SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV. DR. HAROLD T. LEWIS, RECTOR
CALVARY EPISCOPAL CHURCH, PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA
EASTER DAY, 1997
"Who will roll away the stone for us?" (Mark 16:3)
Everything around us bespeaks the beauty of God's creation. The scent of lilies and hyacinths, tulips and jonquils permeate the air. The brightness of a hundred candles proclaim the presence of the risen Christ in our midst. After the solemn and sometimes mournful hymns that dominated our musical repertoire over the last forty days, the faithful, led by our excellent choir, are belting out joyful tunes interspersed with alleluias. "Lent's long shadows have departed," and Dr. Heaton has pulled out the stops, literally and figuratively. It would seem that all 7,200 of our organ pipes are telling the joyful news: He is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed, alleluia.
So is it just coincidence that as we "welcome with unwearied strains Jesus' resurrection;" as we sing "God hath brought his Israel into joy from sadness," the headlines remind us just how sordid and ugly the world can be? Rancho Santa Fe, California, is no longer just another upscale suburb on the American landscape. It will now forever be identified as the place where 39 people took part in a meticulously planned mass suicide. And in our own backyards, despite placards and posters that read "Not in our town" the police are readying themselves for a visit to Pittsburgh from the Ku Klux Klan. And these are just the headline grabbers. We in urban America have become almost jaded to the so-called everyday tragedies like drive-by shootings.
It is some small comfort, perhaps, to know that joy was not in great supply on that first Easter. One of the most difficult things for us to do as twentieth century Christians is to imagine just how the disciples must have felt after the Crucifixion. We are fortunate in that we know the happy ending, so that when we look at the Crucifixion, we do so through the eyes of optimism, eyes of joy, eyes of triumph. But the disciples saw the Crucifixion as the end, the final chapter. They felt duped, they felt deceived, they were disappointed. All the hopes they had cherished were dashed. Their leader, the man they had followed faithfully around the countryside, was dead, and with him had died all their expectations for a new religion, a new world order, in which the mighty would be put down from their seats, and in which there would take place the exaltation of the humble and meek.
It was against this backdrop of disappointment that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary made their faithful pilgrimage to the garden tomb. Mary Magdalene was perhaps the most despondent of all Jesus' followers. The man who had lifted her up from a life of shame; the man who, confronting a crowd with their own hypocrisy, had prevented her from being stoned; the man who had instilled within her a new sense of self-worth, was, so far as she was concerned, irretrievably lost. Good Friday had taken care of that. And now she had come to pay her respects. She had gone to the shops to buy the precious ointments that she would use to anoint Jesus' body, in a final act of love for him who had loved her so deeply. But she was to be robbed of performing even that expression of devotion. For when she and her companion arrived, they found that the tomb had been sealed shut. A large stone stood between the women and their act of devotion. And they said to each other, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?" It was perhaps a rhetorical question. They probably thought it couldn't be budged. They felt helpless.
And then in the next line, the very next verse, something happened: "And when they looked they saw the stone was rolled away." It is obvious that the removal of the stone was not something human beings could accomplish. Clearly it was God who caused its removal and made it possible for the women to enter the sepulchre.
My sisters and brothers in Christ: We must make a decision. We must decide whether we are Good Friday Christians or Easter Christians. We have to decide if our lives and our life styles center on the Crucifixion or the Resurrection; whether we are motivated by despondency, disillusionment and disappointment, or if we are motivated by joy, hope and peace. Will we always find ourselves on the brink of hope, on the outside looking in, and like the faithful women at the tomb, wallowing in a defeatist attitude, or will we open ourselves to the possibility that we are not in control and that God can and will act in our lives?
But there is really no choice. We who know the end of the story must be resurrection Christians. But that means rolling away some stones.
We must roll away the stone of fear that impedes our spiritual progress. Psychologists and social scientists and theologians will doubtless try to make sense out of the activities of the members of "Heaven's Gate" and other cults, but perhaps it is reasonable to assume that it was fear --- fear of the uncertainty and vicissitudes of life as they knew it, which caused them to opt for such a gruesome shortcut.
We must roll away the stones of indifference so that we don't make them into walls to erect between ourselves and other groups. And with them we must roll away the stones of contempt that we all too willingly throw at others. And before we condemn the reprehensible behavior of the Klan, let us remind ourselves of the more subtle ways that we separate and distance ourselves from others, even members of our own families. And when God rolls the stones away for us, he rolls them away. Unlike the hapless Sisyphus, we are not compelled to roll a boulder uphill, only to have it roll back down necessitating our having to repeat the futile exercise in perpetuity.
Perhaps it is not coincidence that so many ugly and sordid things happen at the time that we celebrate Easter Coincidences are events, a wise old priest once said, to which God does not sign his name. Perhaps ugliness exists precisely because we can offer to the world as an antidote the beauty of our worship, the beauty of our "high and holy hymning" --- all of which, of course, are but feeble attempts to reflect the glory of God, to catch a glimpse of the heavenly Jerusalem here on earth. Perhaps the tragedy in California and the Klan March happen to remind us about the nature of the world to which we have been called to proclaim the Good News of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. They appear on our spiritual radar screen to remind us that we must be about the business of helping others to remove all those stones that stand between them and faith, between them and having life abundantly. But we must do double duty. We must not only offer our assistance to God in rolling away the stones that prevent our fellow pilgrims along the way from achieving their full potential; we must also be the young man inside the tomb who gives those simple but oh so powerful words of reassurance: "He is risen, he is not here."