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In April 2019 a fire broke out at the Paris Cathedral Notre Dame, destroying the spire, roof, and damaging the upper walls of the cathedral. And in December 2020, a fire destroyed all but the facade of Middle Collegiate Church affiliated with the UCC. And the facade started coming down in November–a total loss.
I can only imagine standing on the sidewalks while you watch your church on fire–the devastation into your gut and the grief welling in one’s chest. And I get the desire to rebuild, just as it was, in the same place.
What we have in Notre Dame is a cathedral, a medieval architecture marvel, filled with stained glass and art. And the leadership and the people of Paris quickly became committed to restoring, and rebuilding, just as it had always been. And maybe it’s not fair to judge them but France has notoriously been a post-Christian country for a while now. What is the purpose of a church, of a cathedral, of Notre Dame?
When looking at the destruction of Middle Church in New York, someone asked that question: What is our purpose? How do we have a building that supports our purpose? With prayer and discernment, their plans became ones that include community spaces, education for all ages, art and music, activism and feeding people, mentoring and raising up young people. When it came time to say the words: “rebuild!” they paused and wondered how the building could support their ministries and their neighbors.
I know which process would feel better in the moment and which one would probably be better in the long run.
Long ago, in the days when the city of Chicago would burn regularly, many of the downtown churches decided to leave the downtown with its wooden buildings always catching fire. The United Methodists did not. They built a 20-floor building in what is now the legal district of downtown, right by the courthouse. In most of the building, there are offices who’s rent keeps the church sustainable, and their commitment to the location has made them the go-to place for lawyers looking for offices and regularly feeding the un-homed population of the city.
We began with the collapse of the Northern Kingdom and the dread and fear that must have provoked in their Southern Kingdom cousins. We heard them try to renew the covenant and not fall to the Assyrians, we heard they would ultimately fall to Babylon. We imagined their cries in exile and saw the glimmer of hope that someone was coming to conquer Babylon and let them return.
And so it would be.
Cyrus the Persian and his armies conquered Babylon and established a multi-religious empire, permitting, and in our story encouraging, those who returned to their homelands to build places of worship to their gods. The Cyrus Cylinder is a 2500 year old story and an edict of the kind of empire that Cyrus established. It really exists! Found in the 1800’s, it now lives where all great items of cultural significance, ancient or otherwise, regardless of their origins, the British Museum. All that is to say, Cyrus existed, and his allowing exiles to return is documented.
The Judeans returned in waves. In the second chapter of Ezra, they name the people returning. It’s very long. There’s a reason we skip it. But all those people mattered when it came to the return trip to Jerusalem.
You can divide people into infinite categories and groups, but let’s just consider these three main categories of people with two subcategories: those who stayed in Babylon–who established life there, had business and families; those who returned from Babylon to Jerusalem; and those who had remained in Jerusalem–because not everyone was taken, really just the powerful, and there were those who, for 50 years, sought to make life work in the land. And those three categories have their older folks: perhaps they were there when the temple stood, or were the first generation born after the fall of the temple; and the young: who heard stories but were two or three generations removed, the stories were fantasies.
Maybe they were standing in the rubble of the temple that had been there. Maybe nothing had been done in 50 years. They had to decide what to do next.
Imagine the hope, the naive optimism of youth and the desperate longing of the elders. Everyone is desperate to reshape the ruin into something beautiful and life-giving. What that means exactly is a bit different.
They put some of the twenty-year-olds in change! Which seems a bit young but the ancient world was different and we had just talked about Josiah being king at 8 so 20 is wise. But they must have thought that there was something that they needed from the younger generations for the building of their future.
The first thing the returned Judeans did was establish worship. They made a place for them to worship God, to gather together, to re-instate rituals that would bring them healing, and strength and community and connection with the Divine. The temple was build to make that easier, to facilitate that.
They had a celebration when the foundation was laid, month after the altar had seen its first sacrifice.
We’re told there was a gathering: some celebrated with shouts and some wept. I wonder if the divide was over age of the folks standing around the foundation. The rabbis tell us that it was because they remember that grandeur of Solomon’s temple and this temple was, even now, not going to match it. And the shouting and the weeping were so mixed up you couldn’t tell the difference. It didn’t stop what was happening. And maybe there was celebration and weeping both existing inside the individuals and not just across the people, person by person have one feeling or the other but existing in both feelings, all the feelings. Joy for being home and grief for the lost years, hope for the future and sorrow for what is ruined around them, celebrations for what is next and pain for the destruction and trauma they suffered.
It’s uncomfortable to live in this mix of emotions.
We can look back with nostalgia but at its root, nostalgia is pain, it’s heartsickness for what was and we can get stuck there. We can get stuck there and believe the most beautiful versions of what was past. Solomon’s Temple was big and beautiful, gilded and shiny; it was also built by slaves and with funds that economically undermined the poor.
Perhaps the new temple isn’t going to be as magnificent but maybe it will be more faithful.
We can be nostalgic about our pasts, personal or congregational or community. We can long for what was and what should have been or what we remember but,
Christ is born into a time of ruin. Under occupation and fear and uncertainty and offers the people he interacts with a chance to think again what it might look like if they were to grow from this moment.
In advent as we prepare for the coming of Jesus into our world again, as we prepare for the celebration of Christmas, as we hold this peace flame, the churches is Palestine have decided to take celebration out of the worship, to center their Christmas masses on prayer and peace and grief, for their time in the midst of trauma and rubble.
Christ show up in the difficult time, in the rubble, in the leftover pieces of our lives and of our communities.
Christ shows up when we are in good places, too. When we have the means and the space to consider, to try and experiment. We aren’t sitting in the rubble making decisions, we have time and space to imagine without the pressure of taking a step right now. But the church, and our lives, don’t look like they did 50 years ago, not even what they looked like in 2019. We aren’t in crisis but why wait for one when we, right now, can focus on what we are called to do and who we are called to be–in our space we are called to worship God, learn and grow, and prepare to worship and love God beyond these doors in how we care for all that God created.
But if that’s what we are and what we do, it means it might not look it always has. It means we can try things, be creative, be uncomfortable. Christ will still be there
And there is loss when things change, there is grief and uncertainty. Christ shows up in that too
And if we are the people who practice this work now, think of the blessing we can be for those who sit among their own rubble and ashes, who feel all the anxiety of taking the next step right now. Can’t we be a place that lets folks come, and rest, and part of rituals of healing and creativity and discovery? To be Christ in their midst, to point to Christ who is there with them in the rubble and ashes, in the good days and grief filled ones, in the celebration and the weeping.