1By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, ♦
when we remembered Zion.
2As for our lyres, we hung them up ♦
on the willows that grow in that land.
3For there our captors asked for a song,
our tormentors called for mirth: ♦
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
4How shall we sing the Lord’s song ♦
in a strange land?
5If I forget you, O Jerusalem, ♦
let my right hand forget its skill.
6Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you, ♦
if I set not Jerusalem above my highest joy.
7Remember, O Lord, against the people of Edom
the day of Jerusalem, ♦
how they said, ‘Down with it, down with it,
even to the ground.’
8O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, ♦
happy the one who repays you
for all you have done to us;
9Who takes your little ones, ♦
and dashes them against the rock.
Aside from the challenging images in the latter verses of the psalm, verses which the ASB (Alternative Service Book - an earlier version of the Church of England’s liturgy) bracketed off, I was reminded today as I was at a Quiet Day led by our Bishop on the Psalms, that the verses of Psalm 137 speak to the contemporary church.
It also made me think of a certain Iron Maiden song...
The writer picks up on the idea of being far from home; somewhere which is unknown. There is a lack of identity; a dislocation from the community’s story; where language and customs are meaningless and all this is held by a small group. It feels vulnerable and precarious.
The danger, in those occasions, is to give up. To hang up our lyre as it were; to no longer sing the songs or retell the stories; to allow meaninglessness to prevail.
The writer looks back to a former time in Jerusalem where this all made sense and the exiles were home. The issue with living like that is that we end up longing for former things. '... God is not the God of the dead but of the living...' '... Behold I make all things new...'
How do we live as exiles - as people of monotheistic faith in a pluralist and sometimes hostile landscape - live without looking backwards? How do we live in the now shaped by the God who was, who is and who is to come? How do sing the songs and tell the story now, without wishing to give up?
What scripture speaks into that? The Emmaus road account - walking away from Jerusalem into a new reality where Jesus is not dead but alive? The burning bush - from there Moses is sent by God on with God’s people.
The Psalmist talks with passion about not forgetting Jerusalem and the associated stories and centre of faith to give confidence to their present.
What of the church in 21st century England? Are we in exile? In many ways we are in a strange land. A place and time where the stories and songs of our faith make little sense except to a smaller community. Do we entrench? Do we give up? The psalmist would encourage us not to. We are to remember the heart of our faith with its customs and songs but to live in the present - the eternal moment that Elliot hints at in Little Gidding - knowing that the One who was and is and is to come is there too.
It leaves me with thoughts about faithfulness and about discipline. There is no hint in this psalm (or in Judaism per se) of the need for evangelism. There isn’t a sense from the psalmist that they better seek new recruits in this strange place of exile because unless they do they will die. Rather the psalm, for the Christian, hints at a return not to a place but into a relationship - with God - through Jesus Christ. What does this psalm say in a church driven by a growth agenda and Renewal and Reform?
God of our pilgrimage,
you sent your Son to our strange land
to bring us home to you;
give us your songs to sing,
that even in our exile
we may be filled with the breath of the Spiritof Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.