Psalm 137: 1-9; Mark 11: 15-18
So let’s not mince words, shall we? The writer of the 137th Psalm certainly doesn’t.
This is a hard Psalm. And that last verse is reprehensible. And there’s really no rationalizing away these words. The Psalmist certainly doesn’t. There’s no redemption, no upward turn at the end. A lot of the psalms finish with that – they kind of turn things around at the finish, wrap things up on a more positive note. I get that. I can’t imagine writing a sermon that doesn’t in some way conclude with words of redemption or hope. Some way of bringing things back from the brink.
We don’t get that here. We are left right on the brink, hanging by a fingernail.
Last Sunday in The Well Sunday school class, we read this passage. We do that in The Well; we read the scripture that either Grace or I are preaching on the following week, and we study it and look at it and offer thoughts and insight. We read Psalm 137 together; and at the end there was this uncomfortable silence, even though you could almost hear the thought running through everyone’s mind: Did he really just say that?!
Someone observed, “This person is angry.” Another went deeper: “This person is in pain.” Both anger and pain are things we are taught to minimize, sidestep, deny, deny deny. How are you doing? I’m fine. Remember?
Psalm 137 is the antithesis of all that. More than any of the other 149 psalms, this one does more than just give voice to anger and pain. It unapologetically embraces it.
And while it is impossible for anyone to fully know and understand the anger and pain of another, I want to invite you to join me on a journey of sorts – a journey into the heart and mind of the writer of the 137th Psalm. Will you do that with me? Will you imagine?
Imagine that you are an Israelite living in 6th century BCE Jerusalem, some five hundred years before the birth of Christ. You are living, at that time, in an autonomous nation, a nation that had proudly existed for one thousand years. You are ruled over by a king – and even though your kings have been a mixed bag of sorts, it is still your king, your nation, your land. You worship God in the one temple there in Jerusalem – it’s not like Charlotte, a church on every corner; here, there is one temple, a glorious temple that serves as the very center of your Hebrew faith.
All of this is wonderful, but there is trouble brewing. Years before, the Assyrians defeated your sisters and brothers to the North. They were then defeated by the Babylonians, and word is they’ve now got their eyes on you. They’ve been conquering nations right and left; and when they defeat a nation, they haul everyone from that nation away and take them to Babylon to live in captivity there. It sounds horrible, but you’re not worried. You and pretty much everyone else in Jerusalem. You are, after all, God’s people. This is God’s nation. I mean, the holy temple is here! There’s no way God would ever let such a calamity take place, right? Right?
Imagine your absolute worst nightmare, the one thing you thought would never happen, coming true. The year 587 BCE, to be exact. Imagine you and every man, woman and child, forcefully removed from the only home you’d ever known. As a quick aside, this is actually something that a lot of people throughout human history can imagine, because they’ve experienced it first-hand. And not just in the distant past. A recent UN study, for example, found that a record 68.5 million people around the world were forcibly displaced from their homeland just last year.
Imagine thinking, as they say, that hindsight is a wonderful thing; and if you had somehow known what awaited you and your nation, perhaps you would’ve heeded the words of the prophets who tried warning you. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah. They all spoke up, they all saw what was coming; but they were largely ignored, people thought they were crazy. If only you knew then what you know now.
Imagine the actual hindsight, forever seared into your memory. The holy temple, the one Solomon worked a generation to build, laying in ruins. The entire city of Jerusalem engulfed in flames, the sky black as night from the smoldering ruin. You had lost your homeland, but in truth you had lost a lot more. It is hard for us in our 21st century world to comprehend – we who pick up and move for a job change, for family, for a change of scenery. Today our society is built on mobility, and the ease at which one can travel from one place to the next. Home is important to us, yes; but home can be packed up and moved anywhere.
But for the Israelites, home was one place – and that was Jerusalem. And to not be in Jerusalem was to not be home. And not only that, but being in Jerusalem, being home, meant being with God, in the land God had long ago promised God’s people. So to now gaze upon Jerusalem in ruin was more than simply dealing with the loss of home. It was also in a very real and existential sense dealing with the loss of God.
And so, some 900 miles later, imagine yourself “by the waters of Babylon,” literally on the basin of the Chebar, the canal connecting the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Although you had no way of knowing those names, because this is a strange and foreign land. Imagine experiencing something that amounts to vertigo – you’re there, but you’re not there. In fact, the Psalmist picks up on this sensation, using the word “there” four times in the first three verses: there we sat down and there we wept….. There. There. How disorienting it must be when you refer to where you are as a “there.”
And imagine the Babylonian guards, rubbing salt in the wound, asking you to play music – music that celebrated your homeland; music created to bring you joy. Sing us one of the songs of Zion, they say. They are not asking because they are curious about your musical and cultural heritage. They are mocking you, taking your pain to a whole new level. They are being what one commentator calls “crushingly cruel.”
But it doesn’t matter, because you couldn’t play those songs now if you wanted to. Literally, your vocal chords have lost their ability to sing, your fingers have forgotten how to press and strum strings. The joy in you is gone, so really, how could you or anyone sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? All of which renders your instruments useless – so you hang your harps and lyres in the branches of the trees along the river, and you just leave them there.
This psalm is about so much more than just losing a homeland. It is about theological trauma; the existential crisis that comes when everything, literally everything you have known and believed in, is upended and thrown into question. Is it any wonder that this would lead to such great pain? Is any wonder that this would be expressed with anger?
Now anger, of course, is something we tend to suppress. We are taught in this society of ours not to openly show anger. Especially in our faith. Being angry is not the “Christian” thing to do, that’s not what Jesus would want. Which is interesting, because we have a story in our Bible about a time when Jesus got pretty darn angry – Grace read it earlier. It’s important enough of a story that three of the four gospels mention it.
And I always get a kick at how this story is sometimes referred to as the “cleansing of the temple” – as if Jesus were one of those really thoughtful and devoted church persons who took time in his day to drop by the temple and tidy things up a bit – sweep the floors, wipe down the flat surfaces, stuff like that. Cleansing of the temple.
Let us be clear – Jesus is not cleaning anything here. He is ticked off. He is furious at what he sees happening in God’s house. Passover – the entire nation descending on Jerusalem; and money changers set up right in the narthex, taking advantage of the swelled crowds, many who were too poor to bring sacrificial items with them.
So the moneychangers provide what they need at a hefty, hefty surcharge – the same way a $2 t-shirt goes for 40 bucks when it’s got the word “Hamilton” on it and hangs on a rack at Blumenthal before the show.
Jesus turns over those tables, he drives those people out – and he’s not using any broom.
There is a place in our faith for anger. But not just any anger. Anger unchecked is destructive, corrosive; it eats away at our very soul. Anger that is borne out of fear leads to the kind of things we see happening time and time again on our domestic and global stage: mass shootings, and fanning the flames of racism and hate, and widening already wide divides. Nothing good ever comes from fear-borne anger. Nothing.
But holy anger – anger that is borne out of righteous indignation; that sense of injustice that wells up inside us when we experience or witness mistreatment, denigration or malice toward another human being, another living creature or creation itself – now there is a place in our faith for that.
In his autobiography, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about something that happened to him in 1943:
When I was 14, I traveled from Atlanta to Dublin, Georgia with a dear teacher of mine, Mrs. Bradley (to) participate in an oratorical contest. We were on a bus returning to Atlanta. Along the way, some white passengers boarded the bus, and the white driver ordered us to get up and give the whites our seats. We didn’t move quickly enough to suit him, so he began cursing us. I intended to stay right in that seat, but Mrs. Bradley urged me up, saying we had to obey the law. We stood in the aisle for 90 miles to Atlanta.
Dr. King concludes by saying: “It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.” He was not angry, I’m guessing because he was afraid. He wasn’t even angry because he didn’t get a seat. He was angry because he knew that what he was made to do was wrong. It was unjust, it was offensive. That’s where his holy anger came from.
And we all know what Dr. King did with that holy anger – nonviolent resistance in the pursuit of civil rights and the fight against racism, a fight we are still very much engaged in in the year 2018, my friends.
We know what Jesus did with his holy anger – he chose to love the world that hated him and give his life for that world, because he knew only love had the power to defeat that kind of hate.
And we know what the writer of the 137th Psalm did with his holy anger – he crafted words and lifted them into the dark abyss so that abyss would not consume him. He took that anger – anger at the Babylonians, anger at everything that happened, anger even at God – and he gave it voice and lifted it to God, because it is okay, my friends, it is okay to sometimes be angry with God.
My friends, I don’t know about you, but I find myself feeling more and more angry these days. Simmering right below the surface. I wonder if you’re feeling it too. Anger at all that is happening in our country – the divide, the violence, the pain. I want to suggest to you that anger is not only an appropriate thing to feel as people of faith, it is a necessary thing. And if I am honest with you, I’m over “thoughts and prayers.” Did you hear the mother speak after the Thousand Oaks shooting this past Wednesday, the 307th shooting out of 314 days of 2018? Her son survived the Las Vegas shooting over a year ago, but not this one. I don’t want your thoughts, she screamed into the camera. I don’t want your prayers. I want gun control, and I hope to God nobody else sends me any prayers.
Now that is the unfiltered, raw voice of Psalm 137 and of holy anger. And perhaps we as people of faith need to get better acquainted with this voice – not in spite of our faith but precisely because of it. Avoiding complacency and apathy, settling for things as “just the way they are.” Getting angry – but not out of fear, because nothing good and everything bad comes from that. Fear of the other, fear of those who are different from us, fear of a threat from others that simply does not exist – we are drowning in that fear, brothers and sisters. We are drowning in it. No, we do not choose fear-borne anger – because, like the Psalmist, we long for home, and fear-borne anger only leads us further and further away.
We choose holy anger – anger that pursues justice over revenge, anger that strives for action instead of apathy, anger that in a real and meaningful way leads to hope. Yes, hope! Because at some point, even the Psalmist comes to see that home is where you are, that God goes wherever you are, even into those strange and foreign lands, even into the pain, especially into the pain. God goes there. God has always been there.
Hope does not deny the circumstances of the present, says one Biblical commentator. Hope doesn’t get us out of our difficulties. It gets us through.
We choose holy anger precisely because it leads to hope. And make no doubt – hope is what will get us through.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 https://www.businessinsider.com/how-many-mass-shootings-in-america-this-year-2018 https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2018/11/09/thousand-oaks-parents-i-dont-want-prayers-i-dont-want-thoughts-i-want-gun-control/?utm_term=.46bcc4e109fb