Sermon from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs for Pentecost 20, Year C (Proper 22) Lamentations 1:1-6 & Psalm 137
Of all of the comments that I have heard regarding the Bible over the past few months, the one issue that rises to the top of the list in frequency and level of concern is that of violence. Though it has been phrased any number of ways, the question is basically: “How can this sacred book, the inspired word of God, contain scenes of such brutality and cruelty?” The usual response of people who encounter passages like the ones that appear in, to name a few, Joshua, Judges, Esther, Kings, Psalms, and Revelation is to figuratively squeeze their eyes shut and stick their fingers in their ears as if to block out the offending words and images; to declare that such images don’t reflect our faith and therefore we can safely ignore them.
Would that it were that simple. Yes, God is good and we are God’s beloved people; after all, Jesus called us Children of Light. But to ignore the presence of violence in the Bible would be the equivalent of ignoring the fact that light casts a shadow. Our sacred scriptures contain violence because they are about US. They are about God’s love and call to us in all of our sinfulness and frailty. And cruelty to each other. We can’t ignore it. Violence is in the Bible because violence, whether physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual, is in us, like it or not.
So rather than set aside the difficult passages, we’re called to the challenge of engaging with them; understanding first that the inspiration of Holy Scripture didn’t stop with the writing. It continues with the reading and the wrestling. And when we engage this way, in this community, we can become better equipped to engage with the violence and suffering that confronts the world outside these walls.
There are two strategies that I find helpful in engaging with Scripture. One is imagination; being able to read between the lines and to place oneself in the narrative. This is actually a part of Ignatian spiritual practice, and it is valuable for gaining new perspective—seeing things from new points of view. The second strategy is interrogation. I’ve always maintained that the most important part of a life of faith isn’t the answers; it’s the questions. So what is the question today? A Good question!
But first, the passage. Our psalm for today—Pslam 137 is notorious in psalm-reading circles as one that could be classified as a Text of Terror because of one verse. One verse that I confess I left out of our reading this morning, because it is that disturbing. You can find it on page 792 of the Prayer Book. The revenge hinted at in verse 8– Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!– is detailed in verse 9 –a horrid description of killing children, and it makes us wince. It should. And the first reaction is to turn away. But we want to know how God can possibly be speaking to us through these words; between these lines. And to discover that, we go back to the beginning.
In 587 B.C. the kingdom of Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Judah’s capital of Jerusalem, and took the people of Judah into captivity. The Book of Lamentations which we heard from this morning is an expression of the wrenching grief that Judah bore. And psalm 137 is an even more personal and intimate view of Judah’s trauma, from the point of view of those who were forced to walk over 500 miles to a hostile foreign land, without a clue as to what fate awaited them. This psalm draws us into a scene of heartbreak and exhaustion. Imagine enduring such a journey, coming to rest for awhile in a grove of willow trees somewhere between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Imagine the sense of desolation and loss—the bitter tears shed at the memory of the traumatic destruction of home and Temple. And then to be bullied and ridiculed by your captors: “Our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” The resentment and anger build from a slow simmer of defiance to a rolling boil of rage as the writer remembers witnessing the destruction: “Tear it down! Tear it down!” Emotionally out of control, the writer vows revenge, not just upon the enemy standing over him, but upon the enemy’s children—revenge upon generations to come. The psalm ends violently, with an image that makes us recoil. And then silence.
We’re called to enter that silence, not to walk away. We’re called to ask a question. Where does it hurt?
Ruby Sales was seventeen in 1965 when a young seminarian named Jonathan Daniels threw himself in front of the shotgun blast that was intended for her. He was killed instantly. Ruby is now a public theologian and one of 50 African Americans spotlighted in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. In an interview she tells a story of being in the hair salon one day when a young woman, the daughter of her hairdresser, came through the door. She looked terrible, from self-neglect, illness and self-destructive behavior. Ruby speaks of this defining moment in her ministry: “And she had sores on her body, and she was just in a state, drugs. So something said to me, “Ask her, ‘Where does it hurt?’” And I said, “Shelly, where does it hurt?” And just that simple question unleashed territory in her that she had never shared with her mother…[S]he literally shared the source of her pain.”
Ruby entered the silence of one in pain and sat with her. And listened to her story. Listened to grief, fear, disillusionment, anger. Listened to a cry for help.
Might we see this psalm as a cry for help? Might we see it as a call to us to come between the world and its pain; to try to transform that pain into generative and healing relationships?
To enter into that space of silence and hurt, with a simple question, is a risky proposition. We become vulnerable to the heart and pain of another, and the risk is that we can become weighed down with it. The thing to remember is that we are never alone in that silence. God is there. God has been listening through it all; through the lament, the memory of trauma, and the angry lashing-out. God hears the cries of the abandoned and the suffering.
God listens between the lines. We’re invited to do the same.
1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows[a] there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 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.
7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator![b]
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!