A Meditation for a Church in Exile, based on Psalm 137

From Pastor Allan Lane:

We sit confined in our homes. On dread occasions we find ourselves forced to venture out into a dangerous city for the sake of a roll of toilet paper or a carton of eggs. Out there…out where the virus is hiding, out where the possibility of catastrophic illness looms over every ordinary encounter with another person. It’s a paralyzing time, and the comfortable rhythms of everyday life seem like a receding memory. We fear that fear will be the new normal, and there is literally no place in the world we can go to be safe.

In the midst of all this, it’s easy to start to feel depressed and to grieve, or to be full of anger, at the disruption of our lives, our economy, our retirement, and our security. When will we see our grandchildren, or our parents, again? What is left of the future we imagined?

We are a people in exile from the life we used to know. It’s distressing, and it’s okay to feel that distress, feel that grief, feel that fear, feel that anger.

In Psalm 137, the Psalmist takes us to the shores of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the rivers of Babylon, where the people of Judah have been taken into exile, captives of the Babylonians who besieged and captured Jerusalem. The life they used to know is gone. Their future is unclear. And, like March Breakers on Florida beaches, the Babylonians taunted them with a request to hear some of the Temple songs they used to sing to their God.

The request is a taunt, because as far as the Babylonians were concerned, their god Marduk had destroyed Israel’s god, YHWH–going so far as to destroy YHWH’s temple. The conquerors’ god had proved triumphant. The Babylonian soldiers had swarmed over the broken walls of Jerusalem’s defenses, killing many, and carrying off the rest into this horrible exile in the glittering glory that was Babylon, it’s famous hanging gardens and tall towers looming reminders of the futility of resistance.

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion,” the psalmist writes. The thought of the life they used to know, of the security they used to feel when they were worshipping in YHWH’s temple on Mt. Zion, is too much for the Psalmist and his hearers. It is a time for weeping for the way the world once was, and may never be again.

The first verses of the Psalm, vs. 1-4, express the grief of the captives in their new situation. Life now is nothing like what they were used to, and there’s nothing they can do about it.

In order to deal with their changed circumstances, the Psalmist calls his community to remember in vs. 5-6. Remember who they are, and whose they are. Remember the God whose songs they are being asked to sing, who had rescued them out of oppression in Egypt once before, and who would surely not forget them in Babylon, either.

It’s typical of Hebrew poetry, which didn’t have rhyming verse, to show its poetic nature by a repetitive structure, which emphasizes the point the poet is trying to make. Here we see the call to remember embracing the songs they used to play and to sing.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
May my right hand forget [its skill]
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
If I do not remember you.

The hand, which plays the harps now hung on the poplars, and the tongue which used to sing the songs of God in the Temple, will be useless in future, if the spirit forgets and does not remember who God is, and what God has done. Jerusalem is likely standing in for God as God’s holy city.

We remember what life has been, and what life will be again when the crisis has passed, so that we have strength to endure what life is in the present. It is difficult, but this, too, shall pass.

Finally, the Psalmist expresses anger in vv. 8-9. Why us? Why is this happening to us? Naturally, they want to strike out at someone. They’re furious with the neighboring Edomites, who not only didn’t help them, but actually cheered the Babylonians on. They’re furious with the invading, enslaving Babylonians, who killed their children, depriving them of a future. And they want revenge.

In a passage that horrifies most people, the Psalmist says, “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy are those who will pay you back for what you’ve done to us; happy are those who will take your babies and smash them against the rocks.”

We understand the anger, the need to blame someone; we are angry that we are confined to our homes. We are angry that our lives have been disrupted, our savings shot, our favorite restaurants and museums now closed, perhaps never to reopen. We can’t blame the virus for being what it is. But we want to express our anger somehow.

This is the danger zone, as the Psalmist found out. We recoil in horror at an indiscriminate anger that attacks innocent babies in its need for revenge. We reject as outrageous an anger that wants to smash innocent babies’ heads open on rocks.  It’s easy to see that anger in others, harder to see it in ourselves, especially when there are those who want to stoke our anger against others as a way to hide their own poor crisis management. The Chinese have blamed Americans for the virus; American leadership is trying to blame the Chinese for shortcomings in our domestic response to this phenomenon of nature. Asian Americans have been insulted and attacked in indiscriminate anger. We must not let ourselves become those who attack innocents out of an anger that can’t reach the real culprit: a virus too small to be seen.

We are a people in exile. We grieve. We mourn. And we remember. We remember that in time, Israel’s exile came to an end. We remember that God called them to return home to a land that was changed, but still their home. They had to rebuild their lives and their civilization. But they had God as their partner, the same God who had called them back from exile, who was now calling them to a new adventure, calling them into a future that was pregnant with new possibilities, into which strode, eventually, Jesus the Messiah. Our exile will end, too, and a new future will lie before us. Hang on in your grief; hang on in your anger; hang on, and remember, for who knows what the God of exile has planned for us next!

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