Pentecost 17
Shelagh Balfour

Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137

There’s been quite a bit of talk about politics at my house lately. Between a provincial election, a federal election, and all the political news from our neighbours to the south, there’s a lot of fodder for conversation. Now, I’m not planning to talk about politics today, but I do want to point out a common trend in our culture that is well illustrated in political debate. I’m talking about a widespread inability to tolerate differing points of view. In many a leadership debate or news commentary panel we hear speakers who are single mindedly focused on getting their message out in such a way that they do not hear one another’s words. It is common for people to talk over one another and to treat different points of view with distain and mockery.

This is not to pick on politicians or political analysts. They are just a timely example of a growing phenomenon in our culture: A failure to listen to what we disagree with or to what makes us uncomfortable. It is relatively easy for us to arrange our lives so that we only have to interact with people with whom we agree. We can choose the news channels we watch or the church we attend based on their conformity to our own opinions. Social media and internet search engines select what to offer us based on our already identified preferences. There are significant problems with this, but the one I would like to focus on is how it affects our ability to listen with an open heart to people who say things that disturb us. As followers of Jesus Christ, this ought to concern us very much.

Our psalm this morning, Psalm 137 is definitely one that disturbs. On one level, it is regarded as one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry in the psalter. It has been quoted and paraphrased widely. One of my favourite versions when I was younger was the haunting, ballad style rendition in the musical Godspell. The thing is, though, modern adaptations like the one in Godspell retain their attraction by leaving out the last few verses, the ones about destruction and payback and dashing infants against the rock. We hear these verses, and suddenly what seemed lovely and poetic is horrifying. And the image is horrifying. It disturbs our sense of what should be and so it is avoided.

However, if we avoid these challenging verses and stay with the lovely, though melancholy, poetry, we miss the significant power of the entire psalm. This is a psalm of pain and dislocation and it conveys a message from 6th century BC Israel that we still need to listen to in 21st Century Canada.

To help us understand the psalm, we need to understand its context. We hear some of that context in the reading from Lamentations.
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! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude….. Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper.

You can feel the haunting sense of lament that is also present in the psalm. But what is the writer describing here?

In 6th Century BC, the empire of Babylon, under King Nebuchadnezzar, was on the move, swallowing up the smaller, weaker countries around it. This included Judah. In about 586 B.C., after an attempted rebellion against their rule, Babylon crushed Judah and razed Jerusalem to the ground. The walls of the city were torn down, the Temple utterly destroyed. The treasure was already long gone, along with the elite of the people, but now the rest were taken away.

Babylon, by virtue of their superior might and their assumed superiority to the people of the lands they conquered believed they had a right to take land and treasure, and displace and enslave the people whose home it was. This particular people, the Israelites, had an identity that was deeply connected to the land. It was the land promised to them through Abraham, given to them by God when God rescued them from slavery. More than that, the Temple in Jerusalem was the place on earth where they met God.

In his book Simply Jesus, N.T. Wright says it this way: The Temple “was the place where heaven and earth met…..’Heaven’ and ‘earth’ are not far apart as most people today assume, but actually overlap and interlock” The place they did this was in the Temple in Jerusalem. “This”, Wright said. “was where God’s glory, God’s presence had come to rest.”

So, in fact, what this people, the people of Judah lost when Babylon conquered was enormous; in fact, everything. Give this some thought for a minute – All their possessions, except perhaps what they could carry with them into exile. Their homes, their traditional lands given to them by God, their livelihoods. They were taken away to servitude in a foreign country. And they lost the direct connection to God who met them on Mount Zion.

What we find in psalm 137 then, is an unfiltered response to all this loss, By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion. And we find yet another layer to the pain. Because, on top of all their loss and dislocation, they are mocked by their oppressors. "Sing us one of the songs of Zion," they say. The Babylonians are amused by their captives’ plight. And so the psalmist asks - How shall we sing the Lord's song upon an alien soil? How could they sing Temple songs of praise to God, when they were far away from the Temple in Jerusalem? How could they sing songs about the God they worshipped and their very identity as the God’s people in order to provide amusement for their captors, in order to be mocked for the seeming failure of that God?

The reaction, then, is raw and ugly. The psalm writer cries out to God for justice, for payback if you like. Do to our oppressors what they have done to us. In the psalm reflection in the bulletin Lissa writes - "This unsettling lament of loss and anger ends by urging God to horrific vengeance. It shocks us, but honestly shows the depths to which suffering might bring us. God hears even dark emotions, comforts us, but is not compelled to act out the vengeance we demand. As we read this psalm, we are reminded of people who currently suffer and lament. Will we hear their anger, and work for godly justice on their behalf? Will we continue in prayer with them?"

And this is where the hard work of listening to what disturbs us begins. Because people throughout the world continue to cry out in the words of psalm 137. Will we hear them? The destruction or enslavement of whole peoples was not unique to the Babylonians. We do not need to look further than our own country, our own city, to see the ongoing impact of conquered lands and displaced nations. And here it becomes personal. How much harder is it to listen when we are neighbours and not far away bystanders?

But still, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to listen. The book of Lamentations and many of the psalms show us that God is one who listens, who hears dark emotions and who comforts those in pain. And so we are called to listen. In Jesus Christ, God is reconciling all things to himself. And so we are called, not just to listen, but to be reconcilers. As Christ does, so must his body do. We are called to work for reconciliation in all our relationships, and reconciliation cannot happen without genuine listening, listening with an open heart, even to that which disturbs us and makes us uncomfortable.

So what does this kind of listening look like. A couple of years ago the parish studied a book called Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. It turns out that what is most essential to a good outcome for a difficult conversation is listening, what the authors call Listening for Understanding. Listening for Understanding means setting aside one’s own perspective and prior assumptions in order to fully focus on the other person’s story.

People, all people, have a need to be heard, to have their story known. In times of loss and dislocation this becomes particularly important because, whatever the source of the loss, the ones who experience it are in danger of losing their sense of themselves, of who they are. They may need to repeatedly re-speak their story so it is not forgotten in the face of cultural genocide. Like the Israelites in Babylon, they may need to discover how they are to be themselves in significantly changed circumstances. For people from different perspectives to move forward together, their opposing stories need to be shared, and this means listening for understanding.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have a list of habits that can get in the way of truly listening to someone else. They include things like:

  • My emotions – I’m anxious about hearing things that make me uncomfortable , or What the person said or did makes me mad. So I go into the conversation wanting to make me feel better.
  • Or, before the conversation starts, I already know I’m right and they are wrong. So, my job in the conversation is to make them see reason.
  • Or, I already know what they’re going to say, so I don’t need to listen, I just need to wait for my turn to say my piece, which sounds a bit like those political debates.

By contrast, what listening for understanding requires includes:

  • Curiosity – a genuine desire to hear and understand what the other person has to say. This includes hearing not just the facts, but the feelings and perceptions of the other person. It means asking open questions and resisting commenting or interpreting based on my understanding.
  • It requires openness to hearing whatever the person has to say, like it or not. It doesn’t mean agreeing but it might mean listening to even the uncomfortable bits without judgement. It also means listening with an openness to being changed by what I hear.
  • Listening for understanding also requires authenticity. Anybody who has learned or experienced the art of “active listening” knows that people can say all the right things but can still give the impression that they aren’t really interested or, worse, are using the techniques to manipulate. The falseness is evident. This is a bit of a truism, but authenticity can’t be faked. You have to really want to be there hearing that conversation.

There is no question that there is pain and there is dislocation in the world. There are broken relationships within families, and there are broken relationships within the church. In the midst of this, it is becoming increasingly rare for opposing sides to listen to one another and this leads to intractable hurt and polarization. So there is a lot of scope for anyone who is actually prepared to listen.

This is what we, as the church, are called to; to be listeners and reconcilers. In addition, we are called to model this listening for understanding to the culture that has developed habits of non-listening. Is this easy? Definitely not. To be honest, I don’t think that, on my own, I’m any good at it at all. But, thanks be to God, I also know I am not on my own. Because I am part of this body, which is the body of Christ.

This, then, is my challenge for all of us today: How do we, individually and together, make listening with an open heart to that which challenges us a natural part of our life in the body of Christ? And how do we support one another in doing it? Do we pray and search Scripture together for understanding? Do we return to the book Difficult Conversations and study it again? Do we learn and practice new skills together? I don’t have easy answers to this, but that’s okay, because sometime we need to sit with questions for a while. So I will leave us with this question: In a world where loss and dislocation exist and people cry out to God in sorrow, in a culture where polarization and refusal to listen to are becoming the norm, how are we at St. Peter’s called to listen with understanding? And, after we have listened, how are we called to respond?