Psalm 137; Psalm 37: 1-9
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
October 3, 2010 – World Communion Sunday
George Carlin was rocketed to comic fame with his routine “The Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television”. Jesus had his seven last words from the cross: “I thirst”, “Behold your mother, behold your son”, “Today you shall join me in paradise” and so forth. The church has its own seven last words: “We’ve never done it that way before.”
And even though the United Church of Christ and one of its forebears, the Congregational church, are known for their freedom of the pulpit, that is, the freedom of the preacher to say what needs to be said to God’s people, there are still some subjects that God’s people don’t want to hear about from the pulpit. Many of them are also avoided in polite conversation. There may not be seven of them but you know what they are: money, sex, politics, and religion. Yes, even religion is a touchy topic many folks don’t want to hear about from the pulpit, especially if it is about our own religion and how it requires, demands, even commands something of us.
Today’s scripture adds to that list of unacceptable subjects: angry, hot revenge. You may have heard the saying “Revenge is a dish best served cold” but we all know that the desire to even the score runs hot in our blood. And we hear not only the hot-bloodedness of the writer of Psalm 137, we also hear the pain and anguish, the injustice that can cause our blood to boil.
“By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
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 the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
“…O daughter 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!”
We ask: how can language like that be in the Bible? How can a psalm like that be not only allowed but used in a book of worship?
Once again, the lectionary has taken us to the time of the Babylonian exile, that catastrophic event in the life of the Israelites. Jerusalem and its temple have been destroyed, homes have been turned to rubble, survivors, after having seen their loved ones killed, have been carted off to Babylon as spoils of war. Their trust in God was shaken to its very core. These Israelite captives wanted not only revenge but justice for their captors—a life for a life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe, as it is stated in the 21st chapter of Exodus. We can only imagine that whoever wrote Psalm 137 witnessed the death of their own child at the violent hand of their enemy.
In the book of Psalms, in their holy book of worship, the Israelites knew they could say anything to God, that there was nothing to keep from the creator of the heavens and the earth, the one who has searched us and known us since before we were born. But there is also a balance: a heaping measure of God’s comfort and reassurance:
“Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.
Trust in the LORD, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.”
How many of us have wanted revenge on another? If you think you’re above or immune to such feelings, what about road rage? Or wishing someone ‘a taste of their own medicine’? Or withholding forgiveness, holding a grudge? We’ve all felt those feelings and our God is big enough to hear them, so why isn’t our church big enough to allow their expression here, in a place intended for honest confession, healing and reconciliation?
On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001 many churches and other places of worship were open for people to come and pray, to worship together, hold hands, light candles, to have faith in the dawn of another day. That spirit of reflection and unity lasted for quite a while. But then it seemed the songs we sang in our pain and grief were seized upon and used as a prelude to war. Though vastly different in scope, the parallels between the exile and that dark day are almost too close. A great center of commerce, twin skyscrapers that testified to American ingenuity and prowess, was made into rubble. Thousands died, including those who tried to save others. We too were shaken to our very core. Two years later war was declared and our sons and daughters have been giving their lives to it, have been made captives of it ever since.
Perhaps if we had expressed more of our grief, our sadness, our rage and our anguish within these walls, to the point of recognizing that vengeance is not ours, perhaps we might have realized the futility of war. Even if a preemptive war is intended to prevent terrorism, is not war a form of terrorism in and of itself? Can we also imagine that there are those who would pray this psalm against us? In the words of Confucius, before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.
The apostle Paul urges Christian citizens of the empire in Rome, and we who are Christian citizens of our own empire, to remember to never avenge themselves, “for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” When was the last time we witnessed mercy and forgiveness in the public forum? Reconciliation begins here. In order for that to happen, we first need to express those raw emotions that make us cry out for justice.
World Communion Sunday reminds us that we exist in relationships, that what we do here in this place affects not only ourselves but others as well, rippling through this human web we live in. Let us trust that the God who demands justice will also carry it out. Jesus himself, who from an instrument of torture and death, groaned, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” but who also prayed “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” We can say anything to God in prayer—God who tenderly holds us and understands, who forgives and heals us.