"Who Rolled Away the Stone " by Marjory Bankson
April 12, 2009, Easter Sunday
Mark 16:1-8 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 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?"
In the chilly darkness, the worried women scramble over rocks and around large boulders, clutching the precious spices they had just purchased to anoint Jesus’ mangled body, hastily sealed in a cave before sabbath began.
Passover crowds were still thick in Jerusalem, but there weren’t many people here, on the rocky hillside, where the graves were. The disciples have disappeared, huddled together behind locked doors. The women had watched from a distance, terrified, as Joseph’s men took the body down and wrapped it in a sheet to bury it before sabbath began. They are the ones with enough courage not to abandon the body of Jesus. Now they whisper urgently in the grey light: "Who will roll away the stone?"
Who Did It?
Last night, many of us heard Tracy Radosevic tell the entire Gospel of Mark as it might have been told on Easter Eve in the early church. Lent was traditionally the time of intense preparation and Easter morning, the time to baptize new converts. Easter is time for the whole story – death to the old self; new life in Christ. We know that, when the women arrived at the tomb, they found that the stone had been rolled away. The barrier was gone. The trouble they anticipated was not there. Instead, the black hole of the cave beckoned – stark in early dawn.
What would they find inside? Had some zealot been there to steal the body? Was it Jesus, revived like Lazarus? Pushing out from the inside? Or had an earthquake rolled it away, heaved to one side with a quick jolt? The question is, then and now, "Who rolled away the stone?"
Tentatively, the women venture inside. They see a glowing presence. "Fear not!" he says. Of course they are terrified. Who wouldn’t be? A gruesome death. Intentional torture. Petrified disciples. Sabbath waiting. Hurriedly acquired burial spices. And now — nothing but scattered burial cloths and this angelic messenger. Who wouldn’t be terrified!
"Jesus is not here, " the angel says. "Go, tell his disciples that they should go home, to Galilee, where he will be waiting for them." But in this account, the women are so scared that they say nothing to anybody. And that’s the end of the original manuscript, like a sharp intake of breath.
Mark’s brief gospel is full of action and suspense. The earliest account of Jesus’ life, it was probably written down in Rome about 60 or 62 AD, as the hot breath of Nero began to target Christians for persecution. The great fire that destroyed Rome in 64 had not yet happened, but fear had begun to tighten around the little band of converts there.
Some scholars assert that the Gospel of Mark was authored by John-Mark, the young disciple who traveled with Peter and Barnabus (as recorded in the Book of Acts). The Gospel of Mark is said to be a record of Peter’s memories, and it is possible that Mark actually witnessed some of these events himself. We know that Peter was martyred in Rome in the pogrom that followed the fire and we don’t know what happened to Mark. However, it’s also clear that he was NOT there, taking notes, as the women scrambled toward the tomb that held Jesus after his humiliating death on the cross. Where were those brave men who pledged their loyalty to Jesus? ?Who rolled away the stone so the women could enter the cave?
Mark’s story starts big, out in nature, in front of a crowd. It begins with the baptism of Jesus, when the sky is split and a voice announces: This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. Mark’s account ends small, intense and personal – an angel in the empty tomb directing three awestruck women, too terrified to say anything. [Most translations of Mark have a coda which was added later in the First Century.]
This empty tomb is Mark’s image of resurrection. There are no angelic choirs. No Hallelujah chorus. Just three scared women in a cave, poised at the nexus of the story. What does it mean for us?
Wishing and praying for divine intervention is clearly not Mark’s message, even though the disciples were probably doing that behind locked doors. The women show us another way, however terrified they were.
Some years ago, Fred Taylor described the need for human intervention when he wrote a book about FLOC (For Love of Children) titled Roll Away the Stone. It was a call to action on behalf of the children in this city. FLOC was the seedbed for Seekers and Fred was one of our two founders. Some of us remember the horrors of Junior Village, a dumping ground for black children in the Sixties, and the prophetic imagination that it took to close Junior Village, change policies and provide foster homes for those children. That was the earliest heartbeat of Seekers.
We still have a number of Seekers who are working hard in the field of child protection from abuse and neglect. It’s no accident that David Lloyd, who has spent his legal career in child protective services at Children’s Hospital and in the Department of Defense, will be leading our silent retreat at Dayspring next weekend. His theme? "Finding Hope in a Time of Uncertainty." Surely that’s something we all need.
If we are reading or listening to the news, it’s clear that another crisis in childcare is brewing. While we can’t sit around wringing our hands, hoping that somebody else will roll away the stones that condemn our children to a life of poverty or criminal behavior, we also know that human effort alone is not enough. Something more needs to happen. Our actions are essential, Mark says, and there is a mysterious power at work as well. Hope is more than wishful thinking and more than good planning. It’s claiming a spiritual power that we recognize, but can’t control. We humans can participate and plan, but in the end something more is at work. We recognize it as the power of Love. The power of the Risen Christ.
The courage that comes from following Jesus to those places that we fear and avoid. Wendell Berry calls it "practicing resurrection." Like the women who dared to go to the tomb, we will enter the silence in order to hear the voice of God.. Some may experience a silent retreat as time in the tomb, stark and unyielding. But the biblical story that we hold in our midst this Easter morning does not end with the tomb. Indeed, the tomb is empty. Christ is risen. And he goes before us to the very places where our hopes have been dashed and where our courage may be in short supply.
Last Tuesday, I was sitting in Peter’s class on Spiritual Companionship, when he asked us to "draw your spiritual journey and note any spiritual companions you can identify along the way."
The assignment took my breath away.
At first I couldn’t think how to draw my spiritual journey, so I started with my birthdate, then wrote down dates in 10-year increments, and then added symbols for the spiritual highlight in each decade. I figured that a person was probably connected with each of those symbols, so I was thinking about that when he said, "Now look at what you’ve drawn and notice any patterns or details you may have missed."
What I noticed about my own drawing what that the first half was dotted with individuals, and the last half was more communal, more outward. I had drawn a bus in the last decade, thinking of the work pilgrimage that Peter and I have made to Guatemala each summer for the past nine years. Why had I put that there? What did it mean? How was it about spiritual companionship?
That night, I dreamed of my Dutch grandmother…Flossina Zylstra Zoet…holding a book of Bible stories. And when I awoke, I was thinking about that bus in Guatemala, crowded with 24 Americans, on our way to a worksite high in the mountains. In the stillness, I recognized the connection. My grandmother had only a 5th grade education, and yet she was a strong, capable woman who made a difference in her community. She kept learning throughout her life, but she left school at age 11 to begin working.
Last year, one of the pilgrims asked me why we keep going back. "Don’t you get bored?" he said. "Don’t you want to see other parts of the country? Or go somewhere else?" I couldn’t answer the question then, but I think I know the answer now. The seed of faith and mission that my grandmother planted in my life is bearing fruit. The call to Guatemala is not about me really. It’s about practicing hope together with these hard-working Mayan villagers. I believe that a 5th grade education can be enough to provide a good start for those children, especially the girls, who would not otherwise learn to read and count in Spanish (which is not their native language). They will create the future for Guatemala in their own way.
Some stones we can roll away with effort and planning. The Guatemala pilgrimage is not charity. There is enough local leadership to initiate the project. The villagers, mostly sharecroppers, purchase land for the school and level it by hand before we get there. PAVA, a local non-profit, provides a mason, a cement mixer and other building materials. For $15,000, the village gets a three-room school with windows instead of a stifling corn-stalk stockade. Our labor simply helps to move the project along – and create an experience of working together. Part of the registration fee goes toward building materials. Seekers Church added $6500 for the project this year because many of us have participated in this yearly work pilgrimage.
But some stones we cannot roll away ourselves. Things go wrong. Plans change. PAVA is also finding it harder to raise funds in the current economy. Peter and I worry about finding new pilgrims as people become more fearful of spending money and time to help others. People are also frightened when they read stories in the paper like the abduction of Gladys Monterroso – apparently done to warn her husband against human rights revelations. Fear is an intractable boulder that we encounter every day.
Courage to act in the face of fear comes from trust and faith. For me, it’s about responding to God’s call – as the women were doing on that dark morning, so long ago. We are the rest of the story! I will be taking the Guatemala pilgrimage with me on silent retreat, as a way to prepare my heart for the unexpected things I know we will encounter. And I can trust that the angel who will be waiting in that cave will surprise me with something else as well. What are the boulders standing in your way? Which ones can you move by yourself? Where are you being called to practice hope in the face of fear?
Today we will come to the communion table to celebrate the whole story of Jesus and the Risen Christ. As we break off a piece of bread, remember the physical death of Jesus – how the end of his life brought three scared women to an empty tomb. And as we drink the cup, remember the angel’s promise – that the Risen Christ is waiting for us in the very place we left to get here.
With the saints of all the ages, let us proclaim the ancient Easter greeting:
Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!