A Cold and Broken Hallelujah
The Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
March 29, 2015 - Matthew 21:1-11; 27:15-23


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A Cold and Broken Hallelujah
Matthew 21:1-11; 27:15-23               

Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
March 29, 2015


It’s Palm Sunday, and somehow we are supposed to wrap our brains around the fact that we have the capacity to praise God and crucify Jesus in the same breath.  Perhaps this sounds like a stark contrast.  It is.  Palm branches give way to the last supper gives way to the crucifixion.

Christians in the modern era have had a hard time coming to terms with this.  We want to avoid the reality of sin. 

Indeed, even Bach’s St. John and St. Matthew Passion pieces have a tinge of anti-Semitism to them, so badly have Christians in every age wanted to avoid acknowledging our own participation in the crucifixion of Jesus.

Why do I say our own participation?  Because if we are honest with ourselves, then we must know that our own sin plays a role in this story.  Sure, we are removed from the actual trial and persecution of Jesus, but only by time. There’s an old adage that says that if Jesus came again today, we’d crucify him again today because we’re no more likely to love our enemies now than we were then. 

I don’t say this in a condemning way.  In my own life I fail to live as Jesus taught we should live.  I have my moments of living solely for myself with little regard to those around me, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this.

For many years, I taught a mid-week theology reading group   We met in a beautiful room, sat around and read books and discussed them politely.  It was wonderful and demanded absolutely nothing of us.

One morning, as we were considering the problem of sin, we took our break and I walked down the hall to my office and checked my e-mail, returned a phone call, and while I was doing so observed that there was a rather worn looking man sort of lingering in the parking lot that backed up to our preschool.   My assistant told me he was seeking help.  We were on the bus line close to downtown and so we got a fair number of folks who needed help, and my response then is the same as it is now: we want to help folks get meaningful help.  It’s a good response even though it isn’t the most immediately gratifying.  But Becky, my assistant, asked me what we should do and I gave her the party line.  And so she handled it.  I dare say she handled it well.  I went back into my class and we continued to talk politely about sin.  We were wrapped up in our discussion when I glanced up and at the same time heard a strident knock on the window.  We all sort of peered around, and right about the time we figured out where the sound was coming from, this same worn looking man gave our whole class the one finger salute.  That’s right he flew the bird at us.  And I confess to you that in that moment I thought such thoughts as Anne Lamott says, “would make Jesus want to drink gin straight from the cat dish.” 

We all fall short of the mark.  Jesus has told us what God expects of us.  It’s no big stretch after all, it’s the same thing the Old Testament prophets were talking about when they told us that we needed to do justice and love kindness.  It’s the same sort of thing that Amos was thinking of when he poetically suggested that we should let justice flow down like waters, righteousness like an ever flowing stream. 

We all fall short of the mark.

No, we aren’t in that first century mob, but let’s be candid, we sort of are.

I’ve been watching with interest the religious freedom laws were being considered in Georgia and that have been passed this week in Indiana, and let me just tell you about religious freedom: if we started implementing what Jesus taught about wealth as a matter of government policy, you can be sure there would be some crucifixions taking place. 

But we know as well that there are some hard questions before us if we take the gospel seriously and we can’t turn away. 

You know what we preachers do when a text is hard.  We tell you everything imaginable about the biblical text.  We make sure you know what the writer was probably thinking, we tell you what was going on the context, we make sure that you can engage the scripture at the place where it was written.  And it makes sense.  We make sure that you have all the information that we have so that when we make a claim on the text for our lives, you know what we are thinking and how we got there and why it is important.  You have all the information so that when we make an assertion, you know where it came from.  It’s good practice and it works when there is something lurking beneath the surface. 

It doesn’t work, though, when the text more or less speaks for itself.  The passion narratives fall into this latter category.   You know pretty much what I know already.  You know that Jesus came into Jerusalem amid loud acclaim.  You know how the crowds hollered and whistled and shouted Hosanna to the king riding on a donkey.  You know that the crowds were elated at his arrival because they were just sure they knew what was going to happen next.  Jesus was going to come and kick out those vile Romans at the edge of a sword and he was going to right the wrongs and make everything better and they weren’t going to have to pay as much in taxes and if I were running for office I’d say something about pride or honor being back.

It’s easy to shout Hosanna and Hallelujah when we’re just sure that what is coming next is what we want.  We can get really excited when we think things are going swimmingly.  Think of it.  This is a phenomenon that transcends party lines, politically.  We feel great when our candidate takes offices, if we care about politics and you can be sure what Jesus said about a lot of things would surely roil the politics.  Sure, we know that others aren’t happy, we’ve had the experience and we know what it feels like to win. 

Only that didn’t happen in Jerusalem that week.  Things went terribly amok.  This Messiah, this sent from God one, Jesus proceeded to make a big old mess of what they wanted.  They had their ideas about what they wanted from God just like we have our ideas, and somewhere, somewhere along the line, the tide turned.  Things didn’t look so great when Jesus didn’t do what we wanted him to do.  And somewhere along the line the tipping point came.  The balance shifted.  And the shouts of hosanna and hallelujah shifted too.  Somewhere in the mix Jesus stopped measuring up to our expectations and when he did, it became really easy for some folks who had it in for him to begin to make others wonder what he was really good for.  Sure he had some healings under his belt, but what has he done for us lately?  Sure his reputation is great, but realistically, what is he up to?  So when the trial came, loyalty just wasn’t there.  Hosanna became crucify.  In just  a few short hours. 

In that moment, when the balance shifts, when hosanna turns to crucify, the words of hallelujah that we shout and sing become cold and broken. 

What is a cold and broken hallelujah good for? 

That’s a tough question because it is the only kind we are capable of rendering.  We can’t make ourselves perfect.  God can, and God will, and we are all in the process of getting there, but we aren’t there yet.  While we were yet Sinners, Christ loved us and Christ died for us, but we were and are still sinners.  The only kind of Hallelujah we know how to utter is a cold and broken one.  And yet, God hears.  Jesus hears. 

What do we do when our Hallelujahs turn cold and broken?  Because it is bound to happen.  I don’t want to seem pessimistic here, but it just happens.  Things happen.  Life happens.  We lose the capacity to love like Jesus loved somewhere along the line.  Maybe we are born with it.  I like to think that if we weren’t born into world of Sin we might be able to love and serve the way we were created to.  But disappointments have a way of happening.  Tragedy occurs.  We don’t get what we want and what we are sure we need.  Illness.  Addiction.  A too short life.  A broken marriage.  A lie.  A betrayal.  Life brings us to the moment when our hallelujahs turn cold and broken.  What do we do then?

This seems simple, but we do what the disciples did.  We keep the night watch.

That’s what scripture teaches.  If we follow what happened in the Bible, and I hope that we will, we must know that when the tide starts to turn, when Jesus knows the coming of his persecution, his trial and execution he goes away to pray.  And he takes his disciples with him and asks them to keep awake with him.  We didn’t read that portion of the text this morning, but it is what happened.  When Jesus knew what was coming he withdrew to a garden and prepared to pray.  That’s good advice when things look bad, you know, pull away and pray.  And when he went, he asked his disciples to stay awake with him and pray.  Does that seem like a simple response?  Perhaps it is. 

One of my mentors, Dr. Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, put a new and difficult spin on this one for me. 

Being asked to keep the night watch is more difficult than it seems, she said.  “They, the disciples, were being asked to do some hard work.  They were being asked, she said, to keep watch with Jesus in the darkest, deepest night of his own soul.”  The text, at least in Mark’s Gospel, reads that Jesus was so grieved that he preferred death to this state of torment.  He is not on his knees with his hands folded like the Sunday school paintings depict, but thrown down on the ground pleading with God that the cup should pass from him.  We don’t like to think of the Passion in our circles because it is not pleasant.  But what Jesus was asking of them was to care enough that they would be willing to bear some of his anguish in their own being.  Dr. Tisdale writes,  “Keeping that watch will be grueling and difficult and messy and painful and that probably we will fail many times.”

But then that is not new to you is it?  Have you kept the night watch? 

I know you have.  I’ve watched some of you keep the night watch.  I’ve sat with some of you in my office and felt your pain as you talked about keeping the night watch.  Some of us are spared it, but not really, not permanently.  The night watch comes for all of us sometime.  A sibling floundering in a sea of depression.  A husband or wife unable to escape the shackles of alcoholism.  A body wracked by physical pain from an injury or genetic deficiency.  A teenager trying to figure who they are in this world and how they matter.  A child stricken by what we would have given our very own selves to circumvent.  A parent, who loved us as best they could and raised us is ravaged by age and infirmity and we must find the strength to see them to the end.  The night watch comes for all of us sometimes and we cannot avoid it, nor would we even if we could.  We may not be able to keep the night watch with the sinless, holy Jesus, but when our love meets pain, most of us will struggle as best we can to keep the night watch.  And our hallelujahs must seem even to us cold and broken in those moments. 

But, Dr. Tisdale writes, that does not mean that she finds no hope in these passages of the passion.  The hope lies not that we are faithful to Jesus, but that Jesus, the good shepherd is faithful to us.  He never slumbers.  He keeps the watch all night long.

Nora tells of attending a  conference sponsored by our denomination on preaching and domestic violence.  “It was a small group there, about twenty of us.  Seminary professors that teach preaching and a number of theologians and biblical scholars that came to help us wrestle with the difficult issues of preaching on domestic violence in the local congregation.  On Sunday morning, at the end of our meeting, a woman who had been a part of the conference all weekend, but who had said very little until that point lead us in worship.  And she told us during the sermon that morning about why this conference had been so important to her.  Five years ago, she said, I was sitting in a courtroom in Boston, Massachusetts, waiting for the hearing that would finally end my marriage to a man who had physically abused and even tried to kill me for eight years.   I was alone and I was terrified, because due to a court restraining order, I had not seen my husband in six months and I had to face him here one last time.  I was sitting there on the bench when suddenly I became aware of a presence beside me, and a hand reaching out not in terror, but in comfort.  I turned and was startled to see my brother, my only sibling, John, who had flown all the way from Louisville, Kentucky to Boston, Massachusetts just to keep watch with me in that hour.  I cannot begin to tell you, she said, what his presence meant to me.  I cannot begin to tell you what it meant that he kept watch with me.” 

She continues, “Jesus calls us this holy week to keep watch with all who are suffering in the world.  The work is hard, it is exhausting and the timing is not good.  But the call, nevertheless is urgent.” 

Dear friends, our task is before us.  And it is not easy.  And we will fail.  And our hallelujahs will sound even to us, cold and broken.  But they are hallelujahs nonetheless.  Because even if our hearts cannot believe them, they are true.  And come Easter, even our cold and broken hallelujahs will be redeemed. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.  

Last Published: April 8, 2015 1:04 PM