Homily for July 10, 2016
While on sabbatical, I spent a lot of time downtown. I was mostly in coffee shops reading, but occasionally I would take walks and explore a bit, just as I did when I visited other cities. I took day trips to Raleigh and charlotte and then visited Wilmington while on a trip to the beach. Each of those downtowns are quite different, but one thing that stands out in Greensboro is the kinetic energy produced by the constant sound of trains.
The days of regular hourly train travel may be long gone, but the freight trains run all hours of the day and night, and to spend time in downtown or anywhere near it is to be have a sense of the history and economy of this part of north Carolina. I can even hear one of those freight lines, off in the distance, from my house in Hamilton Lakes (I probably hear the line that runs down Market Street.)
The trains may bring energy and noise, but ultimately they are about prosperity. The moving of goods and services. The good fortune of businesses and cities placed at important connection points. The standard of living made possible by the things shipped on those trains.
In Greensboro’s case, the trains came in the 19th century and made our future prosperity possible. The textile industry was the economic heart of Greensboro for much of the last century (and vital to the life of St. Andrew’s, as many of our parishioners during that mid-century golden age were here because of the it – salesmen, secretaries, middle managers). And the textile industry was possible in Greensboro because of raw material, hydroelectric power, and trains: Greensboro had become something of a rail hub by the turn of the last century.
I want to point out how and why Greensboro became a rail hub, how this one piece of good fortune that enabled a bright middle class (white) future to unfold came to pass. The last spike of the North Carolina railroad was hammered into the ground in 1856 in what would become Hamburger Square (where Natty Green’s is), finally completing the rail connection between Charlotte and Goldsboro.
Now pull out your North Carolina maps. Notice what city is not particularly in the direct path between Charlotte and Goldsboro? That would be Greensboro. If geography were all that mattered, Sanford would have been a better choice. One major reason for that choice was John Motley Morehead, who after completing his tenure as governor in 1840 lobbied for the ultimate placement of the railroad connection to be placed in Greensboro.[i] Morehead, as you may know, lived at his estate at Blandwood, which is about three blocks from the railroad depot. The textile industry ultimately followed that decision; the placement of two interstate highways followed that decision a century later, and Greensboro’s livelihood continues to bear the fruit of those decisions made years ago. The roads (in this case a railroad) made prosperity possible.
This little history lesson is actually the importance of roads: they make commerce and travel possible, they make cities possible, but they’re more than that. I know that roads are meaningful things because scripture is absolutely filled with stories about things that happen on the road. Roads are places of risk, but they are also places of adventure. They can be fraught with danger, but they are also places where we really meet the stranger. We call this the story of the Good Samaritan, but perhaps we should instead call it The Road to Jericho.
Where else do roads show up in scripture? Much of the story of Abraham takes place on the road. Joseph and his brothers were refugees travelling to Egypt in search of food. Moses leads the Israelites for 40 years on the road. Jesus travels the roads of Galilee from town to town, and after his resurrection appears to his disciples on the road to Emmaus. He appears to Saul on the road to Damascus, blinding him and leading to his conversion. Jesus tells this story, of the man beaten and rescued on the road.
Scripture clearly has a certain regard for what happens on the road.
The history of our faith is also linked to the road. Jesus’ home was not some backwater: the eastern Mediterranean was a well-travelled and well- traded area. Jesus based much of his ministry in Capernaum[ii], a city on the Silk Road. Paul’s journeys took him throughout the region of the Mediterranean, travelling on the same trade routes that created prosperity; it was by those same roads and routes that the good news of Jesus first spread.
We read the story today, the road to Jericho, and we feel the danger of the road, the vulnerability of being on it, the apathy of the priest and the Levite who are just focused on themselves, and the grace and courage of the Samaritan who stops. This is of course a story to define what a neighbor is and is meant to underscore that the Samaritans – enemies, foreigners – can be better neighbors than the familiar, pious, appropriately righteous passers-by.
One colleague of writes that if we look at this story as challenging our apathy in the face of injustice (as we see in the priest and the Levite) we must also look at the road itself. How it got put where it is. Why the traveler is vulnerable and unsafe to begin with. How we made choices in ordering our world and then forgot that we did so, how these choices have diminished our vision of what it means to live as neighbors.
“Who is my neighbor?” asks the man wishing to justify himself. Neighbors are defined by neighborhoods; neighborhoods are given shape by roads. Roads are put in place by people with power. And once the roads are built, the people without power can be forgotten.
Sherrrilyn Ifill is president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education fund, and in an interview with Diane Rehm spoke of her work with an African American community in Salisbury, Maryland. In the 1990s she fought a plan to build a bypass to the resort town of Ocean City adjacent to that neighborhood. This was the third time in 60 years that this black community was to have a highway built through it or adjacent to it: Routes 50 and 13 had already bifurcated and devastated that community, making it an even more attractive (by that I mean devalued) target for this third highway.
This community had been, she said, literally “cut in half, with churches hanging on one side and residences on another side, in order to build this highway out to the beach. The irony, of course, is that when these highways were being built, African-Americans were not even allowed to actually be at Ocean City except on one prescribed day in September. So these highways were built for the convenience of whites and to support and invigorate the white middle class. And very often this was done at the expense of African-American communities.”[iii]
So this is history. Maybe we’re better, maybe we’re not. But the highways still stand, and the communities destroyed never recovered.
Who is my neighbor? According to the story, it is the one who dropped everything to care for the stranger in need. But a different view of this story shows us that most of our neighbors are absolutely invisible to us as we speed down the highway, in fact largely made invisible by the legacy of how we have ordered our world. You don’t have to worry about how you’ll respond to the wounded man – will I be the priest? The Levite? The Good Samaritan? – if you never actually put yourself on the same road that he travels. I would argue that it’s easier than ever to stay off that road, even though the suffering is still there. We just don’t hear it over our car radios.
The trains I hear at night are just far enough away to be lovely. As I lie down and get ready to sleep, the trains whistle out from a mile or so away and offer a quick reminder that the world continues to turn while I sleep. It’s a reminder that I live in a place with an active economy – struggling in some ways, but still a place where a lot of us do just fine. But it also tells me that between where I live and the tracks themselves there are a number of roads that I don’t travel so often, and homes that are not as fine as my own. There are, in the mile or two between those trains and me, a lot of people who suffer for lack of food and opportunity, for lack of access to the very economy made possible by those railroad tracks. Who is my neighbor? They are my neighbors as well.
The core of this story – and I find it to be as hopeful as it is challenging – is about rethinking some of the most basic things that we take for granted. Abandon your assumptions about who’s righteous and who’s selfish. Abandon any small world view that cannot see a neighbor in those beyond your immediate field of vision. And yes, abandon your faith in the legacies of this world – roads, structures, things that are supposed to serve everyone, but clearly don’t – and begin to ask: which neighbors aren’t we seeing? Who is hurting and broken just beyond the next turn in the road, and aren’t getting any better just because we don’t have to look?
Because it is there, in the places hidden from the comfortable, in caring for the wounds that were hidden from us in plain sight, that we find Christ. It is in those places of struggle and vulnerability and holy encounter that we find life.
The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, Proper 10, Year C, July 10 , 2016, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
[i] Schlosser, Jim. Hamburger Square has a Past, in 27 Views of Greensboro: The Gate City in Prose & Poetry. (Eno Publishers: Hillsborough, 2015.) 92.
[ii] According to the synoptic gospels