Lent in Plain Sight, IX: Stones
If you’ve been around this Lent and Easter, you would know we’ve been preaching a sermon series called, Lent in Plain Sight, in which were looking at common objects from the passion story: dust, bread, coins, shoes, thorns, cross, oil, and today stone.
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
So why are the Rolling Stones called the Rolling Stones? They originally called themselves the Blues Boys—not to be confused with the Blues Brothers—but they needed something more original and when they got their big break, a magazine asked guitarist Brian Jones what they were called, and he didn’t know what to say, but there was a Muddy Waters album laying there and one of the tracks was called “Rollin’ Stone,” and—voila!—the second most famous rock band of them all gets a new name.
So the Rolling Stones are not named after the stone at Jesus’ tomb, but they could have been, because three of the four Gospels tell us that when the women visited Jesus’ tomb at dawn on Easter Sunday, the stone had been “rolled away,” so it must have spherical or circular in shape, maybe shaped like a giant poker chip or silver dollar like this. This was a rollin’ stone.
A stone is any dense, heavy, impervious aggregate of minerals that blocks us from approaching resurrection and new life. It was the looming anxiety of the women who visited Jesus’ tomb at dawn on the first Easter: “What are we going to do about the stone?”
When they get there, though, problem solved. Some mystery, miracle, magic, marvel, or muscle had already rolled the obstruction away and all that greeted them were a gaping entrance and an empty grave.
So that’s Easter in Matthew: a yawning chasm, a dislodged barrier, a great vanny envoy from the great blue beyond crashing to earth like an asteroid, and a phantasmic carpenter emerging from the cemetery shadows saying, “Hail! Greetings! Hello! Hi! Hey, Dudes!” That’s how the Greek should be translated. It might not be enough, but at least we have that.
So far as I know, there has been but one genuine resurrection in the history of the world. Jesus is risen, but that does not mean that his children are free from death.
For us, genuine resurrection is a promise, not a reality, and so we wait for glad reunion with those we’ve loved and lost. Theologians talk about the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet.’ Jesus has already been raised, but eternal life for all is not yet.
In the meantime, while we wait, let’s think about smaller, more daily resurrections. As we shuffle along this mortal coil in search of new life, sometimes we encounter a large, solid, dense, impervious aggregate of minerals blocking our way to resurrection, hope, new beginnings, a second chance.
And sometimes when we get there, we find that the implacable barricade has been rolled back and there’s only a cavernous emptiness you can enter to explore.
You were so focused on one university you had no Plan ‘B’, but the cruel gods of the admissions department swatted you away like a fly. So you went back to the drawing board and found a new institution and new knowledge and new life.
You were so in love you invested five years in a relationship you were certain would end in marriage, kids, and a three-bedroom colonial in Wilmette with a fenced-in backyard for the basset hound, but he absconded with another, and so there you are alone, but life’s not over; you can begin again alone or with some other romance that will sweep you off into a brighter, better future.
Who knows what sneaky, stealthy providence is afoot, crowbarring adamantine obstacles out of your way?
Robert Blackson rolls back the stone so that young people can explore an empty grave and find new life. While working for Temple University, Robert Blackson discovered that the Philadelphia School System has 1,000 broken instruments stored in the orchestra rooms of Philadelphia schools.
There’s a violin without strings and a French horn missing a valve and a saxophone without a neck and mouthpiece. There’s a flute with stuck keys. There’s a snare drum with a broken head; all it does is rattle.
The Philadelphia School System doesn’t have the money to fix them. That means there are a thousand poor kids in Philadelphia who will not learn to make beautiful music. This offends Robert Blackson, so he started raising money to fix these 1,000 broken instruments. You know how he raises the money? He gathers some Philadelphia students, and professional musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra, and they all choose one of these broken instruments, and Mr. Blackson finds an eccentric musician name David Lang who writes odd music, and this composer writes them a piece called Look it up on YouTube. It will make you weep.
That’s what we are, together, right? A symphony for broken instruments. We’re all broken in some way. Somewhere along the way we lost our strings, or the clarinet keys got ripped off.
We’re broken, not dead. Someone rolls the stone away, and we all get a second chance to make a symphony of splendid sound filled with meaning, magic, mystery, and magnificence.
A theologian’s depleted imagination is an obstacle to faithful ministry. That’s what sabbaticals are for, especially in the Church and academia and sometimes the arts, any discipline where the practitioner drops a bucket every day or every week into the well of her diminishing imagination and hopes to come up with something. In the Church, a sabbatical is for the replenishment of the sacred imagination.
Look, I don’t work harder than any of you who work for William Blair or New Trier High School or Kirkland Ellis. I know that when people find out I’m disappearing for eight weeks of extra paid vacation, they’re thinking to themselves—they never say this—but they’re thinking to themselves, “Wait, what? I work harder than he does. Why don’t I get a sabbatical?” Good point. Talk to your boss.
On the other hand, this is my 37th Easter. Try coming up with something new to say on the same subject 37 times. If you preach 40 times a year, you write about 60,000 words. That’s a little fewer than Tom Sawyer and a little more than The Great Gatsby. A book a year.
So thank you for rolling away the stone of the depleted imagination. Tomorrow Kathy and Doogie and I will begin driving to the west coast, stopping at several national parks along the way; I guess Yosemite is as far west as we’ll get. Perhaps the stunning vistas of my beloved homeland will restore a shrinking creativity.
We’ll be gone a month and come home for few days and then leave for South Africa. When we started thinking about the Africa part of the adventure, we’d planned to go to what’s now Malawi to explore where my father, the son of Baptist missionaries, lived the first 11 years of his life, but it was too remote to get to, so we settled for Cape Town and Robben Island and Victoria Falls. Again, thank you for your great gift.
Sermons are funny things, right? I preach them; you listen, I hope; then you forget them, and I forget them. By Wednesday of any week, I’ve already forgotten what I preached the prior Sunday. So have you.
Sermons are ephemeral and fugitive. Sermons have the shelf life of bananas.
But before I leave you for an extended time, I wanted to update you on three of the sermons I preached in Lent, give them a longer shelf life. Keep them alive a little longer.
In one sermon, I invited you to donate to UNICEF for relief in the Ukraine, in the name of Kenilworth Union Church. Do you know how much you shared? $21,000. In the name of Jesus and Kenilworth Union Church. Thank you.
In another Lenten sermon, I used 30 half-dollars to mimic Judas Iscariot’s 30 pieces of silver. They ended up hither and yon all over this sanctuary, including one that rolled all the way back to the narthex. Just want you to know that of the 30 half-dollars, I got 29 back. I’m still hoping the last will show up one day.
And finally, in another Lenten sermon I mentioned Gerda Weissmann Klein, the Polish Jew who survived three years of Nazi cruelty because on a hot day in June, her father insisted she wear her ski boots. After a cruel march across Europe’s wintry landscape, she was one of 150, out of an original 3,000 who survived.
In 1945, at the end of it all, she met an American GI named Kurt Klein. Lieutenant Klein opened the door for her, and it was at that moment that after six impossible years, she knew that dignity and kindness had returned to the earth. She was 21 years old and weighed 68 pounds; her hair was snow white.
Lieutenant Klein rolled back the stone for her, so that she could know resurrection, new life, and a second chance. He nursed her back to health, and then he fell in love with her, and married her, and they were married for 56 years, until Kurt Klein died in 2002.
I told you then, four weeks ago, that Gerda was still with us. She was 97 years old, living in Phoenix.
But it turns out Gerda died on April 3. She was 97 years old. She was a great Pole. She was a great Jew. She was a great American. She once said, “I was in a place for six incredible years, where winning meant getting a crust of bread to live another day. When you get home tonight, realize that you who own the gift of freedom, and get to spend a boring evening at home, you are winners.” Rest in Peace, Gerda.
Can you see it? A giant slab of rock tossed carelessly aside like a poker chip, the fractured seals, the yawning mouth of an open tomb, Christ the Crucified King shattering death’s door?
Can you hear it? “The laughter of things beyond the tears of things, the meeting of darkness and light, and the final victory of light, the joy beyond the walls of this world, more poignant than grief.”
Allison Meier, “A Symphony Scored for a School District’s 1,000 Broken Instruments,” Hyperallergic, May 4, 2017. https://hyperallergic.com/371857/symphony-for-a-broken-orchestra-philadelphia/
Adapted from Clay Risen, “Gerda Weissmann Klein, Honored Holocaust Survivor, Dies at 97,” The New York Times, April 8, 2022.
Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977), pp. 87–88, 91.