Sunday, April 1, 2018
This Is What It Means To Say Easter
Somebody upstairs was smiling when the calendar came out with the Easter celebration coinciding with April Fool’s Day. Perfect. The absurd and the sacred are mixed together, and I don’t know where to go with this. What are other preachers doing this morning? Did someone move the body of Jesus as a joke? But the church is saying that resurrection is no joke at all. It really happened, and we should never get comfortable with the resurrection of Jesus. It’s a crazy idea, one of overwhelming optimism, no matter how dark your present reality is. Jesus is risen. Resurrection is powerful and wild, just as spring will blossom all around us. The birds are singing now.
Easter is a triumphant day when new life overcomes death, and the world is righted by the hand of God, lifting his son Jesus to a new awakening. But what about Good Friday? What about all that suffering of Jesus? Three hours on the cross, after being whipped and spat upon. Where was God then? Good Friday and Easter are two sides of the same coin, and you can’t have one without the other. Joy and sorrow are woven together, and they’re impossible to separate. That’s life. The cross is in the middle of our reality, and so is new life.
But what is the right balance between sorrow and joy on this Easter day? The Protestant cross emphasizes the resurrection victory. The body of Jesus is gone from the cross, lifted up to new life by God. The cross is left empty, and becomes symbolic of God’s power, the Easter victory. The cross is no longer an implement of violence and torture, which it was at the time of Jesus during the Roman Empire. It took time—centuries actually--for the church to accept the cross as a positive symbol. Now it can be worn as jewelry. On the other side of things, the Roman Catholic cross always includes the body of Jesus, called the crucifix. This emphasizes the centrality of suffering, and the resurrection energy is diminished. The sacrifice of Jesus is the holy suffering that saves our souls. He died for our sins, so Catholics portray this, viscerally, with a physical Jesus on the cross. Here at Kent, we’re somewhere in between in St. Joseph’s Chapel. Jesus is freed from bondage, but the cross is still close behind him. His arms are still in the cruciform position, but they seem free to embrace others; to embrace the world. This morning Jesus is surrounded by beautiful resurrection ribbons made by Ms. Lynch. Jesus is risen indeed.
The gospel lesson from Mark shows the excitement with the first news of this resurrection. The most striking element in Mark’s Easter miracle is the presence of three women at the tomb of Jesus. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to anoint Jesus’s body. These three women stayed with Jesus at the cross when he suffered and died, and here they return to anoint Jesus’s body with spices. Women are more faithful than the male disciples; they are with Jesus all the way, while the male disciples have scattered, fearing for their lives. Inside the tomb is a messenger who addresses the women. The text doesn’t say that he is an angel. The only thing mentioned about the man is his white robe. In other gospels he is an angel, or two angels, or two mortal messengers. The messenger says that Jesus will be found in Galilee; that he is risen from the dead. In our ordinary rounds here at Kent, we hear an extraordinary story, an amazing testimony. This kind of thing doesn’t happen very often. How can we integrate this crazy reality into our daily lives? The women do it by being faithful in response to suffering, by sticking close to the cross. Life is tragic, but don’t run away from it. Your presence will be needed shortly, for those you love. Stay close to the cross in everything you do. The women do that. They are faithful in suffering, and they hear the good news before anyone else.
In my English class in Native American Studies, 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 mighty 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 sudden 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. 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.
“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, half and half. 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 Easter Sunday, we have constellations of hope and new life surrounding us. With the Easter faith, we know that tomorrow will be better than today. The universe is on our side; a victory has already been won. We just need to live into it, day by day. We remember the women at the cross, and then at the tomb, who show us how to be faithful in sorrow. If you do this, you will be the first to see the new thing that God is doing. These three women became the first witnesses to resurrection because they were steadfast in the face of suffering; they knew the truth first. And two Native American boys become men, sharing the ashes of a father, as they forgive him and forgive each other. Both groups are holding the same Easter message. Take care of each other. Take care of the planet, because she is the mother of us all. Love is the mightiest medicine in the world, and today we share new life; and seek its source with faith in God. Happy Easter to all of you. The Lord is risen.