Once years ago I was a part of a long procession that covered a route of several kilometers, and went from a quaint village church on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, leading out of town, and proceeding to the bishop’s compound where a new, mostly outdoor cathedral had been built. The village church had a congregation that was mostly white. But many of the Anglicans in that diocese were out in bush churches in the region once called the Transkei, a long, long way from town, and most of those congregations were made up of black people. I had not ever been involved in such a procession (walking and singing) that covered such a distance, and neither had the white folks from the village church. In fact, most of them stayed behind: this was not their thing. But the black folks knew how to make a proper procession. There were crosses held high, and there was singing and ululating, and sometimes it was hard to tell if we were walking or dancing, so rhythmic was the movement of the men and women in that procession. And the harmonies were strong, and the weather was clear, and no one was in hurry to get anywhere.
As I said, the route covered something like 4 or 5 kilometers, I don’t know how long was the line of worshipers stretched out along that route. It is the only outdoor procession I have ever been in that actually picked up people along the way and grew bigger, rather than losing people, and steam, and getting smaller as you go, as happens when we try to do this sort of thing in urban America. It was amazing!
But it was also long! And, as I said, no one was in much of a hurry. And from time to time the procession would stop, and someone would be called on to preach for a bit. It wasn’t just the clergy who were called on – in fact, I’m sure I never was: they could tell that this was not my milieu! The whole procession would just stop and someone would stand up on a bank by the side of the road and start to preach. And the shouts and the “Amens!” would be offered from those who listened on the roadside. And we’d stop and listen for as long as the group could tolerate it, as long as the preacher held their interest, and when that interest began to wane, someone would shout out, “It’s time for a chorus!” And the singing would begin – usually some English hymn in four-part harmony - and the preacher would be drowned out, and would have to shut up, and the procession would move on (singing and swaying), and everybody knew it was for the best that the preaching had come to an end. It’s a brilliant system!
And this went on and on.
I can’t remember much specific about the preaching on that dirt road in the Diocese of Umzimvubu on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, except that I remember there was a theme that all the preachers were to share, somehow this had been worked out and understood in advance. And while I can’t remember the details of the preaching, I can remember the theme, as we stopped by the roadside under the warm sun, on the outskirts of the village, and the theme was this: Who will roll away the stone? The Easter question: Who will roll away the stone from the tomb?
Two specific things I can remember about those little homilies that were preached by men and women in thick, lilting accents. I remember that many of the preachers talked about the stone that closed the tomb not as an historical object, but as an obstacle in daily life that needed to be rolled away from our hearts. And I remember that at one point, as we were paused by the side of the road, a friend of mine from Australia, for whom this was also a new experience, turned to me with a wink and said, “If they wouldn’t keep rolling the stone back we could get there a whole lot faster!”
Who will roll away the stone from the entrance of the tomb? Oh, who will roll away the stone? This is the question with which Easter begins. And it seems to us like a rhetorical question, especially since we already know the answer: no worries, the stone has been rolled away! But if you look at the scriptures, you will see that St. Mark, who whose Gospel was the first of the four to be written, puts the question on the lips of the women who are making their way to the tomb. St. Matthew provides a direct answer, asserting that “an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it.” Saints Luke and John simply allow that the stone has been rolled away by the time the women get there. But for all four evangelists the stone is noteworthy. For the women it must have been a real concern, and the evangelists know this. How the women thought they were going to deal with it, I cannot imagine; maybe they thought they’d sit outside the tomb until some burly men came along to roll the stone away.
The stone is the first and most obvious obstacle to the Resurrection. Clearly it is a potential obstacle to the women who want to get into the tomb. But of course, we imagine that the stone is also the thing that would have prevented Jesus from escaping his tomb. And in the event, the stone accomplished neither thing – prevented neither exit from nor entrance to the tomb - but still the stone is a detail of all four Gospel accounts of the resurrection.
As a literary device the stone, of course, stands for all the things that make the resurrection unlikely, unbelievable, and unexpected – an obstacle to the resurrection.
But I think there were insights to be found about that stone on the dusty road in South Africa. I think the stone is included as an important detail for our sakes – because there are still so many obstacles to the resurrection in our lives. There are obstacles, of course, to believing that Jesus could really get out of the tomb, could rise from the dead; and there are obstacles for us to be able to get inside and see for ourselves that he is risen. And I vaguely remember that that’s how the preaching went on that warm day in the procession. There is a stone in front of your heart that keeps the risen Lord from getting to you, and that keeps you from getting to him – who will roll away that stone? Who will roll it away? You can decide for yourself if this assertion is true. (I suspect it is for most of us.)
And of course, my Australian friend had a different take on the stone – we keep rolling it back in front of the tomb: we keep replacing the chief obstacle to the resurrection, as though we want to keep the tomb closed up; as though we want to keep Jesus inside, and us outside; as though we are not ready for this new thing that Jesus is going to do in the world and in our lives. We keep rolling back the stone, and it takes us longer to get where we are going than it needs to.
But I want to add a third possibility to these insights, so here it is: you are the stone, and I am the stone. We are the principal obstacles to the resurrection. We are the thing that is most likely to keep Jesus in the tomb, most likely to keep those who seek him out. I say this, because when it comes to our relationship with God, we are often like big lumps of stone. We are not good at tending to that relationship. We don’t know how to talk with God and we don’t know how to listen to God. We don’t know how to do the things we think we ought to do, and we are not sure we even want to do the things we “ought to do.” We are like big lumps of stone. We turn our backs to Jesus, and if that keeps him dead and buried, well then so be it. And we are so silent about Jesus (silent as stones) that we could never be accused of allowing anyone access to the good news that he is risen! We are big lumps of stone: awkward, heavy, and stupid.
How’s that for an Easter message?
Well, of course, that’s not really the Easter message; it’s just the context for it.
The Easter message becomes clear as the sun rises, and some women are moving cautiously, sadly, mournfully from their homes to a tomb, with that famous question on their minds: Who will roll away the stone? This is a small and sad procession, and they have no ready answer for their question, and certainly nothing to sing about. And they are expecting to encounter you and me – big, heavy, dopey, silent, stupid stones who are the chief obstacles that morning between them and the body of their Lord, the dead and buried body of Jesus. Who will roll away the stone, they wonder?
And the good news of Easter begins with this unexpected surprise: the stone (that’s you; that’s me) is not in the way. The stone has been pushed or pulled, or lifted, or somehow pried, coaxed, or levitated out of the way. The obstacle to the Resurrection – the obstacle to Jesus – is no obstacle at all!
Whatever is going on in your life this Easter morning, it would be reasonable to expect that you would have showed up, whether you knew it or not, as an obstacle to the Resurrection, as an obstacle to hope, and to new life, and to the possibility that things are not the way they appear to be (they are much, much better, in fact). Yes, it would be reasonable to expect you and me to show up on Easter morning and feel just like the big, bulky, stupid stones we sometimes seem to be, or think we are.
And if your heart has been heavy, you might have shown up with this question in your mind: who will roll away the stone? Who will roll away the stone from the dark, dead places of my soul, of the nations, of the whole entire universe? Who will roll away the stone? Who can make me less of a stone, less of an obstacle, less of a heavy lump of rock that can do nothing but sink lower, and weigh down the world? Who will roll away the stone that is me? That is the Easter question, after all, and it is natural to find it on our lips, no matter what we think the stone is: whether it’s me or you, or the person sitting two rows back and three seats over, who you are pretty certain is more stony than you are. Oh, who will roll away the stone?
After all, we know that the stones just keep getting rolled back, just when we think everything is good, and we can get on with life, we feel like someone rolls the stone back into place, and we have to start all over again. Oh, who will roll away the stone?!?
And even though we have heard this story before, we so easily forget that we already know the answer. Just when we think we are up against the greatest obstacle that the Resurrection ever faced, the greatest obstacle that Jesus ever faced. Just when we think that Jesus could not possibly get past this stone on his side, and that we can not possible move it on our side… we forget that we already know the answer to the question, who will roll away the stone?
The answer is this: “When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back!” The stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.
Yes, it’s true that there are stones that get in the way of Jesus, and that get in your way in your life; it’s true that there are obstacles to grace that work in at least two directions, and seem to be confounding the possibility of God’s love and salvation in the world. Yes, it’s true that somehow those stones keep getting rolled back, dammit, and we would get where we are going so much quicker if that weren’t the case. Yes, it’s true that you and I are often the greatest obstacles to Jesus’ resurrection in our own lives, and who knows whether we might be just as obstructive in the lives of others, I surely have been from time to time. Oh, who will roll away the stone!?!
And when we look up, we see that the stone, which is very large, has already been rolled back!
(By now, it must surely be time for a chorus, and this preaching must come to an end!)
Look up, my friends, look up! You have been looking down, as though you might stub your toe on this stone. But the stone is very large – it is a serious obstacle, no doubt! So look up, look up! And see, the stone has already been rolled back, and although you and I hardly thought it possible, the Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Easter Day, 2015
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia