ROLL AWAY THE STONE
John 20: 1-18
March 27, 2005
You know me fairly well, I think by now, and I trust that you think moderately well of me. Which is good, because the story IÕm about to tell you is truly remarkable in its stupidity, and the only explanation I can possibly come up with is that I was pregnant at the time. Now, IÕm not sure why that suffices as an excuse, but itÕs the best I can do.
Anyway, IÕm reminded about it because it happened in the springtime, right around Easter. A pair of mourning doves had taken advantage of the fact that I had forgotten to get out the storm windows that winter, leaving a very nice channel that was perfect for nest building. It was right by the kitchen window, and there was a thin, gauzy half curtain such that I could watch the goings-on in the nest without their knowing.
I took extreme pleasure in the fact that these mourning doves -- called turtle doves in Europe – isnÕt that romantic – felt save enough in my presence to choose my kitchen window for a nesting side. Good karma, no?
Anyway, I sneaked a peek every time I walked in or out of the kitchen. Once – just once, in the early morning – I found the nest unattended, with two tiny white eggs well nestled there. I found it very auspicious, being in Òthe family wayÓ myself, that these doves – these symbols of love and peace – had chosen my kitchen window for their home.
It took me a few days to notice that the mother didnÕt budge from her nest. And all the while, the male sat watchful about twenty feet away, perched on the telephone while, cooing at her. At first, I was pleased, the mother incubating the future babies, the father alert and protective.
But then, something happened. Again, I can only excuse my subsequent behavior on my condition at the time. But, as I gradually became protective and watchful, I noticed that the female dove never left the nest. Hour after hour, minute after minute, there she was, blinking her eyes, nodding her head back and forth, but otherwise not a twitch. And I began to over-identify with her. There was the male, constantly yammering at her from his perch of freedom, and there she was, devoted, attentive, and trapped in her motherhood. I kept waiting for him to bring her a worm or a seed or something. But no – just that constant harping.
My irritation festered. And I mean, it really festered. I am one of these lucky people who had a loving father and a good marriage, but suddenly every male in the universe became suspect. My husband, my father, my male colleagues at work, my dog – I began to eye them suspiciously. What selfishness lurked beneath the surface of the male species?
As the days went on, the anger became unbearable. What should I do for the poor female dove, left alone without food and water? Should I take a small amount of bird feed and a bowl of water and put it out there on the sill close to the nest? My brain said that it was stupid to worry, and that one should not interfere with Mother Nature, but my heart was filled with empathy É and helplessness.
I asked all of my bird-loving friends what to do, and they were clueless. I researched it in bird books, but there was nothing on the proper care and feeding of an abandoned mourning dove. So finally I did the unthinkable: I called the Audubon SocietyÕs help line.
A very agreeable young woman answered the phone, and I explained my predicament. Of course, I introduced it with the usual disclaimers about how I know this is really stupid, but I canÕt help myself. She was really quite nice, but she acknowledged as how this question had never come up before. She asked me to hold on while she went to ask one of the ornithologists.
I waited for a few minutes, feeling both stupid and furious. Finally, she got back on, and with a strange tone in her voice, she asked whether I was sitting down. When I said, ÒYes,Ó she asked whether the male dove were still up there on the telephone wire cooing – that was her term, I called it yammering – at his mate.
When I said, ÒYes, he is,Ó she said, with a slight chuckle, ÒWell, what youÕre looking at up there on the wire is the female, not the male. ItÕs the father thatÕs sitting on the nest. They switch every twelve hours – she sits on the nest at night; heÕs there during the day.
So there we have it – not only are doves the universal symbol of peace, but actual representatives of equality among the sexes!
(Well, IÕm proud to say that I was humble and gracious enough to apologize to all the men in my life.)
Now, youÕre probably wondering É what does this have to do with rolling away the stone? WhatÕs the connection between FelicityÕs stupidity and Easter morning?
Mary went to the tomb that morning many years ago with as much certainty as I had, expecting to find the dead body of Jesus. Everything she knew about the world told her that she would find the corpse of Jesus in the tomb. Everything that I knew in the world convinced me that what I was looking at sitting on that nest in the bright glow of the sunshine was the female. But we all know that Mary and I were both wrong. Things are not always what they seem.
And what about our certainty that things are as they seem? We look at the Easter story and we give it a simple explanation. For most of us, it means that – for the first and last time in history – a human being died and then was reborn. For non-believers, such an explanation is preposterous and is the foundation for why they question our intelligence. Exactly what happened at Easter lies at the heart of the Christian faith, for better and for worse. And many of us use our explanation of the empty cave as a litmus test for faith. This is because we yearn to be right. We want to know that those who disagree with us are wrong, and that God and ÒTruthÓ are on our side, not theirs.
But things are not always what they seem. And I suggest that perhaps a simplistic explanation of the empty cave is about as ill-considered as my certainty that it was the female dove that sitting on the nest. This is because the facts that lead to scientific knowledge do not always lead to truth. And so I ask you, does the miracle of the empty tomb have to be scientifically provable in order to be valid?
Perhaps the Resurrection happened exactly the way it was described in the gospels. Perhaps not. But what I do know is that there is a truth about the Resurrection experience that is bigger and more important than simple scientific fact.
LetÕs consider the stone that blocks the entrance to the cave. The entrance to the cave is an aperture between the known and the unknown; itÕs a window into a new kind of truth. Rolling away the stone – which, you will note, must have been done by God or the angels – is the first step in opening yourself to the true miracle of the Resurrection. And it may not be anything like what we expect.
Mary Magdalene approached the cave expecting to find a corpse. She didnÕt find what she expected, but neither did she find what she wanted. She did discover Jesus, alive, but he was different than he had been just days earlier. And he told her not to cling to him. WhatÕs behind all that?
IÕm reminded of a good friend of mine whose marriage was on the rocks. He and his wife had been going to therapy, but things just werenÕt working out; they had grown far apart in the twenty years of marriage, and so they began making plans to divorce. But just before the husband moved out, their youngest son was in a serious car accident, and it wasnÕt certain whether or not he would live. He did survive, but it was months before he was well enough to return to school and some semblance of normalcy. And, somehow, through the pain of their shared grief and their shared concern, my friend and his wife discovered new things that brought them together. That was ten years ago, and now they are busy preparing for their sonÕs upcoming wedding. They are not the couple that they were when they first fell in love, but theyÕre happy together in new way, with a new understanding of themselves and each other.
We all know stories like that – where something that seemed horrible at the time eventually led to something quite unexpected and wonderful. But it requires us to roll away the stone, to go into that cave of unknowing and mystery and to open our hearts to a new reality.
Mary Magdalene wasnÕt prepared for the new truth of what was happening when she rolled away the stone. She wanted to hold on to Jesus; she wanted to go back in history to the way that everything had been a week ago. She wanted the same old Jesus that she had come to love. What she got was a new Jesus – a God of spirit who told her not to cling to him, but to follow him instead.
Which is exactly what Jesus asks of us. To roll away the stone means that we can no longer cling to the Jesus of our preconceptions, the Jesus that makes us feel comfortable with our assurance that we know what is going on and what is truth and what is fiction. To roll away the stone takes courage; itÕs not for the faint-hearted. ItÕs not for the people who want to stay in the same place or think the same thoughts that theyÕve become accustomed to.
To roll away the stone requires that we let go of certitude and self-justification of being right. To roll way the stone means that we open ourselves to the mystery of GodÕs presence – which may not be anything like weÕve been lead to believe. To roll away the stone means following Jesus into new life and new thinking that may be a whole lot less satisfying than what we are yearning for. But – and hereÕs the key – to roll away the stone means to encounter God. To roll away the stone is the first and most important step in how we can encounter God.
The ageless wonder of the Resurrection story is not simply that Jesus was born again, but that we are all born again. Roll away the stone and live into the wonder of new life! Amen.