A sermon on Lamentations 1.1-6, 3.1-33; Psalm 137 & Luke 17.5-10 by Garry Deverell
In 586 BCE the armies of Babylon the Great swept down from the north and sacked the city of Jerusalem, capital of the monarchy of Judah. The great wall which surrounded the city was breached and pulled to the ground. Both soldiers and civilians were put to the sword. Women were raped, children were beaten to death. The city’s religious and political elite – priests and courtiers – were shackled together and carted away into exile. And the two great symbols of Judah’s proud heritage – the twin towers of temple and palace – were desecrated entirely, and torn to the ground.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a prosperous citizen of this great city. You have become accustomed to thinking of yourself and your fellow-citizens as the chosen ones of God, the nation rescued by God from slavery in order to become the light of the world. You believe that the temple and its priests are hallowed and holy, the sacred conduits by which God addresses and blesses the people. You believe that the king is heir to a messianic promise: that he is the anointed of God, who will always be there to protect the city from her enemies. Consider, then, the horror you feel as the Babylonian armies gather in the valley below. Imagine your shock and disbelief as the walls are breached and your countrymen put to the sword, as the priests, the king, and the noble families are carried off in chains. Imagine, if you will, the howl of despair that begins in your gut as the chosen people of God, with their noble law and their liturgy, are returned to the slavery from which they came. Imagine being that citizen who is left behind in the rubble, amidst the ruin of a disgraced city, the citizen who speaks in these opening words from Lamentations:
How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal . . .
The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate, her priests groan;
her young girls grieve and her lot is bitter.
Consider your bitterness and the overwhelming swell of your vengeance as one of those taken to Babylon, as one asked to sing a song of Hebrew worship for the entertainment of your captors. Today’s psalm reflects on exactly that circumstance:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung our harps . . .
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? . . .
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
Consider the swirling blackness of your desolation. The shock. The loss. The utter destruction of the dream which was Judah. The words of Lamentations are devastating:
I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath;
he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light . . .
he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation;
he has made me sit in darkness like the dead of long ago.
What does one do when such a thing has happened: when the illusion of safety and prosperity has been shown to be just that – an illusion; when that sense of election to a sacred mission and destiny has been shattered, and the God who promised to protect seem suddenly to have become the enemy?
Well, one wonders if these are the kinds of questions which the Americans are asking themselves at the moment. And not only the Americans, but anyone who until a few weeks ago felt themselves immune to the terrors of the 6 o’clock news; or who saw the Western project of civilisation as somehow ordained and supported by God. Isn’t curious how God is always on one’s own side, rather than on the side of those ‘others’, those people of different language, culture and belief. Isn’t it curious how the God of universal justice becomes, in the imagination of a threatened people, a warrior god (with a small ‘g’) who takes our side in battle of our tribe against theirs? . . . But I am getting ahead of myself. The question I really wanted to ask today was this: When the world has fallen apart and the foundations of safety and certainty have been shaken, how should the person of faith respond? Hear that again: how should the person of faith respond?
Well, there are a number of options, really. And we have seen all of them in the last few weeks. But they are also there in the Scriptures, as the people of faith in an ancient culture reflected on a similar question to ours.
The first kind of response one can make when the world has fallen apart, is to go looking for someone to punish. Here one feels that someone else is responsible for what has happened, and justice demands that they be punished in proportion to the damage they have inflicted. You know, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. Now, let us not underestimate the incredible power of this response, the emotional and, yes, spiritual energy which underlies its pervasiveness in human experience. You see, the desire for revenge actually finds its genesis in a genuinely religious impulse – the instinct for justice. ‘If God is just’, the argument goes, ‘then what has happened to me must be paid for. The guilty must, themselves, receive the wounds they have inflicted upon the innocent. Only then will justice be satisfied’. The impulse for justice stands behind many of the vengeful outbursts we find in our Scriptures, including those lines of terror we read from Psalm 137 this morning:
O daughter Babylon, you devastator, happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
Why would an Islamic man hijack an airplane and crash it into a building full of people? Because he is driven by the religious impulse for justice which is deeply embedded in all the Abrahamic religions, including Christianity. ‘The Americans have killed and oppressed my people for decades’, he says to himself, ‘and so I will make myself the instrument of God’s justice. I will kill and terrorise the Americans’. Now, before I move on, I simply want to acknowledge the sheer power of this logic for every human being. When, as a child, someone hits or teases you in the playground, you feel hurt, you feel wronged. And it is our instinct for justice – the eye for the eye – that motivates us to respond in kind. Who of us can really say that if our own children were maimed or abused, we would not feel the same as the Psalmist? There is truth in these lines, even if it is an uncomfortable truth for civilised, urbane, people to countenance.
A second response that one might make when the world has been shattered is that of a fall into sheer despair. The kind of despair which, again, we find in the words of the Lamentations:
My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is;
So I say, ‘Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord’.
The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!
My soul cannot escape these thoughts and is bowed down within me.
Anyone who suffers from depression, or anyone who has experienced a significant bereavement, will know this feeling all too well. It is what the Desert Fathers called acidie or ‘the noonday demon’. A sense that creeps up upon you, even in the noonday of one’s powers, at the apex of one’s ‘success’ in life, with a troubling question: ‘What is all this worth, anyway. So, you’ve achieved things, you’ve done a good turn for another, you’ve penetrated some of the mysteries of life. SO WHAT! What does it really matter? Everything passes away, like sands through your grasping hand. And there IS NO GOD who holds and values all this in his own hand and heart. It’s just an empty universe. In the end, there is nothing! So why bother?’. When the foundations are destroyed – whether by terrorists, or by governments (as in the case of Aboriginal people in this country) or by the simple bereavements of everyday life – it is sometimes very, very difficult to see what the value of building them was about in the first place. And so one loses the will for anything. And slips into despair. Now. Again I want to acknowledge the sheer humanity of his response. The noonday demon is visited on every human being, without care for religion, social standing or race. No-one is immune, not even those who wrote the sacred words of Scripture. The noon-day demon is part of our experience. And the Scriptures acknowledge that with a startling realism.
But there is a third option for people of faith when their worlds have been shattered. And that is the option which is hidden in that very designation: the option we call ‘faith’. Now faith, according to the gospel of Luke, is a fundamental belief and trust in that which is impossible. It is to believe that a tree can uproot itself from the ground, take a walk, and replant itself elsewhere. It is to believe that the apparently ‘normal’ way of things, the logic of the everyday, work-a-day world can be fundamentally interrupted by a power which regards such things as far from necessary. The power which we call “God”, or “Grace”. Faith believes that the impossible is possible, that the unthinkable is thinkable, that the power of love is stronger than the power of death. Now, listen to me, because this is important. Faith does not accomplish this belief by simply denying those other two desires we spoke of earlier, the desire for justice and the fall into despair. No. Faith has never been about taking us out of the world and the bodies which we inhabit as human beings. It has never been about escaping, about fantasising ourselves beyond the troubles we encounter in the midst of life. Anyone who takes that particular path is kidding themselves. Faith, rather, acknowledges the power of those two experiences but takes them in a different direction. Faith identifies in both vengefulness and despair a kind of holiness, a seed of the good and the hopeful, and taking that seed into its care, waters and nurtures the seed until it is grown to a joyful maturity.
Let me explain what I mean. Faith recognises within the desire for vengefulness the holy seed which is a longing for justice. But faith finds another way for justice to be fulfilled. Rather than gathering all its power for a retaliatory strike, faith gives its power into the hands of another power. The power of God. Faith recognises that there is no-one who is righteous, not even one. That where someone attacks me, my desire for just retaliation will inevitably be clouded my own sin, my own impurity of heart, by the limits of my own vision. So that were I to respond in kind, another kind of injustice would be accomplished. Evil would be added to evil, and the kind of justice I long for would certainly not be accomplished. In the words of Matthew Arnold, there is no justice when all the combatants are soiled by evil. Faith, therefore, longs for something which is impossible, and recognises that the only one who may fulfil that longing is God. A God of love and clear vision who may be trusted to interrupt the logic of revenge and bring peace. Faith believes that the way to tackle terror is to resist with another kind of logic altogether. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, said Jesus. Why? Because only God knows what to accomplish the justice we long for.
Similarly with the experience of despair. Faith recognises that there is a holy seed even in this experience. When we come to the end of our powers, when our achievements have been destroyed or seem useless in the grand scheme of things, faith gently reminds us that the life of joy and peace for all is built not by ourselves, but by God. Even death and despair are the angels of God. They come to teach us that unless the Lord builds the house, the building will not stand. That unless we empty ourselves of all ambition and desire, the desires and ambitions of God will never find the necessary space in our hearts to take root and grow. In the new religious narrative of our time, the Star Wars films, the Force cannot do its work unless the Jedi knight disciplines his own anxieties and desires. The Force will not flow unless the Jedi lets go of both his fears and his desires. All that is self and ego must be surrendered so that the will of the Force may be done. Now, this is more that just science-fiction. The makers of Star Wars nicked this insight from the great religious traditions of the world, Christianity included. The mystics, the writer of Luke included, teach us that we are servants of a power which is not our own. That we must do what is proper to servants, the will of our master, no more and no less. And that means letting go and letting God. For, in the end, it is only the soul who acts in concert with God who will survive and prosper.
The good news of the gospel is this. When the world falls apart and the foundations are shaken, God cares. God recognises the pain, the despair, and the anger which goes with that experience. And God does not leave us on our own. God reaches down into our confusion and gifts us with faith – a belief that the inevitable is not inevitable, and that the impossible is indeed possible. That when our own powers are at and end, and when we are not competent even to do justice, that God’s power of love will yet prevail, that God will accomplish the justice and the peace we long for. If only we will surrender. If only we will have faith.