A Broken Hallelujah

We marched in triumphal procession this morning.  It was glorious; it was grand.  Palm branches waving, brass playing, red vestments blazing.  “Hallelujah!” we sang and cheered.  “Hallelujah! Hosanna in the highest, for the Lord passes by, and we are his servants.”

This procession was so different from the one we experienced five weeks ago on the first Sunday of Lent.  Then, we processed to the Great Litany.  The mood was somber, and the ash still flaked from our foreheads.  Our mortality was on our minds then, but not this morning.  This morning we sang “All glory, laud, and honor,” which includes the words: “The company of angels are praising thee on high, and mortal men and all things created make reply.”

For the first fifteen minutes of the Palm Sunday liturgy, we are lifted into the sublime realm of angels, into the heights of love, into the grip of…passion.

Palm Sunday Triumphal Procession

“Our love for Jesus twists and turns on itself so quickly in the liturgy today—our hallelujahs turn murderous with such speed—that the whiplash threatens to break us, as it will break Jesus five days hence.”

That’s the key word today: Passion.  Because while the hallelujahs still ring in our ears, they are displaced by our collective cry, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  You see, this is not only Palm Sunday; it is Passion Sunday.  I once preached a sermon on this day entitled “Whiplash.”  That’s what today feels like.  Our love for Jesus twists and turns on itself so quickly in the liturgy today—our hallelujahs turn murderous with such speed—that the whiplash threatens to break us, as it will break Jesus five days hence.

There is a nascent movement in the Episcopal Church away from combining Palm and Passion Sundays.  For some, the whiplash is too much.  Let the party be the party, the celebration the celebration.  Let love be love.

But in the world outside these doors, that’s not how we experience love, is it?  Surely, when we are lucky, love begins with something like waving palms and hallelujahs.  In the throes of love we, like the crowd before Jesus, will lay our coats over puddles to keep our beloved from muddying her feet.  Our loves for spouses, for partners, for children, for dear friends are marked, each in their own way, by adoration, by devotion, by passion.

Passion definition

Webster defines passion as “a strong feeling that causes [one] to act in a dangerous way.”  And so, there is a crucial lesson conveyed in the liturgy today, one we would do well to note and learn for our relationships in this world: The same power, the same potency, the same passion with which one day we gaze into the eyes of those we most love and say, “Blessed be!” can and often does, sooner or later, glare into those same eyes and seethe, “Crucify him” or “Crucify her.”

Our relationships falter.  We hurt those we cherish.  We circle the wagons and leave our beloved on the outside.  We betray.  Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah,” has gained such popularity in recent years because it captures this truth as only music can.  Cohen writes:

Maybe there’s a God above,

But all I’ve ever learned from love

Is how to shoot somebody who outdrew you.

It’s not a cry that you hear at night;

It’s not someone who’s seen the light;

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.

I became an Episcopalian twenty-five years ago in part because I love the Episcopal Church’s undaunted focus on love.  A quarter century later, I still believe this to be of central importance to our role as Episcopalians in the broader religious landscape.  After all, God is love, as St. John tells us[i].

But we also must name and admit, with steely resolve and wide-open eyes, that our world is marked by human passion, by that broken love, that broken hallelujah by which we too often crucify those we most cherish.  And this week, beginning on this Sunday of the Passion, we will crucify even the God who is love.  And our joy turns to despair.  What, then, are we to do?

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen

Let me tell you a story.  When I first arrived at the Cathedral, I was chagrined at the placement of our columbarium.  Tucked into the long passageway between Golding Chapel and Reynolds Hall, it seemed so exposed to the grit, grime and noise of the street.  How could such a place be reverent?

The first time I officiated at a committal service in the columbarium was particularly sorrowful.  The death had been sudden and unexpected.  But as we read the liturgy, the children of our Cathedral school were at recess on our playground at the other end of the passageway, just on the other side of the gate.  As we stood at the niche, we heard the joy and laughter of children.  Their voices carried on the air, and they provided wisps of hope in that shadowed space.  From the street end of the passageway, we couldn’t hear the children.  Only by entering the columbarium—only by processing into that space and pausing to mark death—could we receive the children’s joy.  I have loved our columbarium every since.

"Only by entering the columbarium—only by processing into that space and pausing to mark death—could we receive the children’s joy."

“Only by entering the columbarium—only by processing into that space and pausing to mark death—could we receive the children’s joy.”

Holy Week, which begins today, is like that long corridor of our columbarium.  Our Palm Sunday procession, with its dangerous and oscillating passion, has taken us as far as the street end of the corridor.  Ahead of us we see shadows; and we know that our march of hosannas and hallelujahs is about to pass through pain and darkness and death.  As Leonard Cohen’s song crescendos, “Love is not a victory march; it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”  We owe it to ourselves this week to abide here.  Indeed, we must abide in this space.   Our redemption depends upon our willingness to admit our human condition; to admit that we good people are also those who sometimes say, to our loved ones and to our God, “Crucify him;” and to admit that we cannot remedy this on our own.

But God will not leave us here anymore than God left Jesus in the tomb.  If we listen closely—if we tune our ears and our hearts toward the other end of this passage—we can detect a different sound, a different voice, a different light, wisps of the joy and hope that await us one week from today.  The new life of Easter is coming, which will resurrect our broken hallelujahs into new song.  God will show us, once again, that his love knows no limits.  Even when we seek to kill God, we’ll discover that the power of God’s love is greater than death’s hold.  God will show us that his passion, too, is dangerous, but its danger is that it will not give us up.  It will pursue us through the darkness all the way to the light on the other side, so that our love is redeemed and our hallelujahs ring like the joy and laughter of children.

[i] 1 John 4:8


Playing the Fool

I have learned that Texans put a lot of stock in their boots.  Years ago, when I was still in Arkansas, I knew a guy who desperately wanted alligator boots, but he couldn’t afford them.  I told him he just needed to go down to the swamps of south Arkansas and kill his own alligator to get his boots.  Well, I went with him and stayed in the hunting lodge.  In the late afternoon he hadn’t come back, and I was worried.  I walked to the edge of the swamp and saw him in hip waders with his shotgun on his arm and four dead alligators by his side.  Even as I stood there he killed a fifth.  “Why’re you shooting so many alligators?” I asked him.  “Heck,” he said, “I have to.  Every one I’ve found so far is barefoot.”  He was a fool.


All of the alligators were barefoot…

Then there’s the quality control officer who got fired from the M&M candy plant because he kept throwing out all the M&Ms with a “W” printed on them.  He was a fool.

Fools, either fictional or real, we dismiss and ridicule.  They are those who can’t seem to grasp the way of the world, the clueless who fail to realize how incapable they are of navigating life.  We make jokes about fools, I think, to disguise our own phobia at being made to look foolish.  We say things like, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.”  Just think how many of our fears have, at their root, the fear of playing the fool in the eyes of those around us.

Consequently, St. Paul’s message to the Corinthians today is a perplexing one, so much so that I almost skipped it.  The Old Testament option for today was the Ten Commandments in Exodus.  The Ten Commandments are a preacher’s dream: ten to choose from and each one sermon-worthy!  Thou shalt not make graven images…Thou shalt remember the Sabbath and keep it holy…Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife…The homiletic possibilities are endless.  But in the epistle, we read this:

“God decided through the foolishness of our proclamation to save those who believe…For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called…Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

When I read these words of Paul, I felt convicted to risk foolishness of my own and save the Ten Commandments for another time.

Fool me once

In college I was fortunate to study for a term in England, and at Stratford-upon-Avon I saw a production of King Lear.  The pathos and tragedy of that play are difficult to bear, whether or not one is a fan of Shakespeare.  At the play’s outset, Lear is the quintessential wise and worldly king.  He is revered and respected and honored by all.  But Lear succumbs to the very human need for acclaim, comfort, and ease.  He divides his kingdom among two older daughters, Goneril and Regan, who first flatter their father with false declarations of love, and then quickly ridicule, dismiss, and discard him.  Dissent erupts in the kingdom, and then war, and as King Lear’s world quickly falls apart, it is demonstrated that his worldly wisdom was only a razor’s edge from madness.

The play King Lear is a complicated and meandering story, but once one figures out how to follow the plot, the characters are easy.  Goneril is wicked.  Her baby sister Cordelia is pure.  The illegitimate nobleman Edmund is devious.  The only character in the play who defies easy definition is the character known as the Fool.

On the one hand, the Fool is just that: a court jester for the King, someone to lighten the mood with jokes and whimsy.  Those around him assume he is simple, and therefore silly, and that his way of being surely will not take him anywhere in the world.  And yet, as all the other characters in King Lear follow their very worldly logic to destruction, only the Fool sees the world through different eyes.  When Lear is blind to the duplicity of his older daughters, the Fool recognizes their true nature.  Like an Old Testament prophet, the Fool sees ahead down the destructive path on which Lear is set.  And the Fool not only sees, he speaks.  Even when others threaten and demand his silence, the Fool speaks the truth.  The Fool recognizes that the other character’s claims of high-mindedness are really just smokescreens for brutality, lust, and power.  He tells the King—and anyone else within earshot—of the danger and futility of their courses of action, of the pain they are causing one another.


But there is more to the Fool than truth-telling.  Prophets can become hardened and bitter.  They often say their piece in anger and then ride stridently away.  But not Lear’s Fool.  As the King descends into madness and becomes an increasingly pathetic and pitiable character, the Fool’s demeanor becomes correspondingly compassionate.  He will not leave the side of his king, no matter how deranged Lear becomes.  He protects the King in the King’s weakness.  He is fierce in his love and gentle in his service.  The Fool somehow combines the conviction to speak truth to the world with a deep and committed love for that same world.

What does it mean to follow Christ?  I once asked a class this question, and one person’s response was that a Christian is someone who tries to follow the Ten Commandments.  Many of us might give similar answers.  We might say that being a Christian means following the teachings of Jesus; loving our neighbors as ourselves; or even having a personal relationship with Jesus in which we talk to him regularly.  These are good answers.  They’re all true, and the nice thing about them is not one of them makes us look foolish.  The problem is, they’re incomplete.  They—even the one about talking to Jesus—don’t tell the whole story.

Paul says that following Jesus means being a fool for Christ.  What does that mean?  It means, I think, becoming something very like Shakespeare’s Fool.

The misty world in which King Lear is set is a thousand years removed from our own, but it might as well be today.  All around us, brutality, lust, and power mask themselves as merely the ways of the world.  Those who profess high-minded wisdom—in politics and world affairs, in business, in the basic skills of living life—in fact too often take us down paths of destruction and despair.  We see, repeatedly, how razor-thin the edge is between worldly wisdom and madness.

King Lear and the Fool  (Ian McKellen playing Lear)

King Lear and the Fool (Ian McKellen playing Lear)

We are to be fools for Christ, and that means we are to name these things for what they are.  We are to speak truth to the worldly wise, even when it brings danger and opprobrium upon us.  Like Old Testament prophets, we are to cry out to the world the destructive paths it is on, and we are to proclaim, with Christ, the better Way.  When violence is pursued, we are to preach peace.  When greed is called good, we are to counsel generosity.  When fear and exclusion are trumpeted, we are to expand the arms of embrace.  And we are to do so knowing full well, and being willing to accept, that the world will call us fools.

But modern prophets, like those of old, can become bitter and hard. Not us.  We won’t tell the truth—the real, the deep, the Gospel truth—because of cynicism or relish.  We’ll do so out of love.  Like the Fool beside the crumbling King Lear, we will walk alongside this crumbling world—God’s world—because we love it.  And even when the worldly wise tell us our compassion is misplaced and futile, we will not abandon this world or those in it who are betrayed, hurting, and alone.  We will be faithful to the end.

St. Paul tells us, “Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”  So let’s be fools, and experience that weakness that will ultimately save the world.

Two Slips of Paper

In his book The Social Animal, David Brooks relates the following: “There’s an ancient Jewish tale of a rabbi who came to synagogue with two slips of paper, one in each of his front pockets.  In one pocket, the slip read, ‘You are nothing but dust and ashes.’  In the other, the slip read, ‘The world was created for you.’”  I am especially reminded of these words as we travel together through the season of Lent.

Lent includes a constant oscillation between life and death, between reminders of our preciousness in the eyes of God and yet our failure to live into God’s hope for the world.  We are, indeed, creatures of blessing and sin.  At various times in Christian history and in various strands of the Christian tradition, one or the other of these things has been overemphasized.

Two slips of paper

On the one hand, very many Episcopalians were raised in other religious traditions that accentuate sin to the point of crushing hope and instilling a self-loathing that has no valid place in the hearts of God’s children.  I have heard the story countless times from those who have found refuge in the Episcopal Church, where we are told in boldness and truth that God loves us fiercely and is, indeed, doing greater things through us than they can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).

On the other hand, sometimes we Episcopalian legitimately can be accused of what mid-twentieth century writer Walter Lippmann termed an “easy optimism” that fails fully to acknowledge the fallenness of human nature and the utter devastation we often bring upon one another.  Lippmann says that somewhere along the way we convinced ourselves humanity had overcome its destructive tendencies, until events like World War II reminded us that “thinking we were enlightened and advanced, we were merely shallow and blind.”

It is to our peril to ignore either the blessing or the sin in human nature.  Sin minus blessing leads to despair, while blessing apart from an acknowledgement of sin leads to pride and blindness to the suffering around us.  We humans are a mixed bag, created in God’s very image, but in dire need of saving grace.

“In one pocket, the slip read, ‘You are nothing but dust and ashes.’  In the other, the slip read, ‘The world was created for you.’”

In our present lives, as in the season of Lent, there is no resolution of this tension between blessing and sin.  They both exist in us.  They are intertwined.  They are irresolvable.  But what cannot be resolved in us can, ultimately, be transcended.  That is what Jesus will accomplish on Easter, just a few weeks away.  Then, blessing will triumph over sin; life will have victory over death; and what now deteriorates to dust and ashes will be redeemed in eternal glory.  And for that, thanks be to God.