Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
May 13, 2018 8:30 AM
וְֽהָיָ֗ה כְּעֵץ֮ שָׁת֪וּל עַֽל־פַּלְגֵ֫י מָ֥יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר פִּרְיֹ֨ו׀ יִתֵּ֬ן בְּעִתֹּ֗ו וְעָלֵ֥הוּ לֹֽא־יִבֹּ֑ול וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֣ה יַצְלִֽיחַ׃
But the righteous will be like a tree planted by water canals
that will produce its fruit in due season.
And everything he does will succeed. (Psalm 1:3)
If their grandparents could have heard them singing, maybe they would have thought it sweet that their grandchildren were blending their voices into one of the old school songs of childhood like the First Psalm. Or maybe they would have thought it bizarre or even a little sad, for their grandchildren weren’t cherubic-faced munchkins in the king’s court any longer, singing their alphabet-songs under a teacher’s direction, but worldly-wise grownups, some of them battle scarred, most of them world weary, singing the tunes they learned in their classrooms in the palace school in Jerusalem.
The palace school, though, was now a smoldering heap of timber and limestone; and the few children left in Jerusalem no longer sang in the king’s corridors or played in the royal courtyards. The courtyards were long gone, and the few children that remained on Zion’s hill had to scrabble together with their elders to survive the ravages of starvation and the attacks of the Arameans. The singers were safe, though, as safe as you can be in a land of exile, there by the waters of Babylon where, despite the veneer of civility, their masters made fun of them, made fun of their blind king, made fun of their devastated capital, and most of all made fun of the God who had deserted them when Nebuchadnezzar and his troops burst out of Hezekiah’s Tunnel to take proud Jerusalem captive. They were safe in their little ghetto, safe to cry for those who had died, safe to lament the city no longer set on a hill, and safe to wonder why God had deserted them.
Somehow, the old school songs comforted them the way the memory of a mother’s lullaby might comfort a convict behind the steel bars of a prison. I recall my friend Jeanne, describing her visits to the bedside of a university colleague nearly lost within the mists of the final stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. “But she could sing, ‘Jesus Loves Me,’” Jeanne remembered, “and when we sang it, her face transformed itself into that familiar, intelligent professor I had once known; but when we stopped, the light went out of her eyes and she was gone.” Perhaps it was like that for the Judean exiles in Babylon. Perhaps when they sang the old wisdom psalms, the brightness returned to their eyes momentarily; and they rested, if only for a moment, in the memory of David’s house on the Ophel underneath the shadow of God’s house on Zion’s holy hill.
They could recall a time when the words made sense to them. They could imagine themselves marching in the way of the righteous, learning and reciting the holy instruction, the Torah, the law of the LORD, never for once imagining that they could ever “sit in the seat of the scornful”—wherever that was—or “walk in the counsel of the wicked.” They would be trees, trees. They would be like trees transplanted to luxuriant man-made water courses that would delight their owners with the good fruit they would produce. It all seemed so straightforward. They would stand tall in righteousness, not blown over like the weak and flimsy wicked. They would delight in God’s Torah. They would study it day and night.
Until they didn’t.
Until making a living in Iron Age Jerusalem became more important than being a tree standing by the waters. Until Zedekiah, the make-believe king, promised to make Judah great again. Until reality struck home with the force of an endless invading army. They didn’t believe much after those things happened. Now David’s royal son lay a blinded captive within earshot of their assembly in Babylon. Zion’s soldiers had perished or deserted. They couldn’t understand language of their neighbors, and their own holy tongue was slipping into a brogue of sorts. But they could remember the songs of childhood.
Those childish tunes told them about the God that had once lived in their homeland with them, had cherished them, nurtured them, and promised to protect them if they would learn the divine law, the Torah, the holy instruction about all things. So, they sang the songs of that old city, that old Torah, and that old God, wherever they might be because that was all they knew to sing. But the old songs meant something different now from what they meant to them as children. Once they meant hope. Once they promised devotion. Once they pointed a finger toward heaven. Now they pointed to the past, to hopes dashed, to loved ones lost, to promises broken. But the songs still made the memory of those hopes and promises and people real and so they sang.
The songs made up their prayers, their worship. Even if the God they blessed had departed Zion’s temple with all the cherubim and seraphim, they remembered that they once worshipped such a God. Even if the temple with its sweet-smelling offerings now lay in desecrated silence, their songs reminded them that they had once sung and danced and played in the courts of the LORD God of Hosts. So, they sang and remembered and prayed that the God who had loved them in Zion would remember them in Babylon. The assembly of old exiles in Babylon might not comprise the courts of the LORD, but in that assembly, by means of those old childhood wisdom songs, there began to grow among them the mad conviction, fleeting at first, but ever sturdier as the years went by, that the LORD who had loved them in Zion and delighted to hear their songs in the temple courts might not be so ephemeral as they had first imagined. Could they meditate on the Torah of the LORD on the banks of the Tigris as well as in the streets of Jerusalem? How absurd that sounded for these captives to think such things. But still they sang.
We may need a few of those childhood melodies ourselves. What shall we sing as we watch the news from Raleigh Wednesday when the heroes, who teach our children and grandchildren, intercede for their young charges by asking us for a living wage, for adequate insurance, and for classroom assistance so that they can continue their devotion to the precious souls in their charge? And I’m not sure exactly what songs are adequate as we experience the renewal of racism in our country or face the specter of hunger in this rich land, but we need to find them. We need to sing again about God’s Torah, about that deep truth in God’s universe that makes bigotry always evil and cruelty always unthinkable. Something has to remind us that separating children from parents at our borders is always wicked and that making it a crime to sit in Starbucks is always unjust. There must be a song we once sang that tells us that God’s truth stands taller than official lies and that keeping our promises to others is more than just a convenient political strategy. We need to sing as the exiles once sang.
The exiles sang without hope at first, for the structures of power in ancient Babylon did not lend themselves to much in the way of hope. But the singing reminded them of what they wanted, reminded them that they wanted the old things they longed for as children: a God to love them and a holy Torah that made all things conspire together for good, justice for themselves and for their neighbors, and maybe fewer seats for those scornful, who insist there is no truth, no Torah, no real justice, and no real hope.
And perhaps we can imagine ourselves sitting in the seats of the joyful or standing by the watercourses like tall trees or walking again in the way of the righteous, believing with some small part of our heart of hearts that God really does mean for us to live like that, means for us to live the way we imagined free people in God’s kingdom should live. If we can sing, we can believe again.