Rolling Stones – An Easter Service

Opening Words

A rolling stone gathers no moss. The original proverb is attributed to Publilius, a Syrian writer from the century before Jesus. Historians believe that he meant that people who roll like stones avoid cares and responsibilities, and thereby contribute little. But, when Erasmus published the modern translation around 1500, he implied that the agility of those who roll like stones constantly generates creative and fresh ideas.

We see this conflict of values often in our lives. Do we value stability and the regular, if perhaps unremarkable fruitfulness of rootedness? Or do we value constant change, and a perhaps less reliable life of imagination that sheds rust and stagnation? How does the stone of your life roll?

Time for All Ages

What do you think of when you think about Easter (rabbits, eggs, baskets, etc.)? Many of the common symbols we associate with Easter have ancient roots.

Eostre was a Germanic goddess of the dawn. The light of dawn was carried by rabbits (or hares). Ostara and the egg she carried were symbols of fertility, of new and continuing life. Some descriptions say Eostre herself is hare-headed, and the goddess of rabbits and birds. Whether Eostre herself is hare-headed or her attendants are hares, she is strongly associated with the hare – and later its cousin the rabbit.

A popular myth says that the children of the time presented eggs to the goddess as a gift in return for her bringing them the spring. She was so touched by this gift that she recruited her rabbits to return the eggs (only brightly colored now) to the children in baskets (the birds’ nests). That is where our tradition of rabbits delivering eggs to children comes from.

Now, the question then is why do Christians call the holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus following his crucifixion as Easter? As Christianity spread northward in Europe, the priests hoped to convert the native pagans away from their gods and practices to Christian belief. So, the priests would adapt pagan ideas into Christian ones as a way of encouraging the pagans. For instance, it is believed that the priests would encourage children to seek out eggs and bring them back to the church, where the clergy would pay them a small token for each egg collected. This may be where the practice of the Easter egg hunt was born.

Modern pagans have generally accepted the spelling Ostara (Oh-star-ah), which honors this goddess as the word for the Vernal Equinox. The Vernal Equinox is also known as the first day of spring. This day has been celebrated from ancient times for the resurrection, the rebirth of the Earth itself, from the cold of winter.

Reflection Reading – Parallel Readings from Mark, Matthew, Luke and John

The Christian portion of the bible, popularly known as the New Testament, contains four accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth whose authors claim some authority to knowledge of the history of the man and of the era. The earliest of these texts, the Gospel According to Mark, is believed to have been written around year 65 of the Common Era, likely preceding the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. as Rome squashed the Jewish rebellion. Scholars place the writing of the Gospel According to Matthew between 80 and 85 C.E., with the Gospel According to Luke appearing shortly afterwards. The Gospel According to John was written in stages, possibly between 90 and 110 C.E.

So, you will hear four accounts of the events of the morning following the Sabbath after the crucifixion of Jesus. These four accounts were likely written as much as 45 years apart. And while the surviving accounts may have derived in part from earlier documents that have not survived, it is unlikely that the contributors of the gospels witnessed any of the events they describe.

Part One
Mark 16 – 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. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.

Matthew 28 – 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.

Luke 24 – The women who had come with Joseph of Arimathea followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment. But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,

John 20 – Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.

Part Two
Mark 16 – As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 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. 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.”

Mathew 28 – 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.”

Luke 24 – but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

John 20 – [The gospel says nothing about Mary Magdalene entering the tomb at this time]

Part Three
Mark 16 – 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. Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.

Matthew 28 – 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 worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Luke 24 – Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

John 20 – So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbi!” Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord;” and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Sermon – Rolling Stones

My mother loved music. She was blessed with a powerful singing voice that I acknowledge with great pride she passed on to me. Naturally, I continued the tradition by instilling a love of music in my own children.

Among the many casualties of age is that we often find it difficult to keep up with new trends in music. So, as our children grow and are exposed to new songs and performers, we parents are often the last to hear about these novel influences. Now, I have what I consider to be a wide taste in music, leaning toward classic rock, jazz, progressive and alternative sounds. But, when my daughter went to the dark side of country and my son to the cacophony of hip hop, I had trouble keeping up.

Over the years, though, I listened to their music and tried to share their passion for these genres. Sometimes, they would bring home a “new” song, only to have me tell them that it was a cover of a song from my youth. I can’t help it. The historian/trivia buff in me can’t resist the buzz kill of putting this new music in its place.

For instance, if you mention The Rolling Stones to a young person, they are likely to think about rock and roll legend Mick Jagger, now an aging shadow of his former self. The Rolling Stones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame in 1989, a year when my son and daughter were listening to music from the “new” movie The Little Mermaid. They were certainly not yet aware of The Rolling Stones of my childhood, whose shows consisted mostly of covers of Chicago blues tunes and the hits of R&B artists like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. In fact, The Rolling Stones took their name from a 1948 song by Muddy Waters, Rollin’ Stone.

Now, blues musicians often borrow lines and verses from each other and employ common symbols and phrases that can’t be traced back to one source. That first hit of Muddy Waters derived in part from the 1941 song, Catfish Blues by Mississippi delta singer and guitarist Robert Petway. Petway’s song, in turn, was likely influenced by Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues from 1928. And, all of these pieces owe some credit to the work of Victoria Spivey and Blind Lemon Jefferson in the 1920’s.

So, like The Rolling Stones who seem to have been producing music forever, certain lyrics and melodies roll along from one artist to the next, crossing genres and performance styles over the years. Similarly, human stories and myths travel across space and time from one teller to the next. With each age, our legends adapt to changing circumstances and needs, either through design, outside influence, or simply the whims of style and preference.

Myth plays a powerful role in our lives. We remember the stories passed onto us in our youth from far flung cultures. We remember the courage of Moses wielding the staff of righteousness against Pharaoh. We remember the foolishness of Icarus when the sun melted his ambition to fly to the heavens. We remember the gallant ride of Lady Godiva, seeking redress for the oppressed citizens of Coventry, as well as the justice meted out to Peeping Tom, the only person who dared to spy upon her progress.

The specifics of each story – in fact, whether these events actually occurred at all – matters little. We remember the images of a rod transforming into a consuming snake, the disintegrating wings of feathers held together by wax, of a noble woman shedding her pride for a just cause. Throughout human history, mythic imagery motivated us, inspired us, warned us, and taught us. The fact that no actual evidence exists for the miracles of Moses, the flight of Icarus, or the ride of Lady Godiva fails to deter us from utilizing these stories in our lives.

When biblical historians examine the gospel accounts of the Christian testament, they confront stories written more than 30 years after their alleged occurrence and penned over the stretch of subsequent decades. These works were then transcribed and translated any number of times over the centuries until reaching the forms known today as the King James, the New American, the New Revised Standard Version, and dozens of other bibles. You heard this morning the resurrection stories as recounted in the four gospels from the New Revised Standard Version of the bible. You can appreciate the challenge facing the reader in search of consistent accounts of the life and death of Jesus.

We heard the many variations in the accounts of that morning. So, what details do the four resurrection stories in the gospels have in common?

  • Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and then informs the disciples of its condition. There is much to be said about her seminal role in every account of this event. But that is the deserving subject of other sermons.
  • Jesus in his mortal form is not visible, and perhaps appears in other guises. Again, a subject of future sermons – when do we know if we have seen the face of Jesus?
  • And, of course, we have the massive round stone, placed by the Romans to prevent his followers from spiriting away the body of Jesus in the night.

Any further agreement on the specifics of the events of Easter morning disappeared over time and countless telling.

In the end, we may find that the actual details of the story don’t really matter. Does the truth of whether or not these events actually occurred bear any relevance in our lives? This morning, we celebrate the arrival of spring, a true miracle of nature. We consider whether a hare-headed goddess actually helps usher in the morning sun, or whether a first-century Palestinian was executed and rose from his tomb. We consider how those stories influence the choices you face in your daily lives.

Perhaps what matters is whether or not you find meaning in these mythic stories. What lessons or images from these stories work for you? Is it the exhilaration of the hunt for colored eggs, or is it the discovery of an empty crypt in fulfillment of prophesy? And, if you cannot find meaning in these tales, then how can you set them aside and allow yourself to look for new stories?

Many people find the variations in biblical accounts and the many interpretations of the texts challenging. Sometimes, our past experiences hamper our ability to apply the lessons of these texts in our lives. Sometimes, we even find the consideration of these memories hurtful. If we are to honor the historical Jewish and Christian teachings that call on us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves, then we must find ways to make peace with the ambiguities of the myths and feelings that these stories may evoke.

One way to find relevance for mythic stories in our lives is to focus on their larger messages. The story of Eostre is one of conquering the dark and cold of winter, transforming our world into the warmth and light of spring. The exodus of Passover recounts the story of a people on the march, shedding the bonds of centuries of slavery. And, the tale of the risen Jesus holds out for us the rebirth of the promise of our lives, the triumphant resurrection of hope for a better tomorrow over the forces of despair, violence, hate, and indifference.

More simply, the Easter story can be that of a rolling stone. This morning, we can consider all of the myths associated with the day.

  • We can think of the task of removing obstacles that confront us.
  • We can imagine the outcome of attaining unexpected goals, whether one considers such attainment as the serendipitous intersection of cosmic forces, as coincidence, or as the grace of a loving god.
  • We can envision our successful resistance, challenging unlawful authority or rejecting the temptations of weakening influences and unethical behaviors.

Many of us employ chocolate rabbits or decorated eggs in our Easter celebrations. So, I invite you to employ another tangible object in your Easter morning considerations. [pass out basket of stones] Observe the stone in your hands. Study its colors, its shape, its weight, and its texture. Imagine your stone rolling down a slope. Perhaps you have trouble imagining this stone rolling at all, given its irregular shape and flat edges. Perhaps you can easily see this rock sitting undisturbed on a shelf literally for years.

Now, put this stone between the palms of your hand and rub your hands in a circular motion. Feel the stone rolling between your palms, noting how much pressure is required to turn the rock and how much coordinated movement of your hands is needed. Imagine how long it would take for this rubbing to begin wearing down those edges, until your stone rolled effortlessly. Can you imagine the diligence, the patience that such commitment would require?

Now, here is another Easter image to consider. Have you ever seen rock tumblers, used to create smooth and shiny stones for jewelry and craft projects? Think about this congregation as a big rock tumbler. Now, you could work on your rock alone, eventually smoothing it into a rolling stone. Or, you could drop your rock into the tumbler of this congregation along with all of the other rocks being held in hands here today. In the months and years to come, we can gather, work, talk, sing, and worship together, hewing those rough edges and honing the surfaces of our rocks.

An important message of this time of year is the value of religious community. Whether evoked by the stories of Ostara, Passover, or Easter, we can all use help rolling those stones in our lives. This congregation and this faith can help you remove obstacles, attain goals, and resist oppression in your life. So, as you consider the rock in your hand once more, think of the biggest obstacle in your life, or a goal you really hope to achieve, or a struggle you face against injustice. Now, bring your rock forward and place it back in the basket, where it will join others in an avalanche of common purpose and mutual support.

Closing Words from The Rolling Stones, by Robert Heinlein

Everything is theoretically impossible, until it is done. One could write a history of science in reverse by assembling the solemn pronouncements of highest authority about what could not be done and could never happen.