Before coming to Ohio, my wife and I lived in the Kansas City metroplex. For reasons that still remain mysterious, I was somehow added to the mailing list for the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, which is called The Leaven. When we moved here, I expected that that would stop, but somehow they got my change of address, so I still get The Leaven. I suppose I could have asked to be taken off, but I enjoy reading some of the articles, especially a column written by the paper’s editor-in-chief Father Mark Goldasich. Fr. Goldasich often relates stories of people from around the archdiocese; some are funny, some are touching, and some, like this recently offered story, bring tears to your eyes:
One day a young man was shopping in a supermarket when he noticed an elderly lady who seemed to be following him. Whatever aisle he turned down, she turned down. Whenever he stopped, she stopped. He also had the distinct impression that she was staring at him.
As the man reached the checkout, sure enough, the lady was right there. Politely, he motioned for the woman to go ahead of him.
Turning around, the elderly lady said, “I hope I haven’t made you feel uncomfortable. It’s just that you look so much like my late son.”
Touched, the young man said, “Oh, no, that’s OK.”
“I know that it’s silly,” continued the lady, “but could I ask you to do something for me? Could you call out, ‘Goodbye, Mom,’ as I leave the store? It would make me feel so happy.”
The young man was glad to oblige. After the lady went through the checkout and was on her way out of the store, he called out, “Goodbye, Mom!”
The lady turned back, smiled and waved.
The young man’s heart swelled, seeing that his small gesture had brought such joy into someone’s life. As he went to pay for his groceries, the clerk said, “That comes to $121.87.”
“Why so much?” said the young man. “I only have five items.”
The clerk replied, “Yeah, I know, but your mother said you’d be paying for her things, too!”
Happy April Fool’s Day!
When I read that outlandish story, I couldn’t help but think of a part of the Exsultet which is sung each year at the Great Vigil of Easter:
It is truly right and good, always and everywhere, with our whole heart and mind and voice to praise you, the invisible, almighty, and eternal God, and your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ Our Lord; for he is the true Paschal Lamb, who at the feast of the Passover paid for us the debt of Adam’s sin, and by his blood delivered your faithful people.
Like the young man in the story, who paid the old lady’s grocery bill, our faith teaches that Christ paid our debt, but it was the cashier who was left holding the bag. Jesus Crucifixion was a cosmic practical joke that God pulled on Satan. Satan thought he had won, but in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we find the punchline in which God has the last word. As St. John Chrysostom preached in his famous Paschal Homily:
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
* * *
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
And the church laughs at Hell’s bewilderment, even though the world may count us foolish.
St. Paul summarized it this way in his first letter to the church in Corinth:
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
We know, despite Paul’s assertion of its foolishness, that Christ’s death on the cross and his Resurrection is deeply serious and meaningful. Sometimes, we try to understand it. Theologies abound that try to explain what God was up to; we call these theologies the “theories of the atonement.” I’m not going to take time this morning to lay them all out for you. They are all interesting and each, in its own way, is instructive for our faith, but each is also partial and, if taken too far, they all (I believe) turn out to be wrong. What they all share is the very human notion that Jesus’ death must have been, somehow, about justice or, at least, we think it ought to have been.
Whenever I am required to work with one or more of these theories of the atonement, these human attempts to describe what happened on Good Friday and Easter Sunday in terms of justice and fairness, I feel like Job. You remember him, that righteous man whose life was turned upside down because of a wager between Satan and God. Job wanted answers. He wanted to know why his life had been made such a mess. He wanted fairness; he wanted to go to court with God; he demanded a hearing at which he could obtain justice.
Rather to Job’s surprise I think, God showed up and answered him. But instead of a logical and rational explanation, instead of a legal defense, instead of giving Job the justice he craved, God launched into a long, rambling dissertation about the creation: in a speech goes on for several chapters the sea, God talks about the stars, the sky, the earth, the whole shebang! Basically, God says, “You just don’t understand how wonderful it all is!” My favorite bit is when God uses the ostrich as an object lesson. God describes the big ungainly bird as incredibly foolish but very, very speedy. Job wanted fairness; he wanted what’s right! Like theologians trying to make human sense of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, he wanted justice. And God’s answer to Job is, “Hey! Look at that ostrich I made! It’s really stupid but, wow, is it fast!”
Foolishness! Completely ridiculous! Utter folly!
This year’s coincidence of Resurrection Sunday and April Fool’s Day is like God pointing at the ostrich. It’s a reminder to lighten up! Take the day off from being so serious about this faith of ours! Recognize Easter for the high comedy, the cosmic joke it truly is!
A comedy is defined as a story in which the main character, the protagonist triumphs over unpleasant circumstances reaching a happy or successful conclusion. One dictionary definition of joke is that it is an “activity characterized by good humor.” Can you think of a better way to characterize the story of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection than as a story of triumph over unpleasant circumstances, an “activity characterized by good humor”? The Resurrection is God’s activity of the highest and best humor!
G.K. Chesterton once wrote:
Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. * * * Seriousness is not a virtue. * * * It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.
So, Easter is a comedy, a joke, a very good joke! It is the foolishness, the utter, ridiculous folly of God which “is wiser than human wisdom.”
When Evelyn and I made our first trip to Ireland back in 2005, I learned a use of that word folly with which I was, until then, unfamiliar. It is used to describe buildings which seem to be utterly pointless. Scattered around the countryside, particularly in the large gardens of the estates of the wealthy Anglo-Irish landlords are these architectural oddities which seem devoid of purpose. Some look like old Roman ruins; some look like tents of Arab warriors or Indian pashas; some are simply outlandish constructions that defy description. I’ve learned since that follies were a common feature of the estates of wealthy aristocracy throughout Europe.
These architectural follies are purpose-built, but they have no purpose other than as an ornament. They are always buildings, rather than simple garden ornament such as sculpture. There is often an element of fakery about them. The canonical example is the sham ruin: a folly which pretends to be the remains of an old building, but which was in fact constructed in that state. They are often eccentric in design, calling attention to themselves through unusual details or form. They were built or commissioned for pleasure.
They are often found on the highest hill or promontory of an estate, or on a small island in the middle of lake. They are places where people can retire, relax, leave behind the serious business of the world, and take pleasure and joy in the beauty of the surrounding landscape.
God’s folly, the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, is like those architectural follies. Jesus’ death on the cross seems an utterly pointless exercise; despite our attempts to created coherent theories of the atonement, it defies our descriptions or explanations. Considered by itself, the Crucifixion seems devoid of purpose. But on the night before he died, Jesus explained it to his friends. They did not understand what he was telling them, but they remembered what he said and that he told them, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
For all of our attempts to theologize and theorize about the atonement and the meaning of Good Friday that is what it boils down to; the Crucifixion lays the groundwork for the joy of the Resurrection. That is what the coincidence of Easter and April Fool’s Day reminds us: that the death and Resurrection of Jesus, God’s foolishness, is not about justice – it is about joy. “For the Lord takes pleasure in his people . . . Let the faithful rejoice [and] let them be joyful.”
Yes, like the young man in the grocery store paying the old lady’s bill, Jesus “paid the debt of Adam’s sin.” And, yes, it is instructive for us to theologize and theorize about what that means. But on this Resurrection morning, let us put all that seriousness aside and, just for today, appreciate that Easter is a comedy, a great big cosmic joke, the ultimate act not of God’s justice, but of God’s foolishness, of God’s good humor, of God’s pleasure, so that God’s joy may be in us and that our joy may be complete.
We who have the faith have the fun.
Thanks be to God!
Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sunday of the Resurrection, April 1, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
The lessons for the Great Vigil were Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Exodus 14:10-31;15:20-21; Proverbs 8:1-8,19-21;9:4b-6; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Psalm 114; Romans 6:3-11; and St. Mark 16:1-8. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.
The lessons for the principal service were Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2,14-24; Acts 10:34-43; and St. John 20:1-18. These lessons can also be read at The Lectionary Page.
The illustration is the Temple of Modern Philosophy in the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Park, at Ermenonville (Oise, France). This folly is part of the park that the marquis René Louis de Girardin begun to create in 1765. Photo by Parisette – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.
 The Exsultet, Episcopal Church Altar Book (Church Publishing, New York:1980) (Return to text)
 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (Return to text)
 Job 39:13-18 (Return to text)
 1 Corinthians 1:25 (Return to text)
 John 15:10 (Return to text)
 Psalm 149:4-5 (Return to text)