Who gonna’ roll that stone?

Easter sermon

Easter morning, Sunday 24 April 2011
Marion Correctional Institution
(maximum security prison for men)
Text: John 20:1-18

by Ken Sehested

        It was still dark when Mary Magdalene crept away from her home, down the street, up into the garden to where Jesus had been buried two days before. Joseph of Arimathea had bravely volunteered to take Jesus’ body away from the Golgotha killing ground. Nicodemus, with whom Jesus had earlier met secretly at night, also came to the burial place, bringing traditional ointments and spices to retard the smell of a decomposing body, along with linen, the customary burial garment of the time.

        No one—not Joseph, nor Nicodemus, not the disciples, nor even the women, who at that point had been the most courageous of any of Jesus’ followers, certainly not the high priest or Pilate or the Roman soldiers—no one expected Jesus to survive. Empty tombs don’t tell no lie; but who gonna’ roll that stone?

        But just in case Jesus’ followers tried to pull a fast one, to come and steal his body and make some ridiculous claims about being resuscitated, the authorities posted armed guards. And, to make double-sure, the placed a boulder over the entrance of the tomb. Stones like that don’t roll away. Threats like Jesus don’t get away. That’s what the authorities teach us to think.

        Empty tombs don’t tell no lie; but who gonna’ roll that stone?

        In each of the four Gospel accounts it is the women who first risk the venture out from behind locked doors to go and care for Jesus’ body, just like they were the only ones who stayed with Jesus on the cross until the bitter end. The men-folk were too scared. And—get this—the women were the first to encounter our Resurrected Lord. Great God Almighty! They became the first evangelists!

        Reminds me of the speech by Sojourner Truth, the 19th century woman born a slave who later became one of the greatest anti-slavery advocates in the country.

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?

“Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? I said, where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.”

        In John’s resurrection story, Mary Magdalene is alone when she comes to the garden. Some scholars think she is the same as Mary of Bethany, brother of Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead. But the text is clear that it was this same Mary that, earlier in John’s Gospel, that anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume. It was the kind of anointing given to royalty, usually in the presence of a king, staged in the palace by a high-ranking religious official, probably in the company of a legion of Rome’s elite feared soldiers. But in this case it was only a peasant, in an ordinary house. And a mere woman at that! A woman who had no place being in the public company of men.

        Ah . . . but ain’t I a woman. “And in my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me.”

        Empty tombs don’t tell no lie; but who gonna’ roll that stone?

        Listen with the ears of your heart to this story, to the footsteps of Mary Magdalene sneaking up to the garden tomb under the cover of darkness—the same darkness that hovered over Egypt as the slaves escaped. Can you hear the angels singing that more modern slave song: “O, Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn. Oh, Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn. Pharaoh’s army got drown-ded. Oh, Mary don’t you weep.”

        Can you hear it? Empty tombs don’t tell no lie; but who gonna’ roll that stone? Or maybe it’s Mary you hear, singing that Gospel tune:

        “I come to the garden alone, While the dew is still on the roses. And the voice I hear falling on my ear, The Son of God discloses.

        “And He walks with me, and He talks with me, And He tells me I am His own; And the joy we share as we tarry there, None other has ever known.

        Empty tombs don’t tell no lie; but who gonna’ roll that stone?

§  §  §

        A few years ago I was working as a stone mason. I got a job doing what’s called a “dry stack” wall, which means you don’t use any mortar. It takes a lot more skill to dry stack a rock wall. You have to match the stone shapes more carefully, and make sure you use gravity to keep them in place.

        This particular job was especially difficult because I had to actually cut a walkway about half-way up along a steep hill. Just standing up was hard enough, while using a pick and shovel to clear a level path for the base of the retaining wall. On top of that I had to lug 50-100 pound rocks up that hill and try to keep them in place just behind me, or just above, as I cleared the path a step or two at a time.

        I had a lot of rocks go tumbling down that hill. Gravity is a powerful force! Like water, rocks are always trying to go downhill, as if they’re trying to go back to the place where they came from.

        In the same way, those rocks are always trying to get back down in front of that tomb, to seal it up,

      •to keep Jesus from rising up,

      •to tear the heart out of the resurrection story,

      •to keep Mary from her rendezvous with the Lord,

      •to keep the disciples hidden behind closed doors and shivering in fear,

      •to halt the sun’s rising on Easter Morning!

      Is there a stone in front of your life, sealing up your hope for resurrection? Are you still wrapped in the linen of the dead, no way to breathe, no way to sing about “Up From the Grave He Arose”? No way to venture out in the darkest hour just before dawn to join Mary in her walk with the resurrected Christ? No way to sing about the “joy we share as we tarry there”?

        And it continues to happen, even up to this day: the stones of the world keep rolling back in place to keep us in the tombs of our self-centered ways and our violent days. To keep the grave sealed on our anger and rage, steeled in the cell of embittering gaze?

        Empty tombs don’t tell no lie; but who gonna’ roll that stone?

§  §  §

        The circus was coming to town. Before each stop on their travels, an advance team would show up first to do promotion and advertising. One person in that advance team was a high-wire acrobat. A wire was strung fronm one tall building to another. All the media was alerted: “Come see this death-defying act!” It always guaranteed a lot of free publicity for the big tent that would soon arrive, with its elephants and clowns and cotton-candy and sometimes lions and tigers, too.

        The acrobat would first walk the wire with a long balancing poll. The gathering crowd politely applauded. Then he put aside the pole and walked the wire, suspending high over the hard pavement below, with no safety net and nothing but his sheer skill and balance. This time the applause was more hearty.

        Then he announced that he would now push a wheelbarrow across the wire; and after several tense moments, when it appeared he might lose his balance and fall to the street below, he finally made it safely to the rooftop across the way. By now the assembled crowd was cheering wildly.

        After quieting the crowd, which by this time had gotten very large, he shouted down: “Do any of you think I can put someone in my wheelbarrow and roll it across to the other side?”

        The crowd went nuts. SURE! Yes! Of course!! Everybody wanted to see such a spectacle like that.

        Then, when the shouts of encouragement finally died down, the acrobat looked down and said, “Do I have any volunteers?”

        Dead silence. The cheers were gone. Everyone is thinking, “I want to see someone else do that. But not me.”

        Brothers and sisters, Easter morning is not just for pleasant conversation with the Risen Christ, “while the dew is still on the roses.” Yes, “he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own.”

        But what does it mean to be among Christ’s “own”? What does it mean to belong to Jesus, to walk and talk with him. To hear the promise of mercy and grace which he offers. To know that his arms are large enough even to carry your failures, your broken heart, even your prison sentences? What does it mean to know that no stone is too large that it can’t be rolled away? Or to hear Jesus sing out, “Ain’t no grave can hold my body down”?

        What do these things mean? Is it more than a pleasant garden stroll lit by the sun’s early rays? Is it more than rubbing shoulders with the Son of God? Maybe a picnic breakfast, with the Holy Spirit frying up some potatoes and bacon—or cheese grits, if that’s what you prefer? Scrambling some eggs, offering hot biscuits right out of the oven slathered in butter and a whole row of jellies and jams? Maybe a delicious pastry and a little fresh fruit on the side? With plenty of strong coffee and all the cream and sugar you need? And the angel choir hovering overhead, singing “Up From the Grave He Arose”?

        And you can get seconds, even thirds, if you’ve worked up a good appetite.

        Makes me hungry just thinking about that feast.

        But I don’t think that’s what it mean to be claimed by Jesus, to be considered among his own. To be paroled from jail and go directly to the streets of gold. To have St. Peter ready to open those pearly gates, and bring out the party hats, the moment he sees you coming, one of the prodigal sons returning home.

        No, I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure that’s not it. Nope—it’s something else, something else altogether to being claimed by Christ as one of his own.

        What it means is getting in that wheelbarrow! Are you ready for that wheelbarrow? What it means is to let you life hang in the balance. To face up to the fear of falling to your death. For it will take your death, so to speak—it will take your willingness to die to your own self-centered life, to give pardon and mercy to those around you, without the expectation of return.

        Love is not something you barter to get what you want. Love is something you offer, because it is something you have received. Salvation is more than the promise of a heavenly crown. Salvation is more than a lifeboat, keeping you alive while others all around you are drowning. Salvation is jumping in to those tempestuous waters, risking your life, to save others from the raging sea.

        Your capacity to receive Christ’s pardon is directly related to your willingness to extend it to others. Otherwise, your religion is nothing more than a clanging symbol. Otherwise, your piety is a whitewashed tomb full of rot and stench and the bones of the dead.

        The promise of Easter morning’s saving sunrise hinges on a Good Friday death. You don’t get to skip over it. As we will soon witness, there is first the dying symbolized in the waters of baptism. Only then can we rise with Christ.

        Are you ready for that kind of baptism? Are you ready for that stone to roll?

        Wade in the waters, children; for God’s gonna’ trouble the waters.

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org