Sunday, April 17, 2011

“This Is What It Means To Say Jerusalem: The Mighty Medicine of Sacrificial Stories”

17 April 2011
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph’s Chapel, Kent School
Palm Sunday

The entry into Jerusalem by Jesus on Palm Sunday was a peak religious experience.  In the reading from Matthew, there is the sense of living religion, of faith coming to life in a radical new scene, one of power and majesty.  Jesus literally comes down from a mountain—the Mount of Olives—to enter the great city of Jerusalem.  He is hailed as a king, and Matthew takes pains to present Jesus as a messianic king of old, entering the city with a donkey and a colt, as prophesied in Zechariah.  The gathered crowds also speak the language of royal power and divine blessing from the psalms as they hail Jesus, waving palm branches to the chosen one. 
            Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! 
             Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
The city of Jerusalem is alive with Passover preparation, the holiday of liberation for the Jewish people, and Jesus’s arrival adds to the drama and excitement.  But let’s go back to Jesus just before the powerful palm procession; as Jesus stood with his followers on the Mount of Olives.  He has a view of the entire city from an elevation of 3600 feet.  What a view.  What a moment to stand with him.  What must have been going through his mind as he saw the panorama of the great city of his people?  In all of the gospels, Jesus predicted his death as part of God’s plan of salvation.  Yet he must have been torn, there on the Mount of Olives, lingering on the mountain, before going down into the teeming city at Passover.  There is a great tension here.  There is the holiness of the mountain peak experience, but what’s coming is the descent into humanity and human problems and pain.  There is hope in the panoramic vision—seeing the world as God might for a moment, but there is the darkness of human nature ahead in the events to come.  We have all felt holiness in the beauty of creation, but it’s much harder when you go down from the mountain into human community.  I feel this when I hike the mountains around this campus, yet know the demands and stresses of life back on campus.  I want to stay on the mountain top, to stay in the peak experience.    
Our palm branches, like the ones waved to honor Jesus, signify a joyful fulfillment, yet they are also a transitory moment of glory where we rest in the eye of the hurricane.  Surely the greatest chapter of this teaching and healing messiah will unfold in the events in Jerusalem.  How we long to stay in the moments of triumph.  If you’ve ever had a great moment of success, the human desire is to stay there.  I want to stay here; to let Jesus be in triumph, the messiah alive.     
So when Jesus goes down the mountain, he makes a decision to enter into human suffering; he makes a decision to be a suffering messiah.  Or rather, he has made it all along.  On Palm Sunday, we want to linger in triumph, but how can we stay on the mountain when the panorama of this world is so filled with suffering?  Perhaps the great human success, the moment when we are at our best, is when we don’t celebrate, but rather embrace our neighbors in need.  The people of Japan are that kind of paradoxical triumph.  The images of human suffering and human cooperation are breathtaking, mixed up together.  The simple images of compassion touch me the most; images of people carrying others on their backs, both children and the elderly.  What must it be like to be carried by a stranger to safety? 
From images to the stories, the narratives of rescue and heroism, there are too many ordinary miracles to count.  Hideaki Akaiwa returned to his northeastern hometown of Ishinomaki.  He came back to find his wife of twenty years and his mother.  He found his community underwater.  Rescuers were not immediately available, so Hideaki used scuba gear to find his home, and then his wife: “The water felt very cold, dark, and scary.  I had to swim 200 yards to her, which was quite difficult with all the floating wreckage.”  The next day he found his mother, on the second floor of her home.  But he continued to look for other survivors, even with his family safe.  Robert Bailey, a British man teaching in Japan, saved all 42 of his students by running together to a hill, just before the tsunami hit.  And then there are Fukushima 50 who have continued to work inside the nuclear power plant, even as radiation reached 10,000 times the safe level for humans.  They are actually 700 workers, not just 50, inside the evacuation zone.  These are men who have sacrificed their lives for their neighbors, their nation, their fellow brothers and sisters.  How can we not strive to do better as human beings when we encounter stories of the humanity and goodness in ordinary people when they are faced with an extraordinary crisis?  We even have help from another species, with rescue dogs being so essential in locating survivors.  They are truly man’s best friend.  There is sacrificial love all around us.  This is the love that is the love of God.  God loves us that much.  It is humbling, and it is awesome, to think of all the people who would risk their lives to keep you safe.  Jesus is a messiah of extreme help, not personal triumph.  Or rather, that conversion of our hearts to sacrificial love is the greatest triumph of all.         
            Yet all of the sorrow is still before us, as Jesus comes down from the mountain.  With God’s help, we can embrace a suffering world.  In these stories of human hope we can hold better our own burdens and struggles. 
As a faulty member, I recently began a journey by teaching a new course in Native American Literature.  How did this start?  Well, it happened through an event I still don’t understand rationally.  I will share it with you.  I was driving on Route 22 in New York State.  I am often on Route 22, either on my way to New York City, or to see my in-laws in Bedford, New York.  But on this drive, things took a very strange turn.  From a distance of several hundred feet, I saw something eerie and beautiful.  It was a hawk, swooping down from a great height in the heavens.  The hawk was increasing speed, as if spotting prey.  I have since learned that hawks can reach speeds of 120 miles per hour.  This bird was going full speed, right at me.  I began to be quite alarmed.  Even before this event, I have had a powerful connection to hawks, including some uncanny experiences.  But this one was the strangest.  The hawk and I collided at full speed, and the beautiful bird crashed directly into my windshield, right on the driver side.  I thought the windshield would shatter, or break, but it didn’t.  There wasn’t even a crack in it—no blood, no feathers.  I pulled my car safely over to the side of the road.  I wanted to find the bird’s body.  It was nowhere to be found on the roadside.  I looked everywhere.  It could not have flown away; it could not have survived.  Where was that bird?  Did I dream the collision?  I have learned that the hawk is the messenger animal in the Native American tradition, the one who brings messages from God to the humans. 
The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn.
            It took me a few days to tell my wife about the incident.  She is cool, rational, a trained attorney with a skeptical intelligence.  I’m the mystic. 
Her response:
            “I think the hawk flew into you.”
            “I think so too.” 
            At any rate, I can honestly tell you that I’m teaching a new course in the English Department because a magical bird from heaven crashed into my car.        
            In the class, we have been reading Sherman Alexie’s Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.  For Native Americans, stories have real power in the oral tradition of a people.  In the language of the Native American world, stories have medicine.  They have healing power.  My study of Native American literature has taught me more about how to go to pain, to human suffering, without there being an immediate answer.  It actually takes a lot of faith to do that.  The collection of stories by Alexie was eventually made into the powerful movie Smoke Signals about two Indian young men on the Spokane Indian Reservation.  The movie is based largely on one short story “This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona.”  The occasion of the story is the journey of Victor and Thomas Builds-The-Fire to Phoenix, Arizona, to pick up the ashes of Victor’s father after his untimely death.  The entire purpose of the journey is to go into suffering--to go deeper into that mystery.  Victor doesn’t have enough money to take the trip, and the Tribal Council doesn’t have any ready funds to help Victor.  So Thomas offers to help pay for the trip, on one condition: that Thomas gets to go on the journey.  The history between the two is not good.  Thomas is a loner; he talks to himself; he’s pretty weird.  In their childhood, Victor and the other boys made fun of Thomas.  Victor even beat him up once, almost killed him.  But now they both need each other.  Thomas is an orphan, and he saw Victor’s father as a surrogate father for him as well.  The one thing that Thomas Builds-The-Fire can do is tell stories, which he does whenever someone asks.      
            “’Hey,’ Victor said.  ‘Tell me a story.’
            Thomas closed his eyes and told this story: ‘There were these two Indian boys who wanted to be warriors.  But it was too late to be warriors the old way.  All the horses were gone.  So the two Indian boys stole a car and drove to the city.  They parked the stolen car in front of the police station and then hitchhiked back home to the reservation.  When they got back, all their friends cheered and their parents’ eyes shone with pride.  You were brave, everybody said to the two Indian boys.  Very brave.’
            ‘Ya-hey,’ Victor said.  ‘That’s a good one.  I wish I could be a warrior.’”
            Sherman Alexie’s writing is inspiring, even as it goes to places of sorrow and suffering, like the journey of two people to pick up a father’s ashes.  Despite their tense history, Victor and Thomas need each other now.  Thomas needs Victor’s father as much as the actual son.   
            “Thomas Build-the-Fire closed his eyes and told this story: ‘I remember when I had this dream that told me to go to Spokane, to stand by the Falls in the middle of the city and wait for a sign.  I knew I had to go there but I didn’t have a car.  Didn’t have a license.  I was only thirteen.  So I walked all the way there, took me all day, and I finally made it to the Falls.  I stood there for an hour waiting.  Then your dad came walking up.  What the hell are you doing here?  He asked me.  Waiting for a vision.  Then your father said,  All you’re going to get here is mugged.  So he drove me over to Denny’s, bought me dinner, and then drove me home to the reservation.  For a long time I was mad because I thought my dreams had lied to me.  But they didn’t.  Your dad was my vision.  Take care of each other is what my dreams were saying.  Take care of each other.’”   
            When the journey ends, the two men who have come of age now split the ashes of Victor’s father.  They fulfilled the father’s command: to take care of each other.  Jesus says the same thing to his disciples: To love one another as I have loved you.      
            “Thomas took the ashes and smiled, closed his eyes, and told this story: ‘I’m going to travel to Spokane Falls one last time and toss these ashes into the water.  And your father will rise like a salmon, leap over the bridge, over me, and find his way home.  It will be beautiful.  His teeth will shine like silver, like a rainbow.  He will rise, Victor, he will rise.’” 
The stories of Holy Week lead us to a suffering God; in the falling rain are the falling tears of God.  The events of Holy Week lead us to the simple realization that our purpose in life is to take care of each other.  The message heard, deep in the inner ears of our souls, is that you are not alone.  A long time ago, a Loving God was born into the world, through a crucifixion in Jerusalem, a sacred cross on a hillside.  This week we get to remember the story and feel its medicine.  And like Thomas Builds-The-Fire we must tell it again, to a world so deeply in need of hope and love.  Please take care of each other.        

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