“Feast of Fools” April 1, 2018 with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
So, Easter is supposed to be about spring, right? Tulips, bunnies, fancy hats? April fool! Oestara, the ancient goddess of the east, of dawn, and of springtime, is fickle – teasing us with warmer days and crocus blossoms, only to smack us again with frosty mornings and snow fall. Nobody wants an orgy in the newly plowed fields on a day like this, I promise you. So today we have not only spring, and its fickleness, as well as one of the central myths of Christianity, about the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also the image of the April fool, the trickster and magician, reminding us that things are not always what they seem, and yet if the emperor looks naked, it’s probably because in fact he has no clothes. And, let us not forget the beginning of Passover week amongst our Jewish friends. An interesting collection of motifs, wouldn’t you say?
It is fairly easy to see the trickster and April fool motif at work in the Passover story. To begin with, Moses has to have appeared foolish, presenting himself to Pharaoh with the bald demand, Let my people go; his own community wanted to know if this was some kind of bad joke. If you follow the sequence of encounters with Pharaoh as the plagues worsen, it seems that they are engaging in a series of competitive sleight of hand tricks, where the court magicians match Moses and Aaron stunt for stunt. Finally, when Pharaoh gives permission for the band of foreign slaves to go worship their god in the wilderness, and the Hebrews indicate that they are not planning to return by fleeing across the Sea of Reeds, it’s hard not to imagine them laughing at the heavy war chariots and armed soldiers stuck in the mud trying to follow them. If you really want freedom, this story teaches me, go lightly in the world; don’t build your identity around things you aren’t willing to leave behind when it is time to move on, or things that will bog you down on the journey. It is the fool, with no dignity to preserve, who can speak the demand and the promise of liberation from our bondage.
Then there is the motif of Jesus as holy fool, as described by Harvey Cox in our reading earlier. I think that Cox is correct, that the perception of the prophetic clown works better when the church about Jesus – as opposed to the faith of Jesus – is not in a position of cultural ascendancy. In fact, it is hard to grasp much of anything about the actual teachings and ministry of Jesus as recorded in the gospels, without understanding him as a leader of resistance against the Roman oppression of Israel. Standing quite self-consciously in the ancient traditions of the Hebrew prophets, he challenged both the economic and political domination of Rome, and the rigid fundamentalism of institutional Judaism, including the wealth and corruption of the Jerusalem temple. The vision of a messianic savior who would lead an armed revolt against the Roman invaders only served to perpetuate a useless power struggle and play into the hands of the oppressors, he taught. Secede from that whole conflict, which no one would ever really win, which offered only the illusion of control and the reality of suffering. Put your energy not into the dynasties of this world, but into the lived community of the kingdom of god; the only possibility that mattered anyway. A lot of people thought he was crazy, of course. The Roman occupation was an on-going crisis; how were you supposed to opt out? But for those who experienced his charisma, his compassion, his healing attention, his contagious conviction that god’s love was present in human community and nowhere else, a new window opened up. Unlike the religious authorities, Jesus was willing to clown around; to mock Pilate’s grand entry to Jerusalem with his own spoof parade of palms, to answer academic challenges with riddles, to take the position of a servant and wash his followers’ feet. Even in some of the texts that we take with such seriousness today, I think he was teasing; punning on Peter’s name and saying “on this rock I will build my household of faith,” even the bread and wine of the last supper were a riff on the Passover meal, to be eaten the next day, where food is a metaphor for memory of the past in Egypt, which Jesus turns into a vision of the future in the realm of god.
Prophetic resistance is a slippery thing; the powers that be can never quite get hold of it, or pin it down. It rises in jokes and limericks and puns, always reminding us how silly authority looks when it takes itself too seriously; calling us to remember that much of its power rests upon our own assent, which we have the moral freedom, at least, to withdraw. It is students, standing out on the playground for 17 minutes, reminding everyone from teachers to principals to presidents that true moral authority lies within each one of us, however young or old. And that the answer to violence and heartbreak is seldom more violence.
There are those who would suggest that god actually shares that sense of humor that likes to pull the rug out from under all pretentiousness, and that the story of the resurrection of Jesus is a great example. As if the Roman governors and the Chief Priests were congratulating themselves, “Jesus is dead; we have finally seen the last of that troublemaker,” and god says, “April fool!” Certainly it must have seemed an annoying irony when the absence of a body, making it impossible for his followers to create a tomb or shrine for Jesus, turned out to be precisely the fact that reassembled them, and renewed their energy and hope. April fool!
Then there is the very ancient – much older than Christianity, or even Judaism – paradox of spring itself. Not just the unpredictability of the weather, for no matter how fitfully, the season does ultimately advance. And that is exactly the heartlessness of spring, and of nature in general, that no matter what we have lost – prophetic leaders like Jesus or Gandhi; integrity or justice or freedom itself; the dearly beloved and the innocent, children gunned down by white terrorists, parents and siblings murdered by the police and the state – despite all these inconsolable tragedies, spring comes on anyway. April wanders down the hill, clueless as ever, babbling, and strewing flowers. Who is the April fool – springtime, or us? And make no mistake, the paradox goes deeper even than human history; it is inextricable from the natural order of things.
The whole paradox of spring is that it does not require evil intent for suffering to happen; all that is required is that someone care about the way that life feeds on life; about the way that creatures, in their instinct and necessity, can only survive by the death of other creatures. Mating and birth are costly processes; so much can go wrong – one extra fillip of adrenaline or testosterone, and the showy competition between males becomes accidentally fatal; one kit in the wrong position and the mother dies of exhaustion instead of rearing her brood. Only sentimental people who never look her in the face believe that nature is an exquisitely ordered system; the truth is that she bumbles and squanders, counting on sheer volume to make up the difference. Terror and survival are so inextricably woven that to seek the one is to court the other, and it is arbitrary to take sides.
Do you enjoy a nice omelet? Do you know how many other creatures, starved for protein after the long frozen months, will devour eggs? It’s amazing; other birds eat them, and snakes, and raccoons, and just about anything that can figure out how to get into them, and some you wouldn’t think could manage it. Eggs are not only, as they say, “incredibly edible”; they are terribly vulnerable. Precious vessels of new life, they are hallowed not just by their potential to succeed in the miracle to which they are assigned, but also by the harrowing statistical likelihood that all the instinctive energy that created them will come to nothing in the chain of relentless need that is life, and nature, in the spring.
What is compassion, in such a world? What is sacred? Somehow, not easily, life is; the reconstituted, resurrected, life that maketh all things new. Not the sweet sentimentality of softness, not because the bunnies are adorable, although they are; but nature has no partiality for the cute. All it takes is the flash of an eagle’s talon, a fox’s sudden pounce, the soundless glide of a snake, and the rabbit is doomed, gone to nourish the next creature. And yet there are always rabbits; it’s a horrible system, and yet, it’s the system we are in, and we have no choice about it. The goddess of the eastern light knows this, has always known it. We can do the bloody work ourselves, if we insist, and nail men to wooden crosses that once were living trees, but for this purpose we are superfluous; it doesn’t need us to make April the cruelest month. Easter – the ancient Easter, that comes before the cross was thought of – deals with a resurrection that has no justice in it, and no mercy. The rabbit and the egg are sacred not only by beauty, but also by terror, and the awful, implacable urgency of need – the owl’s need, the wolf’s need, our own. The doings of any swamp or patch of woodland are bloodier than Mel Gibson’s most excruciating New Testament nightmare.
We do, of course, add our own uniquely human contribution to the carnage. As Millay points out, there are plenty of people not yet dead and buried, who nevertheless seem to operate as if their brains, or perhaps their hearts, or their consciences, are decomposing. We are the ones who crucify, who execute, who torture, who build bombs and mustard gas and machine guns. Who are the true fools, then – the gods, or us?
But here’s the thing. Like the fools we are, we can never quite learn despair. History teaches it – how fragile is freedom, intelligence and reason, humane politics, rational leaders, integrity in the seats of power? How often does force, hatred, and corruption run the table, even where the kinship of liberty and equality had been briefly enshrined? The tragedies and suffering of our own lives testify to it – how tangled is love, how easily vanquished trust, how inevitable pain, how tempting, always, the selfish choice? And yet, we are not resigned. Something within us will not be quelled; rises, like the spring, in spite of ourselves; in spite of our complicity and our disillusionment and our powerlessness; something rises with a redeeming laugh at the absurdity of it all, of our self-importance and our dissatisfaction with the way of things, and our judgment of everyone including ourselves; something rises like the sap in the trees and like life itself, wants to try again, because maybe this time…
So who is the April fool? Those who believe that after tragedy, some transforming possibility remains; those who practice resurrection and resistance as if there could be new life, every year again? The ancient Israelites, leaving behind all the familiar facets of the life of slavery, for the chance to perish in the desert, or to find the land of promise, where milk and honey and freedom would flow? Or their counterparts today, here in the undocumented American shadows, still pursuing that same foolish, unextinguished hope? The peasant teacher from Galilee, brushing away everybody’s anxious obedience to Empire and Temple both, telling silly, poignant stories about a whole other way of looking at the world, through god’s eyes. How foolish is that? He died, remember, in agony, on the government’s cross, mocked by a crown of thorns, and anyone who thought he might have been the messiah surely felt stupid after that. Except that he wouldn’t stay dead and defeated, because something within us rises – something within us and among us, like he always said. Something surprising; something truth telling, something startled into laughter and improbable hope. April fool!
In the middle of the 20th century, a gay Greek poet wrote a phrase that has recently become an inspiration for both Latinx and transsexual protestors. I think these words of Dino Christianopoulos are a perfect summation for understanding the radical meaning of Easter in this era of both skepticism and tragedy. “They tried to bury us,” he said; “they didn’t know we were seeds.” Pharaoh tried to bury the children of Israel; he didn’t know they were seeds. April fool! Pontius Pilate and the Sanhedrin tried to bury Jesus and his irreverence, but it turned out he was a seed. April fool! Down through the ages, the powers that be have tried to bury the witches and the queer folk and the black folk and the crippled folk; they have tried to bury anyone who laughed and didn’t buy the spin and told the inconvenient truth. But we are always seeds, and spring always comes, and we rise. April fools have never been more needed than today, my friends. They tried to bury us; they must not have known that we are seeds. And we are risen; risen indeed.