Sunday, April 22, 2018
Sermon Audio
Full Service Audio
It was in a waiting room on the Monday after the terrible events in Tisdale, Saskatchewan, that I sat with others watching a TV screen.  The sound wasn’t on very loud, but the pictures captured us all.  The pictures, as you know now were of a bus on its side with its roof sheared off and green hockey bags scattered around it.  Adjacent to it was a blue tractor-trailer truck, also severely mangled, at an intersection that looked like chaos.  It had been seventy-two hours since the accident on that Friday, yet somehow the images gripped everyone.  Nobody really knew what to say.  I think we averted our eyes for a moment.  Then a familiar song by Tom Cochrane cam on, Big League:  “My boy wants to play in the big league...”  We stopped and just listened to the song.  It was sad.  That evening, the BBC made the comment that a whole nation was mourning, and they were right.  It had touched everyone:  innocents, youth, our sport, our players, our heritage, snuffed out.
It reminded me of the legend I heard as a boy growing up in Lancashire about the great matches of the Manchester United team of 1958 that was involved in an air crash on February 6th in Munich.  Most of the team were killed.  The manager’s life was saved. I met him years later and he called it “the horror of his life”. It brought into line the importance of real things.  Sometimes these tragedies happen and you wonder how you can even sing in the midst of them.  How can you grasp the reality of them and deal with them?  Everyone grieved themselves, because it reminded us of our mortality.  If teenagers or young men flying from Germany lose their lives, then how mortal are we?  There is a collective sense, collective grief, collective horror, and how do you sing the Lord’s song at such a time?  
It is for that reason that Psalm 137 is so incredibly powerful.  It is a psalm that when you look at the Lectionary will only give you the first four verses, not the whole Psalm.  I never understood why, because in this Psalm there is the whole ebb and flow of human moods and attitudes towards difficult things.  While it is incomplete, it is nonetheless a powerful thing.  It helps people grieve.  It explains how we feel, but it is inadequate.  The psalmist wrote:  “How do we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”  What he is doing and what the group around him is doing, for it is in the first person plural “how do ‘we’ sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”  When they wrote this they had already returned to Jerusalem, but were recollecting what happened to them in Babylon when they were exiles, when they had no home, no land, and all they could think of was returning to Jerusalem.  They couldn’t sing the Lord’s song at that time.  There were no words for them to express their grief.  Yet this Psalm tries to capture it.  It tries to capture how we deal with grief and difficult things:  “How do you sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
There were some clear examples of this, and one of them is what I call — I wouldn’t normally do this and, but because of the Blessing of the Pets service earlier this morning — I call it “The Cocker Spaniel Method”.  The Cocker Spaniel Method is from many years of experience of my own, which is what I call instinctive presence, that sense that presence makes a difference when you are going through a difficult time or you don’t know what to say.  The thing about most pets is that they are present with you.  They don’t know what you are going through, they don’t know the problems that have beset you, they have no idea what is causing you to feel grief, sorrow, misery, or joy and exultation for that matter.  They just want to be with you, pure and simple!  No questions asked; no explanations required.  Nothing!  They just instinctively know that by being there it makes a difference, and it does.  It did for the people of Israel.  The fact that they wanted to sing a song; that they wanted to be with one another; that they were remembering Zion and Jerusalem and the Temple – they knew that presence can actually make a difference.  
The problem with those who wrote this Psalm is that they remembered Jerusalem and they remembered Zion, and they thought that the presence of each other in the Temple was a comforting, powerful thing.  They remembered that, but they had forgotten their God.  They had lost their faith and were struggling with their fears and doubts.  They were wondering if there was anything transformative in this.  A hug, an embrace, a dog’s wonderful calming presence on your lap, a visit from a Stephen Minister, these can all help tremendously, just as being in the Temple singing the praises of God and Zion can be comforting, but they cannot do that one thing that only God can do, and so they say, “How do we then sing the Lord’s song in this room?”  Maybe the other option they had was simply to name it.  Maybe they just needed to say it, to talk about it, to let it out:  their frustrations, their anger.  Maybe that is all they needed to do.  That is why this recollection of what happened in Babylon all those years ago was so important to them.  They even gave details of what it was like:  “By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”  
The rivers of Babylon were a series of streams and canals that ran between the Tigress and the Euphrates rivers – the heart of Mesopotamia.  This was a beautiful place and was, in fact, one of the origins of human civilization.  But even by those rivers, even with all the natural beauty, wasn’t enough for them.  They still dreamt of Zion and of Jerusalem.  I hear many people tell me that they love to commune with nature, with the beauty of it all, just like the people of Israel did when they sat down by the rivers of Babylon.  But it is not enough!  Something more is needed, because even with all that beauty, they couldn’t sing the Lord’s song.  They remembered the poplar trees that grew up beautifully in the wadis and the waters around these rivers, but on those trees they hung their lyres, their harps, their playing instruments.  They couldn’t play the Lord’s song no matter how beautiful the poplar trees were; they were tormented.  The Babylonians made fun of them, laughed at them and belittled them:  “Come, sing us your songs of Zion!  You will feel better if you do.”  They remembered it all, and they said, “We will not sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land.”  It is not only a statement of sadness; it is a statement of defiance.  “We will not sing it!  You can torment us all you want.  We will not!  
It was fascinating watching the hockey game last night and hearing the muted chants about the goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs from the Boston fans when Boston scored.  What was staggering was, and I am sure there were many in Toronto chanting the name of the Boston goalie when Toronto scored, there is nothing quite as exciting as tormenting a goalie who is letting in goals, is there?  It is one of the things that binds us together.  This is how the Babylonians were feeling with the Israelites:  “Go ahead, sing you songs Israel!  Think of your Zion, because you are not there!”  It gave the Babylonians pleasure.  The Israelites were defiant: “We will not sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land!”  There was history here.  They were naming it; they were declaring it; they were remembering it.
The third option was the really dark one:  Vengeance.  This Psalm is known as an imprecatory psalm, a psalm of judgement, of sorrow and of vengeance.  At the heart of this it is very strong.  Let me repeat the last two stanzas:
Remember Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell? 
‘Tear it down’ they cried, ‘tear it down to its foundations,
daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction.’  
Happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. 
Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
This is vengeance!  This is hoping that the Babylonians will have no future.  Kill the infants, kill their future.  This is a dark and a vengeful moment.  But the Psalm is for real.  So often, when there is a crisis, we look to blame someone.  We find relief in knowing that we can find a cause for it, or a scapegoat.  As I mentioned recently before, we are in a society that is sometimes doomed by its love of schadenfreud:  of the suffering of others.  Oftentimes borne out of vengeance:  if we can blame someone, then we can make sense of our grief; if we can deal with our sorrows, then we can just name it.  This Psalm is horrible!  I am amazed it is in the Bible, but I am glad it is there, because in and of itself it expresses what so many people feel when they face tragedy.
It also shows how much we need the Luke passage.  If the Bible were to end with babes dashed against stones, what kind of a Bible would we have?  The beautiful thing about The Gospel of Luke is that I consider this the Easter message.  The Easter message is the better way.  It is God’s ultimate way.  You see, the psalmists had lost their faith, they really had.  They were struggling with how to sing the Song of the Lord in Zion.  They had forgotten their God.  But God had not forgotten humanity.  The disciples, after the death of Jesus, after Good Friday, were down.  We talked about that the last couple of weeks.  They felt that their world had been destroyed and they were grieving.  Yet, into the midst of this comes Jesus, and his words to them are transformative: “Peace be with you.”  
There were two great things that he offered them, the first was an important presence.  Back in Babylon they had wanted someone to be with them.  This was more.  This was God coming to them, being present in them, and being real.  Jesus affirmed that he wasn’t a ghost.  He was here.  He is the risen Lord. This wasn’t an ordinary moment. This was heaven breaking into Earth and transforming people.  This was God, not at a distance, but real.  This wasn’t a god of philosophical detachment; it was a god who came and loved.  It wasn’t a god who came in vengeance; this was a god who came to restore and redeem.  Jesus asked them, “Why are you downhearted?  You don’t need to be.”  Then he revealed himself with a fish, for they had many meals of fish with him during his earthly life.  They knew he was there:  Heaven had come to Earth and changed it.
They had also created a safe place.  I don’t think unless we’ve lived in a place of war or conflict that we understand the importance of a safe place.  Most of our homes are safe; most of the places where we work are safe.  When you think of a safe place, then you can sing your songs, have your meals, and enjoy your family and friends.  You can be at peace.  Israel had thought it had a safe place:  Zion and Jerusalem.  That is where they belonged.  If you want to understand many of the attitudes of the Middle East right now, you have to understand Psalm 137.  When you don’t think you have a safe place, then you wonder whether you can exist.  A safe place was what was needed, and they didn’t have it.  They didn’t have it because Zion had been taken from them.  They could return to their homes, but Jesus was dead.  They needed to be somewhere safe.  People in situations of war and conflict have no steady places, and it is destabilizing.  It is as if all the boundaries of life have gone.  Many people felt that with the Humboldt accident.  Where is safe anymore?  Can you imagine the mothers and fathers putting their sons and daughters on buses to go to another event the week after Humboldt?  It must have been terrifying!  The same with the disciples!
As I was commenting at the Blessing of the Pets earlier this morning, animals need safe places.  Anyone who has owned an animal or looked after an animal will tell you that they love to have a den, a safe place:  a blanket, a bed, a cage, a corner in a room, somewhere that they feel they are safe.  If you look at animals in the wild, and I used to see them scatter in the early morning when the sun would rise in the Kalahari. All the animals would run into their burrows and their dens to safety and security.  We all need that.  It is part of who we are.  We need to feel safe.  But how do we feel safe when the boundaries are blown apart?  That is where God comes in.  God is our safe place.  When the disciples were unsure of what they should do and they felt no peace, it was God who came to them in Christ and said, “Peace be with you.”  Where there are no physical boundaries to protect you, there is still always the presence of God in Christ.  There is in fact no place, no boundary that is needed when God is in the midst of things.
When we face terror, when we face those broken boundaries, when we feel we are in unsafe places that is precisely the moment when, like the people of Israel, we need God.  A hug and the presence of the others in the Temple wasn’t enough.  Simply naming it, talking about it, and sharing grief is not enough.  Vengeance is not enough.  What was needed was God.  For the disciples, God had come to them.  That, my friends, is the Good News!  That is why Easter really matters regardless of your mood. Amen.