June 23, 2013
On June 7, 1926, in Barcelona, Spain, an old man was struck by a tram (a single train car that runs on a track).
The driver realized he had run over someone, but when he noticed the man’s long white beard and matted hair, tattered jacket, and pants held on by a string rather than a belt, he just dragged the unconscious man to the curb and left him there, and drove off, not wanting to be late or get into trouble.
Just another homeless old man – no great loss. The man was unconscious, and carried no ID. Some people did try to get someone to take the severely injured man to a hospital. Several taxi drivers refused, but one finally agreed, after being pressured by a police officer, to take the critically injured man to the hospital for the poor. He languished in that hospital for a couple of days before anyone who knew him realized he was there.
The tram driver who ran him over, and most people who witnessed the accident, assumed this old guy was homeless and not worth noticing or worrying about.
Their assumptions couldn’t have been further from the truth. As it turned out, the old man was the world-famous, genius architect Antoni Gaudi, a modern day Leonardo DaVinci, a man who was in the process of building one of the most astounding buildings ever attempted, the famous Sagrada Familia, or Holy Family church in Barcelona.
Gaudi was a brilliant innovator and visionary whose techniques are still being copied today. The Sagrada Familia, an amazing structure, is still in progress. When it is finished, it will be the tallest church ever built – standing 560 feet tall!
Gaudi had designed many famous structures, but his life’s project – his passion, his dream, his calling — was the incredible Sagrada Familia. He was a profoundly devout man, so deeply committed to Christ and the Church that he was called “God’s architect.” Gaudi had said at one point: “A church is the only thing worthy of representing the feelings of a people, for religion is the highest thing in people.” When he was struck by the train he was on his way to offer his daily prayers and make his confession at St Philip Neri church.
As a young man, he had enjoyed dressing up, and opera and fine food. The older Gaudí ate sparingly, dressed in old, worn-out suits, and neglected his appearance to the extent that sometimes he was taken for a beggar. He became more and more devout – intensely spiritual and often a loner. He eventually began living in the construction site of the Sagrada Familia, which became known as the cathedral of the Poor.
Gaudi, mastermind of perhaps the greatest church structure ever undertaken in history, refused to be moved from the hospital for the destitute, saying “I belong here among the poor.” He died three days after being struck.
His unfortunate death and the callous way he was treated provide a bit of a warning about the way we tend to deal with those whom we assume are worthless or beyond the pale.
Not every homeless person who gets run over on the downtown eastside turns out to be someone famous. Mostly, the homeless become nameless, faceless non-entities and fade away into a kind of limbo from which it is almost impossible to return, like the man in today’s Gospel, for instance, consigned to the tombs. He had even lost his own name.
Every society has its ideas about who should be included and who should be excluded, and yet Christianity came along with a message and approach that said EVERYONE was welcome. Many of Jesus’ strongest teachings have to do with this opening of the heart to the marginalized, whether that was the poor, people of other religious groups, women, children, the sick, etc. Luke’s Gospel especially reminds us that Jesus’ approach was to welcome them home and offer them a place of belonging.
Paul echoed Christ’s approach in saying: “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. ….” For me it is one of the most defining statements of the Christian Faith. In a nutshell, it is what it means to be a Christian: being liberated from a divisive and narrow mindset into the vast compassion of God, which gathers all in. It says that we must move toward a vision in which the old divisions are constantly being overcome and left behind – toward a vision of oneness – universal koinonia – which is what the term “catholic” is supposed to mean.
Jesus looked at the way things were done in the world and told his disciples, “It must not be so among you.” So from the very first, Christianity said to the world: Being in Christ is a whole new way of being – throw out your old concepts. That is why the symbolism and ceremony of Baptism were so emphatic about dying to the old way of life – as if the Church were saying, from Day One, we don’t want any of those worldly, egocentric attitudes in this new society. This new community will not be divided the way the world is.
And yet again and again the church has failed to challenge societies which have lapsed into segregation and caste systems and oppression of women and mistreatment of the poor and even slavery – and it has condoned and even encouraged endless division within itself.
If Jesus were here today, one of the evils that he might cast out of our world is that tendency to dismiss people – the tendency not to care when people are pushed to the margins and beyond – the tendency to be concerned only about our own well-being. St Paul expressed the Christian view very well when he said, “When one suffers, all suffer.”
Simon and Garfunkel said “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls, echoing the sound of silence.” In our time there seems to be “sheer silence” when it comes to the voices of the poor – those at the margins. We don’t want to hear them – we don’t want to deal with them.
This past Friday was National Aboriginal Day, so we might also want to think of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada, for centuries now drifting around on the margins of the society that came to dominate the land they once owned. Governor General Romeo LeBlanc established the Day back in 1996, and yet virtually no jurisdiction in Canada observes it as a statutory holiday. This Fall, we are invited to enter into the Truth and Reconciliation process as our first nations continue to search for justice and recognition and healing.
In Abbotsford and Port Coquitlam in recent weeks, the authorities thought it was appropriate to deal with homeless people by dumping tons of chicken manure on the places where they are living. Classy, don’t you think? Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor” – so what are we saying when we condone the dumping of chicken manure on the places where the poor are attempting to find shelter?
I wonder what St Francis of Assisi, a mendicant for much of his life, might have said about that – or Jesus for that matter, who once said, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Obviously, that statement still holds true.
Take heart – all is not lost! Even great people are sometimes marginalized, and then they find a way back into the mainstream. In our first reading, the prophet Elijah, having run away into the desert to escape Queen Jezebel, hears the “Word of the Lord” saying to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” In other words, let’s not give up. And then Elijah has one of the most profound religious experiences recorded in the Bible. Renewed in his connection with God, he returns to prominence and helps rid the world of an evil, corrupt and oppressive king and queen. Let us never underestimate the influence even one faithful person can have, even when everyone else has abandoned ship – even when we ourselves just want to run away and give up.
Bhagavan Das, in his book It’s Here Now (Are You?) said: “I remember as a little boy . . . a man called “The Greeter” had a tremendous influence on me. He was a big man, like I am now, with a beard that went down past his waist, and he had long matted hair. He would stand on the side of the highway and wave, greeting people all day, every day.
He would beg for food. He lived in the woods in a cave in Laguna Canyon. He was a hermit and a true earth person.
As a little kid, I was completely fascinated by him and his lifestyle, He was like nothing else going on in America and I liked that” (It’s Here Now (Are You?) p. 11—12).”
Born Michael Riggs, raised as an Episcopalian, Bhagavan Das left the United States at 18 as a spiritual pilgrim. Inspired by an eccentric known only as “The Greeter,” Das would become a world traveler and holy man and has been a very influential teacher and author on spirituality.
I wonder if we realize that today, the church is pretty much in the position of the Greeter, as we are beginning to realize the degree to which we have already been marginalized – kicked to the curb — not taken into consideration on important matters of public policy and planning, abandoned even by our own members. Perhaps it is symbolic of the way the elderly have been marginalized, because we are largely a community of “elders.” But we can still serve a purpose and have confidence that we can continue to reach people, even if we are just standing here by the side of the road – a cheerful presence greeting those who pass our way.
We need the oddballs, the non-conformists; we need the jesters who mock our pretensions and priorities; we need to pay attention to those at the margins who seem to threaten us and ask ourselves why they trouble us so much, because maybe that’s more about ourselves than about them.
Who knows what we’re losing when we lose so many people, when we allow so many people to become marginalized, excluded, banished? Who knows how much less richer and more interesting our society might be — who knows what great gifts and creativity are being lost on a daily basis, as people slip through the cracks and into those places beyond our hearing and caring?
Antoni Gaudi’s great church, Sagrada Familia, itself stands as a reminder of the original Holy Family, who in trying to bring the life of Christ into the world, were given no hospitality, found no place at the inn, and had to birth Jesus in a cattle shed. Perhaps Jesus was so particularly gracious to those on the margins because he knew exactly what it was like to be there.
Society is in trouble when it stops listening to those voices and paying attention to the marginalized, and we in the church should sympathize more than most, because we are among those marginalized and ignored, even by people who would call themselves Anglicans. So every now and then, like Elijah, we need to stop letting the world set the agenda for us; we need to stop being intimidated, overwhelmed and impressed by all the power and noise of the world, and in the depths of our inner space, our silent places, our temples within, persist in listening for the still, small voice of the God whose voice is sheer silence. That voice, and that voice alone, is the voice that can call us back from the margins and empower us to be where God needs us to be.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
RCL appointed readings for Pentecost 5:
1Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.
Psalm 42 As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?” These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me. By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?” As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?” Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
Galatians 3:23-29 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Luke 8:26-39 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.
As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”– for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.
Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying,
“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.