Tuesday, October 2, 2007

For over four hundred years, the house of David ruled the Kingdom of Judah from Jerusalem. For over four hundred years, the city of Jerusalem remained unconquered. For over four hundred years, the people of Judah believed that as the Lord’s chosen people, they would be ruled by the house of David forever. This was no small claim for a fairly minor kingdom nestled between the great empires of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Assyria. Then, in 586 BCE, the unthinkable happened. The sky fell in. The Babylonian empire conquered Jerusalem and forced many of its inhabitants to relocate to Babylon. This exile reduced to ruins not only their homes, their livelihoods, and their ordinary way of life, but also their very sense of identity relative to God and the rest of the world. Which brings us to where our lament opens today: By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion.

Exile. Prophets had warned that if Judah did not change its ways and more faithfully worship the Lord, evil would betide them, but this? A conquered people? Forced relocation to an alien land? Could this be the fate of the people the Lord freed from slavery in Egypt? The ones set up by the Lord as a free people, neither subject to an empire, nor ruling over one? How could they now be led away captive.

For those who led us away captive asked us for a song, and our oppressors called for mirth: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How could we sing the Lord’s song in an alien land!”

An alien land is not THE Land: The Land promised by the Lord to Abraham. The Land to which Moses led the people through the wilderness. The Land that the Lord promised to David his descendants would rule so long as they remained faithful. How could the Babylonians expect they could sing holy songs away from The Land that defined them and their relationship with the Lord?

Those Babylonians knew how to run an empire. All this forced relocation and exile – this wasn’t about extracting slave labor. And calling for mirth and songs wasn’t about taunting the prisoners. The Babylonians didn’t want an empire of conquered peoples, resentful and eager to break away from Babylon. The Babylonians wanted an empire of Babylonians. Conquering people and forcing them to relocate wasn’t about making them slaves; it was about making them Babylonians. Be happy. Enjoy your new home. Sure, sing one of those songs of Zion – let’s all sing songs of Zion. It’s about as relevant as “being Irish” is on March 17. Or being Christian on December 25. And so the people of Judah’s first reaction was to hang up their harps and refuse to sing at all. And by the waters of Babylon, we sat and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion. The people of Judah did not forget. They were not assimilated. In all their grief and anger, they remembered.

Of course, they weren’t just sitting and weeping anywhere. Those waters of Babylon play a bigger role in our story. The waters of Babylon – the Tigris and Euphrates rivers – those were the rivers that watered the Garden of Eden. All of us share in this story of exile, because all people are exiled children of Eden. Just like Judah, we have a home from which we have been forcibly removed. We are in this world of sin and troubles, but we are not home here. We were not created for this world of sin; we are children of the Most High God, and we were created to tend the garden and dwell in paradise. We find ourselves far from our heavenly home, and under the same pressure to assimilate – to forget that we do not belong to the empires of this world, and to make ourselves at home here.

The siren song of the empires of sin tell us to forget Zion. Forget that we are free people in exile, and join in the empire. Be merry. Get ahead. Look out for number one.

Forget that as children of God, we might be called to live in very particular ways; that’s not how you get ahead. That’s now how you make it. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, so do unto others before they do unto you. That’s what our leaders told us we had to do in Iraq – remember, they said we needed a preemptive strike so the smoking gun of their nuclear program wouldn’t be a mushroom cloud over one of our cities? Do unto others before they do unto you. And now by the waters of Babylon there is O so much weeping today. Soldiers far from their families. A whole country torn apart by war and devastation, with no promising hope of stability anytime in the foreseeable future. Sitting and weeping.

The siren song of Empire calls us to forget our identity as children of Eden and put our trust in the gun and the bomb. The siren song of empire tells us it is unpatriotic to challenge “our” leaders when “our” troops are at war. Because if we have been assimilated into the empire, our leader is in Washington and not in heaven, and our troops carry American flags and aren’t the host of angels, and there is no greater sin than “unpatriotism” (if that’s even a word). But when patriotism and reverence for the rulers of this world come before our obligations and identity with the kingdom of heaven, there’s a word for this: idolatry.

And whether you’re a pacifist or you believe in the Just War tradition, there’s no room in Christian ethics for a morally permissible war of aggression, which is what a preemptive invasion really is.

But I’m not cataloging our past silence so we can feel bad about it. I bring up the relative silence of the people of God – sure, some of us said something, but not enough – about the last war not so we can feel bad, but because the drums are already beating for the next war. The devastation in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t enough, apparently. Presidential candidates are already making threatening noises about the coming war with Iran. The drums are beating; can we followers of the Lord raise a different tune?

By the waters of Bablyon, we sat down and wept when we remembered you, O Zion. How could we sing the Lord’s song in an alien land?

Beyond grief and anger (ten minutes is too short, but if we had longer, I’d love to unpack the last verses of this psalm with you all today), the people of Judah moved on to trying to sing the Lord’s song in an alien land. The curses they wished on themselves if they were to forget the Lord – the tongue cleaving to the roof of the mouth, the right hand forgetting its skill – this is all about playing the harp and singing. But how does one sing the Lord’s song in an alien land? For Judah, singing the Lord’s song had previously been all about the Promised Land. You just don’t sing the Lord’s song anywhere else. But the people of Judah decided to sing the Lord’s song, despite all that. The rest is all grace.

Somehow, against all likelihood, they managed to write down their stories, their traditions, their songs. Somehow, against all likelihood, they kept their identity as a people in the midst of the Babylonian empire. Somehow, they sang the songs of Zion not as a “once upon a time” story, but as something that defined them and their way of life right as they sang them. That “somehow” is by grace, and that grace made them ready for when deutero-Isaiah cried out “In the wilderness, prepare a highway for the Lord, or as Peter Gabriel put it, “Pack your things, I’ve come to take you home.” Return from exile couldn’t have happened without the grace to sing the Lord’s song in an alien land.

So how can we sing the Lord’s song in an alien land? We exiled children of Eden, free children of God exiled to an empire of sin – how can we sing the Lord’s song in an alien land and not succumb to the siren song of sin? Left to our own devices, we cannot.

But God’s grace is an active grace, seeking us out and teaching us to sing the Lord’s song. Teaching us to sing about God’s law, and not the laws of the world. The siren song of sin sings to us that our safety comes from mighty armies, from preemptive attacks against threats, from shock and awe at the destruction we can unleash, from the rocket’s red glare and the bombs bursting in air. God gives us the grace to sing that our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. The siren song of sin tells us that we cannot sleep at night unless we torture the bad guys to find our what they’re up to, but God gives us the grace to sing that we lie down in peace; at once we fall asleep for only in God do we rest in safety. The siren song of sin tells us to enlist in the armies of empire, and train to become a mighty warrior to defend our friends and neighbors, but God gives us the grace to sing that no greater love is there than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, and that the greatest power of all is vulnerable, self-emptying love.

This song is hard to sing! The songs of empire are catchier, and a lot less scary. How can we sing the Lord’s song in the face of all this? How can we possibly resist the drums of war, and I tell you they’re already beating again, when our song is so hard to hear?

Only by grace. Only by grace.

And that’s what God gives us. Hallelujah!