No foreign land

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A weeping angel, but not from Dr Who: part of a mosaic in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, showing that even the angels weep at the death of Jesus.


Thirty-odd years ago, Karen and I were living over in Granville St. An elderly Greek couple lived across the road, and we were aware that the husband was very ill. 

In the early hours of the morning, while it was still dark, a great wailing began in their house. It woke us up. We looked at each other; we knew his end had come. When it was light, we went across the road to offer our condolences and were welcomed inside. The house was packed full of people. We didn’t know any of them, and none of the conversation was in English. Everyone but us seemed to know what to do. We had a drink and nibbled on something, sat there for what seemed a long time (but really wasn’t) feeling useless and uncomfortable, and then said our goodbyes.

We tend to be uncomfortable with grief, and unschooled in lament. Today’s Old Testament passages are grief-filled laments. You may feel uncomfortable. I invite you to stay the course. Don’t bail, as we did.


First Reading
Lamentations 1.1–6 

This outline comes from Natalie Hart’s page. My original intent was to do it with the children, but as it was school holidays we only had a few kids and I didn’t want to put them on the spot in a sustained way. So the Children’s time was for everyone…

I used Natalie’s outline for a Psalm of Lament and people joined in contributing to it. The headings are here: the prayer was pretty much as follows.

THIS IS what’s going on in the world and I don’t like it
IT MAKES me feel
AND YET, I know this is true
O God, please

Gracious God,
We live in a time of climate change and drought; of continued fighting in the Middle East; we live in a more selfish Australia in which indigenous people still suffer so much. Our leaders behave in bizarre ways, and our children have no role models. People are trafficked for sex; there is no compassion for the refugee.

We feel saddened and angry, frightened, bewildered and frustrated.

Yet we remember that your love is constant. ‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, your mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.’ Increase the possibilities for good within the human spirit, O God. 

In your Spirit, we shall keep going, write a letter, attend a demo. We will trust in you and continue in prayer. Teach us to look to others, to keep connecting. Keep us in faith.

Show us your presence, give us wisdom. Help and comfort the suffering, and pour out your love on everyone. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


The psalm (137) moves from an intense expression of grief and silence through a determined vow of memory to this frightening blessing of cruel hopes against Babylon. The intense concluding section features three imperatives in verse 7, beginning with the address to YHWH, and calls for YHWH to remember the terrible injustices of Edom and Babylon and bring about a terrible justice on them. The psalm is an arresting example of a structure of intensification; it ends with a scalding beatitude. Psalm 137 steadfastly refuses to sing songs of Zion but laments instead. Still, the lamenters remember the songs of Zion and in that sense bring them to life. ‘The memory, the pledge to remember, and the call for God to remember in effect already actualise the remembrance. The anti-song of Zion makes possible the song of Zion.’ — Walter Brueggemann and William H Bellinger, Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary)


Let’s start with one of the songs that flow from Psalm 137: 

By the waters of Babylon (Together in Song 708)
By the waters, the waters of Babylon,
we sat down and wept, and wept for Zion.
We remember, we remember, we remember Zion. 

Psalm 137 starts with a poignant beauty, and ends with a desire so destructive that we may scarcely want it to be in the Bible at all. Let us hear Psalm 137 (Revised English Bible). This is the beautiful bit (1–6): 

By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept
as we remembered Zion.
On the willow trees there
we hung up our lyres,
for there those who had carried us captive
asked us to sing them a song,
our captors called on us to be joyful:
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand wither away;
let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my chief joy.

The mood turns ugly here:

Remember, Lord, against the Edomites
the day when Jerusalem fell,
how they shouted, ‘Down with it, down with it,
down to its very foundations!’
Babylon, Babylon the destroyer,
happy is he who repays you
for what you did to us!

But this is the really shocking bit:

Happy is he who seizes your babes
and dashes them against a rock.

‘Happy is he who seizes your babes and dashes them against a rock.’ 

That’s in the Bible‽ 

What do we do with it?

First, let’s look at Psalm 137 as a whole. 

This is the only psalm that tells us when it was first sung. 

By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept
as we remembered Zion.

Jerusalem and its great Temple on the hill of Zion were finally destroyed in 586 BC by Babylon, the great power of the day. The people of Jerusalem were sent into exile in Babylon, which was situated in what we call Iraq. 

The Babylonians were victorious over the people of Judah; the conclusion of both Babylonians and Jews was that the gods of Babylon were more powerful than the God of Israel. 

So when they said to the exiles,

   ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion’

they were taunting them mercilessly. Their God was beaten, powerless. And now, they were in a foreign land, under foreign gods. 

You can perhaps understand why the exiles wanted revenge, how they seethed with the desire for vengeance. So they cursed their enemies: 

Remember, Lord, against the Edomites
the day when Jerusalem fell,
how they shouted, ‘Down with it, down with it,
down to its very foundations!’ 

Edom was to the south of today’s Israel and Jordan; the Edomites cheered Babylon on as they destroyed Jerusalem. 

And of course, the exiles wanted Babylon to suffer: 

Babylon, Babylon the destroyer,
happy is he who repays you
for what you did to us!

In the end, the Babylonian empire did fall, as all empires fall. The exiles were allowed to return home. 

Let’s turn to that last verse, the one some of us might like to delete from the Bible. 

Happy is he who seizes your babes
and dashes them against a rock.

That’s in the Bible? When we sing Psalm 137, we generally don’t include that bit. We could sing that line to ‘By the waters of Babylon’. But we don’t. 

It’s one of those verses where it’s just about impossible to say 

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

This disturbing verse isn’t a promise to us. It’s not permission to kill babies. It belongs to another time, to a time when wiping out entire populations—including the children—was a common part of military strategy. 

So, did God once ‘approve’ of dashing babies against rocks? No, God never did. Were those who did that truly happy in their deepest spirits? They may have felt an adrenaline rush, but that’s not the same thing at all. 

Was it ever right? No, it wasn’t. We can name it as evil. 

So how can we read the last three verses of Psalm 137, against the Edomites and Babylonians, and also against innocent infants?

Let me suggest two ways. The Jewish scholar Robert Adler seems to suggest that exiles may have actually sung those words of vengeance to their tormentors. Of course, they would have sung them in Hebrew; the Babylonians wouldn’t have understood a word. They would have thought they were hearing ‘one of the songs of Zion’. 

So, singing these words may have been a subversive thing to do. An act of resistance. I must confess that I am very drawn to this idea of the words being subversive. 

We can also read the last three verses of Psalm 137 with these things in mind: 

One: it shows us that the Bible has competing ideas about who God is. The Bible is a library of books, where different points of view are hammered out. In the end, the position that emerges is this: God is love. Anything that is not consistent with that can be left to one side. Including the end of Psalm 137. 

Two: we can bring anything to God. Even our most terrible feelings and secrets, even our worst fears. God will hear us, even if our words are unworthy of being called ‘prayer’. Yet: God may use even our unworthy prayers to change our hearts and make them softer. 

Three: last week we talked about empathy. Could we—however briefly—see the world through the exiles’ eyes? They endured so much, it is not beyond our imagination that they may want to hurt their enemies back. To have empathy is to understand, not to approve. Empathy is never wasted. We can all use more. 

The central story of our faith is the story of Jesus, a truly human person in a world that cannot tolerate true humanity. This story of Jesus is also the story of God-with-us, of God rejected by the powers that be. The story of God put to death.  

Yet in the Resurrection, Jesus comes to his disciples with a greeting of ‘Peace be with you’. Imagine if he had come with the desire for vengeance, the desire to dash their heads against a rock. 

God is not like that. God is like Jesus. 

Those today who reveal what God is like are those who simply love others without wanting anything back. Those who forgive when they are wronged. They are those who, when they are called to resist, resist nonviolently. 

The Resurrection points us to a new beginning, a new creation. A new heavens and a new Earth. That new creation is making itself known now, today. We are called to act and live now as part of the new creation. To do all we can to call the powers of government and big business to account, to live sustainably, to forgive those who hurt us, and if we are called to it, to resist nonviolently. Or, as the prophet Micah (6.8) puts it, 

to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God.

The exiles asked ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’ How do we sing, Sunday by Sunday? Last week, we sang All things bright and beautiful. I actually wondered if it was really appropriate to sing those words in a time of climate crisis. 

Yet we can sing it, and any song that glorifies the God made known to us in Jesus. We can sing, because there is no longer any foreign land. Jesus went down into the depths for us; there are no depths untouched or unhealed by him. He is one with all people, wherever and whoever they are. And on the third day, he lifted us all up out of the depths; true life is found in his name. 

Hope is the very air we breathe. Peace be with you. 


West End Uniting Church, 6 October 2019

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Filed under Grief and loss, Lament, Lord have mercy, RCL, sermon, suffering

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