Archive for September, 2011

Which Procession Are You In?

September 26, 2011

Proper 21A. Trinity Cathedral.

When you are trying to understand a passage of Scripture, it’s very important always to look at the context of that passage. We have some nine or ten verses from Matthew’s Gospel this morning and they begin like this: “When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things; and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23)

At first glance it may appear that they were questioning Jesus’ authority to teach. However, by this time Jesus was well accepted as a kind of itinerant rabbi and, in any case, it was always acceptable for a Jewish male to stand up in synagogue or Temple and comment on the Torah portion for the day. Besides, they don’t say, “by what authority are you teaching?”… They say, “by what authority are you doing these things!” They were concerned about what he was doing!

And what had he just done? Well, twelve verses earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, he had been greeted as the Son of David by crowds in the street, and he had pushed over the tables of the money-changers in the temple and driven them out for turning a house of prayer into a den of robbers!

That’s what the chief priests and the elders were upset about. Not so much about what Jesus was teaching, but about what he was doing. And what he was doing was challenging both the political and religious establishment of his day, and doing so in the heart of the political and religious capital city – Jerusalem.

According to a recent book by New Testament scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, two processions entered Jerusalem on that first “Palm Sunday.” One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. While Jesus and his followers were entering the city from the east, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor and his legions were entering the city from the west. Pilate’s entry into Jerusalem and its significance would have been well known in the Jewish homeland of the first century.

It was standard operating procedure for the Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem for all the major Jewish festivals. This was not out of any respect for the religious devotion of their Jewish subjects. It was to reinforce the Roman garrison permanently stationed in Fortress Antonia in case there was trouble. And there usually was trouble, especially at Passover, a festival celebrating the liberation of the Jews from an earlier oppressor, the Egyptians.  There would be trouble on this Passover as well!

By staging a “counter procession” to Pilate’s, Jesus wanted to make a specific point. His purpose was to fulfill the prophecy made by Zechariah that the Messiah would come to Jerusalem in a very specific way – not like King David, in splendor on a white horse at the head of a procession of armed men, but “humble, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). Moreover, Zechariah tells us what kind of king he would be:

“He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” This Messiah would not be a king of war, but a prince of peace.

What a contrast to that other procession! On one side of town, Pilate was entering Jerusalem in a display of imperial power – cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, the sounds of marching feet, implicitly claiming that the Romans were the rulers of the ancient world.  On the other side of town, Jesus and his rag-tag group of followers were trotting into town on foot and on a donkey with children and the poor claiming him as representing the true Ruler of the ancient (and modern!) world – the living and true God!


That’s what the chief priests and the elders of the people were “on” about in questioning Jesus’ authority. And that’s why Jesus turns the question back on them, wanting to know what they thought about that other bold prophet, John the Baptist. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin,” he asks.

“Uh oh,” they gulped, “If we say he was from God, he’ll want to know why we didn’t listen to him. If we say he was only speaking on his own authority, we will have a riot on our hands. Those are John’s people out there – the poor, the lost, the least and the lonely.”

And that’s why Jesus told the story about the two sons – the one who said he wouldn’t work in the vineyard but did; and the one who said he would and didn’t.  For you see, dear friends, in the final analysis, it doesn’t really matter what you profess to believe. What matters is what you actually believe!

It doesn’t really matter what you say you’re going to do. What matters is what you do. And what you actually do in this life will ultimately depend on which procession you’re in – Pilate’s or Jesus’s?

St. Paul puts the challenge to us in today’s Epistle: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11).

Which procession are you in today – Pilate’s or Jesus’s.






























September 13, 2011

9/11 Remembered

We were just finishing up Morning Prayer in the Chapel of Christ the Lord at The Episcopal Church Center in New York when a staff member I didn’t know pushed open the glass doors. “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!” Assuming, like everyone else initially, that this was some terrible accident, we took a moment to pray for those involved and then hopped on to the elevators to get to our various office floors.

My unit had a small TV in a snack room and so six or eight of us gathered around watching the news and the terrible pictures until it dawned on us that it had really happened. And, that this was no accident.

Susanne was at a deacons’ meeting at The General Seminary some twenty blocks closer to what came to be known as “Ground Zero’ than I was and I spent the next hour trying to get in touch with her since cell phones and most other kinds of communications were spotty at best. When I did finally reach her and found out she was OK and in the midst of a caring seminary community, I wandered back into my office. As I looked down on Second Avenue there were vast streams of people just walking aimlessly up the street.

Most of them looked dazed but normal. Some still bore the ashes that had fallen out of the sky when first one great Tower, and then the second, collapsed virtually on to their own footprints in that horrible aftermath.

Bishop George Packard, chief of our Armed Forces Chaplains and Federal Ministries had his office next door to mine in those days and he was trying to get through to the Diocese of New York to assist in coordinating our outreach efforts. He posted a sign-up sheet within hours for clergy who worked at the Church Center to volunteer to serve as Chaplains at Ground Zero. In those early hours, or course, we assumed there would be many injured as well as killed….hundreds rushed to hospitals…last rites to administer…many bodies to recover…and many funerals at which to officiate. As it turned out, hospitals sat virtually empty. Only some of the survivors were injured…and many of those injured did not survive. Many were never found.

In the weeks that followed, Susanne and I took our rotation as chaplains in St. Paul’s Chapel, literally a stone’s throw from the site of the World Trade Center. Its building and graveyard were covered with feet of ash but miraculously this 235 year-old structure, a Chapel of Trinity Church, Wall Street (with George Washington’s favorite pew intact) was not structurally damaged.

But it became the primary oasis for first responders, other police and firefighters, and construction workers. Food was served…naps were taken….massages were given. Clergy counseled the traumatized young men and women many of whom (save perhaps the police and firefighters) had never expected to see anything like this. I remember Susanne sitting for a long time with a young African American construction worker who had quite literally “uncovered” the body of an airline stewardess. He would never be the same.

I guess none of us will ever be. Later, I officiated at the funeral of Tim Haviland, the 41 year-old son of one of our priests in this diocese (Doug and Betty Haviland from St. John’s in Ames.) Tim was killed instantly on the 96th floor of the North Tower on that terrible day. One of thousands…

My wife, Susanne, wrote “Prayers of the People” for the 5th anniversary of the 9/11 attack. They were used all over the country and include petitions like this: “For those who acted selflessly that day; for police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers, health care professionals, first responders and construction workers, chaplains, cooks, and for ordinary citizens who were transformed from strangers to friends. For teachers and parents who held our children while in danger and who guide them now into hope…for the perpetrators of violence on that day, and for those who perpetrate violence every day.”

Our Lessons from Scripture today have to do with the children of Israel escaping their Egyptian slave-owners through the Red Sea experience…with St. Paul’s warning not to judge our neighbors…and with Jesus’ stern warning in the Gospel to forgive those who wrong us – not because they deserve it…but because we ourselves have been forgiven.

There would be lots of ways to go in preaching a sermon on those Lessons…on this occasion. And, while I believe personally, that we squandered an enormous opportunity in this country after 9/11 when virtually the whole world was in our corner and grieving right alongside us – I have no idea if we should have, or could have, responded any differently than we did. I judge no one for how they responded or how they felt after that horrendous crime was committed.

But, as I read our First Lesson today from Exodus, I could not help but reflect on the ancient Jewish Midrash on this story. The Rabbis taught that when the Israelites escaped from the Egyptians, their persecutors were drowned in the Red Sea that had temporarily parted to let the children of Israel pass through. Naturally enough, the chosen ones cheered! Miriam gathered the women together, they played their musical instruments and sang “The Song of the Sea”, and everyone danced for joy.

But when the angels in heaven began to join in the celebration, God rebuked them asking why they were rejoicing when God’s creatures were dying? “Are not these Egyptians my children too?” the Ancient of Days said. And, chastened, the angels began to weep alongside the Holy One.

This is not a day for political rhetoric or second-guessing or even congratulatory comments about our finally have “gotten” Osama bin Laden. This is a day to remember…and to weep…and to pray. We pray for victims and perpetrators…families and friends…nations and their leaders…people of all religions and people of none.

Following our service today, at noon, we will toll our tower bells in cooperation with Senate Resolution 237 asking churches to do so in order to STOP AND REMEMBER 9/11 today. In addition, some of us will be part of an Interfaith Commemoration this afternoon at 3 o’clock in Augustana’s Centennial Hall, Rock Island.

People from diverse faith groups and community leaders from the Quad Cities will come together to commemorate this 10th Anniversary with reflections and prayers. A year-long series of interfaith events in the spirit of promoting bridge-building within our community will be announced.

Perhaps this is one way to move forward with even greater strength and deeper understanding of each other. Pray that it may be so…