Grace Presbyterian Church
October 6, 2019, Pentecost 17C
All Y’all. Even Them.
I won’t lie to you; for a long time I wondered why Psalm 137 was in scripture at all.
Oh, the first six verses are fine. It’s a beautiful evocation of the sorrow of those who had been carried away in exile after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. The images have become well known; the image of harps hanging on the willows, sitting down and weeping, or the lament “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” All of these at least sound familiar to us even if we’re not always certain where they come from. They are the kind of things you hear and say “I’m pretty sure that’s in the Bible…”
But those last three verses…yikes.
The image offered up there is horrifying, there’s no way around that. Also challenging is that unlike many other psalms of lament, this psalm never makes its way back to any kind of praise of God, or even any kind of acknowledgment of God’s mercy or goodness or greatness or even really any kind of acknowledgment of God at all. It just ends with that horrifying wish. This is not someone ready to hear the consolations offered up in our reading from Lamentations, this is clear.
And indeed, I’ve wondered why in the world this was included in the Psalms. Whoever compiled this collection could certainly have trimmed away those last three verses, right? How is this “divinely inspired,” exactly?
Sadly, the more I have to deal with news headlines, I think I might understand.
This lament is the voice of trauma. The singer of this psalm is a victim of whatever one might call the biblical-era equivalent of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Think of a New Yorker after 9/11 in 2001, or a citizen of Oklahoma City after the bombing of the Murrah building in 1995. The singer here, whether they are one of those carried into exile or one who was left behind in the destroyed city of Jerusalem, is living in that kind of trauma. Or maybe it’s a worse trauma, in that as much as New York and Oklahoma City were and are home to millions of people, neither one was a holy city. Neither was the site of God’s own Temple. The fall of the federal building or of the World Trade Center was traumatic, to be sure, but it wasn’t the locus of your faith that was being destroyed. Or one hopes not, anyway.
We’re only really beginning to understand how people are affected by such traumatic events. For example, the anxiety and fear of the days after 9/11 were found by researchers to have an effect on the children of that city, even those too young to understand the event itself. They knew, if nothing else, that their mommy or daddy wouldn’t let go of their hand anymore but kept clinging tightly if anyone was around at all; even that slight a change of behavior transmitted to children the emotional and psychological message something’s wrong.
While more research is still ongoing, some larger-scale horrors seem to affect not only direct victims, but the descendants of those victims, all the way down to the genetic level. Such an effect seems to have been found in the descendants of persons who survived the Holocaust. Now imagine how many such horrors might be leaving their mark of whatever kind on people in this world: more wars than we can count, the Armenian genocide of 1915, the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Or think of the descendants of the forced relocation of Native American peoples from the eastern US, including the brutal Trail of Tears forced march. Or think of the descendants of slavery. Traumas carried for generations, maybe not even fully understood by those who bear them.
That is the world in which we live, and that is the world with which Jesus calls us to share his table on this World Communion Sunday.
That kind of thing makes us uncomfortable, at minimum. We don’t know how to respond to it. We might be simply nervous, or possibly defensive, or simply unable to understand how they can’t just let go, as the council of the church too often offers up in glib unthinking.
Rev. Layton E. Williams, in the upcoming book Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us, writes:
…in our rush to put distance between ourselves and what troubles us, we end up putting distance between ourselves and other people whose realities make us uncomfortable. By refusing to see the full scope of their story we also fail to fully see them.*
We may be troubled or discomfited by the traumas of others for many reasons, but that cannot be a reason for pulling back from those who have known far greater or more insidious traumas than we can comprehend. It may be – in fact it’s entirely likely – that there is nothing we can do to alleviate the effects of whatever has traumatized the other; we just don’t have that kind of magic wand, and telling such people that everything would better if they just had more faith is a sin of the worst kind.
And maybe this is the lesson of Psalm 137; sometimes all you can do is be present. Be quiet. Listen. Maybe share the table of communion.
After all, if God can listen to this psalm, and not only listen but do whatever divine inspiring it took to get this psalm in the book, then it’s hard to see how we’re not called to listen as well.
For the most disturbing psalm ever, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #311, Here, O Lord, Your Servants Gather; #317, In Christ There Is No East or West; #525, Let Us Break Bread Together; #733, We All Are One in Mission
*Layton E. Williams, Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2019), 111-12.