Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Resurrection of Our Lord [Year B] - April 5, 2015 (Mark 16:1-8)

“The women had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’”

Do you know people like this…people who are always thinking of what needs to be done? They’re the people who are constantly planning ahead, people one or two steps ahead of most of the rest of us? These are the folks who, despite being tasked with so many duties all the time, are constantly taking stock of the situation at hand and figuring out what needs to be done.

Thank God for these people! I’m married to one and work here with a bunch of others.

“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

Do you know people like this? If not, you do now, for it happens to be the question asked by the three women who are on their way in Jerusalem that morning to perform the ritual anointing of the dead. If they were like all the other women of that day and age—and we have no reason to believe they weren’t—they had plenty of other things to do to keep the village and its households running. This trip to the cemetery was no pleasure stroll, and although this act of devotion and grief was likely something they were honored to do, they couldn’t be wasting time. They planned ahead.

"Holy Women at the Tomb" (Bouguereau)
“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” Of the four accounts of Jesus’ resurrection that we have, Mark is the only one who includes this little snippet of dialogue. The other three gospel writers all rush us right to the tomb, eager to present to us the scene that the women will find, eager to get on with the news. My guess it’s because Mark and these women both are familiar with just how large these stones were. Archaeologists tell us just about every tomb in Jesus’ day had one. Wealthier folks had neatly rounded stones that rolled nicely back and forth. Middle class and lower class people had to settle for more roughly-hewn, square-ish stones that had to be pushed and did not move so easily. Weighing several hundred pounds apiece, and were designed to slow down grave-robbing, if not prevent it altogether. So it’s a question, then, asked by those who are good at planning and wonder how things are going to play out:“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

I’m thankful that Mark included this question of the journey instead of just taking us right to scene of wonder. In addition to the fact that it seems realistic, I also find it to be very honest, very applicable, because “Who will roll away the stone for us?” is essentially the question we ask so often on our various journeys of life. It’s what people ask, for example, when faced with sudden unemployment, and there is suddenly a big boulder of job-seeking to worry about. It’s what people tend to wonder when a cancer diagnosis is received, and suddenly a path to healing seems treacherous and filled with all kinds of looming obstacles. It’s the same question people ask who are seeking a way out of the cycles of violence and hatred of this world, cycles much like the unfair, bloody process that led to Jesus’s own death on the cross.

Without too much effort we can rephrase the women’s same question and put it on the lips of those living under the threat of ISIS’ advance, or on the lips of those parents in Kenya whose children will never come home from university, and on the lips of our own soldiers who come home with stress disorders and nightmares of warfare that won’t leave them alone: What’s the next step, Lord, and how on earth are we going to take it? We need that stone moved, Lord, but it is too large for us, the grief is too deep, the way forward too dark. Yes, we’re thankful for this question from the women that Mark is so careful to include because we know it, even if we’re not careful-planning type. We ask it because we’re broken humans in a broken world that is riddled with boulders.

Of course, we know how the story continues: the women eventually arrive at the tomb and all their worrying and planning is for naught. The stone is already rolled away and, oh, by the way, they won’t be needing those anointing spices anyway. The body they were supposed to anoint with them is no longer there. He is risen, and is ahead of them in Galilee. God, as it turns out, is already a step or two ahead of the people who are a step or two ahead. God is a mile ahead of the people who are a step or two ahead.

But if Mark’s gospel begins with this realistic question of planning and thoughtfulness, it ends with even more realistic abruptness. The women, even after they’re carefully instructed about what to do, flee the scene in silence and terror. The most miraculous event in history has occurred, the biggest stone—death—has been done away with—and suddenly they’re speechless, without questions and without plans.

In his poem, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” John Updike says,

The stone is rolled back, not paper-maché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

Yes, it is so tempting to take the message of Easter and turn it into something easier to swallow, something metaphorical or allegorical, as if the news of the empty tomb is simply that is something that imparts warm fuzzy hope on the inside but doesn’t change the boulder-ridden world we live in. The discovery of the rolled-away-stone message of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead isn’t just that God is somewhere ahead of us, like God is some sort of man waiting around the next corner with balloons and a birthday cake to cheer us up. The message of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is that the future is already here. The news of the empty tomb is that God has already begun a new creation, one where Christ is risen and reigning. Because that stone is moved and Christ is really freed from the grave, death no longer has the final word.

"Women at the tomb of Christ" (Carracci)
Again, the women—this time in their fear and haste—remind us that this reality is earth-shaking, and for those who like to use death as their tool to get their way, for those who think death will always eclipse life, the resurrection of Jesus is a frightening event. Death has lost its sting. Its methods aren’t effective anymore. This changes the world we live in, for a God of infinite love will actually have the final word. Therefore God’s people get to adjust their lives to reflect this reality. Easter faith is bolstered by the knowledge that behind all those stones of disease and violence, hopelessness, and despair, stands the rolled away stone at the entrance to Jesus’ tomb. We therefore can change our words so that they speak of hope and compassion, unafraid to speak light into the dark. The Spirit comes to help us reform our actions so they mirror God’s grace and justice and make us able to suffer alongside the suffering. The Spirit can transform our outlook so that we can remember that our dead rest in Christ and will one day rise, with us, victorious with him.

“Who will roll the stone away for us?” Do you know people like this? It was the question directed at me on one Sunday here just a few weeks ago on one snowy Sunday, by two different women in the congregation. One was in her 20s and the other in her 90s—but both were wondering the same thing: “Who is going to shovel the snow out of the columbarium?” I had been so proud of our efforts to get the sidewalks and parking lots cleared that week, I hadn’t even thought to take the shovel to the very place where our own blessed dead are resting. Both of these women questioned me that morning, but not in worry or hesitation about the “next step,” but rather in sure and confident hope of Christ’s resurrection. They had shown up that Sunday like they did every week, fully intending to spend a moment in prayer and thanksgiving with their loved one who was far from forgotten, alive to Christ.

“Who will roll that stone away for us?” I know people like this. Thank God for them! And I’m looking at dozens of them right now, people burdened by the boulders of life, the “vast rocks of materiality,” but confident that because of Jesus, the path has been shoveled. I’m looking at dozens of them right now, in fact—people whose faith and upturned faces suggest to me that from now on,  the columbarium should be the first thing we shovel.

And I know I’m likely looking at dozens of others, faces upturned in sorrow and worry who need to hear the news that those women discovered that day: the stone has already been rolled away. Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed.

Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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