Sermon for Wesley Uniting Church
6th of October 2019
I seldom have the chance to preach on today’s readings. They appear in the lectionary around St Francis’ Day, when Blessing of the Animals services mean that I tend not to preach. So today I’m taking the opportunity to look at Psalm 137 in detail. It’s a doozy! Most of it was made famous by Boney M. in the 1970s, but their version, as you may recall, does not include the final stanza. No babies’ heads are smashed in the pop song.
This psalm of hate is in the Psalter because the Fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile that followed it were as important to the life and faith of the Jewish people as the Exodus from Egypt. In 587 BC the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem, including the Temple, deporting much of its population to Babylon, leaving behind the poorest and the weakest in the city’s desolated ruins. The defeat of Jerusalem, the end of the Davidic monarchy, and the destruction of the Temple were seen as the defeat of Yahweh by the gods of Babylon. The question in this psalm, ‘How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,’ isn’t poetic license. It is a literal question; for a people who worshipped God in the Temple in Jerusalem the destruction of that Temple and the removal of the people severed their connection with God. They were no longer living in the land God had given them; they were no longer ruled by God’s anointed king; they could no longer offer sacrifices in God’s Temple. Prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel reassured them that they were still the people of God even in Exile, and that the dry bones of their nation would live again, but in today’s psalm we see only the beginning of the process of lament and question.
That is the context of the psalm; the people of God remembering what had been done to them and asking God to repay the perpetrators in their own coin. But why do we have it in our lectionary? Surely these are not words to be read as ‘a lamp to our feet and light to our path’. Reading them might even be dangerous. As recently as 2016 a pastor in an Alabaman Baptist Church condemned the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention for saying that the USA should welcome Syrian refugees. He wrote: ‘Perhaps our leaders should study the Old Testament when God gave specific instructions to destroy these people (even their women, children and animals). Why would He give such instructions? Because He knew the impact these idol worshippers of false gods would have on His people. It is not a matter of loving your neighbour. My neighbours are the people that value the same standards of life and way of life that I value.’ Psalms like today’s can foster such delusions.
Yet these psalms have their place in the Bible and in our liturgy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor of the Confessing Church in Germany who was ultimately executed by the Nazis, suggests that in psalms like this one the church hears the voice of Jesus. The very fact that we cannot utter these psalms as a prayer, that they horrify us, Bonhoeffer writes:
is a hint to us that here Someone else is praying, not we; that the One who is here protesting his innocence, who is invoking God’s judgment, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. He it is who is praying here, and not only here but in the whole Psalter.
Bonhoeffer says that ‘We can only pray the imprecatory psalms as members of Jesus Christ, through Jesus Christ, from the heart of Jesus Christ’.
While Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes and role models, in this case I prefer the analysis of C. S. Lewis. Lewis writes of these psalms that we see in them:
the natural result of injuring a human being … just as the natural result of throwing a lighted match into a pile of shavings is to produce a fire – though damp or the intervention of some more sensible person may prevent it – so the natural result of cheating a man, or ‘keeping him down’ or neglecting him, is to arouse resentment; that is, to impose upon him the temptation of becoming what the Psalmists were when they wrote the vindictive passages … [So] in addition to the original injury I [who provoked that hatred] have done him a far worse one. I have introduced into his inner life, at best a new temptation, at worst a new besetting sin. If that sin utterly corrupts him, I have in a sense debauched or seduced him.
In the case of today’s psalm, then, the hatred expressed by the psalmist is the ‘natural’ result of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile, and is at least partly the responsibility of the conquerors.
This, I think, is one of the reasons that it is important for us to hear these psalms. After the first few centuries of its existence the church moved to the centre of society from the margins; rather than being marginalised and persecuted Christians became able to marginalise and persecute others. Too often throughout history the church has been on the side of the colonisers, not the colonised; the slave owners, not the slaves; the rich, not the poor; adults, not children; men, not women; straight people, not LGBTIQ people; paedophiles, not the victims of clerical sexual abuse; and so on and so forth. Christians in power, looking at the ‘natural’ anger and hatred of the powerless, have responded by telling them that their hatred is sinful and that they must forgive those who persecute them. The Psalms challenge that. In this psalm we hear the rage of the homeless and oppressed, and ‘the bitterness of colonized people everywhere,’ and their rage and bitterness is another injury that has been done to them.
The psalm also reminds us that terror is nothing new, and that the people who perpetuate it remain human beings. There is currently a Bill in the Australian Parliament that would, if passed, give the Minister for Home Affairs the power to strip citizenship from people whose conduct is deemed ‘incompatible with the shared values of the Australian community’. Australia is also deciding whether to repatriate Australian women and children living in a Syrian camp for the relatives of former Islamic State fighters. Defence minister Marise Payne has said that Australia will consider their repatriation on a case by case basis because ‘our first duty is of course to protect Australia and Australians’. Over the past two decades, during the unending ‘War on Terror,’ governments have tried to convince us that terrorists and potential terrorists are no longer Australian, that they automatically forfeit human rights like citizenship because they no longer support ‘Australian values’. That psalm 137 is in the Psalter suggests that its author was still recognised as one of the people of God, even after writing ‘Happy shall they be who take [Babylon’s] little ones and dash them against the rock!’ We can condemn the acts of terrorists without excluding them from the human race.
Another gift of the Psalter is the permission it gives us to share everything with God, even those emotions of which we are ashamed. The psalms show us that there is nothing that human beings can think, feel, say, or do, that we need to hide from God. They are an antidote to the false piety that constructs God as ‘nice’ and censors human prayers; in the psalms ‘everything is said and God is known to be strong enough to hear’. It is probably best that God does hear our passion, rather than us keeping it locked up inside us. If we feel this level of hatred, but refuse to allow it expression, there will come a time when all our sublimation stops working and we spew it out onto whoever is nearest. Telling God how we feel is much healthier than, for instance, committing road rage.
But it’s also important to note that here the psalmist is expressing their anger and hatred in words. There is no suggestion that having sung this lament they are going to go out looking for the nearest Babylonian baby in order to kill them. It is probable that after taking this pain and hatred to God the psalmist was able to leave it with the God who does not seek revenge. As Bonhoeffer reminds us, if we see Jesus as the psalmist then we know that despite the psalms’ calls for retaliation:
God’s vengeance did not strike the sinners, but the one sinless man who stood in the sinners’ place, namely God’s own Son … God hates and redirects his enemies to the only righteous one, and this one asks forgiveness for them.
While the psalms give us permission to feel anger and hate, and share them with God, we are still committed to trying to act with love towards our enemies.
I have said before that it is not enough for us to approach the Bible with a ‘the Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it’ attitude. As we hear today’s psalm the last thing I want to suggest is that we naively accept it. It is to be wrestled with; questioned; chewed over. You might, having done that, find that you disagree with me and think that there should be no place for words of such hatred in our faith and our liturgy. And that is okay! It is one of the joys of not being a ‘Bible-believing’ church, of not hearing the words of Scripture as simply and automatically God’s words, that we can do that.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, London: SCM, 1954, pp. 31-3.
 C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, London: Fontana Press, 1958, p. 26.
 John Patton. ‘Pastoral Ministry in a Fractured World,’ The Journal of Pastoral Care XLII (1988), pp. 26-36.
 Walter Brueggemann, ‘The Psalms as Prayer’ in P. D. Miller (ed) The Psalms and the Life of Faith, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995, p. 58
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1970, pp. 56-60.