The Medium and the Message

Sunday sermon from Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014
Text: Matthew 28:1-10
Given at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, VA

I want to tell you about the funniest joke in the world. You might think this would be something of a competition, but no, actually, the “Funniest Joke in the World” comes from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the madcap British sketch comedy show of the early 1970s. And it’s not just one of their sketches that I find particularly funny; no, the sketch is actually called “The Funniest Joke in the World,” and, at the risk of killing the joke by explaining it, here’s how it goes. The scene opens during World War II, on a man writing away at his desk; the narrater tells us that his name is Ernest Scribbler, writer of jokes, and that he is about to write the funniest joke in the world, and that, “as a consequence, he will die laughing.” And so he does, convulsing in laughter until he keels over at his desk. His mother walks into the room, finds the body, finds the piece of paper, reads it, and then joins him in laughing herself into the grave.

The comedy, of course, is in the escalation. A brave Scotland Yard inspector shows up and explains that he is going to go retrieve the joke after first inoculating himself by listening to a series of sombre laments, but it’s of no use. And then the scene shifts and we are informed that the British army have decided to weaponize the joke. They translate it into German — each translator only taking one word, for safety — and then deploy it to the front. And so Monty Python treat us to a series of wartime vignettes in which British soldiers get the best of their unsuspecting German counterparts not with guns and bullets but rather with the swift telling of a joke – in German, of course. At the Ardennes, they counter German artillery by yelling the punch line across the open battlefield. One captured soldier tells it several times in quick succession to break his torturers and find his freedom. It must be hysterical. It’s certainly powerful.

In fact the skit ends with the narrator reporting that in 1950 Joke Warfare itself was banned by the Geneva Convention, and that the last copy of the joke was sealed under a monument inscribed “To the Unknown Joke.” And so, out of deference to the power of this weaponized joke, the skit never reveals the English-language translation. Apparently they don’t want to kill their audience. We only ever hear it in German, and in later interview the Python guys confirm that it’s just nonsense German. It’s a bunch of German-sounding gibberish: “Wenn ist das Nunstück git und Slotermeyer? Ja! Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput!” See, it’s hilarious! I have no idea what it means. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s the funniest joke in the world and I don’t get it at all. Because of course it’s a joke about a joke, it’s a story about a story, and the power’s in the telling.

Now, our Gospel text for this Easter Sunday morning, this passage from the Gospel of Matthew – it’s not quite sketch comedy, but it is a story about a story, with the power in the telling. This Easter Sunday morning you might expect to hear us tell the story of Jesus rising from the dead, and of course in some ways that’s exactly what we’re doing, but not quite. Matthew doesn’t tell that story. He tells the story of the crucifixion. He tells the story of Joseph of Arimeahea preparing Jesus’s body for burial, and of Pilate’s men sealing the tomb with a large stone. And then it skips ahead, and we have today’s text wherein the women go to the tomb and suddenly an angel from heaven comes and rolls away the stone and tells them the story: “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified; he is not here, for he has been raised, as he said.” What we have this morning is not the story of Jesus’s resurrection. There’s not a scene in this Gospel where Jesus himself gets up out of that grave and dusts himself off and sets about his business. Instead, what Matthew gives us the story about the story. It’s the story of the women who first heard the news. It’s the story of the angel who first told it.

And it’s not just the case here in Matthew’s Gospel. In fact none of our four Gospels tell the story of Jesus getting up out of that grave and dusting himself off. None of them begin their accounts of Easter Sunday with any of Jesus’s followers meeting the man himself in the flesh. In Mark, the women come to the tomb and find the stone rolled away and a young man there in a white robe: “You are looking for Jesus who was crucified; he has been raised, he is not here.” In Luke, the women find the stone rolled away and inside the tomb two men in dazzling clothes show up bearing the same news: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” In John, always a bit of an outlier, Mary and the disciples confront the empty tomb and the abandoned linen that had wrapped Jesus’ body, and after the disciples flee the scene, then our two angels in white show up to comfort her: “Woman, why are you weeping?” In no case does it happen that Jesus just “shows up” before the news of his resurrection is already announced. Which is to say that the story we tell on this Easter Sunday is not really first and foremost the story of the resurrection, but the story of a story. The story of the first ones to hear. The story of the ones who told. The story of that hour when any of us first believed.

Does that seem to anybody like we’ve watered down the Gospel? After all, is it not our duty this morning to proclaim the triumph of God over the powers of sin and death and not simply to remember a nice story that we once heard? Did you come to church this morning to worship the living Lord to just to wrap yourselves in a story? Don’t let the spring blossoms and the sunlight fool you: it’s a dark world out there. Disease, destruction, death: these things are the order of the day. And don’t let the sunlight fool you: it’s a dark world in here: desolation, distraction, despair, these things are the everyday rulers of the human heart. Our politics lie in ruin. Our planet stands on the brink. Our people obsess with death. So is this all we can do? To, gather in the sanctuary on this sacred morning, curl up under the soft fleece blanket of the resurrection, tell ourselves one more time the story we want to hear? If the resurrection of Jesus Christ has only ever been a story, however frequently told, however lovingly told, however comfortably told, at what point do we just call this what it is: circumstance? hearsay? the punch line from an epically long game of historical telephone? Or worse: against the gaining powers of sin and death, against the marching forces of time and history, do we just call this story what it is — pointless? meaningless? powerless?

Except that the power of this story is in the telling. Matthew knows it. Last week we talked about the shaking of the earth as one of Matthew’s signs for the cosmic power of God. It happens when Jesus first enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It happens when he breathes his last upon the cross. And then, if we’re reading carefully, it doesn’t happen when Jesus rises from the dead. Jesus has been raised in the night; he’s not there in the tomb; sometime in those uncharted hours he has broken the boundaries of life and death and gotten up out of the grave but God waits until the women show up to shake the earth. They go to see the tomb and “suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone.” For Matthew, the resurrection is an apocalyptic event — and by that word I mean not that the world is ending but rather that God is invading, that God is rupturing that thin tissue between Heaven and Earth – but the invasion doesn’t happen when Jesus rises from the grave. It happens when the women show up. It happens when the angel shows up. It happens when the angel says “I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified, but he is not here, but he has been raised.” It happens when the angel tells the story. When he tells the story, God shows up. When he tells the story, the power of Heaven unleashes itself on that Jerusalem countryside. When he tells the story, then and precisely then does the full apocalyptic force of the resurrection break forth into the lives of its witnesses.

Which means that Easter Sunday isn’t just about what happened two millennia ago in that graveyard outside the city. It’s about what happens when we tell the story. And the central conviction of this text, and the central conviction of the Gospel, is that the story has power in the telling. And while there’s nothing funny about it, it’s not unlike that funniest joke in the world: a story whose power in the telling is the power of life and death itself. This isn’t just the soft fleece blanket called Resurrection; it’s not just the cozy Sunday morning called Resurrection; in the words of Brian Blount, this is Resurrection, Weaponized. The conviction that the story itself comes with the apocalyptic force of God. That in a world overlong in the clutches of sin and death we are not left to fend for ourselves but rather that we come armed with the magnificent power of the Gospel. Disease, destruction, death: such things have no champion to equal the force of God set loose upon the earth – when we tell the story. Desolation, destruction, despair: they account for nothing, they add up to nothing; even in the darkest night they amount to nothing – when we tell the story. When we tell this magnificent story. When we tell this magnificent, weaponized story about the powerful vision of God.

Before his death, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  – himself no stranger to the weaponized power of the story of the Gospel – King began to strategize about how the tactics of the Civil Rights movement might be similarly applied to the cause of the most poverty-stricken Americans, and in the months immediately after his death, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference began to work on following through with his project. In a plan not dissimilar from the earlier March on Washington, but in some ways more ambitious, King had imagined what came to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, a prolonged in-place demonstration on fifteen acres just near the reflecting pool on the National Mall. In May, the protesters began to arrive. Three thousand in all. They built plywood shantytowns, streets, a city hall, a general store, a first-aid station; John Kelly of The Washington Post recounts that in some cases the residents considered it nicer than the homes they’d left behind. On June 19th, fifty-thousand marchers joined them for a day of solidarity, demanding jobs, a living wage, the possibility of economic opportunity for every citizen of the republic, an invasion of a vision of justice into very heart of our nation’s capital. They called it “Resurrection City.”

Of course, these things fall apart. One day after the solidarity march, violence erupted at the non-violent protest. Someone threw a molotov cocktail, either within the city itself, or beyond its boundaries at the capital police; of course on these matters history rarely speaks with one voice. The police responded with tear gas; four days later they cleared the camp entirely. Many left voluntarily. A few were arrested. In sum, Resurrection City faded into the hot, sticky swamp of a DC summer. And yet, four months later, Resurrection City’s manager, an activist by the name of Jesse Jackson, wrote that the City’s death was far from certain: “Resurrection City cannot be seen as a mud hole in Washington,” he wrote, “but it is rather an idea unleashed in history… [and] the idea has taken root.” And what else could it possibly be? What else could resurrection be but an idea unleashed in history? A story unleashed in history? A story weaponized for justice. A story armed for love. A story combat-ready for hope. A story accompanied by the invasive power of God.

One last retelling. As you undoubtedly know, few among us in this country know the awful power of death like our soldiers who come home caught in the grip of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. So many of their names go unspoken. One of them is named Luke. By his own hand, he writes, “I’ve struggled with depression my whole life. I self-medicated with whatever I could – adrenaline, food, a little pot, more than a little alcohol and a lot of prescription drugs. But you probably never would’ve known.” And then of course he came home from the war and all those wounds festered inside. All those wounds festered in the grip of the power of death that held him in its grasp, not entirely in full view of his wife Jill, but neither entirely out of sight. All those powers that claim their grip on us in the darkest hours of the night. And then in the darkest hour of his, the fall of 2011, in about two in the morning, he found himself sitting on the floor of his closet with the door closed and his fingers wrapped around the grip of a nine millimeter pistol. He was trying to write a note. As he says, he was trying to “frame the end of [his] story.”

Of course, Jill had been writing a story of her own. In her version, Jill says that at some point “the anger, the pain [was] so much a part of us… [we’d] actually become it. We [knew] it too well.” At one point she screams to God, “Why did you let the world fall down on us? You abandoned us … you let him reach for that gun … you just left him there to die!” And then she hears God say, “Let go, Jill. I have you. I have him. I love him more than he can comprehend. Let go, and let me hold him for just a little while.” What a ambitious thing we do, to claim that God can hold us, even for a little while. To claim that God’s hold on us can free us even from the grasp of death itself. To hold in one hand the instrument of death and in the other the weaponized story of resurrection. To tell that story, even in the darkest hours of the night, and then, by the power of God, to watch it come true. While Luke was hiding on the floor of the closet, his oldest son cried out from his sleep; instinct took control; and before long, as Luke says, “the gun was back in the safe and the boy was in my arms. Some day I’ll tell him that he saved my life.”

And when you do, Luke, you tell the whole story.