Moving from Requiem to Gloria
Texts: Exodus 15:1b-11; Romans 14:1-12; Mark 11:1-11
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA)
Palm Sunday, March 28th, 2021
“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.” He wrote this piece toward the close of the 19th century, but by request of his fearful family, it was not published until 1916, six years after his death. “The War Prayer” does not just indict our human fascination with war, it indicts how uncritically people of faith at times imagine that God is a cheerleader for our violent ways.
Earlier Eva Riddervold read a story from Exodus that tells of the deliverance of Hebrew captives from bitter slavery in Egypt. Moses sings a Gloria to God for the deliverance of his people and for the destruction of Pharaoh’s army. He sings: “At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up.” For Moses, there is no question that God not only intended for Hebrew captives to be delivered from slavery; God intended for the Egyptian pursuers to die in the process. Miriam dances not just the dance of freedom but she dances on the watery graves of young soldiers now lying lifeless at the bottom of the sea.
Eva also read the Palm Sunday story from Mark’s Gospel. This story tells of Jesus entering Jerusalem at the time of Passover, the festival that remembers the deliverance of Hebrew captives from slavery in Egypt. On that first Palm Sunday Passover, the crowd shouts “Hosanna,” shouts for Jesus to deliver them from the oppressive grip of Rome, just as God delivered Hebrew slaves from the oppressive grip of Pharaoh. The crowd shouts, “Hosanna,” crying out for an Insurrection Passover.
In the middle of the pastor’s triumphant and patriotic prayer in Twain’s essay, an old, disheveled stranger walks slowly up the church 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 . . . [the stranger] 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. ‘He 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 years ago, I was standing in a different pulpit in a different city on a night unlike any night in my ministry before or since. Our sanctuary was just a stones’ throw from the Pentagon and many members worked there and some others worked in the financial district in New York City during the week, in the Twin Towers. On that horrendous morning, so many lives were crushed, extinguished, and on that night a large crowd, many total strangers, brought their broken hearts and sat crammed together in our colonial box pews.
As I walked into the sanctuary of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, Virginia, that night, I could smell the unmistakable odor of grief. It was almost too overwhelming to bear. And along with the smell of grief was the unmistakable odor of fear. It would take but a few days before our national sights would shift from grief and humility to violence and vengeance, before our national posture would shift from compassion to defiance, and any attempt to engage this assault critically would be replaced by the deafening drums and rhetoric of war.
Set in an unknown church in an unknown time and in an unknown country, “The War Prayer” opens as a nation is heading off to war and the pastor prays with confidence and conviction that God is on their side. He prays until he is interrupted by a pale, old, odd stranger who walks to the pulpit and 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!' . . . 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 – must follow it, cannot help but follow it.” The stranger goes on to describe in gut-wrenching detail what it would look like if God were to answer such a prayer.
Well, twenty years have passed in a flash. War is still being waged in Afghanistan, though we hardly notice now. An attack on the Capitol happened just two months ago, but not from foreign terrorists this time. For the past year, the world has battled a deadly virus which has taken more than a million lives globally and more than half a million in our land.
Twenty years after 9-11, I cannot stand in this pulpit and pray with the unqualified confidence of the preacher in Twain’s piece or sing an unqualified Gloria with Moses or dance a victory jig with Miriam in praise to a God who has seen fit to drown the oppressors in the sea.
I cannot sing an unqualified Gloria, even on the day when palm branches wave and “Hosanna” is sung. I can’t because that is not the song Jesus taught his disciples to sing as he entered Jerusalem not as a military leader on a great, big, beautiful stallion, but as the humble Beloved Child of God riding on a donkey. The favorite song of Jesus asks us to pray forgiveness for our enemies, even seven times seventy, even a hundred times a hundred thousand.
I can, though, sing a Gloria for what God stirred in people to do twenty years ago now, even amid screams and fire and smoke on that day and during the long days and nights that followed in Washington, D.C., N.Y. City, and in a Pennsylvania field. I can sing a Gloria for my rabbi friend who was the first person to stand beside the owner of the Muslim bookstore in Alexandria, Virginia, when windows were shattered with bricks later that afternoon. I can sing a Gloria of courageous rescue workers who dug through rubble that no humans should ever have to dig through. I can sing a 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 this past very long year, I can sing a Gloria of health care workers who have worn masks all day long and fought to save lives every day, often at the expense of their own lives and the health of their families. I can sing a Gloria of scientists who have created potent vaccines and who have stood firm in telling us the truth about this virus when political winds were trying to blow their words away.
Whenever I read Exodus, I rejoice with Moses and Miriam that the time of slavery in Egypt is over. I 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 a Gloria; I will not sing a Gloria that delights in the death of Egyptian soldiers or imagines that God directs our war efforts like a Divine 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 a Gloria requires that other parents who love their children just as much as I love mine must then sing an unqualified Requiem.
Twenty years after 9/11 and on this day that begins the Passion week of Jesus, I sing a Requiem, a song calling for God’s presence when denial, betrayal, political expediency, and cowardice covers the face of the earth, just as it covered Jerusalem on that horrible “good” Friday. I sing a Requiem that closes not with the confident words of Moses or Miriam, but 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.”
Twenty years later, our hope is not in Joe Biden, just as on the night of 9/11/2001 our hope was not in George W. Bush. Our hope is in our God who transforms our hunger for revenge into a hunger for justice, our thirst for vengeance into a thirst for reconciliation, who lifts 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 senseless, drive-by killings in the streets of our cities, no more war.
Our hope is in our God who somehow transformed the unqualified Requiem of the cross into the soaring Gloria of Easter morning. Hold tight to that hope as you walk through the holy week ahead, a week when darkness will still cover the face of the earth. Hold tight to that hope in days to come when darkness will pile up upon darkness. In that hope, may the loud “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday and the gut-wrenching Requiem of Good Friday give way to an Easter Gloria that you and I can sing even in the dark.