Monthly Archives: October 2013
It’s time for our annual All Souls service, where we invite back all those for whom we have conducted funeral services. Here is what I am going to be sharing tomorrow evening:
If you were here last year, you might just recall that we also built a lot of the service around ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ (Psalm 23) on that occasion, too. Why do it again this year?
Well, apart from a lapse of memory on my part (called, failing to check my records), it’s an opportunity to look at these much-loved words in a different way. What does God offer us in this Psalm? I offer to you four gifts of God:
The first gift is that God provides:
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. (Verse 1)
I was still living with my parents when my grandmother died. We belonged to a church where to be a white European was to be in a minority. Most of the people were West Indian or West African. When we suffered our family bereavement, those friends from other cultures than our own treated us as one of their own families, and did for us what they did for others. They turned up on our doorstep with ready-made meals to take the strain off us. Some insisted on doing the ironing for my Mum. They provided for us, so that we had time and space to grieve, in the midst of all the arrangements we had to make for the funeral.
Most of us gathered this evening are not in the first throes of bereavement. We are months, or even years, down the line. But our grief is still there, even if it expressed differently now. But we still need those people who will be attentive to our needs, because the grief can pop back into our lives without warning too many times. Maybe equally, because of what we have been through, we can be available to do this for others.
There is a second gift in this Psalm, peace:
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he refreshes my soul. (Verses 2-3a)
We talk of our loved ones being at peace, but if we pay attention to ourselves, we are far from at peace. We hope that if our loved ones are no longer suffering, then that will give us some reason not to scream out in pain.
But even if that is what has happened, we still face our loss. Our lives will never be the same shape. I don’t go for explanations that time is a healer.
But what I do buy is the kind of peace that comes from trusting in God. Not that such trusting either is always an easy serenity: sometimes (rather like some of the other Psalms in the Bible) it involves questioning God, and even anger. It’s the kind of trust that beats its fists against the chest of God, only to discover that we are being held in his arms like small children while doing precisely that. It is the peace that comes from knowing a God who is big enough to cope with our pain and our anger.
The third gift is God’s presence:
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me. (Verse 4)
Again, this can seem unlikely to us in bereavement: God is present with us in our grief? Didn’t even Jesus cry out while he was dying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Yet the death of Jesus is the very reason we can count on God to be with us in ‘the darkest valley’ or ‘the valley of the shadow of death’.
Right now, my sister and I are having to deal with elderly and increasingly frail parents. Our heads tell us they need to go into care, but our hearts say, “Please, anything but a care home.” As we walk through this dark valley which doubtless will become darker still, we are encouraged by those who say to us, “That’s what I had to do, and I felt exactly like you do.” In other words, it’s the people who are with us now but who have gone through the same experience who are the most help to us.
I suggest to you that this is why God can help us. The God who embraced darkness, who knew suffering and grief, can come alongside us in the worst places that we walk, too.
The fourth and final gift I want to share with you is that God prepares:
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
for ever. (Verses 5-6)
This is the language of feasting. The table being prepared is a banqueting table; the reason for anointing someone’s head with oil is that it was an ancient Middle Eastern custom to do that for honoured guests at feasts.
The psalmist had human enemies; the enemy we share in common is what St Paul called ‘the last enemy’, namely death. As enemies scorn and mock us, God prepares those things which will honour us instead. So God is preparing a great feast after death for all his people, when we who embrace Jesus can laugh together that death – which once taunted us so cruelly – has been destroyed. Even now, God is laying the table, setting the places, warming the plates, cooking the finest foods and opening bottles of vintage wine.
And so let me close these reflections with the words of a Celtic blessing:
May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you,
wherever He may send you.
May He guide you through the wilderness,
protect you through the storm.
May He bring you home rejoicing
at the wonders He has shown you.
May He bring you home rejoicing
once again into our doors.
If in last week’s sermon I began by alluding to 1960s television with Opportunity Knocks, in this week let us move forward to the 1980s, to the birth of breakfast television and the arrival on our screen of fitness instructors in lurid spandex leotards. If you didn’t go out to work, or if you worked from home, then almost as soon as your cereal had settled in your stomach, an energetic extraverted fitness expert was there to help it all come back through vigorous exercise.
Yes, this morning I bring back to your thoughts the memory of Mr Motivator (or Derrick, to his friends). I can offer prayer afterwards for anyone who finds the recollection too traumatic.
But I do want to talk about motivation today. Not, how do we motivate people to take more physical exercise, but how do we motivate the people of God to live as a Christlike community? How do we become more like a family that bears the resemblance of our heavenly Father and of our elder brother Jesus?
In this most famous of passages in Philippians, Paul gives us three motivations to live our common life as the church in a manner befitting of Jesus Christ.
Firstly, he gives his readers some incentives. I’m sure you have used incentives to motivate people to do something. “If you do that, you’ll get extra pocket money.” “If you don’t do what I want, you’ll lose pocket money.” “If you do this for the company, you could earn a bonus.”
People who observe Christians have to cope with the high degree to which we get involved with things such as community service, and sometimes the uncomfortable fact that Christians do more than average requires an explanation from them. One such explanation that I have heard from some contemporary atheists is that what drives Christians is their fear of burning in hell. As the rock group Crowded House sang in their song ‘Distant Sun’, ‘Like a Christian fearing vengeance from above.’
But nothing could be further from the truth for Christ-followers. We are not motivated by fear of frying, we are motivated by the love of God. The words of the seventeenth century Latin hymn which we know as ‘My God, I love thee not because’ put it well:
My God, I love thee; not because
I hope for heaven thereby,
nor yet because who love thee not
are lost eternally.
Thou, O Lord Jesus, thou didst me
upon the cross embrace;
for me didst bear the nails and spear,
and manifold disgrace,
And griefs and torments numberless,
and sweat of agony;
yea, death itself; and all for me
who was thine enemy.
Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ,
should I not love thee well,
not for the sake of winning heaven,
nor any fear of hell;
not with the hope of gaining aught,
not seeking a reward;
but as thyself hast loved me,
O ever loving Lord!
So would I love thee, dearest Lord,
and in thy praise will sing,
solely because thou art my God
and my most loving King.
And it’s that positive incentive Paul gives the Philippian Christians in verse 1:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion …
It’s all about their experience of God’s love, of being loved and giving love. If you need an incentive to live the Christlike life in community with your brothers and sisters, it is this. God loves you. He has united you with his Son. You are comforted by his love. You participate in the things of the Spirit. You experience tenderness and compassion.
No Christian needs to be stirred up by terror about eternal consequences. We already know that we are loved with an everlasting love. We can be humbly confident in the love of God for us. It is there in God’s promises. It is there in God’s actions. It is there in our spiritual experience. Let us live as the family of God because his love has drawn us to himself and drawn us to one another in his presence.
But what would that involve? We therefore secondly nevertheless hear of our obligations:
then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Verses 2-4)
You can sum up the obligations here in two words: ‘unity’ and ‘humility’. Unity comes in the words ‘like-minded … same love … one in spirit and of one mind’. Humility comes in doing ‘nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit’ but ‘in humility valu[ing] others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests’.
These are to be the characteristics of the Christian family: unity and humility. We are to seek unity in our thinking and goals, bound together by love. That means selfish ambition goes – holy ambition is fine, that is, ambition for the glory of God, but we must not be self-seeking. And vain conceit must go too, because our motivations in the Church are not to seek applause for ourselves but for Christ.
The thing about this is, most of us will sign up to unity and humility without hesitation. Voting against unity and humility is for Christians like voting against apple pie. Yet what we have to watch is the small, subtle temptation. I have to win the argument all the time. I do little things that just elevate my reputation in small, almost indiscernible increments. What I claim to be the cause of Christ is really my own personal campaign.
What are the antidotes? Perhaps some of it comes in Paul’s exhortations to ‘value others above ourselves’. It isn’t that we don’t value ourselves at all – one of the lessons of dealing with my parents’ frailty has been the hard one that I have done all I can but I can’t do it all, and if I try to do it all I will become ill and no good to anyone. So I must value myself to a certain extent, but I mustn’t put myself on a pedestal.
The great thing about valuing others above ourselves is that unity and humility flow as a result. If with a good heart I seek someone else’s well-being, then I will become more united with them. If I do this truly, then by necessity I value them from a posture of humility, because this is an act of service.
Yet what we need to remember above all is that these things don’t just happen automatically. We need to be utterly deliberate in our intentions and actions of valuing others. It must be a conscious decision that we act out. As the American preacher Vance Havner once said,
The vision must be followed by the venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps – we must step up the stairs.
Imagine what the effect might be if we did, though. Just as it was said of the early disciples, ‘See how these Christians love one another’, wouldn’t it be wonderful if that were what people said of us in this community?
Thirdly, finally and supremely, we are motivated by the story of Jesus. Now you would expect Jesus to trump everything. He is our example. We are to imitate him, are we not – daunting as that may sound?
But Jesus is not a vague set of principles and laws. Jesus is a person, indeed the Second Person of the eternal Trinity, who became human. He has a story, a narrative, and that is what is compelling for us: his story. He actually lived the things he calls us to do as his family. He has modelled it all for us.
And of course ‘story’ is an engaging and persuasive medium for us humans. You don’t generally communicate truth, goodness and beauty to children by getting them to recite a list of laws in the same way that they learn their times tables by rote. You tell them stories. Many adults find the same is true. It’s why novels, TV shows and films are such strong parts of our culture. The story is magnetic, captivating and convincing. Somewhere embedded in the story are the values of the author.
Nowhere is this truer than in the story of Jesus. And Paul gives his readers a miniature summary of Jesus’ story (verses 5-11), telling of how he who came from the highest heaven put aside all his status to become a servant and obey his Father, even to the humiliation of the Cross. Yet God vindicated that humility by raising him and exalting him, so that one day every being in the universe will recognise him as Lord. When Debbie did her jury duty at the coroner’s court in the summer, everyone had to stand when the coroner himself came into the court or left; similarly, when the name of Jesus is announced at the end of time, all will not stand but bow as an act of homage. That is how far the Father has vindicated his Son for his humility and obedience.
The great thing about what Paul does is that he carries the story of Jesus beyond what the Philippians know. They know Jesus was incarnate, they know about his humble life and death, they know that God raised him from the dead, but they don’t know the climax of the story where the tables are so completely turned that the Humbled One receives the humble praise of all creation. Will not the Judge of the earth do right? Why, yes he will.
As Paul tells the whole arc of the Jesus story, going beyond what we know in the Gospels to the resolution of all the conflict and tension, he gives us an incredible motivation to live as the family of God. Is it that Jesus is our example in how to live in the power of the Spirit? Yes – but it is more here. Paul gives us more than a model for living. He says more than, ‘Copy Jesus’. If that were all he gave us, we might not have much more than a dull moral lecture.
However, the full story of Jesus motivates us to live as a united, humble family. How? By showing us how God ultimately treats those who live in humble obedience. He vindicates them. He exalts them.
Oh, to be sure, all creation will not bow down at the sound of our names – we are not entitled to worship as Jesus is. But our God is the God of the great reversal. Not only does he call us to values that turn upside down the assumptions of the world, he then confirms that upside down way as the true grain of the universe in final judgement. For judgement to God is not simply the punishment of the wicked, it is vindication, too. And those who are willing to live the humble life of service, seeking to build up the family of God by valuing others above themselves are those who will be vindicated by God at the end of all things. These are the people who can expect to hear the words all Christians covet: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ It’s the story of Jesus as told here by Paul that gives them that hope, and the motivation to live for it.
Do we want, then, to live as the family of God? Are we willing to put in the effort under the leading of the Holy Spirit? Let us find incentive in the love of God to fulfil our obligations to unity and humility. And let us be motivated by the vision given to us in the story of Jesus, as we go through our travails, for God is the master storyteller, and although he gives us freedom to improvise our characters, we know he has planned justification for his humble people.
Knaphill is having a sermon series on Philippians. It was launched last week by a Local Preacher. Tomorrow, I get to preach the second sermon in the series. Each week is named after a song – hence this week’s title ‘Chain of Fools’. More strictly, this is about chains and fools.
People of a certain age will remember the TV talent show ‘Opportunity Knocks’ with Hughie Green telling us every week, “I mean that most sincerely, folks”. And anyone who has to remind you they are being sincere is automatically suspect to me.
For that show, the opportunity that came knocking was for fame and perhaps fortune. It was the opportunity that a door would open into a wide vista where all things might be possible for those who won the public vote. For winners such as Freddie Starr, Paul Daniels, Les Dawson and many others, that was the outcome.
But in our reading today the apostle Paul is telling us that opportunity knocks in a different way – not when the doors are flung open but when the doors are shut tightly, and chains are attached to his feet. Paul’s opportunity comes in prison. He is under the fiercest of constraints.
And this morning I want us to explore what Paul tells us about the opportunities we still have as Christians when our lives are constrained. Our constraints may not be imprisonment, but they may be ill health, aging, unemployment, financial loss, bereavement, or any one of many unwelcome intruders into our lives. What kind of opportunities does Paul envisage us having?
The first area where constraints become an opportunity for Paul is in the advance of the Gospel. Writing from prison in Rome, Paul says,
Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14 And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear. (Verses 12-14)
The Gospel has got into the imperial household, not by Paul hob-nobbing with the high and mighty, as if the only way to do so is by mixing with movers and shakers, but by his interaction with the soldiers guarding him. Not only that, his example in straitened circumstances has encouraged the local Christians ‘to proclaim the gospel without fear’.
So find encouragement here if you think the only way the Gospel can prosper in society is if we in the church have connections with the high and mighty. Do not fear when you see the diminished public influence of the church, because the spread of the gospel is not dependent upon our level of influence in the media or government – much as I believe that it is important for Christians to be involved in both of those areas, creating stories and making policies that have their roots in the Christian faith. Do not be perturbed because you are one of society’s nobodies. The influence of the gospel doesn’t work like that. It goes from person to person as we let people see that Christ has changed us.
And what could be more impactful than the fact that people see how our faith transforms our attitudes when we are down and struggling? It’s easy to say how wonderful Jesus is when times are good, when money is plentiful and when life is on the up. But when we can still speak of his love in those seasons where we are suffering loss or injustice, then we have a powerful testimony to God’s love in Christ for us and the world. It has been said that it is in the bad times that we know how much of God we have: I would say further that it is in the bad times that other people know how much of God we have.
You see, the advance of the gospel in these isles doesn’t depend on the church supplying an unending list of celebrity testimonies, and it doesn’t depend on the Church of England retaining its Established status. The cause of the gospel in our land has more to do with ordinary Christians, even and especially those facing privation in their lives, commending Jesus Christ to people.
The second area where constraints become opportunity for Paul is in the blessing of others who are not suffering.
Listen to what he says next:
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel. 17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. (Verses 15-18)
We move from the chains to the fools. When your circumstances are less than optimal, isn’t it easy to be generous about people who are taking advantage of your misfortune. Some preachers seem to be using Paul’s incarceration as an opportunity to advance themselves in the church. You might expect a person like Paul to be mad about this. Yet he is gracious:
‘The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.’
It’s one thing being chained into a life circumstance you don’t like and still finding a positive way to live for the gospel, but when people who should be colleagues and friends act not in co-operation but in competition, then liberal doses of sodium chloride are applied to an open wound. It may be that at work, someone takes advantage of your misfortune in order to further their career. It may be that in the church, someone you counted on as a friend discreetly puts you down to others behind your back, casting doubts about your suitability for something you are passionate about, and it all leads to them doing something in church life that you had longed to do – and they knew it.
How might we react in such a situation? Well, help is at hand if you want to lash out at them. Just go online to the Biblical Curse Generator on the Ship Of Fools website, and let it randomly give you some juicy Old Testament smiting words to apply. Purely in the interests of research, I tried it out, and I received the following to use:
I pray thou shalt beget difficult teenagers, O thou offspring of a squashed cockroach!
Behold, thou shalt have more mother-in-laws than King Solomon, thou relative of Herod!
Woe unto thee, O thou Mesopotamian harlot, for you will go on a diet of crunchy, unsweetened locusts!
But Paul doesn’t do that. Not only does he leave vengeance to God, rather along the lines of Psalm 35, which begins with the words, ‘Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me,’ he does more. He rejoices in the successes of others. He just cares that even those who are preaching the gospel for the wrong motives are – well – preaching the gospel.
This is a test of grace. Can we show that the gospel has been having an effect upon our lives in this area, too? We live in a culture whose building blocks include a large one called ‘envy’. Our economy is largely built on the idea that we must get bigger and better things, because other people have bigger and better toys. But can we rejoice that others have things we don’t?
Another building block of our culture is called ‘status’. Can we be pleased for others who are elevated when we languish in obscurity? That young whippersnapper who came into the company after us, and who had the proverbial meteoric rise, shooting past us – can we rejoice in their success, and bless them?
According to the gospel, our self-worth is not in our money and possessions and nor is it in our status. We are valued for far greater reasons: we are made in the image of God, we are redeemed by Christ, and we are being remade into God’s image by the Holy Spirit. These facts give us far more dignity than anything our society can offer. And if these things are central to our identity, we are free to bless others who enjoy the limelight while we are in the shadows.
The third and final area where constraints become opportunities for Paul is in evaluating life and death.
Again – remember Paul is in prison. His future is ambiguous. Will he be released, or will he be executed? That uncertainty would torture the minds and emotions of many.
But not Paul. Again he sees something positive. He weighs up the pros and cons. If he lives, he can preach the gospel and encourage the Philippian Christians. If he dies, he gets to be with Christ – and nothing can better that. He regards his future as what we would call today ‘a win-win situation’. He simply can’t lose. Either he gets to do more useful kingdom work, or he goes to glory.
Let me commend Paul’s positive outlook on the future to you. If life had been easier for him, I wonder whether he would have thought like this. But the chains of prison lead him to this faith-filled assessment of the situation that he just can’t lose, whatever happens to him.
And as we dwell on Paul’s positive faith in the face of adversity, let me ask you again about the uninvited intruders in your life that have the potential to sow discouragement in you. For me, you will not be surprised to know that presently that means the traumas associated with my parents’ increasing frailty, and the major decisions my sister and I are suddenly faced with, far sooner than we expected. Can I live through this, believing in the God who works for God in all things for those who love him, or will I allow the crisis to drag me down? Can I believe that God can be glorified in my parents’ time of weakness and need?
I think one reason why our trials stress us is that we forget to bring God into the evaluation. Without God, and without a hope that death is trumped by resurrection, all will seem futile. But when we factor in our Risen Lord Jesus Christ, things look different. They may still be painful, but they are transformed by him.
Let me put the whole issue this way. If you set someone an assignment to complete in the creative arts, they may well produce their best work if you constrain their options. Ask someone to produce a painting, but limit the number of colours to be used. Invite a photographer to take pictures of an event, but only allow them one lens to use on their camera. These constrictions force new, creative thinking.
There is one famous example I can think of from the world of rock music. When the singer Peter Gabriel was making his third solo album, he invited his former Genesis band mate Phil Collins to play the drums on the tracks. But Gabriel told Collins he wasn’t allowed to play any cymbals. It contributed towards an unique and pioneering sound.
Paul sets something similar before us here. His options have been limited. His best choices have been removed. And comparable things will happen to us as well. But the apostle rises to the challenge, and his faith in the crucified and risen Lord enables him to advance the gospel, to bless those of whom he might be jealous, and to see the most enormous kingdom possibilities in an uncertain future.
I don’t mean to trivialise or minimise the woes in our lives. But I do hope we can take a lead from Paul in seeing that even when life is tough, we can find positive opportunities to live kingdom lives for the Gospel.
Again, blog posting has been light recently. One reason is alluded to in this week’s sermon. See the comments early on about my mother’s health, and you will know where most of my spare time has gone. What blogging time I have had has gone on my even more overtly new ‘work’ blog that I mentioned in my last post, Thinking About Mission. Please do follow that blog, too. Each day there is a short, punchy discussion starter post on an aspect of Christian mission.
But now, to this Sunday’s sermon, and an attempt to preach on one of the most difficult passages in the whole Bible.
Today’s sermon could be one of those in which a foolish minister rushes in where angelic preachers fear to tread. There has been a lively debate on the UK Methodists page of Facebook about the fact that Psalm 137 is set in this week’s Lectionary. What do we do with passages like this? I expected some shock at your hearing this psalm right the way through to the death wish expressed for Babylonian babies.
A number of us agreed that we have to think about and discuss these readings, because we know people are troubled by them. It was a matter of debate whether such thinking should be done out loud in a Sunday sermon or in a home group. Some people thought it would be better discussed informally in a fellowship group rather than raised in a sermon, and I’m sure there is merit in that thought. There would be more opportunity to thrash out issues that way.
But in the end, I decided that this kind of text can’t be ignored in Sunday worship, either. For one thing, this is a psalm – it is a piece of worship material. It appeared in Israel’s hymn book. And just because it’s worship doesn’t mean it can be prettied up with a bouncy tune, such as in the song ‘Rivers of Babylon’:
Further, I think there is a pastoral word to be said in relation to where Psalm 137 sits in relation to the rest of the Bible that is important for us all to hear.
Here is an illustration to help us see a way of understanding why such a psalm, with its frightening calls for vengeance, has a place in Holy Writ. My mother was discharged from hospital on Friday after nearly eight weeks. She had fallen and fractured her hip, and this was followed by a series of other unrelated mishaps that kept her in for longer. But come home she did, and Friday was an excellent day for that, because on that day she and Dad celebrated their fifty-fifth wedding anniversary.
However, Mum – at the age of eighty-three – is inevitably frail after these traumas, and Dad – who was eighty-six on Tuesday – is no longer strong enough to look after her without help. So it was agreed that she would come home with a care package. However, the care agency couldn’t start until tomorrow, so there had to be an emergency provision for the weekend. Originally that was going to be supplied by the hospital’s rapid response team, but in the end various of us in the family covered the necessary duties in the short term.
I want to say that Psalm 137 is a short term, rapid response, emergency reaction to the crisis that Israel finds herself in. Let’s remind ourselves what has happened. For years, prophets such as Jeremiah have warned the people of God that their sin will render them liable to God’s judgement. Always, they have thought themselves to be a special case, possessing a ‘Get out of jail free’ card that would prevent them suffering the consequences that the so-called doom merchants were predicting. But now it has come true. King Nebuchadnezzar’s armies have marched on Jerusalem and conquered God’s people. Many are murdered, a large number have been taken captive into Babylon itself, including Israel’s own Gifted and Talented stream (among whom we shall later find the likes of Daniel and his friends). Only a small number have been left at home, mostly those the triumphant army thought incapable of making a worthwhile contribution to Babylonian society.
This is a trauma of the highest magnitude for the chosen race. They had thought that Jerusalem was inviolable – but it wasn’t. They had assumed that God would not allow harm to come to his holy temple – but he did. Their faith, based so strongly on the idea of occupying the land promised to them, has been ripped to shreds.
And perhaps we have some similarities to them, at least on the metaphorical level. We Christians are no longer at the centre of our society. We live in some kind of exile, where our convictions are increasingly marginalised and ridiculed. For those who have grown up familiar with a culture in which the church and her leaders were respected, this is an alien land, our Babylon. We might just as easily cry out to God about this as we might about other things.
So what do you do when such a terrible event happens to you? Many of us scream out in pain, and perhaps even in anger, lashing out. That is certainly what the psalmist does here. As he and his people weep in Babylon and vow never to forget Jerusalem, they turn their frustrations upon their captors and call for violent revenge.
Now, at that point, you might think, “That’s all very well, it goes some way to explaining why the tribes of Judah were feeling this way, but it doesn’t explain why a text like this in the Scriptures. After all, are we not called to forgive and to love our enemies?”
Well, indeed we are, and that is one of the biggest problems with this psalm. It doesn’t seem to fit with the teaching of Jesus, does it? And if it stands alone, it would be very dangerous.
Let me suggest to you, though, that you have to feel anger before you can forgive. We can be so keen in the church to ensure that people forgive and do not become bitter that we actually abuse people who have already been hurt. If we aren’t careful and jump in immediately to ask someone who has been wronged, “Did you forgive the person who did this to you?” they will not in fact forgive, they will merely suppress their anger. And suppressed anger tends to come out again at a later date, like a Jack in the Box, in harmful forms. Sometimes it comes as rage, sometimes it mutates into depression.
For that reason, I was once horrified to hear the story of a church member who had been raped. People jumped in and asked the woman, “Have you forgiven your attacker?” without giving her permission to feel her pain and anger about the evil that had been done to her.
We rush into all sorts of things in our instant society, and in the church we seem to have included forgiveness among the things that we have powdered down and can quickly reconstitute with boiling water. But we need to allow time. I recently witnessed an unfortunate misunderstanding which I won’t spell out here, where someone was accidentally let down by another church member, and the results were distressing. A week later, the person who had been hurt was still mad at the person who had failed her, and was overheard to say, “I don’t feel very forgiving.” A well intentioned member of the congregation asked me if I would intervene, and I said I wouldn’t immediately. It needed another week to see whether this was a case of someone still feeling the pain or whether it truly was a case of nursing a grudge. Should it prove to be the latter, I said, then I would certainly speak with the person in question. But we have to give these things time.
Psalm 137, then, reminds us by even the expression of anger in an ancient hymn, that we need to feel the hurt. Not only that, it gives us permission to express that pain to God himself. If we are not careful, we make worship purely into a celebration (which in many respects it is – of course!) and nothing else. But Scriptures such as this show us that a fuller understanding of worship includes such things as bringing our laments as well as our songs of praise to God.
My observation is that some of us in the church think that we have to be prim and proper with God, being careful to say the right things before him as if he cannot cope with the heat of our tears and the fire of our fury. We think that unless we come to him full of faith and in the right spirit, he will get one of his specially prepared thunderbolts out of the cupboard and hurl it at us.
But scriptures like this tell us otherwise, just as our Gospel reading in which Jesus quotes another psalm on the Cross – Psalm 22 – does, is that God is big enough to cope with us coming to him in anguish. Somebody once said that they felt like they were beating their fists against God, and this felt so wrong, but they came to understand that they were – so to speak – beating their fists against God’s chest, but that he was holding them in his arms as they did so. Could God be better than we think he is? Could it be that the One of whom we say this most basic statement – ‘God is love’ – truly is like a Father to his children, holding them in their suffering and wiping their tears from their eyes?
And because it is a God of love in whom we believe, we can eventually come through the lashing out to the point of forgiveness. Just as we listened to Jesus crying out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” so we remember that the same Jesus also said, “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” We need to feel the anger, but if we choose to make anger our permanent abode, then we shall degenerate into bitterness, with all the results that brings, both in the shrinking of the spiritual life because it gives us antipathy towards Jesus, and also in the physical harm that bitterness can cause to our mortal bodies.
It is worth us remembering that in the New Testament, the word translated into English as ‘to forgive’ means ‘to set free’. When we forgive somebody, we set them free. It is no accident that Jesus told parables about forgiveness in which he talked about the forgiveness of financial debts. People are set free from spiritual debt by forgiveness. Until we forgive, do we not feel like the evildoer owes us something?
But there is another side to the setting free that comes in forgiveness. It is not only the offender who is set free: the injured party is also liberated. When we choose not merely to feel our anger but to stay with it permanently, the bitterness that takes over our lives becomes like chains wrapped around us. When we forgive, not only do we set the wrongdoer free of any debt to us, we also find that the chains of resentment and animosity fall away from us.
And that’s why I said that Psalm 137 and passages like it take their place in the Scriptures as the rapid response to the sorrows and wrongs that are inflicted upon us. We need that stage, but we cannot stay there. The long term care package is forgiveness.