TIS 768: Praise God, from whom all blessings flow
TIS 85: By the Babylonian waters
TIS 708: By the waters, the waters of Babylon
TIS 667: How shall I sing to God
TIS 689: Lord, hear my praying
TIS 613: Lord of all hopefulness
Prayers of Adoration, Thanksgiving and Confession.
O gracious, constant, and loving God
what a world you have created!
From gorges and water falls, to mountains which reach up into the clouds-such variety!
We are awestruck by your creativity and design.
You who created the Himalayas-created little human beings.
You who plotted out the oceans of the world, and the land mass upon them-made us-and love us.
You who formed space: the solar system, galaxies, black holes, balls of gas–which we call stars-know us in our small suburbs.
We are in awe of your majesty.
O loving God,
we greet this day, and give you thanks for a fresh, clean slate!
Thank you for good news, be it in the number of decreasing Covid-19 cases, for a fun time watching the football Grand Final, for warmer weather, for new growth in our gardens and in the parks, and the promise of a slow return to a somewhat more ‘normal’ life.
We thank you for celebrations: birthdays, wedding anniversaries, births.
We thank you for the gift of music; for being able to sing and hum and whistle.
We thank you for the greatest gift of all: your son, Jesus Christ.
And yet, we struggle.
Lord, you know we have given in to despair,
we have allowed fear to make us snappy, or judgemental.
When we have squashed hope, or given in and allowed the weight of the world to push us down, and not asked you for help,
Forgive us when our behaviour or words have been un Christian.
Forgive us when we have turned off the music in our hearts and in our lives, preferring the clamour of anxiety or the heavy glue of grizzles.
Forgive us when we have switched you off, as though you are a tv channel, and not tuned in to you with our whole being.
And in a time of silence we remember other things for which we seek forgiveness
God is love.
Through Christ our sins are forgiven
(thanks be to God).
Take hold of this forgiveness, and live your lives in the power of the Holy Spirit,
Matthew 22: 34-46
[at the bottom of the sermon is a youtube link if you are able to/wish to look at it afterwards.]
‘By the rivers of Babylon-
There we sat down and there we wept
When we remembered Zion.
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?’
(from Psalm 137)
Today I thought I would set the lectionary readings aside to tackle something that is weighing on some of our hearts.
How do we sing…how do we sing to God in a time of covid-19?
How do we sing when we are not allowed to gather for worship, not allowed to sing in groups?
How do we sing…when we do not feel like singing?
What is our response to a ‘new normal’, a ‘foreign’ or ‘strange land’?
Psalm 137 is written through tears of profound sorrow, it cries out, screaming of deep, cutting grief.
In 587 BCE Jerusalem fell to the army of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. Many Jews were deported, taken into exile. Only the old, the lame, or the sick were left behind.
Gold and precious items from the Temple were plundered, carried away, leaving Jerusalem in ruins.
Their captors requested them to sing…but how could they? If they were expected to sing songs of Zion, songs of praise that were meant to be sung in their place of worship, which was far away and in ruins…how was it possible to sing?
Were the captors being cruel? Or trying to cheer them up?
How do we sing away from our places of worship? We are not many kilometres away, in a foreign land, like the Israelites were, BUT at the moment it does feel foreign, even if that land has, until recently, been within a 5 km range.
We know our place of worship still stands. Indeed renovations have been done during lockdown-but we are still locked out, the organ is silent, the piano remains closed, the hymn books shut, tight-lipped. We have hung up our harps!
‘By the car park of Leighmoor, there we sat down and there we wept…’
It is part of our life. We prefer the upbeat sound of praise, but life also includes lament.
Think Maundy Thursday. Where does Jesus go after the Last Supper? To the Garden of Gethsemane, ‘after they had sung the hymn.’
Maundy Thursday leads into Good Friday, the saddest day in our church year…yet we still sing, we mourn.
When I survey the wondrous cross…the tears still come, unprompted, after so many Good Fridays.
What about funerals? I know most of us can’t attend them at present, due to the low number permitted. Abide with me. Not often heard at other times, is it
The need to cry out.
It is part of our Biblical tradition, deep within Scripture.
Dictionaries define the word lament as ‘feeling or expressing sorrow or grief.’
It’s not a word we use much these days. We don’t often practice lament in Western culture. When I nursed, I would hear relatives of people from the Middle East, or those from Greece, wail. Not a way of grieving for many of us. We don’t show our feelings in public. We cry at home, or in the shower-not in front of others. We apologise if we cry in front of others. We say “Sorry for my tears.”
Rather than express our emotions, we prefer tend to hide them, sometimes even denying they exist. We might bury ourselves in work, or keep busy. We’ll do anything rather than face the pain and heartache we are feeling.
Yet, Scripture is filled with lament. One book of the Bible is one long lament: Lamentations.
Many psalms are laments, poetic songs that give voice to the sorrows and pains of God’s people.
Don’t forget that Jesus cried out a lament in the garden of Gethsemane: ‘Abba, Father,…remove this cup from me…’ and later, on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
The laments in Scripture do more than voice painful emotions, or release pent-up emotions.
They are a form of worship, even theology, because they speak of truth, and help transform the person praying or singing. They can help us move through grief to praise.
While psalms of lament were written by different writers about different events and circumstances, they tend to share a common structure and pattern. Nearly all the laments move from the negative to positive, from sorrow to joy, from fear to trust.
Writer Christina Fox, wrote that ‘the laments represent the journey of the soul’.
They remind us that we are permitted to cry out to God.
Hear these words from Psalm 6: 6: ‘I am weary with my moaning;
Every night I flood my bed with tears…my eyes waste away because of grief.’
Ever done that? Cried until you thought you had no tears left?
The psalmist reminds us that we can ask God for help, to help us through the pain. In Psalm 71:12:
‘O God, do not be far from me;
O my God, make haste to help me!’
And then, as in our own public and private prayer lives, we are moved to praise or to at least put our trust in God. Now, we may feel a lot may have happened in the space of one short psalm, but remember, some of these psalms were written after the event, there had been time for emotions to be processed, time between the onset of great grief, to gentle acceptance. The psalmist (and us) is (are) reminded of God’s help in the past, so we are to trust, not to give in.
Lament. Psalms. Hymns.
When I think of hymns and grief, I think of It is well with my soul.
I have told the story of its genesis before, but it is worth recounting, for it speaks to us in these turbulent times.
In 1870, lawyer and Presbyterian church elder Horatio Spafford, and his wife Anna were well off. They had extensive real estate along the shore of Lake Michigan. But their happy life was to change-the first way was through the death of their 4 year old son, from scarlet fever. The following year, in 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed their properties. To help ease his wife’s deep depression, and to cheer up their four daughters, Horatio arranged for them to take a trip to Europe in November 1873. He was also planning on helping hymn writers Sankey and Moody with their campaign in Britain. On the day they were due to leave, Horatio was faced with a sudden business emergency, so he sent them on ahead, and said he would follow in a few days time. On November 22, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, their ship was struck by a British iron sailing ship, and sank in 12 minutes. Out of the 307 passengers, only 81 were rescued-one of them was Anna Spafford. The four daughters had drowned.
When Anna finally reached Cardiff, she sent Horatio a telegram with a brief and heartbreaking message: ‘Saved alone.’ Horatio immediately set sail to bring his wife home. Several days later he was called to the bridge by the ship’s captain when the ship passed the place where it was thought the steamer had gone down. That night, alone in his cabin, with a faith that never faltered, Horatio penned the words of this moving hymn.
The first verse and chorus of the hymn It Is Well With My Soul:
‘When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.’
(Horatio G. Spafford, 1873)
Later, he wrote to Anna’s sister:
‘On Thursday last we passed over the spot she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs.’
Who among us, faced with such tragedy-the drowning of 4 daughters, could write words like these, not just of acceptance and deep faith, but of thanks, hope, praise? To be able to say: ‘it is well with my soul.’?
To return to Psalm 137. I remember it sung as a pop song in the late 1970s, by the group Boney M. I don’t remember thinking of it as a psalm-I was a teenager! Being sung by an Afro-American group also placed it within the memory or history of slavery, when chants and spirituals (one type was known as ‘sorrow spirituals’) and lament melded into Gospel music.
So what do WE do?
If it was up to one of my cats, I would cease singing (I obviously make ‘a noise’-perhaps not so ‘joyful.’)
Only time will tell what we create during Covid-19. During the Spanish influenza pandemic, little creative work was produced. Perhaps there were too many deaths, including those of writers. It is thought that the Spanish influenza pandemic faded from cultural memory because it was soon overshadowed by the deaths and devastation of World War 1.
How will the coronavirus influence our prayers and our music?
We are people not only of the book, but also of the note.
I have heard many say that we should not gather as a church for worship until we are allowed to sing.
We can sing aloud at home. We are allowed to be loud!
And prayers or psalms of lament can be read in silence, or uttered within our hearts.
During this pandemic, which naturally gives rise to the pain of lament, we must remember that we are children of God, blessed with many things.
God is still to be praised. We are to count our many blessings.
Remember Kermit the Frog, from Sesame Street and from The Muppets?
I love that beautiful green frog. I have a Kermit or two around the house.
I love his fear of Miss Piggy’s love for him, and his attempts to organize a motley crew on The Muppets (at times some of the characters and crises remind me of the church!) but, most of all I love his song:
It’s not easy being green.
These lyrics include both lament-and praise:
‘It’s not that easy being green;
having to spend each day the color of the leaves.
When I think it could be nicer being red, or yellow or gold
or something much more colorful like that.’
So as Kermit sings of his own pain, about himself (so it is a little, personal lament, rather than lament on a large scale!), we could sing about how it isn’t easy being the church at the moment:
‘Having to spend each Sunday at home.
Wouldn’t it be nicer to gather together, rather than being on our own?’
Then Kermit reminds himself of the many blessings of being who he is. Of being green. Of being (if we want to get theological!) able to reflect God’s creation:
‘But green’s the colour of Spring.
And green can be cool and friendly-like.
And green can be big like the ocean, or important like a mountain, or tall like a tree.
When green is all there is to be.’
My response is:
‘But church is love,
And holds all in its care
It suffers with the ill, holds them up to God in prayer
When we are Christian…we see Christ everywhere.’
Kermit concludes with:
‘It could make you wonder why, but why wonder? Why Wonder, I am green and it’ll do fine, it’s beautiful!
And I think it’s what I want to be.’
I conclude with:
‘The pandemic makes me wonder, lamenting why, why, God, oh why, I wonder
but I know when I am overwhelmed, you dry my tears when I cry,
you are beautiful, I see, sitting next to each one of us,
wherever that may be.’
Prayers of the People
Loving God, we are called to ‘love one another.’
Help us to know where our love is needed most.
We pray for our local charity and community groups, including BayCISS, Red Cross, and the Southern Migrant and Refugee Centre.
We pray for other groups and charities that operate in different regions of Melbourne, and within Australia and overseas.
In a time of silence, we pray for ones that we donate to, or are close to our hearts:
(time of silence)
We pray for people in our church families, our own families, and amongst our friends and acquaintances, who need our prayers.
We pray for the world, for those suffering from Covid-19, either in the form of the disease, or the effects, such as unemployment, loss of business, anxiety, or depression.
Be with them.
We pray for an end to violence in Nigeria.
We pray for peace in Paris, after a gruesome terrorist attack killed a teacher earlier this week.
For other events happening around us, which may not get the press coverage, we ask for your help:
-where people are hungry
-where people have no shelter
-where there is war, or violence
-where people are fleeing their homelands
Be there, and help us to be there, in prayer.
Help us to love one another.
In the words our Saviour taught us we are confident when we pray to say:
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
You are blessed and loved; be God’s love and blessing to others in this hurting world.
-Rev Barbara Allen
October 25, 2020 Leighmoor UC.