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The Rev. Dr. Steve A. Martin The Rev. Dr. Steve A. Martin

The Rev. Dr. Steve A. ("Sam") Martin is chair of the board of the Presbyterian Church Foundation, and a principal in the consulting firm Martin/Frankel in Winston-Salem, NC.

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Presbyterian Church (USA)

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Presbyterian Church Foundation


Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land

Psalm 137

Proper 15 - Year B

August 20, 2006

Those who arranged the Bible into one volume did so in roughly chronological order, but that is not the order in which they were written, transferred from oral tradition to manuscript. Scholars can tell the difference in the age of text from the vocabulary in the same way we would know that the King James Version of the Bible represents an earlier century than the Revised Standard or the New Revised Standard Version. By such an analysis, we can make a strong case that the first books to be written down are the Psalms and the section called the wisdom literature - Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Job.

The Book of Job, for example, makes no reference to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or anybody in Jewish history. It is an early effort to deal with one of the most persistent theological issues for believers. How do we make sense of our belief in an all loving God, and all powerful God and capricious human suffering? Now for nonbelievers this is not a problem. But for those of us who would follow the Lord God Jehovah, it is a top and persistent issue, and Job is an early struggle with it.

The Book of Proverbs, primarily, is a collection of sayings, the slogans of the Jewish culture of that era. We were all raised on slogans, were we not? If you lay down with dogs, you get up with what? Why, fleas, of course! The choice of peers is important, and we want our children to know that. A penny saved is what? A penny earned. Frugality is a virtue and so it goes. Slogan after slogan after slogan. The Proverbs.

The Psalms are the hymns of ancient Israel, the liturgy, the praise songs, the worship life of the people of God. Again, looking at the actual language in the most ancient text, we can tell that these were the first books to be written and that they were put in written form around the sixth century BCE. Now the question is, "What was going on in the life of the chosen people of God that said to them that this is the time to capture for posterity our way of thinking, our way of behaving, our way of living in this world?" What was the context?

Well, let me tell you because it is important in understanding the text. The Babylonians have destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. All of the elite, the teachers, business leaders, land owners, artists, all of the prominent people have been taken to Babylon. The peasant classes were left behind, where they will co-mingle with other tribes in the region, and we will meet them in the New Testament as Samaritans. This is the beginning of the wandering Jew, the homeless Jew, the Jew without a state or a place to call home, and that will be the situation from this day until the mid-20th century.

The sentiment of those people at that time-or better perhaps the pathos among them-is caught in the words of the Psalm I read. "How shall we sing the Lord's song in this strange land?" We don't belong here in Babylon. This language is not our language. This food is not our diet. The stories told to our children are not our stories. These values put on family and community are not our values. And most significantly of all, these gods are not our one Lord God Jehovah. We are aliens here. We are refugees here. We are wanderers here, and the compelling task is to figure out how we can sing the Lord's song in this strange place. We need to write down, collect, and preserve that which describes what it means to be a child of the Living God, or this foreign culture with these unbelieving ways will swallow us up, and we will lose our identity as God's chosen people.

For the people of God from that day to this, such has always been the case. We have no permanent home here. If you are among those who have decided to follow this rabbi named Jesus, your citizenship, says the Scripture, is in heaven; and while you are here, it is the role of the Christian community, the church, to help you learn to sing the Lord's song in this strange land. Else this alien culture will swallow you up.

Of course, a lot of people-many of whom think of themselves as Christians-would not find this world strange at all. For many it is put together for purposes that all together please them. After all, it is about me, isn't it? My potential, my prosperity, my happiness.

Several years ago I was commissioned to work with a senior executive who had been discovered in an inappropriate relationship with a person who worked for him. His company sent me to see this executive and his spouse because reconciliation, in their mind, would keep them from having to terminate him. And he made them a lot of money.

I interviewed this couple, who had no idea about my background, in their lovely and large home overlooking the ocean. And I discovered that they had met each other under similar circumstances when she worked for him in an earlier company. The problem now is made more complex because of two adolescent sons and the possibility of job termination. In the course of the conversation, it became clear to me that what they wanted from me or someone like me was a clinical diagnosis of some sort. They wanted me to say of him, to him, "You have an adjustment disorder, maybe a mid-life crisis, or you have an addiction problem.' Any label would do as long as it was in the jargon of the day and detached the problem and made it external to them and, therefore, as something in which they really played no part.

Finally, I said to them, "It is clear to me that you do seek some kind of psychological label that would solve this dilemma, and perhaps you should seek a second opinion. But I must say to you that in my judgment, there is no pathology here. There is no mental illness here. The fundamental problem is this: You have listened to and believed and acted upon the values of our culture, which clearly teach us all that meaning in life is to be found in the relentless pursuit of money, power, and sex. You heard it. You believed it. You made your decisions about your relationships based on those values, and they have let you down. The real question is whether or not you are willing to explore going deeper than that. Personally, I don't think you need a psychologist or a psychiatrist. You would most be helped by a spiritual director. Do you have any window that might help you enter into a deep understanding of what it means to be really alive in this life? Do you have any interest in art or philosophy or literature or religion? Is there some window we could use to open to you a view of life that is more profound and more nuanced than the one our culture has provided you?"

The husband looked at me and said, "Well, I grew up in a church and we still go." "Great!" I said. "Those people know some things that can help you. They know that we all fall short of the glory of God. They know about forgiveness. Their business is helping people start over. They have some concepts and some practices that can help you."

In our culture, sex is described as recreation. But in the faith it is symbolic of intimacy and integrity. In our culture, money is a means to judge status. Jesus has more to say about money than any other topic, the sum of which is the conclusion that the richest among us are not those who have the most, but those who need the least. Look at the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap or gather into barns, yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. And our real power in life comes not in the exercise of solitary self-fulfillment but in obedience to God. The teaching is clear: You and God can make more out of your life than you could ever make out of it by yourself.

Now Jesus of Nazareth had a problem akin to those early Jews. He was born into a Babylon. He was born into a culture out of sync with his vision of the kingdom of God. That's why the first important story right after the birth story is the narrative around temptations. The purpose of the temptations is to tell us what his kingdom is not. Listen what he says:

The devil: Turn these stone into bread.

No. His kingdom is not bread, literally or metaphorically.

Throw yourself down from the temple. God will send his angels.

No, his kingdom is not any religious system.

Bow down and worship me and I will give you the kingdoms of the world.

No, his kingdom is not about worldly power.

Well, then, what is it? What is his charter? What is his ministry? What is his program?

It is clearly stated in the very next word of the first chapter that follows the temptations. Chapter 5 in the Gospel of Matthew is known as the Sermon on the Mount, the very first word of which is blessed. "Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek," a term only used one other place. It refers to horses. We might say it this way: Blessed are those broken to the bridle. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed. Blessed. This term describes far more than prosperity or happiness or inner peace. It describes the kind of confidence people have when they know that they belong to God and to his holy family and to that great cloud of witnesses of all time, whose citizenship is in glory.

Now how is it we are to learn to sing the Lord's song in a strange land? Well, for guidance, let's go back to these same very first writings: Proverbs 22:6, "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it." There are several things wrong with the English translation in this text. The primary one is the word translated train, which sounds to us like rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior in the same way one would train a horse or a dog.

The root of the word translated train describes the practice of the mother of a newborn when she takes a mortar and pestle and grinds dried fruit into a fine powder. She then puts a touch of it on her little finger and puts it in her newborn's mouth to teach the newborn to suckle. In other words, suckle a child on the mother's milk of life and what is that? The mother's milk is to be found in the stories of what it means to be a child of the living God in this strange land - the stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Sara and Deborah and Moses and David, the stories of Jesus and Paul, the stories of people who undertake to be faithful in this world while they wait for the world to come.

The mother's milk is the teaching of the faith. The mother's milk is the practicing of the faith. The mother's milk is the living of that faith when in the name of Jesus we struggle in this strange land, to proclaim release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed, knowing that inasmuch as we do it unto them, we are doing unto our Lord.

If you are a follower of this rabbi named Jesus, you are not a citizen of Babylon. You don't really belong here. You are a citizen of the kingdom of God that awaits us. In the meantime, the community of faith exists to nurture us for the journey and teach us how to sing the Lord's song in this strange land.

Amen. Let us pray.

Blessed God, we give you thanks for all the ways you teach us to sing your song in this land, and we look with anticipation to that day when you welcome us into your kingdom that has no end. In the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.


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