Sermon for Easter Sunday 2019
It’s just a building.
That is what I kept telling myself Monday afternoon. It’s just a building. Just bricks and mortar and wood. But I was lying to myself and I knew it. It wasn’t just a building.
The strip mall down the street is just a building. The gas station on the corner is just a building. This wasn’t just a building. This was a symbol. It was a symbol of a country and a culture that I love; it was a symbol of one of the world’s great cities; It was a symbol of a time in history that fascinates me; most importantly is was a symbol of my faith; it was a symbol of so much that I have dedicated my life to. It was a temple, and it was in flames.
I can imagine what the children of Israel must have felt. The children of Israel twice had to see their temple burned to the ground. What a horrifying thing to witness: to see a symbol that is a part of your identity, a thing of beauty and a testament to that which is holy, crumbling in front of you. Great buildings, are more than just four walls and a roof. Great buildings are symbols that remind us of who we are, where we came from and where we are going. They tell a story. They have a personality and a life; and maybe they don’t have an immortal soul like a human, but nonetheless they can have a spirit or an air that is all their own. They can touch our souls and change us, so to lose one, or at least to see devastating damage done to one, it’s like seeing someone you love suffer. It is heartbreaking, I can’t think of any other words for it.
And whenever something heartbreaking happens, we humans, we have this tendency to rush in with buckets of platitudes to try and make everything alright again. We want to put the fire out in our hearts; we want to throw words on it to make the pain go away. So we say things like “it is just a building,” or “we will rebuild,” or “at least I got to see it,” or if, God forbid, we should lose a loved one, a person, someone might say something like “he or she will live on in our hearts and in our memories.”
I’m sorry, but that’s just not good enough for me. I want more than that. I want the beauty back. I want the life back.
I want more than memories and photographs. I want what was lost restored. And the hard and bitter truth is that we don’t have the power to do that. Not even with buildings. We can rebuild. We can replicate. We can create new buildings and new lives, but we can’t resurrect. We can’t take the dust and ashes and turn it back into what it once was any more than we can take a body out of the grave and make it breathe again. We don’t have that power. We can fix things; we can give them a face-lift; we can try and replicate things that have been destroyed, but we can’t resurrect them.
That is a heartbreaking thing to realize. We humans are capable of such beauty. We are beautiful and we can create beautiful things, but we can’t hold on to beauty forever. Sometimes all it takes is a simple accident for us to be made painfully aware of how fragile our beautiful existence is.
In such moments, we are tempted to despair. But then I saw something as I was watching the devastation and listening to the early predictions that all may be lost. People, strangers most likely, in the distance, watching the fire from across the river, watching their temple and the symbol of so much they love and cherish turn into ash, people stopped and gathered together and sang.
And not just any song. A song that was also a prayer.
Je vous salue Marie comblée de grâce,
le Seigneur est avec vous.
Vous êtes bénie entre toutes les femmes
et Jésus votre enfant est béni.
Sainte Marie Mère de Dieu
priez pour nous, pauvres pécheurs,
maintenant et à l’heure de notre mort.
Amen, amen, alleluia.
Hail Mary, full of grace,
The Lord is with thee
Blessed art thou among women
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.
Holy Mary, mother of God
Pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death.
That is what they were singing. What was it that gave those people the courage and the power and the will to sing while watching parts of their beautiful temple fall to the ground? It was faith. Faith in a story. Faith in a promise. Faith in their God. It was the faith that this temple was a witness to. The same faith that inspired their ancestors to build that temple in the first place. Some of the people were crying, but through their tears they were singing the angelus, an ancient prayer that you may know, that tells the story of a young Jewish girl who was told by an angel that she would give birth to the son of God. This building was dedicated to her and every stone of that building, every piece of glass, was put there to tell the story of how her child defeated death and destruction for all of us.
This woman’s son was dead and in the grave. The temple of his body was destroyed, on its way to become dust and ashes, and after three days of grief and despair, another woman came back from his tomb with this most unbelievable tale. He was alive again and more beautiful than ever. And then others saw him; they touched him. This was no fond memory, no hallucination. This was the very man they loved restored, no, not really restored, resurrected. He walked among them for forty days, and before he left them and ascended into heaven, he challenged those that knew him and loved him to go out and tell the world his story. Tell the world how God has defeated death. Tell them how God can give new life to things that have been destroyed. Tell them how God has promised new life now to those who live their lives in him. Tell them how all beauty really belongs to God and tell them that God never loses anything that belongs to him. True beauty is never lost, not to God. God can rebuild temples. “Jesus answered and said unto them ‘destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’” God can rebuild temples. Not just temples of stone and glass, but temples of flesh and blood. If God can do that we don’t need to despair about losing a beautiful temple, not the ones in stone, not the ones in flesh. God isn’t going to lose anything that belongs to him.
That story is what gives people the courage to sing when their temple burns, to sing in the face of evil and to sing in the face of death. What do we proclaim in the church when someone dies? What do we say in our funeral service? “All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” That is our faith. That is the Christian faith. That is the faith of the people that built that temple. It isn’t that we can fix the world; it isn’t that we can keep things from being destroyed; it’s that God can resurrect what is beyond repair. The almighty power of God can do what we have no hope of doing on our own.
Every stone of that building, every inch of that temple, was there to tell that story. I can only hope that those who are called to build it back up again will remember why it was built in the first place. I hope that they will understand how important beauty is to the human soul. I hope that they will appreciate that the brilliant, gifted hands that built it didn’t do it for their own glory or fame, but for the glory of God. This wasn’t just a building, it was the gospel written in stone. It was a proclamation of the life of Christ. It was a glimpse of heaven. The most glorious structure of its age, one of the most glorious structures ever built, was created to be a symbol to point us to something even more glorious. We need those in our world. The world can sometimes be very ugly. We need beauty. We need symbols of God’s majesty and beauty. We need symbols of the Resurrection. It is those beautiful glimpses of heaven that give us the faith to sing, even when it seems like the world is on fire. Even when it seems like all is dust and ashes. I hope that they will remember that this story we tell here today was what it was all about.
The foundation of that spectacular, beautiful temple was a story. The true story of a young Jewish girl and the child she gave birth to…a son, a child named Jesus, a child who would live to show us just what God can do with dust and ashes. The young girl’s name was Mary, but many of her son’s followers had such love and affection for her that they would refer to her simply as “Our Lady,” or in French “Notre Dame.”