Text: John 20:1-18
Rolling Stones: An Easter message for 2016! In case you are wondering, based on the title, if this Easter sermon is about the famous rock group Rolling Stones, let me either put you at ease or go ahead and greatly disappoint you. It’s not! Although there are those who might consider the Rolling Stones concert to an estimated crowd of half a million people in Havana, Cuba on Good Friday a type of resurrection, this sermon is not about the Rolling Stones rock group.
My working title for this Easter sermon was Stone Rollers but I thought, for some of us, that title might conjure flashbacks ( not the good kind) to prior church experiences. For me, Stone Rollers sounded a bit too much like holy rollers; and that invoked memories of the tent revival I attended several years ago while on vacation in the North Carolina mountains. And while I cannot deny that there is a secret place within me, as Sue Monk Kidd writes, to “pair down like a piece of fruit, stripped, peeled, distilled” and roll around in the wonder and amazement and mystery of resurrection, holy rolling is not for me. It is safe to say that whether you are a Rolling Stones fan, or curious about the notion of being stone rollers, or have in the past been a holy roller, the truth is that it takes all kinds of churchgoing people to celebrate the wonder and amazement of resurrection. Hallelujah!
As I looked back over past Easter sermons, I have, much like a responsible reporter, covered this story from many different perspectives and angles. I have raised the question of whether the Easter proclamation of “Christ is risen” is magic, myth or mandate. That particular Easter I concluded: Christ is risen is the mandate that life is for the living, not just for the light. It is the mandate that it is up to us to live resurrection lives and continue the story of God’s redemption of the world; and that the narrative of resurrection is left for us to complete. Alleluia. Alleluia.
I have also wondered with you on Easter what makes Easter and resurrection real. That year, I concluded, playing off the words of the Skin Horse in the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit that what makes the Easter story real, what makes resurrection real is, “that thing that happens to you” when you allow God to love you, REALLY love you. Then, you become real and the Easter story becomes real and we move from death into life. Alleluia. Alleluia.
Yet another year I suggested that the Easter story, the story of resurrection, is a story that invites us again and again—year after year—to consider the dead places in our lives and seek new life. It offers us the opportunity to set aside dead dreams and hopes for new dreams and new hopes. And beyond the personal, it challenges us as people of faith to look for where Jesus is alive in the world today—meaning where justice-love, compassion and mercy are alive. Every single year, I concluded, as we come to this Easter story, Jesus is resurrected anew, and we are asked to ponder what it means to be alive, to seek life out of the dead places, to live in hope and faith, and to trust that God’s justice does indeed prevail.
On other Easters I have considered the story of “Christ is risen” from the perspective of the women who arrived at the tomb early in the morning to find an empty tomb. I have run with Peter and the “other disciple” to the tomb both in fear and in wonderment at the sight of those linen wrappings lying neatly folded with no body in sight. The truth is there are so many points of entry into this story; and it seems to me that our task each year is to discern how this story of hope and promise—of life rising up out of dead places—is still speaking to us. For that is what makes it a living story, and a story that remains relevant some 2000 years later.
So let us consider for a moment, what makes this story real and relevant for us today in 2016. I imagine that most of us can recall a time in our own lives when we have stood facing the unknown, closed off by stones of despair and hopelessness and uncertainty, dreading what we imagined to be on the other side of the stone. More hopelessness, more despair, more pain, more uncertainty. We stand there somewhat complacent, maybe even grateful, that the stone is protecting us from having to face even more dread than we already feel. It is true that sometimes the known, even when it is painful, is better than the unknown. And to roll away those stones of fear and hopelessness takes energy and strength and sometimes we just don’t have that kind of strength and energy. So we continue to sit with our fear, in our grief and despair, and with our dead hopes and dreams staring at the stone.
But listen again to those opening lines of the Easter story. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb.” Oh, there it is…the Easter message for 2016. The rolling stone! You see, the first words of the Easter story hold the promise that the stone has been rolled away. We don’t know who rolled it away. The story isn’t clear about that part. It could have been the gardener. It could have been an angel. It could have even been, as some have suggested, Joseph of Arimathea—the man who tradition claims donated his own prepared tomb for the burial of Jesus after Jesus’ crucifixion. We just don’t know. But what we do know is that SOMEONE rolled away that stone. And in so doing, the fear of those first disciples turned toward freedom. Grief and despair gave way to hope. And life transcended death. Alleluia. Alleluia.
The Easter story of 2016 is calling us individually and collectively to roll away the stones—the stones of fear for the possibility of freedom, the stones of despair and hopelessness for the potential of hope, and the stones of dead dreams for the promise of new life and new dreams. Our world, maybe more than ever, needs the stones to be rolled away—the stones in our lives and in the world that keep us from truly living. Oh, our world needs stone rollers this Easter. Alleluia.
S. Thomas, an Anglican priest whose poems are often as bleak as the Welsh landscape where he ministered knew of such stone rolling. In this excerpt from his poem “The Answer” we hear a glimmer of resurrection breaking through:
… There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.
This past week we witnessed an historic stone being rolled away. For the first time since 1928 a United States president stepped foot on Cuban soil, a move toward rebuilding our country’s relationship with our neighbors just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Intent on closing a final chapter in cold war history, and a step toward ending the US trade embargo, this was a giant step toward rolling the stones of separation and blame away. And while many have suggested that the purpose of opening up the relationship between the US and Cuba is to bring about change in Cuba, many see it as much about change in American politics as it is about the new Cuba. This past week, President Barack Obama and Raul Castro were stone rollers. Their courage to roll away the stones of fear, despair and death gave way to freedom, hope and life. It was a resurrection moment. The old questions about our need for one another as neighboring countries laid folded and in a place by themselves, like the piled graveclothes of love’s risen body. In my mind, at least, it was an Easter/resurrection moment in which a heavy stone was rolled away.
But rolling stones is not just the work of Presidents. It is the work Easter people do in their own lives and in their own communities. It’s the work of rolling away that stone that keeps you estranged from a friend or coworker. It is rolling away the stone that is blocking you from inviting your Muslim neighbor to lunch or dinner. It is rolling away that stone that is obstructing the door to your own self care and happiness. Rolling away the stone is speaking out against ordinances and laws that discriminate against a specific group of people. Rolling away the stone is being willing to look at a difficult situation from another’s point of view. This stone rolling, it’s not easy. Getting a solid piece of stationary stone moving is the hardest step. But once we can get some leverage, rock it back and forth, and then overcome inertia, those stones that keep us from seeing what’s on the other side of fear, despair, and all that is dead in our lives becomes easier to roll. And those stones gain momentum and life takes on new meaning and a new path is made. Alleluia.
On that first Easter SOMEONE rolled away the stone and fear gave way to the possibility of freedom; despair woke up to the potential of hope; and life transcended death. The question of Easter 2016, and the question our world needs you to answer is: Will you be that SOMEONE who rolls away the stones that keeps us locked out of truly living? I sure hope so. I sure hope so.