How Can We Sing in a Strange Land?
A sermon on Psalm 137 by The Rev. Dr. David Clark at Bay Shore Community Congregational Church (UCC) in Long Beach, California.
How can we sing in a strange land? This sermon on Psalm 137 deals with those times in life when life throws you a curve. How do you handle it when the familiar has been ripped away and you find yourself in unfamiliar territory? This sermon gives strategies for moving forward in faith. With all that is happening with COVID-19 and the unrest in our country right now, we can gain strategies from people who got through devastating circumstances before us. Let’s explore what Psalm 137 says about dealing with times when our world gets rocked.
A Sense of Disorientation
The Psalm comes from a time of the Babylonian Exile which started about the year 586 before Christ. Israel had just been conquered in a terrible war. Despite prophetic warnings when it happened people were stunned. The Israelites trusted that being God’s chosen people, surely meant God wouldn’t let them fall. And then the unthinkable happened. Jerusalem was sacked, the holy Temple, the source of national identity and pride was demolished. In comparison, it must have been like that sense of shock and disbelief we felt on 9/11 when the towers collapsed.
Most of the citizens were force-marched hundreds of miles to Babylon. There they were separated from each other and they had to make new lives in a strange and foreign land with an unfamiliar culture, their own ways of doing things, a different language, strange Gods.
The people were lost and disoriented. It was hard to believe that this had happened. It was hard to believe in God because this had happened.
Similarly, right now we are disoriented. Our familiar routines and way of life have been disrupted. We have been forced into a physically distanced, mask required, online oriented situation and it feels like a strange land we have entered. So much has changed for us. Thus, it’s good to look back to see how people of faith handled such disorientation in the past. We rehearse scripture’s story so it will build faith’s muscle memory to help us through.
How Can We Sing in a Strange Land? Lesson 1. Sing the Blues.
The heart of the Psalm asks a question: How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange or foreign land? That is, how do we praise, how do we connect to God, to our culture? How do we keep from getting consumed by what has happened and go on with the business of living?
Thus, the beginning of the Psalm sets the national mood.
By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
To get through, you tell the truth about how much it hurts. They wept. They didn’t mask their grief over what had been lost. As a culture, we’re lousy at grief work. We’d rather skip this it. But faith teaches us that we don’t have to be bouncy and smiley all the time. Ecclesiastes says there is a time to mourn. Mourning isn’t a sign of faithlessness, as the Apostle Paul said, “We grieve, but not as those who have no hope.”
Psychologists tell us that when we deny our grief and don’t deal with it, there are usually horrible consequences. It eats away out of us and causes us harm. We all have our own ways of expressing grief. The point is to let it out.
Draw the sadness out to make room for the dance to come in.
I went to an Irish concert and listened to the music of Tommy Sands and much of it was very soulful and dark. Tommy said to the audience, “We sing the blues not to make ourselves sad but draw the sadness out make room for the dance to come in.” We don’t wail and rage because that is how we want to feel – we wail and rage because we have to let those emotions out before they become toxic. They are the pressure valves of our emotional lives – they help us to vent – to clear out the darkness – to make way for things like hope and compassion and forgiveness and love.
Scholars call Psalm 137 a Psalm of Lament. Like all psalms, it’s written in verse. It’s a song, a sad song. Therefore, let us honor it by singing a song of lament our time of lament for the 135,000 people who have died. Let us lament over the fracturing of our sense of national unity. Let us sing the blues for families who can’t get together, for people facing impossible decisions. For families who could not be at the bedsides of their loved ones.
Let us grieve but not as those who have no hope, to make room for the light.
How Can We Sing in a Strange Land? Lesson two: Express to God Your Sense of Disorientation.
The Psalm says, “On the willows, we hung up our harps,” (think the small instrument, called a lyre, not a big instrument). How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Without the temple, they didn’t know how to worship, how to connect to God. There were sacrifices that could only be done in the temple. Their religious practice was very site-specific and rigid patterns.
Likewise, we are going through that now. Over the last months, I’ve thought about this psalm many times. I circled July 19 on my calendar as the day I hoped we’d be back to some form of live worship with live online streaming. Then we learned that the state prohibits singing in live worship services and congregational responsive prayers. How do we sing in a strange land without being able to sing? What is it to worship in meaningful ways right now? “How?” is our question. Like the people in exile we have this desire to connect but have to figure out how to do it, how to appropriate new forms of worship.
COVID-19 Puts us all in a strange land and we are all asking “How?”
In like manner, I’m sure you are asking the question “How” in different areas of your life. How are we going to safely educate our kids, how will teachers figure out? Parents want to know how they will cope? Businesses are figuring out how to do things differently. Grandparents and kids are asking how can they bond when the best you can get is the Zoom with its sense of artificiality Yes, we want to end systemic racism, but how? What does that look like, what does it take? How do we get there?
What do you do when disoriented? You breathe, remain calm, trust God is with you and you persevere. Find new ways. You figure it out and come to accept that during the exile period, it’s not the same so quit wrenching your guts trying to make it the same and feeling devastated when it’s not.
Singing Protest Songs that point to Hope in the foreign land.
The psalm talks about how they were tormented by their captors. The captors said sing for us your happy songs. We defeated you. Where is your God now? He didn’t protect you, give you victory. The Babylonians demanded performances reminiscent of slave masters in this count. “O sing us your songs. Put on a happy face for us.” Thus the slaves sang and performed but they did it in a subversive way that kept hope alive. They sang Swing Low Sweet Chariot that was really about the underground railroad. Many of the spirituals have that subversive sense that looked forward to true freedom.
I wonder if today the poets will fashion new protest songs. New chants. New expressions that express dissatisfaction of the world as it is in hopes of closing the gap to help us get to the world as it should be, the world God intends.
How Can We Sing in a Strange Land? Lesson three: Adapt and Overcome
Some of you, particularly those who served in the Marines know this phrase, “Adapt and overcome.” Recognize the new situation for what it is and rise to meet the challenge.
During the exile, the Israelites found a way to keep their culture while getting along with those who were around them. No temple? So what? They devised the synagogue system, like little churches for their individual communities. Subsequently, faith turned out to be more accessible to everyone, not just those who lived close to the temple in the capital city of Jerusalem. There was more local contact with the faith, they had teachers, rabbis ordinary folks could talk with that weren’t accessible before.
In the same way, we are trying to figure out how we can make positive gains. We can either look at this as a time of interruption where we go back to old ways, or a time of innovation. Reach people hadn’t reached before. Find ways of connecting with God in our daily lives through spiritual practices (my devotions). We can connect with each other. But the challenge is to persevere and not hang up our harps and quit. It’s okay to name the pain. Start there, but don’t end there. Figure it out. Adapt and overcome.
How Can We Sing in a Strange Land? Lesson four: Give it All to God (even the ugly sentiments you carry in your heart).
There is an awful part of the Psalm about being happy if someone would do the unthinkable to their captors and dash their infants’ heads against the stones. It is abhorrent to find it in the Bible. But the Psalms are about this brutal honesty of emotions. There is no evidence that revenge was taken, that anyone actually delighted in this. That they held onto this anger beyond the initial shock. This verse was a way of naming their ugly anger and desire to see their enemies suffer. It’s awful. There is awful stuff in our hearts and we have to give that over to God, too. Recognize it is there and give it to God.
The Psalm teaches that you don’t have to clean up your prayers to make them pretty. God interested in honesty. Connecting with you. God can handle your anger. Try to be more honest with God about everything. Say a prayer not filled with what you think God wants to hear from you, but have it out. Job did this. Moses did too. In that struggle with God they came to new levels of understanding and deeper relationship and gave it to God rather than mistreating someone else.
Subsequent Psalms give us the strategy for dealing with it our resentment. Faith. They continually recount the great acts of God and lean into the promises that God is at work to make things better in this world. Rehearse the great acts of God, create that faith-muscle-memory. The belief that God will lead them through this, too. Go ahead and name your grief, your sense of disorientation and even your anger. And rehearse the Great acts of God until that song of hope emerges from you. Amen.