Rolling Stones (Away)

A Sermon for Easter Day

Year B – 8 April 2012

John Edward Miller, Rector




When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint Jesus. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

                                                                                             – Mark 16:1-8


The Collect


Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.



“Who will roll away the stone for us?” That’s what the women were wondering as they sadly retraced their steps back to the tomb of their beloved Jesus. Just three days earlier they had watched as their Lord was hastily laid to rest there before the Sabbath began. Joseph of Arimethea had tried to give Jesus a decent burial after he had been tortured and humiliated by Roman crucifixion. Joseph had borrowed the cave-like burial chamber hewn out of the soft stone near Jerusalem. There he saw to it that Jesus’ lifeless body was wrapped in linen and sealed inside the tomb until after the Sabbath. The women returning to that place of death were carrying spices to anoint the body, as was the custom. However, they were unsure of how they could carry out their task. Joseph had made sure that the tomb was securely locked. The stone stood in their way.   

So they fretted, “Who will roll the stone away for us?” Their quandary was about a practical problem, but their query still resounds twenty-one centuries later. It strikes us with considerable force at a deep and personal level. Although we weren’t there when they crucified and buried our Lord, we recognize this question. We know that it gives voice to a universal longing to overcome the power of death.

All of us have stones that need to be rolled away – stones that imprison, stones that limit our freedom, stones that entomb, blocking out light and life. Some things are just too big, and weigh too much, to move by ourselves. To us they are megaliths that won’t budge, no matter how hard we bear down and push with all our might. Defeated, we walk around with “Help Needed” signs posted over our heart.  

The stones vary in size, and weight, and composition, but their common characteristic is heaviness. Guilt, doubt, grief, anger, fear, and indecision all fit the description. These and other stones are crushingly heavy. They push the air right out of us in great sighs, and they cripple our attempts to live a whole life. Stones like these must be rolled away, or else we will remain entombed. But who will do that for us?

When I was a young priest, I received a call from a lady who identified herself as a church member, but I had no clue who she was. I would learn later why she was a mystery. At that moment, though, I had a mission to attend to. Her husband had just died, she said, and she needed me to come by. So away I went, arriving at the lady’s doorstep as requested. She was quite elderly, and very shy. But I could tell that she was grateful to see me, even though it was for the first time. “Please come in, Dr. Miller,” she said. “My husband is in his room.”

I followed her through the house and came to a door, which creaked open at her push. And there lay her husband. I drew near, and opened my prayer book and began to pray. Finishing the ritual, I offered a blessing, tracing the sign of the cross on his forehead. Then the lady and I withdrew into her living room, where she told me her story.

She said that her husband had been a wonderful, bright man with a promising future. And yet, as the pressure of his profession mounted, he simply did not have the resilience necessary to bend and to adapt to stress. One day, she said, he just broke emotionally, and had retreated to his home. Their bedroom soon became his private preserve, from which he would never emerge for the several decades until his death. He received his meals, his fresh clothes, and his necessary items though a doorway that otherwise remained shut – always. The door was the stone sealing him within a tomb of isolation. He didn’t have the strength to remove it, and neither did his wife.

The reason why I did not know her is that she could seldom leave the house, for fear that he would slip further into his dark world. Getting groceries or prescriptions from the pharmacy was a tolerable thing, but church was out of the question. Thus two souls had been entrapped, sequestered away from life’s possibilities of refreshment and renewal. I could only hope and pray that there would be no door now that would separate either the deceased or his exhausted wife from new being. But, of course, that was why I was there. I had been called to represent Christ’s community, and to serve as a channel of life, and love. By the grace of God, a new creation was made possible. A heavy stone was removed; now her task was to walk out of that tomb, with God’s help and ours.

What does it take, whom does it take, to get that kind of stone rolling? Clearly someone stronger than I, and yet in Christ I know that I was included in the team of transformation that we call the Church.

Rolling stones away takes power. That’s the truth; and the good news of Easter is that God has the power to remove them – a power that’s stronger than death. It’s called “love” – as in, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . .” God freely and completely loves, enduring crucifixion and overcoming death with us and for us. As one three-year old preschool child told me last week, “Jesus died on the cross to give us a second chance.” Amen to that! Our shared ministry of love is about offering the power to live again to those who suffer under the weight of deadly stones.

And on this day, we behold love’s power in action. The text tells us that the women came back. That’s significant. They took a risk to do so. The rest of the disciples were cowering behind closed doors, fearing arrest for being Jesus’ accomplices. The crucifixion was horrible to witness; Jesus’ agony was etched into their consciousness. The remaining disciples had run for cover. It was up to braver souls, namely the women, to chance getting nabbed while checking on their late master.

The trio of Mary Magdalen, James’ mother Mary, and Salome approached the tomb, knowing that they weren’t strong enough to give that stone a shove away from the door. And yet, in that they made the effort, they became essential parts of the resurrection story on that first Easter.

Love infused their common purpose. It helped them overcome fear of their own death and propelled them forward. The women worried about how they might accomplish their mission, but they were not deterred. When they arrived at the tomb, they were met by God’s power to roll the stone away. Resurrection happens like that. Courage and compassion ready us to give, and to receive, newness of life. God’s message at every opened tomb is, “Don’t be afraid. . . He is risen.” The power of love is so strong that it amazes even the faithful.

There’s an independent film playing these days that delivers just such an Easter message. At least, it appears to me that it does. The film is “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.”[1] And it’s about the renewal of life experienced by people brought together by an awful accident, which was perhaps an occasion of God’s providence.

Jeff is a young man who has never summoned the courage to leave home. Instead he lives in the basement of his mother’s home. His days and nights are filled with eating, drinking, pot-smoking, and watching TV. It’s pretty clear that he’s depressed, and it’s also obvious that his mother is at her wit’s end. The reason is that she’s frustrated by his lack of initiative, and he’s languishing in fear after his father’s untimely death. Something’s got to give. And the action begins after Jeff’s mother orders him to get off the couch and board a bus to buy some wood glue to fix a shutter in the kitchen of her house. It’s her birthday, she reminds her son, and this is the only present she wants from him. Jeff reluctantly goes forth, but he’s weighed down by a strong sense that he’s receiving signs of an impending event of huge importance.

Along the way, he gets mugged, and beaten, and loses the means to get home. His bedraggled path then intersects with that of his older brother Pat, who views Jeff as a slacker who has no life. Ironically, Jeff thinks the same about Pat, but for a different reason. He can’t understand why Pat is so clueless about everything, and so self-centered and materialistic that he is losing his marriage.

Well, after running from pillar to post all over town chasing after “signs” of universal meaning, the two brothers find themselves standing near a cemetery. It dawns on them that this is their father’s burial place, and they cease their bickering for a moment to walk over to the grave. In a moment of reverie, the older brother lets down his guard and shares a private thought with Jeff. He says that he’s been having a dream about their father – one in which his Dad smiles and asks, “Pat, what’s the most important day in human history?” Nodding in recognition, gentle giant Jeff answers, saying: “It’s today. The most important day in human history is today. I had the dream too.”  They stare at one another in amazement.

Now Jeff, who lives at home, feels as though he is on the verge of something momentous. But his older brother is dubious. He believes that Jeff has been hallucinating again, or is simply falling into some sort of rabbit hole of madness.

And yet they press on, until Jeff convinces Pat to recommit to his estranged wife, and they try to intercept her by car. When they get stalled in a massive traffic jam on a bridge, Jeff suddenly feels impelled to rush to the cause of the snarl. And there he finds that a crash has pushed an auto off the bridge and into the Gulf of Mexico. Without hesitating big old Jeff jumps into the water and dives to the sinking car. Soon he pops to the surface carrying two little girls. But they cry that their Daddy is still down there, and Jeff submerges again into the green salt water. After a few moments a man bobs up. It is the girls’ father, but there is no sign of Jeff.

When Pat realizes where his brother has gone, he too jumps under the water. Finally, he struggles to the surface carrying the lifeless body of his brother. The Coast Guard rescue team pounds Jeff’s chest and tries to resuscitate the drowned man. Meanwhile Pat is screaming and crying for Jeff to live. Death has him firmly in its grim grasp. The sweet dreamer, who has been so out of step with the world, has saved a family by his heroics, but he did so at the loss of his own existence. It is as dark as Good Friday.

All of a sudden, the efforts of the EMTs and the passionate pleas of a distraught brother lift the stone of death from Jeff’s chest. His body convulses, vomiting the salt water and allowing him to cough and breathe. It is the moment – the most important day in human history for the two brothers, who realize that their differences are minor compared to the gift of life, and for their widowed mother, who that very day has gone from despair to joy, and is able to celebrate her birthday with renewed hope. It is the moment of new life for a marriage that was on the verge on death. And it is the moment when a father and his two little girls have been snatched from the depths to enjoy a loving, living embrace. To this Christian, it is “the day that the Lord has made,” a day of transformation, wherein we should rejoice and be glad. 

Easter is the resurrection story. Love has defeated death, and Christ is risen. Don’t be amazed; it’s why we are here. We are his risen body. And we are charged to share the power of love, and work with our Lord to keep rolling stones away from tombs. Easter is the eternal now, as well as then; for as Paul Tillich preached, it matters little whether it happened long ago in Jerusalem unless resurrection is happening today. But thanks be to God, it is. So let’s get on with it.

Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed! How about you?[2]


[1] “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” (2011), an independent film directed by Jay & Mark Duplass, with Jason Segal, Ed Helms, Judy Greer, and Susan Sarandon, tt 1588334/ . The film’s website is www.jasonwholivesathome,com.  

[2] This response was originally coined by the Rev. Christopher M. Brookfield in an Easter exchange with our late Rector Emeritus, the Rev. W. Holt Souder. Since that time, it became a customary greeting among the clergy of our parish.