Thursday, March 7, 2013

Psalm 137 - The Beautifully Dangerous Psalm

Sermon  - The Rev. Leah D. Schade
United in Christ Lutheran Church, West Milton, PA

Listen to this song, “On the Willows.”

I remember the first time I heard this music from Godspell.  What a beautiful, mournful song, I thought to myself.  And I know I’ve heard those words before . . . “On the willows there we hung up our lyres”.  Such beautifully haunting words.  Where have I heard them before?  And then it hit me - Psalm 137.  But I noticed that the song’s lyrics stopped short of the last verses of the Psalm:  “Happy will be the one who does to you what you did to us, O Babylon.  Blessed will be the one who dashes your little ones, your babies against the rock.”

What an awful image!  It’s hard to believe a Psalm like this is in the Bible.  It is so violent - killing babies, of all things.  This is a far cry from Jesus’ words of forgiving your enemies and those who persecute you.  This is raw, uncensored hatred and desire for revenge.  Most people don’t even realize this Psalm is in the bible.  It is a dangerous psalm - a beautifully dangerous psalm.  So why is it in here?  What are we to do with a Psalm like this?

The presence of this kind of violent and vengeful language is off-putting to many people.  Some may even claim that this kind of wording authorizes revenge and retaliation.  So we have to handle this psalm with care.  Used in the wrong way, it could serve as an excuse to continue the cycle of violence and result in further bloodshed.  But we must be careful in our reading here.  The psalmist is not saying to go out and kill children and seek revenge.  Yes, it is expressing those thoughts and those wishes.  But it’s done as a prayer to God.  And that’s a very different thing than acting on those feelings and carrying them out.  

Let’s be honest - “desire for retribution and violence are in fact part of the human condition.”  (Murphy, 43).  Think back to the vitriolic language that erupted after the attacks on our country on Sept. 11, over a decade ago.  I heard more than one person say, “We should just bomb the whole Middle East.  I don’t care if we kill their children - might as well get them before they grow up to be terrorists and attack us.  Let’s just bomb them back to the stone age!”  And, we have.  We may not be personally bashing babies heads in . . . but our bombs and our guns have taken the lives of countless innocent children - collateral damage.  And, in what would be an ironic turn, it is quite possible that a person living in Palestine today may well be able to identify with these Jewish words desiring pay back and retribution.

But what about us?  For most Christians living in North America, a psalm like this is embarrassing, even offensive.  Why? Because most of us have never “lost that much, been abused that much, or hoped that much,” (Brueggemann, p. 75).  It is so difficult for us to pray this psalm because we simply cannot identify with it.  So what are we to do with it?  Is there another approach to this beautifully dangerous psalm?

Yes!  Here’s what we must do:  We must listen to it.  We must “hear the agony and even the sinful violence of human beings - in the context of prayer.  These expressions of rage exemplify the demonic in every human heart.  These feelings of revenge are not rare or unknown; everyone has experienced them.  When they are heard in prayer, they serve to illuminate our own feelings and even to accuse us of our own acts of vengeance.”  (Murphy, 46).  We live in a world marked by violence and revenge - wouldn’t it be prudent to put it into a prayerful context?  Wouldn’t it be wise to invite God into these feelings? 

That’s just what the psalmist does here.  You see, we have to understand the specific historical event that this psalm makes reference to.  This psalm reveals the sufferings and sentiments of people who experienced first-hand the terrible days of the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. This was their 9-11.  Their temple was destroyed - the very center of their faith.  And they were forced into the Babylonian captivity, when all the Jews were taken far from Jerusalem and lived as slaves of the Babylonians.  Even worse, they watched the enemy kill their children.  “You see, adults might be spared to serve various purposes for the conquerors, but the infants were killed to end the community’s future.” (Eaton, 455).

Once in Babylon, they experience profound homesickness, grief, depression, and despondency.  This scene from the psalm describes the Hebrew musicians sitting by one of the rivers in this hated land.  Their captors come along, taunting them, ordering them to sing happy songs about Zion.  What an ignorant, arrogant insult.  Of course they cannot sing happy songs about Zion in this foreign land.  They hang up their instruments in protest.  The holy songs cannot be sung on ground not dedicated to the Lord. To do so would be sacrilegious and bitterly ironic.  This kind of thing actually happened in the Nazi death camps, where Jews were forced to sing and dance their music and songs while the soldiers mocked them and laughed at them.  “It was a part of the humiliation intending to rob Jews of their identity, their dignity, and their hope.” (Brueggemann, p. 75).

The psalmist then makes a personal vow not to forget Jerusalem.  Not to forget the Temple that has been leveled, the city that has been burned, the king and leaders and musicians and teachers who have been led away to captivity in Babylon.  And then with a fury that nearly explodes from the page, he wishes for someone to exact revenge on the Edomites who plundered their city after the Israelites were gone, and upon the Babylonians who so mercilessly killed their children. 

We can only look upon these feelings with detached numbness.  We have never experienced this kind of suffering.  We build walls between us and the refugees in Sudan and Darfur, between us and the Afghans and Iraqis, between us and the woman who has been brutally raped.  We cannot bear such suffering, so we express outrage that such intensity of pain and desire for revenge is even voiced, much less in the Bible. 

The Old Testament historian Walter Brueggemann suggests that it is absolutely necessary to include a Psalm like this one in the canon.  Because it speaks with unfailing honesty about the abuse that was done, and is still done to individuals and to whole groups of people.  And it is necessary for us to hear how it feels to have this kind of violence and humiliation done to a person.  We want to move so quickly from this Psalm to Jesus’ Beatitudes.    But, as Brueggemann asks, “Could it be that genuine forgiveness is possible only when there has been a genuine articulation of hatred?” (Brueggemann, p. 77).

We need to recognize that healing is not just something we long for in our own bodies and in our personal relationships. Healing is something that is needed by our brothers and sisters around the world who have experienced the most humiliating kind of brutality.  By listening to their words, hearing their stories, and holding those powerful, violent emotions as best we can, we are at least acknowledging that, yes, that this has happened, and it is worthy of healing. 

Psalm 137 gives permission, actually authorizes the powerless who have been brutalized to vent their indignation and turn to God for justice.  “It is an act of profound faith to entrust one’s most precious hatreds to God, knowing they will be taken seriously.” (Brueggemann, p. 77).  And that is, finally, where we must direct our prayers. 

I invite you to come forward to this table of candles.  Maybe you’ll light a candle as a symbol for your own need for healing.  Or maybe you will see the candles and remember that someone is burning with pain and rage which needs to be seen and heard. . . and healed.  Hold that flame for a moment before you light your candle, and remember.  Listen to the anguished voices cry.  As hard as it is, hold that suffering for just a moment as a sign of your faith in the God who heals all.

* Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms:  A Theological Commentary, Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.
* Eaton, John, The Psalms:  A Historical and Spiritual Commentary withe and Introduction and New Translation, Continuum, New York, 2005.
* Murphy, Roland E., The Psalms, Job, from Proclamation Commentaries, Foster McCurley, Editor; Fortress Press, Philadelphia,1977. 

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