This Sunday’s sermon has generated more feedback than any other in my previous 10+ years as an ordained pastor. I’ve received anger and thanksgiving because of it. I welcome the conversation and hope you will read or listen. The text is below the video. #kneeling #smileforme #religionandsociety#WeAreTheBabylonians #tpcsermon #culpable
I think I am a relatively sympathetic parent.
I think I have demonstrated that in the way I have parented my children. I don’t overly critique them but neither do I hold my tongue.
Sometimes, I give them advice that they don’t want and I watch them respond during those times with pouting and sulking – and that bothers me when I watch them cross their arms or stomp their feet or give me a scowl. It makes me angry and I want them to just cheer up. So, I tell them that: “Stop pouting and smile! Just be in a good mood!”
The problem with that is not only does it not work, but often I am the one who is actually at fault.
I have made my fair share of parenting faux pas and I have asked them to do or not do something that in hindsight was absolutely the wrong choice…but I’m going to own the decision and I stick with it out of spite, for consistency’s sake, to show that I’m in charge. And I’ll remind them of it, so I tell them “Of course you’re going to do that thing and you better like it and smile now!”
Because I don’t want to admit that I’m wrong and I certainly don’t want to admit that they are justified in feeling upset or to have that scowl on their faces.
It’s one thing to know that someone’s upset, it’s another thing to see their frustration and to know that you caused it. I don’t like that type of shame.
Psalm 137 is all about that feeling.
It’s a Psalm written at one of the lowest points in the history of Israel. The people have just seen Jerusalem, the holy city, Zion, destroyed and raised before their very eyes. And the survivors of this horrific experience are either killed or immediately taken into slavery. The few that do escape to run off into the hills away from the city that is burning? They’re captured by their neighbors the Edomites in the East and the South. The Edomites mercilessly hand them over the Babylonians. There is no relief. There is no chance that they are going to get away from this.
And that is where we encounter the Israelites on the road back to Babylon sitting by the river, mourning the loss of their city when their Babylonian captors look at them and say “Stop moping about! Stand up and sing us a happy song! We’ve heard about how you all sang all those songs to your god in that temple.” The one they just destroyed. “We want to hear one of those songs. We want you to sing us something happy. Come on, come on now. Stand up. Pick up your harps.”
And they’re ordered to do something nice because the Babylonians don’t want to see them sulking about.
The people cannot help but ask themselves in the Psalm, “How can we possibly sing a happy song when Jerusalem has been destroyed and we have been conquered? How can we now be expected to sing a song of joy to the Lord, when the Lord has abandoned us, and allowed our whole country to be destroyed? How could we sing of such good things in the midst of such bad?”
“Just cheer up” Is a mockery of their struggle and unfortunately that commandment has been given throughout history to slaves, serfs, and the poor in the midst of a similar call to just deal with your lot in life. Stop making those who are in charge feel so bad about themselves, because you live in squalor or because you are a slave. I’m sorry you’re born that way, but just smile a little bit and be thankful for what we’re giving you.
Many of the prophecies, poems, and psalms written during the exile were written in a tone of a people who mourned what had happened, but at least they had a feeling of things POSSIBLY getting better. They’re anticipating something that is going to come back to them. They would extol the virtues of glorious Zion of the past and long for those days to return.
Well, Psalm 137 is unique because it does not do that. It mourns what happens. It laments what is currently there and it seeks vengeance on the people in the future.
The Psalmist doesn’t have hope yet…not yet.
It’s a sad song about a time before and the thought of joy and the return to Zion is transformed into the sadness of not being there now. And the enemy mocks the people for this and tells them, “Just play a happy song, why is it so hard for you to do that?” The slave master tells the slaves, “Smile and be docile.”
And unfortunately this scene has played itself out in our own American south as African American slaves were expected to smile before their masters and accept their lot in life without disruption, dissent, or rebellion. And in more recent times we still see people telling others in our country to stop causing such a fuss – “Stop kneeling before the flag, stop speaking out against our president, stop catering to those immigrants who have come here illegally. And stop making us feel bad about ourselves! Just be thankful for what you have. Don’t you see all that you have been given? It’s not my fault that your family were slaves generations ago. It’s not my fault that you didn’t get to go to college. It’s not my fault that you’ve lived in poverty all your life. Stop bringing it up! Just be thankful! Just sing a happy song! Is that so hard for our country to do? Stand up, sing a patriotic tune!”
And as the divisions continue to widen in our own country between rich and poor, the haves and the have nots, we hear similar refrains from the ruling class telling the under-served and under-valued, “Stop expecting so much from your government. Accept your place in life.” And just as some courageous souls in our country have identified the terrible inequities and not recognized white privilege in a male dominated society, others seem to be crying out to those voices like the Babylonians saying, “Stop complaining about privilege. Stop talking about race so much. Just leave the monuments up, they’re not hurting you. And why does the church need to keep harping on substandard clean up in Puerto Rico, on refugees, on healthcare for all people. Can’t you preachers just say something nice? I didn’t come to church to get yelled at. Can’t you preachers just say something nice about love? Isn’t that why we go to church, have the kids come up and sing another song, no one wants to hear your liberal whining and your guilt coming out on the pulpit!”
That is the conversation I’ve had for ten straight years in ministry anytime I have dared to go out on a limb just a little bit and say something squeamish and squishy about our own place in this world.
I am then told by congregants, by people who listen, by people in the community, “You know that’s nice but that’s really not your place. You don’t really understand the political so why don’t you just stick with the religious. And my goodness, Jesus doesn’t care about Obamacare and Jesus doesn’t care about flags. Let us debate those things over there.”
And I disagree because this is the time.
This is the place of all places in our community to actually say something.
The exiles could not just sing a happy song of Thanksgiving to God because things were not right.
They were not fair.
They were not equitable to all people in God’s kingdom and they couldn’t be expected to stand up there and give some asinine, apathetic song of joy when their temple is on fire, they’re living as slaves, and they’re told, “That’s just the way it is!”
How can any of us be expected to sing easy songs about cheap grace, individual salvation, Thanksgiving for our lives of abundance when the rest of the world cries out for just a piece, just a taste, of what we’ve actually experienced and what our God longs to give us.
As evangelical Christians, we desire to share the good news of Jesus Christ’s life giving gospel. But my God, it’s like pouring salt on the wounds of those who are already living in a gutter. Tell them: “It’s okay because one day you’re going to be in the sweet by and by. At the end of this life we’re all going to heaven. And right now… good luck! You’re a slave and you were born a slave, I’m so sorry about that. Can you pick a little more cotton for me, because one day it’s going to be better! I know you’re poor right now and it really does seem hard, but that’s just the way that capitalism works here in our country and maybe if you get a break, maybe if you worked a little harder, maybe if you stopped complaining and got out there and got a better job you too would be in the place that I’m in.”
We don’t want to hear that we are culpable.
The Babylonians certainly did not want to hear the Hebrew people singing songs of lament, because the Babylonians were the ones who put them there. So no, they don’t want to be reminded that they killed their families and burned down their cities and holy temple. The Babylonians want to get past that and how come those Jews can’t get past it. That happened so long ago. Just stop and sing a happy song. Babylonians don’t want to fix their own culpability in that moment.
Likewise, we – I – never like hearing that my privilege my exceptionalism my great abundance comes on the backs of those who lack so much of what we take for granted.
Shame on me.
Shame on us.
No, we must sing songs of lament with our neighbors who are longing for liberation.
We must sing with the refugee who wishes he could return to his homeland, but can’t and now is here being told that he is illegal, that he is the other, and that he’s not welcome.
We must sing songs of lament with victims of economic slavery, mass incarceration, racial injustice that continues feet away from our doorsteps. This is stuff that makes us uncomfortable because we live in a land that not only continues to allow, but at times promotes and maintains systems that insist that this is just the way things are.
No, we cannot just sit by, grin and bear it and sing happy songs any longer.
Yes, Jesus acknowledged the poor would always be in our midst, but then he went out and tried to help them. He offered relief, hope and salvation. So let us partner with our Lord and savior who was not playing a fiddle while Jerusalem burned, rather he was standing outside the destroyed temple with his exiled sisters and brothers longing for a better kingdom.
Let us work for a better way to pray with our friends and enemies alike hoping for a day when they will all be free and let us not kid ourselves.
And let us not kid ourselves as we read Psalm 137.
For we are not the Jews in this Psalm, we are the Babylonians.