“Rise Up from the Ashes”

~ Luke 24:1-12/Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 ~

Happy Easter! As the psalmist says, “This is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. But even as we declare that we are much aware that things happen in this world that are not so “rejoiceable.”

Horrified, this past Monday, the world watched the iconic symbol of France, Notre Dame Cathedral, “Our Lady of Paris,” go up in flames. Engulfed in bright orange fire and smoke, the tall spire toppling into the bowels of the church. Parisians gathering to sing Ave Maria hoping against hope that the walls would not crumble. Before our very eyes it appeared the magnificent 12th-century gothic cathedral would be reduced to ashes, it’s death a virtual certainty. Much grieving.

Forty-six days ago we started our journey toward this day with the ashes of death. “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes,” we were reminded.

And right now you might be thinking, “what does he mean, ‘forty-six days ago’? Isn’t Lent forty days long?” Ah, an often-missed factoid about Lent. The forty days don’t include the six Sundays during Lent. So, it’s been forty-six days. But I digress.

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. We are reminded of our mortality; that we, in fact, die. We all die. Death seems to be an essential part of life. We witness the death of a cathedral. We witness the death our loved ones…of us. And in the story of Easter, we witness the death of Jesus.

As we witnessed the majestic cathedral engulfed in flames, can we maybe sense how the disciples felt as they watched their dreams go up in smoke, so to speak, as they witnessed their hero hanging on a cross, dying? Well, no they actually didn’t witness Jesus dying because they, the men, had all run away. Indeed, only the women stayed around. If it weren’t for the women we might have never heard the story at all. But I digress.

And so it is, the one who was to bring a new kingdom, a new way of life, a renewed way of doing justice, of living out peace – that one, named Jesus, dies on a cross and they bury him in a tomb. Cruelty, injustice, violence, power win again.  Caesar is still Lord of all. Death wins. End of story.

But, of course, that is not the end of the story. Resurrection happens! Luke tells the story. Now, Luke is writing about fifty years after Jesus crucifixion. The apostle Paul is dead and gone. The followers of Jesus are trying to figure out how they fit into a new way of living out their faith. Jerusalem destroyed in 70 AD and all have been scattered to the far ends of the Roman empire. But one thing they know, these followers of Jesus, they have experienced the resurrected Christ, personally and collectively. His resurrection animates their whole spiritual experience.

Luke tells the story. The women (not the men) come to the tomb on the first day of the week (our Sunday) and find the stone has been rolled away from the tomb. Jesus is not there. As the “men in dazzling clothes” say, “He is not here, but has risen.”

Now, in many pulpits around the world, the sermon you would hear would be a litany of proofs that Jesus literally, physically was raised from the dead, just as it says. In essence, a resuscitated corpse. You’ll not hear that from me. It is my judgment that the authors of the four gospels never intended for their readers (them and us) to take what they wrote in a literal way. The event of the resurrection is far too grand, far too mysterious, to be limited to a literal rendering.

You could say that the writers of the gospels were trying to describe what they, the followers of Jesus, had experienced in their own, personal encounter with the Christ. Resurrection was the only way that could be described. Let me say it this way: The center of the gospel is not the actual literal event of the resurrection but it is the story of that event. It is the story that holds the promise of new life and hope. They and us experience the Christ, risen from the dead.

In our faith tradition, in our understanding of being Christian, Jesus’ death and resurrection go together. They cannot be separated. Jesus’ death only has meaning because of resurrection. The resurrection could only happen because Jesus died. Theologically, the death and resurrection of Jesus means that even though Rome killed Jesus, God, in raising Jesus from the dead, has vindicated Jesus as the true Lord. Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar.

Death and resurrection. How do we experience that? Existentially, I believe it means that in some way, we have a personal transformation. We die to the world, that is the world of the empire, of Caesar, of violent oppression and control. We die to being in control of our own lives.

Instead, we are raised to new life, life “in Christ,” a life of grace and forgiveness. A life lived out in reconciliation with God and with our neighbor. What resurrection means, what Easter means, is that we exchange our story of anger and hatred and division and death, our story of acting unjustly towards those in need, of vast disparities between rich and poor, of rejected immigrants, of denying basic human rights to those who are different from us, of obviously eroding our planet earth, of ostracizing our LBGTQ siblings, of demeaning women, of…I could go on and on. We exchange all that for the personal resurrection experience of Jesus, the story that announces that death is not the final word, that life can be hopeful and rich and fulfilling, that love triumphs in the end.

According to Jesus’ first followers, Jesus resurrection changed everything, yet the world remained the same. Indeed, the followers of Jesus suffered persecution and martyrdom. Still, they trusted that Christ was alive and moving through their lives. Resurrection, to them, did not pretend that the tragedies and injustices of life didn’t happen, but placed those things in a larger and more hopeful context. Resurrection gave them a future and a hope.

In a strange yet profound poem, entitled Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, poet Wendell Berry ends with this line: “Practice resurrection.” How do we practice resurrection? I believe it means seeing the world with resurrection eyes, looking for empty tombs in our world. It is in bringing forth beauty and hope, particularly in the lives of children and the marginalized and the vulnerable. It is in resisting the politics of division, coercion, violence, and greed. It is in living together as the community of the beloved in which all persons live abundantly. It means practicing resurrection by acts of compassion and healing and forgiveness.

Having said all that, I have to admit that I often deny the reality of the resurrection. I deny the resurrection whenever I believe that I am not worthy of love, either from God or my neighbors. I deny the resurrection when I believe that my achievements are of my own doing. I deny the resurrection whenever I act hatefully, or at least, less lovingly to my neighbor. I deny the resurrection whenever I turn my back on the poor or close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden or lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

But there are those moments in my life when I affirm the resurrection, even if they are not as many as there should be. Whenever I reverse all those denials and act compassionately and justly and peacefully then I can say I am practicing resurrection.

As you have probably heard, there are already considerable plans for resurrecting from the ashes Notre Dame Cathedral. Amazingly, although in real time it looked devastating, the basic structure of the cathedral held firm. The walls did not collapse. Many of the precious artifacts were saved, whatever one might think that it actually housed the thorn of crowns or a piece of the actual cross. But I digress. Even the organ was spared.

And within a day or two there was talk of fully restoring the cathedral. Already there is more than a billion dollars raised for the restoration. The cathedral will be resurrected from the ashes. Resurrection does happen!

Now, you might say, where is the miracle of resurrection in that. It looks to me like it’s all about human determination and enough funds to make it happen. And, yes, you’d be right. But when I think about it the work of resurrection in our world is not some miracle out of the blue. No, the work of resurrection is the hard work of human determination and, yes, financial means to make it happen. Doing justice in our world, calls for each of us to practice resurrection by doing the hard work to make it happen.

In closing, may I suggest a way for how we may practically practice resurrection. Donations for the rebuilding of Notre Dame are pouring in, and, justly so. But, recently, there are other churches that have experienced the anguish of consuming flames. In these cases, the churches were torched by a racially-motivated arsonist in Louisiana. Three Baptist churches in St. Landry parish heavily damaged. They are going to have a much harder time rebuilding. So, you might consider donating to their resurrection. Indeed, if you would like to contribute you can use the NVM app or go to the “gofundme” website that is listed on the announcement page in the bulletin. And, given the news of this very day, maybe we could find a way to help rebuild the three churches in Sri Lanka that were bombed by militant terrorists.

Today we are called to become “resurrection partners,” if you will, not passive victims or bystanders. We are challenged to take up God’s agenda of peace and justice by living resurrection lives. The stone has been rolled away and, as it was for those disciples, we are amazed. May we say “yes” to God’s resurrection gift. Alleluia! Amen.

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