Thursday, February 8, 2018
Dear Lord and Father of all mankind, forgive our foolish ways; Save us from violence, discord, malice, and especially in this hour preserve us from complacency and despair. Fashion into one united people those who have come here from many lands and nations. Give a spirit of wisdom and of a sound mind to all in places of authority and keep them mindful of their duty to serve all the people and to strive for the common good. Finally, O Father, fill us with hope, a hope that does not sit idly by but labors for the preservation and renewal of our society, and unto God's gracious mercy and protection I commend you, the Lord bless us and keep us, the Lord make his face to shine upon us and be gracious unto us, the Lord lift up his countenance upon us and give us peace, both now and evermore. Amen.
Thursday, April 20, 2017
Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.
We usually associate the incarnation—the teaching that the eternal Son of God through whom all things were created took to himself the created nature of man—with Christmas or Annunciation, but I would argue that this doctrine is no where more put to the test than in on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. What I mean is that the ancient philosophers realized that God, the source of all goodness, does not change and is not subject to suffering. Furthermore, the Old Testament affirmed that God is not a man that he should lie. In the man Jesus, we see God joining himself to our broken nature and undergoing suffering and pain in this flesh. The unchanging and eternal Son of God takes our human nature and experiences change and decay. This is a real scandal in the ancient world for Christians to say that God became man. How can the immutable become mutable? For this reason, Paul says that the message of Christ is foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews. The message of Christ speaks of an Immutable God being touched by the mutability of this world.
It makes me think about why did God make a world that changes? One thing dies, and another is born. There is the cycle of seasons and weather. With age, our bodies are increasingly out of sync with our will; we cannot do the things we would. All material things inevitably break and eventually are thrown away or disposed of. In the past 15 years, I've lived in five different states, and I've noticed a saying that repeats itself from state to state, if you don't like the weather, in whatever state you happen to live, just wait awhile. Every state seems to think it has the wildest swings in weather, but the truth is that this is the way the world is from the weather to our possessions to our bodies and the bodies of our loved ones. I would also add that a good deal of the pain, sadness, and frustration we feel in this life results from the changes that are happening around or within us, and again we come back to this question: why would God put us in this world of change when he knows it will only give us pain and grief? Now some who have a low-view of God's love and concern for the world and humanity would see in these changes a wheel of fortune, blind chance doling out pain and change and grief indiscriminately. The philosophers would say that it is just a facet of created reality that it changes, and there is some comfort but not a great deal of it to know that change should not surprise us because it is, if you will, built into the system.
As Christians we can say something more. As Christians we recognize that God is a loving creator and father. That he does not, in the words of Scripture, willingly afflict the sons of men and works all things for good for those who love him. The truth is there is not always an easy explanation for why God allows these changes to happen—why he allows this person to die prematurely, or life to be a seemingly unbroken sequence of struggles to manage finances, jobs, or relationships. What we know by faith is that none of it is outside of his loving providence. And here is something else for you to consider this morning, perhaps God allows these changes to give us a desire for him who is unchangeable? In this sense, you could think of us as children and life as a kind of education. The material thing needs to break or be lost because we have to learn not to trust in the material things of this world but in God who cannot break or be lost. The death of a loved one may be God's way of increasing our appetite for heaven where is no death or dying. Perhaps we grow feeble in mind or body in order to loosen our grasp on the things of this world, and to learn to cling to what is truly lasting? As a pastor I witness people going through change and see first-hand the pain and sorrow that go along with it, but I also see the grace that out of change can bring a renewed sense of purpose and a hope for heaven.
And now we come to the heart of the matter: Christ's resurrection is a tangible sign that God will raise up all that is good and preserve it forever from change and decay. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him (Romans 6:9). We will continue to live in this world of change and decay as the sons and daughters of adam, but we are also pilgrims, sons and daughters of the Father and brethren to the risen Christ, making our way joyfully to that greater life where there is no change or decay. We are people of hope, and the resurrection is the gift God gave us in Christ to serve as the foundation of that hope. Whatever pain or sorrow or frustration you are enduring right now—and we all have our portion to bear—Christ's resurrection is an answer to it, not as an naïve optimism or an easy way out of our trials, but a promise of new life through death and change. Let us cling to this hope on this joyful Easter day, as an anchor to our souls, being confident of the one in whom trust that he will preserve all that is truly good and noble and beautiful from the decay, uncertainty and mortality of this world. St. John writes in his Revelation, I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.
Tuesday, January 31, 2017
The pronouncements that form the Gospel this morning are usually called the beatitudes from the Latin word beatus, blessed. It is a portion of Scripture that I never tire of hearing. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Beatitudes are a fixed portion of the Divine Liturgy, and are said every Sunday. This morning I want to think about what these words of Scripture mean. To many these words of Scripture are familiar, but also enigmatic. They seem to turn the world upside down from our usual way of thinking.
The first thing that needs to be said about the beatitudes is that Jesus is not commending a delusional view of the world. He is not simply saying what is bad is good, what is cold is hot. Contrary to popular misconception, Christians are not be Don Quixote figures who refuse to accept the plain facts under the force of a driving religious impulse. The problem with a lot of schools and educational programs that are called Christian is that they so want to impart the faith that they malign, suppress, or obscure anything that would challenge that faith. I think that this is a spirit that is foreign to true Christianity, which is not afraid to say, as St. Augustine said, all truth is God's truth. Our Lord is not advocating a disposition that would deny worldly realities.
Rather, in the beatitudes our Lord pronounces a blessing on human weakness and brokenness. He says that in mourning and meekness and poverty are found blessing. Why is this the case? We don't willingly seek to be poor in spirit, or to mourn, or be hungry? What our Lord tells us is that these are the attitudes and dispositions that make us open to the kingdom of God. In our human pride and desire to be self-sufficient, when we are full and happy and feel rich in spirit, we don't think that we need God or spiritual things. This is part of the fallenness of the world, that the material world becomes a distraction from the spiritual realm. When we are satisfied with the good things of this world, we don’t think we need the one from that goodness comes who is goodness itself and our highest good. The truth that the poor, hungry and morning are open to receiving the kingdom of God is illustrated again and again in the Gospels. Witness the people to whom our Lord ministers: he doesn't come to reach out to the powerful, the accomplished or the learned. He comes to restore the deaf, the oppressed, and the outcast. God in Christ was working in the shadows of their lives to bring about new life and redemption.
But we have to say something more about these beatitudes. Yes, they are about people whom our Lord meets, and they are even about ourselves if we can embrace our inner poverty and hunger for righteousness. But in a very real and tangible sense our Lord spoke these beatitudes, these declarations of blessing, over his own life. He was poor in spirit. He emptied himself, taking upon himself the form of a servant, being found in human likeness. He was hungry, as he wrestled with the devil in the 40 days wilderness temptation, and later tasted the emptiness of sin crying from the cross, I thirst, and, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? He was mournful and he was meek; the prophets say of the messiah, is there any sorrow like his sorrow? And Isaiah writes of the suffering servant, He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. In short, the blessing of the beatitudes is most clearly seen in our Lord's passion and crucifixion. He is blessed in his sorrow, poverty and hunger, because on the cross, we see the kingdom of God breaking in, as he crucifies sin in the flesh and then rises triumphant over that sin and death in his resurrection. We do not need any more evidence that God works in tragedy and defeat, than to see how God brings redemption through our Lord's innocent suffering. The path to resurrection is through death. We should not, then, be afraid to face that which is painful, difficult or overwhelming. Though we might not always feel it, the proclamation and witness of Jesus Christ is that God is working in those shadows too, and that somehow these shadows are blessed. We are made ready for the kingdom though poverty, mourning, and meekness.
Our great high priest has gone before us in this poverty of spirit, and mourning, and meekness. He gave himself into the hands of sinful men and conquered the guilt, sin, and anxiety that continually assault our earthly existence. The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth, said this about our high priest who has known our weakness and need.
It is not merely that He was once "touched with the feeling of our infirmities"; He is so still. It is not merely that He was once tempted as we are ; He is with us and before us, "tempted as we are" (Heb. 4:15). And when it says that "in the days of his flesh ... he offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death" (Heb. 5:7), this is more than recollection, for it speaks of His presence here to-day among us in all our confusion, aberration and abandonment, before all our locked prison doors, at all our sick-beds and gravesides. . . in all our genuine or less genuine triumphs. He is still the Friend of publicans and sinners. (CD IV.3 395)
Thursday, November 3, 2016
GRANT, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that the words, which we [will hear] this day with our outward ears, may through thy grace be so grafted inwardly in our hearts, that they may bring forth in us the fruit of good living, to the honour and praise of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This morning, we are using the liturgy for the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion from the English Book of Common Prayer first authorized in 1662 and still the authorized version of the Book of Common Prayer in England today. One of the reasons that this date was settled on to use this liturgy is because it falls on what some Protestant groups call Reformation Sunday. On the 31st of October, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, and it is this date that is usually remembered as the start of Reformation. In posting those theses, Luther was inviting debate about a host of different church practices which he perceived were at variance with the Bible. In the opening theses, Luther argued that “when our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said 'Repent', He called for the entire life of believers to be one of penitence. The word cannot be properly understood as referring to the sacrament of [confession]. . . [and] the pope himself cannot remit guilt, but only declare and confirm that it has been remitted by God.” Luther was protesting the teaching of the church that forgiveness could only be obtained through making a confession to a priest and that the priest was given power to forgive and remit the sin (or not). Before Luther started to see these inconsistencies between the church's teachings and the Bible, he had been a monk who was very devout, making numerous, almost daily, confessions, and always lacking assurance of his salvation. He was gripped by fear and guilt. In his later theological terminology, the monk Luther was imprisoned by the Law, God's righteous ordinances which invariably found him and find us lacking. What Luther the monk had not heard, and the discovery (or rediscovery) that he would make, that would rock Europe and the established church, was the teaching of St. Paul that what saves us is not works of the law, but faith and trust in our Lord Jesus. The Law reveals us as a sinners—a fact most of us already know, but the Gospel reveals God's gracious will towards law-breakers and sinners. Thus, as Paul says elsewhere, the Gospel is the good news “that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.” Put directly, God accepts us not for the list of our merits but by his own free-will and grace in Christ. To apply it to the human realm, do you love their children for what they do (or fail to do) or because you have made a choice to love them? The teaching of the late medieval church so clouded this truth that God appeared to be a father who loved us only when good. The Gospel of our Lord Jesus, however, is really about God's gracious love for sinners, and his will to renew and restore them. Luther's rediscovery of Paul burst across Europe like a flash of light: in Geneva, a young lawyer was so struck by this good news that he would change professions and go on to write a systematic theology according to the rediscovered doctrine and a nearly complete commentary on the all the books of the Bible. This lawyer of course was John Calvin. In England, there wasn't a central figure like Martin Luther or John Calvin, but the Reformation took no less of a decisive turn. The archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer undertook to develop a liturgy that took into account this rediscovery of Paul's doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. There were a number of facets to this undertaking: first of all this liturgy would be not just for priests and monks—it was intended for all of the people because all needed to hear the message of forgiveness and new life. Therefore, Cranmer put the prayers and readings in the vernacular. In most cases he didn't start from scratch, but took the Medieval service books, prayers and services from the continental Reformers, and edited them into a single book of services: the Book of Common Prayer. Next to the Authorized King James Bible and Shakespeare, it stands as a touchstone of English literature and the highmark of English piety and religion. The first edition of the Book of Common Prayer came out in 1549 after the death of Henry VIII during the short reign of his son Edward VI. Revising it to conform more thoroughly with the principles of the Reformation, a new more Protestant edition of the Book of Common Prayer came out in 1552. After an interval of its being outlawed under the reign of Mary, popularized as Bloody Mary, it was reintroduced with some slight modifications upon the enthronement of Elizabeth I in 1559, and it was once more slightly edited in 1662 and has been the official Book of Common Prayer in England ever since. The first settlers in America in Virginia used that 1559 Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer, but the 1662 was one that traveled all over the world as the British Empire spread. It became the parent book of all other local adaptations of the Book of Common Prayer in such diverse places as Uganda, America, and Australia. There is a copy of the 1662 prayer book at historic Christ Church in Philadelphia where the references to the English King were crossed out on July 4, 1776, prefiguring the ways in which the prayer book would be adapted as it went from country to country.
The legacy of the 1662 prayer book is strongly evident in our 1928 Book of Common Prayer which was the last American prayer book to take its immediate predecessor as a base text. There are a number of deficiencies, in my opinion, in the 1979 prayer book, even while there some significant contributions it has made. Whatever its virtues or deficiencies, there can be little arguing with the fact that 1979 prayer book presents a very different form and content to common prayer than the 1928 or 1662 prayer books, though the '79 can be used in such a way as to reflect the earlier tradition. I hope that many of the prayers we say today we ring a note a familiarity and consonance for you. It's a rich and beautiful tradition from the Collect for Purity, the Comfortable Words, and the Prayer of Humble Access. A secular author, James Wood, writing in a review for The New Yorker for the 350th anniversary of the 1662 prayer book a few years ago had this to say,
Despite the quality of language that strikes us nowadays as majestic and grandly alienated, the words of the Prayer Book are notable for their simplicity and directness. C. S. Lewis called this quality “pithiness”; I would add “coziness” or “comfortability.” The Prayer Book was a handbook of worship for a people, not for a priesthood, and its job was to replace and improve the ancient collective rites of worship that bound people together in the English Catholic Church.
From the standpoint of faith, we can and should be thankful for the prayer book's simplicity and clarity on the matters of faith: it tells us who are: those who from time to time (or to put it into contemporary idiom again and again) have sinned against the Lord. But it also tells us of God's great and unfailing love for us. Again and again we hear of him whose property is always to have mercy. John Wesley, who is credited with founding Methodism but was actually a loyal son of the Church of England, had this to say about the 1662 prayer book: “I believe there is no Liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breathes more of a solid, scriptural, rational piety than the Common Prayer of the Church of England.” And might I add, though we're not going to use the 1662 every Sunday, our regular Sunday liturgy resonates with the same or similar prayers, and so let us celebrate and use this heritage of common prayer that it might express the living faith of the dead. We use it not for reasons of nostalgia nor because we are anglo-philes, but because it works!
Sunday, October 16, 2016
This morning I have the wonderful privilege to baptism Abraham Edward Williams. Performing the sacrament of Holy Baptism is among the best things a priest gets to do. As the service of Baptism states, in Holy Baptism we are regenerated (born again) and grafted into the body of Christ's Church. Historically baptism has often been called a Christening, which simply refers to the belief that in Holy Baptism a new Christian is made, not of course as a result of any merit that we present to God, but because of God's loving grace poured out in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and given to the baptized person as a free gift.
In the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul asks the question, Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Put simply if you are baptized, as you go under those cleansing waters you die with Christ in his crucifixion, and as you come out of those same waters you rise again with him. Holy Baptism follows the pattern of Christ's death and resurrection. And why, you might ask is this important? It is important because we want to belong to our Lord Jesus whom the Bible speaks of as a new Adam.
We all know the old Adam, and in a sense we all live like that old Adam. In the opening chapters of Genesis, we hear the account of how man falls away from communion with God, and this comes about because Adam wants to live by his own light rather than the light of God—he will decide what to call good and what to call evil rather than subjecting his will to the Word of God. Adam and Eve's alienation from the Lord is succeeded by a break in the fellowship between brother and brother when Cain slaughters his brother Abel. As I've said many times before, In Adam's sin, man said to God, I do not need you, and in Cain's, man said to his brother, I do not need you. The old Adam's heritage is a heritage of alienation, sin, and death, and we still see these impulses strongly at work today, to say to God, I don't need you, and to say to a fellow-man, I don't need you.
But the new Adam comes to teach us how to live in the light of God and in fellowship with one another. He tells his Father, even in the midst of the agony of death, that he needs him: into thy hands, I commend my spirit. The one who displays his superiority and moral perfection does not despise fellowship with sinful and broken humans. Rather, he works endlessly to restore them to God and to one another. Even in the difficult things that our Lord says, he is not aiming at abrasion but healing.
By original sin, we belong to the old Adam—we are part of his communion, although this word can only be used equivocally since the lineage of Adam blindly smashes every act of communion and fellowship by sin and selfishness. It is, I am sorry to say, the legacy of old Adam that seems to have won the day in our society today, that is so divided by suspicion, discord, and animosity. Our only real hope is Christ, who can reconcile us to God and to one another. By grace and the sacrament of Baptism, we belong to the new Adam, our Lord Jesus. As St. John reminds us again and again, “truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. . . and if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another” (1 John 1:3,7). As we belong to Christ the new Adam and live in him, we become part of his spiritual family, the communion of saints that will ever grow in charity. As we bring Abraham to these cleansing water we pray that, though the old Adam will undoubtedly still manifest his legacy in his life, it will not hold sway, and the gifts of the new Adam will live and grow in him, the gifts of forgiveness and love and concord.
In the English 1662 Book of Common Prayer there is a prayer in the service of Baptism that is not found in the later American prayer books and it is truly exquisite. It begins by a recollection of Old Testament figures whom God saved through water, specifically Noah and his family in the ark and the Hebrews who passed through the Red Sea on dry ground. Both of these are figures of Baptism in which God saves us from trial and judgment. The prayer concludes by petitioning God that the infant about to baptized will be placed in the ark of Christ's church and that "being stedfast in faith, joyful through hope, and rooted in charity, [he] may so pass the waves of this troublesome world, that finally he may come to the land of everlasting life." The "waves of this troublesome world." A beautiful and poignant phrase. Isn't that the nature of this life. It is full of waves and tumults. We feel like we are in constant flux and change. As soon as we seem to land on settled ground, all turns to chaos. It has been my observation that most people most of the time are in inner chaos despite the serene front we may put on. If the world and life is like this, then surely we are in need of God's grace from beginning to end, from the first day of our life to our death. Without God's help, we simply cannot tread this world's troublesome waves long enough to reach shore. In the words of a familiar hymn with which we are soon to be reacquainted, our longing must be that "God [would] be at my end and at my departing." We need God's grace every moment of our lives, and this is one reason why it is fitting that infants are baptized.
You know, Shakespeare got it wrong when he said faithful romantic love is "the star to every wandering bark." The image of course is that of a ship which navigates by the reliable North star. Think about our lives for a moment. I am a wandering bark--we all are wandering ships--tossed by the "waves of this troublesome world." The star, compass and map that guides us home is Jesus and his love and grace. May we all this day be reminded of the grace we have received, signified by our Baptism and given freely to us every moment of our lives, a grace that leads us through "the waves of this troublesome world, so that finally we may come to the land of everlasting life."
Sunday, October 9, 2016
But the word of God is not fettered
The lessons this morning tie together the theme of the power of God's word. In the first lesson and the Gospel it is the power of the prophet's word to bring cleansing for the lepers Naaman and the Samaritan, both foreigners. The power of the word is illustrated in these readings, and it is asserted in the profound words of St. Paul in the Epistle, “the word of God is not fettered.” Paul wrote these words while he himself was fettered in prison, but he states that the word, the truth of God, cannot be fettered. Towards the end of his life, St. Paul spent considerable time in prison for being what we would call today a disturber of the peace. The Christian Gospel is a faith that demands the transformation of every aspect of life, whether it be private, political, or social. As such, true Christian faith will never be welcome in a society which tries to relegate religion to the realm of private opinion and private devotion. Roman society was open to every type of belief, but the Apostles preached a man who claimed to be the way, the truth and the life. Caesar could still be king, but the Christians had the audacity to say that there was a greater lord than the Caesar. It is not surprising that such talk was unpopular to the powers of the Roman State. This is why Paul was in prison and would ultimately be killed for his proclamation. Among the thirteen letters of Paul in the New Testament there are a handful that were written while Paul was in prison. They are moving letters. Here is a man enduring trial and persecution and yet confident of the one in whom he trusts. This morning's Epistle comes from one of these prison letters, addressed to a young leader in the church.
One wonders what Timothy felt having his spiritual father in prison. I don't think any of us would fault him if he felt a great deal of uncertainty about the future of the church. After all, the early Christians were facing a seemingly all-powerful State which could tolerate Christianity as long as it marched in step with the rest of the Roman Empire, which of course it couldn't. Amongst the doubt and uncertainty that Timothy and the church must have been feeling, Paul exhorts Timothy to "Remember Jesus Christ" in the opening words to our lesson. The form of the verb used here for remember contains the idea of repeated or habitual action. Paul is saying that Timothy should have Jesus in mind and keep him there. Paul is not just exhorting him to be pious. He is reminding of Timothy of the great story of our redemption. Our Lord Jesus was crucified and died. It seemed like the end for Jesus and his followers. In the days after his crucifixion, the Gospel accounts relate that the disciples were in fear, uncertainty and sorrow. In the account in Luke of our Lord appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we're told that the disciples did not even recognize the Lord. I think most of their blindness was due to the fact that they did not expect to see him: Jesus was dead; end of story. In our Lord's crucifixion, corrupt religion, power without principle and even death all seem to win the day. But in our Lord's resurrection, it is demonstrated that nothing is impossible with God. Not all the powers of State, Religion, or even Hell can negate God's purposes. In the grim circumstances Paul and the church are facing, he reminds Timothy that we must follow the Lord who shows by his death and resurrection that nothing is impossible for God: Remember Jesus Christ. Paul may be in prison, but this will not thwart the preaching of the Gospel. Paul reminds Timothy that the word of God is not fettered. I may be in prison, but the word can not. The word of the Lord cannot fail because it is true.
As I was writing composing this sermon, I couldn't help but think of those familiar opening words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the great hymn of the Union during the Civil War:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
My friends, the truth will always march on from the perspective of eternity. The truth cannot be silenced. This was evident when Socrates was condemned for being an atheist and disturber of the peace. No one remembers the names of the judges who gave sentence on him or the citizens of Athens who agitated for his arrest and execution. But his name and the pursuit of truth which he inspired live on. In the same way, injustice that is codified into law can not stand forever, as the history of slavery in England and America shows.
What God has done and declared in our Lord Jesus cannot be undone, repealed, silenced or rebutted. In our Lord Jesus, our elder brother, the new Adam, has died on our behalf, canceling the debt of our sins and drawing us to himself and to his Father. In Christ, God is reconciling the world to himself that he may be all in all (2 Corinthians 5:19, 1 Corinthians 15:28). Christianity is not like a secret society in which a central mystery is passed from person to person and where you might run the risk of the last member dying and the mystery being lost. Rather, the word of the Lord cannot be bound; it is not a light hidden under a basket. This means that we do not need to worry about the ultimate fate of the world or of the church. That which is true will ultimately triumph and be manifest. The Word which God sends, like the rain upon the mown grass and the snow from heaven, shall not return to him void, but will accomplish that for which he has sent it. That Word, our Lord Jesus, is recreating you and me in the image of himself, that we might be a new humanity that lives by humility and grace and love.
Sunday, October 2, 2016
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
I wonder how many of you winced or even revolted at the last verse of our Psalm this morning. It contains a grisly and unsettling image: blessed shall he be that taketh thy children, and throweth them against the stones. I hope none is more scandalized by these words than by the actual suffering of children in our time. No matter what your view of abortion is—whether it is an absolute evil that should be outlawed or a necessary evil that should be allowed but carefully regulated—I wonder if we wince more at these words than the approximately 700,000 abortions in the United States every year. I also wonder how much we wince at the plight of children made refugees by the Syrian civil war. Many were moved by the recent photograph of a Syrian child caught in the midst of that civil war, but such tenderness can often stall at just sympathy and not translate into action. I'm not saying that you were wrong to wince at the Psalm if you did—I'll admit it is a portion of Scripture that in the course of the monthly reading of the Psalms, I often wince at—I'm just wondering if we are more sensitive to the words found in the Bible than of the myriad of actual sufferings in this world? That is a question only you as an individual can answer.
But before we start getting too upset about the Psalm, we need to ask the who, what, when, where, and why. Answering these questions will help us understand the Psalm, which in turn, will help us to understand how it might relate to us today. The Psalm is set in the period around the Babylonian exile. Next to the Exodus, the most important event in the Old Testament is the Exile which occurred in 586BC. The Babylonians conquered the rebelling Jews in Judah. The Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, destroyed the capital city of Jerusalem, tore down its walls and razed its temple. Afterward, many were carried into exile, nearly a thousand miles away in Babylon on the banks of the river Euphrates. The people not only lost their home, they lost their sense of autonomy with the execution of the their king and his sons. They also felt cut off from God because God had told them that the one place to worship was in the temple. The Psalm opens with a statement of the sadness of the people in exile, By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee, O Sion. Sion of course is the name of the hill on which the temple had been built in Jerusalem. Here is a people that is downcast and dejected, and to compound the matter, the captors, the Babylonians, wanted them to sing and make music. To put this is more direct terms, this would be like asking a Southerner to sing the national anthem in 1865 or more a trivial illustration, you being asked to attend and cheer at a parade for the winner of a sports championship for a team whom you despise. The exiles hang up their harps and ask themselves, how shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? In the closing verses of the Psalm, we hear their sadness well up into anger and a desire for revenge. First they renounce the Edomites, a neighboring nation to Judah, who apparently watched with glee the downfall of an old foe. Then comes the curse on the Babylonians and on their children. In the horrible eighteen month siege of Jerusalem, the Bible reports that some resorted to cannibalism, and the prophet Jeremiah had warned that I [the Lord] will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another's flesh during the stress of the siege imposed on them by the enemies who seek their lives (Jeremiah 19:9). The speaker in the Psalm merely wants what happened to the Jews to happen to the Babylonians. That being said, I would submit to you that the anger and revenge we see evidenced here is not a noble or godly emotion, but one that reflects a genuine human emotion. This is one of the brilliant things about the Psalms in that it shows the full range of human emotions. One cannot really condone the anger here, but one can at least understand it after taking account of what the what the people endured in the siege of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon.
So, why, you might be asking, does it matter and what does it have to do with my life? Well, according to the traditional understanding of the Psalms, there is an additional layer of meaning. There is the historical meaning I've been describing, and then there is the allegorical or typological reading. In this reading, for example, Jerusalem containing king and temple for God's people would be understood as the kingdom of God. Hence, St. Paul can talk about the heavenly Jerusalem, where our true citizenship belongs, and which is, as he says, the mother of us all. Furthermore, Babylon, the place away from Jerusalem, would be understood as this world and the time of this mortal life in which we long for the life of heaven, for Jerusalem. Such a reading of the Psalm is reflected in the (Offertory/Gospel) hymn this morning. The second to last stanza reads,
Now, in the meantime, with hearts raised on high,
we for that country must yearn and must sigh,
seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
through our long exile on Babylon's strand.
we for that country must yearn and must sigh,
seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
through our long exile on Babylon's strand.
In the language of the New Testament, we are living in exile in Babylon waiting to be taken back to our true home, Jerusalem. We live in Babylon, but we don't live in quite the same way as the sons and daughters of that city of the world live. But, my friends, and here is the rub, just like those exiles of long ago, Christians can be overwhelmed by anger and revenge for a world that is broken in so many ways. We can be angry because life and society have let us down. We can be angry because when we look at the world we see much insanity. The truth is that it is all too easy to get fed up with the world, and retreat into our own religious or cultural safe-havens. I'm here to tell you that it is okay to be frustrated and it is probably even okay to be angry at the insanity you see in the world, but we can't let it get the best of us. Our Lord tells us to bless them that curse you, that you may be children of your father in heaven. The Psalmist can't bring himself to sing the Lord's song in a strange land, but I believe this is precisely what we are supposed to do. While we live on Babylon's strand waiting to go to Jerusalem our dear native land, let us sing the Lord's song in this strange land, a song of the Lord's goodness and justice and love.