The Parable of the Smoke Jumper

Living in California before Karen and I came to Washington, we were exposed to the exquisite climate of San Diego. As the television weather prognosticators would always remind us, we lived in a weather paradise: “Well once again folks, along the coast it will be 74 degrees and sunny today, tomorrow, and for the foreseeable future.” I never quite understood why television stations in San Diego needed to pay people to tell us what the weather was going to be like.

In truth we lived five minutes from Pacific Beach and the open Pacific Ocean. Daytime temperatures in the summer rarely exceeded 80 degrees, and relative humidity was nothing like what Washingtonians experience during the District’s “dog days” of summer. Outside of a brief rainy season from say late January to the middle of February, sunshine was usually the norm in San Diego. But along with an ideal climate also lurked the outside possibility of an earth tremor here and there. And when the strong, hot, exceedingly dry Santa Anna winds blew in from the eastern desert, westerly toward the coast, the greatest liability and fear was uncontrollable fires that too often plagued the state and national forests and the communities located near by. In a climate where rainfall measures less than seven inches a year on average, fire is one of the greatest fears that comes with living in “paradise.”

Folks who are trained to fight these fires in a very particular and dangerous way are a cadre of fire fighting professionals known as “Smoke Jumpers.” Smoke jumpers are a tough and courageous lot who parachute from aircraft into remote areas where out of control fires rage. And because of their courage and training the jumpers are a significant weapon used to bring raging infernos under control.

When I was the dean of the cathedral in San Diego, I had a conversation with a smoke jumper. And strangely enough the conversation was about Easter and the story of the days and events leading up to the resurrection of Jesus. The conversation occurred in an adult class that I was teaching called “A Journey in Faith,” which was a 10-week preparation course for adults interested in being confirmed or received into the Episcopal Church. Each participant in the class was invited to tell a story that had a significant impact on their life. They were invited to also share it from a personal theological perspective that might help others understand how they viewed the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus from that experience. This, I must confess, was no easy task and, yet, I was amazed at how many in the class of 25 adults were willing to rise to the challenge. For many in the class it was hard to understand the resurrection narratives of Jesus simply from the literal biblical accounts that they had studied.

They struggled with how accurate was the account of Jesus’ resurrection in the Book of Acts if Paul wrote about it 30 years after the event took place; and with no eye witnesses still living, who could have assisted him with specific details about this pivotal event in the life of the Christian Church?

And why was it that clear references to the resurrection of Jesus as being central in the life of Christianity were not a significant part of the formational Christian community in the first 40 years of its life following Jesus crucifixion?

If it was so important why was the resurrection not mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew until A.D. 85, some 55 years after Jesus’ death on the cross? And in reading the accounts of the resurrection, why were there different and conflicting details about it in the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?

All of these issues were on the table and for many who were becoming new Christians by their baptism on Holy Saturday and confirmed as well; they seemed to be road blocks in their way to fully embracing the Christian story. Maundy Thursday they could grasp, Good Friday they could painfully understand, but Holy Saturday and the first celebration of Easter and Easter Sunday celebrating the resurrection were difficult to embrace beyond broad secular implications.

Well anyway, the smoke jumper in the class decided to tell her story. It went like this. “I parachuted into a fire zone in one of the National Forests in California just outside of San Diego. We were in an area that had already been “knocked down” but were assigned to enter the burn zone and snuff out any smoldering embers. I approached the base of a large tree that had lost all of its leaves and branches from the fire and remained as nothing more than a blackened pole in the ground. As I looked at the base of what was once a beautiful mountain oak tree, I saw this large blackened mass resting at its base. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was so I went over to it and with the tip of my shovel gently poked it. As I did, the outside blackened layers peeled off and inside of the mass I found 3 live baby eaglets. And with further probing I realized to my amazement that the large blackened mass at the base of the tree was really the remains of a large female bald eagle. She apparently had stretched out her wings to cover and protect her babies from the raging inferno that had quickly passed through that part of the forest. And for the moment I was overwhelmed and awe struck. That either from a raptor’s instinct or a mother’s undying love for her babies, she had given her life so that they might survive and live to one day soar, graceful and free, high above the trees as she had once done.

I got down on one knee, and pick up the eaglets and placed them gingerly in my knap sack. They were taken to a raptor sanctuary where they were eventually raised to adulthood and released back into the wild, very close to where they had originally been found after the fire. Said the smoke jumper to the class: “Maybe that’s what the resurrection of Jesus is all about. I mean,” she said, “that Jesus gave his life so that we might live and have life in all its fullness and become what God had intended each of us to be. And whether it was by instinct or love, the mother eagle had given her life away for the hoped for life and survival of her offspring. And so what was left at the base of the tree was nothing more than a charred empty shell in which life itself was contained. And so the life of that mother eagle now lives on in the lives of her offspring. And they really did become what God intended them to be.”

She ended her story by sharing with the class that she still had a hard time understanding the Easter story of the resurrection but she knew it was all about love giving love, and the giving of life to others as a gift that has no end. Through her story she felt she had been touched by God in some way and in that touching she had come to know the power of Jesus in her own life. She said, “Whenever I am in the forest now and see an eagle gracefully soaring, wings majestically outstretched, catching the thermal currents high above the forest’s tree tops, I am reminded about miracles, and that the resurrection is about miracles. And Easter is all about love giving love, sacrifice, and new life. In my own way,” she said, “I have experienced the resurrection.”

This morning I’ll bet that among the several thousands that are here in this Cathedral there has to be at least 1,000 stories like the one I just shared about my smoke jumper friend. And this morning I wonder how many have shared their story or stories with someone else; maybe a member of the family, with a confidant, a spouse or partner. And so just maybe you might take this Easter Sunday and along with the Easter dinner and other festivities that you might experience after leaving the Cathedral, you might find the time to share what the resurrection means to you and where Jesus Christ is in your life and how you have come to know him as the living God and the resurrected one. It takes courage, I know, but you don’t have to be a smoke jumper to share it. You just have to be touched by the miracle of Easter. Happy Easter and may God bless each and every one of you on this great day. Amen.