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We Sat Down and Wept Together

Date: August 18, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
Candle light vigil in a city.

Scripture: Psalm 44 & 137

After years of being warned it was coming, the people of Judah faced the unimaginable: the destruction of their capital city, Jerusalem, and their Temple on Mount Zion. The army of the Babylonian Empire, led by King Nebuchadnezzar, marched through Judah, destroying everything in its path. The cities around Jerusalem, the ones with the signal fires they used to communicate with one another as they watched the land for signs of trouble, had been flattened, each signal fire going out in its turn.

The army marched up to the walls of Jerusalem and laid siege. Siege is a pretty effective tactic in ancient warfare. Ancient cities were usually built with walls around them for protection; when an enemy laid siege to a city, those walls were turned against the city. No one could get out, and supplies could not get in. Eventually—sometimes it took days, sometimes months—the people of the city would be so weakened by hunger and the diseases that follow in hunger’s wake that the enemy could break down or climb over the walls and conquer the city.

This is what happened in Jerusalem. There are very vivid descriptions of the siege, which lasted about a year and a half, in 2 Kings chapter 25, Deuteronomy chapter 28 beginning with verse 15, and Lamentations chapter 4. Deuteronomy 28 is framed as Moses’ warning about what would happen if the people did not obey God’s commandments; but it’s clearly from the hand of an eyewitness who lived through the horrors of that siege.

And when it was over, the Babylonians captured the rebellious puppet king Zedekiah, slaughtered his sons while he watched, and then put out his eyes. He, along with most of the upper classes of Jerusalem, the rulers, intelligentsia, priests, Levites, and Temple musicians, were carried off in chains to Babylon, where they were put in a ghetto called Tel Abib.
From the shock and horror of siege, conquest, and exile, the people cried out to their God as with one voice. “How can we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” [1]

“Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” [2]

The grief and anger in Psalm 137 are palpably raw and gut-wrenching. This is the voice of someone—possibly one of the Temple musicians—who has been through things we cannot begin to imagine.

But there are those who can imagine, because they, too, have been there: It’s said that the Jews imprisoned at the death camp at Treblinka were similarly forced to sing and dance before their captors. And Rabbi Heschel dedicated his two-volume work on the Prophets “to the martyrs of 1933-1945,” quoting from Psalm 44.

Last week we learned that the Psalms—and the Second Temple worship that used them as its hymnal and liturgical manual—make room for people to lament to God when life hands them trouble. This week we are hearing from two Psalms, quite possibly inspired by the same historical event, in which an entire people raises its voice in lament.

We know all too well what it means for a nation to lament together. If just about everyone can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when, in the words of Alan Jackson’s song composed after September 11, 2001, “the world stopped turning,” that’s an occasion for national lament.

We did that after 9/11. Where were you?

I know where I was, and I know what I did for the rest of the day. It was a Tuesday morning, and we had a prayer group that met at 9:00 every Tuesday. As people started gathering for that meeting, they said, “Have you heard?” We hadn’t, partly because in those days Twitter and other social media sites that give you news instantly weren’t available to us—especially those of us in small towns with only dialup internet—and partly because, while the radio was on in the secretary’s office, as it was every day, we had gotten into the habit of letting it be just background noise we didn’t really pay much attention to.

Radio and television went to 24/7 coverage, playing over and over the horrible footage of planes crashing and buildings collapsing. People were allowed to leave work early in a lot of places. Stories of heroism began to come out, like the ones about American travelers whose planes were grounded found refuge and welcome in foreign lands. Perhaps you know the story of the small community of Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, which took in 7,000 American travelers, several dogs and cats, and two great apes when planes headed for the United States were diverted and sent to ground.[3]

My dad was working in Tulsa at that time. He would go down on Monday morning and stay until Thursday afternoon, working four 10-hour days and spending nights in a tiny efficiency apartment with a bed, a chair, a television, and very minimal kitchen equipment, then driving home to spend the weekend in Coffeyville. His boss allowed anyone who wanted to go home that day to do so, but my dad opted to stay. He would have just gone back to that little apartment, alone, with no company except a television broadcasting continuing coverage on every channel. So he stayed at work through the day. When he did go back to the apartment, he and many of his neighbors pulled chairs out into the parking lot, to sit and talk with people who, the day before, had been complete strangers.

In Sac City, myself and three colleagues quickly organized a prayer service, as many others did all over the country. We sang a few songs, prayed a lot, and made space for people to talk about people they knew who had been in harm’s way that day. (Even in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, we had only a couple degrees of separation from the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.)

When I got home after the prayer service, Mike was watching the continuing coverage. We both had sick feelings in the pit of our stomachs, like many others. I asked him what he thought should be done to those who had attacked us and those who’d helped them plan. “Erase them,” he said. Both of us, both pretty peace-loving folks, would not have protested that day if our leaders had opted to employ nuclear weapons.

“Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” [4]

In the aftermath of 9/11, many people rejected any effort to try and understand what motivated the people who had attacked us. They were in good company with the author of Psalm 137—a raw cry of grief and rage that comes from the depths of the nation’s collective soul and has no time for attempts to get inside the minds of their enemies.

Some of us are still there. But others of us recognize that understanding what motivated our attackers is not the same as excusing their actions; and the why questions have been asked, although not answered to great satisfaction.

Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament, brand new as I entered seminary, introduced me and, I’m sure, plenty of others to a surprising notion: There is no one coherent theology of the Old Testament. Instead, multiple theologies are in dialogue, if not argument.

The book of Job is a prime example. When Job loses everything—his wealth, his family, even his own health—his friends come to see him, and every one of them interprets his situation as punishment for sin. But Job protests, because he knows he has not sinned, certainly not to the degree that would merit such horrific punishment. The argument goes on and on through the book, with Job’s friends embodying the “Deuteronomistic” understanding that good behavior results in blessing and sin results in misfortune and curse, and Job protesting that that conventional wisdom does not hold up in the face of what has happened to him.

That conversation, that dispute, is probably the main one that we see throughout the Old Testament. The book of Deuteronomy and the histories that follow it, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings, along with the prophet Jeremiah and many of the Wisdom Psalms, agree with Job’s friends.

Psalm 44 does not. Psalm 44 protests that the people have not been unfaithful to the covenant God made with them. They have not turned away from God’s commandments. They have not gone after foreign gods. Yet God has brought them low, stood back and allowed them to come to harm, anyway.

We’ve heard voices since 9/11, and just about every time there has been a natural disaster in recent years, that claim these are God’s punishment on our nation for one thing or another. Others dispute this, and wonder how we could believe in a God who would punish so many people who were innocent. Does God do collateral damage? If not, can we live with the idea that stuff happens that isn’t directly from the hand of God?
Is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God possible, or can we only accept two of those descriptions at a time? I don’t know. Rabbi Kushner came down in one place on that question in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Others have come down in other places.

And some reject God altogether: while it’s true that many Jews grew stronger in their observance of their faith during and after the Holocaust, it’s also true that many others weren’t able to believe any longer in a God who would allow such horrors to happen. [5]

We Christians like to say, “God has a plan,” or “God is in charge,” or in the words of the old Gospel song, “We’ll understand it better by and by.” Looking at the photos of the prisoners in the Nazi camps, and reading about all the innocent people who have suffered in terror attacks, mass murder, and so many other acts of violence inflicted on humans by other humans, it’s hard to accept any of those platitudes.

So perhaps we, as a community, as a country, as the whole human race, need to do less explaining and more Lamenting. Maybe we need to spend less time “putting it behind us,” whatever it might be, and more time crying out to God: “Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.”[6] Sometimes our prayer needs to be, “Lord, we’re in a pickle; we don’t know if it’s our own making, or yours, or if stuff just happens, but life is hard right now, for all of us, and we need you to pay attention and help us.”

It could be that, as we wrestle with hard realities and hard questions, we may, like Jacob, come out the other side wounded, but also blessed. [7]

[1] Psalm 137:4

[2] Psalm 44:24

[3] If not, you can read The Washington Post’s account here:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/on-sept-11-a-tiny-canadian-town-opened-its-runways-and-heart-to-7000-stranded-travelers/2016/09/08/89d875da-75e5-11e6-8149-b8d05321db62_story.html .

[4] Psalm 137:9

[5] This story from PBS tells of one family’s struggle with faith after 1945:  https://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2001/08/03/august-3-2001-holocaust-survivors-the-search-for-faith/13853/.  After the story are some suggestions for further exploration of the subject.

[6] Psalm 44:26b

[7] See Genesis 32:22-32.