Who will roll away the stone?
A Sermon preached for Easter Day April 4, 2021
St. Paul's, Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
I’m just going to say it one more time, “Alleluia! The Lord is risen!” (And you say, “The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!”)
This morning was one of those Easter mornings when my mind wandered back to my first Easter in parish ministry. I was Assistant Rector at Memorial Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland and, while I had been there for a while, I was meeting some of the faithful members of the church for the first time. These would be the C&E Christians – that would be Christmas and Easter. (You know who you are.)
I was in the reception line, greeting people at the end of the service as they were leaving the church when one man introduced himself in that wonderful gracious, slightly flamboyant, subdued but gregarious way of a Southern Gentleman, and assured me of his approval of my . . what he called … “performance”.
He then leaned in and lowered his voice and said, “Now, maybe you’re just the one to bring some changes ‘round here. And, I know just where you can start.”
I held my breath.
He cleared his throat and said, “Now, I don’t come here near as often as I’d like but I’d love it if you talked to some of the ladies on the Altar Guild about these flowers.”
“Of course, sir,” I said, “but what is wrong with the flowers?”
“Well,” he said, “they are stuck in a rut. They thoroughly lack imagination. It’s always the same thing. Every time I come – and I admit, it’s not near as often as I’d like – but it’s always the same thing. It’s either poinsettias or lilies.”
I believe that was the first time I had met an actual Christmas and Easter Christian.
It was also at that church that I met one Ms. Ditty Smith, who was originally from Mississippi but “moved up north” to Baltimore after she married. Her real name, she told me, was Elizabeth, but she was born prematurely at home and she was so small that the Doc who came to tend to her mother and her after her birth prepared her parents for her early demise.
“So,” said Ms. Ditty, “they put me in a shoe box and kept me over near the wood stove and named me after my grandmother, Elizabeth. But, when Daddy came home from the office – daddy was a lawyer – he looked at me in that shoe box and said, ‘Why that child ain’t no bigger than a little ditty.’ And so, that’s what they called me. Ditty. And, as you can see, I survived to be 97 years old.”
Ms. Ditty felt it her duty to prepare this New England girl for life in the southernmost state she had ever lived. She asked me what I had noticed about Baltimore. “Well,” said I, “for one thing, people in Baltimore do not drive like people in Boston.”
“Do tell,” said Ms. Ditty.
“Well, for one thing, where I come from, the meanings of the colors of traffic lights are pretty clear. Red means stop. Green means go. And, yellow means proceed with caution. But not here, apparently. When people in Baltimore get to a yellow light, they speed up. I’ve actually stopped at a yellow light and had people honk their horns and cuss at me.”
Ms. Ditty chucked and said, “Why child! That’s because, in the South, yellah means trah (try). But you can’t see that if you look at things with Northern eyes.”
Sometimes when I consider this morning’s gospel scene, I imagine Ms. Ditty being among the women who gathered before dawn to go to the tomb to tend to the body of Jesus. It’s Ms. Ditty’s voice I hear when I read that the women “…had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”
And, in my mind, I hear that young man who was sitting in the tomb saying to them, “Why child, in the Resurrection, all the stones are rolled away.”
When the women are alarmed to see him, I hear him say, “You think this tomb is empty, but it’s not. There are no empty tombs in the Resurrection. If you look around, you’ll see that this tomb is quite full. But, you can’t see that if you look at it with eyes filled with tears and sorrow. You have to look at the tomb with eyes that are filled with all the things that Jesus taught us when he was here. And then, you’ll not see death but life. You’ll see hope because you’ll see possibility. You’ll see that the world is changed and transformed and will never again be the same.”
Scripture says that terror and amazement seized them. Mark says that they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid, but John reports that Jesus spoke with Mary Magdalene and she became the first evangelist of the Resurrection.
In Matthew’s version there is a violent earthquake as an angel comes down from heaven and rolls back the stone. The angel tells the women what has happened and tells them to tell the Eleven.
In Luke’s version, two angels ask the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” And, when the women went back to the Eleven, they told them everything they saw but the men did not believe them. Peter, however, “ran to the tomb and saw the strips of linen lying by themselves and he went away, wondering what had happened.”
I suspect that some of us can relate to the various scenes pictured here this morning. Some of us may feel not at all like that C&E Christian who complained about the monotony of poinsettias and lilies and find great comfort and relief and even joy in seeing them everywhere in the church.
Others of you may be feeling a bit awkward, hearing the familiar hymns but not being able to sing. At first, you can’t really tell who that is behind that mask. You may feel frustrated that when we come to the Peace we won’t be able to exchange it in the same way. We’ll say ‘Peace’ but will it mean the same thing if we aren’t hugging one another? (“Yellow means caution but Yellah means trah.”)
Some of us came here asking, “Who will roll away the stone?” And, like Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, along with Salome and Johanna, we will find our question answered with another question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
You see, there is no stone that can contain the power of the resurrection. Remember how Jesus told us, when he was still with us in Galilee, that on the third day he would rise from the dead?
This is that day. This is the day of the Resurrection. Promises made. Promises kept. This is the day the stone is rolled away – it doesn’t matter if it was an earthquake or if an angel came down from heaven or Jesus himself moved the stone on his way out of the tomb.
There is no need to explain a miracle. There is only joy that what was once blocking us is no more. And that which was thought too tiny to grow into its own name – too fragile to live – will thrive and grow from a sweet little ditty into a great hymn of praise.
This is the day the tomb may look empty to others but we see it filled with hope. We can imagine possibility. We can fire up our sense of creativity and dream new dreams into being.
And, we will be changed. Forever. Ready or not. Like it or not. We will be changed.
It’s a new day, my friends. Once again we begin a new journey into a new life with Christ. We will learn a new way of living, the guide for which is in our baptismal vows.
If we, with God’s help, seek and serve Christ in each other, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being, our eyes will be open and we will find ourselves on that road to Emmaus, walking with Jesus, on another journey into a life of deeper meaning and purpose and love with God.
So, you’ll excuse me if I just have to say it again, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”
And, you say, “The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!”