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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

God Raises A New Thing From Our Ashes - 04/21/2019

The whole world, it seemed, was riveted to the live coverage and photos of the burning Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris last week. It was especially the image of the spire that really captured my attention. You could tell the photo was taken just moments before the 170-year-old spire collapsed into the church, engulfed in flames.

In the videos you can hear people gasp. It’s the kind of scene that can really shake you – especially since it has a deep sacred significance for many Christians.

It was a heartbreaking thing to watch such an iconic symbol fall. It was moving to hear the French people sing hymns together in the streets as hundreds of firefighters struggled to control the fire. Notre Dame is an important holy site in the tradition of our Roman Catholic friends and a favorite monument for visiting tourists. An estimated 12 million people flock there each year. They go to see the magnificent structure, its famous stained glass Rose Windows and flying buttresses and religious sculptures, including the well-loved depiction of Mary with her crucified son Jesus on her lap – all of that and so much more make it the most visited monument in all of Europe, one report said.

It’s no wonder it elicited so much emotion.

The fire broke out less than a day after worshippers had been there waving palm branches and singing “Hosannas” – “Lord, Save us!” – as Christians around the world recalled the day Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. The uncomfortable strangeness of this famous sacred space consumed in flames as we entered Holy Week was not lost on me and many of you, I am sure, as we prayed for those fighting the fire and the community there.

Before the fire was completely extinguished, there were people talking about how Paris would rebuild its beloved Notre Dame. President Marcon, perhaps in his emotional determination to console and assure the people, even said it could be done in five years.

And then I heard another guy interviewed, I didn’t even catch who he was, but what he said has stayed with me all week. He said not only would France rebuild Notre Dame, but they would make sure it was true to the original, in all its glory, right down to the last timber and gargoyle.  

And that struck me as a little odd, to tell you the truth. First, I wondered about how wise it would be to do things like seek out the oak beams needed to rebuild what has burned. It is estimated that about 13,000 oak trees that were 300-400 years old were harvested to build the structure more than 800 years ago. (https://www.cnn.com/style/article/nortre-dame-fire-oak-wood-trnd/index.html) I don’t know if we even have forest like that on this planet anymore, and if we do, I don’t know that we would be very smart to harvest it.

And then I wondered what “original” really meant. What would it look like to re-build the original Notre Dame? Would it be the very first structure that took about 100 years to build, but did not include the vaulted ceilings or flying buttresses or Rose Windows? Would it be restored back to the Notre Dame with the first spire that was removed in the 1700s after it became too wind damaged leave standing? Or would it be the Notre Dame of the spire built in the 1800s after Victor Hugo’s story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame stirred up interest in the decling cathedral again?

Would it be restored to the Notre Dame that housed 28 intact statues of kings of the bible? Or would it be the Notre Dame that housed 28 headless statues after rioting Huguenots mistook them for French kings and beheaded them all?

There are endless examples like this in the history of this 850-year-old, complicated and magnificent building. They all get us to the same point: the “original” Notre Dame could be hundreds of different things. And what that guy was suggesting is probably more improbable than Marcon suggesting it could be done in five years.

It’s an interesting human tendency to think about, though … when things get rough or destroyed, when they don’t go as expected, when people die, when churches or businesses or regions go into decline – we pine for better times gone by – the good old ways and days.

We hear stuff like this around the church all the time these days, when we lament that our community truly does not come together like this often enough.

Anywhere you go, in any denomination, you are not surprised to hear someone recall when Wednesday nights were set aside for religious education. And where are all the youth, anyway? someone will ask. Another will remember when everyone went to church because that’s just what you did. Inevitably someone will say something about missing the way it was … the “original” way.

But then we run into the same problems as the Notre Dame guy – going back to the old ways, the “original” ways means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Going back to the “original” is not probable.

So what are we to do then when faced with the burned out cathedrals of our own lives? If pining for the comfort of a past familiar is not working out for us, where do we go?

These are relevant questions for us, my friends.

Just ask the person whose job has changed drastically and now they rarely feel confident about their work, but worry about looking for other opportunities.

Or how about the parents whose children are growing up and starting to make some pretty critical decisions on their own? It makes the terrible-twos look like a walk in the park somedays.

Or think about a time you suffered a terrible loss – a loved one, a relationship, an idea or a dream – times when we desperately want to feel the familiar of the past but all we can feel is that time is relentlessly pushing us forward, farther and father away from that familiar.

But here’s the thing. We are all here today to celebrate that strange and wonderful morning the woman disciples went to the tomb to finish preparing Jesus’ body for burial only to find that death could not keep hold of our Savior.

For us Christians, that old prophesy of Isaiah came to life in the tomb, not death. “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” God said through Isaiah. “The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.” (Isaiah 65:17-18)

It was just as Jesus promised his followers all along – although they struggled to understand. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the messengers asked the women at the empty tomb. “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.” (Luke 5b-7)

And it happened. Jesus defeated death and sin in order that we would be freed from it all too and assured life eternal with the Creator when our lives here are over.

That’s why we are here – gathered around this table, hearing this holy Word, particularly on Easter Sunday, and also every single Sabbath we gather here to remember the resurrection of our Lord.

This is why we are here – and so we should act like it. As we were so eloquently reminded at the St. John’s Easter Vigil last night – we must always remember that in Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have also died and risen – we rise up freed from the ashes of our sin with the gift of each new day.

And if our God can do that …

If God has come among us as Jesus and laughed and loved and suffered like us, and then defeated death and sin for us …

If God has also adopted us into that resurrected life, if that has become who we are …

Then what burned-out cathedral … or job, or relationship, or habit or church can’t God bring to new life?

We are here to remember this about ourselves and our God and to encourage one another to live like that, confident that God goes ahead of us with new life, even in in situations where we’d rather pine for the past.

The reality of the empty tomb, friends, serves to remind us continuously that when it comes to that which has burned up, crumbled, died and faded away, God is habitually up to something new and even more fulfilling and life-giving in us, through us and all around us.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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