Preaching Troublesome Passages

By Rev. Mark Poindexter

Earlier this week, Derek wrote about the “clobber texts” that are so often cited in the conversation regarding the full inclusion of the LGBT community in the church and our society.  How the scriptures are understood is indeed an important matter for the church to continually engage.  It is with that in mind that I offer this week a sermon I preached earlier this year.  It doesn’t address the texts Derek referred to, but another very difficult text, Psalm 137.  This troubling Psalm has started to disappear from some versions of the Lectionary and I used that as an opportunity to talk about how we might understand difficult biblical texts.  For the most part, this is the same sermon I preached, though I changed some wording to make it better for a reading audience.

At the end of the sermon, I include an email that I received in response to the sermon that helped verify for me the importance of dealing with the difficult passages in the Bible and not ignoring them.  If you are not familiar with this Psalm I would encourage you to read it before you read the sermon.      

 

Troublesome Scriptures

 

For most of my preaching career which began in 1989, I have used the Revised Common Lectionary as the source for choosing the morning’s scripture. The Lectionary is a three year cycle of readings which intends to take the church through the major themes of scripture every year.  Each week there are four readings, a gospel lesson, a reading from one of the New Testament letters, a reading from either the Mosaic Law or one of the prophets and a Psalm.  I bought this resource called a Lectionary Bible soon after I started preaching.  It has all the Lectionary readings for each Sunday and if you were to turn to the page that represents this Sunday, the Sunday between October 2 and 8 in Year C, you would see that the Psalm for today is Psalm 137.

Now, this Lectionary Bible is over twenty years old.  If you were to purchase one of these today, it is likely you would not find Psalm 137 listed as a reading for this Sunday or any Sunday.  In several versions of the Lectionary Psalm 137 has been replaced with an alternate reading.   Feasting on the Word is one the best received Lectionary Commentaries written in decades.  For each of the scripture readings for every week there are four different perspectives written.  There are twelve volumes in this series . . . and in none of the twelve volumes, which cover more than 5,000 pages, is Psalm 137 dealt with.  For this Sunday the alternate reading dealt with in this commentary is Lamentations 3:19-26. Now in fairness, there are many biblical passages that are not part of the Lectionary . . . but this Psalm was included, but now it often isn’t. The question is “why?”

And we will get to that question in a minute, but first we need to talk about the historical context of this Psalm. This is one of the few Psalms in which the context is clear and important.  It was the period in Israelite history known as the Babylonian conquest and exile.  In the 6th century before Christ was born the Babylonian Empire came and their soldiers conquered Jerusalem, laying waste to the holy city.  Death and destruction was everywhere.  In this conquest, Israel lost its king, its temple and its land.  And many of Jerusalem’s leading citizens were taken as captives back to Babylon – thus their exile.  With very graphic terms we can read in 2 Kings and Lamentations and other places, just how violent and destructive this Babylonian conquest was for Israel . . . and that the violent destruction included the death of women and children. 

Psalm 137 is a response to that horrific event in Israelite history.  The psalm begins with a deep sense of grief

 By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.             

On the willows there we hung up our hearts.  For there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” 

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

The psalm begins with the grief over what has been lost.  And these are powerfully, moving words that have spoken to many people.  Dr. Thomas Davis was the professor of religious studies at Indiana University.  His wife Melanie, a Presbyterian minister, was diagnosed with cancer which eventually claimed her life.  During Melanie’s illness, Dr. Davis began keeping a journal about the journey he and his wife and children were on together.  He continued the journal after her death and a few years later it was put into the form of a book and published.  The title chosen for the book, By the Waters of Babylon.  The sense of grief and loss spoken of in the first verses of this psalm is one that has helped to give voice to many people as they go through their own devastating times of grief and loss.  So, if this is a psalm that people find so helpful – why then has it been disappearing from the Lectionary, so that it would not be read on Sunday morning in worship?

 Well, what happens very quickly in the Psalm is that it moves from a sense of grief and loss – to rage and a desire for vengeance.     

 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 (your children) and dash them against the rock.

It is these verses that are deeply shocking and even appalling, these words full of hate and desire for revenge that have been the cause of Psalm 137 being removed from the Lectionary.  It was thought that they are of such a brutal nature that they are not fit to be read in worship.  I understand that and on one hand I agree.  I mean can we read the last two verses of this psalm and then say with any joyful conviction “This is the Word of the Lord.”   We talk about scripture being the inspired word of God, does that mean God is the inspiration behind these raging words filled with hatred and calling for vengeance.  And let’s be clear, there other very difficult texts in the Bible that we have to ask, what does inspiration mean here?

Last weekend we were Skyping with our daughter Michele.  She was doing her homework for her American Foundations class.  She was writing a paper about the religious views of southern states concerning slavery during the civil war.  And she found out that they used the Bible to undergird their position. They said, “Slavery was a recognized way of life in the ancient world as bore witness to by the Old Testament – why father Abraham had many slaves. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul returned the runaway slave to his owner, Onesimus and wrote elsewhere, ‘Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor.’  The Apostle Peter said something very similar, ‘Slaves, accept the authority of your master’s with deference.’”  Those seeking to find a reason to support the ownership of slaves looked to the Bible and said, “See the Word of God.”  But, let me ask, is there anybody here that thinks that since the Bible has such passages God is okay with slavery, or that God is the inspiration behind one human being owning another?  I didn’t think so.

You know when we talk about the sacredness of scripture, when we talk about the inspiration of the Word, we need to always be aware of the complexity of that proclamation.   Not everything in the Bible is prescriptive for all people in all times, in every situation.  The Bible is descriptive of historical situations in which real human beings were reaching out toward the sacred and the holy, reaching out toward God . . . and their understanding of how God was reaching back toward them. The author and minister Frederick Buechner wrote that the Bible is not so much a book about the way life is supposed to be, as a book about the way life is. In that sense of realness lies its sacredness and its holiness.  Not always prescriptive, but descriptive of the search for the sacred and the holy.   

As Christians, we should read all of scripture through the lens of our faith in Christ, who scripture teaches is himself the Word of God.  And not a Word that was spoken only thousands of years ago, but a Living Word that continues to speak even today through the scriptures and through human reason and through the faithful actions of his body, the church.  The Word of God, Jesus Christ, reveals to us a God of grace and mercy and love, a God who cared for the least and made room for those who lived on the fringes, a God who created every human being with dignity and worth. 

This is why even though there are passages that point to the institution of slavery as being real in that day and part of the culture, there is also a powerful word from followers of Christ pushing back against that institution, words that challenged that cultural reality.  Paul returned Onesimus to Philemon yes, otherwise Onesimus may well have faced death. Paul returned him but wrote to Philemon, “no longer treat him as a slave, but as a beloved brother in Christ.”  This attitude, this push against the institution even as he lived in it is what led Paul to write, “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, we are all one in Christ.”  The trajectory of scripture is clear, always pushing toward greater equality and dignity in Christ for everyone.  And these words of scripture became the force which allowed Christians to be leaders in the cause of breaking the bonds of slavery.  We read all of scripture through the lens of our faith in Christ – his grace, his mercy, his love, his treatment of people.  We seek to understand the time and the culture in which things were written and that it is not all prescriptive, but it is all descriptive of the human journey.

Which brings us back to Psalm 137 and the difficult words that end this Psalm – the words of hatred and vengeance and unspeakable violence. These words were written by someone who had themselves endured monstrous evil.  A sense of desperation is what has brought out these feelings.  A very raw wound is being exposed.  And the rage in these words is a cry for justice to be done. They want those who have perpetrated these awful crimes against their people to endure the same.  They want the punishment to fit the crime. The nature of these words are a measure of the deeds that provoked them.

What these words of scripture help us to understand is that when people endure unspeakable tragedies – they need a place to share what is in them.  Not what we think ought to be in them, but what is really in them.  Their pain, their anger, their sense of injustice, their outrage – it has to have an outlet.  There has to a place where they can take their authentic feelings and frustrations and not feel that they have to hide them or feel shame over having them.  In fact, is it not understandable that the psalmist after his home was violently taken from him and he witnessed the death of so many, maybe from his own family, that these were his feelings? 

You know the church needs to be a place that respects the pain and grief and anger that comes to folks who have been victims of other’s cruelty and crimes.  We need not lay a quick and simplistic word about forgiveness upon people as they express their own sense of rage at being mistreated – whether it is themselves or someone they love being mistreated.  As God patiently listened to the Psalmist, so should we be a people that provides the balm of  a safe place and a listening ear.

But the place we cannot ever go if we seek to follow Jesus and understand life through the lens of our faith in him is the place where we say to someone, “Vengeance is alright in this case. You should seek to hurt them as they hurt you. It’s okay in this situation. An eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth. As they did to you, so you should do to them.”  No – not as the people of Jesus.  We respect people’s deep sense of pain and we understand their anger – but we can never condone those actions that just perpetuate the cycle of violence over and over and over again.  Which is what acted out rage and vengeance does.  No. We have been taught to return evil with good, to bless those who have cursed us, to meet the hate of the world with the love and grace of God.

We understand the feelings that can arise and we listen, but we can never condone as the people who follow Christ, acts of vengeance.  And I know that’s very, very hard at times – and that’s why we need each other to offer support and encouragement along the way.

A final word. Why did I choose to preach on this most difficult text, believing that it still has a place in worship?  Folks, this is a time in the life of the church when we need to have as fully an informed faith as possible.  For there will be those in this day and time, who will point out the troubling and difficult texts in the Bible, some of them have written best-selling books . . . they will point out those texts and say, “Look at what it says – and Christians say that this is the Word of God.” And we need to be able to provide a reasoned answer to such things. Why would I preach on such a difficult text – because I care about the witness of the church and because I value your journey of faith and I want you to have as an informed faith as possible, one for this day and time.          

                           An Email Response

Pastor Mark,

Thank you so much for your message yesterday.   I admit to not understanding much of what is in the Bible--and struggle sometimes with how to put it all into perspective. Your message was very helpful.  Thank you.

  

Have a great week and God Bless!