April 1, 2018

April’s Fool

Passage : Matthew 27:57–61; 28:1–10

Click here to listen to this sermon.


 

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation,
the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said,
“Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive,
‘After three days I will rise again.’  —Matthew 27:62–63

 

So, did you hear that the pope called Sister Jean this week and told her that if Loyola wins the tournament, he’d canonize her as a saint?  April Fools’.

Did you hear that the state legislature of Alabama has decided to change the value of ‘Pi’ to 3.0 because it is a more biblical number?  April Fools’.

Did you hear that a famous fast-food franchise has purchased the Liberty Bell from the US government and renamed it the Taco Liberty Bell?  April Fool’s.

Did you hear that Walt Disney has purchased MIT for $6.9 billion?  They’re adding the School for Imagineering, the Scrooge McDuck School of Management, and the Donald Duck Department of Linguistics.  April Fools’.

Those are all real pranks perpetrated on the first of April in recent years.  For a few hours MIT’s web site showed a doctored photograph of the famous MIT dome capped by Mickey Mouse ears.

But I think my favorite prankster of all is the nineteenth-century antiquities dealer in France who couldn’t limit his activity to a single spring day.  He sold one of his clients 27,000 different forgeries, including a letter he claimed Aristotle wrote to Alexander the Great—in French.

April Fools’ Day became a big thing in the sixteenth century when France switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and New Year’s Day moved from the traditional April 1 to the novel January 1.  Those who were too unlettered to hear the news or too stubborn to make the switch became known as April Fools.

But prank-playing during the days following the Spring Equinox goes way back in many cultures and many lands. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale from the fourteenth century about Chaunticleer and Pertelote occurs on March 32nd.

Actually, April Fools’ Day goes all the way back to the first Easter. Fake news, of course, did not begin with the current presidential administration.  Did you notice that Matthew structures his whole Easter story around the fear of fake news?

Jesus was undone, of course, by an unholy conspiracy of church and state, of religion and politics, of Temple and Empire, of Jerusalem and Rome.  When his ruined remains are interred in a borrowed grave, the Temple—High Priest Caiaphas—petitions the Empire—Governor Pilate. “We remember what that imposter said: ‘after three days I will rise again.’  Guard the grave, so that his friends won’t steal the body and hide it and claim he came back from the dead. Fake news!”

And I love Pilate’s response.  Matthew has a sense of humor.  Pilate says, “OK, take a guard and make it as secure as you can.” It’s as if Pilate is saying, “Well, okay, here’s a platoon of MP’s; go ahead and glue the tomb door shut with mortar and trowel, but if this guy really is who he says he is, my legionnaires are not going to be able to keep him dead.”

Then the biggest April Fools’ prank of them all.  The earth shakes. A splendid vanny envoy from the great blue beyond comes crashing to earth like a Chinese space station, pries the stone from its mortared hinges, and sits down on top of it as if to say, “Take that, Caiaphas and Pilate!”

Matthew tells us, drolly: “For fear of him, the guards shook, like the earth itself, and became like dead men.” Once again, that Matthean sense of humor.  The guards—who are supposed to be very much alive, bristling with shields and swords and lances and helmets—become like dead men, while Jesus—who is supposed to be very, very dead—suddenly shows up among a horde of his friends and greets them with “Hail!” just like a good Wolverine.

At seminary a classmate of mine made a friendly wager.  He said, “I’ll bet you a dollar I can sum up the whole New Testament in two words.”  I said, “You’re on.” He said, “Jesus saves.” I said, “You win.”

“Jesus saves” is the terse précis of the whole sprawling catalogue of Christian theology.  Karl Barth wrote 13 brick-sized volumes on Christian theology and John Calvin wrote 22,224 pages of Bible commentary but the whole thing distills to this concentrated essence: “Jesus saves.”

It’s everywhere in Christendom: on billboards and bumper stickers and church signs, sometimes in neon.  Sometimes you’ll see a T-shirt with Jesus in soccer shorts and shin guards and goalie gloves.  Sometimes he’s wearing a hockey mask and holding a goalie stick.  Sometimes he’s pressing the ‘Save’ button on his computer.  Anachronism is fun.

“Jesus saves.”  It’s everywhere. But we don’t always pause to ask how and why.  Why is it precisely Jesus who saves, and what exactly does he do to save us?  How does he repair the fractured relationship between humanity and divinity?  How does he restore the disfigured image of God in us?

The Christian Church has used multiple images and metaphors and narratives to explain exactly how Jesus saves, but one of those narratives is The Great Deception.

Easter was one of the biggest surprises in human history, one of the most stunning reversals of fortune in literature.  Comatose soldiers and a living carpenter.  It is as if God outwits the principalities and powers of Death and Hell.  He takes them by surprise.  Death thought he had won, but God sidesteps him.

That’s the way C. S. Lewis tells the tale, right?  Do you read The Narnia Chronicles to your children or grandchildren?  Do you remember The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

When the four siblings stumble through the back of a giant wardrobe into the magical land of Narnia, and Edmund betrays his brother and sisters into the clutches of the White Witch for a piece of candy, his life is forfeit, and all Narnia belongs to the White Witch because of Edmund’s enormous, foolish, greedy, shallow error.  Always winter and never Christmas in Narnia.

But then Aslan the great golden lion offers to die in Narnia’s stead, and the White Witch thinks this transaction is to her advantage because Aslan is the King and with him gone, Narnia will belong to her anyway.  So she does him in on a stone table whose symbolism I needn’t explain.

The next day, however, Aslan’s corpse is missing and the stone table is shattered into pieces.  And there he is, romping with the children whose lives he has ransomed.  He has outwitted the White Witch.

He explains how it works.  The White Witch, says Aslan, did not know the deeper magic from before the dawn of time.  If she had been familiar with the deeper magic from before the dawn of time, “she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Stone Table would crack and death itself would start working backwards.”[1]

I love that phrase: death works backwards.  That’s what happened between Good Friday and Easter.  When Jesus gives up the ghost on Friday afternoon, and they throw his mangled corpse into a borrowed grave, Death and Hell celebrate their greatest victory, because Jesus is the Son of God, the most precious pillage and plunder of all time.

But Death and Hell do not know the deeper magic from before the dawn of time; they do not know that Death can never hold the Son of God for long.  So God has outwitted Death, God has outmaneuvered Hell.  It’s The Great Reversal.  God is sly as a fox, shrewder than the guys in Ocean’s Eleven.

This way of explaining how Jesus saves is especially prominent in the Eastern Orthodox Church, so on the day after Easter in places like Russia, Ukraine, and Greece, priests and parishioners gather beneath those golden domes to tell funny stories and play pranks on one another, to celebrate the greatest reversal of all time.  That’s the real origin of April Fools’ Day.

It doesn’t always seem as if God is winning, does it?  It doesn’t always look like The Great Reversal.  But when I sense the death that’s all around us, or fear the darkness that’s right above us, or notice the meanness and discourtesy between us, or watch the pinched prejudices and narrow enmities that seem to be gaining on us, I look for the Easter people.  “Look for the helpers,” says Mr. Rogers.  I look for the helpers.  I look for those who see to it that death begins to work backwards.

In December Bev Kirk sent me the most wonderful Christmas letter. Bev is part of a team of 20 sponsors, 16 of them from Kenilworth Union, who are helping to get a family from the Congo settled here in America through RefugeeOne.  If 20 sounds like a huge number, there’s a reason for that.

The family they’re helping is Mom and Dad and nine kids, ages 2 through 17.  The family fled a vicious Civil War in the Congo in 1999 and ended up in a refugee camp in Tanzania; the parents had been there for 19 years.  All the kids were born in the camp.

When they came to the States, some of the kids didn’t even know how to hold a pencil, let alone read and write and add and subtract.  I am so proud of this team of sponsors.  They are working so hard trying to turn these Congolese friends into English-speakers and Americans.  The amount of love and imagination and the number of hours they’ve given is just beyond calculation; you couldn’t put a number on it; it’s like the Mastercard commercial: priceless.

Right around Christmas, three of the girls from the Congo family were feeling crummy—congestion, headaches, probably just a cold—so Bev took them to the Mt. Sinai Clinic on Touhy Avenue, where a Physician’s Assistant treats the girls.  Her name is Marina, and Bev says that she is little and blond and pretty and smart.

And Marina turns to Bev and says, “Are you a Doctor?” because Bev is so wise it seems like she’s been in medical school for eight years, but Bev says, “No, I’m just a mother and grandmother who is trying to help this amazing refugee family.”

And Marina stops what she’s doing with the stethoscope and looks at Bev and says, “I’m a refugee.  I came here 28 years ago from Russia.  I’ve been trying to help refugees ever since.”

And then Marina the PA brightens with pride and tells Bev, “Many of the refugee mothers name their babies after me.  That makes me so proud, because many of them are Muslims, and I am a Jew.”

Jew or Muslim or Christian, Marina is a great name for a refugee baby, because of course it means “of the ocean,” or “the seafarer.”  Great name for the children of men and women who crossed an ocean to make a new home in America.

When I heard that shapely story of perfect symmetry, it just seemed to me that death sort of cringed, pulled back into itself, in that shapely little symmetrical story.  It just seemed as if death’s borders had shrunk.  It just seemed as if death began to work backwards.

Look for the helpers.  Look for the Easter people.

 

[1]C.  S.  Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: MacMillan, 1950), pp. 132-133.