There is a book I nearly always take with me when I go on a retreat…. It’s by a Brazilian theologian, Rubem Alvez, called The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet. Rubem, in addition to being a theologian, is a mystic and a storyteller, and the first half of this book, in particular, always teaches me something new. He begins with a story that reminds me of where we find ourselves in todays’ scripture readings. Each morning he goes to his study and sees a spider web. Upset with this sign of carelessness and untidiness, he goes to the kitchen to get the broom and sweep it away. But then, one morning when the cobwebs is up in the same corner once more, he sees it for what it is. He goes on to describe how the cobweb is so precise and symmetrical… a work of art. And then writes,
I am fascinated by the web for another reason too… for what I do not see. I did not see her first move, the move which was the beginning of the web, the leap into the void….I imagine that tiny, almost invisible creature, hanging alone on the wall. She sees the other walls, far away, and measures the distance between them: an empty space…. And there is one thing only she can count on for the incredible work she is about to start: a thread, still hidden inside her body. And then, suddenly, a leap into the void. And the spider’s universe has begun!
This perseverance and leap the spider took, even though it’s home and food source were destroyed over and over, is what the Israelites were doing in Babylon. Jerusalem had been destroyed by the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, who appointed one of his minion to stay and the the land. He then took all the skilled craftsmen and wealthy people to Babylon and kept them captive, treating them as slaves to do work for his country. He only left the poorest people behind. Jeremiah 25 says, I will send … Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and will bring [him] against this land, and against its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations, and will utterly destroy them, and make them a horror, a thing to be hissed, an everlasting ruin. And this whole land shall be a ruin, and a waste; and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.
Some time in this period of the seventy year exile, the Psalm we heard today reflects. This lament shows the state of the people who were held captive. The desire to remember Jerusalem, even in this new land where they were forced to live. The desire for future revenge on the Babylonians…. The dreams of paying back evil for evil and this hard image for us to hear of them wanting to dash the little ones of the Babylonians against the rocks. Their pain is raw. Their emotions are real. They have been hurt and wronged, and are struggling to find hope. Yet the pledge to remember Jerusalem and save their songs for God, refusing to sing their songs of joy to the people who had captured them.
But then we hear the counter passage from Jeremiah. God reminds the people that when the seventy years are up, they will be able to return home. The God has plans for them. That if they turn again to prayer, they will hear these plans. When they seek God with all their heart, God will lead them home and restore their fortunes and re-create the community. God gives them a glimmer of hope.
While I take issue with the Book of Jeremiah saying that the whole exile and destruction was God’s punishment for the Israelites, when in reality it is more a way for people to try to understand why this happened to them, the hope that God gives is huge when people are in the midst of suffering. It makes the difference between survival and death.
Many studies were done on people who were imprisoned during the holocaust trying to figure out who survived and who didn’t, and, for those who died natural deaths (including from starvation) were often the ones who had lost all hope, who had stopped telling the stories of who they were outside of the camps, who had come to believe that this was the end truth they had to live in. While others, living in the exact same conditions, who had hope, who remembered what life was like before and dreamed about what life could be after, who shared quiet stories and wept and felt the horror but did not get lost in it, the ones who kept a sense of community and looked out for others in the small ways they could, were more likely to come out of the camps alive…. Even when they gave up a share of their meager food portion to someone else, leaving them even less to eat.
So, like Rubem Alvez’s spider, who never gave up hope and each day set out to spin a new web to replace the one Rubem had destroyed, leaping in to the void drawing on those inner resources she had to trust to stay alive, these Israelites are hearing a piece of hope that they can cling to and spin their lives and dreams on as they hear Jeremiah’s prophecy. It helped those who were told the stories of Jerusalem sitting on the banks of the Babylon river to keep hope alive. But it took the stories and the weeping and the cries for revenge and the being present to emotions and the sense of community with one another, and healing work to be done, for this hope to take hold and grow. Others, who did not get this, never returned to Jerusalem. Some had grown too comfortable with the way things were in Babylon. Some had forgotten the stories of their ancestors. Some had headed off to new places and did not want to return. Some had lost hope in the promise that God had plans for them and decided to turn their backs on God. But for those who had remembered and wept and shared stories, the hope of returning home never died. The hope in God never wavered. The hope in community stayed strong.
So what does this have to teach us?
Firstly, I believe that we have to remember the songs of joy our ancestors have taught us. Think of the old songs from the Appalachian region, passed down from generation to generation, building resilience and giving a rhythm to work to… or the songs used on the Underground Railway that had messages hidden inside them…. Steal Away, Wade in the Water, Follow the Drinking Gourd. Each one had not only messages of the way to go, but drew on the strength of the people that went before them, their ancestors from long ago and not so long ago.
What are the songs of joy you sing? How do they help your faith?
But with these songs of joy, to know who we can sing them to and who to keep them from. Like the stories we tell about our lives, Who can witness them with respect and understanding and who may turn them around to use against us? How can we share and guard our stories of hope so they remain powerful for our lives and a message for lives to come? Some of these captives seemed to do this well, telling the stories of their homeland in a way that made it real and a place the generations after them would want to go back to…. But some did not share the stories in a way that those following them would have that desire placed inside them. I think this is true for our faith too…. Do we tell the stories of a God who is judgmental and would cause the Israelites to be captives in Babylon to teach them a lesson, or do we teach of a God who is loving and invites everyone to the table? Which God are you passing on to your children and grandchildren? Which God did they hear about in their youth? How can we repair the damage done by so many who believe God’s love is conditional? How can we repair the image of God as one who punishes rather than one who walks with us in our times of trial? How can you share stories of a God os Love with those who you love…. And with the world at large…. Through your words and actions?
It also teaches us that we need to feel the feelings…. That we can feel like we want to dash their little ones on the rocks to get revenge… that anger and grief are emotions worthy of being felt not pushed aside, not ignored or denied. We don’t need to act on them…. And please never dash a little one against a rock…. But we can imagine hurting someone who has wronged us and that this is a way for us to move through that anger. For who among us could imagine that and not feel compassion for the little ones who have done nothing wrong. But our picturing it can release the anger and let us move beyond it. Too often we label feelings as good or bad and the bad ones we try to ignore or suppress, when really, feelings are just that. The more we give them healthy ways to be acknowledged the more they can just pass through and not take hold.
And, possibly most important in this story, we need to remember God. We need to seek God with all our heart and search for God in each circumstance and pray to God and call upon God and come before God. Then we will find our hope once more. Then we will be brought back from exile…. From feeling far away from God, restored to God’s side and filled with hope once more.
So leap…. Like the spider in Rubem’s study…. Trusting that what you have inside, what God has placed deep within, is enough to hold you and bring you home. Sing songs to witnesses that can hear them well. Don’t waste your breath singing songs to those who will use them against you. Keep your community in mind as you remember the stories that sustained you before and the hope you have for the future. Tell of a God with a love so great that all are invited to partake in the grace offered. Sing a song of hope, and leap into that hope, knowing that God is right there with you. Amen.