Easter Sunday – April 21, 2019
After a day of Sabbath rest, the women who followed Jesus from Galilee brought the spices and ointments they had prepared to Jesus’ rock-hewn tomb. Perhaps you’ve seen pictures of what this tomb might have looked like. The ones I’ve seen show Jesus’ tomb as something like a cave carved into rock. And across the entrance a large, round stone, like a giant wheel, sealing death inside. This is where Jesus’ body was hastily laid followed his death on the cross, for the Sabbath was near. And so early on the first day of the week, the women brought the spices they had prepared to honour Jesus’ body properly. But when they arrived at the place, “they found the stone rolled away from the tomb…”
“Roll Away the Stone” is the title of a short video interview with Becca Stevens. Stevens is an Episcopal priest, an author, speaker, and entrepreneur who founded an organization called Thistle Farms. It is an organization that works with women survivors of sex trafficking, prostitution and addiction by providing a wide range of services, including housing and employment opportunities, to promote healing and renewed life. The video begins with Stevens responding to the question “What is love’s dream?” She replies: “Love’s dream… is always to roll the stone away. Whether that is our hearts of stone; whether it’s the stone of the prison walls; whether it’s the stone that leaves us grieving at death’s bed; it’s always to roll the stone away.”
Stevens is clearly speaking of stones metaphorically to mean whatever keeps us trapped, sealed in a place of death. The stones of which she speaks are obstacles that get in the way of our healing. Stones of pain or grief; stones of bad habits or self-medication; stones of resentment or self-righteousness; stones of traumatic experiences or a glorious past or broken dreams… there are whole variety of stones that can block God’s miracle of new and transformed life.
At a service at a seniors’ residence earlier this week, I asked about what metaphorical stones could get in the way of our living abundant lives. What stones keep us trapped in death? The first response was “busy-ness.” The expressed wisdom was that for many of us personally, and as a society in general, our non-stop busy-ness, our frantic activity, keeps us separated from God and from love. Our busy-ness is the stone that needs to be rolled away, to make way for healing and new life. I thanked the wise woman who offered this insight and told her I would be quoting her today. Her response rang so true. Exhaustion has become a status symbol. Depression, anxiety and burnout the price, a high price, to chase after the good life that isn’t always so good. Busy-ness may be one stone that needs to be rolled away, so that the death that rules us may be overcome. What stone might need to be rolled away in your life? What stones do we need to roll away in this community of St. Andrew’s, in our neighbourhood, our city, the world?
Rolling away the stone is the first sign, the first hint, that a miracle is at hand in the Gospel of Life we hear today. “They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.” The tomb was empty. Jesus’ body was gone. We know the rest of the story… we’ve “read ahead” in the ways of God in Christ… and so we know that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. We know that those women who first discover the empty tomb and then encounter men dressed in dazzling clothes, who remind them of Jesus’ teaching… those women will, soon, meet the Risen Christ, along with the rest of Jesus’ disciples. All that, however, comes later. When we slow the story down and take it step by step, we discover that with the stone rolled away, Jesus’ body is gone. The tomb is just empty. And the women are perplexed.
Emptiness is an important step in any spiritual journey, however unsettling and perplexing it may be. Spiritual masters have reflected how in the practice of meditation, for instance, “you put your butt on the cushion and move one level above your habitual engagement and see from a more aerial perspective…” The point of meditation… prayer… silence… is to move past, to beyond habitual thinking and habitual awareness, so that a new awareness, deeper understanding, revelation, may come from God. As one writer reflects, however, “Many people sitting in meditation claim that nothing happens. Why? Because the whole point is that after suspension you have to tolerate that nothing is happening.” (Scharmer, 23) When we suspend our habitual patterns, the thing that happens next, is nothing. The stone is rolled away, and Jesus’ tomb is empty. No wonder the women are perplexed. And no wonder, when strange, unexpected messengers suddenly arrive, they are afraid.
Folk rock band “Mumford and Sons” address this moment of rolling away the stone and exploring an empty tomb in their song “Roll Away Your Stone.” They sing: “Roll away your stone I will roll away mine; Together we can see what we will find; Don’t leave me alone at this time; For I’m afraid of what I will discover inside…” Mumford and Sons are clearly playing imaginatively with the Gospel story of Jesus’ resurrection. They put themselves in the story with their wondering about rolling away their own stones… exposing their vulnerable places… with curiosity and fear. Maybe we keep our stones – of busyness or otherwise – in place, because we too are afraid of what we’ll discover inside.
The work of rolling away a large stone takes much effort. It is the kind of hard, physical work that makes sense to us and gives us a great sense of accomplishment. But when the women arrived at Jesus’ tomb early that first morning, that hard work was already done. The stone was rolled away. Their work came in entering the empty tomb and staying in their perplexity until a message came from God to remember… remember Jesus’ teaching. If our stones are going to be rolled away, then we too will have to tolerate the nothing we encounter. Something has happened, but it happened apart from our effort and without our hard work. After shedding blood, sweat and tears, we have to tolerate the emptiness long enough for the miracle of transformed life to manifest in recognizable ways.
Rolling away our stones might lead to perplexity and bring us face to face with emptiness, but it is also a critical step in a journey to deep healing, abundant joy, and extravagant love through transformed life, in all its fullness. And that is the good news of Easter. Death is overcome. Life and love win the day.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen. [The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!]