Sermon preached on the First Sunday of Lent at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, NY: Genesis 2:17-17, 3:1-19; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
There’s a blaze of light in every word; it doesn’t matter what you heard: the holy or the broken hallelujah. (Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”)
Our two biblical stories are both stories of brokenness. In the first Adam and Eve manage to screw up paradise and wind up out of the garden and returning to the dust from which they came. “What is this that you have done?” is the plaintive cry of God.
Paul summarizes this story in the stark words, repeated several different ways in this morning’s reading from Romans, “One trespass led to condemnation for all.”
In the second story, we might be “tempted” to see Jesus’ temptation as a great victory, and perhaps it was, although the devil would have his day. When Luke tells the story, he ends by saying
When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Even Matthew reports that when the testing was finished, “Behold angels approached and ministered to him.” The testing, I submit, led to a broken Jesus, spiritually and physically spent, full of his humanity which would lead to his eventual death.
I want to call both of these stories by a paradoxical juxtaposition of words from the singer Leonard Cohen. They are stories of a “broken hallelujah.”
As we begin Lent that is the state we are in. Our hallelujah has been broken, quite literally, we are not even to speak the word.
Even our liturgy is broken. We sort of limp through Lent, much quieter than usual. It seems all the exuberance of worship has been kicked out of us. We sing mournful songs that are not among those we tend to sing in our head when we want a bolster of our faith. It is a time in the church year when we are not inclined to invite someone to Church lest they see us at our worst—broken and dull.
We don’t much like brokenness. Most of us avoid Ash Wednesday because its declaration of brokenness is just too much: ashes smeared into the head, the curse of Adam repeated—you are dust—a mournful singing of a penitential psalm and a long litany of confession. It’s just all too in your face.
We don’t much like brokenness. The world doesn’t like it and teaches us not to like it either. We must look and act like winners 24/7, as they say. Church people even get caught up in this distaste. We are supposed to say, “God is good—all the time.” Many of our brothers and sisters are committed to a prosperity gospel—follow God and all will be well with you, including more money than you need. It works—those churches are full, and ours that clings to this period of brokenness we call Lent, are not full. Yet that prosperity gospel can be described by an old fashioned church word—heresy. It has little to do with the actual Christian faith.
That’s because it has precious to do with real life. It does not take into account how far short of paradise even the most well-off of us live. It does not take into account the frequent exhaustion at the end of a time of testing, real faith-shaking testing.
And it does not get you to what I believe is the actual “holy hallelujah,” again to use Leonard Cohen’s words. It cannot see the blaze of light in every word, broken or not.
Why the need to dwell on this unpleasantness? Why drag us into the muck of brokenness? Two reasons.
First of all, it is real. We are all broken, or, as I have put it before, we are all a mess. If you’re not you really don’t need to be here. It is not a good thing that folks out there think of church as the place where people gather who’ve got life together, rather than the place where broken people gather to cling to life.
One of things I discovered in my most recent time of illness was a whole group of people who feel excluded from religion in general and the church in particular—those suffering from mental illness. They/we are probably the most obviously long-term broken people in our midst. We suffer in a way of which we are not encouraged to speak. We ourselves are plagued by our own sense of failure as human beings, and others just don’t want to deal with it—it’s too scary.
I have tried to break that taboo and it has made some uncomfortable, others have called me “courageous” for doing so. But the question haunts me: Why should it be courageous? Is it courageous for others to know that someone broke their leg?
I just cite that as an example of how we avoid our brokenness and why we must not. All of you have your own story of brokenness, and we observe this season precisely because you do. That’s real.
There’s another reason why we must live in this time of the broken hallelujah, however. It is because it is the only way to Easter.
This is obvious in the story of Jesus. No Easter without Good Friday, but that means here lays a universal truth. We don’t get to authentic faith, hope, and love without going through our brokenness. This has always been true. It is why there is such a story as that which we call “the Fall.” And the tradition of our faith has always known that in this fall lies our hope. “O happy fault,” it is called. There is a blaze of light in the broken hallelujah. Easter not only depends on Good Friday, foreshadowed by Jesus’ temptation. It also depends on this mythic story of Adam and Eve and the first separation from God, the shutting off of paradise from our human experience.
The invitation to Lent is the invitation to embrace our brokenness, not as a place to live, although live with it we must in this life, but also, as Paul says, as the means by which we can embrace our “justification and life.” Our lives will be “unbroken;” the separation will end; we will make a new home in the paradise of righteousness, that is, our justice and our vindication. And we get a glimpse of this, paradoxically, when we embrace our brokenness. We can only see the holy hallelujah when we embrace the broken one. But in the broken hallelujah is the same blaze of light as in the holy.
There’s a blaze of light in every word; it doesn’t matter what you heard: the holy or the broken hallelujah.
Let us be people of Lent—people of real life. Only then can we people of Easter—of real resurrection.