Date: September 11, 2016
Title: “All Aboard!”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Ephesians 4:1-7, 14-16
The opening scenes of the film “Polar Express”, taken from the children’s book by the same name, show us a young boy who is awakened from a deep sleep by the sound of a train right outside his bedroom window. This is a remarkable occurrence, since previously there were not even any railroad tracks outside in the yard! So the boy gets up to investigate, goes out in the snow in his slippers and robe and is clearly gob-smacked, staring at this most unusual sight.
Down the track, the Conductor leans out over the steps and calls “All Aboard!” several times while the young man stand transfixed and wondering. Slowly the boy approaches the Conductor, who looks at him and says “Well, are you coming?” And all the boy can manage is a stammered, “Where?”
So today is “Rally Day” … and while there may not be a train right here right now, if you listen carefully; if you pay attention and open your heart, you just might hear God calling All Aboard! You might hear God calling, and you might recognize that God is waiting for your response.
That’s the thing about God, you know. The Holy Spirit shows up when we least expect it, in the deepest night or even in the brightest day. God extends an invitation and hopes that we will get on board. But then the question always comes back to us… Are you coming?
Whether we are getting on board the peace train or the freedom train, the love train or the Jesus train, whether we are riding the Underground Railroad or watching for that sweet chariot to take us home, the truth is we are not going anywhere until we find it in ourselves to answer that question in the affirmative. Yes… we are coming along. Yes! We want to get on board!
Do you remember the movie “Planes, Trains & Automobiles”, in which Steve Martin plays a harried executive, trying to make it home for Thanksgiving, who encounters a series of travel nightmares alongside a rather difficult character played by John Candy? As the movie begins, an epic snowstorm has grounded all air travel, so these two strangers, who are going to the same place, decide to rent a car and drive to their destination. Just when it looks like this might be the answer to their problem, Candy’s character inadvertently drives the car onto the wrong side of the freeway. Drivers on the other side of the highway – where he should be driving – try to warn them. They honk their horns and they roll down their windows, leaning out to yell “You’re going the wrong way!”
But Candy just laughs, turns to Martin, and says, “They must be drunk. How do they know where we are going?”
The Scripture we read this morning from Ephesians is similarly trying to help us on our way. he author (probably not Paul but someone writing in his name) gives us specific instruction about the “right way”, telling us to Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…
Eugene Peterson paraphrases this passage with these words:
I don’t want anyone sitting around on your hands. I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes nowhere. And mark that you do this with humility and discipline – steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences.
Going the right way means saying “yes” to the invitation to get on board, and then recognizing that you are not on the train all by yourself. Ephesians puts it plainly:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God of all, who is above all and through all and in all…
Bishop Will Willimon, when asked to put the whole of the Gospel message into 7 words or less, said this: God refuses to be God without us. He goes on to suggest:
We asked God to say something definite and God got personal, sending us Jesus Christ. We were surprised; God was other than we imagined.
And we continue to be surprised because God repeatedly goes beyond our expectations, outside our imaginations, and takes us to places we didn’t even know we wanted to go. Again, in Willimon’s words:
We can’t make God into whatever we please. God is better than omnipotent, omniscient, or any other high-sounding abstraction. God is love embodied in Jesus … and also in us.
If God refuses to be God without us, then we can hardly expect to be God’s children without one another. Again, in Peterson’s paraphrase:
You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly…Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness. But that doesn’t mean you should all look and speak and act the same! Out of the generosity of Christ, each of us is given his/her own gift…
Each of us has a seat on God’s train. And God is asking today, “Are you coming?” How quick we are to answer that question with one of our own as we stammer, “Where?” We would like to know exactly what we are getting into, precisely where we are headed before we say “yes” to God, before we sign on the dotted line or commit ourselves to the journey.
It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if getting on God’s train – accepting the Spirit’s invitation to live out of our truest selves – meant a lifetime of nothing other than peace and love and joy? It would be nice, but it wouldn’t be real. Climbing on board God’s train does not guarantee anyone a smooth ride all of the time. And when you hit those hard patches – when your marriage, or your health, your job or your friendships go “off the rails”, when the whole world feels as if it is plunging down into some kind of abyss, as if things are out of control and we are powerless to stop the momentum… the best thing you can do is to hang on tight.
About halfway through the Polar Express movie there is a scene where the engineer loses control of the locomotive. As it begins to careen wildly at a dangerous speed, the children ask the Conductor what is happening and how they will survive. And the conductor responds by saying:
Since it appears that we have lost communication with the Engineer, and we are standing totally exposed on the front of the locomotive, the train appears to be accelerating uncontrollably, and we are rapidly approaching the steepest decline in the whole world, I suggest we hold on tightly!
We don’t all have to think or act or look or speak the same to understand the one gift we have in common – God’s love and Christ’s abiding presence. When you feel like the train of your life is unexpectedly and uncontrollably accelerating, and you can see the steepest downward grade in the world rushing to meet you; when you feel most vulnerable, most exposed and afraid, I suggest that is the perfect time to hold on tightly to one another, and to God!
In the end, that is what it means to respond to the invitation and let God know “Heck yes, I’m coming! All aboard!” Come what may, I know I can hold on tightly, because God is holding on just as tightly to me… and also to you. Thanks be to God! Amen.