Her parents named her “Halleluiah,”
but the kids all called her, “Holly.”
If she scared you then she’s sorry,
she’s been stranded at these parties,
and these parties, they start lovely,
but they get druggy, and they get ugly, and they get bloody …
They wrote her name in magic marks
on stop signs and subway cars.
They’ve got a mural up on East 13th
that says, ‘Halleluiah, Rest in Peace’ …
Halleluiah was [in the hood frat]
now you finally know that.
She’s been disappeared for years,
but today she finally came back …[i]
So begins “How A Resurrection Really Feels” by songwriter Craig Finn. Finn’s catalogue imagines a twenty-first century successor to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawhpa County, trading rural Mississippi for tales of the independent-music scene stretching from Brooklyn to Minneapolis, this young-adult world of distorted guitars and hard drugs … of bartenders, band loyalties, and bad decisions.
Raised a Roman Catholic, Finn narrates this “scene” with a remarkable eye for suffering and redemption, an eye trained by his own experience – he confesses, all those “killer parties almost killed me.”[ii] In the course of his work, Finn often returns to this character of Halleluiah,[iii] a neighborhood girl who meets a guy, who starts running with the wrong crowd, and, as her drug use devolves from amusement to addiction, who finds herself swept across the country until, finally, she returns.
In his distinctive spoken-word, Finn explains of Holly’s unexpected, springtime homecoming:
in the confession booth,
infested with infection
and smiling on an abscessed tooth.
Running out on residue
and crashing through the vestibule,
the crucifixion cruise:
she climbed the cross and found she liked the view.[iv]
Can you see it? Self-destructive Halleluiah, strung out and exhausted, wakes up in a church, maybe the only door she found unlocked last night, or maybe a place where she remembers feeling safe. Uneasy on her feet as she opens bloodshot eyes, here at Good Shepherd she falls into the chancel from this door behind me, and, wincing at the pain of a rotting tooth, she staggers toward that cross. Still wobbly, she climbs our altar, presenting herself “a living sacrifice,”[v] as our prayers might describe her pre-dawn perch.
[Holly] sat reflecting on The Resurrection…
[and] put her mouth around a difficult question.
She said, ‘Lord, what do you recommend
to a real-sweet girl who’s made some not-sweet friends?
‘Lord, what would you prescribe
to a real-soft girl who’s having real-hard times?’[vi]
Can you see her, laying right there, on our altar? Desolate and haggard, she’s borrowed the Gospel book’s pillow and pulled it underneath her aching head, and the questions she asks hurt, for the queries acknowledge her appreciation of the mistakes she’s made, the regrets she carries, and the need she now brings. She pleads with God and asks if redemption is possible, even for her: “Lord, what do you recommend, to a real-sweet girl who’s made some not-sweet friends?”
As she now lights a cigarette from one of the altar candles and takes a long, deep drag, we rejoin Jesus with his disciples in that Capernaum house where, from last week’s lesson, he sits before his friends and explains, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”[vii] [Do you remember this?] Then Jesus takes a “little child” into his arms and continues, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”[viii]
As this morning’s appointment begins, John, still sitting with the teacher, responds to Jesus, saying, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name.”[ix] Expecting affirmation, John continues, “we tried to stop him, because he was not following us,”[x] but he kept at it. Now, do you want us to go back and again encourage him to stop?
Still cradling the child, Jesus responds softly, “Do not stop him,” for, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”[xi]
Consider the graciousness of this instruction: Jesus calls his disciples to meet strangers with the same generosities he offers his friends, for anyone working for peace and wholeness and love, is for us, and we are for them. In alignment with Jesus’ refusal to prioritize his disciples either to his left hand or to his right, such salvation seekers need not be “approved” by the twelve or any judicatory, for their mercies testify to their hearts: “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”[xii]
Despite this hint that those outside of our communities do, indeed, have something to offer us inside these church walls, we often flip Jesus’ turn of phrase to read instead, “whoever is not with us, is against us.” With this adversarial inversion, we license a self-righteous and dismissive posture toward the world beyond our Sunday services. Haughtily, we question that visiting young couple seeking marriage in our sanctuary. We antagonize those whose lives are not so neatly assembled as ours. We roll our eyes at “the spiritual, but not religious,” and, perhaps we Episcopalians in particular, we privilege order before honesty. Like John before us, we even assume God blesses these efforts, efforts to keep out those who fail to meet our standards or conform to our expectations.
… and it is in just such a moment that Holly, still laying on the altar, hears someone coming, and so quickly ducks back into the sacristy. As she cowers in a closet, the church bells eventually ring their invitation to worship, and, through the walls, she listens to the priest’s call – “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” – and the congregation’s response – “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!” – and she wonders whether their prayers call to her. The service continues, and she hums those holiday hymns familiar from her childhood (which was not so long ago), until, having endured the sermon long enough, she bursts back into the chancel.
The priest just kinda laughed,
and the deacon caught a draft
when she crashed into the Easter mass
with her hair done up in broken glass.
She was limping left on broken heels when she said,
‘Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”
Some nights [I] felt protected,
some nights [I] felt afraid.
[I] spent half last winter
just trying to get paid
from some guy [I’d] originally
thought to be [my] savior.
[Oh, I’ve] been disappeared for years,
but today [I] finally came back …
Walk on back, walk on back.
Walk on back, walk on back.[xiii]
Holly stands in the chancel, a dirty and desperate inconvenience. Our worship booklet provides no rubric with her in mind – so, from our tidy pews, then, how will we respond?
While Finn’s vision intensifies the drama of such an engagement, should we have the eyes to see, Halleluiah is here every Sunday: processing to the altar rail and staggering toward the cross … scraping the change from the bottom of a purse her mother bought for her and sleeping on the street … laughing with her friends and crying on her phone. Holly is white, and Holly is black. She is the man in our office on Tuesday morning, and the one wandering in our garth after midnight. You are Holly, and I am Holly, all of us lugging these mistakes we’ve made, the regrets we carry, and the fragile hopes we set before God, praying – praying – for mercy, and hoping someone might offer us so much as a cup of kindness.
And if we failed to hear Jesus’ softer encouragements, with Halleluiah now in his arms, he makes crystal clear the stakes for our souls: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”
Do not be distracted by this hyperbole or those that follow, for Jesus deploys those threats of judgement as a means and no end, charging us to be unfailingly gracious, that we would never think ourselves greater than any other, for God knows the cost of such pride will be nothing less than death, the death of our most precious spirit, the compromise of our shared integrity, the world’s dismissal of the Church’s witness. See, even if we earn all the world’s priority, our labor for God’s kingdom demands that we are “last of all and servant of all.”
In just a moment, we will commission our new Welcoming Committee, those ambassadors of hospitality who will minister on behalf of our whole congregation. Now, be sure, their faithful ministry will not relieve us of our own fidelity. Indeed, every member of Good Shepherd shares their responsibilities and receives Jesus’ commission to greet strangers as family, and neighbors as friends. For, if we might be so blessed, we will meet all sorts and conditions here, not only those who brave this chancel and this altar, but those who enter from the side door, too. We will impose no obstacle for any of these “little ones,” hoping instead that in our prayers – being true – they, too, might hear us calling them by name.
At this time, I invite members of our new Welcoming Committee to come forward for the commissioning …