The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
20th Sunday after Pentecost
October 2, 2016
My wife, Maggie, and I read bible stories to our daughter, Lydia, as part of our bedtime routine. And I bet you can guess which stories are most popular with a little kid who’s almost there. There’s Noah’s ark, and she loves that one because the children’s bibles have great illustrations of giraffes and elephants and camels and all sorts of wonderful creatures. We laugh during the story of Zacchaeus, the little short guy who had to climb a tree to see Jesus. We like Abraham and Sarah, that very old couple who prayed that God would give them children and God gave them children. When I’m reading Lydia these stories, the bible seems so nice.
Honestly, I almost feel bad for all those kids who read those children’s bibles, because I know they will be shocked when they grow up to read the real stories in the real bible. Take the story of Noah. That’s cute, right? All the animals safely on board the boat. Oh yeah, we forgot to tell you that, in the story, everybody in the whole world is killed in the flood. Then, when they get off the boat Noah gets knee-walking drunk and takes all his clothes off. His son Ham sees his dad naked, and Ham is forever cursed. How about that for a bedtime story – sweet dreams kid! Take the story we read Lydia about short little Zacchaeus. What the children’s bible doesn’t say is that Zacchaeus is a tax collector, which means that he skims money off the top for himself. Zacchaeus has made it to Wells Fargo Bank levels of corruption. Or Abraham and Sarah, what a gentle story about having kids, right? Wrong. Abraham’s first kid is not with his wife, Sarah, but with his wife’s servant, Hagar. That kid’s name is Ishmael, and they don’t want him, so they abandon him the wilderness. Yep – those are the family values that I want my daughter to learn.
Here’s the problem. Too few of us read the holy scriptures for ourselves. We take only the stories that we like, the real nice stories, and we skim over the rest. We make needlepoint pillows of things that say, “for God so loved the world.” We make beautiful sun catchers that say, “the Lord is my shepherd.” But those are just the nice parts, the stories we read to our kids. And it’s time to grow up.
This psalm that we read this morning is the most disturbing of all the psalms. See, the ancient city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. The ancient Jews were dragged over 500 miles to Babylon as captives. And there they wept because their beloved city was destroyed. There they wept because their homes were gone. There they wept because their lives had been obliterated. Psalm 137 goes like this: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion.”
They felt abandoned, the political alliances they had made to ensure that something like this didn’t happened, were broken. The ancient Jews were betrayed. And they were angry. Psalm 137 ends like this: “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 rocks!” To be clear, the psalm is saying that whoever takes the Babylonian children and smashes them against rocks will be happy. I’m pretty sure that Psalm 137 does not make it into many children’s bibles.
So, we could dismiss this psalm outright. “Oh, that’s all the Old Testament stuff that we don’t like.” Sorry, but you don’t get to choose what’s in the bible. Or, we could say, “let’s just focus on Jesus.” But then you’re cutting out more than half the bible. So it’s here, we may not like it. We don’t get to skip over it. We have to wrestle with its meaning.
We have to acknowledge that there have been points in our lives when it felt as if our city, the temple that was our heart and our life was utterly destroyed. There have been moments when our friends betrayed us, our loved ones were treacherous. And we have been so angry, we have been burning with so much passion and vengeance that it feels like we wanted to kill someone. What scares us about Psalm 137 is not that it’s foreign to us, but that it’s all too familiar.
I know, I know that you have felt angry with God before. I know that you have felt abandoned by God. I know that you have felt unworthy of God’s love. I know that you have been wracked with worry, and doubt, and fear, and pain. I know that it feels like sometimes God has not lived up to his end of the bargain. I know that sometimes all you can do is sit down and cry. I know you have felt that way, because I have felt that way.
In our journey with Jesus, sometimes we will be happy. And during those times we should rejoice. But I know all too well from my own life, from my own work, that more often than we feel incredible amounts of pain and agony. Think of it, our symbol, our identity as Christians is the cross. The instrument of pain and agony. And on the cross, as Jesus is dying to the world, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If Jesus feels forsaken, if the Son of God himself feels abandoned, at some point you will too. There is no shame in that. Because it’s through the cross, it’s through suffering, that God gives life to the world.
It’s the same for the ancient Jews. They go to Babylon, they are in exile, they are floundering in misery. They feel forsaken by God. But something happens there. They are given new life. For the first time in their history they begin to understand who they are. Historically speaking, it’s in Babylon that the ancient Jews first begin to comment on their own holy scriptures. By living among other people, by living in Babylon, their identity as God’s chosen people becomes solidified. It is only through the destruction of their beloved city, through their anger and pain, and through their exile that they learn what it means to be Jewish. Their pain and their anguish was not meaningless. It was the crucible in which they were formed.
And for you. Your tragedies, your heartaches, your struggles, your grief. Watching your spouse die, your child die, your pregnancy die. Watching your marriage die, your job die, your bank account die. Watching relationships die and being stabbed in the back. I do not wish any of that upon you. And in the midst of that, I understand your anger. I understand why you might cry out to curse God, why it feels like you could kill someone. I do not want to sound trite, but a new you is being born. That is the work of the Holy Spirit creating a new you. Not that God wishes to inflict suffering upon us; but that when this broken world causes us suffering, the Spirit is working to make things holy. Honestly, that’s about the only way I can make it through life. Our fate as humans is to suffer and die; nevertheless, we are eternally loved by an eternal God.
I will not be reading Psalm 137 to my daughter tonight. We’ll probably stick with Noah and his very big boat. But someday I do hope to read this disturbing psalm with her. Because I know that one day she will be angry, as I have been angry. Someday she will feel betrayed, as I have felt betrayed. I pray that we face the difficult reality of our lives, and have the courage to speak them to God. And I pray that through death, we see new life. That through the cross, there is resurrection. That through agony, there is hope.