Songs of Lament

Psalm 137:1-6
Nehemiah 1-12

This summer at West Concord Union Church we have been exploring the songs of the bible, as you may have heard a few weeks ago. There are more than 185 songs in the bible, sung by very different people, and for very different reasons. We’ve heard songs of praise, and songs of victory, and one song of eulogy. But so far we have not yet touched on another large category of biblical songs: songs of lamentation.

There is, in fact, a whole book of Lamentations.  The book of Lamentations is a set of five songs, traditionally thought to be written by the prophet Jeremiah. These songs mourn the destruction of Jerusalem, its community. and its great temple: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations… Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, she finds no resting place; her pursuers have overtaken her in the midst of her distress.” (Lam 1:1, 1:3)

Songs of communal lamentation in the bible are not limited to the book of Lamentations. There are several psalms that fit this pattern as well. They express grief for what has happened to the people, for what has happened to the nation. They remember God’s past acts of salvation. They ask for God’s help, and for holy restoration.

In the psalm Andrew read today, those who are in exile in Babylon following the destruction of Jerusalem tell us: “by the rivers of Babylon we sat down,  and we wept when we remembered Zion. Our captors and tormentors asked us to sing the songs of Zion. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign Land?” It was hard to sing at all, in a strange place, when times were bad; and yet these very words are part of a psalm, part of a song. Singing has been an important part of the process of mourning for our ancestors in faith.

I feel a profound sense of grief about our public life, our communal life, our national life, today. We’re not in the same position as the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Our holy city has not been destroyed. We are not, most of us at least, exiles from our homeland. And yet, it is a troubled and a troubling time.

I wonder, what might we grieve, in our common life in America today?  What do you grieve about our city, our state, our nation, our world?  I encourage you to read the book of Lamentations, and our psalms of communal lamentation, whether it is for the first time or a return to very familiar texts.  And consider, if you wrote a song of lamentation today, what would it say? What do you grieve most deeply about what we have lost, who we are now, and what we have never yet become together?

The longer reading this morning is a selection from the book of Nehemiah. If the book of Lamentations describes the pain of the destruction of Jerusalem, this is a story of what happens afterwards. An Israelite serving abroad in a royal court named Nehemiah hears of destruction and exile, and he feels called to return and rebuild Jerusalem.

At first the work of rebuilding does not go well. Some folks laugh at those who are trying to build the city wall again. Others try to destroy it.  Still, one way or another, the wall continues to rise. Other things begin to change for the better, too. Nehemiah brings legal action against the officials who are starving the people through heavy taxation; and he is successful. Slowly, the people begin to recover from starvation, from occupation, from oppression. Nehemiah becomes the governor of Judah, and people return to their homeland.

To me the most fascinating part of the story is what happens when there is finally a crowd again in the square, in the rebuilt city of Jerusalem.  The people ask Ezra, a scribe, to bring the book of the law of Moses, and to read the law aloud to them. They begin to practice their faith again together and renew their covenant with God. And we learn that among those who come to live in Jerusalem are those who are in charge of the songs of thanksgiving.  Songs of thanksgiving, after so much suffering.

If we want to rebuild our common life; to restore good things from the past, and begin good things that have never yet been realized among us; I wonder if it starts with music. Music, that brings our voices together in grief. Music, that brings our voices together in longing. Music, that brings our voices together in hope. Music, that brings our voices together, eventually, despite everything, in thanksgiving.

We need music in doubt and in faith, in grief and in joy. Music is a gift from God that helps us express what is deepest in our hearts. It connects us with one another, and it connects us with all that is holy.

The book of Lamentations contains songs of exile from the people Israel. There are songs of exile in our own American songbook, too. Songs of those who were stolen from their homelands in Africa and the Caribbean and beyond and enslaved on our shores. W.E.B. Du Bois (Boys) calls these spirituals “sorrow songs.”  He says they are “the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas.”

Today we sing one of those American sorrow-songs, Balm in Gilead.  And as we sing, let us pray that our singing together, in grief, in longing, in hope, and in thanksgiving, will help remake each of us and be part of the remaking of our nation. Amen.