“An Upside-Down World: Hallelujah!”
Isaiah 56:7-8, Mark 11:15, Luke 4: 18-19; Theme Song: Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen, Cover)


Has your world been turned upside-down? If so, Hallelujah!  Today we celebrate the calendar day of Palm Sunday. The day that Jesus enters into Jerusalem riding on a donkey.  The disciples believe that this was going to a day of reckoning — a time for celebration. But soon, their world was turned upside down.  One of the first things that Jesus does on this day of celebration is to enter the temple and in fact, make people angry by overturning the tables of the money changers.  The celebration was soon turned into more of a riot — a protest against the man called Jesus bar Joseph, King of the Jews.  

This man cured the lame, loved everyone inclusively, and touched people’s hearts.  But these amazing acts of compassion, motivated by the deepest love imaginable, were twisted by the rigidity of the Pharisees and even equated to the works of satanic powers. This, my friends, is the ultimate irony of the Gospel.  Jesus came to turn the world upside-down, not to affirm our complacency or heretical selfish practices of rule-making — not to condone our oppression of others for the benefit of ourselves — but to meet us in our brokenness, to help us find strength in our vulnerabilities and call us to change our ways of injustice.

Leonard Cohen: Complicated Upside-Down World

Leonard Cohen lived in an upside-down world.  One just needs to look at his writings and songs to know that. Many if not most of you may know, Leonard Cohen was one of the greatest songwriters of the twentieth century. Born in Canada to a Jewish family, he went on to write and publish several novels, collections of poetry, and musical masterpieces.  When the song “Hallelujah” was first recorded in the ’80s, believe it or not, it wasn’t popular, especially among Americans. Now it has become one of the most covered songs of all time, ripe with meaning and purpose, faith and realism. A song that speaks to the real world of pain and suffering, loss and grief, of celebration and hope.  Cohen, adept in Hebrew scripture, simply taps the human condition described in the bible in order to provide counsel to the brokenhearted.

In Hebrew, the word hallelujah means to rejoice in praising God. “Hallelujah,” is a refrain worthy of times of celebration — buy also of mourning, of regret, of catharsis, and reconciliation. In the song, Cohen eloquently portrays King David’s agonizing lust and regret toward Bathsheba,  Samson’s loss of strength due to cunning deceit of Delilah and how all of us have these vulnerabilities. Cohen tells a story of broken love, true love remembered and mourned — stories of guilt, penance, and of finding peace in the vicissitudes of brokenness.

In an interview, Cohen once said:   “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can… reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah’.  The song explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value. It’s a desire to affirm our faith in life, not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion.”

Keep Moving Forward

So I ask once again: has your world been turned upside-down?  If so, good. Hallelujah. Hallelujah! Hallelujah is not a word about love, it is not about eros or praise for music, rather it is about a huge hug to every situation that life offers us.  

I think these times call for us to engage in a kind of spiritual practice of realism that would have us moving forward — taking one day at a time. More than usual, I seem to be drawing from my experience of having a stroke over 14 years ago.  I remember a conversation I had with one of my mentors, Rev. Paul Rodkey. When I was utterly depleted, could barely walk and talk, Paul was by my side. With tears rolling down my face, I asked him: “Where do I possibly go from here?” With compassion in his eyes, Paul said, “Don, I don’t have all the answers — no one does — but I do know that the world is full of pain as well as joy — and you won’t ever experience joy until you have gone through the pain — and to do that you must keep moving forward — one inch at a time.”

One inch at a time.  Honestly, that is the most profound insight that I have ever received in my life.  When our life seems upside down, when nothing seems as it should, when we are worried about health or the illness of others, when we struggle to make ends meet, when we feel isolated and all alone, when we are fed up with corrupt our systems have become, when life throws us curves — just KEEP MOVING FORWARD, ONE INCH AT A TIME…  One of my favorite all-time quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. is: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” 

Brokenness and the Wounded Healer

Despite his chronic depression, Leonard Cohen always kept moving forward.  The brokenness of his loss and regret and deeply felt pain was always there — but he kept moving forward. It proved central to his music and to his body of poetry and literature and it marked “Hallelujah,” his most famous vision of transcendence:

It’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.

Brokenness followed Cohen into a Zen monastery, where years of contemplation and prayer were sometimes as agonizing as the horror that had driven him there. But Cohen – never submitted to the darkness.  He allowed his pain to become a source of strength and hope. Even though depression had often been the general backdrop of his daily life, Cohen once said. “My feeling is that whatever I did was in spite of that, not because of it. It wasn’t the depression that was the engine of my work. . . . That was just the sea I swam in.”

If we are able to be present with our own brokenness, if it becomes simply the sea that we swim in, we are able to see life anew. Instead of running from it we find ourselves face to face with life. The Jewish Talmud calls brokenness the necessary gate through which one must enter in order to have a relationship with God. It is that force that calls us into a relationship with something greater than ourselves, a force that can open us and help us to find our way. 

Friends, each of us is on a journey, and the particulars of that journey will be as unique as the individuals we are. Each one of us is called to look at those things that hold us back, those things that keep us from being in a right relationship with ourselves, with our neighbors, with the ground of our being.  It is easy to want to run away to distract ourselves in all the ways that we have at our disposal. But even if our culture might tell us to move away from the brokenness — it is too painful — we should do just the opposite — we should move closer — to see what it has to teach us. 

A Broken world

As each passing day goes by, it becomes increasingly obvious that our world is also broken, seemingly beyond repair. And I am not just talking about our current public health crisis. We live in a world where people react only when it impacts them personally and not because it is the right thing to do.  We live in a world where sensational tweets are an acceptable form of communication for our world leaders and anyone who wants to be hurtful toward others — where it is expected to tear each other down in order to get ahead — where economics rather than ethics become our driving force. 

Jesus confronted the same world that you and I face today.  He did not face a health pandemic but a pandemic nonetheless — he faced a pandemic of people who sought power over love and looked only to their own interests rather than those being oppressed.  He knew the pain of regret and shed tears over the loss of a friend. He pleaded with God to end his own suffering and yearned for a world of peace and solidarity. He felt utterly abandoned and alone and agonized over relationships.

But he never gave up and neither should we.  His vulnerabilities made him strong — allowing him to stand up for what was right and just and fair for all! Jesus knew that Hallelujah was more than a song or celebration — it was a deep and authentic recognition of one’s connectedness to self and others — it was a steadfast commitment to love no matter what the cost. In fact, love cost him his life and it may cost us ours!  That is the meaning of Palm Sunday. Hallelujah!

Closing: An Upside-Down World: Hallelujah!

Leonard Cohen has spoken of the redemptive potential of the Hebrew word “Hallelujah,” and how it can be a source of inspiration and illumination in a spiritual wasteland.  Regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is (and the problems of our world and our lives today seem pretty impossible), there is always hope when we do not run from — but toward — the reality of our lives.

Friends, from the Old Testament stories to Jesus bar Joseph to Leonard Cohen to you and me — all of us are vulnerable, exposed to the chill of a spiritual wasteland. We are all broken.  Our world is broken. We should embrace that. Yet we need not surrender to despair. We must keep moving forward to a new way of hoping and praising God — we must keep moving forward to face our brokenness and see our vulnerabilities as a source of strength — we must keep moving forward to usher in a new day.  And as the song says:

And even though it all goes wrong
We’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on our tongues but Hallelujah.