Revised Common Lectionary for Easter Sunday, Principal Service, Year B: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2,14-24; Acts 10:34-43; Mark 16:1-8
In the run up to Easter which is the season of Lent several of us in this parish took some time out of our everyday lives to ponder the contemporary meaning of the ancient Hebrew writers we call “the Prophets.” We were guided in that study by scholar and seminary professor Walter Brueggemann, who encouraged us to think of the Prophets as poets rather than as seers or prognosticators. Brueggemann also asked us to think of contemporary poets whom we might consider prophets. I shared with the group one of my favorites, Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry. I read to the group this poem entitled Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front:
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
I love that poem for its critique of modern society, but mostly I love it for that last line which summarizes the whole poem: “Practice resurrection.”
If you’ve been with us here for the services of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, or have been following the sermons on line, you know that we have come to Act Three of the three-act drama of redemption. In the first act, we saw the protagonist, Jesus of Nazureth, trying one last time make his disciples understand his mission and his message. Through the metaphor of bread and wine, through the enacted parable of foot-washing, through an agonized night of prayer in a garden, he tried to teach them that his was a mission of love and life, but they just didn’t seem to get it. As the curtain fell on Act One, he was being taken away to be questioned by Jewish and Roman authorities and the disciples, frightened and confused, were scattering, unsure of what was going to happen next.
That question was answered in Act Two as the Roman governor gave in to the stirred-up crowd and turned Jesus over to his soldiers who scourged him, beat him, mocked him, and finally crucified and killed him. The drama of redemption was shaping up to be a tragedy and, if that death on Calvary’s cross had been the end of it, it surely would have been. The hero dead the whole story would have tragic, and pointless, and of not much worth or interest to anyone. But of course, as we now learn in Act Three, it was not the end and, instead of a tragedy, the drama of redemption has turned out to be a comedy!
“A comedy?” you ask. “Of course,” I say, “because Easter is a joke!”
OK … I guess, perhaps, I should explain that. Well, what is a “joke”? One dictionary definition of joke is that it is an “activity characterized by good humor.” (WordNet, Princeton University, 1997.) Can you think of a better way to characterize the Resurrection of Jesus than as an “activity characterized by good humor”? The Resurrection was God’s activity of the highest and best humor! G.K. Chesterton once wrote:
Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Never forget that the devil fell by force of gravity … A good joke is the closest thing to divine revelation … They who have the faith have the fun.
So, Easter is joke, a very good joke! Easter reveals God as no other celebration has ever done. Only God can draw the greatest good out of the greatest evil. Of evil, Saint Thomas More once wrote, “The devil … that proud spirit … cannot endure to be mocked.” The people of the Middle Ages understood this and celebrate Easter by getting the last laugh on evil. In the 13th Century some German communities would throw a laughter party on Easter Sunday. Its purpose was simple: to celebrate God’s triumph over the devil. People would come back to church on Easter Sunday afternoon for Vespers and Benediction services. As a reward to the faithful for enduring many serious Lenten homilies, the priest would insert funny stories, poems, and even off-color jokes into his sermon and would draw moral conclusions from them.
An ancient Russian Orthodox tradition was to sit around the Easter dinner table telling jokes. Like those 13th-Century Germans, the Russians even told them in church. Why? Because Easter makes people joyous. After all, when we tell funny stories and laugh, we are imitating the cosmic joke that God pulled on Satan in the Resurrection. Satan thought he had won, but then God raised up Jesus from the dead and had the last word. As St. John Chrysostom preached in his famous Paschal Homily:
Hell grasped a corpse, and met God.
Hell seized earth, and encountered heaven.
Hell took what it saw,
and was overcome by what it could not see.
Hell was in turmoil having been mocked.
And the world laughs at Satan’s chagrin. Laughing at the Devil even has a name in theological tradition; it is called the risus paschalis, “Easter laughter”.
So in Act Three the drama of redemption turns out to be a comedy; God in Christ pulls a cosmic joke on the forces of evil and we rejoice in the triumph over Death that Easter embodies. Death had been a disturbing thing. For much of human history people have had an attitude toward it somewhat like Woody Allen’s: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die,” he once said. “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Jesus’ Resurrection turned the tables on Death. It was a cosmic joke! Where death had once been something to shudder at, the third act of the drama shows, that there is nothing to fear. As one Sunday School student put: “When you die, God takes care of you like your parents did when you were alive … only God doesn’t yell at you all the time.”
The German Reformed theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who wrote the book The Theology of Joy, writes, “Easter laughter is rooted in the wholly unexpected and totally surprising ‘reversal of all things.’ God had brought this reversal about by raising Christ…. The expectation was for cosmic death, but what comes is eternal life.”
We North Americans, especially us folks here in the upper midwest, are too darned serious. Praying and laughing seem to be far apart in our culture, but at Easter they come together, as they do throughout Holy Scripture. In Psalm 126, the Hebrews praised God with mirth: “Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy” (Ps. 126:2). Jesus promised laughter to those who are favored by God: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” (Luke 6:21) It seems the ancients were much more aware of the relationship between prayer and laughter than are we. Some scholars believe our English word joke ultimately comes (through Latin) from the ancient Umbrian word iuka, which means “prayers”!
So, Easter is a joke, a great big cosmic joke, in which God turns the tables on Satan, turns the tables on evil, turns the tables on death! Act Three reveals that the drama of redemption is actually a comedy, and we are invited … no – more that that … we are encouraged and empowered to join in the laughter, even in what seem to be the darkest of times.
In 1875, a German passenger liner, the SS Deutschland sunk off the coast of England. Among those killed were five Franciscan nuns. In their honor, the English Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins penned a long poem at the end of which he wrote these wonderful lines:
Remember us in the roads,
the heaven-haven of the Reward
Our King back … !
Let him easter in us.
Don’t you love that use of easter as a verb? “Let him easter in us.” God eastered Christ after three days. Christ easters in us. It’s like Wendell Berry’s admonition to “practice resurrection”! Easter isn’t just a day or a season, it’s a verb! An activity! … An “activity characterized by good humor.” Resurrection isn’t just something that happened about 2,000 years ago, or something that will happen sometime in some distant, unknown future; it’s an on-going reality, happening now; a joyful, laughter-producing, cosmic turning of the tables on death in which we are all invited, encouraged, and empowered to participate!
The third act of the drama of redemption shows us that Hopkins was right; easter is a verb! To easter is a decision, a decision God made in not giving into the Crucifixion, a decision we can each make every day not giving into the forces of death and despair. To easter is to do all the things Wendell Berry set out in his Mad Farmer Manifesto: loving the Lord, loving the world, working for nothing, planting sequoias, lying down in the shade, willfully losing our minds, and looking forward to the end of the world with laughter!
To easter is to engage in the spiritual process of not giving in … not giving in to negation and death … not giving in to meaninglessness and despair … not giving in to isolation and fear … not giving in to powerlessness and incapacitation. Easter is an act of brave human existence. Not just a day-long holiday of bunnies, bonnets, and bluebirds, Easter is a daily reality, a decision Christ’s Resurrection empowers each of us to make when faced with the inevitable difficulties of life, a decision to “practice resurrection” and refuse to surrender our essential humanity even in the face of death itself.
So the drama of redemption, my friends, is a comedy; Easter is a joke, a great big cosmic joke, the ultimate act of God’s good humor, the closest thing we have to divine revelation. And we who have the faith have the fun. Practice resurrection! Let him Easter in you! Amen!