Sunday, April 21, 2019

Rolling Back the Stone: Sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter and Resurrection Day

The women remained faithful and devoted.

Even beyond that terrible moment on Calvary, when the curtain was torn in two, when deep darkness lay heavy on the land, when those last words had been uttered by that beloved voice into the oppressive air: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Yet the women remained faithful and devoted.

Even when apostles ran away and lied and hid to save their own necks, the women remained faithful and devoted.

Even when others melted away into the blackest of nights to wonder what was going to happen next, the women remained faithful and devoted. 

That same darkness washed over their broken hearts—washed over them, but did not remain. He was still their beloved Lord and Savior, the one for whom they had left everything behind.

Jesus had been hastily buried, because the Sabbath was beginning. It was a tradition to revisit the grave in three days’ time—this was to make sure that the deceased really WAS deceased. Luke’s gospel does not mention that Jesus was wrapped with spices but simply that it was wrapped in linen. “The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee” had watched where Joseph of Arimathea had placed the body, and then gone home to prepare the spices, but they had to wait until the Sabbath was over to return to anoint Jesus’ body as it should have been.

They find the stone rolled away, and two angels awaiting them. Jesus has already risen, even before the sun’s dawning glow has guided the feet of these faithful women. They bring their perfumes and spices, a kind of re-echoing of the palms that were scattered in his path on his way into Jerusalem—was it just days before? The great Anglican poet George Herbert, in his poem “Easter,” imagines the scene thus:

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee. (1)

No, they do not find Jesus. Instead the two angels tell the women that Jesus has risen, as he said he would. They then run to tell the Eleven, who did not believe them. Peter takes it upon himself to go and see for himself, and when he gets to the tomb, all he sees is the grave-sheet. Amazed and perplexed. Those words are used in our translation today to describe the reactions that the women and Peter had upon seeing the heavy stone rolled away at the entrance and then seeing the empty tomb.

The women arrive to find the stone rolled away—and immediately believe what the angels tell them. Further, their wonder and amazement quickly gives way to understanding now, at last, what Jesus had been saying about his death and resurrection. But notice that when the women, in their joy, tell the remaining eleven apostles, they are not believed—they are thought to be telling “an idle tale.” The stone of despair and disbelief still lies tightly sealed in place against the disciples’ hearts and minds.

And we know that powerful cynicism and refusal to believe, too. It’s the touchstone of our time. “Doubt” is too mild a word for it—it’s a determination to put aside any possibility of wonder and miracle in this tired old world. Too often we maintain a blasé posture to the world—we keep our defenses up and let life wash over us. We’ve rolled a protective stone against our hearts and that stone blocks our experience of pain and loss—but also our sense of grace and wonder—and, yes—amazement.

But God is calling us to opening our hearts and our lives to true life and freedom, calling upon us and challenging us to be brave enough to roll back that stone. These last three days especially have led us to this moment. As Maundy Thursday calls us to be vulnerable together, to love each other not just at the polite boundaries of acquaintanceship but in all the messy places as one body. As Good Friday lead us to sit with the dead and mourn for as long as we need to. As Holy Saturday to this point has left us with a profound silence, as still as an indrawn breath that is held. So now, tonight, the stones against our hearts beg to be rolled back so that we may drain off the darkness and heartache we carry as we encounter that empty tomb.

The emptiness of that tomb is a reason for joy. As former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams notes, our world is “a place of loss and a place where men and women strive not to be trapped in that loss.” But he also notes that “the world is a place of incipient conversion, in its restlessness and in its struggle for a truth and a home, for justice, restoration, fulfillment” (2). It is our job as the Church in the world to live out that conversion and draw others to that conversion by the beauty of our fellowship, our compassion, our healing hands doing the reconciling, loving work of Christ in the world.

This is the bright morning we are called to not just rest securely upon but to act upon the promise of eternal life, right now, grounded in eternal love, right now. That empty tomb also is God’s call to us to action—and that action is ever, insistently, love. Love not just as a fleeting fancy but as a way of life. Love that is a joyful choice and rebuke of the ways of despair, helplessness, and hopelessness that embues so much of our world today. Love that is necessary for eternal life, and indeed, as the resurrection promises us, we can live a life shaped by resurrection right now, and can have eternal life not off in the distant future but now. By dedicating ourselves to love as Jesus commanded us to do, over and over again. As Bishop Jake Owensby states in his book, A Resurrection Shaped Life

 [Jesus] passed through death to eternal life. And that is the pattern we follow when we emulate Christ. We die to a narrow life that we have known and rise to a new and wider life (3)

 It is this kind of fullness and hope that takes hold of us when we encounter that same empty tomb this morning with wonder and amazement—wonder and amazement that we are made new persons in Christ, in all our diversity and difference unified by being children of God, wondrously made in God’s image. We are awakened to a reverence for each other and creation, called to cast off our divisions as decisively as Jesus cast off the burial shroud and walked out into the life. This is the night when darkness has been put to flight, and sin and death are washed away.

Resurrection is new life-- not just the old life given back, but a life transformed. A life based on mercy, a life that empties itself out for love—only to find that it rushes back in, as strong and as resolute as the tide.

Easter reminds us that the universe is changed forever. It’s the day we are challenged to do the one thing that truly scares many of us: to embrace the mystery of God’s love for all of us—wonderful and beyond our knowing, as we heard a few moments ago. By faith, we have come this far, tottering like toddlers on the feet of hope—and God has not brought us this far to abandon us now at the grave.

We live in a world in which cynicism, faithlessness, and self-centeredness have been raised to art forms. We tell ourselves that this is the way of the world. But as Christians, we are repeatedly reminded that these kinds of things are dead leaves that prevent us from the dream of God for our lives. Placing our faith in those dead leaves prevents us from making room in our hearts for the welling up of the love of Christ within us, that leads to true peace, contentment, and joy. We are called not just to witness, but to LIVE Resurrection, right now. As an act of faith, and an act of being.  

Jesus—risen, living, one of us—calls us to rededicate ourselves to a Resurrection Faith-- a faith that responds to God’s grace by seeking to living out the love of Christ into the world. A faith that drops the mask of cynicism that we often adopt to protect our fragile, broken hearts. One that calls us instead to open ourselves up to the joy of life that rises like dawn from the deepest darkness that we allow to settle over our souls.

We worship a living Savior—one who endured all-- all for the sake of love, love that makes us God’s children too. That love leads us to resurrect our faith in ourselves, and in others, to be more perfect, more loving, more compassionate.

A Resurrection Faith is one that calls us not to just love God out of fear of the terrible punishment we think we deserve for our manifold sins, but calls us to love God through living out the Great Commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your strength, and all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself."

A Resurrection Faith calls us to the work of building up rather than tearing down. A Resurrection Faith raises us all from the dead, and calls us to be alive in each moment and in each other.

A Resurrection Faith calls us to be, not just profess.

A Resurrection Faith that calls us to lose our faith in the dead leaves of fear to which we cling, so that we stretch toward the light of Christ, knowing that the spring of faith is inside us, waiting to rise.

I am convinced that the world is hungry for this message: that Christ is Risen, and is alive within us and in the world today. I am also convinced that the world is hungry for this message because too often the Church has done a terrible job embodying this message in our words and action, both individually and as an institution. How many people have hoped that the Church would show them the way of justice and salvation, the way of love and grace, and instead been hurt by the Church instead, been declared condemned rather than redeemed, made to feel shameful, irretrievably broken?

That is not why we are here. That’s not what the Jesus Movement is about. We are here, instead, as Christians, wracked at times with doubt and questions as we are, to make real in the world what we profess every Sunday, even if sometimes we have to do it with our fingers crossed behind our backs. 

We are not called to be perfect. No, God has brought us here to love more fully, to pronounce our kinship with all creation. To lift people up that we encounter by our words and our conversations and our listening and our being alongside those in joy and in pain and oppression, to cast aside the calculus of winners and losers, to bring healing and reconciliation into an aching world, just as Jesus did. In this way, we all remain faithful and devoted, just as those women were. This is the night we take hold of the promise of resurrection within us, say yes and alleluia to the power and fulfillment of resurrection within us, and live shaped by that force within each of us.



A version of this sermon was preached at the Great Vigil of Easter on April 20, and then the version above was preached on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019 at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.

1) George Herbert, "Easter."
2) Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, loc. 798 (kindle edition)
3) Jake Ownsby, A Resurrection Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth, 104.

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