Easter Vigil Sermon
The Rev. Elizabeth J. Welch
All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 30 March 2013
The women went to the tomb with certain expectations – to find Jesus’ body and to honor him by performing the proper burial rites. Instead, “they found the stone rolled away from the tomb.” This would have been no small stone – it would have been large and unwieldy, more like a boulder, snuggly fit against the opening of the tomb. One of them, or even all of them together, would likely not have been able to push it out of the way. In Mark’s Gospel, as the women proceed to the tomb, they wonder aloud to one another “who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance?”
And yet, they arrive with their ointments and their spices to find the stone already rolled away and Jesus’ body nowhere to be found. This is not seemingly a discovery they respond to with hope or even excitement. Luke tells us they are “perplexed,” and “fearful.” They seem to have forgotten the words Jesus told them about what his journey would entail. The mysterious two men in dazzling clothes must remind them saying, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Luke tells us that upon hearing this, the women “remembered Jesus’ words.”
As I prayed with this passage this past week, I thought to myself. Yes, I too am often forgetful – I forget to buy the milk at the store, I forget the name of someone I’ve only met once, I forget where I’ve put my keys. But if someone said to me “I am the Son of Man, but I will be handed over to sinners, will be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Well, I rather think that’s something I would remember.
But as I reflected on it, I realized: I forget these words all the time though, don’t I?
Oh maybe I don’t actually forget the words in my mind, but I forget them; perhaps it would be better to say, I deny them, in my heart. I convince myself that the stone will always seal the tomb; I fall into the despair that death will be allowed to have the final word.
Think of all the close-ended stories we tell. How often do we say to ourselves: “I will never be able to change? I am incapable of doing anything differently? I am not able to do something more? How often do we make declarations about others, saying: she is selfish, she is proud; he is arrogant, he is cold-hearted. That’s just how they are, they’ll never change. How often do we cast our judgments on particular communities: they are prejudiced, they are close-minded; they are uncaring. They will always be that way. How often do we write conclusions to the stories of our world: this problem will never be solved, war and destruction and death will always have the final say; there’s nothing we can do. These words of stone block us from the love of God.
And so the question I pose to us this night is: How might we invite God to roll back the stones that block us from newness of life?
I cannot answer that question for you, but I can tell you something of where reflection on this question led me. It led me to an earlier verse in Luke’s telling of the Passion when Jesus says: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do?”
It is my experience that the mystery of newness of life lays in forgiveness.
In my own experience the process of forgiving feels like this. It’s as if I have a heavy stone cupped in my palm (the stone may be cruel words or a closed heart or a harsh judgment), I have the one who wronged me in my sites, I have a perfect shot, and I could hurt them; I could watch that stone whirl through the air and make contact; I could inflict on them the pain that I am sure that they deserve to feel. But to some tomb-like place in my depths, God speaks a question, “what would it be like, my child, if you let the stone fall from your hand; what might it be like, my love, if you allowed that stone to slip through your fingers and fall to the ground?” God does not force; but God asks. And God keeps asking. Perhaps we each carry stones that we could let fall from our hand?
One small thing I’ve learned is that, forgiveness, like love, is not something we earn or deserve. Forgiveness is anything but a rational appraisal of what is deserved, or what is owed; forgiveness is reckless and irrational. But in forgiveness is liberation. Perhaps this is why forgiveness and healing are so often paired in Scripture. When I reflect on what it feels like to be forgiven, I think of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter. When he is told that the girl is dead, Jesus simply says, “do not fear, only believe and she will be saved.” They laugh at Jesus. But he takes the little girl by the hand and says, “child, get up!” And she gets up at once. It’s really not a story about forgiveness at all, and yet, perhaps in some way it is. For who knows what behind the closed doors of that home needed forgiving? It sometimes seems to be the case that one individual’s decision to receive forgiveness, opens him or her up to love in a way that becomes a source of liberation for others. A father, for example, might be moved to forgive his father, and this might stay his hand from throwing stones at his children.
To receive forgiveness, to be forgiven, and to forgive, requires that we simply and fully give up the idea that living in the world is about being right or feeling powerful. It does not mean that we place ourselves in contact with individuals who continue to hurt us, but it does mean that we give up allowing ourselves to mold our hurts into weapons. Even unto saying from the cross: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Even unto shouting from the crowd, “Father forgive me, for I know not what I do.”
By recalling these stories of the history of our salvation we learn to trust that God is doing a new thing here and now. The poet Czeslaw Milosz writes in his poem titled, With Her,
“Those poor, arthritically swollen knees
Of my mother in an absent country.
I think of them on my seventy-fourth birthday
as I attend Mass at St. Mary Magdalen in Berkeley.
A reading this Sunday from the Book of Wisdom
About how God has not made death
And does not rejoice in the annihilation of the living.
A reading from the Gospel of Mark
About a little girl to whom He said: ‘Talitha cum!’
This is for me. To make me rise from the dead
And repeat the hope of those who lived before me . . .”
And this telling is for us, to make us rise from the dead and repeat the hope of those who lived before us.
Take a deep breath for a moment. Can you not feel that even now, God is pushing back the stones from our tombs, those closed-off places in our souls? God is breathing in new life.
Listen, the one who suffers with us, the one who bore the heaviness of the cross, the one who feels the weight of the stones we carry, the one who loves us as friends, he is calling. Can you not hear?
He is saying: My child, my love, Get Up! Get Up! Step out into the light and be free.