SJF • Easter B 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome ... had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.+
One spring morning nearly two thousand years ago, three women headed to the tomb of a beloved friend to pay their last respects. He was one who had been judged a criminal by the state courts, rejected by the religious authorities, executed, and then buried in haste and without ceremony. So three women who had followed him in life came to the tomb to do the proper thing, to anoint his body and see to it that their dear friend might have at least and at last that final dignity.
But on the way to the tomb, something they’d forgotten came suddenly to mind. Perhaps in their urgency, perhaps in their sadness and grief, they had forgotten that a large stone had been rolled in place to seal the tomb. Now, on the way to the tomb to carry out their merciful task, they suddenly remembered, and said to one another, Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?
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That question echoes down the corridors of time. Who will roll away the stone? That stone was and is the symbol of death and finality, the seals and shuts away the dead, out of sight if not out of mind. The burial place is the end of the line, the terminal point towards which all life tends.
As I’ve mentioned before, it’s no coincidence that if you take the subway that runs northward just outside the doors of our church, you end up at Woodlawn! End of the line; last stop; everybody out. I was not entirely surprised some years ago to see a law firm’s office in one of those small buildings huddled under the elevated station at the last station stop on the Jerome Avenue line, up there at Woodlawn. The name of the law firm is Lazarus and Lazarus — I can only say they’ve chosen an excellent location.
We are, all of us, on a train the ends at one Woodlawn or another. With April 15 looming, it might be wise to remember the old saying, “The only things certain in life are death and taxes!” You may get a tax cut or an economic stimulus once in a while — but death awaits us all. It is one journey we all must make, some day, that journey to the grave.
You may remember the film in which a man has a terrifying recurring dream: a hearse drives up to him, and the driver leans out and says, in a cheerful voice, “Room for one more, sir!” And then one day, he’s about to get on a crowded bus, the bus driver looks at him and says, “Room for one more, sir!” — and it’s the man from his dream! He is so startled he steps back and doesn’t get on the bus, and then watches in horror as the bus pulls away and crashes in a terrible accident.
Well, the fact is, as far as each of us goes, there is always room for one more, room for each of us in death’s carriage. How does the Scripture put it? All flesh is grass, its beauty like the flower of the field; the grass withers, the flower fades. And who will roll away the stone?
And it isn’t only literal death, you know. There are those little deaths that come before the final death; those little deaths that wither and fade the dignity of God’s children, seemingly without help or deliverance. Despair, prejudice, racism, hatred and fanaticism roll stones of obstruction into the lives of men and women and children every day. And some are impeded, and others are crushed.
Who will roll away the stone of anger and diminishment that leads people to despair — such despair, despair so bleak they feel that they have nothing to do but buy a couple of guns and kill as many people as they can before they end their own despairing lives in death. What can you do when anyone you see may be ready to lash out? Who will roll away the stone?
Who will roll away the stone of fanaticism, when people are so sure that they alone have the truth that they actually imagine it to be an honor to blow themselves up if only they can take with them as many of unbelievers as they can? Who will roll away the stone?
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Who will roll away the stone? The women asked themselves that as they came to the tomb that Easter morning. It is the question we each ask many times in our lives, not only in response to death, but as we see or experience despair, injustice, prejudice and hatred. Who will roll away the stone?
But beloved sisters and brothers, note this: Saint Mark tells us that when the women reached the tomb the stone was already rolled away! The one who was buried in the tomb wasn’t there any more. Christ was already risen from the dead!
That was good news, brothers and sisters. And that is good news. Not only was Christ risen, but Christ is risen! Who will roll away the stone? What do you mean? The stone is already rolled away!
Who will roll away the stone of injustice? The stone is already rolled away by the one unjustly executed. The one who suffered injustice has triumphed over injustice; he has given us hands and hearts to roll away any stone of injustice we may encounter. Injustice may flourish for a time, but it will not triumph in the end. The stone has been rolled away. The one imprisoned through injustice is imprisoned no more. He is not there.
Who will roll away the stone of prejudice and hatred and ideology and fanaticism? The stone is already rolled away by the one mocked and spat upon and nailed to a cross by the power of hate and envy and fanaticism, but raised from the grave by the power of God. He is not there!
And we who are in Christ, are with him where he is — not where he isn’t — not in the tomb, not in the grave, not sealed shut: but alive and active and able and equipped and empowered to do his will.
In our baptismal covenant — which we will reaffirm as we welcome some new members into the body of Christ — we will promise to honor the dignity of every human being. In fulfilling that promise, we the people of God can do all in our strength to roll away the stones of hatred and prejudice that still block the light, that still imprison, that still cause the little ones to stumble and the weak to despair. Prejudice and hatred still wield some failing power to captivate and crush in this world; and yet they cannot and will not triumph in the end. The stone has been rolled away. The tomb is empty — he is not there.
Who then will roll away the stone of death? That stone has already been rolled away by one who died and was raised from death. We who have not yet died, yet are day by day approaching it, recall, as Saint Paul said, “dying, but behold, we live.” We know that the journey does not end at the tomb at Woodlawn or anywhere else — the tomb is only a stop-over on our true journey.
Emily Dickinson once wrote:
Because I could not stop for death,
he kindly stopped for me,
the carriage held but him and me
— and Immortality.
That third passenger, Immortality, is made real and complete in Jesus Christ, and that makes all the difference. Death may drop us off at Woodlawn, but Christ will raise us from the dead. After all, he’s the one who can truly say, “Been there; done that!” The stone was rolled away and the tomb was emptied, emptied once and for all — once, for him; and in him for all of us. We who have died with Christ in baptism, we who have been raised with him, who seek the things that are above where he sits at God’s right hand, know of a certainty that we will one day rejoice with him at the heavenly banquet. The stone has been rolled away. The tomb is empty. And Christ is alive. Though Woodlawn looks like the end of the line, though death invite us into his carriage, we have a better hope, and a better promise, for Christ is with us on that journey, which does not end at the grave, but goes on into the risen life of our Risen Lord.
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Some years ago a Sunday School teacher gave the children in her class an assignment for Easter. Each was given a plastic egg — you know the ones, from L’eggs panty hose, collected by the women of the church over the preceding months. The children were given the assignment to find something that represented Easter, put it in the egg and bring to class on Easter Day. The day came, and the teacher gathered all the eggs and then opened them one by one. “Oh, what a lovely flower! Who brought the flower?” And a little girl stood to take credit, saying how the flower reminded her of the new life that comes in the spring. The teacher opened another egg, and found a pebble. Another child rose to say it was like the stone that was rolled away from the tomb. The teacher opened a third egg, but there was nothing inside. “Oh,” she apologized, “I must have mixed this in from the ones I hadn’t given out,” and reached for another egg.
But one of the younger children shouted out — in that unselfconscious way that children can — “That’s my egg!” The teacher thought the child hadn’t understood — he was very young, the youngest in the class — and said, “But dear, it’s empty.” And the child nodded vigorously and answered, “Yes, just like the tomb. Jesus isn’t dead any more.”
What’s the old saying, Out of the mouths of babes?
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Three women went to a solitary tomb two thousand years ago, and then recalled it was sealed with a stone. When they got there, they saw the stone had been rolled away. The one they sought was not there — the tomb was empty, except for the angelic messenger — for Jesus had been raised from the dead. What was true then is true now: The stone is already rolled away, and Jesus isn’t dead any more.
Being raised from the dead continues to happen in a million ways, big and small. Even in the midst of suffering and injustice and prejudice and hatred, we can find the stone is already rolled away and new life has begun, that we too aren’t dead any more.
And even in the midst of death, even in the midst of the fear that the stone has rolled over us and is ready to crush us, and even when we finally do — as do we must — face that final journey, we will soon after discover that the stone has been rolled away, that Christ is alive, and that we are alive in him, victorious over death, our tombs as empty as his. Which is why, brothers and sisters, even at the edge of the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.+