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Presented December 16, 2008, by Rev. Dr. Hemchand Gossai
"These are the times that try men souls." said Thomas Payne, in the face of such devastation during the revolutionary war.
"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" Wilfred Owen.
These are the days---not only wintry days, but days of war, and more war, talk of war, allusions to war, that try our souls, that pain us, that find us occasionally weak and perhaps burdened by the weight of sorrow and grief, and displacement and exile. These are the days where we are repeatedly told that it is a good and sweet thing to die for one's country---as Owen's devastating title ironically pronounces. And we are left speechless. These are the days. These surely must have been the sentiments of the people in Ancient Israel, a people of the land now out of the land; a people of the Temple, now without a Temple; a people in community, now scattered. These must have been the days that tried the souls of the people. And they wept. We have heard a hint of some of the pain in the words from Lamentations and Psalm 137. Ancestors in Jewish and Christian traditions saw it fit to include these painful and gut wrenching words for all generations, and indeed for those of us who have gathered here this morning. I am grateful. Pained by these words, but I am grateful.
A time long ago the people sat by the rivers of Babylon, that great imperial city that dominated the landscape for a while, and the people wept. Now they have returned to their desolate home, a land that lies in ruins, and what is there to do but weep and from the first blade of grass, begin to restore.
Once upon a time, Jerusalem was glorious, invincible and magnificent, when it seemed for a while the at the gilded lives of many, often at the expense of others, was the promise of God fulfilled, and the blessings of God would be forever.
But now Jerusalem, the city of peace, our home lies in ruins. In imperial Babylon, the city of power and aggression our captors taunted us and publicly humiliated us.
As we listen to the lamentations of Jeremiah and Psalm 137 we are reminded in so many ways that this is a Tale of Two Cities---indeed it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. The best of times for the imperial Babylonians, who believed that their power would last forever, and went on arrogantly, and the worst of times for the people of Judah and Jerusalem, and particularly their leader who should have listened to the prophets, but instead was guided by their imagined invincibility and took a whole people in exile.
Kings and leaders who stubbornly held their positions though destructive---hmmm, yes I am grateful for these words if only because of their continued resonance today---here in the land and in this world.
How could they possibly sing the Lord's song in such a place, a place of exile to the sounds of taunting of their captors, by the imperial power? The people wondered. Could God in fact be in exile as well! In a way this was a homecoming, but what homecoming is this! There is nothing to come home to, but the memory of what was, in the glory that was Jerusalem, and what was in the pain and despair and misery of Babylon. How could this be? And so the people grieved. How could our king allow this to happen? Why did our leaders not listen to our prophet? Why did they turn stubbornness and arrogance into a virtue? Hmmm, yes I am grateful for these words. And yet, painful as they are these are not only words for a time, 2600 years ago. For we have heard these words sung with aching, broken hearts by our own people in generations gone by, in this very nation, singing with such soulful tones, "By the Rivers of Babylon, we sat down and we wept." We have heard these words by our very own who for a while felt as exiles and slaves in our own land. Yes, we know these words. And today, this day, the words from the lamentations of Jeremiah and the Psalmist seem so poignant and appropriate yet again.
For we have seen the images, it seems day after day cities in ruins; children killed in masses, bombs lobbed from afar and mothers and fathers carrying their children limp in their arms, pulled from the ruins. Places where the laughter has gone, and children no longer play in the streets, even as fields of dreams have become killing fields----in Darfur, in Palestine, in Jerusalem, in Iraq. And in a few years as have been our wont, our leaders will say that they might have erred. But we know that---so the time is now, for we have seen the future based on out past.
All of us can go home again, but daily thousands cannot, who have no land, no home, no food who wonder about the presence of God in the midst of such despair, and long for cities of hope, and communities whose power come from believing in the worth of every human as God's creatures. Then, they sat by the Rivers of Babylon and wept; and today we weep and we grieve for so many who are displaced, mocked, discarded; many who are hungry whose eyes tear into our very souls! Each of us dies, for once where our sons and daughters played now lie desolate only with the memories of what was, and the broken heartedness of our wondering of what might have been. Yet, grief has its place. In our nation, we want our leaders to be able to grieve, to mourn, to be broken hearted, as our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers die in war. The leader who does not grieve for his/her citizens will never understand the pain of loss that the people spoke of then, and those who speak today. I want to belong to a nation where my leaders know how to grieve; I want to belong to a nation where my leaders can be brokenhearted; I want to belong to a nation where my leaders are able to weep. And alas our leaders do now know. We must grieve. Jeremiah grieved with and for his people.
There is passionate pain and anger in this Psalm. And yet, this is not an invitation to seek vengeance, not an invitation for violence, but an invitation to put our hearts in the deepest despair and pain, of our memories of a promise that has come to ruins. Yes, we must remember the exile, slavery, poverty, hunger, war. Like the exiles returning home, we must remember. Occasionally, the pain of an event is so great that we would so much like to it disappear from our memory---retreat into the recesses of another world. Yet, our ancestors implore us---remember! We remember so that we might live. The Psalms in Ancient Israel invite us to remember; they were prayers; they are the most profound and most extraordinary expression of the very core of the relationship between humans and God. It is the Psalms that I believe most poignantly and honestly express the encounters that brings emotions from the very depth of our being---joy and sorrow, celebration and anger. Such is Psalm 137. Yes, we remember the people sitting by the Rivers of Babylon - there we wept; we weep for them and today weep for ourselves and for others.
And what a gift it is to us that these prayers have been preserved for us, painful as they are. How might one sing songs in the midst of mourning, and displacement and warring times? The Philosopher Albert Camus living through and after the second world war, in the face of the carnage that he witnessed said, "In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there lay within me an invincible Summer."
Can we talk of Spring-time and invincible summers in the midst of wintry days of exile, displacement and war? Well, yes. Can we return home to a desolate land, wondered the ancient Israelites? Yes, weep as you walk again through the fields of desolation and recall the life that once was, and the hope that is to come. We must. Hope is not a matter of last resort as it is so often understood, but it is truly a quality that transcends both failure and success; it transcends both pain and joy. Hope has more to do with the ultimate and not the fleeting and temporary. And this is a moment for hope. For we have a choice between two cities---what city shall we choose and become? Imperial cities come and go---they always have. They always will. Babylon or Jerusalem? Imperial power or City of Peace? And the choice is stark and real. Thus as the psalmist laments in Psalm 137, could there be life again when the land is razed and lost, and the people scattered? Could one sing songs in wretched exilic existence? Such are the questions, and the horizons of hope disappear into a future that seems for a while to bring little or no comfort. Yet, there is memory.
"Remember O Lord remember and pay them back." The Psalmist says. The anger and the quest for vengeance strike terror into hearts of those of us who read this psalm today. It should. This psalm as we heard a few minutes ago, where we now repeat those words, ends on a note of such horror that we would like to strike the last verse, cut it out, toss it away.
"Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock."
This is the last word of the psalm, yet not the last word. It cannot be. It must
not be. No one seeks to dash the heads of infants against rocks, How can we!
Passions unharnessed, runs deeply.
They destroyed us; they exiled us; they attacked us.
Then and now.
This psalm refuses to believe that we must close our hearts to the pain, and equally refuses to imagine that the only recourse is vengeance. How might one sing songs in the midst of mourning?
Can we imagine Spring-time in the midst of wintry days? Well, yes! We must, for we are a people of hope. Exile and vengeance are not the last words.
Hope in a future for us- even as slowly we begin to see more clearly from eyes that are no longer blurred by tears, and hearts that begin to heal in a world where violence and war are not the answer.
I close with Wildred Owen's poem, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori"
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes1 and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Where have all the Wilfred Owens gone? Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori. Yes, it is a lie.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.