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By the Waters of Pain, Suffering, and Hatred
Reflecting on the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: One Day after Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 137
Old Testament: Lamentations 1:16-22
Epistle: James 1:2-11
Psalter: Psalm 3
Old Testament: Habakkuk 1:5-17
Epistle: James 1:2-11
God of power and justice, like Jeremiah you weep over those who wander from you, turn aside to other gods, and enter into chaos and destruction. By your tears and through your mercy, teach us your ways and write them on our hearts so that we may follow faithfully the path you show us. Amen.
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock! (Psalm 137:8-9).
In the spring of 1894, the Baltimore Orioles came to Boston to play a routine baseball game. But what happened that day was anything but routine. The Orioles' John McGraw got into a fight with the Boston third baseman. Within minutes all the players from both teams had joined in the brawl. The warfare quickly spread to the grandstands. Among the fans the conflict went from bad to worse. Someone set fire to the stands and the entire ballpark burned to the ground. Not only that, but the fire spread to 107 other Boston buildings as well.
Anger. Sometimes the feeling is justified, sometimes it is not; but when it is not resolved and instead fed and nurtured, it always ends up destructive.
The Jews in Babylonian exile were angry. And who could blame them. Their homeland had been invaded, their beloved Jerusalem and the sacred temple were destroyed, and most of the able-bodied men, women, and children were dragged off to the homeland of their conquerors to live life in a strange land. And to add insult to injury, their captures taunted them as we see in our psalm:
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for merriment, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
Yes, they were angry. Their pain and suffering, their exile were bitter pills to swallow and side effect was anger; and no one should believe that their anger was unjustified. But what do we do with our anger, even our righteous anger?
I suppose the question we must ask before the question as to our anger, is what do we do with this angry psalm, particularly verse 9. How vengeful to suggest that blessing will be on those who kill little children. What a primitive and socially backward idea. We modern enlightened folks would never approve of such things in the 21st century.
I remember watching an interview with a member of a think tank not too long after 9/11. The U.S. had been bombing Afghanistan attempting to root out the Taliban. We were also dropping meals and other supplies for the civilians there—a peace gesture to try to distinguish between the perpetrators of 9/11 and innocent civilians. In this interview, the guest was taking great exception to our humanitarian gesture and in the course of his response he basically said, “And if we accidently kill some of their children in our raids, so what? They are being raised as terrorist anyway. The more we kill now, the less we have to deal with later.” I just tell that story in case we think we are now so enlightened compared to the ancient psalmist.
I suppose it’s easy to simply reject what we read and throw it out of the Bible. The problem with that approach is the church has not given us the option. What we are reading is our standard. We don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing what is and is not Scripture. The question for us is not do we accept or reject these words, but rather what do we do with them?
I am glad this psalm is in the Bible. First, it reminds me that we can and should be honest with God in our prayers. We confess our sins to God. We don’t say, “I don’t want to tell God about this big sin because I don’t want hi to find out about it.” God knows our sin, so we need to confess it. In the same way, God knows how we feel and the first step in dealing with our deep feelings is to confess that we have. It is OK to say to God, “I am angry!” In fact, that is the first step to dealing with our feelings and direct our energy in positive ways.
Second, this psalm reminds me first and foremost, not that there are people out there who harbor such feelings, but that given the right circumstances, I can harbor such feelings. Down deep in my soul there is a dormant ember that given the right situation can start to come alive, and even if my anger is justified, if I nurture and feed that anger, it can develop into a flame and then a fire of hatred; and if I act on that hatred, nothing good will come of it. Is it any wonder that the Apostle Paul counsels the Ephesians, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” (Ephesians 4:25-27) Notice Paul says it’s ok to be angry, but do not let that anger take hold. Jesus himself was angry and he spoke in anger at injustice, but he never acted in anger. He directed his anger into love and compassion. Acting in anger is all too consuming for those acting and those on the receiving end, and it is usually nothing but destructive.
Listen to the words of Frederick Buechner:
Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.
When the sun sets tonight, will it take our anger with it, or will we harbor it inside of us to feed and nurture for another day?
PRAYER: Hear our prayers, God of power, and through the ministry of your Son free us from the grip of the tomb, that we may desire you as the fullness of life and proclaim your saving deeds to all the world. Amen.
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