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Select Homily
March, 11 2018

4th Sunday of Lent (B)

Dr. Susan Fleming McGurgan



Note: This reflection focuses on Psalm 137, one of the most memorable and evocative of the psalms. The psalms provide rich material for preaching and meditation, yet are often overlooked.


They had been driven from their homes like cattle into a new and distant land. They were God’s chosen people, but it was hard for anyone to see God’s favor at work in their lives.  They were exiles; aliens, strangers in a strange land. They owned nothing but their faith, their bitterness, and their memories of the past. In their despair, they wondered:

           Have we sinned?

            Have we broken covenant?

            Has God abandoned us forever?

There were days when it was difficult to tell which was stronger… their faith in the God of Abraham, their disdain of the enemy, or their memories of better times. 

For all people, the act of remembering can be both painful and complex.  Memories can allow old wounds to open and bleed freely once more. Memories can let little pieces of broken lives return with a jolt that makes us gasp. Memories can open up cellar doors, and shine a light on things that lurk in the dark.  

Memories of a lonely childhood, or an abusive relationship or a tragic loss can sear and burn and leave us nursing wounds we fear will never heal. Some memories, given the right trigger, return with the suddenness of a stealth bomber strike and leave us gasping for air. Some memories produce such bitter fruit that we want to plow them under, destroying stem and root.

Memories can give birth to a desire for vengeance so violent, so caustic, that it can corrode the soul.  

How shall we sing the lord's song in a strange land? Babylon, you destroyer, happy are those who pay you back, evil for evil!  Happy are those who seize your children and smash them against a rock!

A mother, shattered by the murder of her daughter, walks alone in the dark. In exile, her only companions are fury and pain.  She wonders sometimes, if the Darkness will last forever, but held captive by bitter dreams of violence and revenge, she sits by the waters of Babylon and weeps.

An addict, imprisoned by his relentless appetite, has broken every promise, and betrayed every trust. He longs to escape, but cannot remember the way home. Held captive by demons he can no longer see, he sits by the waters of Babylon and weeps.

We can be ensnared, not just by our masters, but by our own sins and fears. From deep within a place of exile, it is tempting to dream of returning violence for violence; anger for anger; evil for evil.  And so, by the rivers of Babylon, the exiles sat and wept.

But for those held captive, keeping memory alive is something more.  For captives, remembering is a dangerous act of resistance.  It is a signal to both captor and prisoner that as long as the memory of freedom remains, liberation is possible.  

Memory and hope are intimately connected. Like an internal prophet, memory can remind us that the way things are today are not the way things have to be. Memory can take us to another time; another place; another chance.  Ann Frank, remembering her happy childhood, as she hid behind the false wall, wrote:  

It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to those memories, because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, and I remember, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more"

As people of faith, we do not need to rely simply on our own memories. As God’s people, we have access to memories beyond our own. We are promised that we will not be left orphans, and in that promise, each one of has become part of the grand circle of faith and remembrance, connected to the communion of saints, web by web, synapse by synapse, memory by memory.  

The Church istslf is a community of dynamic and creative remembrance and hope.   St. Augustine and St. John of the cross talked about this essential connection -- Memory allows us knowledge of our salvation—it places us in the covenant and launches us toward the future. Pope Francis tells us that “The joy of evangelizing always arises from grateful remembrance: it is a grace which we constantly need to implore. The apostles never forgot the moment when Jesus touched their hearts. Together with Jesus, this remembrance makes present to us a great cloud of witnesses.  The believer is essentially “one who remembers”. 

Memories can be risky. They have the potential to bind us tighter than any chain. But as the children of Israel knew, amnesia could be even more dangerous. They knew that even in dangerous times, memories can remind us of God’s liberating presence.  

Even as they dreamed of revenge, the Israelites knew that God was gracious enough to forgive. Even as they shouted out to heaven, they knew God was large enough to bear their rage. As they sat beside the waters of Babylon, mourning and weeping, they were also insuring that they, the captives, would never abandon God.   They were reminding themselves that the God who had kept faith in the past, was the same God who now heard their cries of pain.   

They trusted God with their darkest selves, knowing that God would never betray or forget them; knowing that a cry to God is also a prayer.  

As they sat beside the rivers of Babylon and wept, they knew that one day, God would lead them from bondage into freedom. That journey to freedom can seem almost overwhelming.  In desperate times it can be easier to curse than to bless; simpler to hate than to forgive. After a betrayal it can seem more prudent to plan for revenge than to hope for healing.

Coming home from that place of exile is never easy. It is a perilous journey requiring courage as well as faith. We will not complete that journey unscathed, or without sitting awhile by the rivers of Babylon, weeping.  

But our faith will remember the truth, even if today lies. It will promise healing, even as we adjust our bandages. It will call us us worthy, even when we fail.  The assurance of Grace, carried in the memory of the faithful, will allow us to triumph, even as the world announces our defeat.   

The scars we receive along the path from bondage into freedom are the mile markers of this journey. They remind us that after the resurrection, Jesus held out his own scarred hand to Thomas, as proof of his own perilous journey—a journey that transformed the forces of bondage forever.

 © Susan Fleming McGurgan





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