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People get ready, there’s a train a comin’

You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board

All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’

Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord

     People get ready! But ready for what? Are we studying for a final exam that we have to pass if we’re going to enter the gates of heaven? Do we only have one chance to get on board the Gospel Train, and if we miss it, are we in serious trouble? People get ready! Our gospel lesson says. But ready for what? Jesus tells us to “be dressed for action,” and “have our lamps lit.” He warns us that “the Son of Man is coming at an expected hour.” But is this a warning…or is it a promise? People get ready! But ready for what?

In order to answer this question, we begin with a little Curtis Mayfield. Curtis wrote the song “People Get Ready” in 1965. RollingStone magazine named it as the 24th greatest song of all time. They also placed it at number 20 on their list of the 100 greatest guitar tracks. “People Get Ready” has been covered  by more famous musicians than I have time to mention. Bob Dylan liked it so much, he covered it three times himself. My favorite version of the song came out in 1985 with Rod Stewart on vocals and Jeff Beck on guitar.

Curtis Mayfield said that People Get Ready,””was taken from my church or from the upbringing of messages from the church. Like there’s no hiding place and get on board, and images of that sort. I must have been in a very deep mood of that type of religious inspiration when I wrote that song.”

Well that’s an understatement! The Holy Spirit is all over this song as she encourages us to get rid of the baggage of life, and carry the lighter load of faith and thanks. I think Jesus would approve! And maybe this is the lesson Jesus is trying to teach us this morning.

At first glance, our gospel lesson feels a bit disjointed, as if this collection of sayings doesn’t quite fit together. But through the lens of Curtis Mayfield’s song we will discover the thread that runs through this text. We’ll receive a word of good news that has the potential to transform the way we live our lives.

Our gospel lesson begins with a saying about FEAR that I believe has a lot to do with FAITH: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Notice that Jesus uses the parental term “Father” to describe God in this verse. It is the Aramaic word “Abba” which translates as “Daddy” or “Papa.”

The image Jesus is trying to evoke is that of a shepherd holding a young sheep in his arms, just like a parent holds a baby. It is a reminder that this is how God feels about us. We are God’s beloved. We are nurtured and protected in the arms of the Almighty. Therefore, Jesus tells us “Do not be afraid.” It is God’s “good pleasure” to give you the gifts of the kingdom. The Voice says it’s God’s “great joy.” The NLT says it’s God’s “great happiness.”

How I wish we all had this image of God firmly fixed in our minds. Unfortunately, some people see God as angry and vindictive. They live in fear because they believe God could turn them to ashes at any moment for the slightest of transgressions. God could punish them for something they did wrong, or forgot to do, or just because God was in the mood to strike somebody down because it was a slow day in heaven!

I weep for those who understand God this way! This is NOT the way Jesus speaks of God in the gospels. God is like a shepherd who diligently searches for the one lost sheep; a shepherd who knows each of his sheep by name and tenderly leads them to green pastures. Therefore, we do not need to be afraid because it is God’s “good pleasure” to give his lambs the gifts of the kingdom.

In the language of Curtis Mayfield, we “don’t need a ticket…to get on board.” We don’t need to win God’s favor or believe a certain set of doctrines about God. All we need is faith. Do you hear me, church? All we need is faith to hear the diesels hummin.’ Faith that our God is our loving Shepherd, our Abba, who wants to make sure that EVERYONE gets on the gospel train, and NO ONE is left behind. Therefore, the first thing we need to do in order to get ready for the coming of the Son of Man is to move from FEAR to FAITH. Are we up for the challenge? I hope so!

People get ready for the train to Jordan

It’s picking up passengers from coast to coast

Faith is the key, open the doors and board ’em

There’s hope for all among those loved the most.

     The second saying in our gospel lesson has something to do with baggage. And let’s confess it right now, we all have LOTS of baggage in our lives. Jesus says, “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The message Jesus is trying to tell us is crystal clear: We need to learn how to travel light. We need to learn what to USE and what to LOSE. The way this saying ties in with the first one is that those who live in fear carry a lot of baggage with them: Worry, fear, anxiety, greed, hate, despair, jealousy, etc. These are the emotions that fill our luggage to overflowing and slow us down in life.

Have you ever been on an airplane and seen someone desperately try to stuff a large bag into an overhead compartment? They’ll push and pull and pound but there’s no way that huge bag is going to ft into that tiny compartment! This is what it is like when FEAR rules our lives. We hold onto things because we’re afraid  we might need them. We hoard material possessions. We save all our money for ourselves. We lock our families away in gated communities. We have little regard for the poor. We distrust the motives of others.

Isn’t that an exhausting way to live? Don’t our backpacks become SO HEAVY that we can barely take a step further? Thankfully, Jesus says there’s another way to live. We can move from FEAR to FAITH. We can trust that God will give us everything we need. We can share our possessions with others. We can give alms to the poor and needy. It is Abba’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom gifts of trust, love, joy, faith, peace, hope, wonder, etc.

The gospel according to Curtis Mayfield reminds us that “we don’t need no baggage, we just get on board. We don’t need no ticket, we just thank the Lord!” So, the second thing we need to do in order to get ready for the coming of the Son of Man is to get rid of excess baggage that weights us down and robs us of the joy of kingdom living.

The final saying in our gospel lesson has something to do with being prepared and ready to go. The analogy used here is a bit strange and foreign to modern believers: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.”

There is a ton of symbolism in this text; some of which is code language for the second coming of Christ. However, if we only see this as a messianic text that applies to some time in the future, I think we completely miss it’s intention. Several places in the gospels,  Jesus announces that the “kingdom of God…has come near [Mt 1:15, Mt 4:17, Mt 10:7 Lk 10:9,11], has come to you [Mt 12:28, Lk 11:20] or is among (within) you [Lk 17:21]. In others words, God’s Kingdom is already here. It may not be at 100 percent strength, but it keeps breaking though in places where we least expect it. The kingdom of God is all around us, if we only have eyes to see it and ears to hear it.

This misunderstanding of the text can also be carried into Curtis’ Mayfield’s song. When we hear Mayfield croon “People get ready, there’s a train a comin,’ we assume it’s only coming once. If we miss it we’re in serious trouble. Therefore, we should pack a very small bag ASAP, and be standing at the station so we don’t miss the Gospel Train when it arrives. I don’t think this is the good news of our gospel lesson or of the song! If Jesus were going to sing “People Get Ready” it would go something like this:

People get ready, there’s a train a comin’

It makes frequent stops several times a day!

So, child, don’t be fearful.  Travel light as a feather.

‘Cause grace is the engine that drives this train!

     So, if we hear what the Spirit is saying to Gods people, the third thing we need to do in order to get ready for the coming of the Son of Man is be in position to move when God says MOVE. I don’t think catching the Gospel Train is a once in a lifetime opportunity. In fact, the Gospel Train rides through our lives time and time again. As it stops at our station, we have a choice. We can be drowsy servants whose lamps have gone out because we’re asleep on the job. Or we can be super servants like those in Downton Abbey who are ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice, 24 hours a day.

Friends in Christ, there are many opportunities for us to be living signs of the Kingdom each and every day. There are many opportunities for us to be Jesus to others. Many of these opportunities don’t involve committee meetings or or a strategic evangelism plan. We simply need to get ready for the journey by moving from FEAR to FAITH; by getting rid of EXCESS BAGGAGE from our lives and by being in position to MOVE when God says MOVE.

So that’s how Curtis Mayfield helps me to understand our gospel lesson. But I’m tired of singing solo so open your bulletins and sing with me.  AMEN.

People get ready, there’s a train a comin’

You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board

All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’

Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord

 

People get ready for the train to Jordan

It’s picking up passengers from coast to coast

Faith is the key, open the doors and board ’em

There’s hope for all among those loved the most.

People get ready, there’s a train a comin’

It makes frequent stops several times a day!

So, child, don’t be fearful.  Travel light as a feather.

‘Cause grace is the engine that drives this train!

     by Crutis Mayfield, Copyright ©1964 Chi sounds (BMI), vs. 3 by David Eck

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