Sermon: 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 9th October 2016, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 9th October 2016

 Rev. Paul Weaver

“FROM ANGER TO SERVICE”

(Jeremiah 29:1-7; Psalm 66:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19)

“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept:

when we remembered Zion.

As for our harps, we hung them up:

Upon the trees that are in the land.

For there those who led us away captive required of us a song:

And those who had despoiled us demanded mirth,

Saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’

How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

If you were here last week, you may remember Psalm 137, that very sad and angry and uncomfortable Psalm which was set for us as part of last week’s readings. It takes us back to the time, nearly 600 years before Jesus, when Babylon, the superpower of its era, invaded Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, and took large numbers of people as captives back to Babylon.

The captive people are mocked and abused by their captors, and when it is realized that some of them are musicians, psalmists, the soldiers say: “Come on, give us a bit of entertainment. Sing us one of the songs of that great city of Jerusalem!” But Jerusalem is the city of God, the holy place of the Lord, it is where the holy temple is to be found – or it was there until the Babylonians pulled it down. How can we sing about that? Our tongues would stick to the roof of our mouths.

There is tragedy, disillusionment, a sense of desperate loss. But the psalm gets more forthright than that. There is anger that really burns.

There is an angry reference to the people of Edom, near neighbours of Israel who are fellow descendants of Abraham and therefore related to Israel. But then it is back to the Babylonians.

“O daughter of Babylon, you that lay waste:

Happy shall he be who serves you as you have served us.

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones:

And dashes them against the stones.”

As you read or heard those words, how did you feel? Did you feel uncomfortable? I hope so. There would be something wrong if you didn’t. At the 10am service, the choir omitted the last verse. That’s one way people can deal with its shocking words.

Actually I think there’s another way of looking at it. This is a Psalm which expresses loss and hurt and anger. And that feeling of hurt and anger is very understandable. When we hear of the terrible things done by terrorists today, do we not feel angry? Do we not want them to get what is coming to them?

This Psalm acknowledges that anger is a very human thing. But anger is also something that God understands. And it shows us that we can express that anger to God. We can express that anger directly, and with reality.

In fact, it can be a healthy thing to do just that. God can cope with it. He understands. Indeed, he too feels that anger and sorrow at the violence and evil he sees in the world. People do terrible things that make us angry. We can’t always shrug our shoulders and just say, “Oh well, that’s life.” If we feel deep anger we often need to express it rather than ignore it. But we need to express it safely. The Psalmist thinks of the worst thing he could do: destroy the children of the Babylonians – as no doubt many Judean children have been killed by the Babylonians – he would love to do the same to them. He wants to take away the Babylonians’ future, as his own people’s future has been taken away.

The Psalmist pours out his anger to God. And sometimes as I said we need to pour out our anger and hurt and frustration to God. It might not be so polite and respectful, but it is real. And prayer that is not real is an empty thing. This Psalm, along with other Psalms and other parts of scripture, encourages us to tell God how it really is, rather than to pray with an empty collection of pious words. Of course, we may need to find another visible person, a listening person, an understanding person, to whom we can also express all that pain. In many situations, the sense that someone has heard and understood and accepted us as we are really feeling can be an important step on the way towards healing.

The thing that one mustn’t do is to express those thoughts in action: to actually try to do what you are thinking about. To act out those angry thoughts.

But if you bury your angry thoughts without finding a safe way to express them or to deal with them, the resentment and anger and the felt need to act on them is likely to build up and fester. Express those thoughts in a helpful and real way if that is what you need to do, but don’t act them out. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Ephesians, “Be angry, but do not sin!”

Now here we are, halfway through the sermon, and all my attention has been on one of last week’s readings! But actually it’s closely connected to today’s Old Testament reading from Jeremiah. Jeremiah had warned the people of Jerusalem that defeat and exile would come, especially if they continued to live in a way which denied the reality of their relationship with the Lord. Not all the people of Jerusalem went into exile: it was mainly the upper classes, the ruling class, the intelligentsia – the people who might be seen as a threat to Babylonian control if they were allowed to stay in their homeland.

And once the people were in exile around Babylon, they would be watched. But it would be up to them to work out how to survive. If they wanted to, they could build homes, and plant crops. Babylon the conqueror was actually one of the more humane civilizations of its era.

Rumours arose from time to time that the people might soon return to their homeland: perhaps there were thoughts of a mass escape and return to Judah, or the belief that Babylon would soon let them return.

Jeremiah back in Jerusalem got wind of these rumours of an early return. His conviction under God was that it would be a couple of generations before they would be released. And so he wrote them a letter, and it is the opening of this letter which formed our first reading. Jeremiah doesn’t talk about trying to get back at the Babylonians: certainly not about dashing their children against the stones. He tells the people to settle down and get on with living in that foreign land. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Get on with family life and produce children. Multiply there and do not decrease.” In other words, they must make Babylon their new home. Later in the letter, he says that it will be seventy years before they will return to the land of Israel. And that means that virtually all who read Jeremiah’s letter will never return to the land of their birth – to the Lord’s land.

But there is one thing which must have been very hard to take for those who nursed their anger against the Babylonians. Jeremiah tells them: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Don’t try to get revenge, even if that is what you feel you want to do. Instead seek the welfare of Babylon. Live your lives, and contribute positively, through your prayers and your actions, to the welfare of this society to which you don’t feel you belong.

They are exiles in the land of their conquerors, but they must contribute positively to the welfare of that foreign society that has brought them into exile. Daniel and his friends did that, as we are told in another book of the Old Testament. Some people actually settled in so well in Babylon that their families didn’t return when the opportunity came up 70 years later.

The New Testament sometimes refers to Christians as exiles in this world, as we live here and now as followers of Christ. It also encourages us to live our lives positively in relation to society round about us. Jesus himself tells us to let our light shine in our lives, so that people will see the good things we do and give glory to our Father in heaven. We live in this world here and now, and bear witness by the lives we live.

As Christians, we are called not to withdraw from society, but to pray for it and to connect positively with it, even if its values and priorities are not God’s priorities. And so we pray in our worship for our leaders and our community, but we also seek to find practical ways in which we can contribute positively to it.

For instance, if this planned plebiscite on gay marriage takes place, it will be important for us to thoughtfully consider the issues. And yes, we can share our views with people, but we must talk with others respectfully and graciously, especially if we are expressing a different viewpoint. There may well be hurtful things said about people on both sides of the debate, but we are to seek the welfare of society, and therefore we must speak and act with love.

Here we are: not in Babylon, but in Australia. In Australian society we still have much to be thankful for. This country is prosperous and democratic. The church has its place, even if fewer people identify with the churches nowadays. Let us then live recognizing that there may well be things happening that we don’t agree with, and let us humbly seek the welfare of our city. The city of God is God’s wonderful promise to us, but right now we serve that city by graciously serving others in this world which is after all God’s world. Amen.

Paul Weaver