Back with the good folks at Christ Presbyterian Church by the Sea today. The air smelled like the ocean; the gutters were filled with yellow leaves; and we kept our sweaters on in the chilly sanctuary. It’s fall, baby!
I originally preached this sermon at The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York (click here to listen or download the mp3) on Baptism of the Lord Sunday. It’s always a good day to talk about subways and baptism!
When I realized, over six years ago, that I was going to become a parent raising a child in the city, I immediately thought about what it would be like to travel on public transportation with a baby, and then a toddler, and all of the paraphernalia of parenthood. So I hoped fervently for a child, and then children, who would tolerate the subway, who would be able to abide the crowds and the stink and the noise that often accompany a subway riders’ journey. And I got two. Claire and Henry LOVE the subway. I mean, they really, really, love the subway. They know virtually the entire system, deciding, all on their own, how we will get from here to there and back again, according to an algorithm beyond my own understanding or pay-grade as a mother. When Claire was in nursery school, sometimes we had to take the 2 train to school, and only the 2 train would do; and she would wait patiently (more patiently than me) as a 3 train rumbled into the station and out again, leaving us alone on the platform. Sometimes we had to disembark at Nevins Street, when Claire had a hankering to ride the 4 train. When we were coming home from school on weekday afternoons, we had to take the Q, so that we could watch the boats cruise the East River and catch a glimpse of Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park from our high perch on the Manhattan Bridge. Claire and Henry know that the F train will take them to the really big tree and the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center during the holidays and the B will deliver us to the beach at Coney Island in the summertime.
And so, it comes as no surprise that one of their favorite books is entitled, appropriately enough, Subway Story. Jessie, the book’s main character, is a subway car, an R36 model first introduced for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, affectionately called a “redbird” for its distinctive red coloring and silver roof. Well, Jessie loved her life with the MTA. She adored shuttling passengers back and forth to their destinations, opening and closing her doors to welcome them aboard, racing through the tunnels all day and night. But as Jessie grew older, her smooth red coat became pockmarked and covered with graffiti, and her un-air-conditioned car was displeasing to passengers.
One gray morning, Jessie’s conductor failed to appear at the rail yard. She stayed in the yard as summer turned to fall, which turned to winter, then spring, and summer again. Until one day, Jessie’s windows were removed and her doors unbolted, and she was loaded onto a barge, stacked high with cars just like her- older cars, retired from service, having been replaced by the New Millennium R142A subway cars, sleek silver bullets with digital information boards and strip maps. The barge chugged slowly down the river and out past New York Harbor, and then out, out into the middle of the ocean. One by one, a crane on the barge began to pluck the cars from their stack, swinging them wide beyond the barge, and then PLOP! dropping them, unceremoniously, into the dark, deep waters. Before she knew what was happening, Jessie was picked up by the crane, swung wide beyond the barge and PLOP! She fell quickly, the cold water rushing into her open windows and doors, until she finally landed with a thud, on the bottom of the ocean.
Let me pause here with a spoiler alert- I am going to tell you how the story ends! But first I want to tell you that as I read this story to Claire and Henry, again and again, I become increasingly distracted by what I perceived to be Jessie’s angst and sadness as she moved further and further away from her old life, toward some unknown, unexpected, and perhaps unwanted, fate. This was not based on the book, of course, which is genuinely hopeful from beginning to end- it is a children’s book, after all, and I knew there would be a happy ending, but I felt a little bit sad, and little bit apprehensive, as I read it.
And, it occurred to me as I was reading (and let me pause again to say that Claire and Henry were not pleased when I stopped reading, caught in this reverie about Jessie’s life. “Mommy, READ!” they insisted more than once)… it occurred to me that Jessie’s story is not unlike our story, and that I had encountered, in this children’s book, an allegory for understanding some of the mystery and uniqueness of the Christian life.
The Christian life is, according to the stories we tell and the sacraments we celebrate, often about embarking on journeys with very little information, or participating in rituals that are shrouded in mystery. In the Gospels, Jesus instructs his disciples to be prepared to leave their home and family in order to receive the new home and the new family of God’s revealing, but does not tell them what that new home will look like, or who that new family will be. When we, as the church, celebrate the sacrament of baptism, we are invited, in the baptismal prayer, to die to our old life and be reborn into new life with Christ. And when we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we find our place cards set upon a new table that does not look immediately familiar, and with dining companions who might never show up at our own dinner parties. And it’s not really clear what all of this means, or how it will happen, or where we are headed, or what this new life will look like. But we are here, drawn by these stories; drawn to this person, Jesus; attached to this community; and longing for the new life God has promised.
There once was a church in Ephesus. Or not a church so much as a congregation. Or not a congregation even so much as a collection of individuals who met for a shared meal to tell stories about Jesus. This group of people, united not by the common bonds of vocation, or social status, or even longstanding religious affiliation, did not know exactly where they were headed, or what this new community of theirs would look like, or even how it would happen. There was no institutional structure, no hired leadership- only a rotating presence of wise men and women, tellers of the same stories about Jesus, who stopped through town to offer support, to share wisdom, to assist in the work of establishing a Way for living this new, unexpected life.
In Ephesus, there had been a man named Apollos; one of these traveling evangelist/disciples. He had a reputation- for eloquence, for scriptural knowledge, for oratorical acuity, for zeal. But Apollos had one glaring deficiency for all his gifts, according to the author of Acts. He knew only the baptism of John. He did not know, and therefore could not share, what Jesus had inaugurated at his own baptism, presided over by John but blessed and made complete by the Holy Spirit, who appeared as a dove and spoke those heartbreakingly tender words, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well-pleased.”
When Paul showed up in Ephesus and asked the members of the Ephesian church, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” The disciples responded, “We have never even heard of the Holy Spirit!” And right then and there, Paul set about baptizing those Ephesian disciples in the name of Jesus, and in that moment, as promised, the Holy Spirit showed up in that place.
Just like that- snap– the story goes, the old life passed away and the new life began.
Well, it is hard not to be a little envious of those Ephesian disciples. Though we may harbor no longing to experience ecstatic speech, there is something remarkably comforting in the solidity of the encounter, the tangibility of the baptism, the surety of what was taking place. To be gifted with articulation instead of fumbling speech. To be the recipients of the expansive, dynamic and inclusive winds of the Spirit that could lift us from places of ambivalence, awkwardness, or estrangement. To see the old life pass away for a new life, unexpected but not unwelcome. Who wouldn’t want to be one of those Ephesians? For truth be told, most days, there is no Spirit-wind stirring in the stillness of our lives- just dust motes hanging in the sunlight; the stale smell of a room with no open windows; the static sound of silence. We long for the presence of God- the solid, tangible, sure presence of the one who has promised to abide with us. We crave a recognizable end moment to the old life of emotional peril, physical deterioration, spiritual disorder- no more heartbreaks or heart surgeries, no more empty nests or nesting anxieties, just the gentle flutter of a dove’s wings, bearing the message that we are beloved and pleasing to God.
We receive, with this story- the gift of the Holy Spirit to sweep in upon us, when we are unsuspecting, unprepared, unknowing and maybe sometimes even unwilling, and to fill us with that expansive, dynamic and inclusive energy that is the fuel for our life together. The Spirit will blow the dust off our rusted frames; it will purge with fire the stale accumulations of our lives; it will immerse us in the waters and refresh us. The Spirit will make a home in us that is welcoming; it will inspire our discipleship; it will give breath to our prophetic voices; it will delight us and comfort us. But we must be willing to receive it. To open our windows and doors and allow it to flow through us, aware, as we must surely be, that change may not come easy, and it might very well be dramatic!
Have you been waiting for me to finish the story about Jessie the subway? Are you frustrated with my reverie, like my kids? Claire and Henry, poor things, are still pulling on my sleeve, instructing me to keep reading. You see, they haven’t been feeling the least bit sad or apprehensive. She is, with a child’s joy, curious to discover what new and unexpected life will be waiting for Jessie.
Well, I’ll tell you…
Jessie fell fast to the bottom of the ocean floor with a thud. She was cast into darkness, alone. But a little fish appeared, swimming through the open window frame, finding the water in Jessie’s car filled with tasty little things to eat.
Over the next few days, more fish decided to move in and live with Jessie. In the following weeks, shellfish settled inside and plants began to grow all over her. The bigger fish from the deeper parts of the ocean came …. Sometimes a dolphin or turtle would stop by to visit.
Tiny creatures clung to the same poles that people held on to when Jessie lived and worked aboveground. Hundreds of fish darting through the doors that people once used.
Instead of red and silver, she was now the color of living coral, of waving sea anemones, of other sea creatures who nestled in her nooks and crannies.
And just like that, Jessie’s new life had begun. Unexpected but not unwelcome.
Claire and Henry are satisfied with this story. For them, Jessie in the city’s tunnels and Jessie the living reef coexist without interruption or interference. There is a linear arc to the story, but it is optional. The same is true for us, if we are open to the possibility. The new life to which God calls us as a community of faith is not a line in the sand to be crossed over once and for all. It is an invitation, given again and again, received over and over, inaugurated time after time. That is our Christian life, after all, isn’t it? Unexpected but not unwelcome. There is more awaiting us than the daily grind of getting from here to there and back again. The good news is that there is life unexpected when we open ourselves to the Spirit, received, but not confined by, the rhythms and sacraments of our life together.
As someone once said, the perennial strategy of the Christian endeavor is to gather the folks, break the bread and tell the stories. In gathering, breaking, and telling, the Spirit is present, giving life and light and meaning to our shared enterprise. And so we do- we gather, we tell, and we break, in the unique and joyful mystery of our life together.
May it continue to be so. Amen.