a sermon for the Resurrection of Our Lord, Easter Sunday [Year B]
The question that began our week, the question that almost the entire world was asking together as we peered at our phone screens and our televisions on Sunday and Monday was, “Who will move away that gargantuan cargo ship from the middle of the Suez Canal?” There it was, one of the largest watercraft ever built—maybe in the universe—lodged diagonally, all but immovable, cutting off all traffic through one of the world’s most important waterways. Boats were backed up for miles and miles. Each day it sat there meant a $9 billion delay in trade revenue. Who could move such a thing? And we all probably saw the unforgettable photos of that single, small excavator with his one little shovel, looking like one of my son’s toys, working as hard as it could to free the hull of that enormous ship. And then, one day, long before it was predicted, the freighter almost miraculously gave way from the silt and sand and everything started flowing again. Life as it was intended resumed.
The question that begins today, the question that a small handful of women are asking together as they hurry with their spices, is “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” There it was, a large boulder, the kind that typically marked the entrance to ancient tombs, chosen for its size and weight to deter graverobbers and keep in the smell of decomposing flesh. Don’t you like how the Easter story begins with a question, a question that rings with immense practicality, a question that sounds like anything anyone might ask when trying to solve a problem? “Who will roll away the stone for us?” “How are we going to get inside there and do what we’re supposed to do?” “How long will we be blocked from delivering this special myrrh and aloe to our destination?” The news of Jesus’ resurrection, the news that will shake the world, starts with people going about their business, thinking about the next step in the tasks of daily to-do lists.
But we know how the story goes. No need to call in an excavator this time. Or Joseph of Arimathea, the guy who put the rock there in the first place on Friday evening, however he managed it. The women arrive to find the stone has already been rolled away. That which was immovable has already been moved. Life has already begun to flow again, the power of death broken through, the resurrection already advancing as Jesus, the risen, awaits them in Galilee. What questions are you asking today? What problems seem to have no solution? What is blocking you from living the abundant life God intends? Don’t be surprised if the stones start to be rolled back. Because Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
Of the four resurrection stories we have in the New Testament, the one written by Mark is the shortest. It starts with this question from the women delivering the spices and ends rather abruptly. After encountering this mysterious man in a white robe in the tomb and learning from him that Jesus is not there, they run from the scene in terror and amazement. In fact, Mark is more vivid than that. He says that the terror and amazement had seized them. We may expect joy at this kind of news—joy because if Jesus, who was crucified, is not there but alive and ahead of them in Galilee, then they will be able to see him and resume life with him—but the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection are to be gripped with fear and awe. And they are so afraid and bewildered that they end up saying nothing about what they discover that morning.
The man that they see at the tomb gives them one job. He says, “Go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus is already out of the tomb and waiting for you.” The man gives them one simple job and they don’t do it. Mark says the women say nothing to anyone. Again, Mark’s Greek is even more descriptive. He uses a type of double negative, which, of course, is a big no-no in English and Greek unless you’re trying to overemphasize a point. Mark writes that the women “didn’t say nothing to nobody”…just to make sure we understand. It looks like the message of the resurrection is going to die with them. No stone blocking the tomb that morning, but the witnesses still find a way to stick a sock in it.
And that is irony, my friends. Because all along Jesus, all through his days of healing and driving out demons and teaching his disciples about the kingdom of heaven, Jesus has told them to be quiet about him until he rises from the dead and in all those times they can’t keep their trap shut. They go blabbing all over the place. But the time when the word finally does need to get out, the time when Jesus finally accomplishes that which he was sent to do, which is to suffer and die and rise again, the everyone clams up.
Jesus is our savior. Jesus is the One who was crucified so that power of death might be broken forever. He is not just a healer or a teacher. He is our Redeemer who suffers and dies for us. That is what we can say without holding back today. It is what we need to say today in a world that has, for example, pandemics. In a world that has people locked up in concentration camps. In a world where demons like narcissism and addiction and idolatry still enslave people, in a world racked by grief from tragedies that are senseless and tragedies that are ruthlessly planned out and executed. God has burst through the stone of the tomb to let eternal life flow for all of humankind. Easter means the kingdom of heaven will now come to all earth’s dark corners. Easter means we have communion with God forever. This is unbelievably wonderful news, and yet the women don’t say nothing to nobody about it.
In a way, then, the resurrection story this morning not only begins with a question—the one about the stone—but it ends with a question. It’s an unwritten question, one that the reader or the hearer of the story can’t help but ask as we envision the two Marys and Salome running off into the dawn light. If they didn’t tell anyone this news, then how in the world did we find out about it? If the last emotion we are left with that morning is fear, then how do we live in such joy and boldness now? A stone doesn’t block the entrance that morning, but doesn’t their lack of action block the news?
Of course, we have the other gospel accounts. Matthew, Luke, and John, fill in the picture for us with what happened in the days following. So, on one hand we are thankful that God placed this message in the hands of more than one evangelist. But if we didn’t have those, if, for example, we were in Mark’s original community, the congregations and people for whom Mark was writing this story, how would we know that Jesus is risen? How did the word eventually get out?
You see, this is, I think the bigger miracle of Easter, or at least an extension of the miracle that happens when Jesus steps out of that grave alive. Somehow the word gets out. Somehow those women must have found the resolve to follow the man’s instructions. God will not be delayed by a cross, a stone, or our inaction and fear. Nothing can block the good news of Easter.
There have been many times during this past year when we have felt isolated by fear and inactivity. Locking down has been hard. Learning to Zoom and connect with people in safe ways is frustrating and sometimes we just give up. I still loathe that stupid mute button most days. Schools, churches, community groups, families wonder are our messages getting through? Is the love and concern I have for my loved ones and friends being communicated? We long for the days when we can see faces and expressions of emotion, realizing we’ve taken for granted the flow of friendship and familiarity in human relationship.
Congregations and communities of faith have felt no different. Even as small groups began regathering, even as vibrant online communities have formed and prayed together, even as we watch our YouTube statistics and try to form strategies about our message, there has still been a tomb-like quality to ministry. This past week, though, I was reminded in another powerful way just how persistent God is in getting his word, even when we feel isolated. The UPS truck pulled up one day and delivered a package that none of us was expecting. We receive packages all the time for the nursery school and the cleaning crew, for example, but this particular package was unannounced and, to my delight, deposited on my desk. I did not recognize the return address, which was from a location over three hours drive from Richmond. I unwrapped it with much curiosity. Inside I found a letter, a check for a donation, and this remarkable, handmade cross.
Here’s what the letter says,
“This cross was made from the branch of a cedar tree which grew from a seed to a mature tree in my neighborhood. We have lived in the neighborhood for nearly 46 years and the tree was small when we arrived. Unfortunately the wind blew the tree down. I used some limbs from the tree to make this cross. Perhaps you can use this cross in your children’s ministry. My wife and I have watched your online morning services every Sunday since you started the services last year. We have enjoyed the services very much. We have enclosed a donation for the church to be used for whatever purpose you decide.”
So thank you, Mr. and Mrs. White, for your generosity and your Easter reminder this morning, and proof that the word does get out. God rolls away stones, God grows trees from seeds, wind blows them down, and dead branches take on new life. A new beginning comes from death. The kingdom of heaven is here among us, and the one who was crucified is ahead of us, always ahead of us, making new life happen. Thank you for carrying on what those first women saw and heard when they were seized with terror and amazement. In spite of our isolation, it appears God still gets the word out.
Interestingly enough, I can’t help but think about the name of that cargo ship stuck in the Suez: Ever Given. Stuck for a while, but still the Ever Given. Blessed Easter, everyone, and blessings of new life and faith from Jesus who is Ever Given, ever giving. In bread, in wine, in words that never die, that never get muted, that never get blocked. Jesus the Ever Given for you, for me, for all who hear it. This day and every day.
Thanks be to God!!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.