“The Fool’s Paradise?”
Family Festival Communion for Easter Sunday, with the creation of the cross of flowers, conducted by Revd Jennifer Millington.
This sermon is taken from Mark 16, verses 1-8; 1 Corinthians 15, verses 1-10
A Fool’s Paradise?
My great-aunt Louie was a formidable lady. There was nothing she liked better than telling everyone else what to do and they generally did it. I admired her strength of character and never more so than in the last years of her life. She had had a stroke, which had left her heavily dependent on her husband to care for her. One day, he walked out of the house and never came back. He died of a heart attack. Aunt Louie was taken to hospital suffering from shock. Her GP visited her there and asked if there was anything he could do.
“Yes,” she said, with all her old forcefulness. “Yes. You can get me into a Nursing Home. I am not going to be a burden to my children. Go on, get on with it!” So he did.
And when I heard, I made a little resolution- I am not going to forget this when I become old and frail. I want to be as brave and as realistic as Aunt Louie.
I wonder how many of us make that kind of resolution: I am not going to be a difficult old person. I am going to be reasonable and co-operative. And I wonder how many of us who make that resolution actually succeed in keeping it? Watch this space…
You see, right from the start humans beings struggle between living in a fool’s paradise and living in the real world.
A child cannot see that fire or poisonous snakes or fast cars pose any danger.
A student going off to college will fondly imagine that clothes wash themselves and bank accounts replenish themselves- just like that.
There are adults who never do cope with the realities of financial management or personal care and there are some who simply cannot relate to other people in a realistic way, that takes another person’s needs into consideration. There have been political rulers and captains of industry who have not been able to face the reality of failure; burying their heads in the sand as their business or their nation totters on the brink of disaster and the subsequent crash ends up far worse than it might have been.
Then of course, as we get older, it is hard to deal with the reality of our physical and mental limitations. Most people push themselves far harder than they need or should rather than admit that they are not as strong as they once were.
Living in a fool’s paradise is when you refuse to accept the reality of human life; when you cannot see the difference between truth and illusion; when you live according to systems that simply do not exist. A fool’s paradise is a dangerous place to be because you head straight for disaster, often dragging other people into that disaster with you.
Which is why many “out there” might say that having Easter Sunday on All Fools day is highly appropriate. Because who, with any sense, would go round celebrating a 2000 year old hero who is said to have risen from the dead? And who, with any sense, is going to keep wearing themselves out supporting a religious institution-the Christian church- that has quite clearly outlived any usefulness it might once have had? Let’s live in the real world and go shopping!
OK. You can see where people are coming from. But just let’s look for a moment at what we actually have here in the Easter story we heard? Mark’s Gospel is generally thought to be the oldest of the four, so written nearest to the events described. You have a group of women and a group of men who have been hit right in the gut with the grimmest of reality. They have witnessed a good, innocent man falling victim to a corrupt government; a hate-filled religion and a fickle crowd. They have seen bribery, betrayal, injustice, pain and death right before their eyes. This was all too real and we know that such things happen. They happened then and they happen now.
The women creep out from the place where they had all been hiding. They go to the tomb where, the previous night, they had seen the body of Jesus laid. They find the stone rolled away from the entrance to the tomb and the body gone.
Exactly as you would expect in that kind of situation, they are confused, scared and unable to accept any explanation-reasonable or unreasonable. When it says they were “alarmed,” Mark is using a very rare Greek word here. It describes a kind of shuddering awe. We cannot believe this. We cannot deal with this. It is not happening.
So we do not have a group of religious fanatics striding through the streets shouting, “Alleluia! Our God reigns.”
Nor do we have a group of jihadists drawing swords, declaring, “ Our God has triumphed. Admit it or we will kill you.”
What you have is a group of very nervous, puzzled people who never really believed,deep down, that God could do anything to surprise them.
Now that, to me, sounds very much like the real world. (And actually very much like the real church right now)
There is no attempt to deny the reality of pain and death; no attempt to deny the reality of political injustice and corruption; no attempt to deny the reality of religious intolerance and the suspicion in which religion is held.
These people were living in the real world, which was why it was so hard for them to allow any possibility that a powerful God might be at work there.
Yet, in the real world, the natural world, is there not a message to be seen of life and renewal? Have not people in this country always celebrated the coming of Spring when, miraculously, bare earth starts to show green shoots and empty trees suddenly burst into new life?
And think of places like the poppy fields of France, the Garden of Remembrance for the children of Aberfan, Ground Zero in New York- spaces of great beauty that human beings have created. No one is denying the horrific reality of the tragedies that took place but all are offered hope and comfort in the new life represented there. Human nature itself is reluctant to give way in the face of destruction; to give in to forces that are evil and this is surely not living in a fool’s paradise because without that deep -seated resilience and hope for the future of life and belief in the value of love, where would any of us be?
I sometimes wonder if the problem with religion is that everyone expects it to be perfectly straightforward with quick solutions to every problem.
If we kill everyone who does not belong to our religion, then the world will become a perfectly fair and just environment.
If we convert everyone who does not belong to our religion, there will be no more disease or natural disaster.
If you have strong enough faith then nothing too bad will ever happen to you.
If you have strong enough faith then, even if bad things do happen to you, you will keep smiling and you will find that there is a good reason why you are in such a bad place.
This is the fool’s paradise because it is presenting a totally unrealistic picture of life and human nature.
Walter Brueggeman, writing a meditation for Holy Week, spoke of the utter despair expressed in the poetry of the book of Lamentations: the bitter grief of people who had lost their country to invaders and seen their loved ones murdered. He also pointed to the many messages of comfort and hope in the Bible, including those who urge Christians to take comfort in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And he said that these readings push us to “emotional extremities:” absolute despair on the one hand and deep comfort from trusting God on the other. But, he points out, this is what life, real life is like. It is all about extremities. “We are situated between loss that is beyond comfort and comfort that answers such loss. On the one hand the offer of comfort precludes abiding despair. On the other hand, comfort taken too quickly may short change the loss and end in denial. (Fool’s Paradise). Grief and comfort as voiced (in the Bible) require … a refusal to settle for easy or quick resolution.”
The women in the garden saw the empty tomb and heard a voice telling them that Jesus had risen from death. But they had no further idea at that point of what this might mean to them; how it might change their lives; how it might change the world. Faith was not delivered to them right there in a neat package. All they had was a flicker of hope and a message to tell their friends- Jesus is risen. Go and find him. Their hope was so tiny that it was a while before they had the courage and the confidence to pass the message on. But once the message was out, others started encountering the risen Christ for themselves. You heard what St Paul said. And Paul was certainly not living in a fool’s paradise himself. He had no time for this Jesus nor any belief at all in the resurrection. So convinced was he that these people were deluded that he thought it best for all concerned if he hunted them down and killed them. Yet Paul insists that he was confronted by Jesus and, given that his life up till that confrontationt was far more pleasant and comfortable than his life after then, why should he lie?
We know from his letters that his faith, despite that dramatic conversion experience, took a lot of working through. Every belief he had been taught, every experience of church he had, every aspect of his basic lifestyle, every relationship he developed with others was challenged over and over again. But he never regretted or resented this. It was worth it. Because he had found a new and glorious hope in life. If God in Jesus could overcome evil and death, then God could do the same in us. If God in Jesus could offer forgiveness and renewal to even the worst of lives, then there is hope for us all. If God in Jesus could prove that death is not the end of human existence, then there is comfort to be had even in the grief of bitter loss.
Faith is not about living in or proclaiming a fool’s paradise. It is about confronting the grimmest realities of life with a hope that will make life worth living and a vision for a better world worth striving for.
So, talking of grim reality, how are we feeling about the Christian church right now and our church in particular? Statistics about church attendance, allegiance to faith, the age profile of your average congregation make grim reading. When we look into the future, what do we see here in 20 years’ time? A Bingo Hall? A block of flats? A tiny congregation struggling to keep some form of worship and Christian outreach going in a building that is too large for them? There is no point in burying our heads in the sand. We have to face reality.
But let us also place ourselves for a few moments with those women in Mark’s Gospel, crushed into heartbreak by the grimmest realities of life, staring at a scenario that, they tell themselves, cannot possibly be true. And yet, against all the odds, it proves to be so.
And there are similar stories of unexpected resurrections in faith communities right through Christian history, some of which are happening right now, even in the URC. Dare we hope to see the reality of God’s renewing power right here in this place?
Over the coming year, as part of our Walking the Way programme we shall be exploring a series of what are called “Holy Habits-“ the things Christians do that help their faith to grow.
You can read more about it in the Newsletter. And what I would like to suggest is that for one year we stop counting heads; stop speculating on how many of the congregation will still be alive in twenty years’ time; stop cursing ourselves or the Elders or the Minister for the failure to get more “bums on seats” and focus on building up our own faith. Focus on looking ourselves for the signs that Christ is risen and that Christ is ahead of us when it comes to the future. Turn away from the scenario of buried hopes and look for green shoots of new life.
We are not ignoring the challenge facing our church in today’s world. Three weeks ago our Church Meeting voted to explore the possibility of employing some form of youth ministry. We are taking the future seriously. But if our faith is weary then what do we have to offer? And if our own hope is dwindling, then what can we share with those who are hopeless?
Let me finish with a funny little story, which I have had permission to tell. Last August, on Communion Sunday, I was greeted by the Elders preparing Communion with the news that, as the numbers were certain to be low, being August, they were only going to fill half the usual number of wine glasses and then we would probably have a lot left over. Despite having inherited something of Great Aunt Louie’s bossiness, I do not tend to issue “papal edicts.” In our tradition, it is the congregation who make decisions, not the Minister. The wine was duly set out on the table by 10:15 and the sparse numbers sitting in the pews justified the low expectations. Then what I call ”the last bus” came in at 28.5 minutes past ten, bringing at least another 25 people. A further 8 or 9 came in during the singing of the first hymn. And when the children joined us for the Communion there were thirteen of them, plus three leaders. As the wine was distributed, I doubt that I was the only person holding my breath. When I had served the Elders, there was one single glass remaining. I do not tend to issue “papal edicts” but I did after that service. I said We Are Not Doing That Again. God can still surprise us. We can still surprise ourselves. And it is not unrealistic to look ahead to a possible scenario in which God has done new and amazing things in this place.
Keep faith. Keep hope. Keep love. And let the risen Christ show us the way.