October 6, 2019 Propers 22C
Those of you familiar with Psalm 137 will notice that I left out verse nine. And if you are familiar with this psalm, you probably know why. I was not going to ask any of you to say those horrifying, violent words in the context of a worship service, even if they do come from Scripture.
I will share that final verse with you (and ask you NOT to go look it up while I’m talking!) but first I want to discuss how such a gruesome verse came to be included in our Scriptures.
Imagine you live in a small kingdom surrounded by larger, more aggressive empires. Your land is valuable both for its fertile soil and for its geographical location. The neighboring superpowers want to draw you into their empire because you have strategic borders.
Imagine you have grown up hearing the stories of your people:
- how generations ago the Divine Source of all Life made a promise to one of your ancestors that his offspring would always inhabit that land;
- how despite that promise your people ended up as slaves in the empire of their day, but were eventually led out to freedom, even if it took a while to arrive at the Promised Land;
- how the land was settled by the twelve tribes (we’ll just gloss over the problematic truth that they annihilated the people who were already living there), and eventually they decided they wanted a king to rule over them.
- how that started off just fine, but grew worse with each generation until finally your beautiful kingdom broke into two;
- how the northern parts were destroyed by the invading armies of the Assyrian Empire;
- how you southerners convinced yourselves that you were spared because you had been religiously observant. Convinced yourself that God had promised to never, ever let Jerusalem and the Temple at its heart be destroyed.
And yet, it happened. The superpower of this generation, the Babylonian Empire, had descended and taken it all away. The city was razed to the ground, the people—well, those with any gifts or skills—were carried off into Exile. All your beliefs about who you are and what you could expect were blown to pieces. You thought there was no hope, that God had abandoned you. You held onto your sacred stories, your songs, your rituals in a desperate attempt to hold onto the remnants of your identity. Your songs were still your own, a way to remember who you had been. And whose you had been.
Until that moment recounted in today’s psalm, when one of their Babylonian captors tries to take even that away from you. “For those who led us away asked us for a song, and our oppressors called for mirth: ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’”
In response, your sorrow and grief burst out into rage. How dare they try to take away even your memories of singing your songs in your holy city? Rather than sing one of the joyful songs of Zion, the psalmist erupts into a howl for revenge.
That is the context of the final verse of the psalm. Are you ready? It’s sickening.
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dashes them against the rock!
Whenever anyone tries to pick and choose Bible verses to support their position, I tell them to look up the final verse of Psalm 137 and tell me if that gives us permission to murder children. If the answer is no, then perhaps they need to think carefully about how they use individual verses of Scripture without looking at the fuller context.
The value, such as it is, of this verse is as a reminder that we do not need to censor ourselves with God. We are allowed to express ourselves freely and fully to our Maker. Yes, sometimes it will be truly horrible thoughts, but think of it this way: isn’t it better to say something horrible to God—who sees the whole picture, forgives us our worst thoughts and actions, and loves us unconditionally—than to blast a fragile, imperfect human being with such ugliness?
As some of you know, I attended a seminar a couple of weeks ago on Moral Injury. This is a way of talking about the damage done to a person’s moral self, what we would call a soul, that leads to a breakdown of one’s core character or identity. Sometimes it is something the person has done him or herself, sometimes it is something done to them. People first started using this language in terms of veterans who were experiencing something that was similar to, but not quite the same as, PTSD. To quote the Volunteers of America website on this topic:
Moral injury is a broken spirit – not a disorder or a psychiatric condition, though it profoundly effects our mental health. Moral injury is the feeling that one is no longer possible to be good anymore. It is the loss of the capacity for trust and empathy, of a sense of meaning, and even of faith in God. (www.voa.org/moral-injury)
As people began to study this issue, they realized it isn’t limited to veterans; the more you learn about it, the more you recognize it in a variety of settings: hospitals, prisons, recovery groups, even schools and churches. Any place where people go or end up when their souls are shattered. I was introduced to the concept about ten years ago, and as I have looked more closely at it, I have begun to wonder if it may be the key to helping us understand what is going on in the world right now. Because moral injury, when not tended to, leads to a lot of violence and ugliness. That final verse of Psalm 137 is an expression of that kind of soul agony. It’s hard work to look honestly at such pain, to name it and affirm that it is real.
But it is good work, because it leads to healing. What feels like a roaring, consuming dragon while we hold it and hide it often ends up looking like a lizard—or at least an alligator—once we open up. And if you remember last week’s readings for St. Michael and All Angels, dragons do not win the battle. The first reading, also written during those devastating years of exile, remind us that ‘the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercy never comes to an end.”
That is our hope, as Christians. That there is no harm done to our soul that is beyond the Holy Spirit’s power to heal. It can be hard to believe sometimes, but all it takes is a little faith.
Just a little bit.
We misread that conversation between Jesus and the disciples that we heard this morning, I think. The disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith and Jesus responds with that idea about faith the size of a mustard tree being enough to do miraculous things. We read that as Jesus scolding them. But what if it’s not chastisement but encouragement? What if he is saying that any amount of faith is enough? But then we have to be willing to put it on the line, use it, not stick in our pocket until we get a little more.
That idea that even a glimmer is enough to start with is the good news here. You don’t need gobs of faith. Just by recognizing that there is something to faith is enough to make a difference. Just believing that God can heal our souls is enough for it to begin.
If we let it. If we don’t insist on being the one in charge, but accept that we are called to serve God and one another in love.
One last thought. Jesus says that with even a tiny bit of faith will be enough to uproot a mulberry tree and replant it in the sea. This is an even more provocative image than you might realize. Mulberry trees have deep, complex root systems that are really hard to eradicate. Getting at every last bit of root was backbreaking work—and even then there would be bits and pieces left behind. The idea that a word powered by a tiny dot of faith would be enough to accomplish it—that is hard to get one’s mind around, isn’t it?
And yet that is the promise. That as daunting as the task of clearing out the roots of the harm that has been done to people appears, God can make it happen. But God needs us to show up and do our part, with whatever tiny mustard seed bits of faith we have. Remember that a mustard seed doesn’t stay small. Given the chance, it will grow and expand to fill the space around it. Moral injury seems daunting because it can have such deep, twisted roots. The promise we hear in today’s readings is that there is nothing that is beyond hope. There is no place beyond God’s hearing and healing. God will hear our songs, even in a foreign land.