Sister held the large gray river rock and prayed for a moment. Turning to the woman next to her she held it out and said, “Has no one condemned you? Neither will I condemn you.” The person who accepted the rock, a secretary, held the rock out to the teacher who was standing next to her. “Has no one condemned you? Neither will I condemn you.” The rock slowly made it’s way around the circle. Men, women, teachers, priests and secretaries all took the rock in turn and in turn passed it on.
Today I attended a one day retreat for the teachers and staff of our parish. It’s an unusual time to make a retreat – the week of Easter, but it had to be moved from earlier in the year due to scheduling conflicts and this was the one time everyone could make it. The theme was “stones.” Everyone was given a small stone tucked into the plastic name tag holders and we carried them around all day. The retreat director spoke of the different kinds of stones that we find in our lives; the ones we put in our own ways, the ones others place in our paths and the ones that life has just tossed at us that we have to deal with. At one point we were told to reflect on these and see what stones were in our paths and what we would have to do to be able to clear the paths for ourselves.
I reflected on the meaning of stones. Well, for one thing, stones can get stuck in your shoe so that even the smallest little piece of gravel feels like a jagged piece of glass when you’re trying to walk with one sticking into your foot. You can’t go very long without having to stop and hop around awkwardly on one foot until the culprit is removed. A stone in the wrong place at the wrong time can stop you cold for a while if you twist or even break your ankle. Stones that are thrown at your car windows by passing trucks will crack or shatter your windshield and destroy your vision of the road, and it’s practically impossible to go anywhere until it’s replaced. Stones in front of tombs can sometimes only be moved with help.
So I think about the little stones that stick in my foot, these small annoyances that bombard me every day. What are the things that I need to remove? My first clue came with the Gospel reading of today. After all the events of Holy Week the disciples found themselves muddling about not knowing what to do. They’d spent three years with Jesus and thought that by this time they’d be working for the new ruler of Israel. But things didn’t turn out so well. So they decided to go back to their old line of work, fishing. After a night of fishing without catching anything they headed back to the shore, probably not in the best of moods, when they see some guy standing there watching them. He called out to them and offered some unsolicited advice, “Throw the nets over the right side of the boat.” What a ridiculous thing to say to professional fishermen who’d been up working all night without even a bite. But for some reason the disciples didn’t mutter under their breath and they didn’t laugh out loud. They threw the nets over the other side and their boat nearly tipped over with all of the fish. That’s when they figured it out – that wasn’t just any guy standing there, it was Jesus. Simon Peter ( I love this part) was “lightly clad.” I guess that means he was in his underwear, but hey, they’re all guys, right? So he throws on clothes to jump into the water and begins to swim to the shore. At that moment I recognized my first stone. If someone had come up to me and tried to tell me how to do my job, I wouldn’t have been so accommodating. I probably would have thanked them for their opinion and then talked to myself for the rest of the day. How dare they tell me how to do my job! I realized then that my refusal to be open to another’s opinion and advice, and my need to be the one in control was the piece of gravel in my shoe. The response I make to life’s little annoying stones that I’m trying to walk on is keeping me from seeing Christ in the daily situations that challenge me. Lesson #1: When Jesus tells you to try something, do it, even if it seems completely “off the hook.”
Then there are the stones in the road that I don’t see coming. Here I am running through life at full speed. Things are going great and I’m at the top of my game. Soon I get too sure of myself, though, and forget to keep my eyes ahead. I fail to notice a fairly large stone right in the middle of the path. My life changes suddenly for one reason or another and I find that am unable to avoid it or protect myself. I lose my balance, my feet to fly out from underneath me, and I’m face down on the pavement with a part of me aching and broken. This is the kind of stone that forces me to stop for a while and reevaluate the path I’ve been on. Problems with my family, health issues, financial setbacks – all things that I didn’t plan – demanding my immediate attention. Sometimes these spills take a while to get over, but eventually I pull it together and go back to the path, perhaps hobbling a bit, but still moving forward. Lesson #2: When Peter got to the shore he found lunch cooking. Jesus was waiting for him to come and have a bite to eat and a chat. When the disappointments or heartaches of life become overwhelming, jump into the water and swim to where Jesus is to be refreshed, refueled, and readjusted.
The stones that come flying at me from nowhere at full speed sometimes have the force to shatter my vision of the road and they do the most damage. Separation, anger, broken relationships, loss, sickness, death – these stones are the ones that come out of nowhere and have the force to knock me down hard enough to make me want to give up the race entirely. It’s too painful to try to stand up again. Eventually, I might continue on, but I’m not healed at all. I’m slow and afraid of the path ahead. Recovery is possible, but not easy. Lesson #3: The apostles, still dazed and confused, decided to leave the upper room and go back to the familiar, to the beginning, to where they found Jesus in the first place. That’s where he was waiting for them. When things are so bad that I feel I can’t go on, I need to go back to where Jesus was when I found him before. He’s probably still there.
Finally, there is a large stone blocking the entrance to a tomb in my heart. Before Jesus made his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem he received word that his best friend Lazarus died. He waited a couple days and then went to raise him from the dead. He told the men there to “roll away the stone,” but Martha said, “Lord, it’s been four days, surely there will be a stench.” Now I see this stone for what it is. It is the one that I don’t want moved because foul, dark, smelly things lay behind it. I don’t want to deal with it because it’s keeping hidden all the dead things within my soul that I don’t want to see or have anyone else see. Jesus called Lazarus forth, and when the dead man came out of the tomb he told the people to, “Untie him and let him go free.“ Lesson #4: If I don’t find the help I need to roll away this large stone I won’t give Jesus the chance to work the miracle of new life in me. I may be bound up and lying with dead things forever and never be able to be free. Even if I don’t have the strength to move this stone alone, that’s okay. I think I know where to find someone who is good at moving stones.
At the end of the day, we brought the little stones that we had carried all day up to a small wooden table in front of the altar where there was a basket filled with beautifully polished stones that had crosses painted on them. We all laid our stones down and exchanged them for one with a cross. Lesson #5: When Jesus was raised from he dead his stone had been rolled from the entrance to the tomb. There is no stone so large, so heavy, so final that it can’t be handed over to Jesus in exchange for one that bears the imprint of the cross and a promise of resurrection. Very powerful, very cool, a very good day.