Embracing New Life

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
April 21, 2019
Easter Sunday

Luke 24: 1-12 (NIV)
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. 5In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’” 8Then they remembered his words.

9When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. 10It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 11But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. 12Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.

I don’t know about you, but for me it has been interesting moving through this Holy Week with the backdrop of the fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. When news broke on Monday that the cathedral was burning, I was desperate for information about every detail of what was happening. By late afternoon here in the U.S., the great spire had tumbled and there was some question as to whether the cathedral could be saved at all. Not until 5:30pm ET, nearly three hours after the first reports had emerged, did authorities say that the fire was under control, the structure was intact, and the bell towers were safe. It was all very dramatic.

To me, it is devastating to think that, to a great extent at least, 900 years of history is gone. Notre Dame can be rebuilt, certainly, but it will not be the same. Notre Dame stands at the geographical center of Paris, and the proverbial center of French culture. Great coronations have been held there. It survived the French Revolution (though it was greatly damaged in that war), and two World Wars. The beams that supported the roof were cut from 300 year old trees in the 12th century. That means seedlings that took root around 800 or 900 AD became the trees that were cut into great beams for one of the greatest cathedrals in all of Europe; a building three times as old as any building on U.S. soil. The gothic architecture, the stone statues and gargoyles, the stained glass windows. All of this grew from human artistry through the years. It truly is sacred on so many levels, and it is a great loss. The cathedral can be rebuilt, but in a lot of ways, some of the history is gone.

Yet, there is part of me that also says, this is just a building. As I thought more about the fire on Tuesday morning, I said to myself, “Surely they will be rebuild it.” But then I asked myself, “But will it be the same?” and “How much will it cost? Probably billions of dollars.” And then, “Well, if it’s not going to be the same why spend so much money to rebuild it? Why not do something else?” And I’m not going to lie to you, I asked myself, “What if they turned it into a shelter for the homeless, or low-income housing? How many lives could be touched by the money it would take to rebuild this building?” I’m not telling you all this to sound like some sort of pietistic naysayer. I really don’t know what the best thing is to do in this situation. Do I hope the cathedral is rebuilt? Yes, I do. Do I think there is a need for greater attentiveness to the sacredness of human life at every level? Yes, I do. I really don’t know what the answer is.

So here’s where I find myself. This is the image that has been in my head this week. Even though I have never been to Paris or visited Notre Dame, I can see myself standing in the nave, looking across the broad expanse to the high altar behind a pile of burned out rubble. You all have seen the picture, right? (show picture) With the great gold cross, seemingly untouched, shining in the background. I look upon the destruction and think to myself, it must be rebuilt. But then I turn around, and look out the doors at the throngs of people milling around outside. (show picture) What I see there is life; old and young, fit and feeble, people full of life and energy all around. Behind me is a picture of destruction and despair, but on the other side of the doors is this glimpse of life and joy and hope. Then there, surrounded by rubble, this question rings behind it all, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Indeed. Why do we look for the living among the dead? I can’t imagine what it felt like for those women who stood in the opening of the tomb on that first Easter and looked upon nothingness. What must their thoughts have been? “What is going on? Jesus is supposed to be here. This isn’t right!” It still astounds me that despite Jesus’ continued teachings through his ministry that the Son of Man would be handed over and crucified, then rise on the third day, his followers didn’t get it. So they stand there at the empty tomb looking and wondering; perplexed and yet sure that this isn’t right. A 900 year old cathedral that has withstood wars and disasters is not supposed to succumb to a fire in the 21st century when are is all kinds of modern technology available to prevent, detect, and extinguish fires. A dead body is supposed to be in a tomb.

Easter is truly the exclamation point of all of Jesus’ work on earth; the ultimate upending of our seemingly sound expectations. Here we are, in every aspect of our lives, certain of so much; looking for something that isn’t there, hoping for something that will eventually disappoint, trusting in something that will ultimately just go up in flames. Why do we look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen!

I will never forget about ten or twelve years ago when then four-year-old Brendan came to visit his grandmother in the church where I was working at the time. He went around with his grandmother and greeted everyone when he arrived, and somehow after those greetings, most of us ended up gathered in his grandmother’s office, where Brendan was encouraged by his grandmother to share the Easter story he had been learning in church. Without hesitation, the little boy began reciting word-for-word and from memory Matthew’s account of the Resurrection. Now, in typical four-year-old fashion, he was sort of rolling around on the floor as he told the story, and he was talking quite quickly and somewhat softly, and it was little hard to understand him. But I will never forget how clear and pure were his final words, ““Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen!” As little Brendan said the word “risen,” he shot his fist up in the air and got a huge grin on his face. “He is not here; he has risen.”

It is the greatest announcement of all time, and yet also the most shocking and unexpected. The resurrection is God’s great wake-up call that we have got to stop putting our trust in things that never endure and instead see the life teeming all around us because of Jesus Christ! We have to turn our backs on the death and destruction, leaving that behind us, and instead embrace the life that God is working in our midst in the most surprising ways.

Easter is the celebration of the ultimate triumph of life over death, and it is life for all people. It’s not about sustaining human institutions, or maintaining comfortable systems. Resurrection is the overturning of everything that saps our joy and our energy. It is life. Life, when all we can see or imagine is death and destruction and despair.

One of my most favorite songs of all time is from Disney’s animated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The gypsy Esmerelda, seeking sanctuary within in the walls of Notre Dame, wanders the great church, praying for God’s protection and help; not just for herself, but for all who feel cut off from God’s abundant life. Let me read to you some of the words of her song:
I don’t know if you can hear me, or if you’re even there.
I don’t know if you will listen to a humble prayer.
They tell me I am just an outcast, I shouldn’t speak to you…
Still I see your face, and wonder, were you once an outcast too?

God help the outcasts, hungry from birth.
Show them the mercy they don’t find on Earth.
The lost and forgotten, they look to you still.
God help the outcasts, or nobody will.

In the movie, Esmeralda doesn’t find protection in the walls of Notre Dame, but instead her greatest help comes from people who fight for her life with everything they have; people who show the same sort of sacrificial love as Christ. Friends, all around us in this world are people feeling forgotten, cast out, lifeless. They are wandering around searching for answers, looking, and praying, and hoping for new life. Maybe we are they. And maybe we cling to something that seems safe and secure, and yet in all likelihood, it is no better than a house built on sand, or even a great Gothic cathedral. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” There is life for all people, abundant life, even; for the poor, the unlucky, the weak, the odd, the outcast, the sinner. For everyone there is life. Easter is here, and with it the greatest proclamation of all time; a reminder that life abounds not in cathedrals or churches, not in systems or doctrine, not in any human construct, but in the person of Jesus Christ, who on the third day was raised, conquering death and the grave once and for all!

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

“He is not here. He is risen!”

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