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A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City Mo., on October 3, 2010.

Psalm 137

Today we’re joining forces to maintain and care for this gathering point we call “our church.” You’ve come ready to apply your hands (and your hearts) and maybe the sweat of your brow to care for this place to spruce it up as a sign of the welcome and love we have to offer to this community. Today we’ll worship and then go to work for a while – at noon we’ll re-gather in the Fellowship Hall for a meal together.

Why do we do this? Why did some of you commit to a project this morning? Underneath all the explanations should be the hope we could better carry our mission as a church. It’s on the front panel of our worship guide:  Bringing Christ to the Community Through Building Relationships.

Here’s the lesson we have a difficult time recognizing:  What we put into the church is returned to us as satisfaction and joy. What we put in, we typically get out of church. And if I don’t bring myself to this task, I will just be a lump of coal sitting on a pew. If I don’t pour myself generously into my experience of community in the church, I’ll be like the man riding on an ox looking for an ox.[1]

When you give this even the simplest reflection, our church matters deeply to us. We’re caring for its appearance today, but hopefully you can see through the work you do and take pride in the role the church plays in our life. It’s at this point that our text speaks to us for when the Babylonians came through six centuries before Christ, they devastated the country; they destroyed the magnificence of the Temple built by Solomon and carried off a great number of their countrymen to Babylon to serve as slaves. It was there this Psalm was written and it’s the pathos of that experience that echoes across time.

When composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz wanted a song to carry the emotional mood of the last supper in the upper room in Godspell, he turned to the faith story of exile and deportation described in the Jewish Scriptures knowing it was the experience of lamentation that was the appropriate mood to hang across this foreboding and poignant scene when Jesus broke the bread and shared the cup. So he drew upon Psalm 137 to depict the sadness and bitter despair of the moment:

 

On the willows, there we hung up our lives for our captors require of us songs

and our tormentor’s mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion …”

but how can we sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land?[2]

 

How or even why does one voice a cry of lamentation? The reasons are as varied as the unique circumstances of our various lives. But whenever we feel we’re living the life of Job, we’re in a position of pain so severe our only response is to cry with our whole beings into the mysterious face of the universe.

Certainly not with logic or cognitive distancing. Lamentations grow from the inner world where we feel our strongest passions! Lamentations grumble up from the deepest recesses of our emotions bypassing our rational thinking. But widen the lens of lamentation and understand this is not simply the dark valley’s sadness over unexpected tragedy that has overtaken us, for often our lamentation is righteously mixed with anger and a voracious wish for retribution. Psalm 137 is not merely about deep sadness … it is a cry for vengeance! This psalm is a cry for God to come down and unleash the fury of heaven upon the conquering Babylonians.

Interesting that most of the modern commentaries from the last decade claim this as Jerusalem’s 9/11 as they watched the smoke of the destruction of the Temple and all of Jerusalem fill the sky. Historian Karen Armstrong claims, “The destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple was in some profound sense the end of the world.” In Hebrew thought she tells us, the destruction of God’s earthly Temple was an act of de-creation.[3] Perhaps the attack on our nation nine years ago opens the door of lamentation and anger ever so much as we remember the day the world changed.

Tell me please … How else do we explain the psalmist demanding God violently destroy their enemies’ babies? The words cry out an angry lamentation so raw it sticks in our delicate throats. The poetry is just too raw for most and many preachers skip over it as if in denial of the blunt force of its presence. No question we’re reading from a text that raises questions we can’t answer with a simplistic faith because this issue rubs up against the nature of evil – a topic not even the Bible has much of an answer to fend off our fears and anxieties and we’re left to our own devices and the commentary of more fools than seers.

Hatred is a volcano within ready to erupt in outrage whenever evil is done to us. It is so powerful once we get a glimpse of our rawest emotions we drop our eyes in shame. But the psalmist gives us a chance to recognize that anger only drives deeper into our hearts when it is not given a chance to surface. It is sublimation that turns the sickness of anger and makes it worse.

Walter Brueggemann raises an interesting question:  “Could it be that genuine forgiveness is possible only when there has been a genuine articulation of hatred?”[4] He goes further and claims, “It is an act of profound faith to entrust one’s most precious hatreds to God, knowing they will be taken seriously.” And that is, finally, where we must direct our prayers.

Ethicist Lewis Smedes says forgiveness, the ultimate act of love, comes in four distinct stages:  We hurt. We hate. We heal. We come together. Did those first two stages land in your thoughts? We hurt. We hate. The ancient preacher of Ecclesiastes says it this way: For everything there is a season, and a time for every event under heaven … a time to love, and a time to hate.[5] It is a dark mystery to be sure. Dominican priest Father Bede Jarrett once wrote, “The world needs anger. The world often continues to allow evil because it isn’t angry enough.”[6]

 

Today is World Communion Day and we’re aware that the one who in a fit of anger overturned the tables of greed on the steps of the Temple and ran them off with a whip – a story that rubs against the fur of our peaceful notions of the sweet and peaceful Jesus – that same one calls us to the table where we can be reconciled to one another. What would happen in the world if all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus were to be reconciled to one another? What would happen if the roots of our anger were opened up to the possibility of confessing our sins so we might be reconciled?

To claim to know the answer is presumption to know what God might do, but I suspect the salvation of God would break forth in great and mysterious power and that love would heal us. Let’s go to work to partner with God to achieve those ends …

[1] Attributions of this wisdom saying can be referenced from many sources so it’s ultimate attribution may not be fully known – i.e., Meister Eckhart, Lao Tse, Thomas Merton, etc.

[2] Adapted from Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak, “On the Willows,” from Godspell, 1970,  http://www.metrolyrics.com/on-the-willows-lyrics-schwartz-stephen.html

[3] Karen Armstrong, Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996, 79

[4] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984, 77

[5] Ecclesiastes 3: 1, 8a

[6] Cited in Kate Huey’s Reflection, www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/free-to-grieve.html

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