Roll Away the Stone! (Easter)

Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto Sermons and Reflections
Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto Sermons and Reflections
Roll Away the Stone! (Easter)

What weighty thing stands, seemingly immovable, between you and new life? Let’s roll it away and be amazed!
Amy gives the sermon and Dan tells the Easter story in this intergenerational service.


I know a woman who is a doula, a person who accompanies women in childbirth. She has seen hundreds of births, from the earliest labor pains to the parents’ holding their babies in their arms. She says that she usually knows when the final few minutes of childbirth are at hand and the baby, after hours, maybe days of labor, is about to emerge: the laboring woman says “I can’t do this anymore. It’s impossible.” When she reaches that point of ultimate effort, when she has given it everything she has and can see no way to endure more pain or do more work, my friend says that time after time, it means: someone is about to be born.

So much of what matters in life seems to us to be impossible. When we feel we can’t help, when we are sure there is nothing more we can do, often that’s when something amazing and important is about to happen.

Childbirth is one case. Visiting a friend who’s in deep grief is another. “I don’t know what to say,” we think. “I don’t know what I could do that could possibly help.” It’s true. Grief is not something that will disappear with a few kind words. We are attempting the impossible. And so we go, and sit in silence, and offer our hand, and maybe a tissue, and miracle of miracles–our presence helps.

Scientific breakthroughs often do what was previously thought to be impossible, even by the person who breaks through. Instantaneous communication, not with a short delay but with no delay whatsoever: impossible! And now it’s been done. Telepathy, sending a thought from one brain to another, existed only in magic or books of fantasy–it was impossible in real life. Until biologists created a telepathic rat and showed that what seems impossible can happen right before our eyes.

But the feeling that we are attempting the impossible is real. It’s not just an illusion: oh, we thought this was impossible, but really, it was possible. It’s that it is impossible until we find a strength, a source of help, an ability, an insight that we didn’t even know was there–and so suddenly we can do something that before, simply could not be done.

In the Bible, these are called miracles, and we’ve just heard one. A person is dead and sealed in his tomb by an enormous stone over the opening. Mary Magdalene and another woman approach the tomb knowing the stone is much too big to move, even for the two of them. And yet they find it rolled aside. How was it moved? And where did the body go?

There are all sorts of explanations, such as the one Dan suggested [that some of Jesus’s friends took his body away, and in all the confusion and fear after his death, others among his friends didn’t know that that had been done]. But there’s no question that the tellers of the story, the authors of the Gospels, wanted to convey that the impossible was happening. A miracle was underway. They told of angels, and the earth shaking, and someone who looked like Jesus and sounded like Jesus walking amongst them, talking with them, even offering them bread (I guess it was matzah), until he disappeared like the ghost in a ghost story. They are asking us to believe in rebirth. They are asking us to believe that the impossible is possible.

I think that’s a good thing for us to do now and then, because so much of what really matters doesn’t seem possible. And Jesus, in his life as a teacher, was like a scientist who imagines something beyond what seems possible and makes it happen. When we try to do as he did, we do amazing things.

Jesus loved humanity, and he also saw us as we were. He saw how cruel and thoughtless people could be, how selfish and greedy. It made him weep. It made him despair.

Who could even imagine that we could love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, when we fall short of that all the time? Jesus’s own tradition told him of so many failures . . . Its prophets spoke of how the people made life harder, not easier, for those who were blind or deaf; those who had no one in the family to earn a living and lived in poverty, depending on charity; those who were sick or outcast or foreign. They called us to be better, witnessed our failure, and then angrily washed their hands of us once again.

Who could imagine that we could treat the poor with dignity, clothe those who have nothing even to wear, shelter those who have nowhere even to sleep, give justice to the downtrodden, welcome the foreigner . . . ? Observations of humanity suggested that we just weren’t up to it. We lack that imagination even now. We think hunger, injustice, poverty, violence, inequality, racism, homelessness are just the way life is–the way life has to be. And yet Jesus asked us to imagine something different. He saw possibility and told his followers and students that what seemed impossible could happen. They could make it happen. We can make it happen.

Jesus wasn’t naïve. He knew how cruel and ignorant people can be. And yet he refused to believe that our cruelty and ignorance are inevitable. He believed in the impossible. He believed in our ability to be reborn and give birth to a better world.

That’s what the stone’s being rolled away says to me. It’s a case of the supposedly impossible triumphing over what everyone has described as reality. It shows that what we think is unavoidable, what we think are the limits of what can be, are not the way things have to be.

There’s a modern story that some of you may know: the novel for children (and others) called The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. In it, a boy named Milo is sent on a difficult quest: to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason, who have been locked up in a castle in the air, and without whom nothing in the whole land makes any sense.

Along the way, this being a quest, the people he meets give him help and gifts. They also give him advice, and sometimes tell him, “There’s one other very serious problem with what you are attempting.” But when he asks what that is, trying to be prepared, they say they’ll tell him when he returns. And so, he and his companions go through dangers and temptations, and they almost don’t make it, but of course, in the end they do. They return with Rhyme and Reason. And then Milo asks what it was that the people weren’t telling him about his quest, and they reveal,

“It was impossible. Completely impossible.”

But they didn’t tell him earlier, because sometimes what seems to be impossible becomes possible if we just don’t know it’s impossible . . .

Milo had faith. Faith is often defined as “belief in things unseen.” I like the idea of defining it as hope that the impossible may turn out to be possible after all.

Milo didn’t know what he was attempting was impossible; that made things a little easier for him. But we think we know. We think we know that human nature means that some people will be on top and others on the bottom and that’s just the way it always has been and always will be, so we’d better make sure we end up on top. We think we know that poverty and homelessness are unavoidable, that they are written in the laws of the universe just like gravity and the speed of light. For us to do what Milo did, achieve the impossible, we have to imagine and hope and have faith . . . like Jesus.

And Jesus’s faith that we could do the impossible changed the world. People took it and acted on it in our own Unitarian and Universalist congregations.

  • Dorothea Dix saw people with mental illness being chained up, forced to be naked, left to suffer. That’s just the way things were in the 19th century United States. She went to a Unitarian church and heard the message of love that Jesus taught, and she took it to heart and spent the rest of her life creating safe, caring homes for people with mental illnesses.
  • Eliza Tupper Wilkes, the first minister of a Unitarian congregation in Palo Alto, saw that women could not hold public office, could not even vote. It was just considered impossible for women to have the intelligence, knowledge, time, or shrewdness to make political decisions. But she read her Bible and the things that Jesus did. She imagined other possibilities and worked for women to get the vote. Even though she died before it happened, her faith made the impossible possible for us, and now it seems impossible that anyone ever thought women shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
  • Five hundred years ago, there was a Unitarian king—possibly the only Unitarian king in history—he was the king of Transylvania (now a part of Romania), King John Sigismund. He converted to Unitarianism. The usual rule was, the king’s religion is the religion: everybody get in line. But he proclaimed an Edict of Tolerance. He said people should be free to practice their own religion, a different religion than their neighbor’s or even the king’s. He learned this by looking at how Jesus treated people of many faiths and many ethnicities; people who doubted him; people who did not follow him.

Like the earthquake that shook the ground when the tomb was revealed to be empty, the teachings of Jesus shook our ideas about what could be. Like the stone that was too heavy to move, injustice and suffering can be pushed aside. Jesus’s followers, and everyone who has taken his teachings to heart, including Unitarians and Universalists from centuries ago until today, right here, in this room, have turned impossibilities into possibilities and then realities. We have done it.

Easter teaches us the value of believing the impossible. Of having faith in things that we have not seen and that our experience tells us cannot be done. I’m not saying we should believe in just anything; it’s good to have doubt; it’s good to be realistic. But sometimes what we call realism is actually cynicism, which I think of as a refusal to entertain the possibility of anything we don’t already know. And there is plenty we don’t know. Just think of the things we can do now that people only 200 or 100 years ago would have sworn was impossible . . . You might have a device in your pocket right now that violates several previously known physical laws, allowing you to talk to someone on the other side of the earth or even out in space, holding more information than was even known 200 years ago and making it appear to your eyes in less than a second.

What Jesus taught was just as absurd to imagine and just as impossible to bring about as the invention of the cell phone. Even more, because we still don’t believe it. We still sometimes say that he was just wrong, that the world he imagined is too good for us ever to bring about. But maybe, just maybe, he was right and our cynicism is wrong.

So I’m not asking you to believe in everything that seems impossible. Just . . . “Show a little faith. There’s magic in the night.” (Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road,” Born to Run, Columbia, 1975)

In each of our lives, from time to time, there is a great, enormous stone blocking the way between us and a new life: a rebirth into something that we long for, something that calls to the best within us.

It may be healing a long-ago, even a forgotten, trauma. It may be apologizing to a friend we have hurt. It may be adventuring into a job that will enact our values and make the world a better place. Maybe the stone that stands in our way is fear, or lies we have been told, or complacency, or long-held habits.

And sometimes the enormous stone is the inability even to see any possibilities beyond who and what and where we are now. That is a heavy, heavy stone. Milo was spared it–he was left in blissful ignorance that he was attempting the impossible. But we think we are attempting the impossible, and all too often, that makes us right.

Faith is the leap of imagination, the spark of possibility, that shifts the stone. And something else the story of Easter teaches is that we don’t do it all alone. Jesus pointed us to our god and our neighbors. Like Jesus, we have neighbors, brave friends who may even put their shoulders to the stone and together, roll it away–yes, Dan’s explanation is a miracle in its own way: people coming together to do what they cannot do alone. Jesus taught us to love these neighbors. And like Jesus, we have a connection to the divine power, within us, around us, beyond us, that makes a way where there is no way. For him, this power was called God, and he taught us to love it.

When so much that matters seems impossible, the story we tell on Easter reveals to us that the world is full of things that seem to be impossible and then turn out to be possible after all. What may still come about? What may we still do? What rebirth and new life await us?

When we roll the stone away, we will know.

So may we do.