On a cold January morning in New York City, a man named Wesley Autrey was standing on the crowded subway platform at 137th Street with his two daughters, aged 6 and 4. It was a perfectly ordinary New York subway kind of day…until a young man standing on the same platform suddenly fell into a violent seizure and tumbled down onto the tracks. He was lying there, convulsing, when a low, tell-tale rumble began to roll down the long tunnel. The crowd, horrified, looked up to see the lights of the oncoming train just starting to illuminate the edges of the darkness beyond.
Immediately, Wesley Autrey left his two girls in the care of a stranger standing nearby and jumped down onto the tracks. Frantically, he tried to pull the young man up and onto the platform, but he couldn’t lift him. The oncoming train was now clearly visible at the end of the tunnel, speeding into the station, and with only a split-second to react, Wesley jumped on top of the man, pulling him within the lines of the tracks and pressing down on top of him so that their bodies were as flat as possible. The train did not, could not, stop. And so Wesley lay there, sheltering the body of a complete stranger, while the train thundered over them.
Wesley describes the next moments brilliantly. I just felt the train brush my calves, he said, and indeed he later discovered a long streak of grease along the top of his hat. The train finally stopped, and Wesley found himself eyeball to eyeball with this young man with an entire subway train above them. Hi, you don’t know me, he told the man. You had a seizure and fell on the tracks, but you’re okay. Am I dead? the man asked him. Wesley reached up and pinched the man on his arm. You feel that?, he said. You’re very much alive. He yelled out from under the train, Excuse me, I’m the father, would you tell my daughters that I’m okay? At which point the people on the platform burst into deafening applause.
This amazing, jaw-dropping subway rescue happened over ten years ago, in January of 2007, when it created such a splash that Wesley was crowned the Subway Samaritan by the New York press. I heard this story in a recent podcast from the show Radiolab entitled, appropriately, How to Be a Hero. The hosts were interested in exploring how and why people do heroic things. They interviewed people who had crawled through an electric fence to save a women being gored by a bull or pulled three people out of a burning car in nothing but a pair of sweatpants or jumped onto a subway track in the path of an oncoming train. Each story was more incredible than the next, each person a Samaritan, a Superman, a man or a woman doing something you and I could hardly imagine. As one of the hosts put it, he could, in his wildest imagination, see himself jumping down onto subway tracks to pull someone to safety. But he could never imagine himself staying down there in the path of an oncoming train and letting himself be run over. And I feel exactly the same way. I can be generous and self-giving, even at considerable cost to myself, but I’m not sure I have the capacity for that kind of sacrifice. I’m just not sure I’m made that way. Wesley is surely extraordinary, a man with a hero’s makeup, born with a tiny red cape instead of a caul over his face.
I sometimes feel the same way looking at the story of the call of the disciples, particularly as it is told in the Gospel of Mark. It was a warm morning by the Sea of Galilee, and Peter and Andrew and James and John are working – hauling in fish, mending their nets. It was a perfectly ordinary Galilee kind of day…until our Lord Jesus Christ walks by and says, “Follow me.” And immediately the disciples leave their nets and follow him. There is no discussion, no interview. There is no listing of pros and cons, no consultation with family or friends. There is only the response – instant, and wholehearted. Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
They seem extraordinary. They seem genetically predisposed to this kind of obedience, born with a halo already about their heads and a spiritual compass for a heart. And while we pray to be followers like them, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ, I wonder if we imagine that we could ever really do this, if we could ever really be as extraordinary as they. If Christ were to walk into your work, tap you on your shoulder and say Follow me! while you were in the operating room or standing in front of a classroom full of students or sitting on the organ bench, would you pick up and go? Would you immediately leave the school or the office or the clinic and follow him? For myself, I honestly don’t know. I could imagine myself deciding to make some greater sacrifices, buying fewer books and giving more money on those in need, dedicating more time to service or advocacy, giving more of my self in a radical generosity of time and spirit. What I have a hard time imagining is getting up, from my desk, leaving behind my family and my job and my place in the world, and, not knowing where I’m going, just following him. I am not at all sure that I am that extraordinary.
The problem is that to say that we’re not extraordinary like they were is to risk discounting the Gospel as having anything to do with us. To say that this story is only about how remarkable the disciples were is to turn this Gospel into mere history instead of a present word – you know, here’s the story of how the disciples got started, and aren’t we grateful for them. If we say that the disciples are somehow better than we are, genetically not like us, then it’s easy to distance ourselves from this story, to stop our ears to what this Gospel might be speaking now, in this moment. But this is to sell the Gospel very short. It is vitally important that we understand how those men did what they did, so that we can learn how to be a disciple.
In the podcast, the hosts asked the heroes they interviewed how it was that they could do these extraordinary things. What was it that made them heroes? Was it something about the way they grew up? Was it something about what they did for a living, their religion, their age? Are some people just born with a dominant Hero Gene, or is it nurture, not nature? What they found was something far more interesting than the discovery of some uniquely heroic genetic marker. What they found was that these people were all completely ordinary. There wasn’t anything – religion, upbringing, experiences – that marked them for heroism. And when the heroes were asked why they risked harm or even death in order to save the life of a perfect stranger, most of them responded that they had absolutely no idea. She was going to die if I didn’t help her, one said. I don’t know – I really didn’t think about it at all, said another. I just knew I had to help. They were in need, and I was there, so I did something about it. It turns out that these heroes were not, in fact, extraordinary. They were ordinary people, from all walks of life. What made them heroic was that they were placed in extraordinary circumstances. They were placed in a hero’s moment, and the moment invited them to become something more.
Probe the stories of the disciples in your mind for even a moment, and you’ll remember that they were, in fact, completely ordinary men. They have become exemplars of the faith, but in their lives, they strove and stumbled, fell and forgot, just like we do. And yet they became leaders and saints, not because they were unusual, but because they were placed in a particular moment, and they responded like disciples. Which means that we, too, have the capacity to respond in the exact same way. For when Christ comes to Philadelphia, which he does very often, and sees us in our schools or offices or homes, and says, Follow me!, we find ourselves, just like the Peter and Andrew and James and John, in a disciples’ moment. And in that moment, we are all ready, as ready as we’re going to ever be, not because of us, but because of the one who calls. We don’t have to be extraordinary because he is.
When Wesley Autrey was interviewed years later about his decision to jump on the tracks that day, he didn’t say that he had no idea. He didn’t say that he just didn’t think about what he was doing. In that moment, he said, “for some strange reason a voice out of nowhere said, ‘Don’t worry about your own; don’t worry about your daughters. You can do this.’” And so he jumped. Today, that voice is speaking to you. Not for some strange reason, but for one very specific reason. Because Christ sees you, and Christ sees that you are his. And you are in a situation that really needs disciples; you are standing in a disciples’ moment. Our holy, extraordinary Lord is calling you to follow him, in new and unimagined and remarkable and wholly life-changing ways. Don’t worry about your life, don’t worry about your own. You, disciples, can do this.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
21 January 2018
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia