A Train Destined for the World: Servant Leadership in Christian Community
A sermon preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
On Service Sunday, May 17, 2015
At St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
I remember the first time I took a long distance train ride – over 30 hours aboard the Empire Builder from Devil’s Lake, North Dakota to Seattle, Washington. 30 hours in cramped seating, next to sweaty neighbors who appeared to not believe in the finer virtues of modern hygiene. 30 hours not counting the long delays for no apparent reason, stalled on the tracks watching station wagons going speeding past on the interstate:
“Ah, folks, ah this is your conductor, ah we’ve been advised our delay will be for another 30 minutes while the track crew replaces a relay outside of Spokane…our apologies for the delay. We’ll have you under way just as soon as we get the green light.”
30 hours getting nowhere fast while drunks from the bar car snore it off a few seats back, while somewhere too close at hand an amorous couple needs to get a room, where unsupervised teenagers roam and laugh and you can’t stretch out. 30 hours of prairie, of dead grass and gray skies and not even the occasional antelope sighting to break the monotony.
I remember that trip so well, and how, as I unfolded my cramped limbs from the train into the rain-fresh air of the Pacific Northwest, I vowed I would never travel long distance by rail again.
Trains travel today, like all forms of public transit, puts us in the closest possible contact with our fellow human beings in all their uncomfortable, inconvenient, impolite, and often painful lives. Communal travel like this is does not comport with our desire for autonomy and self-direction. As I stared out the window watching cars, often occupied by only one person, racing down the highway to their destination, sometimes outpacing our moving train, I rued the day I had romantically opted into this teeth-gritting, patience trying, disaster of a trip.
If I’m honest, even now when I take the Green Line to a baseball game, I still struggle to see the beauty of trains. In his most recent column for the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik contends that trains can be seen as a proxy in our national dialogue about collective good and individual autonomy. He writes, “A train is a small society, headed somewhere more or less on time, more or less together, more or less sharing the same window, with a common view and a singular destination.” I have to admit, I wish I could find the beauty in such an observation. Truth be told, I can get somewhere more or less on time, leaving 20 minutes later than the train, and not have to sit next to the smelly guy coming home from the gym.
I do not take well to those things that challenge my own sense of autonomy. So it is today that the gospel pushes so many of my buttons. You might not catch it at first glance. Jesus is offering his high priestly prayer, that sweeping portion of John’s gospel that falls right before his crucifixion and death. This is his grand goodbye, a summation of all that he has taught them and a final blessing before they are parted. And, two things stand out to me.
First, after acknowledging that the world is and will be a cruel place, Jesus prays not that his followers be taken from this world, just as he will soon ascend into heaven, but that God would protect them in the world. How many times stuck in traffic on my Monday commute or even in those few hours stranded on the tracks outside of Spokane, did I wish for my own personal helicopter to airlift me out of my predicament – I even contemplated jumping off the train and hailing a passing semi. And, how often do we, particularly those of us imbued by chance or luck at birth with the privileges of race or nationality or the financial resources of our families of origin, how often do we take advantage of our privileges to opt out of the suffering of the world – retreating into our safe neighborhoods, turning a blind eye on homelessness, and ignoring our own part in the common good? “Father I am not asking you to take them out of the world” Jesus prays.
Second, as Jesus asks not for our rescue from the world, he instead petitions for our sanctification – which is to say, that we might be set apart for a special purpose. And, what might that purpose be? As Jesus prays, he asks for our sanctification so that just as the Father sent him into the world, so he might also send us into the world. And, just as Jesus offered this prayer in the presence of all his gathered disciples, not with each of them individually, so are we sanctified and set apart, not as individuals being sent into the world alone, but as a community, with a common view of the world and a shared mission in it.
Though his farewell discourse and this high priestly prayer span several chapters in John, if we look back to the beginning of this conversation, we’ll find that we are hearing these words on Thursday night, before Jesus’ arrest and trial, and ultimately before his crucifixion and death. And, on that night, as Jesus dined with his disciples, his closest friends, the community he had called to follow him, he took off his outer robes, and wrapping a towel around his waist, he knelt and began washing their feet. “This” he said, “this is what your destination looks like and this is how your journey there will be marked. Service. Plain and simple – you will serve one another and you will serve the world in my name.”
And, this community we share and the common destiny we’re all headed towards, we aren’t coerced into being here. We boarded this train headed straight into the world, with all its suffering and need, and we’re on this train surrounded by all the discomfiting realities of life in an intentional community – surrounded by those who interrupt, like crying babies and noisy teens, surrounded by hypocrites and liars, by those who could use a few tips on hygiene and human interaction. This is us. These are the feet we’ve been called to wash first. And, then, take a look out your window. That world we’re headed straight into, it needs serving too. So, grab a towel, roll up your sleeves, its going to get messy.