Saturday, March 31, 2018

"Easter Fools" - Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 20:1-18

In case you somehow didn’t know, today is Easter Sunday.  It’s the high, holy day of the Christian year, the day that we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the ultimate victory of life over death, of love and joy over pain and despair.  If it happens to be the day that we have biscuits and gravy and grits for breakfast and get Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies, well, all the better.  It is Easter Sunday.  But it is also – April Fools’ Day. 

Easter and April Fools’ are generally in pretty close proximity, but rarely do they fall on the same day.  The date of Easter depends on cycles of the moon and falls somewhere within a six week period each year, while April 1 falls on a Sunday only once every seven years, on average.  The last time Easter fell on April Fools’ Day was in 1956.  For a lot of us, this has not happened in our lifetime.  It will happen next in 2029, and then again in 2040 - but after that, not again in this century. 

The two days could not be more different.  It is unclear exactly where April Fools’ Day came from, but many believe it started with the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in the 1582.  Under the old calendar, the New Year was celebrated on March 25, but festivals marking the New Year were put off until April 1 if March 25 fell during Holy Week.  The year that the calendar changed, there were a lot of people who did not realize the year now began in the cold of January, and they went ahead and celebrated the New Year on April 1 - and so they were called “April Fools.”  It is unknown whether this is actually the way that April Fools came about, but it has come to be a day for “fooling” people – a day for hoaxes.

One of the best media-generated April fools’ jokes dates from many years ago.  It was a news report that aired on BBC.  It opened with a line about Spring coming early that year, prompting the spaghetti harvest in Switzerland to come early, too.

Against a video backdrop of happy women harvesting spaghetti from trees, claims about the cultivation of spaghetti were made in a serious and straightfaced manner. Spaghetti’s uniform length was explained as the result of years of painstaking cultivation. The ravenous spaghetti weevil, which had wreaked havoc with harvests of years past, had been conquered, said the report.

Afterwards, the BBC switchboard lit up with calls about the piece.  Many people asked where they could go to watch the harvesting operation in person.  Others wondered whether spaghetti would grow well in Britain, and could they buy spaghetti trees for themselves?

Well, we all know about April Fools, a day for jokes, a day for trying to get people to fall for unlikely stories.  April Fools, of course, is not a religious holiday, and has no connection at all to Easter.  Easter is not about preposterous claims – it is a day in which the disciples were given the news that Jesus, who had been crucified, was actually alive… a day that we celebrate the news that death is not final…. 

Wait a minute...  It may be that there is more of a connection between Easter and April Fools than we may have thought.  And since I may be retired, or as Jere likes to say, rewired the next time Easter and April Fools' Day coincide, if I am ever going to look into this, today is the day.

On Easter, Jesus fooled the power of empire.  As we have read and considered and experienced through our journey through the gospel of John since the beginning of this year, Jesus was a threat to the religious leaders.  He threatened their place, their role, their authority by saying that God’s favor and power and blessing was available to everyone, even to outsiders, even to sinners, even to foreigners, even to Samaritans.  This did not go over well.  He said that the law was made for our sake, not the other way around, and that to choose a legalistic application of the law over human life and flourishing was to do violence to the spirit and intent of the law.  He said that the law was basically summarized in “Love God and love your neighbor.” 

Jesus hung out with the wrong kind of crowd.  He broke social taboos.  He criticized the financial operation of the temple.  He had harsh words for those who were self-righteous and hypocritical.  At the same time, he was all about grace and forgiveness but as the power brokers saw it, he was far too lenient on sin.

Jesus was a threat to the way things were done, a threat to the prevailing order, a threat to the powers that be.  He scared them because they feared that he would excite the crowds and bring on the wrath of Rome.  This man of love and grace and forgiveness and integrity and honesty was such a threat that they wanted him gone.

Now for the Romans, Jesus was a minor problem.  For Pilate, the Roman governor, he was more of an irritant, and in the end, even if he didn’t see much harm in Jesus, he was willing to have him put to death in order to keep the peace.  In the eyes of Rome, Jesus died to eliminate the risk of future rebellion.  It was the way that empires always deal with those who pose a challenge, who threaten their power.  And so Jesus was arrested and beaten and mocked and hung on a cross.  Problem solved.

But the joke was on them.  Jesus could not be contained by the tomb.  The problem was that Jesus just would not stay dead.

Rome continued with this solution to its Jesus problem, its Christian problem, its minority religion problem that refused to bow to Caesar problem.  In that day and time, to say “Jesus is Lord” was a dangerous statement, because the empire demanded that subjects say “Caesar is Lord.”  Christians suffered persecution and worse.  Many were martyred.  Caesar thought he was in charge of the world and that Jesus would be forgotten.  But the joke was on him.  Today, Caesar is a salad – and millions of people confess not that Caesar is Lord, but that Jesus is Lord, and are gathering this morning to sing “Alleluia!” 

That’s not all.  On Easter, Jesus fooled Mary and the other disciples.  Mary came to the place of Jesus’ burial to mourn, just as many of us have gone to the graves of loved ones to mourn.  When we go to the cemetery, the last thing in the world we would expect to see is a grave opened up.  The last thing in the world Mary expected was to find the stone rolled away.

And so she ran to tell the others.  Peter and John returned with her, running ahead.  They found that the tomb was empty, all right.  We read that the other disciple, who was John, saw and believed, but apparently what he believed was Mary’s report that the stone had been removed.  They did not buy that rising from the dead stuff.  Peter and John went back home.

But Mary remained.  When she looked in the tomb, there were two angels standing there.  “Woman, why are you weeping?” they said.  “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” she said.  Then she turned around, and there was Jesus.  But she didn’t recognize him.  She thought he was the gardener.  “Sir, if you have carried him away, just tell me where you have taken him.”  But then Jesus spoke her name.  And she knew.

The best news, the greatest news that we hear can evoke both laughter and tears.  Relief and joy and shock and surprise and disbelief and a flood of happiness, all at once.  A loved one pulls through a terrible illness.  A child we have worried ourselves sick about turns out to be safe.  Even at a memorial service, we mourn for a loved one and at the same time celebrate a life that has blessed us.  Tears and laughter. 

We have all experienced this.  In 2015, the Oxford Dictionary named its Word of the Year.  Some of the runner-ups were dark web, on fleek, ad blocker, and Brexit.  The winner was not a word at all, but a picture.  It was the tears of joy emoji, a symbol of a whole mix of emotions that end in joy.

I picture it that way for Mary.  Tears of joy, laughing and crying at the same time. 

Mary ran to tell the others.  She announced to them, “I have seen the Lord!”  But their response is underwhelming.  They do not seem to put stock in Mary’s news.  It was literally too good to be true.  As Luke puts it, “It seemed to them an idle tale.”  Something like a bad and completely inappropriate April Fools’ hoax.

But the joke was on them.  Later Jesus appeared to the disciples, and they believed.  Jesus was alive!  And there was no doubt laughter.  Jesus could laugh with Mary, laugh with the other women, laugh that she had thought Jesus to be the gardener.  He could laugh with the disciples when he showed them the holes in his hand and side.  Laughter and tears together.  What started with weeping ended with alleluia. 

Easter is a celebration that the greatest joke is on death itself.  There is a reason that Jesus’ resurrection is celebrated in the spring.  There is even a certain logic to the way the date of Easter is determined each year.  Easter is the only holiday based on cycles of the moon.  It comes on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox.  That sounds pretty complicated, but it makes sense if you think about it: Easter coincides with the greening of the earth.  Christ is risen and the whole world comes to life.  The grass is turning green.  Birds are singing.  Woodpeckers are hard at work.  Robins are coming back.  Crocuses are popping up and daffodils will soon be blooming.  Folks are getting their lawn mowers ready, or at least thinking about it.  


At Easter we think about bunnies and chicks and lilies, living, growing things.  These are all signs of new life.  But there is a big difference.  These things are natural.  They are expected.  Easter is not at all natural, not at all expected.  Imagine a police officer banging on your door in the middle of the night.  “Sir, I have some good news.  Your son who was buried last week is alive.”  We just don’t get news like that.


Barbara Brown Taylor said, “When a human being goes into the ground, that is that… You say good-bye.  You pay your respects and you go on with your life as best you can, knowing that the only place springtime happens in a cemetery is on the graves, not in them….”


Easter is a celebration that death does not have the last word. Frederick Buechner put it this way; “Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.”  The joke is on death, because in the end, God’s love proves stronger even than death.  

This is Good News.  This is Great News.  This is news that calls for Alleluia!  Because death is not just something that confronts us at the end of life.  Far from it.  Death confronts us every day.

Pastor and writer Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “The Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of American culture, is really about death and resurrection.  It’s about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small.”

Sometimes we dig a grave for ourselves.  And sometimes, life seems to do it for us.  We all need Easter because we all long for life.  I’m not only talking about the hope of a future on the other side of physical death, though that is certainly part of it.  But the fact is, brokenness is all around us.  Death is a part of our lives right now.


We all know about disappointment.  We all know about heartache.  We all know about things going badly wrong.  We look at our world and see violence, greed, poverty, disease, terrorism, abuse, just egregious inequality, and a whole lot of fear.  Outright cruelty seems to be part and parcel of our national conversation. Within our circle of friends and family there will likely be broken relationships, unemployment, problems with drugs and alcohol, serious illness.  We may be facing divorce or financial crises or legal troubles or just plain sad stories.  There are plenty of cases we would think to be hopeless, beyond fixing, beyond repair. 


We all know about Good Friday.  We live Good Friday all the time.  It is a Good Friday kind of world.  And I think we are really here today because we have all had it with Good Fridays.  We know hurt and pain and suffering all too well, and we are ready – we are desperate - for Good News.


The Good News of Easter, the message of resurrection, is that even when we don’t expect it, even when we don’t believe it to be possible, God brings new life.  It is surprising.  It is amazing.  It elicits those alleluias.


Now, living with the assurance of Easter – living with the faith that God can take our hurt and pain and disappointment and bring blessing, faith that God can somehow take our feeble efforts and bring forth something wonderful, faith that out of all the deaths of this life God can bring new life – can appear foolish.  Our reading from 1 Corinthians speaks of the foolishness of the cross, and later in 1 Corinthians, Paul says that we are Fools for Christ.  You might say that followers of Jesus are Easter Fools.  


Easter means that in the end, the joke is on death.  Beyond all of the deaths we experience, there is the new life that God gives.  Beyond all the deaths of this life and even beyond, there is resurrection.


That is the Good News, the Great News of Easter.  Alleluia!  Amen.


(Children will have noisemakers to use whenever they hear the word “alleluia.”)

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