How can we sing the LORD’s song in estranged land?

Psalm 137

The psalm I have chosen for today is not the one set by the lectionary for this week, although it does appear in the lectionary elsewhere. It’s one of those psalms that the lectionary cuts back for public reading so not all of the verses are set to be read aloud in worship. We tend to drop the final two verses of this one because they aren’t really conducive to the family-values ethic we are going for in the Christian Church.

Psalm 137 was probably written during the time of the Exile of the Jewish people in Babylon and so was written around the same time as the events it describes. It’s full of raw emotion, spur of the moment type stuff, and that is why it can make for uncomfortable reading. This song of God’s people speaks about their deep sense of despair; they have lost their reason for hope and they have lost all of the joy that comes from belonging and believing. Babylon is a place of defeat and ridicule, the people feel displaced and despondent. They are being mocked by their captors.

When have you ever felt like that? What sort of situation might cause you to feel that way?

But loss and displacement is not everything that is going on here; this is also a song of remembrance. “We shall not forget” is the key statement of this song. We shall not forget Zion and the place we came from, and we shall not forget the abuse we are suffering now. We will see this through, we will rise again, and we will be vindicated, because if we don’t remember then we are finished.

I like the word remembering and the idea of breaking it down into its syllables. To remember is to re-member, because what is not remembered is not only forgotten it is dis-membered, and may be lost forever. In the film “The Monuments Men”, set during the last months of WWII, a group of US soldiers runs ahead of the D-Day landings and the Allied advance into France to stop the retreating Nazis from destroying all of the loot they have plundered from across Europe in the previous four years. In particular they want to save and preserve the great art works and literature of the Jewish people. The commander of the group, played by George Clooney, says “if you destroy an entire generation of a people’s culture it’s as if they’ve never existed.” Hitler probably knew at this stage that he would not wipe out the Jews, there would be men and women who survived the camps and in hiding, as well as those not living in Europe at all; but if Hitler and the Wehrmacht could wipe away the Jewish people’s art then these survivors might just forget their culture . Some people will live on but their “Jewishness”, if not Judaism itself, will be lost. The Psalmist writing in Babylon is facing a similar threat and he sings that that loyalty lies in the work of remembering and actively resisting forgetting. A remnant will return to Zion eventually, but what will be the point if they have forgotten how to be Jewish?

“We await redemption with perseverance” is their motto, even if they are made to wait in tears and grimaces.

So what about those final three verses? What do we think about the people of God praying against grace that God would remember the sins of Edom and Babylon and repay those nations for their goading against Israel and Judah? “We are angry at what has happened to us and we demand vindication and relief” says the Psalmist.

What do we think?

I think these verses say that it is okay to be angry at what has happened to you, and at the attempt made to destroy the work of God in history because anger shows concern. The indifferent may be passive, but the passionate show their care by their resistance. May those who tried to cut us off from our Past be themselves cut off from the Future. Like you I’m not keen on the idea of babies being dashed against rocks, and even if someone were to murder my one year old nephew in that way I don’t think I’d be raiding the local kinder-gym to return the favour to the children of my enemies, but I understand the strong feeling of wanting to obliterate those who have hurt me so maliciously. I am comfortable with these verses being in the Bible, not because they are a teaching to “go thou and do likewise”, but because they demonstrate that God can handle our blinding fury at injustice and the attempt of our enemies to deny and remove God’s name from history and God’s people from existence.

But this is where the message gets hard, and as preacher I become somewhat introspective. Allowing that the service so far has been focussed on remembering the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia, how does this verse sit? On what side of the psalm are we, the Second People in this land?

In Australia the situation is radically different to that of the Judahites in exile because here the people of the land weren’t removed, they were just overwhelmed by newcomers. Australia is more like the occupied Judea of Jesus’ day, full of Jews but full also of Romans and Greeks. Australia is more like the Israel and Palestine of today, full of Israeli Jews but full also of Arabs and Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, and fuller still of Jewish émigrés from Europe and North America. We can ask in the light of Psalm 137 how First Nations people feel about living in a Second People’s religious and social culture.

How can they sing the LORD’s song in estranged land?

Do the Kaurna who sit by the rivers of Adelaide weep when they remember Karra wirra-parri or Tarndanyangga? What do the Cadigal people think, that sub-tribe of the Eora nation who inhabited Cadi, the place we now call Circular Quay (Sydney Cove)? How do they sing the LORD’s song? Or do we persist in the belief that the LORD’s song was not known until the British turned up in 1836 and 1788 respectively?

I don’t want to talk too much about this, not because I don’t think it important but out of respect that I am not aboriginal. My people, on both sides of my family, are English. Dad’s ancestry is London back five generations from him, Mum is Kentish but her parents are from the North of England, grandpa was a Yorkshire man and nana was a Geordie from Co. Durham. I am in the same place as you, a whitefulla looking in. This Australian sense of exile is not my story.

But I can imagine how I’d feel.

I think I’d feel alienated and cut off from reality. The words don’t match the pictures any more, kind of like watching an advertisement for Australia overseas where the images are of Uluru but the words are in Czech. Or perhaps going to Hahndorf and drinking European beer in a European building surrounded by the nasal twang of Strayan accents.

I think I’d feel like this is where I am from, but I don’t feel welcome. This is how I felt in Melbourne last month when I was in the city I was born in, and hanging out with the kids I went to school with, (all of whom, like me, are 42 years old) but I did not recognising anyone or anything. Waverley of the 1980s no longer exists and there’s a weird place called Monash there in 2014 with much larger buildings, much fewer gardens, and wide, busy roads. I would feel like a stranger in the one place where I should feel completely at home.

I think I’d feel like I don’t belong anymore. And that would make me angry because this is where I am FROM, God-bless-it! This is my land, my home, my inheritance and my present from God. It is my responsibility and it is under my stewardship but these pasty-faced buggers on their sailing ships and their green-and-gold face paint are mucking the whole place up!!! To have lost a sense of belonging in your own homeland is to feel exiled and alienated everywhere

As Christians we are citizens of another place, and many immigrant Australians know that even if their family has been here for generations, (like my dad and his family have been), that they are not “from here” in the way that the local Nunga and Anangu, Koori, Yolngu, Pallawah and Lia Pootah are. Christians are always far from home, and like the Judahites in Babylon we must never forget who we really are, but at the same time we must respect those upon whose territory we walk as newcomers. We must share the good news of Jesus Christ died and raised to life, but we must never isolate and estrange people from the unique image of God in which they were made, and the specific acts of stewardship entrusted to them by our same God. The gospel of grace does NOT authorise us to be bullies. We must tread boldly but with respect: we are walking on holy ground on holy business, but we are not the first persons to do so.

Amen.

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