By the rivers of Babylon
October 2 2022
Today is our annual blessing of the animals. In a few minutes, I will invite those of you have brought pets with you, or if you have photographs, or ashes of deceased beloved animals, to come forward for a blessing. We’ve done this many different ways over the years at Grace, but always on a date close to the feast of St. Francis of Assisi which is observed on October 3. Some years, we have changed our readings so that instead of the regular Sunday lectionary, we read the lessons and prayers appointed for the Feast of St. Francis.
It’s a messy day, messy liturgically because we are doing multiple and somewhat contradictory things, messy because we have among us dogs and other animals that disrupt the decorum of the church. But I’m always reminded when dogs are among us that altar rails became a thing to prevent dogs from entering the holy space of the altar. You’ll note that we no longer have an altar rail that can do that.
One of the few pluses of the past few years of pandemic is that the messiness of our lives was on display for all to see, thanks to zoom and other technological things. I’m not sure how many times a meeting, or morning prayer was disrupted by kittens or cats running through the house and across the keyboard. Zoom, especially for those of us who never created backgrounds, provided windows into the messiness of our lives, the cracked ceilings, the bookshelves that are disorganized with papers everywhere.
That messiness, and the relationships powerfully symbolized by the pets among us, here or at home, remind us of something else profound, the ways in which our lives, even our spiritual lives don’t always present themselves publicly the way we would want them to. More deeply, we might recognize ways in which we don’t admit the messiness of our spiritual lives to ourselves—those places, those hidden things that we don’t like to be reminded of, or confess but have a way of revealing themselves to us, and often to others, at inopportune moments.
Last week’s gospel, the story of the rich man and Lazarus, confronted us with the ways in which we fail to live up to the gospel imperative to love and care for others. We have all walked past homeless people, turning our heads away, offering nothing to panhandlers. In today’s readings, we are confronted with something else entirely, but perhaps even more challenging.
The reading from Lamentations, and Psalm 137, reflect the pain and suffering of a defeated people, forced into exile. Both bear witness to the deep distress and spiritual upheaval caused by military defeat and forced removal. We know about this, if only from the images and stories from the war in Ukraine: cities, cultural and historical monuments destroyed, thousands killed, millions forced to flee.
The texts convey the pain. Lamentations, written by someone who witnessed the devastation, saw the ruined buildings, the empty streets, the destroyed temple. The psalm, written by an exile poet, expressing their deep distress, their crisis of faith:
By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, *
when we remembered you, O Zion.
2 As for our harps, we hung them up *
on the trees in the midst of that land.
3 For those who led us away captive asked us for a song,
and our oppressors called for mirth: *
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
4 How shall we sing the Lord’S song *
upon an alien soil.
These beautiful, tragic words echo across the millennia. They describe not only the experience of the Babylonian exiles but also the experiences of millions of others over that vast expanse of time, forced from their homes by war, famine, natural disaster, and now climate change.
But that’s not all. The pasalm ends on a very different note, one so violent that I did not include the its last verse in our service bulletin. It speaks of bloody and violent vengeance, calling down God’s wrath on the conquerors. And that too is part of the experience of victims of war and other forms of violence—the desire to get back, to punish. That’s part of the messiness of human life, too.
Still, there’s something important that neither the psalm nor the reading from Lamentations mentions. The experience of defeat and exile was not only about mourning and desire for revenge. It was also about something else. Something radical, transformational happened while the exiles were in Babylon. In the ancient world, if a people were defeated in war, it meant not only the conquerors were more powerful, it also meant that the conquerors gods were more powerful than the defeated people’s gods. Usually, always, the defeated people lost their religion and their culture, being subsumed into the larger more powerful conquering culture.
In the case of the Babylonian exiles, that didn’t happen. They reflected on their experiences and as they reflected, they came to a new understanding of their God and what it meant to be faithful to that God. And when they returned from exile, they brought that new understanding, and newly created scriptural texts back to Jerusalem with them, and in doing so forged a new faith that would carry them, and their Jewish descendants, through the millennia, down to the present.
In the gospel, the disciples ask Jesus, “Increase our faith!” It’s something we all might ask; something we can imagine those people forced from their homes millennia ago, or people forced from their homes today, might ask. Faced with the prospects of having to abandon homes, or with the prospect of rebuilding lives after hurricanes, as people across the Caribbean, in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Florida, South Carolina are facing today, feelings of despair, doubt, may seem natural. For us, too, faced with our own struggles, the suffering in the world, we may be overwhelmed by despair, we may feel helpless, powerless. But what little faith we have, the messy faith we have, may be enough. Jesus is there, among the suffering, the victims of violence, war, and natural disaster, Jesus is here with us, in the midst of whatever struggles we are facing. Jesus’ arms pick us up when we fall down; he carries us when we are too weak, he brings us to this table where we feast with him. Thanks be to God.