by Reverend Robin Bartlett
delivered at First Church in Sterling
March 27, 2016
Scripture: John 20: 1-18
Listen to the sermon here
My husband told me last year when I was still vibrating with over-caffeinated, chocolate and timpani-fueled joy from our two Easter Sunday services that he’s always been deeply uncomfortable with the triumphalism of Easter. The ceremony and pomp and circumstance and the displays of bright flowers and the “We won! We’re number one!” of it all always kind of offended his sensibilities, even from when he was little. He appreciates the reality of Ash Wednesday, the penitence of Lent, the servant leadership foot washing of Maundy Thursday, the suffering at the cross of Good Friday. But the forced happiness of Easter? The whole show? The resurrection—three days and all is GOOD? The Hallelujahs? Gag.
Well, way to “yuck” my “yum” as the kids say.
I love Easter. I am an extroverted Broadway fan and I love high drama and key changes and timpani and triumphant singing. Seriously, Gen-Xers, I listened to ‘80s hairband ballads all yesterday to psyche myself up for Easter. What? You’d be surprised at how appropriate they are. This morning’s sermon brought to you by Guns N’ Roses and Cadbury mini-eggs. And my husband is an introvert who loved acoustic hipster music before it was cool, who prefers sober inward reflection about death. He’s a little morbid, and I’m a little, well, overly-dramatic.
I’m sure many of you are like me which is why you are here, but I bet there are also plenty of you out there like my husband, and your grandma made you come anyway. And I know people who avoid Easter services in church, or wish that they could, because they just lost a spouse, or they are struggling with depression or addiction or they just got a divorce, or lost a job, or their child died, or a dream died inside them. Or simply because it seems ridiculous to shout “Hallelujah, praise God” into a broken world full of evil and terror.
And the bright greetings of the day
“He is RISEN!”
“He is RISEN INDEED!”
And the bright colors
And the bright music
And the bright preacher in the pulpit saying, “this is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it,”
Even if it’s your wife…
Rings false, unbelievable and forced.
And sugared words that make your teeth hurt more than the Peeps you ate for breakfast this morning… well, it’s all a little much.
Well, church, we have had a sincere lack of sugar in the past 40 days, so bring on the Cadbury mini-eggs and the Hallelujahs. Amen?
The tradition since about the 5th century in the Christian church has been to take the word “Hallelujah!” out of the liturgy for the forty days of Lent. The focus of Lent is supposed to be on taking careful, prayerful stock of personal and communal sin and offering repentance to God with sober sacrifice. The theory is that the joyful shouting and singing of the word “Hallelujah,” which means, “Praise God” should be said only when we can give it full voice—when our joy is complete in the resurrection of Christ. That’s why our “Hallelujahs” are suspended during the weeks of Lent, no matter how badly Ronna and I want to add a little oomph to our worship-planning by singing “All Creatures of Our God and King” with a modulation at the end (That’s my favorite hymn, of course.)
So our Hallelujahs go away. And they all come out again today after the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the horror of crucifixion on Good Friday, and the mourning of Holy Saturday…as soon as the stone has been rolled away on the third day, and Jesus is found mysteriously gone from the tomb they laid him in. We say “Hallelujah” today as a relief and a hope. Sorry, honey, but I’ve been waiting for this moment!
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!
I acknowledge that many of us maybe aren’t ready for all that yet. We are not ready to roll away the stones: the stone of our grief, or the stone of our grudges, or the stone of our addictions, or the stone of our deceit and conceit, or the stones of our anger, or the stones of our self-loathing, or the stone of death. Some of us are not ready to come out of our tombs.
And that’s OK. Sometimes we try to say a joyful, triumphant Hallelujah way too soon.
Brene Brown recalls being a young child of about ten and going to a funeral of a toddler from her neighborhood with her mom. The toddler had been killed in an accident in his home, and the mother was diagnosed with cancer soon after. And the preacher said to the congregation, “this is not a time for grieving; that’s selfish, because this little child is with God. This is a time to celebrate.”
And this just made Brene furious. She just couldn’t even make sense of that.
And thank God Brene’s mama said to her in the car on the way home, “I just want to be really clear with you that this is not a time to celebrate. If you’re sad today, that’s OK. Be assured that God is grieving today too. God’s weeping with you.”
The women who visited the tomb on Easter morning were going through the motions, like you do when someone dies. They were weeping, not celebrating. They were still in the depths of mourning. When they saw the angels in white, they were scared, not thrilled. When the women went to tell the others, they were confused and didn’t even know what happened to the body, they were not exactly rejoicing. When Mary saw Jesus in the garden, she was disbelieving, not delighted.
Resurrection comes slowly. We aren’t always ready for a Hallelujah, even if our season of sadness is “supposed to be” over.
Some of us--we are like Mary weeping at Jesus’ tomb. Mary, still mourning her friend’s death, which was more than just a friend’s death. It was the death of the dream of a world made whole in God’s shalom. She was probably up all night wracked with grief. She was wondering how she would go on.
And those angels say to her: “Woman, why are you weeping?”
I imagine her snapping at them: “Because they have taken away my Lord,” likely with the same disgust and disbelief 10-year-old Brene felt when the priest told her to celebrate in the face of impossible tragedy.
And then Mary sees Jesus. He appears to her, and they are in the garden alone. She supposes him to be the gardener, in fact, and then finally recognizes him. “Teacher!” she says.
And he says, “don’t hold on to me. I am ascending to the father. To my God and Your God.”
She knows that it is him. That he has come up out of the tomb, that he has gotten up and walked away; triumphed over death. He is risen indeed! And still…
And still he tells her, “don’t hold on to me.”
I wonder if she stopped crying then. The scripture doesn’t say, but I’m not sure that would be a satisfying answer to me, enough to halt my tears. Those of us who have said goodbye to a loved one who is dying know that it can be little consolation to be told: “I’m ascending to the father. To my God and Your God. Don’t hold on to me.”
Resurrection always means grieving and letting go, because there has to be a death first. And so hallelujah comes slowly.
As Leonard Cohen sings, “love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”
Sometimes our hallelujahs are smaller, deliberate, tentative, because sometimes resurrection is simply a quiet determination to begin again—to praise God despite our despair.
Ellen Bass writes:
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat thickening the air,
heavy as water more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief.
you think, how long can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you again.
Sometimes Hallelujah is the tentative choice we make in the midst of our grief--to praise God regardless, to hold life like a face between our palms, and choose to love it again.
And beloved—some of us need one of those joyful, full throated, unbridled “Hallelujahs” today more than ever. We have been waiting for this moment of Hallelujah for a long time.
Our Hallelujahs are not said in denial, but defiance. You and I are struggling with so much loss this season. Change has been hard for us, and with change comes loss and no small amount of grief. We have buried so many dead. We have been mired in job loss and financial insecurity, loss of people and pets, the change of identity that comes with retirement, new relationships, new parenthood. We have endured seemingly endless chronic illnesses and new diagnoses, people we know and love committing suicide, and attempting suicide, depression, chronic and empty busy-ness, the anxiety of not knowing, of waiting. Right now, our friends Maureen and Kristen Cranson sit at the bedside of their son and brother who lays dying of melanoma at a ridiculously young age. It’s not fair.
You and I have been trying to raise thoughtful, kind, faithful children and teenagers, and we tremble with fear at the thought of them reaching adulthood, and we tremble with the fear of them not reaching adulthood unharmed.
And you and I are worried and we are sad and we are scared when we look at the state of the world, and at our country with its division and its violence.
And in the midst of all this, we give praise to God, because fear, hatred, division, violence and grief don’t have the final word. Resurrection does. Love does. Life does. God does.
You see, our Hallelujahs are sung in defiance of death. Our Hallelujahs are loud laughter at the terrorists and kings and cancers who would seek to steal our joy with their murderous rages. Our Hallelujahs are our determination to praise God through the bitterness of our tears.
We know it sounds crazy to some.
Hallelujah! What a thing to say just days after Good Friday—the day an innocent man was murdered at the hands of the state, while friends abandoned and betrayed him. We say Hallelujah because death did not have the final word. We say Hallelujah in defiance of imperial power and legislated hate. Life wins! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! What a thing to say on this Easter Sunday, following a horrific terrorist bombing in Brussels in which so many innocent people were murdered at the hands of those who have distorted the word of God. God climbed out of his grave on Sunday morning to remind us that though this may have been a week of terror, it is still God’s world. We say Hallelujah in defiance of terror and fear. Love wins! Hallelujah!
We say Hallelujah because we need resurrection now more than ever. New life where there once was death. Hope in the face of fear. We need to say, “yes, life, I will hold you like a face between my palms, and I will try to love you again.” Love wins! Hallelujah!
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
And so we say a defiant, a hopeful, a determined “Hallelujah.”
My friend Rev. Jake Morrill writes: “Maybe resurrection isn't a fancy new outfit at a well-outfitted church; maybe it's somebody who should have OD'ed last night, but woke up in the morning; or a country that seemed on the verge of tipping the whole planet into hell, but tipped back at the last moment, avoiding the final devastation. On Easter morning, those who loved Jesus were amazed. But they were still in trouble, Rome was still in charge, and they were still at least two thousand years away from glory, maybe more. Still: Hallelujah.”
Hallelujah still. Praise God, still, though we are still far away from glory; still far from God’s dream for a world made whole.
My favorite verse of the Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah,” is the last and least sung verse. I don’t know why it is the least sung verse, because it is the best one. I’m going to close with it. Will you sing the Hallelujahs with me?
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool ya
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.
You are the resurrection and the life, beloved. Happy Easter.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.