Sunday, April 12, 2009

Who Will Roll Away the Stone For Us? -- A Homily for Easter Day

Homily for Easter Day, Year B, 2009
Sunday, April 12th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Mark 16:1-8

“Who will roll away the stone for us?”
--Mark 16:3

A group of women approach the tomb of their crucified Lord, hoping to do one last thing for him – to anoint his body for burial. They had in mind one final act of devotion, one final offering of love. In their deep distress they embraced their task. Something occurred to them though, as they embarked upon that final offering of love, a great stone stood at the entrance of the tomb, impeding their way: “Who will roll the stone away for us?” they asked. Who, indeed.

Who amongst us, when gripped by sadness, by fear, by distress has not sought to bury ourselves in a task that would in turn bury our fear, distress or sadness? To “do” rather than to “feel” is the way we tend to deal with crises that threaten to overwhelm us. But having thrown ourselves into the task, with few emotional resources, and often with considerable physical and mental exhaustion brought on by the crisis, we are easily defeated when an obstacle of great proportions blocks our way and impedes our task. Our strength is gone, the task that would distract us falls apart, and we are left raw, despondent, “Who will roll the stone away for us?” Who, indeed.

“Crisis” is a word used liberally in our day and age. We have an environmental crisis that seems to be moving with such momentum that even if we change our ways, our natural world will never be the same. We have an economic crisis that is felt by many, rich and poor alike, with such destructive force that we have begun to words reserved for natural disasters and wars to describe their effect. Thus we have an economic catastrophe or we are facing economic turmoil, strife, or even destruction. We in the west have become so embroiled in wars on foreign soil, with motives so confused and poorly understood, that we wonder if we will ever see an end to such carnage.

Lest we think that the state of the world is an illusion created by media outlets, we have no shortage of official and learned apostles of hopelessness. We have pundits, commentators, politicians and generals; we have economists and environmentalists, each whom profess the starkly pessimistic and deeply despondent belief that we are powerless to stop the tide of history now forcefully released upon the world. Those who would counter such pessimism and despondency with a message of optimism and hope are counted and dismissed as “starry-eyed dreamers” who have their heads in the clouds. Meanwhile while the rest of us, who feel so overwhelmed and helpless as the magnitude and enormity of the various crises before us, go on imagining the tide to be no tide at all, firmly burying our heads in the sand. For most, the obstacle is too great, too large, too immovable. Who will roll away the stone for us? Who, indeed.

Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, those same women, who had felt defeated by the stone they knew they could not move, arrived at the tomb, gazed upon it and saw to their surprise that great stone had been rolled away.

Early in the morning on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, the great tide of anguish and pain is turned back and again put away. Not realizing what they were about to hear, not realizing the what they were about to see, they approached the tomb with renewed purpose for what had previously blocked their way was removed. They could do what they came to do. They could anoint his body. Perhaps they breathed a sigh of relief, but then another obstacle – his body was not there. Instead, a young man in a dazzling robe, by tradition an angel or holy messenger, told them not to be alarmed for Jesus has been raised from the dead.

Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen a new reality was proclaimed that forever changed the world. What would expect these women might have felt in that moment? Where hopelessness had held them captive, hope now set them free. Where the tide of tears threatened to drown them, the joy of the sun now warmed their hearts. Weeping may linger in the night, but joy comes in the morning. What cause for rejoicing this would have been … except … Mark tells us that they were gripped with fear. And so the gospel ends. Unlike the other accounts in Matthew, Luke and John, the Gospel of Mark ends not with appearance of the Risen Jesus conversing with his disciples, but with the news of his resurrection and three frightened women who have been given a task to go and spread the good news, yet, in their fear, they cannot. Why is it so?

I wonder if we are a people who have learned to be comfortable with crisis. Do we glory in the crisis we cannot stop or the oncoming catastrophe we cannot change? Do we in some strange and self-destructive way create crises that will spin beyond our control? Will we happily make half-hearted efforts to find solutions only to self-righteously defend our apparent heroic failures to proclaim, “well at least we went down trying?” I suppose that the reality we share with the women at the tomb is the reality that grace can be a frightening thing to receive. It may simply be easier to live with the turmoil of what we know than to risk faith in an empty tomb and an unseen hand that has rolled away the stone. Consider whatever stone stands in your way this Easter morning. If it were suddenly rolled away, would you know what to do, how to be, or how to feel? Surely, these women did not, even with such a great gift before them. This is the story of the women at the tomb. But it is not the entire story.

Why does Mark end his gospel here? I believe it is because that the story is made complete in our response to its stark ending. As the story draws to an abrupt close something wells up within us. We long to call to the women at the tomb, “Don’t you realize what has happened? Don’t you understand what this means? Don’t you get it? Death has been destroyed! Jesus is alive!” We call to them, from our vantage point of knowing the Risen Jesus, of hearing and believing the rest of the story which has here been left untold. From our own experience of having stones rolled away. We call, but they answer not.

Then, and only then, we begin to realize that we are calling not to them, but to ourselves in our dark and hopeless moments. We are calling to ourselves in words of encouragement, and words of faith in the Risen Christ. I would suggest that this is the way Mark wanted it, for the faith of the women in the story is not nearly as important as the faith that you and I, the readers of this gospel, share. Mark intended that his story of Jesus would elicit in us the same response that was offered by the centurion at the foot of the Cross, who upon the death of Jesus proclaimed, “Surely, this man was the Son of God.” Apparently it worked because future generations, confused at the abrupt ending and the actions of the women, shouted across the ages the same words of bewilderment and confusion at their lack of faith, and then from their own experience of the Risen Christ began to pen numerous faithful additional endings to the gospel to tell the rest of the story – a story they deeply believed, but eluded the women at the tomb, that Jesus was risen from the dead, a story to be shared with a hurting world. Apparently it worked because we are gathered here this joyous day proclaiming that the Lord is risen indeed, filling our hearts with hope and joy! Alleluia!

What the women at the tomb were to eventually learn, what the early church knew, and what I believe each of us knows deep within our hearts is the reality that God is ever and always rolling stones away that we cannot move alone. God rolls away stones that stand in the way of repairing the broken relationships of our lives. God rolls away stones that keep warring peoples from laying down their arms. God rolls away stones that keep us from caring for the poor amongst us. And how is it possible that these stones shall be removed? It is because God rolls away the most impenetrable, heaviest stones of all, the ones that surround our hardened hearts. With such stones removed, and with our hearts softened, arms are laid down, the earth is renewed, the hungry are filled with good things, and our own broken lives are mended.

Try as we might we cannot move such stones under our own power, but the one who turned the grave into a bed of hope, the one who rolled the stone away from a tomb so that life might burst forth triumphing over death, He is the one that shall roll the stones of our lives. And as he rolls away the stone for us, we realize that we are not gazing into a tomb, but rather gazing out from one – a tomb that has kept us captive in our fear and hopelessness. As that stone is rolled away, we like Lazarus, are called forth to join with our Lord in his work of rolling away the stones of a hurting world. We join in this holy task, in which tears of the world are turned to joy, not because we, ourselves, are able, but because in his triumph over the grave, he has made it possible.

Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, the women were wondering “who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb for us?”

Text Copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

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