Hallelujah, Anyway

Scripture:  Philippians  4: 4-9
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
November 12, 2017

The seminary professor was out of patience.  His student had turned in a sermon with a dull, uninspired title.  The professor knew that the young man was capable of better things, so he stayed after him to keep working.  “The title is crucial,” he barked.  “It must build interest in your listeners, and it must be intriguing and relevant and powerful.  That’s why you are going to take this sermon back to your room, right this moment, and you’re going to return it to me tomorrow with a new title—one that will grab hold of your listeners and engage their attention.  Do you understand?”

The young man was at a loss; he wasn’t very good with fancy words and labels.  “How do I come up with a catchy title?” He shrugged.

The professor sighed and replied.  “It’s not so terribly hard, son.  I want you to picture your sermon title in great, bold letters on the signboard on the front lawn of your church.  It’s Sunday morning and here comes a bus filled with people, just passing by.  You want a sermon title so powerful, so compelling, so intriguing that everyone on that Greyhound will come pouring down the steps of the bus.  They can’t resist the compelling bait of the words in that title. Got that image?  I’m sure you can improve on your title.”

The student thought about what his professor had said.  He got the mental image fixed in his mind and thought of the words that would most stimulate and engage those bus passengers.  The next day he bounded into the classroom with a new title for the professor.  It read, “There’s a Bomb on your Bus!” 

When I first heard this joke (in seminary maybe), I laughed at the cleverness of the seminary student. But now I find myself cringing at such a joke because these days there is a real possibility that there’s a bomb on the bus. More about that later in the sermon, but first I would like to talk about “titles.”

Titles.  We like compelling, engaging titles that capture out attention in our sermons, in our books, in our movies.  We, also, have a fondness for the titles in our professional world (CEO, CFO, CIO, COO, Dr., Rev.).  There are military titles (Colonel, General, Sergeant, Captain).  We speak of royal titles (Queen, Princess, Duke.  I have a Duke somewhere in my family history – I don’t know anything about that Duke – but I am proud to claim the title of Duke in my lineage. Karen told me that she had a Duke in her lineage, too…Uncle Duke!)  We live in a world that values titles.

But a title can only say so much.  Tony Campolo once gave a sermon on titles and testimonies, in which he swept through the Bible in 10 minutes.  He said this:

There was Moses and there was Pharaoh.  Moses had the. . . testimony; Pharaoh had the title; good title, ruler of Egypt, good title, he had the title, but Moses had the testimony.

There was Jezebel and Elijah.  Jezebel was a queen, Queen Jezebel.  And she threw her soldiers after Elijah to kill him.  But when it was over, all Jezebel had was the title, she had the title, but Elijah had the testimony.

There was Nebecudnezzar and Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar was the King of Babylon.  Good title – King of Babylon – and he threw Daniel in the lion’s den.  But when it was over all that Nebuchadnezzar had was the title, and Daniel had the testimony.

There was Pilate.  Pilate had the title.  Pontius Pilate:  Prefect of the Roman Province of Judaea.  Yes, Pontius Pilate had the title, but in the end Jesus had the testimony.

And to Campolo’s speech, I think I could add, “There was Saul and there was Paul.  Saul of Tarsus – he had the title – he was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee with zeal, blameless under the law – yes Saul of Tarsus had the title, but after his conversion on that Damascus road, Paul had the testimony.” The title gives the sizzle, but the testimony gives the substance.

This morning we read about that testimony in the book of Philippians.  Paul is in jail in Rome. Paul has been stripped, beaten and thrown into jail.  His feet are shackled with wooden stocks – his legs stretched as wide apart as possible to cause excruciating pain in the stocks.  He is placed under maximum security with maximum pain and no bail.

I actually visited the jail in Rome where he wrote this letter and it is dingy; it is lonely; it is dark; it is cold.  I could hardly imagine one surviving such inhumane, barbaric condition much less thriving in such conditions.

Yes, Paul has every reason to be discouraged.  He is restricted by walls.  He is afflicted by prison guards. He is conflicted by danger. And we think poor Paul.  He must be miserable.  He must be devastated.  He must be afraid of those hardened criminals.  But no – Paul is banging his tin cup against the bars of the jail cell proclaiming, “Rejoice in God always!  Again, I say rejoice!”  Yes, Saul had the title, but Paul had the testimony.

I can hear Paul now shouting to the inmates, “Can I get an ‘Amen’? Can I get a ‘Hallelujah’?   Yes, Amen and Hallelujah!  Rejoice in God always.  Again, I will say rejoice!”  His soul tingled with excitement; his heart thundered with anticipation; his mind was filled with elation. He had fire in his bones.

Here is a man who thrown in prison over and over. Was flogged on numerous occasions. Faced death over and over. Received 39 lashes 5 different times. Was beaten with rods 3 times. Was stoned one time. Was shipwrecked 3 times. Was in continual danger from rivers and robbers. Was weary and in pain often, without sleep. Was often hungry and thirsty, cold and naked.

Yet, his response was, “Rejoice in God! Again, I say, ‘Rejoice’.” In spite of such trials, he gave his “Hallelujah, Anyway”.

I think I could learn something from the apostle Paul this Thanksgiving holiday. With yet, another shooting in Northern California this week, leaving 5 dead and many others injured, I find myself crying “How long, O God, How long?” This has been a rough, rough year – it hardly seems that a day can go by without a natural disaster, act of violence (bombs on buses / mass shootings), or a political upheaval in the air. From intense hurricanes, ravenous wildfires, devastating earthquakes, and acts of terror in Las Vegas, New York City, Sutherland Springs the heartbreak does not seem to end. Before we grieve one tragedy, another occurs.

I am grateful that Lamentations is part of our Judeo-Christian history because we need to lament. In our world of nonstop news and social media, lamentation is an essential and even revolutionary act. It is important to take time to grieve and lament.

But in the midst of our grief, let us not forget our “Hallelujah anyway!” The Apostle Paul writes, “Do not have anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let us make our request known to God and the God of peace will be with us” (Phil 4:6-7).  Let us not forget our testimony of faith. The testimony of a Creator who is very, very good. The testimony of the Great Physician who heals. The testimony of the Sacred who transforms. The testimony of the Holy who loves.  The testimony of one who triumphed over death, the one who is called “the Resurrection and the Life”. Let us not forget our “Hallelujah anyway”. Our Hallelujahs are not sung in denial, but in defiance.

“We sing it through our tears. We sing it through our confusion. We sing it through our anger and our frustration. We sing it not as people who have it all figured out but as people who hardly have any of it figured out. We sing it not out of our wholeness but out of our deep, deep brokenness…We sing Hallelujah by giving in the face of scarcity and by loving in the face of fear. We sing Hallelujah by dedicating ourselves to getting the guns off the streets and providing mental health care for everyone who needs it and ending our addiction to violence that history has shown only begets itself again and again and again and again” (Michael Kinman, All Saints Episcopal Church).

When we sing “Hallelujah” we give our testimony of hope. We become living testaments that death never gets the last world and nothing can separate us from the love God. We sing our “Hallelujah anyway” because this is the only song we know.

In just a moment, Sophia will play Leonard Cohen’s song, Hallelujah. The title of the song embodies its testimony of hope. Cohen’s last verse of that song is my favorite:

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 you.

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.