Gloria or Requiem?
Texts: Exodus 15:1b-11; Romans 14:1-12
“It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.”
Those are the opening words of Mark Twain’s, “The War Prayer.” Twain wrote this “prayer” in the early years of the 20th century, but by request of his fearful family, it was not published until six years after his death. “The War Prayer” is set in an unknown church in an unknown time and in an unknown country. It opens as the minister prays with a confident sense of righteousness and with the clear presumption that God is on their side. The “prayer” does not just indict our human fascination with violence and war, it indicts how often people of faith portray God as a cheerleader for violence and war.
In today’s Old Testament text, Moses sounds much like the minister in Twain’s piece. Moses sings a Gloria to God for the deliverance of his people from slavery and for the destruction of Pharaoh’s forces: “At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up.” For Moses, there is no question that God not only intended for the Hebrew people to be delivered from Pharaoh’s tyranny but that God intended for the Egyptian soldiers to die in the process. Miriam dances more than just the dance of freedom; she dances a jig on the watery graves of Egyptians now lying lifeless at the bottom of the sea.
In the middle of the minister’s triumphant and patriotic prayer, an old, disheveled stranger walks slowly up the aisle. Twain writes, “his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders . . . with shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued with his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, ‘Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!’
“The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside – which the startled minister did – and the stranger took his place. . . he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said: ‘I come from the Throne -- bearing a message from Almighty God!’ The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. ‘God has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many . . . prayers, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.”
Twenty-two years ago tomorrow, I stood in a different pulpit outside Washington, D.C. on a night unlike any night in my ministry before or since. Our sanctuary was near the Pentagon where some members worked each day while some other members worked in the financial industry, traveling weekly to their offices in the Twin Towers in NYC.
As I walked into the sanctuary that night, I could smell the unmistakable odor of grief. It was almost too pungent a smell to stay in the room. It would not take but a few days before our national mood would shift from shock and grief to shock and awe, seeking vengeance as our national posture shifted from compassion to defiance, and any attempt to engage this assault critically was replaced by drums and flags and the rhetoric of just war.
In Twain’s “The War Prayer,” the pale, deliberate, stranger tells the stunned congregation: "You have heard your servant's prayer – the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor – and also you in your hearts – fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: 'Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!' That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – which cannot help but follow it.”
More than twenty years later, I cannot sing an unqualified Gloria today. I cannot and I will not. I cannot stand here and pray with such unqualified confidence as does the preacher in Twain’s piece or sing with Moses an unqualified Gloria or dance a jig with Miriam in praise to a God who has seen fit to drown the oppressors in the sea and set me and all who look like me and believe like me and worship like me on dry ground.
I cannot sing an unqualified Gloria today. I cannot and I will not. In the intervening years, too many people have died in Iraq and Afghanistan in our attempt to make right something that more violence, more war, can never make right. I cannot sing an unqualified Gloria with Moses or Miriam or Twain’s preacher, celebrating the death of our enemies. I cannot do so mainly because I cannot get another song out of my head. It is a favorite song from Jesus and the words are about praying for our enemies and even forgiving them seven times seventy, even a hundred times a hundred thousand.
I cannot sing the unqualified Gloria sung by Moses or danced by Miriam or prayed by Twain’s preacher, but I can sing an awe-filled Gloria of what God stirred in people even amid the screams and fire and smoke that day and the long days and nights that followed. I can sing an awe-filled Gloria for my rabbi friend who was the first person to stand by the owner of the Muslim bookstore in Alexandria, Virginia, whose windows were blown out with bricks the afternoon of 9/11. I can sing an awe-filled Gloria of courageous rescue workers who dug through rubble in Pennsylvania, DC, and NYC that no humans should ever have to dig through. I can sing an awe-filled Gloria of women and men, many not old enough to buy a drink in a bar, who have lived and been wounded and died in the service of our land over the past twenty-some years. I can sing an awe-filled Gloria of faithful witnesses I know and admire who refuse, absolutely refuse, ever to glorify war.
When I read Exodus, I can rejoice with Moses and Miriam that the time of slavery in Egypt is over, because in whatever time and place, slavery is horrible and it demeaning and it always leaves a national stain. I can rejoice that the God of Israel and the God of our Lord Jesus Christ hears and responds to the cries of people in bondage. But, I cannot sing an unqualified Gloria that delights in the death of young women and men or imagines that God directs our war efforts like a General who will not be defeated. I will not sing with the preacher in Twain’s piece who implores God for victory but who cannot see that to sing such an unqualified Gloria requires that other parents who love their children just as much as I do mine must then sing a devastating Requiem.
A day before we honor the memory of 9/11, I will sing a Requiem, a song that calls upon the presence of God when darkness covers the face of the earth, not unlike the darkness that covered Jerusalem on that horrible “good” Friday. I will sing a Requiem that closes not with the song of Moses or the dance of Miriam or the pompous prayer of Twain’s pastor, but with the confident affirmation of the Apostle Paul, “If we live, we live to the Lord, if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
I will sing a Requiem that points us toward our God who feeds us at this table with a meal that transforms our hunger for revenge into a hunger for justice, our thirst for vengeance into a thirst for reconciliation, a God who lifts up our eyes beyond the agony of today to the promise of the coming day when there will be no more tears, no more dances of derision, no more sirens of war.
Then and today, our hope is in a God who somehow transformed the Requiem of the cross into the unqualified Gloria of Easter morning.
It is that Easter gift from God to each one of us that is the one hope worthy of a feast, a dance, and a new song.