All Aboard! There’s a Train Coming!

“Today, my life has changed”
“Today, my life has changed”

At least 17 times, this line was stated to me, in a receiving line, you know that greeting line after a worship service, in a small Episcopal Church in Northern Indiana by a group of college students.
Some of them reached out their hands to shake my hand with a smile that could light up a room.
Some of them stood in awe, not sure how to process the moment,
while others had tears rolling down their faces and leaned in for a hug.
“Today, my life has changed”
A couple years ago, I was called to be a preacher and teacher in Indiana for a long weekend.
Over three days, I toured various parts of The Diocese,
I Led workshops discussing baptism…the importance of living out our Christian Vocations…speaking about what it means to be disciples in today’s world—what it means to be doing the work of reconciliation in today’s world, which also required us to acknowledge that there is brokenness and needs for healing and reconciliation in today’s world.
And on the last day, I gathered with one of the local congregations and served as a guest preacher.
I had never been to this part of Indiana before,
I didn’t know what to expect. But, David, one of my hosts and tour guides, promised that he would show me all that I needed to see to get a good understanding of the town.
And that, well, he did.
He showed me every grocery store, gas station, and places of his childhood.
From the moment that David picked me up from the airport, he began identifying all of the vacant factories…places that were once the center of this city, which now stood as capsules of a past life.
We passed empty schools, as he explained how the enrollment had gotten so low, that they had to consolidate.
We saw massive mansions….and neighborhoods where each and every home had been boarded up and abandoned.
“I had no idea the city was like this”, I said to David.
“yes, (he responded) all we have these days are two large evangelical universities, and a hospital system. No one wants to stay here. No one wants to come here. I’m not sure what our future has in store”
As we continued to drive down the streets, where all the traffic lights dangled, blinking red lights, David, said, that he had one more place that he had to show me.
And as he pulled up to two large buildings, he placed the car in park, and then got out.
“Where are we, David?”
This right here is the County Court House, and on the other side of the street is the County Jail.
Now St. Paul’s, I have to admit, out of the many places that I have traveled, and the tours that I have taken, this was a first that a county jail and courthouse made the list.
“SOOO This must be the town square? I asked, David”
“Well, what’s left of it” he responded. There’s a plaque over there if you want to go check it out.
I was extremely confused; I wasn’t sure why David had brought me here. Someone who had told me every detail about the grocery stores, and abandoned buildings…all of a sudden was silent.
our tour just changed.
So, as I walked around the courthouse towards the plaque I noticed, what narrative David wanted to share with me, but, didn’t want to speak of.
I was standing on Holy Ground.
The plaque read: “August 7th, 1930, the Lynching of J. Thomas Shipp and Abraham S. Smith” The story told that the two were removed from jail cells, beaten, and hung outside of the courthouse by a mob of thousands.
As I walked back to David, I said: “I had no idea this happened”.
He began to speak again:
“I figured. That’s why I brought you here.
Now, I can be real with you.
We are tired of talking about this. And I sure hope you don’t try to preach about it while you are here.
But, I also know that racism is very much still alive here, and so is homophobia. There are quite a few people that are not happy that you are here in this town—word travels fast.
But, as you settle in tonight, call me if you need me.”
It was in that moment when fear hit me,
Questions started running through my mind:
Where am I?
What is going on?
Don’t talk about racism and homophobia? Don’t talk about the two prisoners, that were crucified, in this town square?
People aren’t happy that I am here?
God, what am I doing here?
Should I leave?
But, I knew I had to stay…
I knew I was there for a purpose.
I had to be in this place of discomfort,
I was here… Now, what am I going to do? What do I say?
As the time went on, I began to learn even more about the darkness that this city was facing, the struggles, and the pain, and the hopes that lie in the hearts of many.
There was a deep need for disciples to be at work.
And as the morning of worship came about, the church was filled with people from all ages and various races.
The rector approached me and pointed to a group of about 17 college students and said “they come from our two neighboring universities. They tend to leave right after the service because, they aren’t supposed to worship anywhere except for on campus soo don’t take offense if they leave.
But, then even more college students began to come in. filling the right side of the Church entirely.
As the organ began to play:
the rector, called out my name and said: “I want to thank you for being here today. It has meant a lot to have you in town this weekend…and I believe you are the first black person to ever preach from this pulpit, and probably the first openly gay person.
Your life is the message that is going to change lives.
“Today, my life has changed”
“Today, my life has changed”
Following my sermon, at least 17 young adults approached me, with many standing behind them, telling me that they had never seen a preacher who looked like them before.
17 young adults approached me telling me:
That they had never seen a preacher who loved like them before.
That they had never heard a theology, that accepted them before.
And as the crowd began to grow bigger, we moved into a quieter room, where these students began to share about their college experiences.
The reasons why they attend the schools that they do—even if their theology doesn’t support them.
One student mentioned the fear of losing the support of their family if they were to come out as gay.
(And other students chimed In, saying that they fear the same)
One student was fearful to share that as a woman she felt called to the ministry; on a campus, that still believed that there is no such thing.
(And other students nodded their heads, agreeing with such a testimony)
And one young man said I’m afraid, that even now, I might be just like Thomas and Abraham and be made as a criminal, by the those who live in this town, those who I attend school with, by those who teach me and those who I am forced to worship with in daily chapel on campus.
And as I began to cry, hearing these students tell their stories, to share their pain, for over an hour
The voice of one student then said….” When I am on campus, I’m in the wilderness…
But, this Church,
This Episcopal Church,
is my sanctuary,
this Church,
is my hope but is also a place, that is protested all the time, for being a symbol, of what people in this town mock,
this Church is where I feel loved, and am promised that in the midst of the pain, God is here with me,
…and today, that grew even stronger for me.
I realized that God truly is here with me.
“Today, my life has changed”

On this second Sunday of Advent, we are called to Turn our lives in the direction of Christ. We
are called to prepare ourselves, our world, our Church for the arrival of Emmanuel, The God
among us, the King of Hope and Prince of Peace, that comes to change our world….change that begins by transforming and changing each of us.

And along the way of this journey, here in The Gospel of Luke, we meet John The Baptist in a
time when he is preparing for his ministry in the world.
– He is in the desert, a place that we know from scripture where we know God’s presence
has been made known to many. A place where many are facing times of temptation,
doubt and if we think about it, might be physically uncomfortable.

– And John receives the message to go forth to preach and proclaim a baptism of
Repentance in a world, in a place, that is uncomfortable.

Now, this is not the baptism ritual and understanding that we practice here at this fond that brings us into new life through the baptism of Jesus Christ, a baptism that unites us as the body of Christ…
– This Baptism, is a preparation, it’s a cleansing, it’s a time for us to repent, to turn our
lives around facing in the direction of our God. Turning to walk and live in The Way of
Love. A Baptism that is rooted in the acknowledging and then moving to forgiveness of
our sins.
– A baptism that makes us available to receive the life of Christ into our lives.
– This baptism is our Advent, it’s our Lent, it’s the path we make as we walk into the doors
of this building, the path that we take as we walk up to this altar, it’s the path that we
make as we prepare to make our way to that font.
– A baptism that even our brother, Paul references in The Epistle today as he writes to the
Church of Philipi as he encourages them all to open themselves, to change their lives, to
redirect themselves so that they can receive and share a love that surpasses all
understanding.

St. Paul’s on this second season of advent, We are called into a Baptism of Repentance.
A Baptism where we examine our own lives, our shortcomings, the times that we have failed to
act in the way of love, to speak in the way of love, to share in the way of love:
– Those moments where we have spoken in the tongue of racism, classism, sexism or
contributed to the deafening silence.
– Those moments where we have told our neighbors like those very college students in Indiana, that there is no room in this inn for them.
– Those moments where we have not been kind to one another, we have not listened to
one another, we have not seen or valued the humanity of the other as well as the likeness
of God in the other.
– Those moments where we have denied our God, belittled the seeker, or questioned the
wonderer.
– Those moments where we have avoided the truth, mocked the experience, and lived
into the lie.

God through the ministry of John the Baptist is inviting us in the scriptures to change our lives, to change this world,
To turn it around…just as that song of hope proclaims…God through the ministry of John
The Baptist is telling us “People, to Get Ready, there’s a train a-coming. We don’t need no ticket,
We just get on board. We don’t need no ticket we just thank The Lord”

Yes, indeed, we must Thank the Lord, we must Get on Board and in doing so in this Season of
Advent we must begin to pave a way, to prepare a way for our Lord,
– We must lower the mountain that we at times stand so deeply and proud on, and
humble ourselves, coming back down from that mountain and seeing that the true view
of justice, love, and peace, is right here. The true pride rests when we let ourselves walk
on even terrain, right here and right now.
– We must lie down those bricks of peace that provide our neighbors, our children, a path to continue to walk towards their dreams. To be able to go to school where they no longer have to fear for their lives.
– We must place the same Bricks that paved a way of freedom, of liberation, of hope for the Israelites leading them out of exile and into
the warmth of possibility

St. Paul’s this train is coming. And we are being called to check our baggage at the door. We
are being called to leave behind all that separates us from the kingdom all that pushes us away from God.

We are being called individually to seek forgiveness, We are being called as a Church to speak
truth, we are being called as a Nation to act in love, We are being called as a World to change
our lives.

We are being asked to prepare ourselves for a king. A king that will come to walk among us, to
love us, and to continue to travel with us in the days, weeks, and years to come.

I know that I have changed a lot in this past year. And I know that each of us have as well. St.
Paul’s we must continue to change, to get on board, and especially during this holiday
season, where many of our neighbors will be looking for a place to go to Church, we must be
there to hold the door of the train to welcome them aboard. We must make a place for those who are seeking sanctuary, seeking love, seeking hope. In the midst of the wilderness, they find themselves in. And yes, the wilderness does exist here in Westfield, here in New Jersey, maybe we find ourselves in it now.

We must get on board!

So, in just a moment, we will kneel before our God and seek forgiveness for the sins that we
have committed.
In just a moment, we will continue to prepare ourselves to be made anew, to work towards
creating the world anew, for our Lord that we know is to be born on Christmas morn.

After today, we have two more weeks to get ready. To prepare to be the living story which is the journey to Christmas here in our time. The journey to hope, love, peace, joy, healing, and new life being born here, in our lives.
May this preparation not only take place within the walls of this place or the, or only within this hour, but may we only be so moved to truly step out into this world, being spiritually nourished and renewed…and go in peace, to love and serve our Lord. And may we only find that in doing so, we may not simply walk through or by this Mystery of Christmas, but walk with and beside the prophets, angels, our Sister Mary, Brother Joseph, and with all of the disciples as we welcome the arrival or our God,

The Prince of Peace, the Author of Love, and the Bearer of healing and new life.
May you each have a safe, peaceful, and blessed Advent.

About Theresa Wright