“Tell Everyone on This Train I Love Them”
“Tell Everyone on This Train I Love Them”
Kelly Ann Seaman
November 13, 2022
When I was in high school, my friend Leah and I memorized every word to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel. Okay, maybe we memorized every fourth word. There we were in 2002, bopping around in my Dodge Dynasty singing about events we didn’t even fully understand: “Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray, South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio!”
Peggy Currie sent me an article a few months ago called, “Choosing Love in a Dumpster Fire.” Pastor Chris Dela Cruz reflects on that song. Apparently, the song was inspired by a conversation that Billy Joel had with a 21 year old friend, who was lamenting about how crazy and scary it was to live during the 1980s. Billy Joel had just turned 40, and he wanted to show that young man that every era of history felt crazy to live through. So, he wrote out 118 important events and people of his lifetime into the song. I’m sure we could craft a second version for the past 40 years. It would be equally full.
The chorus of the song goes, “We didn’t start the fire! It was always burning, since the world’s been turning. We didn’t start the fire! No we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it!”
Delacruz notes, “Sometimes the world feels like it’s on fire, like a complete dumpster fire.”
Like our Luke passage notes, it can be pretty easy to get caught up in the dumpster fire. We can become obsessed with wars and rumors of wars. We feel persecuted, our rights challenged, scared for the future of the children among us. It can then be pretty easy to find someone or something to blame. We grasp tightly to the institutions we love and beliefs we hold dear. It’s easy to be afraid. It’s easy to see people as our enemies, as the lions to our lambs.
Preceding our Isaiah passage today, God is lamenting over what a mess everything is. So, he promises to fix it. A new creation! No more weeping! No hurt! No destruction. I know we all wish our dumpster fire looked more like that! God, any moment now would be fine, let it be!
Jesus’ era was its own special mess. Douglas Oakman, a religion professor at Pacific Lutheran University, notes,“Jesus was born into essentially a third-world context under a military dictatorship.” King Herod, as you remember, was trying to kill Jesus and ordered for the death of newborns! Can you imagine? When Jesus started his ministry, his listeners were awaiting a Messiah who would put out their dumpster fire and bring forth the new Jerusalem that is promised in Isaiah. Instead, they were living under Roman rule. Many Jewish leaders were just puppets of the Roman government. A handful of merchants, high priests and leaders lived in luxury, but the vast majority of the population lived in poverty, Jesus included. The local government was corrupt; inflation and landlessness were high; and peasants paid huge taxes,” yet experienced little freedom.
Jesus’ ministry took place just 60 years before the Jewish Roman war, and the violent siege on Jerusalem. By the time the gospels were written, the war was already well underway or already over. Many scholars believe all of the gospel writers had already seen the temple destroyed, as Jesus prophesied in our reading today. Almost 1,000,000 people are reported to have died during that war!
In the 50 years before and after Jesus’ birth, more than thirty different revolutionary movements, protests, and insurrections appeared. Many of these movements were political, against Rome, but many of them were religious and aimed at the hierarchy of the faith. You may have heard of one of them. This guy, Jesus, flipped over some tables and cleared out the temple…
All of the active groups at that time? The Romans, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Zealots, they all believed their way was right. They believed that the people against them were their enemies. There was dissent, anger, and violence. The religious leaders were on the lookout for the king and the kingdom and the messiah that would justify them once and for all.
But Jesus was not the king they expected. They found themselves in the presence of a poor, homeless, craftsman, who spoke in riddles, fed and healed socially suspect people. Instead of war, he offered forgiveness and grace, and instead of swords, he wanted them to share tables with people they hated and feared and judged. Jesus called out complacency, hypocrisy, and supremacy. He made murderous mobs drop their stones. He offered another way, a way of agape, unconditional love. Jesus broke down every social and religious barrier to get to the people who were marginalized and oppressed around him: the poor, the lame, the enemy, the mentally ill, the enslaved, women… And when they came to kill him, expecting a violent uprising, Jesus went willingly to his death.
This new way made no sense to the people hearing Jesus’ message for the first time. It makes no sense to the power structures in our world today either. They were waiting on a Moses like story: bring on the plagues and the death, let’s split a sea in half and drown those who come against us! Put us on top, Lord! Give us a strong and mighty king. We want to be WINNING!
Instead, Jesus’ kingdom is completely upside down. Instead of a KINGDOM, New Testament scholar and author Reta Halteman, posits that Jesus offers a kin-dom, a family. That kin-dom does not come as war, not as a rebellion or retaliation.
Don Kraybill, in his book “The Upside Down Kingdom ” writes, “Jesus taught that the radical call of the kingdom of God undercuts all loyalties to human institutions. His unique message stood apart from the coercive and violent tactics of zealous patriots of the day…Instead he instructed his disciples to love enemies, bless cursers, and grant endless forgiveness. In short, he tells us to serve, not dominate.”
It was a normal Friday, on May 26th, 2017 in Portland, Oregon. It was rush hour, and people were getting on the IMAX train, going home. I’m sure many were groggy and eager to begin their weekend. Then, without being provoked, one passenger began to yell and curse at two black, teenage girls: Destinee Mangum and Walia Mohamed, who it should be noted, is Muslim and was wearing a hijab.
This disturbed man told the girls that they should die, that they were ruining the city, that they should go back to Saudi Arabia (both girls are Americans). He claimed that as a patriot, and he had free speech and so he could say whatever he wanted. He cursed and was using violent language and racial and xenophobic (anti- Muslim) slurs.
Very soon after he began yelling, Taliesin Namkai-Meche, a 23 year old recent college graduate, got off the phone with his aunt when he heard the violent language being used. He stepped between the girls and firmly but calmly told the man, “This is not okay. You need to get off this train. Please, get off this train.” Ricky Best, a 53 year old Army veteran, devout catholic and father of four came and also attempted to de-escelate. This took the belligerent man’s attention off the girls, and put it on the men who were standing up to him. The girls were able to run to the back of the train car.
As this happened, the man smacked Talesin’s phone out of his hand, getting in his face taunting him, “do something! Do something!” It was then that 21 year old poet Micah Fletcher had enough. Micah had been bullied terribly as a young man, and after getting in the man’s face, he pushed him towards the train car doors. It is after that the man began to attack. Within 12 seconds, in what looked like punches to onlookers, the man took out a pocket knife and stabbed each of the men who had intervened in the neck.
Almost immediately, the doors of the train opened and people all rushed off the train. The assailant was followed by passengers on the phone with 9-1-1 and was arrested shortly nearby. Micah Fletcher received first aid on the platform, and survived his injuries. Ricky Best died almost immediately at the scene, and Taleisin made his way to the floor in the middle of the train, falling into the arms of Rachel Macy.
Rachel had just been released from police custody two days before. She was charged and later was convicted for robbing a Shell gas station with a BB gun. She had seen the man beginning to yell and looked away, trying not to get involved. She was scared she would become a target, as she is also a woman of color.
When Talesien fell into her arms, she helped him to the floor and took her shirt off to try and stop the bleeding. She just asked him if he could feel God, she calls God “Creator.” She asked if he could feel “creator” was there with them. She told Taleisin to look into her eyes. She told him that he was a beautiful man and that she was so sorry that the world is such a cruel place. She prayed with him, hugged him, held him. At some point, Taleisan reached up and put his hand on her cheek, “Tell everyone on this train I love them.” Rachel stayed with him, held him, until paramedics came. She said she felt honored to be with him to comfort him in place of his own mother. She knew she was supposed to be on that train.
Talesin passed away later in the hospital. And Rachel told the world of his last words, his kindness.
Maeve Higgens’ book of essays, “Tell Everyone on this Train I Love Them” was the inspiration for this message today. She asks a question I wish we knew the answer to, “Who is everyone? Did he mean the girls he saved? Did he mean the other passengers, most of whom, did not intervene or help? Did he even mean his killer? All I know is that every last person on that train was a stranger to him, and his last words were that he loved them.”
In the midst of this destruction and tragedy, there were tiny slivers of grace, evidence of an upside down kingdom. It is a kingdom that looks like brave onlookers standing as a barrier between hate and innocence. Maybe, it looks like a thief becoming an angel to the dying stranger in her arms. Sometimes, that looks like an unfair, heroic death. But that type of upside down love? It’s easy to spot because it always looks like Jesus:
Instead of supremacy, servanthood. Instead of hoarding, sharing. Instead of competition, community. Instead of swords, there are calming words of love. Instead of fear, love.
Thy Upside Down Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Unfortunately, even after being sentenced for two back to back life sentences, the white supremacist who attacked these innocent people has continued to defend his heinous actions. He considers himself a patriot. He is proud he killed, and he wished he had killed more.
While talking about the violence of white supremacy. I do want to make it very clear this morning that any voices espousing white supremacy (supremacy of any kind) for that matter, are not the voice of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
Xenophobia, Anti-Semetism, Homophobia, Republican or Democrat- phobia, those voices, those leanings can never be the path of our savior. And that is because we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. We cannot possibly be moving in love for our neighbor when we fear, demonize, or speak violence to them.
Our Luke passage tells us to beware the voices that come in Jesus’ name to lead us astray. I John 4 tells us that we will know how to identify the false prophets and voices:
8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love… Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of our judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
Horrible things are going to happen in our world; when they do, it is very easy to point a finger and find an enemy. It is easy to look away, to flip the channel. It’s tempting to throw up our hands and give up! Let the dumpster fire burn around us.
But we have a savior who put on flesh, lived among us, who showed us the way. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus gives marching orders for when it feels like the end of the world. There will be war. There will be insurrections. There will be earthquakes. There will be famines and pandemics.
Followers of Jesus’ upside down kingdom may be persecuted and arrested. But Jesus doesn’t promise an immediate victory. His followers won’t be given swords and weapons to defeat their enemies. No, they’ll be given words and wisdom. They will be given a loving witness to a life changing Savior. Jesus warns that through following and sharing his upside down kingdom, they may lose their very lives. I love “The Voice” , translation of verse 19: “By enduring all of these (dark) things, you will find not loss but gain—not death but authentic life.”
Most likely, none of us will have a moment like Taliesin and Rachel Macy. I pray we never would. Instead, our life will be full of tiny trying moments. Our everyday, mundane, dumpster fire adjacent life, is our authentic life. It’s the only one we’ve got. Everywhere we go, we will have opportunities to bring the upside down kingdom earthside. These moments of our life are nuanced, mostly small , but they also open moments for us to live into our call to serve and love.
Chris Dela Cruz’s writes, “Amid fire from the sky proclamations, the Bible presents a surprisingly consistent message throughout: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God. Love God. Love your neighbor. Despite everything, I still believe in the basic call for us to love, even during our 21st century dumpster fire. I have no illusions that love will extinguish all the fires around us. But love- real love that speaks truth, works collectively for justice, that’s world changing. To echo Billy Joel, even if we didn’t light it, we have to try “to fight it.”
We fight it with our love moved to action. Tell everyone on this train, in this Target, this school, this voting line, this family reunion, this church… tell everyone I love them. Amen.
Fredrich Beuchner has a beautiful quote that I carry around with me whenever I’m feeling sad or frustrated with the state of things. He says this:
Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid… I love you.