How Can We Sing the Lord’s Song in a Foreign Land?
Can you believe the words we just said? Can you believe those words are in the Bible? Tucked at the end of this beautiful psalm that resounds with such sadness and longing. A psalm that has inspired great poets and composers, Dvorak’s Biblical Songs and the hauntingly beautiful On the Willows from Godspell?
These are difficult words to say. Here we are in this beautiful sanctuary – surrounded by our church family – reaching out to those joining us online – and we do not want to hear such terrible things. We want to turn away from violence and vengeance and hatred and rage. We just want to get along and love God and be good people.
How can we reconcile this verse with Jesus saying, let the children come to me?
The Bible is a strange book. It’s okay to admit that.
To put this psalm in context I’d like to share a portion of the Godly Play story about the Babylonian exile. It begins like this.
This is Jerusalem. Here is the wall. Inside is the temple built for God. Here are the people of God.
The people thought that the wall of the city would protect them from everything.
Then the Babylonians came. Their king wanted Jerusalem for himself. They broke down the walls and burned the temple. They took many of the people away.
The soldiers marched God’s people away from Jerusalem. They looked back at the smoke of the burning city and wondered if they would ever see it again.
They grew weary. Some of them died.
They were in exile. They could not go home.
They hung their harps on the weeping willow trees and sang sad songs. They dreamed of Jerusalem and the temple but they could not go back. They even faced toward Jerusalem when they said their prayers.
The whole story casts a long shadow. And it is in the midst of their exile (or the recalling of it) that this song of remembrance and retribution is created.
With it’s disturbing and violent imagery this psalm recounts an honest, if deeply disturbing account of a community processing its grief and anger in the presence of God.
And aren’t we seeing this same thing play out right now, as the families and survivors in Uvalde continue to process their rage and anger and their devastating grief and loss.
This psalm captures the pulsating weight of a tremendous loss. And the final verse, the terrible words that catch in our throats are a curse. A curse and a plea – Lord, avenge the evil done to your people.
This desire for violent retribution echoes throughout the psalms but perhaps never so disturbingly as here. The desire for vengeance is, in fact, part of the human condition. The events of the last few years, in this country and the wider world, while breaking our hearts, have surely enraged us too. Leaving us to ask, much as the psalmist does, where is God in the midst of such terrible death and destruction and suffering?
This, the landscape of this question, is the foreign land from which we must try and sing the Lord’s song. And maybe, you will reply that nothing, nothing that has occurred in this country or in the wider world, none of the injustices or deaths or war makes you angry. And I would reply that if nothing in today’s broken world makes you angry – then you are not paying attention. This world, our world, is awash in violence and injustice and hate.
Anger and hate in human hands can be very dangerous things. We have an entire vocabulary for such things today: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, hate crimes, holocaust.
I am sure that individually we have all had moments where we’ve said or done something rash in a burst of anger and have come to regret it. In a fit of rage, we can do things we didn’t know we were capable of. Anger has a way of possessing us.
When our son, Max, was very young, he loved to toddle around, picking up sticks and rocks, exploring the sandy landscape of our Florida yard. One sunny Saturday, Frank and I watched as Max was walking on his chubby legs with that toddler, half walk/ half stumble through the yard when suddenly he looked directly at us and began to scream. He had stepped into a fire ant mound.
I remember rushing him into the house and running water over his legs and feet to wash the biting ants off of him. His feet and legs were covered in bites. It was terrible.
Once the crisis was over and Max was calmed down, Frank went back into the yard. And here is something that most of you already know about my husband, he is one of the gentlest people you will ever meet. He, literally, would not hurt a fly. If a stray moth or spider finds its way into our house, Frank finds a way to rescue it – even a cockroach! He takes it outside and releases it.
This kind and gentle man went out to our garage and found a bottle of charcoal lighter fluid and set that fire ant mound ablaze. I could not believe my eyes.
And Frank would have me share, in his defense, that the fire ants prevailed. They popped back up in another spot a few days later.
We all carry those feelings of wanting to lash out at the people or creatures or politicians or governments who might hurt or who have hurt us or the ones we love.
But anger doesn’t have to be big and dramatic – anger can also be smaller and of the every day kind.
There were many Sundays when my family would roll into this parking lot angry and at odds with each other. But we believed and hoped if we could just get inside these doors, God’s grace would work on our angry hearts and by lunch, things would be better.
The raw anger of the conclusion of this psalm reminds us that it is okay to come to worship carrying our own anger. The people of God model that for us in this psalm.
Walter Brueggemann has written extensively on this psalm and suggests that sometimes we think, as Christians, we ought not to feel anger or rage. But that would make us less than human, or worse, cut off from our emotions. Brueggeman suggests that this is what the people of God are saying in the final verse of this psalm:
I am being eaten alive by my anger and I’d like to hand it off to you, God.
And God says: I have heard you. You can leave all of this with me.
When we are angry or feel mean or vengeful – no matter how bad it gets in here (heart) we can hand all of that over to God.
Brueggemann writes: It is an act of profound faith to entrust one’s most precious hatreds to God, knowing they will be taken seriously.
He continues, God is big enough to handle our anger and vengeance. The real question is: Are we big enough to let God take them?
And besides, don’t you think God already knows what we carry in our hearts?! If God weeps with us, surely our anger and rage are shared as well.
To feel anger, for someone who works at being a believer, one of God’s people, a good person, to feel anger can feel very much like a foreign land. I know it does for me.
What anger are you carrying this morning? Isn’t it getting heavy? Imagine clutching it tightly in your fist. Name it silently and let God take it from you.
In a few minutes we will join with believers around the world in coming to God’s table. To this table we bring everything, the entirety of our human existence, trusting that God is big enough to accept everything, all of it, all we are | and in return we receive God’s grace.
A grace that lurks in every shadow
a blessing in every fall
a healing for our every wound
the hand of God in everything.
May it be so.