Title: Pilgrimage to Zion
Texts: Psalm 122, 126, 129, 137
Date: August 29, 2010
Author: Isaac Villegas
“Where are you from?” I’ve been hearing that question a lot these past few months as I have been traveling around visiting different Mennonite communities. “Where are you from?” If you’ve recently moved into the area for work or school, I’m sure you’ve been asked the same question.
A couple weeks ago I was in South Dakota and found myself answering that question a lot. It’s not that I mind it. It’s more that I just don’t know how to answer it. Usually I say, “Well, these days I live in North Carolina. Before that I grew up in Arizona. But I was born in Los Angeles, California.” Even after a complicated answer like that, it doesn’t quite feel right to end it there. I was born in LA, but my dad immigrated from Colombia and my mom from Costa Rica, which explains my brownish skin tone. If I follow my bloodline, I’m from south of the border, yet from two different places at the same time: one country in South America, and the other in Central America.
Frequently, when I stop at Whole Foods to pick up some groceries, I end up trying to figure out which bananas I should buy. My eyes go back and forth between two piles: the sign says that one set of bananas is from Colombia, while the other bananas are from Costa Rica. So I end up having an identity crisis as I try to discover who I really am deep down inside and decide, for the moment, whether I feel more loyal to the people of Costa Rica or Colombia.
“Where are you from?” For the people who wrote the four Psalms we heard tonight, the answer is clearer: “Those who go out weeping…shall come home with shouts of joy” (Ps 126:6), as it says at the end of Psalm 126. Home is the Temple in Jerusalem, on Mt. Zion, the home of God’s peace (that’s what the word Jerusalem literally means). Jon Levenson, a Jewish biblical scholar writes, “The Temple on Mount Zion was to be, from its very inception, a palace of peace” (Sinai & Zion, 96).
Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God’s peace, is the home of Israel—not only home, but also the place where they are from, Israel’s place of origin. According to a Jewish tradition, Mt. Zion is the birthplace of Israel, and the world. As the Rabbis put it, “The world was created beginning from Zion” (Levenson, 118). This way of thinking about Mt. Zion as the origin of the world comes from the book of Ezekiel, chapter 28, which draws together “Eden, the garden of God” (Ezek 28:13) and Zion, “the holy mountain of God” (v. 14). Eden and Mt. Zion, the garden and the house of worship—according to biblical imagination, the two are the same place. (Levenson, 128).
The first three Psalms we heard tonight are part of a section called “the songs of ascent.” These were popular songs that the people of Israel would sing as they made their way up to the Temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. People from all the tribes of Israel would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to spend time in the Temple, and rest in God’s peace. The first line in Psalm 122 records such a journey: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”
Now picture a shepherd out in pasture, miles and miles away from Jerusalem. He sees a small caravan in the distance. As the people get closer, they call out to the shepherd. Now listen again to Psalm 122: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’… Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together. To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord,…to give thanks to the name of the Lord” (vv. 1, 3-4). As people from all the tribes of Israel made their way up to Mt. Zion, they were coming home.
Psalm 129 remembers when enemies of Israel stood in the way of their pilgrimage to Zion. “Often have they attacked me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me” (v. 2). Imagine Israel’s time of Egyptian captivity: the youthful years of the people were spent in slavery. They were treated like animals, plowing the land of their Egyptian owners: verse 3, “The plowers plowed on my back; they made their furrows long.”
Not only do the slaves do all the plowing, but their masters also plow their backs; like the fields, the backs of the people are “torn open like furrows of the field,” the deep wounds of whipped slaves (Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 462). But God set them free from Egyptian captivity so the people of Israel could continue on their pilgrimage to God’s house of peace: verse 4, “The Lord is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked.” The Psalmist pictures the liberation of Israel as the moment when the cords that bind the plow to the neck of an ox are cut loose: “God has cut the cords of the wicked,” and slaves are now free to journey on.
Liberation from enemies is what Psalm 126 celebrates. The song remembers a return to Zion after enemies kept them away for so long: verses 1 and 2, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter.” But the second half of Psalm 126 shifts into a prayer for those who are still separated from Jerusalem, people who cannot make the pilgrimage to Mt. Zion: verses 4 and 5, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord… May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.”
And this leads us into our final Psalm, Psalm 137: a song for the people of Israel who sow in tears because they are exiled Jerusalem, incapable of making a pilgrimage to the Temple on Mt. Zion. “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (v. 1). Without any access to their home in the Temple, they can only sing songs of lamentation. When they remember the days they spent dwelling in God’s peace, they can only weep.
Their captors mock them as they mourn. “Sing us one of those songs of Zion,” they say (v. 3). The Songs of Zion include some of the psalms of ascent that we’ve been talking about. They are Psalms that rejoice in God’s presence as Jewish pilgrims make their way to God’s house; the songs are full of joyful anticipation.
But the Jews of Psalm 137 cannot sing these songs while in Babylonian captivity. They cannot imagine freedom from their captors. “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (v. 4). This Psalm of lamentation ends with a vision of revenge as the only way to get away from their abusers: “O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Blessed shall they be who pay you back for what you have done to us!” (v. 8).
I don’t want to soften the anger in this Psalm. I have no idea what it’s like to experience the pain and suffering that breeds such anger. Yet, I do think it’s important to notice that the Jews hope for vengeance to come from someone else: “Blessed shall they be who pay you back…” Israel in exile doesn’t fight its way back home, nor do they train up warriors to seek revenge. Instead, they hope for liberation to come from elsewhere, not from their own hands.
A week ago I was in Freeman, South Dakota, spending time with the church that Lisa Kauffman and Laura Nickel grew up in. As I was thinking about what to share with you about my visit, I couldn’t help but think about the name of the church: Salem-Zion Mennonite Church. Salem means “peace,” and it’s short for Jerusalem. Zion, as you know from the Psalms, remembers Mt. Zion, the Temple home of God’s peace.
The church is a place that welcomes God’s peace into the world, just as Mt. Zion was the place where God’s people gathered and rested in God’s peace. And, like Jews who are forced into exile, the people at Salem-Zion Mennonite church have stories of forced separation from their community. In the 1870s, Mennonites immigrated to the area from Russia, and have had to figure out how to live as a people of peace in a country that seems to always go to war.
When I sat and talked with some of the older members of the church, they frequently told stories of what happened during military drafts. Some would share about fighting for status as conscientious objectors, and doing alternative service with Mennonite Central Committee in far off lands. While it pained them to be exiled from their community, they used their time away to work for God’s peace, instead of going to war. Being people of Salem-Zion meant that they found their home in the world as they welcomed God’s peace wherever they were. At Salem-Zion, and in the surrounding Mennonite community, there is a tradition of being people of salaam, of peace.
I heard one story from a few different people. It was a story from World War 1, about two Hutterite brothers: Joseph and Michael Hofer. Hutterites are close cousins to Mennonites—both because of intermarriage and shared Anabaptist convictions. The two communities migrated together from Russia and settled near one another in South Dakota.
Sometime in 1918, Joseph and Michael Hofer were arrested for refusing to serve in the military. Because they did not cooperate with the draft, the brothers were imprisoned at Alcatraz in California. While in prison they were commanded to wear military uniforms, but they refused. So they were thrown into the Alcatraz dungeon and starved nearly to death. The officials transferred Michael and Joseph to the army camp in Leavenworth, Kansas, where they finally died of starvation. Before they sent the Hofers’ bodies home for burial, the army officials dressed Joseph and Michael in military uniforms. When the caskets arrived in South Dakota, the community opened them and saw the dead bodies of their boys dressed for combat. (See James C. Juhnke, Vision, Doctrine, War, 239-240).
“O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Blessed shall they be who pay you back for what you have done to us!” (Ps 137:8). I can imagine those words coming from Hofer family as they looked at their dead sons.
Where are you from? Where do you belong? Where is home? In a country whose history is one war after another, the stories in and around Salem-Zion Mennonite Church remind us that we are people of God’s peace. Like the Israelite villager who joins the caravan on its way to Jerusalem, the city of peace, you and I are also on a pilgrimage to God’s peace. That’s where find our home. That’s where we belong.
The Communion meal we are about to celebrate is food for the journey. As we eat together, we find that we belong to Christ, in his body, together with our sisters and brothers, servants of God’s peace in a country at war.
As we come to the Lord’s Table, remember the words of the Psalmist: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem” (122:1-2).