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How do you survive the tough times?

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Psalm 137:1-4

By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our harps.  For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors demanded songs of joy, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”  How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

This psalm is one of the few psalms that we can connect with a specific time period and event.  The psalmist is talking about the period of Israel’s history known as the Babylonian Exile.  For those who have forgotten, scholar Rolf Jacobson explains it this way: “In 597 BCE, the armies of Babylon forced the capitulation of the rebellious city Jerusalem and deported the Judean king and many Judean leaders to Babylon.  Ten years later, in 587/6 BCE, after Jerusalem had rebelled again, the Babylonians razed Jerusalem and its temple and deported a second wave of Judean leaders. . . .For those deportees forced to live in Babylon, the future seemed a black hole into which the people were destined to disappear.  A century-and-a-half previously, many citizens of Judah’s sister kingdom Israel had been similarly deported, had lost their identity, and had faded into the mists of history–the so-called lost tribes of Israel.  The exile was more than just a crisis of physical suffering and communal identity.  It also necessitated a crisis of faith.

The key symbols of Judean faith—Jerusalem, its temple, its people, and the Davidic monarchy—had been destroyed.  According to the theological rationality of the ancient world, many exiled Judeans assumed that their deity had been defeated by a stronger deity from Babylon.  The people wondered if the Lord was truly lord and truly faithful.”[1]

Now that you know this context, listen to the scripture again:

By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our harps.  For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors demanded songs of joy, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”  How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

How could they sing of home when home had been destroyed?  How could they sing of faith when they weren’t sure they had any?  How could they sing songs that represented everything they loved and lost?

When I read this text from the psalms I think of refugees and asylum seekers.  I am so glad that Family Promise requires training for volunteers who have direct contact with our guests.  I would have done it all wrong.  I love to learn and I would have said, “Oh, you’re from the Congo?  Tell me all about it!”  And they would have felt pressured to, in essence, since the songs of all they had loved and lost.

How can we sing in exile?  How can we sing when we have lost home?

Well, folks, some of us are already, for all intents and purposes, quarantined.  Others of us are strictly limiting our movements and our contact with others.  This will most likely be our last in-person worship for at least a few weeks.  We are not in exile.  We haven’t lost our homes and homelands.  But it is still a pretty major shift in our lives.  Those who are already lonely will become even lonelier.  Those who already feel isolated will feel it even greater.  Those who do not have a happy home life will now be stuck at home in that unhappiness.  Homes that are already unsafe will become more so as cabin fever sets in and tempers get short.  People online have joked about how many babies will be born in 9 months.  I’m much more concerned about how many alcoholics will relapse,          and how depression and anxiety will be triggered.

But here we are, gathered in community and love, and worship calls for singing.  I struggled to find the right hymns for this morning.  I wanted familiar songs for those at home who wouldn’t have hymnals, but I didn’t think we’d feel like singing happy/joyful/praise God kinds of songs.  Still I wanted us to feel uplifted and encouraged,        and I wanted us to remember our heritage of faith through the years.  So we sang Amazing Grace—because you know the words, and I hope you know the message.  And we sang It Is Well with My Soul—to remind us that even if it isn’t well with our bodies, it can still be well with our souls.  And we will sing I’ve Got Peace Like a River because we hope it will be so.

You see, we have several choices for how we respond to this situation.  Here are some words from a wise woman I happen to know: “Between the tense election season, the rapidly falling stock market, and the COVID-19 pandemic (aka coronavirus), Americans are facing a perfect storm which will define us, or destroy us.  The uncertainty we face now has some loose parallels in American history, but nothing quite like it, and there is no road map to get us through.  I can run through all kinds of scary scenarios – medical, economic, political & even martial – but I can’t tell you which of those are realistic or fantastical.  It is truly a frightening time.  But what we can see through history is that people facing such dangerous circumstances – pandemics or natural disasters – sometimes act out of great generosity and heroism, and sometimes out of greed and cowardice.  But those actions are rarely a surprise.  Crises don’t change character; they reveal it.  And if we can’t predict the future, perhaps all we can do is ground ourselves as deeply as possible in our values, and let those be our guides.”[2]

So, my friends, what do we value?  We value community, so we will find ways to be community for and with one another.  We value compassion, so we will try to help those who will be hit hard financially in this time.  We value justice, so we will use our time at home to write letters and plan future action.  We value our faith, so we will hold on even when we don’t recognize the world around us.  Especially when we don’t recognize the world around us.

At a meeting the other night we were trying to sit further apart than usual, leaving more space between us than usual, when Carol Zechman began singing, “Draw the circle wide.  Draw it wider, still!”  We all laughed, but it came back to mind as I wrote this sermon.  You see, the circle has never included everyone.  When we gather here for worship, it already doesn’t include those who served this church for decades but who have been homebound for years, not the weeks that we think we are facing.  The circle already didn’t include the couple who got a divorce and neither one can face coming alone.  The circle already didn’t include the person whose grief has them so paralyzed that they don’t come for fear they will just sit and cry.  The circle already didn’t include those who have been wounded by the church, those who know only a harsh, judgmental God worshiped in harsh, judgmental churches.  Maybe one of the lessons we can learn from this experience is to remember those who aren’t here, and learn how to draw the circle wider.

How do we sing the Lord’s song in captivity?  in isolation?   in quarantine?

We sing, aware of God’s amazing grace.

We sing, believing that all can be well with our soul.

We sing, claiming peace like a river and love like an ocean.

We sing, drawing the circle wide.


[1] Jacobson, Rolf. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=39

[2] From Jackie McNeil’s Facebook page.

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