One Saturday evening, a group of parents gathered in the Fellowship Hall of their church. Their presence had been requested by the Christian Education Committee and the pastor. They were very excited. On the next day, their 2nd grade children would receive a Bible from the church.
After introductions by the Christian Education Committee, the pastor came to the podium and asked, “Do you really want to expose your children to this book?”
The parents, thinking this was yet another one of those obvious questions asked during rituals at the church, responded with a resounding, “Yes!”
The pastor then handed the parents a list of passages from the Bible and encouraged them to look them up. Each dad and mom eagerly received the list, hoping to prove their prowess in Bible passage Bingo.
The first passage on the list was from Psalm 137 verses 8 and 9. When the parents found the passage they were appalled. Suddenly the expected pleasant evening twisted into an evening of shocking reality.
Psalm 137 is a Psalm known as the scandalous Psalm of scripture, a Psalm whose last verses are not included in the lectionary readings and are rarely read aloud in church.
The Psalm we are listening to today was written during the exile, a three stage process of Jewish removal from their homeland to become like slaves in Babylon.
While the people were being forced to leave their homes and every thing familiar to them, the temple, the center of their community was defiled and left in shambles.
Once in Babylon, They were forced to change their Hebrew names, many of which declared their birthright blessings to Babylonian names, linking them to foreign gods.
They went from free people to being people serving their enemies. In the midst of their new surroundings they were mocked and scorned by their captors.
Psalm 137 was written after the second deportation to Babylon. In it we hear the realities of the despair of the people.
By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
Water was the usual communal gathering spot of joy for the Hebrews. Women would gather at Jacob’s well and chat. Shepherds would draw water for their herds and exchange news. Now, the Hebrew captives went to the foreign waters, doing the bidding of their captors. The remembrance of better days became especially poignant as they realized their captivity and all that was lost in their homeland.
On the willows there we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
How could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?
Singing the Psalms and making music was a central part of the Hebrew culture.
They not only sang the Psalms we know which spoke of God, the temple, and their trust in God, but they also sang their history—what we might call patriotic songs.
They sang songs to express their emotions and they sang songs which highlighted the essential transitions of life. One might say, the Hebrew people were a people defined by their music.
The favorite way, then, to mock their captives was for the Babylonians to say, with a sneer in their voices, “Hey, why don’t you sing one of those songs about your heroes! I guess you aren’t as strong as you thought. And I think I heard something one time about the pride you had in your beautiful temple. Remember what we did to it! And your god---where is your god now?”
In their great sadness, the Jews lost their voice to sing praise. In their despair, they lost the key to their joy.
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
As if the Hebrew Psalmist knew that if he forgot his homeland, he would lose his entire identity, he tried to remember the former days and the former things in Jerusalem
His traditions and customs
She realized her captor could take much from her.
But if she could hang onto her inner core, she could survive.
To give in,
Would be worse than death.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem's fall, how they said, "Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!" O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
And here we hear the reality of the seething bitterness which occurs when people are overwhelmed with hate, anger and despair.
Death to the enemy!
Kill them, O God.
And not just them, but their children.
May I live to see the day when their children’s brains are poured out
Upon the stones.
At first, it might seem hard to relate to this Psalm on a beautiful morning.
We left our homes this morning.
We go about our days speaking our mother tongue without a thought.
Our governmental monuments gleam in the sun.
We sit in an air conditioned church, free to worship and sing praise to our God.
For some of us, if not for most of us, this Psalm seems inappropriate to address. We want to set it aside, as did the shapers of the lectionary passages, and hope the preacher will not unearth it. But, in God’s wisdom, this is the passage for the day
as we read chronologically through our Bibles this year.
And, truthfully, I think it is more pertinent and full of the realities of life than we first give it at first glance.
1 The reality of EXILE
Though we close our eyes to it,
There are many in our midst who are “deported” on a daily basis.
One might think quickly of those who live among us whom we call,
People who have moved into our community who did not grow up here,
Or the ones who just don’t fit in socially
Who look different,
Who act strange,
Who speak with an accent
Who have different ways
Who can’t make it in school
Who have different music
Who roll around in wheel chairs or slow us down with their canes and walkers.
Who deal with gender issues.
Who are homeless
Who are abused
Who have been raped or are pregnant out of wedlock.
Who speak in a different tongue
Who make us feel uncomfortable because of their developmental, social or behavioral disabilities.
Who have a different history.
And what is our expectation?
Become like us.
Learn our language.
Change your names
Don’t bother us with your needs.
Get out of our way
We don’t want to deal with you
Unless you can produce or fit in.
Prove yourselves and then maybe we will accept you.
And we feel justified with our expectations, don’t we?
But here is yet another example of the reality of exiles in our midst.
What about the children and adults who have been ravaged by the enemy called divorce?
Homes are broken.
Children must travel from one bed to another during the week
Moving from one parent’s “country” to the other’s
And the parents,
Find themselves in the foreign land of singleness
With its new traditions and expectations
Its sorrows and sadnesses.
I’m sure many of them feel as though the Lyres of their lives
Are hung permanently on the weeping willows
And never again will songs of joy be sung from their lips.
2. The reality of the missing church.
The true reality and sadness for many of the “exiles” in our midst
is that they feel the church,
the center and identity of their lives during their exile
It is easy for the church to shine for people when they are going through normal circumstances like births and deaths,
Health and even physical sicknesses that are acceptable.
These are the things we can share in our Joys and Concerns.
But many people who hit upon financial crises,
Find it hard to stay in their church of origin.
Most churches have a hard time embracing the neighbors around them who are from differing countries or back grounds.
We have many exiles in our midst who feel as though their temples have been defiled and left in shambles.
Most of us in the church realize
There is a limit to what some congregations can bear.
We come to church with the “approved lectionary” readings on our faces
Determining never to expose the true sorrow,
Believing the church could not bear such despair
Believing the church could not bear us
if we truly shared those parts of ourselves.
We have learned the language.
We have changed our names.
3. The reality of the scripture.
Exile, whether physical, mental, social, emotional or spiritual does exist and is addressed,
Brought out into the open
By our God.
Despair, anger, bitterness and hate are realities we all have faced,
are facing or will face at one time or another.
And Praise God!
There is room for the exile in scripture,
in the church and,
Thus, room for the exile in the hand of God.
4. The reality of PROMISE.
As the exiles sat down and wept,
They declared, perhaps knowingly or unknowingly the reality of their freedom.
They realized their salvation was in their ability to remember----
Even in the midst of exile
Who they were,
Who their God was
And what promises God gave to them.
What we do not hear in this Psalm is the presence of Ezekiel,
The prophet who went into exile with the people
Constantly reminding them of the promises God gave
Of their return to their homeland
The rebuilding of the temple
And the fruitfulness planned and promised to their children.
Hanging onto the reality of the promises of God is the key.
It is the key that will open the prison locks of our despair.
In the book of Revelation which our PW are studying this year,
We hear the words we shared together as our call to worship this morning.
Grace to you and peace from God who is and who was and who is to come,
To Jesus Christ who loves us
and freed us from our sins by his blood,
and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father,
The realities of this life are these:
We are all exiles here on earth.
We are on foreign soil
We will be expected to conform to ways that are not God’s ways
We will be tempted to speak a language foreign to the people of God.
We will be mocked for our faith in Jesus Christ at some time or another
We will be tempted to stop singing the praises of God and hang up our lyres in despair.
But the greatest reality is that we hold the promises of God
The key is around our neck.
God is faithful
God is, and was and ever shall be.
God is always with us
God is always working out good for us
God has freed us
We are saved
We are royal priests no matter what filthy rags of slavery this world might try to put on us.
Even when we cannot see it
Or feel it
Or believe it.
Every day, we have the ability, with sure and certain hope,
to grab the key of the promises of God,
To unlock the doors.
Doors of our own prejudices
Our own shortcomings
Our own disabilities
Our own weaknesses
Our own Castles of Despair
And with Hope,
Walk by the Holy Spirit
Releasing other captives
And together walking into our blessed future
Our true reality.