisters from our tree – no matter how much of a mess they – or we – make.
            Just the opposite, actually.
            No, we’re called to slide over a bit, to make a little more room in our tree, to even make a little more room on our own individual branch, to make a little more room for whoever shows up, messy or not.
            We’re called to make a little more room for the people out there who are still looking for a beautiful oasis in an often hard city, the people who still seek the treasure that is God’s kingdom, the treasure that can be found right here, in our tree.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Bad Farmer

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 23, 2017

Year A, Proper 11: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 44:6-8
Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

 Bad Farmer
            Two Sundays in a row now we’ve heard agricultural parables from Jesus – and in both cases Jesus describes practices that would drive any self-respecting farmer or gardener absolutely bananas.
            I read one commentator who pointed out the bad farming practices in these parables and joked that maybe Jesus should stick to carpentry and leave farming to the experts!
            Anyway, if you were here last week, you may remember we heard what’s usually called the “Parable of the Sower,” where Jesus describes a sower dropping precious seeds all over the place – on good soil, yes, but also on rocky soil and even among the thorns.
            We said anyone who wasted all those seeds would be fired from any farm – and would even be encouraged, gently, to step down from our own gardening committee here at St. Paul’s.
            And now, today, we heard another agricultural parable with even more bad farming practices.
            We’re told that a sower sowed good wheat but an “enemy” came along at night and sowed weeds in the same field.
            The slaves notice the weeds growing up and suggest to the master a wise course of action: gather up the weeds.
            This would be the way to go because as any farmer or gardener knows, weeds can choke the “good” plants – and, on top of that, if the weeds aren’t rooted out they will spread even more “bad” seeds and in the end you’ll be left with a field of weeds.
            But, the master doesn’t go along with this wise course of action – and for an interesting reason – pulling up the weeds would also involve pulling up the wheat – it’s not always so easy to separate wheat and weeds – and, maybe, as a lot of gardeners know, sometimes it’s not even easy to tell them apart.
            No, instead, the master chooses to wait until the harvest, when the wheat and the weeds can be separated and, we’re told, the weeds will be burned.
            Bad farming.
            Now, this may sound strange to you, but as I thought about this parable, I was reminded of my teaching days – especially the first few days of the school year.
            In September, as each class would file into my room, I’ll admit it, I would size up my students.
            I hesitate to mention this, because I know most of our teachers and kids aren’t quite ready to think about school, yet, but…
            In those first few classes of the new school year, I’d be looking out at their faces and their body language, trying to get a sense of who’s going to be a pleasure to teach – and who’s going to be a pain in the...
            Some kids looked very alert, very sharp, seeming to hang on every word, nodding along with me, furrowing their brows as they pondered the “profound wisdom” I was offering them, and, of course, laughing at my jokes.
            And, then, there were others who, right from the start, looked bored out of their minds, staring out the window, or horsing around with the kids next to them, and, not only not laughing at my jokes, but rolling their eyes at what seemed to them the stupidest stuff they had ever heard in their life.
            In some ways, I – and maybe you, too – do the same thing here in church.
            New people arrive and we try to size them up. Do they seem into it? Does it seem like they’ll fit in with the rest of us? Are they attentive in worship? Do they laugh at the priest’s jokes?
            Others seem to pay no attention at all, seem to be here only because someone is making them be here, don’t seem like they would fit in with the rest of us, and don’t even crack a smile at the priest’s jokes!
            Well, the lesson I’ve learned over and over first as a teacher and now as a priest, is that I’m terrible at telling wheat from weeds.
            Some of those kids nodding along with me and laughing at my jokes turned out to be not paying much attention at all, and some turned out to be royal pains in the…neck.
            And others who seemed checked out and un-amused turned out to be listening to every word and thinking and learning, and turned out to be wonderful students.
            And, the same thing at church.
            Quite a few times, new people have arrived and I’m sure that they’re going to love it here and fit right in and become longtime members of our community – and then we see them maybe once or twice but never again.
            And, others come who don’t seem into it, who don’t seem like they’ll fit in, and it turns out they enrich our community in ways that we could have never predicted.
            So, it turns out, we’re not so good at distinguishing wheat from weeds.
            Which is just as well, because that’s not our job.
            It’s God’s job to distinguish the wheat from the weeds – not ours.
            And, now, since we’re among friends, I’m going out on a limb a little, and you don’t have to agree with me on this, but here goes:
             I think maybe in God’s eyes there are, in fact, no weeds at all.
            For farmers and gardeners, “weeds” are just plants that we don’t want or we think don’t serve any real purpose – and, yet, often enough we discover that these “weeds” have surprising and beneficial gifts for us.
            And, one thing I’ve learned first as a teacher and now as a priest, is that often the even the “weediest” people have surprisingly good gifts for us, or, at the very least, are carrying around very heavy burdens that should make us feel compassion for them, should make us love them.
            And, of course, and I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but it’s entirely possible that there are people out there, or even in here, who see us, not as wheat but as weeds!
            So, it seems to me that if we are able to see goodness even in some pretty weedy people, then God is certainly able to see it, too.
            And, yes, like in the parable, maybe some day in the future, God really will separate the weeds from the wheat.
            But, for now anyway, the God who wastes all of those seeds and the God who lets the weeds grow up with the wheat – this God has chosen to be a pretty bad farmer.
            And, that, my friends, is very good news for us all.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Sweet Wine of God's Love

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 16, 2017

Year A, Proper 10: The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65:9-14
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The Sweet Wine of God’s Love (Or, Lessons Learned on a Summer Vacation)
            As many of you know, for most of the past two weeks, Sue and I were away on vacation out West.
            It was the longest trip we’ve taken in quite a while, and, in fact, even a little longer than we had planned since our return flight was first delayed and finally canceled, forcing us to spend one more night in a hotel, courtesy of United Airlines.
            Aside from that mishap, it was a pretty good and restful trip.
            One of the highlights was the day we spent on a bus tour of wineries in Sonoma and Napa Counties, just outside San Francisco.
            Much of California’s wine is produced in these almost indescribably beautiful places – so beautiful that, truthfully, I would have been perfectly happy just riding around on the bus just looking at the scenery, at the rolling hills covered with row after row of grape vines.
            But, we did get off the bus and toured three of the wineries, listening to the wine growers describe their work – and, yes, getting to sample a little bit of their work, too.
            Our favorite winery was the first one we visited, a relatively small “boutique” winery that doesn’t even sell its wine in stores, just to people who subscribe to their club or who, like us, stop by for a tour and tasting.
            I always enjoy meeting people who take their work – their craft - so seriously, who are excited (or, at least, seem excited) by what they do, even if they’ve been at it for a long time.
            So, it was fun to listen to these craftspeople enthusiastically share with us all the care that goes into growing the vines and producing their wines.
            Most interesting of all, at this first winery we visited we had the chance to actually walk into the vineyard, to see for ourselves the vines, all planted by hand and yet perfectly spaced and so straight, to hear how this particular winery doesn’t use any pesticides or artificial fertilizers, that they care for the plants and cultivate the soil the old fashioned way, producing grapes so fine and tiny they looked more like peas than the grapes we buy at Shop Rite.
            It was a fascinating and kind of moving experience to hear about – and to actually see - the care taken to plant all of those seeds, row after row after row, and the care given to nurture them into strong vines.
            Now, at this point, if you’re still with me, you may be thinking that you see where this is going: that God is like those vineyard workers, carefully planting seeds in good soil.
            But, actually, the parable we heard today from Jesus, tells us otherwise – and, I think, our own experience tells us otherwise, too.
            It turns out that God is not careful with God’s seeds at all – God is almost, we might say, wasteful – dropping seeds all over the place, planting God’s Word in good soil and not so good soil.
            God would get fired from any self-respecting winery – and might even be gently and respectfully asked to step away from our own garden committee here at St. Paul’s!
            It turns out that God doesn’t really discriminate. God hopes for the best, generously offering God’s Word all over the place, offering the Word where it is likely to be well-received and offering God’s Word where it is likely to be rejected and wither away.
            So, since God has chosen to be this kind of sower, it’s most important for us to cultivate our own soil – and to cultivate the soil around us – so that God’s Word can really take root and, in our lives, we can truly produce the sweet wine of God’s love.
            With God’s help, we cultivate our own soil by carving out even just a few minutes for prayer and, especially, by coming here, week after week, even when we don’t feel like it, especially when we don’t feel like it.
            And, with God’s help, we cultivate our own soil and the soil around us by welcoming and loving and giving and, maybe most and hardest of all these days, appreciating and sharing the beauty and goodness that’s all around us.
            And, in fact, when you really do look around, you see there really is a whole lot of cultivating going on!
            Here at St. Paul’s, we’ve grown ever more welcoming and loving and generous – and we’ve just plain grown, with more people coming here more regularly, enriching us all as we pray and serve together, as we love God and one another.
            And, even out in our broken world, there’s a lot of cultivating going on out there, too.
            Being a bit of a news junkie, I kept up with current events even while on vacation. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that!
            For the past couple of weeks and, really, for many months now, most of us, no matter where we stand politically, have been engrossed by the doings of the President and his family.
            But, this week, a former President managed to make the news.
            Now, Jimmy Carter may not have been a great President, but he has certainly been our greatest former president ever, devoting the four decades of his long post-presidency not to enriching himself but to doing many good works, very much including Habitat for Humanity, cultivating soil for people by building new homes, creating a chance at a new and better life.
            So, there he was the other day, 92 year-old Jimmy Carter, recently recovered from brain cancer, hard at work building houses in Winnipeg, Canada, when, as you may have heard, he was overcome by dehydration and hospitalized.
            All the usual expressions of concern and hopes for a speedy recovery were issued and I’m sure newspapers and cable news dusted off their Carter obituaries, just in case this was the end of the road for the peanut farmer with the toothy grin from Plains, Georgia.
            But, no, as you may have seen, the next day, presumably pumped full of fluids, Jimmy Carter was back at work, cultivating soil by building a house for those in need and offering a powerful example, once again, of what it looks like to produce the sweet wine of God’s love.
            Speaking of wine, one last thing about our winery tour.
            Our bus driver was an older gentleman, an Irishman named Tom McDonough. He drove the bus and also along the way he offered running commentary over the P.A., telling us in his lilting brogue about the history and geography and economy of the wine country.
            Aside from the pleasant Irish accent, that’s all very standard for this kind of tour but what struck both Sue and me was how, after leading this tour probably many, many times, he still took such delight in what he and all of us were seeing and experiencing that day, admiring the rolling hills covered with row after row of vines, wondering at the beauty of the sunlight hitting San Francisco Bay as we drove over the magnificent Golden Gate, insisting that he really wanted us all to have just the most wonderful time.
            Mr. McDonough made such an impression on us that we referred back to him for the rest of the trip, imagining what Tom McDonough would say, especially when things didn’t go quite as we had planned.
            So, as we waited and waited for our delayed flight we imagined Tom saying something like, “Look at all these beautiful people here at the airport, so many eager to get to their destinations and reunite with their loved ones.”
            Or, “This long delay has given us an unexpected opportunity to explore the airport and discover all it has to offer!”
            And when our delayed flight became a canceled flight, we thought of Mr. McDonough expressing delight, “Isn’t it marvelous that we’ve been given a little more vacation?”
            Or, “What a treat that we get to experience another hotel, courtesy of United Airlines!”
            It may seem weird, but in his own seemingly small but actually very powerful way, Tom McDonough the bus driver cultivated the soil of our hearts, helping us to better appreciate the goodness and wonder of life even when things don’t go quite as planned.
            So, you know, maybe surprisingly this God of ours doesn’t really discriminate. God hopes for the best, generously offering God’s Word all over the place, offering the Word where it is likely to be well-received and offering God’s Word where it is likely to be rejected and wither away.
            Since God has chosen to be this kind of sower, it’s most important for us, with God’s help, to cultivate our own soil – and to cultivate the soil around us – so that God’s Word can really take root and, in and through our lives, we can truly produce the sweet wine of God’s love.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

The Ongoing Redemption of the World

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 2, 2017

Year A, Proper 8: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

The Ongoing Redemption of the World
            It’s funny the things you remember, right?
            Years ago I happened to read an article written by an atheist. I don’t remember exactly what the piece was about but I remember that in it he declared that, of course, he didn’t believe in God, but that even if there were a God, this God would have long ago gotten bored by our predictability and disgusted by our bad behavior, and gone off somewhere and left us on our own.
            And you can kind of understand why he felt this way, right?
            I can almost imagine God getting fed up with us, particularly these days when our old and persistent sins of hatred and greed and cruelty and bigotry all seem to be very much on the loose.            
            Especially if you watch the news a lot, it can all seem quite depressing and hopeless.
            But, our faith and, I’d argue, our own experience, teach us that God has not given up on us, but that instead God continues to be at work in large ways and especially in seemingly small and easy to miss ways, doing what God always does, transforming hate into love, turning death into new life.
            In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus points to the infinite value of even small acts of generosity, even the simple act of offering a cup of cold water.
            And, so God invites us to be part of the great work of transforming hate into love and turning death into new life, one cup of cold water at a time.
            It’s funny, the things you remember.
            Back in the early to mid-1990’s I taught History at St. Vincent Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school right in the middle of the Central Ward of Newark.
            I remember very well when I went there for my interview.
            I remember riding the bus from Penn Station up Market Street, looking out the window at block after block of rubble-strewn lots, a city that had barely begun to recover from the 1967 riots and economic collapse.
            It all looked as hopeless as could be.
            What was I getting myself into, I wondered.
            Well, anyway, my interview that day was the longest and still the best of my life.
            I spent much of the day talking with Sister June who was - and still is - the head of the school.
            She told me the story of St. Vincent’s - the story of how back in the late ‘60s, when pretty much everyone who could get out of Newark was getting out of Newark, when schools and other institutions were closing or fleeing to the suburbs, the Sisters of Charity and their coworkers made the brave and faithful commitment to stay in the city and offer a quality education to the girls of Newark and the surrounding towns, girls, who, let’s just say it, the world dismissed as really not worth much effort at all.
            But, through the grim days of the 1970s and 1980s and into the 1990s, the faculty and administration of St. Vincent’s offered love and respect and, maybe most important of all, high expectations, to hundreds and hundreds of girls.
            One cup of cold water, at a time.
            It was an honor to play a small part in that holy and noble effort and, now, thanks the miracle of Facebook, I’ve been able to catch up with quite a few of the girls I taught back then.            
            To be honest, it’s a little shocking that they’ve begun to enter their forties!
             But, it is deeply moving to see many of them doing so well, now raising their own beautiful families and, most of all, it is gratifying that so many of them are involved in work that makes the world a better place: teachers, doctors, nurses, scientists, lawyers committed to social justice, one after the other, so many of them, each in her own way, handing out cups of cold water to the so very thirsty people of their communities.
            And, look what’s happened to Newark!
            Today, if you take that same bus up Market Street that I took twenty-five plus years ago, the rubble-strewn lots have been replaced with rows of townhouses and new businesses and schools. It’s not perfect by any means but where there was hopelessness and death, there is now new life.
            Now, I’m not saying that this is because of St. Vincent’s, but I’m not saying it’s not because of St. Vincent’s, either.
            One more memory from my long-ago interview:
            Amid all the discussion of history and teaching, Sister June slipped in a little Theology, as well.
            She said that she saw her work and the mission of the school as part of “the ongoing redemption of the world.”
            “The ongoing redemption of the world.”
            As Christians, we believe that through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus redeemed the world, freed the world from sin and death.
            This work is already done, but it is not yet completed, since, as the atheist writer pointed out, and as we can all see with our own eyes, things are still pretty bad, sin and death are still very much on the loose in the world.
            And, that “not yet completed” part is where we come in.
            We’re called to live like we really believe what we say we believe.
            We called to live like sin and death are really defeated and that, ultimately, thanks be to the God who doesn’t give up on us, love and life win.
            And, that’s the way of life that beautiful little Isabell is about to get signed up for in the water of Baptism, that’s the way of Jesus that we all signed up for, or got signed up for, in our Baptism.
            When we share the Good News, when we forgive and ask forgiveness, when we love and respect one another especially the hard to love and the hard to respect, when we give away our lives in service to others, then love and life really do win.
            Like those brave and faithful nuns and the other teachers at St. Vincent’s back in the seemingly God-forsaken Newark of the late ‘60s, with God’s help, Isabell and all of us can decide to play our own seemingly small but oh-so-important part in the ongoing redemption of the world, right here, offering one cup of cold water at a time.