How Could We Sing the LORD’s Song Here?
If you are a person who lived in this part of the world in the nineties, you might remember the particular social expression called The Mixed Tape. Now this is a cassette tape full of songs from a variety of bands and artists. The gift comes in selecting the pieces with the particular recipient in mind. “This is a song that makes me think of you!” Or, “This is a song you just have to listen to!” The giving of the Mixed Tape was a customary ritual when you first started going out with someone —the curating of songs its own kind of love letter.
Nowadays you can exchange playlists which is much easier and more respectful of copyright laws. But in whatever time period you live, whether by a lute from centuries ago or a track on your ipod, sharing our music is one way we share ourselves. Maybe it’s big band or hip hop. Maybe it’s R & B, or Country, or Baroque. We know who we are by the songs we listen to and love.
This is why we need to learn new songs during worship, as we are ever-changing and learning to bring a new song to the LORD. This is why we need to sing the old, well worn hymns that we have always known — can’t even remember learning them. Some songs it seems like we have known from before we were born.
In the same way, having your music with you can bring sweet comfort when you are a long way from home, a stranger in a strange land. Listen to the music of the place you’re visiting, please. But when you’re alone at night or feeling homesick on the train, nothing is quite as soothing as hearing your songs. It gives me a sigh of relief. Now I remember who I am.
Of course, sometimes it happens that your songs come and find you. My junior year of college was a particularly dark period for me. I had become untethered from friendships and from my faith, and I was drifting into the lonely deep. I lost my prayer. Then the guys who lived on the floor beneath mine started a band in the downstairs common room. They played a little bit of everything— pop, funk, folk, spirituals. Sometimes they sang the same spirituals I learned when I was little: Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and Come and Go With Me to that Land! These guys made me realize if I ever have a band of angels a comin’ after me, they will be bringing the music. Because sometimes your songs are like God. They will hunt you down and find you wherever you are.
Today we are continuing our series called Seven Sundays of Strangers. Our scripture is a song that tells a story of the days when the people from the southern kingdom of Judah were deported and taken into captivity by the Babylonians. The song has three sections; the second and third are prayers of cursing; the first tells the story of the musicians going on strike.
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
This is a scene we can understand, even if we have never been to Babylon, even if we have never lived through exile ourselves. Every human person knows what it is to sit down and weep. Then things get worse. Their captors interrupt their sorrow with ugly taunting. “Oh you’re so sad are you? Sing us one of the songs of Zion! Watch us dance.” The people were not even left to sit and weep. Even your cries will be taken from you.
Whether this day happened in history, nobody knows, but in my imagination I wonder whether it happened like this: I’m thinking when the Babylonian gang came over to them at the river, things got loud. Some teenagers were still sobbing and tearing their hair, refusing to be quiet or listen to the mocking. Which just made the captors all the more obnoxious.
In the clamor of this crescendo, an old man stood up from his spot by the river. He had been a musician in the Temple. Now on this afternoon, tears burned the back of his eyes. He didn’t say one word as he took his harp and lifted it precariously into the branches of the tree. The others saw what he did. One by one, with unflinching deliberation, they each took their harps, the lyre, even the tambourine, and they tied them into the willow trees. Like the soldiers would hang up their bows to mean no more fighting. Like the LORD hung up a rainbow to mean no more flooding all the earth.
One by one, each willow tree became heavy with hanging instruments. The weeping stopped. The captors stopped their taunting. A nauseous silence was sealed in the land. You Babylonians take us from our homes, and kill our little children in front of us, then mock our songs. No.
Even the wind went quiet. Not even God would open the silence that came from the hanging up harps. If a whole city loses electricity, you can see it go dark from space. I think this day was like that.
How could we sing the LORD’s song here? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my hand wither so I cannot play the harp again. Let my tongue become unable to sing. Because I’d rather be wounded than forget. The problem is this: singing is how we remember. See, the harp hanging-up isn’t just a bit of street theatre, a protest staged as a dramatic skit. Going quiet comes with a price. It reminds me of a hunger strike. Here we will deny ourselves what we need to live before we will honor your authority.
You have to wonder where God goes when everything turns silent. All this sorrow refusing to be poured out. Prayers withheld, and not one word of hope. Just quiet. I wonder if these protestors remember Elijah.
The time came when he was alone in the wilderness, when the Israelites had come apart from God, the word of the LORD came and found Elijah in a cave. It told him: “Go out and stand on the mountain, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great, splitting wind. But the LORD was not in the wind. Next there was an earthquake. But the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake was a fire, and the LORD was not in the fire, and after the fire came the sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard the silence, he stood before the LORD. God spoke to him saying, “What are you doing here Elijah?” (see I Kings 19:11-13)
Silence can be the birthplace of our prayer. Even with its pulsing pain and indignation, the quiet can be how we hear the LORD our God when she hunts us down wherever we go. Silence is holy.
And silence is not all.
That’s why we have this song, of course. There is exquisite irony in just how many musical renditions there are of this song all about the day the people stopped singing!
Then this song turns into a curse. You don’t exactly see it coming — the harps in the willows look kind of lovely after all. But then all that weeping that was held inside, all those prayers kept quiet, gush out in a raging bloody mess. “Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little children and dash them against the rock!” Like you did to us.
Sometimes we lose so much, even the little you have is taken away. Our deepest prayers go silent. The silence is real. And silence is not all.
Sometimes when everything has been taken, your baby dies and no one remembers. Your deepest prayer can only be shouted and cursed. Because violence is real.
And violence is not all. It might seem like violence is all. Even violence is not all.
Somehow. Still there is singing. Like cockroaches underground, there’s something about the singing that will not be extinguished. People with Alzheimer’s and Dementia who forget how to put a key into the knob of a door still know the music they learned as children. Because sometimes your songs are like God. They will hunt you down and find you wherever you are.
The other Psalm we hear today, Psalm eighty-four, is one of those songs the people of Judah refused to sing in Babylon. They wouldn’t play this by the river, yet this song didn’t disappear. “How lovely is your dwelling place O LORD of hosts… Even the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest for herself.”
See the people remembered how the song goes even when the world went quiet. Makes me wonder whether grandpas sang it under their breath as they tucked children into bed. Or maybe young women found themselves humming when they went to get water, like when you have a piece of a song stuck in your head for weeks. Somehow the people held up the quiet, they kept their harps high in the trees, and underneath, underground they remembered.
How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?
Really, how could we not.
And so it is. When your prayers go quiet, remember God comes in the protest and the silence. When your prayers are cursing, tell it like it is and know God can handle our outrage. But when we can be the ones who sing, I think we have to. It is good holy work to exchange playlists or rescue vintage records, to hold band practice in the downstairs common room and add more percussion. Could -be the songs are how we help each other remember who we are, how we find our way home.
Will you join me in prayer…