A sermon based on Psalm 137, a psalm of lament from the Isralite people during their exile in Babylon. How can it help us deal with the grief that some many of us feel for the future that our planet faces?
In 597BC, Jerusalem revolted against Babylon, the new superpower in the Middle East at the time. After a three month siege the city being pillaged, the Temple destroyed and a large part of the population were captured and taken into exile in Babylon. They remained there as captives for approximately 70 years.
The effect was devastating on the people. They had lost everything they held dear. Many had lost family members in the wars or siege or had been separated from them when being forced into exile. They would have lost their possessions and homes and, in many cases, land that had been passed down through the generations. Perhaps most importantly, though, they had lost their God. Before the exile the Jews believed in a tribal God whose main purpose was to look after Israel. But Israel had been destroyed. That God had failed. Imagine what it must feel like to have a God who has failed. It would drive you to sit down by a river and weep. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
How does that reflect our experience today? For almost as long as Christianity has been around it has felt that society has been progressing – moving in the right direction. The expansion and development of Christianity has occurred at a time of progress and development for humanity. It has been possible to see human progress as moving towards the coming of a Kingdom where slavery is no more, where women are no longer subject to men, where even poverty might be eradicated. Every successive generation has known a better world than its parents. It has been very easy to assume that a beneficent God has been looking after us and guiding that progress. In the words of Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
But now we see a world that is deteriorating, that might even be destroyed. The issues aren’t just about the environment. Throughout the world the gap between rich and poor is increasing, and the poor are really suffering. “Progress” has not brought happiness, mental illness is rising rapidly. In many regions, including our own, there is political instability bordering on chaos and a feeling that our democratic institutions are failing. The current state of the environment is not only a depressing fact but also a metaphor for the state of our current society more generally.
It really feels to me as if the God who many like me believed to be guiding human progress has failed. There is a resonance between the grief of those Jews in exile in Babylon, who had lost everything, including their confidence in God, and our present generation, who are in danger of losing everything and may already have lost their confidence in God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?”
The Jews were in exile for 70 years. The generation that went into exile and wept so bitterly died in exile. A whole generation grew up in exile and never knew any other way of living. It was only later generations that finally returned to what they had been told was their homeland.
When we look at the projections for how the climate will change over coming years then we face a similar but exaggerated situation. We, the generation present here, will almost certainly not live to see a return to anything that is seen as progress. Many generations will almost certainly live in a severely denuded environment, and probably with currently unimaginable political instability as rich and poor fight for what little food it is still possible to grow.
I do believe that eventually a generation will emerge who return to its homeland, who eventually recognise that the only way we can all live life to the full, on a finite and degraded planet, is to accept the gospel of love and community that is offered freely to all … but it will be a very long time coming.
Of course, some will see our predicament as God’s judgement and others will see the state of our earthly existence as essentially irrelevant when we look forward to spending eternity in God’s presence. Such ideas may comfort others, but they do little to comfort me. What I feel in my heart is an aching sadness for the world as it could be but isn’t. A sadness I can only describe as grief. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
So I place myself alongside those exiles in Babylon and want to learn from them how to express, and live through, that grief. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying identified 5 stages of grief and we see many of them in that Jewish experience, and in our experience today.
First is denial and isolation. The Jews could not deny that they had been physically removed but they did continue to live in isolation from their captors and continue the religious practices that, one could argue, had led them to be in that position. Today we definitely see denial of what is happening to the world and a desire to carry on as usual.
Then there is anger. We don’t often hear the second half of psalm 137 read out but how can wishing your enemies’ children’s heads be crushed against rocks be anything other than an expression of anger. I feel anger today for how the planet is changing. I suppress it, but that only means it emerges as tears rather than violence. Greta Thunberg feels that anger and expresses it far more powerfully than I can.
Bargaining comes next. How many of the psalms (many of which scholars now believe where written or at least edited during the exile) embed some element of an attempt to bargain with God. As we read in Psalm 137:
If I ever forget your holy city, LORD,
may my arms be turned into twigs and burned.
How often do we attempt to bargain in our response to environmental change, “Surely if I choose to cycle more often and install solar panels I will have done enough” or “we as a nation should only act if other nations are willing to act alongside us”. The bargaining is doomed to failure because it fails to acknowledge the reality of the situation.
Then depression, sitting down and weeping by the river, descending into mental ill-health as individuals and as a society.
But finally comes acceptance. Eventually the exiles did come to accept that the exile was real and learnt that they had to accommodate to their loss. Many of the stories of the exile are of Jews flourishing as individuals or as a group within their new circumstances. Acceptance doesn’t restore what is lost, but it does allow us to begin to live fulfilled lives again despite that loss. In terms of how our planet is changing we will eventually accept that the planet has lost much of the beauty we appreciate today, but when we do we will find different ways of living fully as God intended.
That is why it is so important for us to work through our grief because it is only when we have accepted it that we will look for these new ways of living. I included our gospel reading earlier (Mark 15:25-37) that it is only when we have accepted the grief of what Jesus went through on the cross that we are able to embrace the new way of life that we experience as Resurrection.
At this time helping our community to grieve may be one of the most important roles the church has. The support we offer at funerals and otherwise during grieving is one of the last points of contact that we still have with many people in our community. We know how to support people through grief when they lose a loved one. Maybe we should develop our expertise in allowing people through their grief for this planet. Maybe acts of lament like the story I told earlier on might be one way of allowing people to express and live through their grief.
It is also important to work through stages of grief because grief is disabling and disempowering. We become paralysed and unable to help ourselves. What could better describe our human society at the moment than paralysis and inability to help ourselves? Moving through the stages of grief to acceptance frees us to act and to transform.
Accepting the awful reality of what is happening to our planet can break us out of that paralysis and empower us to act as agents for change. Jeremiah was a prophet at the time of the exile. He is famous for his lamentations, for his grief for his nation. It was through embracing and working through that grief, however, that he became one Israel’s greatest prophets and one of the most powerful advocates of societal change and a demand for social justice that the planet has ever seen.
That is what our society today needs. It needs prophets to advocate new ways of living on a finite planet with finite resources. It needs the imagination to dream up a new economic system that are not dependent on continual growth and the inevitable increases in consumption of resources that this entails. It needs demands for justice in the sharing of our human and natural resources. Above all it requires prophetic voices to remind us that what is required is for us to love the Lord our god with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
We cannot do this if we are paralysed by grief, but if we work through that grief to accept our loss then we can be liberated to work for the coming of the Kingdom. The world will almost certainly be transformed by climate change, but, if we liberate ourselves to action, there is still a chance that the physical and biological changes can be limited. Perhaps more importantly, that change will only be brought about if we can direct our society away from competitive individualism to the social cooperation and justice which is the heart of our gospel. We must work through our grief and be liberated to go once more into the world to love and serve our Lord.
My thinking has been influenced heavily by three different sources:
- reading Walter Brueggemanm’s classic, “The Prophetic Imagination” at our theology book club,
- being led in a staff retreat in February on “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” by Jasmine Devadson earlier in the year,
- attending workshops with Extinction Rebellion at this year’s Greenbelt Festival.