Sunday, April 14, 2013
“The Mighty Medicine of Resurrection”
The Third Sunday of Easter
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
On this third Sunday of Easter, there are breakthrough experiences of the new; of an old way of life ending suddenly, dramatically, and a new way of being dawning in the moments of Easter resurrection for the male disciples. The conversion of St. Paul is the first breakthrough transformation. A man named Saul, a notorious persecutor of early Christians—many of whom would be condemned to die--has a vision of the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Jesus asks him. In the gospel of John, Jesus appears before some of his males disciples and instructs them where to catch fish in the Sea of Tiberias. The male disciples then recognize Jesus in the simple act of having breakfast—a shared meal. During the meal, one that is both ordinary and sacred, the eyes of the male disciples are opened to the new reality of resurrection. It is Jesus--Jesus who is eating with them, and ordinary events are transformed into something miraculous.
These were the events that stirred the male disciples and followers of Jesus into the beginnings of the early church, after the tragedy and trauma of the cross. You may have noticed that I have referred to the male disciples and leaders of the church. What about the women? Something very interesting happens when you begin to focus on them, which doesn’t happen very often. With the exception of John’s gospel, the only witnesses to Jesus on the cross were women. In the four canonical gospels, there are different groups of women at the crucifixion, but there are also some constants. In Mark, there are three women present at the cross: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and a woman named Salome. In Matthew: Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James. And in Luke: Mary Magdalene, the same other Mary, and a woman named Joanna. John’s gospel includes the only male witness to the cross—John the beloved disciple, along with Jesus’s mother Mary, a different Mary (the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene. The constant in these four traditions is Mary Magdalene, and it looks like Mary the mother of James was probably there. The point is that women stayed by Jesus, even at the cross. The male disciples split; they scattered, and they even denied knowing Jesus.
Women were more faithful, more loyal, staying with Jesus until the end of his life. Men tend to want to fix things, and the cross is a pretty hard thing to fix. The fixing is up to God alone, and the women are there first to see it because they don’t run from suffering. One of the truths I have come to understand is that the avoidance of pain is one of the ways that we increase human suffering. The avoidance of pain creates more pain. This seems counter intuitive, but I have found it to be almost axiomatic, in ways both large and small. The avoidance of work makes it more difficult to do the work. Avoiding questions about your health, including addiction, can lead to greater problems later on. Seeking to escape stress can create more stress. Women are more comfortable going to pain, especially the kind that can’t be fixed. So what happens at Easter? All four gospel traditions have, basically, the same groups of women as the first to encounter the empty tomb and the risen Lord Jesus; with Mary Magdalene as the constant in all four resurrection groups. The clear message of all the gospels is that the more faithful and present you are in suffering and pain, the more directly you will experience resurrection and new life when it comes directly from God.
What would this kind of faithfulness look like in our world today?
Let me give you an example. Probably most of you are aware of the gruesome injury to Kevin Ware of the Louisville Cardinals. The injury occurred during the semifinal game in the NCAA basketball tournament on Easter Sunday two weeks ago. If you did not see this terrible compound leg fracture on live television, or in video or photos afterward, you should count yourself lucky. The injury was as ugly as it gets. The teammates of Kevin Ware, along with the Duke players, scattered from the fallen athlete. Some of them started weeping. Some of them vomited on the basketball court. Every molecule of machismo left the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. But one teammate behaved like a woman at the cross: Luke Hancock. (It should be noted that Luke Hancock has a beard, a very handsome one, just like Jesus.) Luke Hancock didn’t run away from pain and agony. He ran directly to his teammate, and got down on the court with him. Hancock held Kevin Ware’s hand; he touched the chest of his fallen teammate reassuringly, and comforted him. It might be the most beautiful thing I have ever seen one athlete do to another. Luke Hancock did one more thing: he prayed with his teammate and friend. The prayer was stripped down to the basics, the bare essentials. It went like this.“Lord, watch over us and let Kevin be OK during this tough time,” he began. “The Lord does everything for a reason, and He will get us through this.”
This kind of the moment was like the cross and resurrection at their point of intersection, the moment when you know everything is going to be ok. All will be well. You could see Ware calming down, listening to his friend and teammate as emergency aid was given to his leg. Louisville would win the game and then the national championship, a perfect Easter Monday finish for the Cardinals. But the true, gritty moments of faith were in the actions of one individual turning, literally running, to another person in need. And loving him completely in a terrifying moment.
What would it mean to be faithful to God in struggle and adversity, and not just in our successes, our triumphs? This kind of question once propelled me into looking at the experience of Native Americans and the voices of pain and hope in the modern literature of native people.
As a faulty member, I began a journey three years ago by teaching a new course in Native American Literature. How did all 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 red-tailed hawk, swooping down from a great height in the sky. 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, and the least rational. 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. There was also no blood, and 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 since 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 about the red-tailed hawk, the more I wanted to learn.
It took me a few days to tell my wife about the incident. She is cool, rational, level-headed—a Libra on the Zodiac. She is a trained attorney with a skeptical intelligence. I’m the mystical one, the dreamer of dreams.
My wife’s 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 course in the English Department because a magical bird from heaven crashed into my car, and my Native American name is Falling Hawk. The literature in the course has reservation realism, and the kind of brutal problems that have no easy answer, no quick fix in the suffering of a people. What would it mean to be faithful in the face of a suffering people?
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 so 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, and 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 and healing, even as it goes to places of sorrow and suffering, like the journey of two people to pick up a father’s ashes. It holds tightly to sorrow, like the women at the cross. 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: 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.’”
On this third Sunday of Easter, we have constellations of hope and new life. The women at the cross. They became the first witnesses to resurrection because they were steadfast in the face of suffering. A black and a white teammate on the basketball court became brothers, practicing tribal cooperation, in a moment of agony. They also both became national champions two days later, but their moments together will rise higher; they will never be forgotten. And two Native American boys become men, sharing the ashes of a father. All of these groups are holding the same Easter message. Take care of each other. Take care of the planet, a falling red-tailed hawk once told me, because she is the mother of us all. Be kind to each other. Love is the mightiest medicine in the world.