By the waters of Babylon

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent
Psalm 137

When the poets and songwriters of ancient Israel found themselves in places of disorientation and dislocation, they didn’t hesitate to give voice to their pain. They wrote and spoke and sang truthfully; bold and sometimes difficult words uttered to God in prayers and songs of searching lament.

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.


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In exile in Babylon, far from the familiarity of home; far from Jerusalem and all that it symbolized as the heart of the nation and its faith. Thousands of Israel’s citizens taken as captives into Babylon in a military maneuver intended to systematically strip out from the nation those who had made it what it was: the leaders, people with education, skilled artisans, poets and musicians. And then word had come to those exiles living in what amounted to prison ghettoes in this strange land that those remaining in Jerusalem had mounted a desperate rebellion, and that in response the Babylonian army had destroyed their beloved city, razing to the ground its temple. The stories that were making their way to the exiles spoke of horrors almost beyond imagining.

“On the willows there / we hung up our harps”—remember, these are the words of a songwriter. Why have they left their instruments hanging in the branches of the trees? Because “our captors asked us for songs, / and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’” Imagine a couple of Babylonian soldiers patrolling the district in which these Israelites are confined, maybe stumbling across a group of people huddled around a fire. Seeing that one of the these Israelites is holding a harp, a soldier speaks: “Hey Jew boy, sing us one of your folk songs. Hey Jew boy, get up and do one of one of your dances.”

“How could we possibly sing the Lord’s song in a place like this?” the psalmist cries.

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…

Think about that for a minute. With his harp now abandoned on a tree branch, this writer declares that to cheapen the songs of Israel by singing them as quaint entertainment would be to “forget” Jerusalem itself. And if he becomes guilty of doing that, he prays that his right hand will wither and his tongue be rendered useless; he prays, in other words that he will cease to be a musician. Yet how does he give voice to that despair? By writing a new song. It is as if these writers can’t not sing their truth.

We opened worship this evening by singing together a setting of some of these verses, arranged by Don McLean and Lee Hays and released as the closing song on McLean’s classic 1971 record American Pie. With just those few lines of the psalm set to a spare and haunting melody, McLean captures the sorrow-filled longing voiced by the psalmist.

By the waters, the waters of Babylon
We lay down and wept, and wept, for thee Zion
We remember thee, remember thee, remember thee Zion

The psalm, though, doesn’t stop at the shedding of tears of lament. I’d like our reader to return to the lectern and pick up the psalm at verse four, reading through to the end.

4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 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.
7 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!’
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

On Sunday September 16, 2001, just five days after two jet planes were crashed into the twin towers in New York City, the great African-American preacher Jeremiah Wright stood in his pulpit in Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago with the full text of this psalm in hand. Noting that, “Most of us are only familiar with the first six verses of Psalm 137” and that most “have never heard a sermon that touched any of the thoughts or feelings expressed in these last three verses,” Wright boldly placed the entire text before his community as a way of beginning to come to grips with the shock of 9/11. He spoke of the movement that the psalmist makes as his song progresses; from reverence to revenge, from worship to war. “They want somebody to destroy those who devastated them. In fact, they want God to get even with those who did evil.” And here let me quote Jeremiah Wright at some length:

It is a move that spotlights the insanity of the cycle of violence and the cycle of hatred. Look at verse 9… ‘happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rocks.’ The people of faith—‘by the rivers of Babylon,’ ‘how shall we sing the Lord’s song;’ ‘if I forget thee O Jerusalem’—the people of faith have moved from the hatred of armed enemies… to the hatred of unarmed innocents. The babies. The babies. Blessed are they who dash their heads against a rock. And that, my beloved, is a dangerous place to be. Yet, that is where the people of faith are in 551 BC, and that is where far too many people are in 2001 AD. We have moved from the hatred of armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents. We want revenge, we want paybacks, and we don’t care who gets hurt in the process.

What label was used to describe the 2003 bombing of Baghdad? “Shock and awe,” technically known as “rapid dominance.” Do you suppose for a minute that those bombs fell only on Al-Qaeda members, or on the architects of 9/11? Yet somehow it was not only justified, but in many quarters celebrated as right and just repayment. “The people of faith have moved from the hatred of armed enemies… to the hatred of unarmed innocents. The babies. The babies.”

Be clear: that prayer of blessing over those who would dash the Babylonian babies against the rocks is there in the bible. Yet rather than standing as a glorification of violence and vengeance, in the end what this psalm does is to unveil violence for what it is. There’s no sense in which this songwriter is prevented from feeling that desire for vengeance—even of praying it in his song—it is just that God is conspicuously silent in the face of this prayer. The Babylonians remain in control, their babies safe, and the exiles will mount no desperate plan of escape or rebellion. And then finally God’s silence ends, as a letter arrives from the prophet Jeremiah.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (29:4-7)

Not vengeance against Babylon, but prayer. “Pray to the Lord on [Babylon’s] behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Instead of the innocent children of the enemy being brutally murdered, Israelite children are to be conceived and born and nurtured right there, in that place of captivity. Biblically, babies always mean hope, even more so babies born into circumstances of chaos or loss or dislocation. Violence, revenge, and the murder of innocents will not be the final word here; instead it is new life, new beginnings, new hope, cutting against the grain of vengeance.

In the grand biblical narrative even Jeremiah does not speak the final word. Jesus is God’s final word to the world, and in face of his own violent death he speaks the most powerful counter-message to this psalmist and to anyone else who has ever felt a need for vengeance and retribution well up in their souls. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In the very fabric of his life and in these words spoken with dying exhalations from the cross, Jesus once and for all unveils the powerlessness of violence.

We’re still learning that, of course, because for all that we are created in the image of God, and re-created through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, we are all of us caught up and implicated in a long and tangled human story. That’s why it is important to dare to hear this psalmist speak of his disoriented thirst for vengeance—he’s one of us too—on a Sunday in Lent on which we’ll again sing Jesus’ counter-message. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In the end it is the only word we have to offer to a world still locked in seemingly endless cycles of violence and hatred.

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