Singing Songs of Zion (In a Foreign Land)
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 19, 2002
Twice their beloved city, Jerusalem, had been laid to siege. This second time—in 589 BCE as we reckon the years—was the worst. The invading Babylonians had come like a swarm of locusts, murdering, looting, burning everything in their way. For 19 months, the beleaguered inhabitants of the Jewish capital had suffered under siege, starvation, and fear. They were the Chosen People of Yahweh they had been told; but now, they were herded like cattle; driven away to occupy decrepit refugee camps in a land hundreds of miles away, strung like beads along the rivers of Babylon.
As the Jews looked back over their journey into exile, they thought of Zion—God’s holy City on a Hill—and wept bitter tears. Their city now lay in ruins; its famous Temple was little more than a heap of charred ashes. Something else had been lost as well; something even deeper: All that Jerusalem—“the city of peace”—had stood for seemed gone forever now as well: the peace of God-- the presence of God-- the promise and prosperity of God-- all gone, at the hands of these pagan idol worshippers. Now, the Jews were exiles in a strange land, among a strange people, weeping bitter tears for all that had been lost.
That was when the taunting began. “Come on!” their Babylonian captors had shouted. “You’re Jews! You’re renowned for your singing and music and dancing! You’re well known for your religious festivities and all that. Why don’t you sing your songs now? You’re ‘God’s chosen people’ after all—Come on, sing your songs for us here!”
(It was a scene that would be acted out again, tragically, in our own century, in the death camp of Treblinka. There, the Jews were forced, this time by their Nazi captors, to dance and sing the songs of their Jewish faith, in order to show how helpless and humiliated they were; in order to rob them of their identity, dignity, and hope.)
But how could the exiles sing those songs of Zion in this foreign land? How could they sing songs of joy and hope and promise when all had been reduced to rubble and ashes and despair? No, they would just hang up their harps on the branches of the willow trees, and weep.
That is the background to Psalm 137, which was our first reading this morning. But like all truly inspired literature, scripture or not, it transcends the particular circumstances of its history, and speaks to us in our hearts, in our very beings. The longing for Zion—for that which is true and beautiful and good; for that which is of God, of the Holy; which promises us peace, abides still among us, among women and men of goodwill and sacrificial spirit everywhere. We remember Zion still; or rather, perhaps, we have deep in our Collective Unconscious a vision of The World As It Ought To Be.
But still, there’s that Babylon we need to deal with, too. Not the Babylon of King Nebuchadnezar who conquered Jerusalem; his kingdom perished long ago, only about 70 years after all of that crowing about its victory over the Jews. Our real Babylon is not even Nebuchadnezar’s successor state, the new Babylon that controls much of the territory of the old empire—that would be the present-day nation of Iraq, Saddam’s sad realm, perhaps as close to Hell on Earth as one might get in our contemporary world (though there might be a couple of rivals). There is a deeper Babylon, too—one closer to home, one in which we ourselves do dwell all too often.
This is the reality of The World As It Is. There is, I think, a deep sense of discomfort, discomfort, and dis-ease about in our world, something which two contemporary writers, William Strauss and Neil Howe have called the “unraveling” of modern society. “Though we live in an era of relative peace and comfort,” they write, “we have settled into a mood of pessimism about the long term future, fearful that our superpower nation is somehow rotting from within… We perceive no greatness in our leaders, but a new meanness in ourselves.” The philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre refers to our time as a new “dark age” of moral decay. The great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has warned of the West’s debilitating “spiritual exhaustion”. And the poet’s words aren’t too much of a stretch from the truth to our modern ears. This is indeed a time where often it seems: “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
The beast of Babylon still stalks our world (to employ a metaphor from the Book of Revelation in the New Testament—a source about 600 years later than the Psalms). It is a bitter, ferocious multi-headed beast, who seems very powerful indeed. It, too, sings its own songs, siren songs which offer us nothing more than the same old/ same old, which offers no hope for a new world transcending this veil of tears.
The first song the beast sings is that of materialism gone mad: the belief that the only reality consists in that which can be weighed and measured; the belief that this physical world we apprehend is the only reality; the belief that the only values which matter are market values; that what matters in life is getting as much stuff or money or worldly power as we can. This is the song which ceaselessly trivializes the deepest meanings of life; which either denies the spiritual, or merely treats it as one more commodity, something else merely to be bought or sold.
The second song the beast sings is that of individualism gone mad: the belief that the only people who really matter in life is the unholy trinity of Me, Myself, and I; which sees all commitments as relative; which places individual fulfillment above responsibility to something greater than we are; whose motto is, simply, “What’s in this for me?” Closely related to individualism are any number of its misshapen spawn:anthropocentrism (the practice of putting human concerns alone at the center of all life); nationalism (my country above all else); fundamentalism (my religion above all else); racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Arabism, anti-Americanism, anti-Anybodyism; any force which would sever the interdependent web of all life which connects us all.
These are the songs that fill the social and political airwaves of our modern world. How can our little songs ever match these? How do we sing songs of Zion in this foreign land? How do we sing songs of the Spirit in a world which debases and denies the Spirit, or which tries to cram it into this or that little, human-made box?
The first thing we need to do is get angry. We rage against those forces of dehumanization which insist upon seeing us as mere cogs in a great corporate machine. We rage against a social code that fails to serve the cause of human need. We rage against voices which tell us that social justice is impossible, as though the present corrupt status quo was ordained by some great Invisible Hand, that the poor we will always have with us, and that obscene discrepancies of wealth and poverty are inevitable in a “free” society.
We get angry, filled with holy anger, anger which does the Spirit’s bidding, which is stirred by injustice and oppression, and seeks a better world (as opposed on unholy anger, which is mean-spirited and petty, which is unjustified or misdirected, self-righteous and self-serving). “My spiritual journey began in anger,” wrote Barbel Von Wartenburg-Potter, who for many years an activist with the World Council of Churches. She tells the story of the death of her two children from the same congenital illness. With her second child, she lived in the hospital for almost two years, sharing her own bone marrow with him, hoping against hope that her son might lived, but to no avail. When he died, her marriage, which couldn’t stand the strain, died as well.
Out of these depths of tragedy and despair, however, Barbel was gradually roused back to life—by her anger. She writes: “My experience of pain called me into solidarity with mothers everywhere whose children suffer, and I became especially angry at all the ways people inflict suffering on children. I was angry at bombs dropped on children’s bodies, at bellies bloated from malnutrition… I began asking, ‘Where is God in all this?’”
God was in her tears, she decided; God was in her anger; God was in her hope for a better world.
Our anger can be a bridge, leading us from our own sense of exile toward a deeper compassion with exiles everywhere. Our fear can be a bridge, connecting us with Palestinian refugees living under Israeli occupation, and with Israeli settlers living surrounded by Palestinians. Our pain can be that of a Christian persecuted in Sudan, and a Muslim in India. When mixed with compassion for all the living, our despair becomes the slow opening notes in a new song of the Spirit which is ours to sing.
Our journey may start with rage, but it cannot end there. The next step is reflection. It is the answers we find to Barbel’s question: “Where is God in all of this?” The answers we seek always need to be humble; perhaps they are oftentimes tentative; perhaps they are tinged with doubt. But out of our deep reflection can come dancing still more notes of our spirits’ song. We can arrive at some deep inner sense of discernment, of our connectedness with one another, and of what that connectedness means in this real world. If we listen closely enough, the Spirit will whisper in our ears that life can be worth living, and will whisper, too, some hint of what we next need to do.
When we have reflected deeply, from the perspective of faith, we will discern our songs echoed in the spirit-filled songs of men and women everywhere. Their songs may not be just like ours; they may pray differently than we do. We may not know all the words. But we’ll be able to catch the underlying rhythm—the rhythm of the Spirit—nonetheless. Then, we will know that we are not alone; that we have friends we never even imagined; dear comrades of the spirit in lands near and far; good companions for this part of the ride; confreres on this, our journey out of exile and toward wholeness and holiness.
When we reflect upon our true natures as spiritual beings, we will know at last that Zion is not a place in time and space, but right here in our midst, among us, within us, in every moment we spend in the presence of God. Though we are surrounded by a foreign land and are still far from home, we will feel Zion’s song swelling once again in our hearts.
And then, we will rejoice! That is the third part of our spiritual journey; the third stanza of our song; the third great movement of the symphony of our lives. It is a song of joy, of deep thanksgiving, of profound gratitude for this gift of life we share. Then it is that the poetry of an empty heart can give way, at last, to the blessed songs of a full heart; a new heart of flesh, and not of stone.
When our cities lie in ruins, and our mammoth towers of wealth and position are reduced to rubble, then it is that we can rise up, as an awesome shaft of light, streaming toward the heavens. When the world has taken all that can be taken from us, then we will know what truly abides, what is truly important, what is truly of God.
Forty days after that first Easter, long ago, the Disciples were in the Upper Room, hiding from the Roman Powers That Be, waiting still for the Lord Jesus to return to them once again. They waited, and waited, and nothing happened, and some of them started to give up hope. They were starting to grow disillusioned, depressed, really bummed out by the whole situation.
Then, according to the Book of Acts, something amazing finally happened:
“And suddenly a sound came from heaven like a rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each of them.”
So came the Spirit, as a rushing, mighty wind, as tongues of fire, as ecstasy, singing and dancing, as a faith that just wouldn’t let it go.
So came the Spirit, not in the bodily return of their brother, teacher, friend, Jesus—not in a return to the Zion of old—but in the Disciples finding the Words of the Spirit, the Songs of the Spirit—in their own voices. The vision of the ancient prophet, Joel, was made real:
I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
And your sons and daughters shall prophesy
And your young men shall see visions
And your old men shall dream dreams
Yea, and on my menservants and on my maidservants in those days,
I will pour out my Spirit.
At those times when we feel like exiles, perhaps, a small remnant of the faithful, puny Davids against the great secular Goliaths of our own time, we, too, wait for a New Pentecost to take hold of our world, a new outpouring of the Spirit which will make the crooked straight and the blind to see, and bind all the nations in the ways of grace.
Each week, here in this church, whether we know it or not, we pray for that New Pentecost to enter into our lives: “Spirit of Life,” we sing, “come unto me. Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion. Blow in the wind, rise in the sea; Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.”
“With these hands, with these hands…” With these hands, we pray. And with these hands, we work, to build and rebuild and fashion works of beauty.
May we always be a people who sing as we work; who go on singing Zion’s song; a song of hope, a song of peace, a song of a faith that will never let us go.