Free to Grieve
Sunday, October 2
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Free to Grieve
Wholeness of the sick and Home of the exile, give us grace to seek the well-being of those among whom we live, so that all people may come to know the healing of your love and new voices join to give you thanks in Jesus Christ. Amen.
By the rivers of Babylon–
there we sat down
and we wept
when we remembered Zion.
And so we hung up our harps,
there upon the willows.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth,
saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing God’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling
to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
Remember, O God, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down!
Tear it down down to its foundations!”
O city of Babylon,
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
All Readings For This Sunday
Lamentations 1:1-6 with Lamentations 3:19-26 or Psalm 137 or
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 with Psalm 37:1-9 and
2 Timothy 1:1-14 and
1. Why do you think we prefer not to read the last verses of Psalm 137?
2. How do you react to these verses, and to a prayer for vengeance?
3. Do you feel that you can take every experience to God? Why or why not?
4. When have you taken your anger to God?
5. How do we turn anger into positive energy?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
I confess that I was a little uncomfortable with the challenge presented by Psalm 137 as the focus text for this Sunday, as the lectionary, which often omits troubling parts of biblical passages, had no mercy this time: the well-known verses (8-9) at the end of the psalm, about dashing little ones against the rock, are included for our study this week. Those words have long offended me so much that I always went along with (and, to be honest, was grateful for) edited versions that left them out.
I was not alone. Kristin Swenson, in her commentary in the September 21, 2010 issue of The Christian Century, writes that these final verses “appall” her so much that she chooses not to “go where these texts would lead me. I will not follow them.” She sees her decision as “refusing to incorporate destructive ideas into the ways that we think and live, even when their source is the Bible.” While she’s “still working out the details,” she feels that the gift of “a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline,” which we hear about in this week’s reading from 2 Timothy, “sometimes demands that we reject the very words of the Giver.”
Well. That certainly is one approach to Psalm 137, but could there be another way to read it, and to hear it, and even to pray it? After all, the distinctive thing about the psalms is that, unlike the rest of the Bible, they’re addressed to God; they’re prayers, and they come from deep within the very human hearts of a people who knew what it was to suffer and to question, to believe and then to doubt, to feel loss and devastation, rage and a desire for revenge.
Aren’t those all just as much at the heart of the human experience as feelings of joy, gratitude, and praise? And isn’t prayer the place and the way we can take those experiences, for better or worse, to the God who knows our inner hearts better than we do ourselves? Can’t a prayer, even a psalm in the Bible, be an outburst instead of a pious, proper, careful composition of words? The rest of the scholars I read favor this second way, rather than rejecting these words; they choose instead to consider several paths to understanding, and to spiritual growth, that might follow from a closer look at Psalm 137.
Wrestling with the text
By far the most helpful and eloquent commentator is Brent Strawn, whose fine reflection provides helpful support for anyone wrestling with this difficult text. However, he gives fair warning that Psalm 137 illustrates the way that many of us “can’t stand the heat” of “the kitchen of Scripture,” and would just as soon flee from spending much time with difficult passages that offend our sensibilities or preconceptions.
This particular psalm isn’t just one of the “difficult parts” of the Bible, Strawn says, it “may well be president of the club,” perhaps the first example church people and critics alike offer as one they’d want to avoid: they “are tempted to dodge it in simplistic…fashion with ‘Well, that’s just the Old Testament.'” (In doing so, of course, they’re much like the Marcionites, who dismissed the Old Testament as less authoritative, and we all know that they were heretics.) Therefore, Strawn rates this passage “PG” because we “need Pastoral Guidance” when we approach it. He also reminds us that even “the most beautiful and beloved of psalms” (including my favorite, Psalm 139), contain harsh, even “gruesome” elements, as do both of the Testaments, not just the Old.
Not here, not now
Let’s begin with the historical context: six centuries before Christ, the Jewish people experienced the terrible disaster that is very much at the center of the Old Testament: Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed, and the leaders, the “cream of society,” were carried off in exile to Babylon. Scholars seem to agree that Psalm 137 is the only one that can be accurately connected with a specific historical event, because it’s clear what the psalmist is talking about when the people refuse to sing the songs of Zion, the songs of God, for the amusement of their mocking, tormenting oppressors in Babylon. No, they say, we’d rather hang up our musical instruments than entertain you, not here, not now, in this time and place of spiritual desolation–or, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message, “Oh, how could we ever sing God’s song in this wasteland?”
It’s important to note that, for a people who have long seen themselves as chosen by God, as delivered by God from slavery in Egypt and led to a long-promised land of milk and honey, a people whose holy place was high upon a solid rock, the Temple Mount, this is not just one more incident in the unending story of conquests of smaller powers by mightier ones. The people of Israel had faith in God to protect and preserve them. Brent Strawn recalls the assurance of Psalm 46:4-5 about the security of Jerusalem: “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.”
A crisis of faith in the face of defeat
However, Strawn writes, “Zion was movedÖin 587 B.C. There was a morning when dawn did not witness God’s help–587 B.C.” According to Walter Brueggemann, “The political-military experience of an ending is effectively transposed into a deep theological crisis.” It’s understandable, and only human, for such a massive defeat to precipitate what we might call “a crisis of faith.” This disaster shook the people to their core (where trust in God lives), and drew from them questions, cries of anguish, and a thirst for vengeance. Where was God now? And who was going to do something about these wretched Babylonians?
For the people of ancient Israel, their present reality was in harsh contrast to everything they had believed and understood about themselves, and what they clearly had believed about the God who would keep them safe and secure in the land they had been promised. They must have wondered how they had gotten to this new and terrible place in their story, where, John Hayes writes, the “past was separated from the present by the ashes of destruction, by miles of desert traversed under duress, and by the scenery of a land foreign and strange.”
A strange and terrible land
They were homesick in a strange land, alongside a strange river, and their captors were taunting them like bullies, telling them to sing for their amusement. J. Clinton McCann helps us to imagine that a little better when he writes, “The ‘rivers of Babylon,’ including its system of canals between the Tigris and the Euphrates, must have been a prominent feature to people from Palestine.” That strangeness only made things worse: “It was nothing like home, and the geographical disparity may have exacerbated the grief that came when ‘we remembered Zion,'” and yet the people could not help but think longingly about their home. “As painful as it is to remember Jerusalem (v.1), it would be more painful not to. Indeed, it would be debilitating, deadly,” and they even invite God, McCann writes, to share in their pain by remembering Jerusalem, too.
Some of the most beautiful music arises out of the deepest part of the human soul when we are in pain, hauntingly beautiful melody and words of anguish and sorrow. The Babylonians, it seems, would have found that entertaining. Is it any wonder, then, that the psalmist cries out for terrible, violent retribution against them? Clinton McCann says that anger has to be vented, and, just as importantly, it has its place, ironically, as a good thing, because these ancient prayers are coming from those deep places of anguish and, at the same time, trust in God’s love and care.
Anger is better than nothing
All of that makes sense, of course, but what can we “good” people of faith do with that gruesome cry for terrible, violent retribution visited upon “the little ones,” presumably the innocent ones in all of this tragedy? McCann claims that “The worst possible response to victimization would be to feel nothing,” he writes. And that’s why the psalms, as poems and prayers, are so important: they voice those deepest, most painful realities, and yet they express a trust that “God loves us as we are.”
In the midst of faith-testing devastation and anguished questions for God, then, we find the angry wish for revenge upon those who have “done us wrong.” For “nice” people–and isn’t it only human to want to think of ourselves that way?–the wrenching cry of Psalm 137 (“Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”) is a shocking reminder that all of us, at one time or another, can thirst for the deepest wells of revenge. However, we might not want to think of it as “revenge,” but as justice.
Again, McCann observes that the final wish of the psalm is really grounded in “a principle that most Americans routinely espouse–that is, the punishment should fit the crime. We are,” he says, “no less vengeful than the psalmist.” We might observe our own culture’s value system, then, and how we react when we feel that we are victims of oppressive forces and the people behind them.
In fact, Brent Strawn calls us to reflect, however painfully, on our own feelings after the attacks of September 11, for “587 B.C. was 9/11 on an even more massive scale.” The terrible events of that day in 2001, followed by seemingly endless suffering and threats of more suffering ever since, surely evoked in many Americans a desire for vengeance, and many would say that we took that vengeance into our own hands.
Scholars observe that the prayer here is for another, perhaps God, to exact justice, because we can’t be trusted with such anger, and such power. Doesn’t that explain the need for courts, rather than vigilante “justice”? Strawn also makes the poignant suggestion that the psalmist’s own child may have died in the terrible way she wishes upon the Babylonian children: “This too may not baptize the violence in the psalm, but it reads differently when read as a cry for justice on the part of a parent who saw her own little one killed by Babylonians who threw it against that rock that she cannot get out of her memory and that haunts her every dream.”
Entrusting God with justice
Strawn then draws on the work of Ellen F. Davis, who takes a larger view that covers our own lives and ancient ones as well: “God’s action is free, directed not only to our healing but to the healing of the whole moral order. Through these psalms we demand that our enemies be driven into God’s hands. But who can say what will happen to them there?” In a way, we are entrusting God with the justice, and the vengeance, and knowing the difference between the two. In any case, Walter Brueggemann, assures us, “Humans, as Israel knows, do indeed thirst for vengeance, and that thirst is itself never censured. The theological question is how to manage that thirst. One may act out the thirst, deny it, or cede it to YHWH in prayer.”
When I read these scholars’ weighty words, I’m struck with the thought that we spend so little time (perhaps none) in our public life wrestling with the moral question of vengeance, and how little time we spend in deep biblical studies to seek guidance before establishing our shared values about things like military strikes, let alone war. Our “religious culture” almost always focuses on issues like LGBT right, reproductive issues, prayer in public gatherings and (God forgive us) the “war on Christmas.” (Is it any wonder that so many people, especially the young, are turned off by religion?) How might our public life–and the life of the world–be affected if people of faith prayed and studied together about the morality of violence and vengeance, and the best path to justice for all? How might we share the deepest human feelings that are found, for example, in the psalms, and find understanding and perhaps even a path to peace, together?
The poetry of suffering
If we approach this text as a poem expressing the human experience of deep longing, grief, and even rage, we might listen again to the poetry of people who suffer today, whether it’s sung (or perhaps rapped) in music, or scrawled on posters, or chanted in demonstrations. If there is injustice, it’s no wonder that people today feel the same outrage and long for things to be made right. We’ve mentioned our desire to strike back at those who struck out at us on 9/11, but there is longer, slow-motion striking out, too. Can we imagine what it must feel like not to be able to get decent health care for our baby when she has an infection, or an illness that threatens him just as acutely, if not as suddenly, as a violent act? Or what about those whose children suffer from violence itself?
Brent Strawn urges us to read this text today whether we can relate, from our own experience, to the suffering–and rage–it voices, or whether we can better understand through it the suffering of others, to better understand those who need to give voice to deep pain and outrage, because pain and the anguished prayers it produces are at the heart of the life of faith, both individual and communal. Even more uncomfortably, he says, we might ask ourselves when we might actually represent those in the psalm who are seen as oppressors, and the cause of others’ suffering. Our honest reflection and response might lead to a profound conversion in the way we live our lives, not just to giving voice to our own pain and outrage at being wronged.
A tale of two cities
In a way, this is a text about two cities: Jerusalem and Babylon, and several scholars approach these historical cities as metaphors. For example, Babylon, Strawn writes, was revisioned in the Book of Revelation as a sinful city that God punishes, not as the literal, ancient Babylon but as “a symbol for all that stands opposed to God, God’s ways, and God’s people.” Today, as people of faith in another place and time, we have our own “Babylons”: illness, oppression, economic injustice, violence, prejudice and poverty–and God must feel righteous indignation over all these sufferings. So Strawn says that Babylon can represent not only public sins, but the things that torture each of us personally as well.
Walter Brueggemann lifts our hearts and opens our eyes with the vision of Jerusalem as that bright, shining city of hope, as a metaphor for all of God’s promises coming to reality. That’s why people of faith around the world “pray for the peace of Jerusalem, for when Jerusalem has peace, the world will have become more fully the world YHWH intended from the outset,” leaving “God’s people in unutterable joy.” Yes, the prophet Isaiah will one day speak evocatively of Jerusalem and its people as a joy, and our faith draws us to words of consolation and promise. But for now, we are indeed, free to grieve, to pour out our hearts in anger at injustice and suffering and in longing for all things to be made right, and we are free to put all of that into the hands of the God who loves us, and listens to us, and looks after all things.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in July from serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Ovid, The Poems of Exile: Tristia and the Black Sea Letters, 1st century b.c.e.
“Our native soil draws all of us, by I know not what sweetness, and never allows us to forget.”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 19th century
“Angry people are not always wise.”
Maya Angelou, 20th century
“Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.”
Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, 21st century
“The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when their tormentors suffer.”
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”
Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton, 19th century
“Anger ventilated often hurries toward forgiveness; and concealed often hardens into revenge.”
Colin Powell, 21st century
“Get mad, then get over it.”
Bede Jarrett, 20th century
“The world needs anger. The world often continues to allow evil because it isn’t angry enough.”
Robert Brault, 21st century
“Take no revenge that you have not pondered beneath a starry sky, or on a canyon overlook, or to the lapping of waves and the mewing of a distant gull.”
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“An eye for an eye would make the whole world blind.”
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