Sunday, October 2, 2016

20th Sunday after Pentecost

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.

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.

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