Sermon for October 7 on Psalm 137
2007-10-05 by David von Schlichten
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(text: Psalm 137)
While skipping through the Psalms in one of my old worship books, I noticed something striking. The next Psalm after 136 was 138. 137 was missing. It had been erased, deleted, forgotten. Disremembered.
When it comes to worship and preaching, Psalm 137 is disremembered. We preachers run from it. It is famous, but it is also a passage that frightens preachers into avoidance.
It’s easy to see why. Psalm 137 is dark and brutal. It is a stormy, tumultuous, tempestuous psalm. The last verse is the stormiest. Most of us can weather the psalm until we get to verse nine, the end. After all, the rest of the psalm sounds like a typical lament. There is a problem, the psalmist is upset, she or he complains and cries to God. We Christians don’t do much lamenting as part of the worship service, but we are used to finding laments in the Bible.
That last line, however, is hard for us to accept. “Happy shall they be who take / your little ones / and dash them against the rock!” Little ones, babies, infants, newborns, helpless, dashed against the rock. Who could be happy about that? How awful. No wonder we dis-remember this psalm. It’s terrifying, ugly, deformed.
We might find that last line easier to accept if we keep in mind the context in which it was written. September 11 was terrible, but imagine this. Enemy soldiers invade your country. They destroy your capital city. They kill the children. They rape the women. They run to the holiest building in the nation, the great Temple, where God himself resides, and burn it down. Next, the enemy soldiers capture you and many others and carry you off to a foreign land, where they make fun of you, your god, and your now demolished, smoldering home city. Everything you care about – obliterated. This is September 11 times one-hundred.
The writer of Psalm 137 is recalling all of that viciousness, all of that brutality, when he writes that grisly line about dashing the little ones of his enemies against the rock. The psalmist wants justice. The Babylonians have ravaged his people and his nation and his city and his god. Everything is gone. In the last verse of Psalm 137, the psalmist is saying that now it is time to put an end to the Babylonians by destroying them completely. If we keep all that in mind, the line about the dashing of little ones is easier to accept.
It is no wonder that the psalmist is furious, and indeed it is in this expression of furious sorrow that we find one of Psalm 137’s greatest gifts to us readers. In that deepest of ugliness we find the highest of holy beauty. This psalm, with its harsh honesty, teaches us what we learn in brighter shades throughout the book of Psalms and even throughout the whole Bible: that we can take all our emotions to God. All of them.
Lots of us tend to think that we have to be all King Jamesian, polite and tidy when we pray, a thee or thou in every phrase. Psalm 137 says otherwise. Many passages do. If you feel sorrow, share with God that sorrow. If you feel anger, share with God your anger. If you are overwhelmed with hatred for someone who has abused you, share with God your hatred. God is patient and loving enough to listen to you, regardless of what you have to say. If the psalmist can write about killing babies, what might you say to God that you have refrained from saying?
The next time you pray, strive to be as open with God about your thoughts and feelings as you can, whatever they are, be they joy, fury, sorrow, love, fear, hatred, lust, apathy. Strip yourself before God. Hide not even the tiniest cell of emotion or thought from God. Do not withhold from God even the smallest nucleus of feeling, even a mitochondrion of emotion.
That scouring, liberating honesty is Psalm 137’s most obvious lesson to us, but there are other lessons, too, ones that many of us overlook because we fixate on that gruesome last verse about the babies. That last line blinds us to the psalm’s other truths. We stumble, fall over, unable to see what else lies in Psalm 137.
For instance, another essential lesson in the psalm is commitment to God. The psalmist is committed to God by being committed to Jerusalem, the city of God. The psalmist vows that she or he will never forget Jerusalem. She or he will always remain loyal and loving toward that most sacred of cities, the city in which God himself had dwelt. Likewise, we, too, are always to be faithful, strong, devoted to God and the Church.
No matter how people hurt us; no matter what horrible terrorism attacks us; no matter who makes fun of us; no matter how many people tell us that God is a myth for the weak or an antiquated ideal that we need to replace with science; no matter what outrageous slings and missiles people shoot at us, we are always ready to remain committed to God and the Church, just as the psalmist of 137 vows to remain devoted to Jerusalem, God’s city, even though it lies demolished.
Further, Psalm 137 teaches us not only to be committed to God, but also to trust in God, including in God's sense of justice. Toward the end of the psalm, the writer asks God to remember against his enemies. That is, the psalmist trusts God to fix the otherwise hopeless situation. Similarly, we, too, are to trust God to care for us. Especially when life is at its worst we are to trust in God.
Do you trust in God when life is overwhelming, when you are in exile, when enemies surround you and make fun of you? Would you? Would I?
Do we, like the psalmist in 137, remain strong, upright, sturdy, dedicated to God, even when our enemies drag us by the hair into exile? Let’s be strong like the psalmist. Stand twenty feet tall before Satan, knowing that the Father has made us, Christ has redeemed us, and the Spirit has empowered us. Tower thirty feet above the enemy, knowing that the Almighty has baptized us, is always with us, even to the end of the age.
Through Psalm 137 God teaches us about being honest in prayer, about being committed to God, and about trusting that God is committed to us. Thanks be to God, for now we can stand before our enemies seventy-seven times seven feet tall, because God never disremembers us, the worldwide Church.
David von Schlichten, poedifier
David von Schlichten's Sermon
2007-10-05 by David Howell
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2007-10-05 by Rick Brand
Somewhere along the way of World Wide Communion, and the longing for home and Psalm 137 there has to be a facing of the deep desire in all of us for revenge. The Psalm speaks volumes about our duty to be honest and clear in what we want from God. Dash the heads of their babies on the rocks because they did it to us. Maybe at the table we can understand that God was willing to be dashed upon the Cross so that we no longer had to dash the babies of our enemies upon the rocks. The memories of home are as much a part of that Psalm as the prayer for revenge. All of it is lifted up in prayer. It seems to me that we are too polite in much of our worship. This psalm has all kinds of passions and emotions.
2007-10-05 by Jim Somerville
As David Von Schlichten put it yesterday, “The sermon is slow growing this week, but there’s time. The Holy Spirit provides.” Yes, David, the Holy Spirit does provide, but there’s less time today than there was yesterday. The old saying, “It’s Friday but Sunday’s coming!” has a whole different meaning for preachers. Thank God for Saturday, I say instead, and sometimes even that’s not enough. Too many Sunday mornings have caught me still writing and re-writing, striking out whole paragraphs of text and scribbling notes in the margins of my manuscript. I go to the pulpit whispering fervent prayers, begging the Holy Spirit to provide. And far more often than I deserve those prayers are answered. But what the Spirit usually whispers to me on the way home from church is that she doesn’t like to write the sermon all by herself and she wouldn’t mind if we got started a little earlier. “Next week,” I promise. “Next week.”
So, here I am on Friday morning, still making promises to the Spirit, and still trying to put the pieces together. Here’s what I think might happen on October 7:
1) It is World Communion Sunday, and we’ll make a big deal out of that at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, DC. Our international members will carry the flags of their home countries into the sanctuary, three dozen in all, and we’ll put them up around the balcony railing to make worship even more festive and colorful than usual. When it comes time to serve communion, we will use breads from around the world. And at the end of the service we may actually move to the outer walls of the sanctuary and join hands all around as a way of representing our common union in Christ. All of that could tie in nicely with
2) the sermon, which will come from Psalm 137, and focus on the experience of exile, of being broken apart like a loaf of bread and scattered to the ends of the earth. I will probably spend some time talking about the longing for home, and how hard it is to find such a place in the world, or in this lonely city, and then talk about this place—the church—as that place where the body of Christ comes together, where his dis-membered body is re-membered, and where we have the best chance of finding our heart’s true home. That’s when I will
3) move to the table and reflect on the words of institution, talking about communion as a way of re-membering Christ, of putting the pieces of his broken and scattered body back together again. And then if we do join hands all around the church (which I’m thinking now we should), we could sing together some simple refrain like “We are one in the bond of love,” and then be dismissed with a benediction. Those are my plans for now, but hey, it’s only Friday morning.
The Holy Spirit may have other ideas.
Jim Somerville is pastor of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, DC; adjunct professor of preaching at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies; and one-time host of the Festival of Homiletics.
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2007-10-04 by David Howell
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