Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Courageous Decision, Minister

Sir Humphrey: There are four words you have to work into a proposal if you want a Minister to accept it.
Sir Frank: Quick, simple, popular, cheap. And equally there are four words to be included in a proposal if you want it thrown out.
Sir Humphrey: Complicated, lengthy, expensive, controversial. And if you want to be really sure that the Minister doesn’t accept it you must say the decision is courageous.
Bernard: And that’s worse than controversial?
Sir Humphrey: (laughs) Controversial only means this will lose you votes, courageous means this will lose you the election. (From The Right to Know)

Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister  are among my favourite comedies, and over the past weekend they kept coming into my mind. Whenever Sir Humphrey wanted to steer Jim Hacker away from something he told him that it was ‘courageous’. This Sunday four people told me the sermon I preached was ‘brave’, which I have a horrible suspicion has a very similar meaning; 99% of people in the pews would have disliked it. So, if you’re interested, here it is:

Sermon for Mount Macedon and Riddells Creek

7th of October 2007

Lamentations 1:1-6
Psalm 137

Psalm 137 contains what I believe are the two most horrifying verses in the entire Bible. This is a big call from me, given the encouragement to genocide found in some parts of the Old Testament, and the New Testament Epistles that include statements that women should be silent in church, neither speaking nor teaching. Yet the final verses of Psalm 137 disturb me more than any other biblical text I’ve read. Part of the problem is their context; at the end of a beautiful and evocative poem about loss and memory, often turned into song, come two gleefully violent verses about killing children. But I don’t think that there’s any context in which a blessing on those who kill children could be other than appalling.

I know that I’m not alone in my dislike of these verses. Some people are so appalled by them that they can’t read the Psalter at all. Others enjoy the first six verses of this psalm and just lop off the last three. The lectionary includes all of Psalm 137 but offers it as an alternative. The first option we’re given as a response to today’s Old Testament reading, the description of suffering Zion, is another extract from the Book of Lamentations that has the writer waiting patiently, ending with the declaration: ‘It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.’ Such verses are much easier to read than verses that call for revenge on our enemies. And yet both poems, the patient and the angry, are scriptural responses to the devastation of Jerusalem by Babylon; both are contained within the Bible that we turn to for unique and prophetic testimony to our God; and we don’t have the option of ignoring either of them. 

Psalm 137 is the only psalm in the Psalter to which we can give a definite date and context. We know that this psalm was written either during the Babylonian Exile, or very soon after the return of the exiles to Jerusalem, in the sixth century BC. Unlike other psalms of lamentation or execration we don’t need to wonder whether the psalmist is being metaphorical. This psalm is to be read literally; Jerusalem did fall; its people were exiled in Babylon. The psalmist isn’t talking about death as a metaphor for depression or destruction as a metaphor for isolation. This psalm is about literal death and destruction. So, if we read this psalm literally as a response to the Babylonian Exile, what does it have to teach us?  

Firstly, this psalm shows us that one of the horrible, dangerous results of injustice is a desire for vengeance. When people are oppressed they feel real, deadly, rage; rage that needs to be expressed. The psalm reminds us that the desire for vengeance in response to extreme injustice is understandable, even ‘natural’. Here I want to refer to C.S. Lewis, one of my favourite authors, who in his book on reading the psalms wrote that:

It seemed to me that, seeing in [the psalms] hatred undisguised, I also saw the natural result of injuring a human being … [T]he natural result of cheating a man, or ‘keeping him down’ or neglecting him, is to arouse resentment; that is, to impose upon him the temptation of becoming what the Psalmists were when they wrote the vindictive passages. He may succeed in resisting the temptation or he may not. If he fails, if he dies spiritually because of his hatred for me, how do I, who provoked that hatred, stand? 

The result of injustice in the world can be rage and a desire for vengeance, even vengeance on the innocent. Psalm 137 prevents us from being complacent about our own righteousness, our own ability to love our enemies. It prevents us from rejecting suicide bombers and terrorists as inhuman. In a world of injustice, one of the results of injustice is the incandescent anger that can cry out for the murder of the children of the enemy. Whatever our response to such horror should be, and I’m not suggesting that the murder of the innocent is ever anything less than atrocious, it should not include denying the humanity of those who commit it. As this psalm reminds us, such anger is in fact profoundly human. Those who feel such rage, even those who act on it, have not relinquished their humanity.

 

Psalm 137 also reminds us that the actual injustice that prompts such rage is immoral. The psalmists who cry out to God in lamentation and execration do so because they know that what they are experiencing is notthe will of God. Psalm 137 not only prevents us from being complacent about our own potential response to injustice, it also prevents us from being complacent about injustice itself. For those of us living in Australia, a land currently blighted by our response to those who seek asylum here, Psalm 137 reminds us of God’s attitude to refugees. One commentator on the psalms has written that they remind us that: ‘Christians have to rally with the oppressed, identify the enemy above, call him by his real names, pray to God to bring him down, organize resistance, conscientize the exploited.’ In the case of Psalm 137, the enemies are those who drive people from their home, those who prevent them from returning, and those who mock them in their exile. They surely also include those who reject the exiles, and currently that category of enemies includes the Australian government and many Australians.

 

At this very moment, there are 72 Sri Lankan Tamils held in detention on Nauru who have been found by the Australian government’s own processes to be refugees. That is, according to international law, according to the Refugee Convention to which Australia is a party, they had the right to seek asylum. Despite this, we are refusing to allow them to settle in Australia. This week, Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews revealed that Australia is reducing the number of refugees we accept from Africa not because the situation in Africa has changed, not because the need has lessened, but because of a perception that some groups aren’t settling into an Australian way of life.

Psalm 137 gives resources to asylum seekers to express their anguish and rage; it also gives Australians resources for recognising our own sinfulness. Hopefully, Psalm 137 also gives us the strength to overcome this sinfulness. We cannot read this psalm as Scripture without recognising its relevance to our lives here and now. Let us not be the enemies at whom the psalmist’s rage is directed.

 

Finally, and most importantly, Psalm 137 tells us something vitally important about our relationship with God. There is nothing that we cannot take to God in prayer. The very worst of us, the anger and hate that we want to hide from everyone else, can be shared with God. There is in fact no point in hiding it from God; as another psalm reminds us, even before a word is on our tongue the Lord knows it completely.

 

God is strong enough to hear everything we think and feel; we don’t need to be nice in our relationship with God. In fact, it would be wrong to even try to be nice. Like the psalmist, we are in a covenant relationship with God, and such a relationship demands openness and honesty. 

We must not only take such feelings to God out of honesty, we must also take them to God because prayer is the only place we can safely express them. The writer of Psalm 137, unlike today’s suicide bombers and terrorists, doesn’t go on to smash in the heads of Babylonian children. They leave their rage and desire for vengeance with God. It is for God to respond to their prayer.

This is the only way we can love our enemies as Jesus demands, by identifying them, naming our own anger at them, and leaving this anger in God’s hands. We cannot love our enemies if we deny that we have them; we cannot pray for those who persecute us without first being honest with God about the depression, anger and fear they provoke in us. In praying these psalms, one commentator writes:

Enemies are now being treated not simply eye to eye in a deadly group-conflict, but in the presence of a supreme judge. This judge being for us the universal Lord, the Father of all mankind, the God of Jesus Christ, there is at least a chance for us treating ourselves and our outward enemies in a fair and loving way.

It is by praying about our feelings with such honesty, and so leaving these feelings with God, that the cycle of violence can end.

So, why should we read Psalm 137 in its entirety? Because it reminds us that even the most dreadful feelings of anger and vengeance are not inhuman, and that those who feel them, even those who express them, have not relinquished their humanity. Because it reminds us that injustice is contrary to the will of God, and that we are called as those who read and pray the psalms to struggle against all injustice, including our own. Because, most importantly, it reminds us that there is nothing we cannot take to God in prayer and, indeed, there are some things that we should only express to God. May we never try to hide our feelings from God, but may we be able to leave our anger with the God who is love, to do with as God wills. Amen.


[1]Farah Farouque, Andrea Petrie and Daniella Miletic, ‘Fewer Africans to come here,’ The Age, 2 October 2007, p. 2.

[2] Psalm 139:4.

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October 9, 2007 - Posted by | Ministry, Pop Culture

10 Comments »

  1. Hi Avril:

    I have just stumbled across your blog courtesy of our mutual friend Caro.

    As someone who will commence their first year as a candidate to the ordained ministry (UCA) in 2008, I was impressed by your sermon, both by the honesty with which you expressed your own feelings about the Psalm, and the fact that you didn’t try to shy away from or gloss over the humanity in these verses – something which we do all too often, even if we aren’t the literalist “Word of God” types!

    I also thought this was a powerful sermon in the context of the mealy-mouthed backtracking that has been going on in political circles this week over the death penalty – it’s fine if Asians want to execute one another, but not if they want to execute Australians!

    I once preached at sermon at my local congregation which suggested that faith has a powerful subersive potential, a capacity to enact radical compassion that overturns conventional norms and expectations. The most representative response I received was that it was a “challenging” sermon…maybe my congregation hasn’t watched (or don’t remember) Yes, Prime Minister and hence didn’t think to tell me it was “brave!” ;0)

    Anyhoo, terrific post!

    Cheers,

    BB

    Comment by BB | October 10, 2007 | Reply

  2. Avril, I’d have been in the 1%. Post more sermons please!

    Comment by Paul Walton | October 13, 2007 | Reply

  3. Haven’t I heard you preach on this psalm before? Brunswick? I love how you say it’s the only psalm we can date precisely, and then say the date is either x or y.
    To be pernickity, everyone has the right to seek asylum. What you mean, I think, is that the 72 in Nauru were found by the Australian immigration department to have valid claims to refugee status. That is, Australian authorities agreed their fear of persecution in Sri Lanka was well-founded.
    It’s worth adding, in relation to the Sudanese scape-goating, that quotas or arbitrary upper limits on a country’s refugee intake (such as exist in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and the US) contravene the Refugee Convention, which expects ratifying governments to accept, at least temporarily, however many refugees may arrive with legitimate claims to protection (with the exception of serious criminals and anyone posing a threat to ‘national security,’ and they may be expelled only in accordance with due process — not at all the same as refusing them entry altogether on the basis of racial profiling and spurious crime statistics).
    Ultimately, I like your assertion of our universal, inalienable humanity, just as human rights are universal and inalienable. They are for everyone, not just the powerful or virtuous. In these times, that is courageous, minister.

    Comment by Olivia | October 14, 2007 | Reply

  4. Oh Avril!

    You try so very hard to get something out of this. And you make powerful and wonderful political arguments. However I’m not sure about the link to the text. 137 is just foul.Faced with it’s revolting nature; Christians, therefore, it seems to me, face two options:

    1) Take the other “option”/leave it out/denounce it and reveal the inherent fallibilty of the “word of god.” Accept that it is of no more inherent value as a work of philosophy than anything else.

    2) Become evangelical lunatics. Call it the word of god, and kill/force convert all others who doubt ehat is the absolute word of god.

    I’m not sure the third option, of taking a horrifying passage and using it as a lesson really works. I agree with everything you say- except the god bit, except the psalm.

    You don’t need it to make your points, and it undermines what should be universal social and political messages, by revealing a pretty unstable basis to it in this beastly, awful passage.

    But kudos for communicating this message to an elderly, rural community. That takes (metaphorical) balls. Were you lynched?

    Comment by Alex | October 21, 2007 | Reply

  5. Excellent sermon. here via Sangerin.

    I wholeheartedly disagree with Alex – great link to the text, challenging, thought-provoking.

    Comment by miriam | October 23, 2007 | Reply

  6. Oh, Alex, my dear.

    First, I am so very impressed that you actually read the sermon. You know that you don’t have to do that – our friendship is not dependant on you exploring the religious stuff. But I’m so pleased you did.

    Second, well, the whole word of God thing. For me, and in fact for the Uniting Church as a whole, Jesus is the Word of God. The Bible is unique prophetic and apostolic testimony to God, but it is not in itself the Word of God. That means that we can interpret it, put it in historical context, recognised that it’s flawed, all that stuff that you must have noticed me doing in any sermon of mine you’ve read or heard.

    We don’t do that lightly, we don’t pick and choose which bits to accept and which to reject on impulse. We read them all through the hermeneutic key that is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and his message of love. At least, that’s the way I go about it.

    The Psalms are pretty unusual in that in them we see most obviously and directly words TO God, as well as words FROM God. Psalm 137 is someone, or an entire community, expressing their anger to God. And you can’t tell me that people don’t feel this sort of anger. Given that we feel it, why shouldn’t we express it to God, and so why shouldn’t that expression have a place in the Bible?

    Better to scream out our pain and rage to God rather than either burying it inside us or taking it out on other people. God can take it, which is where my sermon ended up. We don’t need to be nice in our relations with God.

    Nope, wasn’t lynched. People still coping with the weirdness that is me and kudos to them for that!

    Comment by avrilhj | October 23, 2007 | Reply

  7. Good to know you were not lynched. My respect for the gentle, white haired and wide smiling people of Romsey grows still further.

    And being wholeheartedly disagreed with always makes my day, Miriam. Perhaps you’d like to say why? Or did Avril get it exactly right?

    I guess, to refine my point based on your “it’s a greek tragedy” offence: should screaming AT god be part OF Gods’message? Doesn’t the existence of the psalm point to the fallibility of the text? Should the psalms be included at all if they are Word TO god? Why not include my words to god when I take his name in vain fairly regularly? Or, more seriously, include some of the better ommitted stuff in the Apocrypha, like Prayer of Manasseh- no more grovelling or overwritten than the Lord’s Prayer.

    I really do like the idea of the “hermeneutic key”- it’s a good catchphrase of the way you make Christianity seem almost… ok. 🙂

    But if that key is discerned from Christ’s story as told in the New Testament, isn’t the intepretational tool from the same [flawed] source as the psalm we are talking about? Evangelicals would certainly argue that the Bible, as infallible holy writ, needs no key, or is its own key. Atheistic little pricks like me will say no key can render it holy.

    I know you are definately more a NT kind of person, Avril, but isn’t your key already kind of inside the (melted) box it’s meant to open? Bad analogy I know, but I still can’t quite see how the Bible inteprets itself and decides which bits of it should intepret, which bits to believe, and which bits to discard in the name of cathartic holy writing by some angry ancients.

    Or are you saying that the story of Jesus transcends the Bible, has an independent existence outside it, and is based on… what exactly? Faith? ‘Cause you know I’ll never get THAT bit!

    If the key IS required, and assuming that we can discern a source for it outside the Bible with which to unlock it- then clearly the key is much more important than the text, and must be scrutinised as such. What justifies the key? Why is it correct? Is your key the same etymologically as those who share the basic… erm… “faith” in Jesus, but may see him as more king on earth than humble healer? What justifies your version of the key?

    And where do you get Jesus as the word of God from, if not the Bible?

    Accepting that you don’t chuck out the old testament nonsense like this psalm lightly (but do do it)- could the right key, the right Word of God interpretation unlock something else? Harry Potter, perhaps?

    This discussion is SO much more interesting than the essay I should be writing….

    Comment by Alex | October 23, 2007 | Reply

  8. Glad this discussion is more interesting than your essay (but get back to that essay).

    I will never be able to answer your questions, because at some point it does come down to faith and the Holy Spirit and a personal experience of Jesus beyond the text and I know that that will make no sense to you. And I really, really, wish I could prove it to you or present it in a way that makes sense, but I know I can’t.

    What justifies the key? The Holy Spirit; 2000 years of Christian community; my own relationship with God. That’s all I can say.

    Why are these particular words to God in the Bible? Because the community of faith has decided that they should be in the canon. But accepting that means believing that the community of faith is collectively inspired by God.

    Could the same key unlock Harry Potter? Of course! You know I read that through a Christological lens!

    Back to your essay.

    Comment by Avril | October 23, 2007 | Reply

  9. Frustrated by the hermeneutic circle, where each part of the text can only be interpreted in terms of the whole and vice versa, I prayed to the author to give me direct insight, so I would know for sure what to believe. And I got the answer… “Dumbledore is gay”.

    Sorry, were you talking about the Bible or Harry Potter?

    BTW, I enjoy reading your sermons, Avril, keep them coming.

    Comment by Paul | October 24, 2007 | Reply

  10. “the hermeneutic circle”- Thanks Paul!

    See Avril, there’s a catchpharse for my critique also!

    I don’t know whether it’s disappointing to not be producing original thought, or good that someone else noted this problem.

    Comment by Alex | October 24, 2007 | Reply


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