Sunday, April 1, 2012

Fools, Ashton Kutcher, & the Kingdom of God
(death, you've been punk'd)

For the first time in years, it has been easy for me to remember the date of Easter day.  Easter day, of course, is worth remembering, especially for Christians.  But for various reasons, it isn’t always easy for me to remember.

But easy this year.  Easy because April 8th, Easter day, is one week after April 1st, Palm Sunday, today.  And April 1st is of course also April Fools’ Day. 

[Off the top of my head, I could not remember the last time this happened.  So I looked it up: 2007.  Not that long ago.  Five years.  But consider that the next closest time was 1928 (and 1917 before that).  And consider that it won’t happen again until at least 2090, and there I’m only making a conservative guess based of the fact that my handy Easter calendar doesn’t go past 2089.  Said handy Easter calendar correctly assumes that I will not need to concern myself with Easter planning beyond 2089.  God willing, and for some perspective here, Jude - my six month old son - will be seventy-seven years old the next time, in God’s good sense of humor, Easter day and Palm Sunday could potentially land on April 8th and April Fools’ Day, respectively.  No fooling.](1)

Now, April Fools’ Day jokes usually follow a predictable form - think here of Candid Camera or Ashton Kutcher’s Punk’d on MTV: you start with the awkward predicament, you give it some time to build in tension and suspense - you watch as the awkwardness ferments - then, after some squirming, the predicament is resolved by the punch line that doesn’t come until the end: the punch line that announces that it’s all been a joke - that you’ve been mislead - the joke’s on you - and the rest of us are laughing because you’re the only one who didn’t know. 

As a kid this pattern could be especially simple (and not especially funny): “There’s a spider on your head!”, for example.  That’s the predicament.  Now give it some time - watch the reaction: the jump, panic, or scream.  Long enough...  “April Fools!”  That’s the punch line.  Now duck, and run like heck.

And this to me feels a lot like Palm Sunday.  A really bad joke.  Only it’s hard to know who exactly is being played.  So much goes so wrong so quickly.  And none of it is funny. One moment Jesus is riding into Jerusalem to chants reserved for kings, the next moment he is strung up on a cross, left for dead, hanging between two thieves.  He’s wrapped in a cloth, entrusted to a tomb, swallowed up by the earth.

Surely the disciples were left looking for the hidden camera somewhere.

The disciples had bet their lives that Jesus was the one.  The one in whom the hope of Israel was set.  “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” they said.  This is the one.  The savior in whom they had put their trust, giving up what they had - all that they had - for the chance to follow him.  Some people have that glow, like merely staying near them will lead to good things - and so you do.  He had awakened their dreams.  They began to believe in God’s promise again, meant for them, not a dry word in a book, not a fossil from an ancient past - but alive, meant for them.  They left their families.

They had followed him around for three years, watching as he healed the sick, raised the dead, and their hearts stirred alive from the insides with the insurmountable, unmistakable yearnings of true hope.

And now his disciples, turned deserters in the moment of crisis, peer out from the shadows and steal a glance at the cross where they see him: covered in blood, April’s Fool.  And they were fools to follow.

You start with the awkward predicament - in this case the sky-high hope - you give it time to build in tension and suspense - you watch as the awkwardness ferments - then, after some squirming, the predicament is resolved by the punch line that doesn’t come until the end: the punch line that announces that it’s all been a joke - that you’ve been mislead - and the rest of us are laughing because you’re the only one who didn’t know.

Was it all the other way around, I wonder?  Was it Jesus made a fool when every last one of the friends he had poured himself into these past, last three years scatter like roaches to darkness as lightning tears the sky in two?  Had he been a fool to call them his friends?  Or was Jesus made a fool long before those faithless few - was Jesus made a fool by the God who once upon a time had called him his beloved, who now, to everyone with eyes to see, appears to have given him up for dead on the cross?  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

Some people say that they cannot call God “Father” and that we would understand if we had ever met their father, that their father was cruel or absentee, nothing like God the Father, but here is Jesus crying from the cross, forsaken, abandoned, made to feel like an orphan.  It is ironic, I think, that in what Jesus names as the moment of divine desertion, the centurion learns to call him God’s Son. 

Was God the fool for believing that if he sent his Son to this vineyard, to these people, they would treat him any differently than the prophets who came before him?  Did God’s stubborn insistence on a thankless creation make him the biggest fool of all?

And what about us?  Here.  Gathered with palm branches in our hands, pinned to our chests, more than two-thousand years later:

Are we fools to look to this Christ on this cross for our hope and our life?
Are we fools to believe that we will not also desert him?
Is God made the fool again to believe that we vineyard workers will receive him any differently than the ones who came before us?

Today’s story is a tragic story made tragic because it is impossible to know who is fooling who.  We assert our innocence in the face of suffering and perceived injustices - we demand our just due.  But deep inside we know better: we are no better.  Swirling folly.  In and through it all, glancing up at the cross, we cannot escape the sneaking suspicion that on this day and all on all our days, daily in our lives, we are only fooling ourselves.

This is what we learn about ourselves on Palm Sunday, I think, as hosannas turn into cries to crucify our king.  The crucified king.  “This is the king” the sign said over his head.  But two thousand years later, he’s still our King.  How does this happen?  How does this make sense?

Two thousand years later, he’s still our King because there is one more fool to be revealed before this Holy Week is through: and the last fool’s name is Death. 

One week hence and we will see it, we will shout it with St Paul: “O Death, where is your sting?  O Hell, where is your victory?”  In the words of the tradition’s great Easter sermon: “[death] took a body, and face to face met God!”

Death, you’ve been punk’d.

You start with the awkward predicament - the death of God’s Son - you give it some time to build in tension and suspense - you watch as the awkwardness ferments - then, after some squirming, the predicament is resolved by the punch line that doesn’t come until the end and - this is the great surprise - death is not the end: but resurrection comes as the punch line that announces that it joke is not the one we thought it was - that Death has been foiled - and all creation will soon be laughing because of the victory of God’s Son.

April Fools. 

Plenty of fools on this, our Palm Sunday.  Plenty more to be discovered in the events of Holy Week along the way to the victory of our God.  As you travel the pilgrim road this Holy Week, as you journey the way of the cross, don’t forget what fools are: a fool is someone who doesn’t make sense.  A fool is someone who doesn’t grasp the reality of their present circumstance.

Holy Week changes everything we thought we knew about reality and our present circumstance, beginning with the king who reigns from the cross. 

Today begins the week whereby Death is made a fool.  Fear follows close behind.  Because this week is true, Death and Fear are fools.  The old common sense of violence, hatred, might makes right, and the accumulation of wealth at the expense of my neighbor are exposed as whimpering attempts at a power that escapes them.  They made sense before, but in this light, no more.

Similarly, you and I are invited by this week, invited by our baptisms, to live into this question: How might I live in such a way that is foolish - makes no sense - unless Jesus Christ was born in the flesh, crucified on the cross, and is risen from the dead?  What would it take for others to say of us: “the only way what they do holds together, makes any sense at all - is in any way intelligible, is explicable - is if the Jesus who was crucified lives today as their King”? 

Amen.

_________

(1) I've since learned that the guess wasn't far off: 2091, for those scoring at home.

A sermon preached April 1, 2012, Palm Sunday, at St Christopher's by-the-Sea

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