Susan Sparks: The Only Train in the Storm

I have often described the Bible as a cross between The Godfather, Star Wars, and The Devil Wears Prada. As a comprehensive record of the human condition, the scriptures mirror every aspect of life. Let me give you an example using Palm Sunday and Holy Week.

Last winter I was attempting to travel from Raleigh, North Carolina to New York City. Unfortunately, I had chosen a travel date that was smack in the middle of a Nor'easter. True to its name, this huge storm was centered over the Northeastern United States causing all flights in and out of every city north of Washington, DC to be cancelled. In a last-ditch effort, I ended up on the only transportation available: Amtrak. And more specifically, a train called the Silver Star that runs from Miami, Florida through Raleigh all the way to New York City.

I didn't care. I just needed a way to get home.

At 8:00 a.m. Friday morning, as the snowflakes began to fall in Raleigh, I boarded the Silver Star. The conductor who took my ticket looked wistfully out the window and said with disgust, "You realize that when we left Miami last night, it was 80 degrees." With that, the train took off.

As we progressed north, the sky grew darker. Snow started falling steady, then harder, sticking on rooftops and car hoods. By the time we reach Virginia, the storm had cut loose. Trees were covered and bending precariously towards the tracks. The little Silver Star began throwing up plumes of snow as it plowed through - like the movie Dr. Zhivago with the train going through Siberia. Even one of the train porters looked a little bit like Omar Shariff.

I got so caught up in the whole Dr. Zhivago thing, I didn't realize the precarious nature of our trip. Because of the winds, downed trees, and electrical problems, Amtrak had - one by one - canceled all other trains into New York City. By the time we pulled out of Washington DC, the conductor announced, "This is a first, ladies and gentlemen. Tonight, we're the only train on the northeast corridor."

I'm not sure why they let us through. Maybe because our train was at the end of a long cross-country trip. Who knows! All I knew was that every other travel option had failed. And we - we were left as the only train in the storm.

Tell me that's not the Palm Sunday and Holy Week story.

Like a crystal clear 80-degree day in Miami, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem heralded by the crowds as a Messiah. But as the week goes on, a political and religious Nor'easter of epic proportions begins to blow in. The skies grow darker. The storm gets progressively worse. And all that was trustworthy begins to fail.

First, the religious leaders, Jesus' own people, turn on him, and have him arrested. Then the crowds, the same people that welcomed him with honor and love on Palm Sunday, betray him yelling, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Finally, as the storm hits its peak, Jesus' own disciples - his family - deny him.

All of a sudden, he's the only train in the storm.

I think that's one reason the Passion story resonates with us so deeply. We've all experienced times when everyone or everything seemed to fail us. Maybe it's when our family or friends turn away when we need them most. Or when our workplace fails us because we lose a project or a raise or even a job. Sometimes, we feel that our body has failed us with unwelcomed aches and pains or worse, unexpected illness or disease. Maybe we think that the stock market we once trusted has failed us. Or maybe we believe that our political leaders have failed us.

Whatever it is, we've all had hard times when we feel like the only train in the storm.

That said, there's also a huge difference between our stories and Jesus'. When everything failed Jesus, like that Silver Star from Miami, he stayed on track, plowed into the worst of the storm, and got safely home. However, when we experience loss, when things we know as trustworthy fail, we tend to go off track. We lose our way in storms of anger, fear, resentment or revenge. We derail.

It's too bad we don't live our lives like Jesus. Which reminds me of a sticker I saw one time on the back bumper of a big Ford Bronco: "Are you following Jesus this close?"

Unfortunately, we don't follow Jesus that close. So today, I want us to take a new look at our scripture and share two lessons that we can learn from Jesus about dealing with disappointment and betrayal.

  1. Jesus did not expect the world to save him; and
  2. He didn't because he knew God would.

Let's look at the first lesson. Jesus didn't expect the crowds, the religious leaders, or even his own disciples to save him. He knew they wouldn't. In fact, in the weeks leading up to this moment, Jesus predicts his death three times.

In Mark 20:18 for example, he says, "The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him."

Jesus even predicted that his own disciples would betray him in Matthew 26:34: "I tell you the truth, Peter - this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny three times that you even know me."

Jesus didn't expect the world to save him. He knew what was coming. He knew what fear and envy, power and authority could and would do to human beings.

And we do, too. As the book of Isaiah 2:22 warns: "Don't put your trust in mere humans. They are as frail as breath." Here's another way to put it based on cowboy wisdom: "Trust everyone but brand your cattle."

Now, don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying don't trust people in general. Remember that Jesus was in relationship with all of the people that turned on him. He trusted them. So too, we have to trust in order to engage in healthy relationships. But - and hear me on this - there is a huge difference in trusting someone and expecting them to save you.

  1. Jesus didn't expect the world to save him; and
  2. He didn't because he knew God would.

In fact, Jesus' last words were this prayer: "Into your hands I commend my spirit." If only we had that kind of faith - to release everything to God, even our very lives.

I am reminded of the 12-Step Program. Many people think that the 12-Steps are limited to alcoholism, but these steps can act as a powerful tool for just about anything we need to release - from a lack of faith to a full-blown addiction to Lipton's French Onion Soup Dip with Ruffles.

What is it that you need to release? Think about it for a minute. Now, consider it in terms of the first three elements of the 12-Steps:

  1. We admit that we are powerless over (add your issue here);
  2. We believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us; and
  3. We choose to turn our will and our lives over to that Power.

Brothers and sisters, that's the secret of life in three steps. Recognize that in order to live the life that God intended for each of us, we need to be saved from our weak human ways; we need to believe in a Power greater than ourselves to save us; and we need to turn our lives over to that Power.

And we all know what that Power is - it's the mighty power of God. As the words of Isaiah 41:10 promise, "Fear not; for I am with thee - I am your God: I will strengthen you; I will help you; and I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness."

Ironically, it is that return to faith in God that will allow us to once again have faith in others. Said another way, by trusting in what never changes, you can then trust in what does.

It is that leap of faith that allows us to truly live into the depth and beauty of the life we have been given. As the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister explained, "We have the potential to be the human beat of the heart of God."

Life can be a beautiful thing. Like a crystal clear 80-deree day in Miami. But we are also painfully aware that life can change in the blink of an eye and slam us with a Nor'easter.

When that cyclone of pain, fear, and anger hit in our lives, there's only one thing that will keep us on track and get us home. Brothers and sisters, there's only one train in this storm.

We'd best get onboard.

Let us pray:

Gracious God, as we remember the Palm Sunday parade, the cheers, and the honor offered by the crowds, let us also remember the fragile nature of human beings and how quickly the crowds can turn. But we will not fear. We will not place our eternal trust in this world. We look only to you, the God who brought all things into being, the God who will never leave us or let us down, the God to whom we belong. Amen.