• Craig Mueller

Is This a Joke?

Harold is an Englishman touring rural America. When he can’t find a restroom he asks a native where the WC is. WC means “water closet” where he lives. The American doesn’t the expression “WC.” After thinking for a minute, he decides that the man must be referring to the Wildwood Chapel, a local destination for tourists.

So, he replies to the Englishman: “The WC is about two miles west. It only seats 25 unless you cozy right up next to your neighbor. If it’s crowded, it is OK to stand. I have to warn you, though: some folks kneel, which can be rather awkward for the person next to them.

Harold thinks to himself, “this must be a joke,” but the American continues. “The WC prides itself on being multi-sensory. And they welcome everyone, even if they don’t go very often. Though the WC suggests you power down to be fully present, I suggest you use your smart phone to take a quick picture. Especially when little movement is going on.

This must be a joke on a day for jokes. A likely early reaction to news of Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, in Mark’s version of the story, probably the first written, the risen Christ doesn’t appear at all. And the women flee the tomb in terror, amazement, and fear. It is such a strange ending that later manuscripts add a version in which the resurrected Jesus shows up in plain view and later ascends into heaven.

And in Mark’s version of the passion story there is a strange scene in which a man is wearing nothing but a linen cloth. And like the other fickle disciples, he runs off, abandoning Jesus. Yet the text says he runs off naked, leaving behind the linen cloth. A joke? A little streaking through the streets for comic relief? Or in today’s gospel does he become the young man in the tomb—wearing a white robe? The one who makes it clear this isn’t a joke. The one who gives the good news that Jesus of Nazareth— the crucified one—has been raised.

For some today, the resurrection is a joke, an impossible, unscientific claim. What does resurrection even mean? First, let me say: this is a community of faith that stands firmly in the Christian tradition but welcomes such questions, doubts and even different interpretations of what Easter means for our time.

We can wonder what happened to the body of Jesus two thousand years ago. Yet a more pressing question for me is whether God can bring new life from death today.

As we listen to the news, we may lament, is this a joke? Is this for real? Is there hope for our country, for our world, for the earth? Now we have “fake news.” What is real? Who or what do we trust? How will we get out of the mess we’re in? And what about our own complicated lives. Is this really happening, we may ask? Is this just a bad joke?

We watch high school students marching and speaking passionately against gun violence. With partisan divides, will anything come of it? The same could be said for what this congregation stands for: racial justice; the dignity and rights of women, persons with different gender identities or sexual orientations; the biblical injunction to care for immigrants, refugees, and strangers; and what some call eco-justice.

A saying by a Brazilian liberation theologian Rubem Alves has become a favorite for some in our community. Alves suggests that the imagination may be more real, and reality less real, than we first thought. The last word does not belong to the brutality of facts of oppression and repression. The frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the present. Miraculously and surprisingly, the power of life is always preparing the creative event that will open the way to freedom and resurrection.

When it seems the arc of justice is bending the wrong way, when what we value most is becoming a joke, rather than retreating in despondency and despair, resurrection is God filling us with imagination, filling us with hope, filling us with passion to join in the work of tikun olam—mending the world—as our Jewish siblings name it.

A book that recently rocked my world is a new release by renowned biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan. It’s called Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision. Crossan traces the visual representation of the resurrection across the centuries. He discovers that eventually the West pictures the risen Christ alone, often holding a cross, and hovering near or above the tomb. The East, on the other hand, depicts Christ raising Adam and Eve, and all humanity. It is called the anastatis. The bulletin cover is an example of this universal resurrection as it is typically pictured on icons and frescoes.

This is a vision of God’s dream for the world we heard about in Isaiah. A feast for all people on the mountain. Death is swallowed up. And all humanity—past, present, and future—is raised. Crossan makes the point that this is a radically different vision of human life than one based on power and violence. He noticed this vividly on a May Day in Moscow’s Red Square. On one side was a display of military power. On the other was Resurrection Gate, with a large mosaic of the anastatis.

Some early church theologians reasoned that God played the ultimate joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. Preachers were encouraged to include humorous stories in their sermons on the second Sunday of Easter. That is, until a pope in the 17th century banned this so-called Holy Humor or Bright Sunday.

Oh well! When we soon embark on some needed building improvements, someone suggested we put sanitary hand dryers in restrooms to be more environmentally friendly. They suggested there could be a sign by the place the hot air blasts out: “For a sample of this week’s sermon, push the button.”

When life gets us down, sometimes laughter is the best remedy. And when everything seems a joke, with no hope in sight, we come together to sing, to practice resurrection, to share the feast of bread and wine, and to hear again the good news that life is stronger than death. That Christ is risen, indeed. Amen.

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© 2017 Craig Mueller