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.