Free to Grieve

Sunday, October 6
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme
Free to Grieve

Weekly Prayer
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.

Focus Scripture
Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylonóthere 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, you devastator!
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
Luke 17:5-10

Focus Questions

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?

by Kate Huey

I confess that I was a little uncomfortable with the challenge presented by Psalm 137 as the focus text for this Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time. And the lectionary, which often takes out troubling parts of biblical passages, had no mercy this week: the well-known verses (8-9) at the end of the psalm, about dashing little ones against the rock, are included in our text. Those words have long offended me so much that I 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.”  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 (perhaps much easier to preach) reading from 2 Timothy, “sometimes demands that we reject the very words of the Giver.”

Well. That 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 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 found took 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.
By far the most helpful and most eloquent commentator is Brent Strawn, in the new book, The Lectionary Commentary: Psalms for Preaching and Worship; his fine reflection provides helpful support for anyone wrestling with this difficult text. However, he gives fair warning that this text shows that many of us “can’t stand the heat” of “the kitchen of Scripture.” This particular psalm isn’t just one of the “difficult parts” of the Bible; 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. In doing so, however, they’re much like the Marcionites, who could dismiss the Old Testament as less authoritative, especially when it makes us uncomfortable. Of course, that’s all the more reason to preach on this passage, because, he writes, it’s “rated ‘PG'” because we “need Pastoral Guidance” when we approach it.  He also reminds us that even our favorite psalms (including, alas, my beloved Psalm 139), contain harsh elements, as do both of the Testaments, not just the Old.
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 their mocking, tormenting oppressors in Babylon. No, they say, we’d rather hang up our musical instruments than entertain you, not here, not now; or, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message, “Oh, how could we ever sing God’s song in this wasteland?”

However, 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. Israel had faith in God to protect and preserve them. Brent Strawn remembers 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.” However, Strawn writes, “Zion was movedÖin 587 B.C. There was a morning when dawn did not witness God’s helpó587 B.C.” 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?

Nothing made sense for the people of Israel

For the people of ancient Israel, their present reality was in harsh contrast to everything they had known and believed and understood about themselves, and to be honest, 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. They were homesick in a strange land, alongside a strange river, and their captors are taunting them like bullies, telling them to sing for them. Some of the most beautiful music arises out of the deepest part of our souls 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.  

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” peopleóand isn’t it only human to want to think of ourselves that way?óthe wrenching cry of Psalm 137 to dash the heads of children on a 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. We might observe our own culture’s value system here, and how we react when we feel that we are victims of oppressive forces and the people behind them.

Remembering 9/11

As one illustration, Strawn draws, 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 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 humans can’t be trusted with such anger, and such power. Doesn’t that explain the need for courts, rather than vigilante “justice”? Strawn makes the thought-provoking suggestion that the psalmist’s own child may have died in this terrible way being wished upon the Babylonians, and is haunted with that memory, which makes the terrible verses a bit more understandable. 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, with God taking action not only on our behalf but for the good of the whole world, even our enemies. 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 that our very human “thirst for vengeanceÖis 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.”  

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 in 2001, 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 ear 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? Again, 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 also are part of the life of faith. Even more uncomfortably, we might ask ourselves when we might actually represent those in the psalm who are seen as oppressors, 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.

A tale of two cities

In a way, this is a text about two cities: Jerusalem and Babylon. Several scholars approach these historical cities as metaphors as well. 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 and poverty, and God must feel righteous indignation over our sins as well. Strawn says, too, that Babylon can represent not only these 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, he writes, is 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 as a joy, and our faith draws us to such words of consolation and promise. But for now, we are, indeed, free to grieve, to pour out our hearts in anger and longing, and 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 reflection (with book titles) can be found at

For further reflection

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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