A fool’s errand?

Message preached on April 1, 2018
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon John 20:1-18

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Is it on a fool’s errand that I am embarking just now? I am here to announce that on the morning of the third day after Jesus was executed – the first day being Friday, when the deed was done, the second being the Sabbath when all were to rest; on this third day after Good Friday, I have been charged to proclaim that when those who loved Jesus arrived at the place where he had been buried, they found … nothing. There was no body, after all, just an empty cave. Is this a fool’s errand?


Yes, the big rock covering its entrance had been moved. Mary Magdalene, according to John’s account, was the one who first discovered it. This sent her on a mad dash to another rock, Simon Peter, who at that moment himself felt anything but the solid leader Jesus had said he would one day be. To check out this crazy news, Peter ran as fast as he could (again, according to John’s testimony) to the tomb. The beloved disciple ran with him, followed by Mary.


When they got there, Peter discovered … nothing. That’s what it says. Just a pile of laundry. Was it a fool’s errand that took him to this place? The other disciple (whom John never names, by the way) had a different perspective. Something about what he saw in that emptiness led him into the strange territory called “faith.” But Peter? He walked back, no doubt feeling a bit foolish, with his fellow disciple beside him. That left Mary at the tomb.


Out of breath – having run to where the men had been hiding since Friday, and then racing with Peter back to the cemetery – Mary stood there panting and weeping. Through her tears, she bent over and looked into the burial chamber and she saw … well, it wasn’t “nothing” this time. And it certainly was not a pile of rags that she, as a woman, might have been expected to wash. She probably would have done that task with great love and care. It was something to do, after all.


She’d originally traveled to the graveyard that morning to do women’s work, to wash the broken body of her teacher. In haste, he had been placed here on Friday, trying to beat the setting of the sun and the beginning of Sabbath, when no work is to be done. There was no time to properly prepare his body. Cleaning his bloody corpse was the task she had expected to do when she got up that day. Things did not turn out that way, however.


Exhausted from running and crying, Mary bent over to see what Peter and the other disciple had seen. The burial cave was no longer empty. There were two … well, how does one describe an angel? That itself is a rather foolish enterprise, like trying to explain the sky: “it’s blue and big, from horizon to horizon, and it reaches the earth, and it surrounds you but you cannot touch it. Well, it does surround you and you breathe it in, but…” See what I mean? Words are all-too-inadequate to express the inexpressible. That’s like what Mary saw through her tears. Two … “angels.”


And they spoke to her. How does one describe what an angel sounds like? … Let’s not travel down that rabbit hole. John’s gospel merely says they asked Mary a question. It wasn’t the usual, “don’t be afraid,” that we expect from angels in the Bible. No, it was a question. “Woman, why are you weeping?” Like they hadn’t a clue why anyone would be upset at a time like this. Or, perhaps, this was just another way of saying that fear and grief are about to fly out the door. I don’t know. I’m not so foolish as to presume to know what angels think.


They did listen to her repeat what she probably told Peter and the rest of the disciples earlier, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” As she speaks, she becomes aware of someone behind her. And she turns toward someone more familiar than an angel, the custodian of the place, perhaps. Why would she think he might be the gardener? Sometimes we see what we expect to see. That is, until our eyes behold what really is in front of us. Presuming this stranger to be, well, a stranger, Mary repeats her question. And then this “stranger” speaks her name.


At this point in the story, you know what I’ve got to say. It’s a phrase spoken often on the first day of the fourth month of the year. She came to this place where bodies are placed to decompose, where the unescapable inevitability of our mortality meets the dust of the good earth. On that first Easter morning, Mary came to prepare for death. But, guess what? … You know I have to say this punchline today, so say it with me: April Fools! Christ has risen. He has risen, indeed.


This is not the first time in my life that April Fool’s Day and Easter have happened together. If you read my most recent newsletter back page, you may know that the last time this happened was in 1956. At the time, I was 9-months-old. I can’t ask my mother any more if they brought me to church on that day, but I imagine they did. I wonder if John Gates, the pastor then of that congregation, somehow wove April Fools into his message. I wouldn’t have known it, however.


What makes a 9-month-old laugh? With babies, we often play “peek-a-boo.” Very young children don’t know that an object, like a face, still exists when they can’t see it. That’s why babies under around six months can look shocked and startled when that face reappears. They think that not being able to see their parent’s face means that they’ve actually disappeared, stopped existing. “Peek-a-boo.” “Surprise!” They magically reappear. Once a child (at around six to eight-months) understands that their parent is just hiding, then “peek-a-boo” becomes all about the anticipation of when they’re going to come back. It’s less about fear and more about hilarity.


Children also appreciate a bit of control, just like the rest of us. I recall not my own toddlerhood, but that of, for instance, my youngest child. We have a video of when she turned a year old, sitting with the rest of us around the breakfast table. In that moment, she learned that if she clapped, we would begin applauding, and when she stopped so would we. Such joy she had in that discovery, over and over making us cheer and stop. What fun! Such things make a young child laugh. A bit of control over surprise is key, I think, to good humor for all ages. When things are totally out of control, little ones cry. So do you and I.


So here we are in the Easter story as told by John on this April Fool’s Day. The weekend back then was totally out of control for the followers of the crucified and now buried Jesus, in spite of the emphasis on Sabbath rest. Mary’s journey to the tomb was, in part, a means of getting back a little control over the situation. You clean up because it’s something you can do, over which you have some power. The stone rolled away totally threw her off kilter, as it would us. Of course she cried! What a dumb question, “why are you weeping, woman?” Are angels that stupid? Or maybe they just know the punchline. He is alive. Christ is risen.


Notice that it takes a personal touch for terror to shift to joy for this weeping woman, which is something true for all of us. Mary recognizes Jesus when he speaks her name. She did not recognize his face at first. It was hidden behind the hands of God for too long. He had disappeared from her expectations, perhaps even the vaguest of her hopes. But when he spoke her name, her out-of-focus world was no longer blurry. What a moment earlier was off kilter was now level, as she became realigned to something new.


Jesus then sent this woman on a fool’s errand to tell everyone else what she had seen. On Friday he had been lifted up on the cross. He now is alive, but soon would ascend, would be lifted up to God. That was the message he entrusted to Mary of Magdala. She was the first preacher of it. I am but one in a long line of those who follow in her footsteps. When you think about it, what we do every Easter – as well as on every first day of the week when we gather to celebrate – is a bit like that breakfast table when my youngest was a year old. She clapped, we clapped. Yeah! We do it year after year, Sunday after Sunday… I know, it sounds a bit foolish, but I (we) are on a fool’s errand.


This year especially. I mean, I think I’ve set myself up for failure. Did I lead you to expect all sorts of jokes this morning, since it is April 1st? If so, that would truly be a fool’s errand, for I am a lousy joke teller. I never can remember the ones I know, or if I do recall them, I forget the punchline, or fail to set them up right, omitting important details. Besides, as a preacher I was taught that sermons and jokes both have their own structure. In order to tell a joke, you have to stop the message, then begin the joke from wind-up to punchline, then stop the joke and jumpstart the sermon back up again. And usually, when you do so, people remember the joke, not why you told it. Am I right?


There is, however, plenty of good humor all around us. It’s not about remembering the punchline, but about being open when it’s right there in front of you. Now, I would be on a fool’s errand if my goal was to make you laugh. I am not a comedian, no matter how hard I might try. My job, as a fool for Christ, is simply to encourage you to – like Mary – turn toward the familiar voice of the One who knows you by name and loves you more than you’ll ever know, and be open to Jesus appearing, often when you least expect him to show up. How do you describe holy moments like that, which happen more often than we realize? Well, how do you explain the sky? Maybe it’s foolish to try. But afterward, like Mary, we’re sent on the fool’s errand to simply share what we have seen with others…

©2018  Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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