Sermon for Sunday, October 6, 2019 || Proper 22C || Psalm 137
A few minutes ago we read perhaps the most horrific verse in the entire Bible. Did you notice it? The verse was at the end of the psalm. I’ll give you a second to go back and look. Here it is:
O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones,
and dashes them against the rock!
I can barely read that verse out loud. Yet, here we are. This week, Palm 137 confronts us, and I am so thankful to the people who put together our calendar of readings for allowing Psalm 137 to stand as a whole. Too often, when we read this psalm, we skip the last verse. But not today. Today we read it, and now we can grapple with it. Another translation concludes the psalm this way: “A blessing on the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock!” A blessing?
This horrific image of smashing children – toddlers, really – against the rocks has been inscribed in the pages of the Bible for 2,500 years. For 2,500 years people have encountered that gruesome action, and now it is our turn. (Before I continue I want you to know that, ultimately, this sermon is going to be about prayer. Remember that, please, as I’m talking.)
Psalm 137 is written from a place of grief and utter desolation as the poet remembers the horror of captivity. In 586 BCE, many of the Israelites in the land of Judah were taken into captivity in Babylon, victims of conquest and expansion. They lost homes and lives and loved ones. Their temple was destroyed. The walls of Jerusalem were demolished stone by stone. The captivity lasted for decades. The poet remembers the sorrow and hopelessness of those years, in which their captors mocked the people, commanding them to sing their old songs.
By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept
when we remembered you, O Zion.
As for our harps, we hung them up
on the trees in the midst of that land.
For those who led us away captive asked us for a song,
and our oppressors called for mirth:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
You can feel in these words the desolation of the exiled people. Not only were they far from home, but their captors tormented them with reminders of the land they lost and the people who were dear to them, gone now like footprints in a sandstorm. In the midst of the poet’s grief, the poet vows never to forget Jerusalem and then rages against the Babylonian captors.
And in the midst of that rage, the poet savors the image of revenge, invokes blessing on the one who will pay back the Daughters of Babylon, and calls forth the grisly picture of dashing babies against the rocks.
Did such a gruesome activity happen in the ancient Near East? Assuredly yes. There are too many instances in the books of the prophets that mention it for it to have been nothing more than a macabre figment of the poet’s imagination. But does the inclusion of this gruesome activity in the psalm mean it has God’s sanction? Assuredly not. Wishing the cruelty that has happened to you now to happen to your tormentors is not justice. It’s simply a different injustice.
But notice – the grisly action of dashing babies against the rocks does not actually happen within the words of the psalm. We find only a desire for such horrible revenge. We find the poet giving voice to this terrible desire. And when we realize where this desire is located, we remember what the psalms are.
The psalms are prayers; prayers sung to God while alone and when worshiping with others. In the prayer that is Psalm 137, the poet offers up to God the terrible desire for revenge, just as the poet offers up the sorrow and the helplessness of the earlier verses.
The poet brings everything to God in the psalm – holds nothing back. The poet gives voice to safe emotions like sorrow and helplessness. And the poet gives voice to the secret, festering desire for revenge that gnaws at the edges of the poet’s soul.
When I read the gruesome words at the end of Psalm 137, I flinch at their gruesomeness, yes, and I allow those words to search me, to scour me for the secret desires that I can’t bring myself to lay bare before God in prayer.
There are many forms of prayer. The form Psalm 137 engages in is an exercise in authenticity. The poet could sanitize the words, could shy away from the desire expressed at the end of the psalm. Thankfully, the poet does not shy away. And thus we have an example of terrible self-revelation with which to contend.
The prayer of authenticity challenges us, with God’s help, to bring our unvarnished, uncensored selves to God in prayer, to offer up to God those things that gnaw at the edges of our souls. In a world full of anger and hate and division and domination, those edges of our souls are bound to fray. In prayer, God invites us to look at those edges, to see how our own secret desires are driving us. And then to ask God how God yearns for us to live apart from or beyond those things that tear at our souls.
Prayer helps us discover who we are, who we truly are – not the people we play in front of others, not the people wearing masks to hide our joys and our traumas. If we attempt to fool God in prayer, then we’re only fooling ourselves. Remember the first prayer we pray every Sunday: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.” We are laid bare before God, just like the poet who wrote Psalm 137, and God urges us to look hard at ourselves, to see the wholeness dwelling at the core of our brokenness.
Prayer also helps us discover the difference between what we desire and what God desires. I have no metric or test to help you know when your desires align with God’s. I have conviction that God’s desires never include hate or injustice. And I have poetry: a warm glow in your chest, a burgeoning sense of peace or rightness, an unexpected word of encouragement from a friend, or perhaps just a deep breath in the midst of great anxiety.
As the final grisly words of Psalm 137 echo through your mind this week, I invite you to bring everything you are to God in prayer. May God grant you the gift of knowing every part of yourself. And may such self-revelation guide you to embrace God’s great desire for your life.
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