Holy Fools: A Sermon for Easter Sunday
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
(This sermon was proceeded by a prank on the children, in which they expected an egg cracked over the head of one of their friends would be a raw egg, but were then delighted and surprised when the egg was instead filled with glitter.)
So I realize that was a fairly irreverent way to start an Easter sermon, but if there is any day that a preacher can get away with cracking an egg full of glitter over someone’s head, I’m hoping that today is that day. It is, after all, in addition to being Easter Sunday, April Fool’s day. I will admit that something about this combination really appealed to me, and so I actually did some research to find out how often this glorious holiday merger occurs. I had assumed that it happens with relative frequency, since Easter generally falls within the first two weeks of April, but as it turns out, this splendid unification of Easter and April Fool’s day is actually extremely rare. The last time it occurred was in 1956, and after today, the next occurrence will be in 2029, once more in 2040, and then, never again in this century. Once I made this discovery, I knew I had to take advantage of the opportunity somehow, and of all the ideas that occurred to me, cracking a glitter egg over someone’s head was the one that seemed least likely to lead to an uprising of those in attendance. So, you’re welcome.
All joking aside, however, the theological significance of this day is actually more profound than one might think. It certainly goes deeper than an egg filled with glitter. In fact, one could make the argument that the entire Christian story is God’s way of pulling the biggest, most unexpected prank of all time.
Think about it. God hears humanity crying out to be saved. God is aware of how many times humanity has been given a chance to make things right, and how many times humanity has royally screwed that up. Despite that, God decides that the best way to save humanity was to become one of us. And as if that wasn’t unexpected enough, God didn’t become just any human. God was born to a poor, unwed, teenage mother in an animal’s feeding trough. Add to that, that the savior of humanity grew up, not in a cosmopolitan city, but in the backwater town of Nazareth-- a move so unexpected that when rumors started going around about a potential savior from Nazareth, people said, “that’s not possible, nothing good comes out of Nazareth.” Now you might think that being born into such lowly circumstances, Jesus might want to work his way up the ladder a bit— to gain some favor with the rich and powerful— in order to have the kind of influence needed to really change the world. But if you thought that, then the joke’s on you, because Jesus surrounded himself with the poorest, least powerful people he could find. He called fishermen and day-laborers to be his disciples and he associated with the outcasts of his society. Not only did Jesus associate with all the wrong people, he also did all the wrong things, he broke all the wrong rules, and pissed off all the wrong people. Which of course, is exactly why he found himself arrested, tortured, crucified, and buried in a tomb.
And just like that, it seems like maybe the joke is on God. God’s gamble to save humanity by becoming one of us seems to have failed. The story looks to be over, with love lying cold and lifeless in a tomb. And that pretty much brings us to where we started this morning— with Mary standing in front of an empty tomb, sad and confused, talking to a man she assumes to be the gardener. But of course, as we all know, that was no gardener Mary was speaking with, and as it turns out, the punchline was God’s after all. God’s cosmic prank on the forces of hate and fear in this world was to say that love always gets the last word. New life will always rise up out of death. Love, hope, life, and joy can never stay buried for long— no matter how many stones we put in front of them.
That’s the unexpected surprise of the Easter story. And we know it by heart at this point. We’ve all heard it before. But somehow, I think we always need to hear it again. Because although we are Easter people, we so often feel like we are living in a Good Friday world. It can often feel, when we look around at the pain of the world, or even the pain in our own lives, that love does not triumph over fear. It can often feel that choosing to believe in this resurrecting God— this God of new life and new beginnings— is a fool’s errand. When we see the recovering addict relapse again. When we find ourselves with another failed relationship. When there is yet another school shooting. When the cancer comes back. When the diagnosis we feared most is confirmed. When we see yet another news report of bombs falling in Syria. When yet another unarmed black man is shot to death. In those Good Friday moments, we may feel a lot like the disciples, huddling somewhere in the dark, feeling lost and afraid, wondering if we had gotten it all terribly wrong. Wondering if, in the end, the joke really is on us. It can feel that way sometimes. In those moments we are also an awful lot like Mary, so blinded by grief and despair, so certain that the story is over, that maybe we fail to recognize the Easter moment that is standing right in front of us, just waiting to call us by name.
Those of you who participated in our Lenten book study will remember how the author— Rev. Dr. Emily Heath— recounts a familiar story about a man who, while out walking, falls into a hole. “He finds himself at the bottom of the hole and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t find a way out. So he begins to call out for help. Soon, a doctor walks by and, stopping briefly, writes the man a prescription and throws it down to the man before walking away. Next, a clergy person walks by and, answering the man’s cries for help, says a prayer for him before continuing on their way. Finally, a friend walks by and, seeing his friend at the bottom of the hole, jumps down into the hole with him. ‘You fool!’ the man says. ‘Why did you do that? Now we’re both stuck!’ The friend smiles and says, ‘Yes, but I’ve been here before, and I know the way out.’”
This story is a parable, Heath suggests, for how God’s resurrection power works in the world. God saw that humanity was in trouble, God heard our cries for help, and so God jumped down into the hole with us-- a seemingly foolish thing for the creator of the universe to do. But because God became incarnate in human flesh, because God walked, and lived, and died as one of us, “God knows what it is like to feel stuck in the tomb,” Heath writes, “and God knows how to get us out. Resurrection is not an academic exercise for Christians. Resurrection is following Jesus out of the tomb and into new life” (Courageous Faith: How to Rise and Resist in a Time of Fear. Heath, Rev. Dr. Emily, Pilgrim Press, 2017).
So the way I see it, the Easter story presents us with both an invitation and a challenge. The invitation is for us to believe—as foolish as it may seem in this Good Friday world— that yes— love will triumph over fear, resurrection is possible, and new life can and will rise up from the tomb. It’s an invitation for us, when we find ourselves like Mary— afraid and confused and unable to see past our own grief— to be able to recognize the unexpected Easter moments that are often just around the corner, or maybe even right in front of us. It’s an invitation for us to expand our vision, because maybe those Easter moments won’t look exactly like we expected them to. In fact, they may present themselves as rather unimpressive at first— a gardener, perhaps, or a plain white egg. Maybe it’s the single green blade coming up out of the ground at the end of a long, cold winter. Maybe it’s that first day of sobriety after the relapse, or the first belly laugh after a long period of grieving, when you were sure you’d never even smile again. Whatever it looks like, if we’re open to it, if we’re open to the change it brings, we may yet be surprised by joy in ways we never, everknew were possible. The Easter story is an invitation for us to believe that even in our darkest hour, even when we are stuck in the tomb—literally or figuratively— God jumps right in with us in order to show us the way out.
That’s the invitation. The challenge exists when we realize that the story doesn’t end with that lovely moment of recognition in the garden. That moment of surprise and delight is only the beginning. Once we are able to recognize our own unexpected Easter moments, once we follow Jesus out of the tomb and into the light, we are called to help show others the way out as well. “Love one another as I have loved you” was the last command Jesus gave his disciples. We are called to love as Jesus loved, and therefore we are called to jump back down into the hole with those who are crying out for help in this world. And maybe some people would say that that’s a foolish thing to do. Because what could anyone possibly have to gain, once they’ve managed to get out of the hole, by jumping back in again? That’s certainly not going to make anyone wealthy. It’s not going to make anyone feel comfortable. It might not even be without risk sometimes. So yeah, maybe it is a little bit foolish, at least according to the wisdom of some. But here’s what I say to that— if God was willing to play the fool, if God was willing to jump down into the hole with us in order to help us find our way out, then who am I to claim to be any wiser? If indeed I follow a foolish God, then I will be proud to call myself a holy fool.
Children of God, this Easter (and this April Fool’s Day), let us embrace both the invitation and the challenge to be part of the most elaborate prank ever played. The cosmic prank that God played on the forces of sin and death so many years ago is ongoing still today, because resurrection is ongoing still today. Let us play the part of holy fools-- practicing resurrection in our everyday lives, seeking out unexpected Easter moments, letting ourselves be surprised by joy, daring to believe that the story is not yet over, and daring to believe- even when it seems impossible- that love WILL have the last word. May it ever be so, Amen.