World Communion Sunday
Psalm 137

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

In our liturgy, we have this short call and response after every scripture reading. I would imagine that we often aren’t really thinking about it as we’re saying it; it’s just part of our routine, and we follow along with it because it’s in the bulletin. Other times, it’s possible that the reading for the day seemingly speaks directly to us—whether it’s something that we really needed to hear in that moment or whether it strikes us in a way that we didn’t expect—and we say those words with authentic gratitude and reverence.

But then there are readings like the psalm that Rachel read for us just a few moments ago. It seemed like it was going okay, but then she arrived at that notorious final line: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” The Word of the Lord? It feels more accurate to ask that rather than state it, and it’s a little difficult to thank God for this reading.

Scholars within both Judaism and Christianity have struggled to reconcile such a statement with their understandings of faith, with one going as far as to say that it is “among the most repellant words in scripture”[1], and another calls it an exclamation cried out in “blind hate and vulgar rage.”[2]

This psalm is a prime example for all of us to think seriously and critically about the nature of scripture. The Bible is a collection of various writings written over centuries, with each book speaking to a particular audience in a particular context at a particular time by particular authors. There is, I believe, an overarching theme to all of it, but often there are instances in which we find discrepancies and contradictions, reminders that part of our work as a church is to wrestle with those texts that offend us and those that are blatantly objectionable.

Sometimes this can be done by using various methods of exegesis and interpretation, which Pastor Cathy and I spent three years learning in seminary. Reading texts in conjunction with the original languages, historical contexts, and genres can give us helpful insight into decoding what some of those difficult passages meant in their time and what they might say to us today.

Other times, however, the task of trying to find good news or important lessons about our faith from these challenging texts is less straight-forward. In these cases, it sometimes seems that the only course of action is to sit with it; to bear witness to it; to encounter them on their own terms to see if the Spirit might be saying anything to us through it.

What we encounter in our psalm this morning is a community in the midst of devastation, of unfathomable tragedy. Jerusalem—the holy city; the land that was promised to the Judeans’ ancestors—was seized by the neighboring Babylonian Empire, and their king was captured. The teachers, musicians, land owners, and the rest of the elite were then taken from their homeland, forced to work along the vast irrigation canals of the empire, and taunted by their captors.

Our psalmist by all accounts seems to have been one of the musicians that was forced into exile. He paints the picture of these Judeans sitting by the rivers of Babylon, by those vast canals, so overcome by grief that they sit down and simply weep. He takes his beloved harp and hangs it on one of the willow trees beside the canal, as there is no need for it. Some of the captors ask for them to sing a song, but others wanted to humiliate them even further. “Don’t just sing us any song; sing us one of the songs of Jerusalem; sing us one of the songs about God.” But how could they sing those songs when they had been taken away from Jerusalem? How could they sing those songs when it seemed as though their God had abandoned them? How could they sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

All they have to comfort them is the memory of their homeland, and they cherished that beyond everything else.  The psalmist writes that if he forgets Jerusalem, it would be best for his right hand to wither so that he could no longer play his harp; if he doesn’t remember Zion, his tongue ought to cling to the roof of his mouth so that he could no longer sing.

The story here takes a brief hiatus for a few years, but comes back with a vengeance. In that time, the Babylonians formed an alliance with the people of Edom and returned to utterly destroy Jerusalem. No stone in the city was left unturned, and everything else was burned to the ground. A whole generation of children was lost due to unimaginable violence; of torture, of mutilation, and of taking those young ones and throwing them against those stones to slaughter them.

And so the picks the story back up for the final three verses, but there’s a distinct difference in tone. There are suggestions that this last section might be by a different author. While this is probable and makes sense, I don’t know that it helps tremendously with how we reconcile our faith to the Word of the Lord that seems so violent and contrary to what we read elsewhere in the Bible. What we nevertheless encounter is angry; it’s violent; it’s an outrage. As one scholar translated those final verses:

Blessed is the one who repays you for what you have done to us! Blessed is the one who seizes and dashes your children against the rock! [3]

It’s not as poetic as the first section of the psalm; it’s not as gentle. But my goodness, I can’t imagine there being a more raw and honest expression of grief and anger. It speaks to the deep despair that the people of God experienced so many years ago; it bears witness to their pain and sorrow; and it gives voice to their deepest groans and sighs. The people of God are suffering; their city has been devastated, their children have been slaughtered, and they are inflicted by a trauma that will stay with them for centuries to come.

It’s a strange text to read as we gather to celebrate World Communion Sunday. There’s probably some kind of exegetical tool that we could employ to make sense of this text on this particular day; I’m sure that sermon has been written before. But today, I don’t think that we need to try to correct or interpret the grief. Rather, I think the task before us on this day is to sit with it; to get away from our world of trying to rationalize everything that discomforts and disorients us and instead engage the reality that the world is more ambiguous than we want to admit. I’m not condoning the language used; I’m not saying that it’s right or that it’s just or that it’s loving. But if we cannot learn to simply bear witness to such a raw expression of grief and suffering—if we cannot quiet ourselves and listen for just a moment to these stories—I really don’t think that we can learn what it means to fully love.

Because sometimes the only loving thing we can do is to bear witness. When someone finds themselves in a hospital bed after hearing grim news, no amount of words or actions we can do will make it better. When someone receives that dreaded phone call late at night telling them that a loved one has died, we cannot bring that loved one back to life. When someone experiences a trauma that goes beyond words, there’s no magical phrase we can give to make it all go away. But we can be there. We can listen. We can be present.

In a few moments, we’ll gather around this table with followers of Christ all around the world to receive a piece of bread and a sip of wine or juice. We will sing some of the same songs, pray some of the same prayers, and recite some of the same liturgy. And we Methodists don’t try to say too much about what exactly happens at this table; we try to sit with the ambiguity there too. But what we do say about it is that, by some mysterious act, we believe that there is something that happens. We receive the bread and the cup and in grace those elements somehow takes hold of us; that somehow these become imbued with the presence of Christ and in turn envelops us in the body of Christ.

And when we are all part of the same body—all of us from all over the world who partake at the table—we are bound together with every single person who composes this body. We are bound together with the one who is certain in their faith and the one whose faith is the size of a mustard seed. We are bound to the rich and to the poor. We are bound up with the one who is about to go to brunch and the one whose only meal for the day is that small morsel. We are bound with the parent celebrating a new birth and the parent who just buried their child.

When we are mourning, there is a community that is mourning with us. When we find that we cannot sing the Lord’s song in a foreign and hostile land, we are surrounded by people from all across time and all around the world who are singing for us. And when all we want to do is curse God and call fury and vengeance down on those who have tormented us, there is a whole cloud of witnesses that is sitting there beside us, letting us get it all out. 

I don’t know exactly what to make of our psalm this morning. I don’t know what to say that can make it seem less tragic, less violent, and less offensive. I don’t even know how exactly it fits in with all of my ideas about who God is.

But I know that I have a responsibility to bear witness to it; to hear it; to sit with it. Because there will surely be a time when I am in the depths of my own grief, unable to figure out how to make it another day, and unable to keep much faith. And even though it may not make any of it feel much better; though it may not take away one ounce of that pain; I will know that there will be someone who is there to simply bear witness to it. I will know that I am not going through this life alone. And thanks be to God, that might just be enough to make all the difference.

[1] R. E. O. White, A Christian Handbook to the Psalms
[2] Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary
[3] John Ahn, “Psalm 137: Complex Communal Laments” in Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 127, No. 2 (Summer, 2008), p. 285.