Roll Your Stone Away
Text: Mark 16: 1-8
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
When I was in college, many years ago, one of the general education requirements was an introduction to psychology course. When I say a general education course that meant that everyone had to take this class whether or not it had anything to do with your major. As a result, the classes tended to be large and they were held in an auditorium type classroom. If I remember right, there were probably 35-40 people in my class.
The class was taught by a Dr. Marvin Jost. Some of the students called him “joking Jost” – both spelled with a “J” because he was always doing something unusual in his classes. This kept the classes interesting and I think we all learned better because of Dr. Jost’s unusual teaching style.
One day right after class had just begun, a male student burst into the classroom and grabbed a backpack of another female student. They struggled for a minute over the backpack, but eventually the male student ripped it from her grasp and ran out the door. The female student ran after him.
As soon as the two people had left the classroom, Dr. Jost informed us that this was all a set-up, and no backpack was actually stolen. The two students involved were acting out a mock scene for us to talk about in class. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate how our personal histories and biases inform our minds into remembering what we think we saw.
This was extremely interesting. In a classroom of 40 people, we could not agree unanimously on almost everything; including the gender of the two participants. We went through gender, race, build, height, approximate weight, hair color, facial hair, the approximate length of the incident – almost everything you can imagine. What was so interesting is that on some of the details, like hair color for example, many of the students remembered the male student having blonde hair, while others were certain it was dark hair. Even though we all saw the very same incident, the stories about how we remembered the incident varied greatly.
At the end of class Professor Jost invited the two actors back in so we could see for ourselves how close we were in our descriptions. Most of us could not identify the backpack that the two students struggled over when it was presented with similar looking backpacks. It was an experience I will always remember.
I mention this because among the four Gospel narratives that we have as a reference about Easter morning and the resurrection of Jesus there are variations in the stories. For example, in the Gospel of Mark, which I read a few minutes ago, the two Marys encounter an angel at the tomb and they were so terrified, the text states they didn’t say anything to anyone because they were afraid. Well, the other gospels tell a different story on that point. In Matthew there is a severe earthquake that rolls the stone away, while other gospels say the stone was already moved by the time someone got there. If you line all the gospel narratives up side by side and compare, it is a little interesting just how different the stories actually are.
I think this is perfectly normal and should be expected. By the time any of the Gospels were written, it would have been difficult to find anyone who actually lived through the event, let alone remembered it exactly how it happened. In the class I described the event was just minutes old and we could not agree on what we remembered. With the Gospels, I think it is important for us to recognize that Mark was the first written, but it was written 50-60 years after the execution of Jesus. Given the life expectancy of a person in that part of the world at that time was only around 40 or maybe 45, you can see the problem with finding an eye-witness to the events. The Gospels of Luke and Matthew were written 75-90 years after the execution of Jesus and John was written over 100 years after, maybe as much as 120 years after the fact. So there are a few discrepancies in how the story is reported.
One of the things which I find helpful is to not focus on the discrepancies, but rather find some common ground that is present in all of the stories. One of those things is that in all four gospels, the stone is rolled away. Not always in the same way or using the same method, but one way or the other the stone is rolled away. I want to focus on this idea for a few minutes.
Easter means a lot of different things to different people and I would be the first to suggest that there is not a single correct interpretation. For me, I have always loved the idea that Easter represents transformation and a new beginning. I have mentioned before what a great symbol of Easter I think the butterfly is because as a caterpillar it is entombed for a while and then emerges transformed into a butterfly. I think the same can be said about the metaphor of the stone being rolled away.
In a historical context, there are a couple of things that might be helpful to know about the stone that generally blocked an entrance to a tomb. It served a number of purposes. To seal the tomb was important because it kept animals and rodents out and it kept the odor in. The stones which sealed the tombs were large disc-shaped rocks that had been carved for that purpose. Often the stone was in a track of some kind carved into the rock surrounding the entrance of a tomb and the sealing stone was rolled into place on the downhill side. Then it was sealed with small stones around it. To move it, all the smaller stones would have to be removed first and then the large stone would have to be rolled uphill to open the tomb. This would require the efforts of several men.
So to find the stone rolled away on Easter morning is kind of a big deal. However it happened, it wasn’t easy. But it is an important part of the story. I think it is important because the stone represents an effort to keep some things out and at the same time, to keep some things in. In a way, the stone represents an effort to keep things exactly as they are. Nothing comes in, nothing gets out. The stone is a symbol of status quo; the idea that the stone has been rolled away marks the beginning of something new.
Now I want to try to tie all of this together and give you something to really think about. Remember when I described what happened in class that day? Here is what I want you to really think about. When some of the students remembered the staged robbery in a certain way that was their actual experience. It wasn’t that they simply were remembering the event incorrectly, for them it actually happened the way they remembered it. There wasn’t any difference between what they remembered and what they actually experienced. Where there were gaps in the actual recording of the events in the minds of the students, the mind fills those gaps based on our own personal thoughts and experiences. There isn’t any daylight between what actually happened and what they think actually happened. The mind and the memory actually define the experience; that is why many of us can have a different experience of the same event. In a sense, our minds control our realities. What we think shapes what we experience. And what we think we experience, impacts how we feel.
I want to suggest to you today that most of us have minds that are a lot like a sealed tomb. For the most part, nothing gets in and nothing gets out. We think we have it all figured out and what we think or believe has been OK so far, so why would we need anything new?
But let me ask you a question. How do you feel?
Have you ever known someone who lives the life of chronic complaining? Nothing ever works out right, nothing is good enough, they are always suspicious or they think the odds are never in their favor. These people are likely to say things like “if it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all” or of course I often find myself saying that “Murphy is alive and well” meaning that what we refer to as “Murphy’s law” is actually a mindset. When we actually believe that if anything can go wrong, it will-chances are good our minds will find something wrong with our experience of whatever we happen to be experiencing at the moment.
I’m not sure I can stress this idea enough. What happens to us isn’t what shapes our reality. What we think happens to us shapes our reality. Two people who think differently can have the same physical experience and yet have two very different emotional experiences that shape their reality.
If you find yourself not feeling good, not feeling optimistic, not seeing the miracle of the world around you; If it feels like you’re stuck or you are out of options, if it feels like you have tried everything and nothing works; If your situation is hopeless and you feel like giving up; Perhaps it is time to roll the stone away.
This is the message of Easter. We can all roll the stone away that blocks our minds and emotions from experiencing the world around us as God intended for us to experience these things. If we can learn to think in a new way, the experience we have will be new as well. As one of my favorite philosophers, Dr. Wayne Dyer, has said; “when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
The transformation and new beginnings that are a part of the Easter story are also reminders that each of us has the opportunity to roll away the stone that blocks our tomb-like thinking.
And that of course, is food for thought.