©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
You have a stone in your hand. Turn it over a few times. Feel its heft and its rough edges. Or feel its smooth sides, eroded down by years of wear. This stone is in your hand, but all of us have a stone we carry in our hearts, a stone that blocks our way forward. For some of us, the stone is small, smooth and old; for others, it is large, jagged, and the pain of it is new and raw. All of us have a stone, and we do not know how we will roll it away. We are like those ancient people walking toward the grave. When we approach this closed off space in our hearts, we almost cry out, “Who will roll away the stone for us?” We ask: who will roll away the stone?
The women approaching their loved one’s grave did not know what they would do about the stone. They were fixed upon their task, to anoint the body with fragrant oils, that it might smell sweet for another day or two. But as they approached, they worried: what were they going to do about that stone?
Their loved one, Jesus of Nazareth, had died two days before. Another one of his followers, Joseph of Arimathea, had generously offered his family’s grave. He had wrapped Jesus’ body in white linen cloths as Jewish law required and laid it inside the stone grave, safe from wild animals. But because Jesus had died on the Sabbath, a day when work was prohibited, Joseph did not perform the additional work of anointing the body with sweet-smelling oils. It was this task that Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Mary Magdalene and Salome, two of his disciples, were setting out to do on the day after the Sabbath.
They were alone. They were beset by their grief, crying as they went. They didn’t have a plan for rolling away the stone, because their grief was so great it made planning hard. Their son and teacher was not even properly buried yet, and it was their job to see that the work was finished. They were almost to the grave when they remembered that Joseph and his helpers had rolled a large stone in front, and they would have to roll it away. They decided they would do their best when they got to the gravesite: maybe they could move it, after all, or maybe there would be someone else tending to the grave of a loved one who could help them. They climbed into the hills, their anxiety growing as they went. What were they going to do? How would they carry out their sacred task? What would they do about that stone?
We have all felt that anxiety, right? Sometimes I think that anxiety is a part of who we are. There’s that nagging feeling that some obstacle is much too big for us to handle, and will stand in the way of all our most important plans. What stones have you faced in your life?
Some of you will have faced the stone of unemployment. You have not known where a new job was going to come from. You have wondered how you would support your family, whether you might have to move, whether you would regain your sense of worth and self-confidence that comes (in our society) from steady work. Some of you have faced the stone of illness. You or your loved ones have been laid low by diseases that came from nowhere, diseases and suffering which you did not deserve. Some of you, like Mary of Nazareth, Mary of Magdala, and Salome, have faced the stone of grief: a weight so heavy that it stood in the way of every other relationship, every other goal, every other work you tried to put your mind to.
You may have faced the stone of separation from a loved one, of anxiety, of addiction, or of despair for our world. The elderly woman who still misses her husband years after his death: there is a stone. The young mother who can’t find work: there, too, is a stone. The young man lying to get money which he will use to buy drugs: a very large stone, indeed. Sometimes these stones are so large and have been with us for so long that we no longer even see them for what they are. They become part of the furniture of our lives, and we don’t even notice anymore how they are keeping us from sources of love and grace. Sometimes we get to the grave, our sacred task before us, and the stone is still there. So we simply sit down outside, in that place of desolation and loss, and our lives stop. We all have stones in our lives, and many of them are too big for us to roll away on our own.
Nonetheless, there is reason for hope. We know of people who have faced truly massive stones in their lives and come to find them rolled away. For these people, the Spirit of Love has turned their pain into compassion for others. We have all come to know Trayvon Martin’s tragic story over the past several weeks. Trayvon, an unarmed 17-year-old African American boy, was shot by a Latino neighborhood watch volunteer as he walked home from the corner store in his father’s gated community in central Florida. The neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, thought Martin looked suspicious. When he called 911 to report this so-called suspicious behavior, the dispatcher asked Zimmerman to stop following the boy. Shortly thereafter, Zimmerman allegedly shot Trayvon Martin.
Zimmerman was not arrested, for reasons that have yet to become clear. Only a few weeks after her son’s death, Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, spoke to a crowd in her Florida hometown. “My son is your son,” she said. Trayvon died only a month ago. Fulton’s grief is still new; she is still coming to understand that her son is gone forever. Yet she stands before a crowd and turns her grief and anger at injustice to compassion for the millions of African American boys and young men in our country who face racist threats every day. The Spirit of Love moved in her heart and is helping her turn her grief to compassion and action. The Spirit of Love is moving the stone away.
The Spirit of Love turns people toward compassion and rolls the stone away. It happened in the story of Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel. You may have heard their story on the radio. Nineteen years ago, Israel killed Johnson’s son Laramiun in a fight. Israel was tried, convicted and sentenced to a life in prison without the possibility of parole. He was a teenager. For twelve years, Johnson hated Israel. She waked in the morning and went down to sleep with her hate. She missed her son. She was glad Israel was in prison. But her faith was strong, and it kept pushing her in another direction. One day she read a story from her own Christian tradition. In this story, two mothers met. One said, “I would have taken my child’s place on the cross if I could have done it (Sullivan).”
The story continues,
The other mother fell on one knee and said, ‘Oh, well, you are she — the mother of Christ,” Johnson [said]. “And the mother of Christ lifted her up, kissed the tear off a cheek and said, ‘Tell me of your son, so I may grieve with you.’ And she said, ‘My son is Judas (Sullivan).’
This moment broke through Johnson’s resentment and hatred. She realized that she wanted to meet Israel’s mother, to meet the mother of the boy who killed her own son. She also realized that in order to do this, she would have to meet Israel himself. She gathered her courage and went to meet him, thinking she would only see him once, and that the only reason she was going was to find a way to meet his mother. Instead, she stayed for two hours, talking to Israel. At the end of their talk, Israel asked if he could hug Johnson. Their story continues,
“I felt like she just offered me her forgiveness,” he says. “I had nothing else to offer her; at least I can show her some compassion.”
They met in the middle and embraced.
“I tell you I had something going on in my feet physically, moving and stirring in my feet, and it just moved up and up,” Johnson says. “I felt this whatever leave me. I knew that all that hatred and animosity and anger and the bitterness … I had inside for 12 years was over.”
That force in Johnson’s feet, that power which moved her forward into Israel’s embrace, was the Spirit of Love. It could not return Laramiun to her. It could not make her miss him any less, or undo the violence done to her family. But it helped her turn away from resentment and hatred and toward compassion. It rolled away the stone at the mouth of that grave, the stone she had no idea how she would move on her own. It helped her courage and her strength and allowed her life to be changed through compassion and love. Even in the darkest moments of life, there is reason for hope. The Spirit of Love moves in us and moves us toward compassion, rolling the stone of despair away.
At this moment in our religious year, we celebrate the mystery of Jesus’ ministry, his death, and the life which his teachings have continued to have. If we had heard him teach, we would have heard the message to turn toward compassion. We would have heard him tell us to turn away from self-interest, away from worry, away from concerns about status and to turn toward compassion for others. We would have heard this message again and again. Go and give all you have to the poor, Jesus would have taught us. Sit outside the rich man’s party and eat with those the steward would not let in. Be like children, or like birds, or like lilies. If you have a little, give what you can; if you have much, give it all. Don’t just love your neighbor; love your enemy. We would have heard Jesus lift out the lessons of compassion from the Torah and praise them as the most important of God’s commandments.
The women going to Jesus’ tomb on that first Easter, two days after his death, were remembering those teachings which they had heard and followed. They were already wondering: what will we do without him? How will we live in this new way without Jesus to guide us? And then, they found the tomb empty, the stone rolled away, and a young man was telling them, “The one you are looking for is gone. Go, tell his disciples that he is going ahead of you to Galilee (Mk. 16:7).”
When the women returned to Galilee, after they got over their fear, they told their fellow disciples what they found at the tomb, and they began to hear stories from people who had seen Jesus, in the flesh, since his death. If we were there, we would have heard the women’s report too. Whether we believed that he had risen from the dead or not, we would have come to realize something incredible: that the responsibility for living out these teachings we had followed now rested with us.
With Jesus’ death, his teachings continued to live with his community. His death, delivered too soon by a repressive state–his death, in all its violence and sorrow–his death, which had seemed so final–his death had overcome the power of empire by turning his community toward compassion. We would have felt it then and we feel it now: Jesus’ death, like his teachings, turn us toward compassion. Through the Spirit of Love, the responsibility for compassion rests with us.
The Spirit of Love is still with us and still speaking to us today. Look at the stone in your hand. It has been resting there all morning. It has become warm from the heat of your body. It does not need to represent a barrier. It does not need to stand in the way. Let it represent, instead, the promise of love and compassion. Imagine it, not barring your entry to the future, but standing beside an open door. Imagine that this stone has been moved away for you, in a miracle, letting in the morning sun. Go, with love and compassion, over that threshold, now that the stone is rolled away.
Please join me in prayer, written by Unitarian Universalist minister Paul S. Sawyer.
Spirit of Love,
We are together today in humility,
Awed by the stone rolled back;
And the surprise of the empty tomb.
We are together in defiance
Of the pain and the injustice that came before;
And of the pain and injustice that will likely come again.
We are together in hope
That life can begin anew;
That our differences can be bridged
That the beloved community can arise at last.
We are together in faith,
That the light shines in the darkness,
And the darkness does not overcome it.
We are together in wonder
Of the beauty we can see;
And of the mystery of all we can never know.
Here amid the lilies,
Amid the warm glow of friends and families come home:
We pray for faith and strength
To stand for what is good;
To do what we must
To live lives of integrity and peace.
We pray in gratitude and joy
For this community;
For the beauty of this day;
For the hope and love promised
In this ancient story,
In the stone rolled away.
All Biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Sawyer, Paul S. “Easter Prayer.” Worship Web. Unitarian Universalist Assn. Accessed 7 Apr. 2012. http://www.uua.org/worship/words/meditations/submissions/5595.shtml.
“Unlikely Advocates for Teen Killers: Victims’ Families.” Weekend All Things Considered. Prod. Laura Sullivan and Lauren Silverman. NPR. WEVO, Concord, New Hamp. 24 Mar. 2012.