Monday, 15 August 2016

Psalm 137 - Dashing babies heads against rocks

Sermon preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Sunday 14 August 2016

Psalm 137
John 4.7-26 - The Samaritan Woman at the Well

Listen to this sermon here:

May the words of my mouth
            and the meditations of all our hearts
be acceptable in your sight
            O God our strength and our redeemer.

Reverend Smith was shaking people’s hands at the door.
            One by one the members of the congregation filed past:
            “Thank you so much…”
            “Lovely sermon today…”
            “very uplifting…”
            “Oh, you were so helpful today…”

Reverend Smith resisted the urge to reply:
            “in what way?
            “how was it helpful?
            “what area of your life did it challenge?
            “how did God speak to you?

This really wasn’t the time or place,
            not with another hundred or so hands to shake,
            another hundred or so smiles,
            another hundred or so brief pastoral encounters.

“Pastor, thank you so much for the worship”
            said one generic elderly lady with grey hair
“you were really in touch with the Lord this morning.”

As she said this, Reverend Smith thought to himself “if only you knew”.
            His mind was already on how he was going to try
                        and sort out the argument he had had
                        with his whole family
just before leaving home to come to church

He looked past her to his wife and children,
            all smiling happily,
            keeping up the image of Happy Manse Family.

And so the members of the congregation
            smiled their way out of worship,
                        with the rousing tune of the final hymn
                        still ringing in their ears.

They got into their cars,
            jumped on their buses, and boarded their tubes and trains,
and set off back to their lives:
            back to the trials, stresses, strains, and problems
                        which they had been able to happily forget about
                        for the last couple of hours.

Reverend Smith sat down,
            after another half an hour on the door,
and looked round at the small groups
            still hovering in the corners.

He thought back over the service.
            Yes, it had gone well:
                        the worship had been uplifting,
            the music very professional,
            the sermon was one of his better ones,
                        very challenging, while assuring people
                        of God’s unconditional love for them.

And suddenly it dawned on him:

that through the whole time,
            not one person in the entire church
had demonstrated the slightest degree of honesty.

He had been operating out of a fa├žade himself,
            forcing the pastoral smile,
                        while wanting to curl up and die inside
                        out of guilt at the things he had said
                                    only a few hours earlier.

The congregation had, to a person,
            not been honest with him or each other.

If the answers to his often repeated “how are you today?”
            were to be believed
One hundred people were fine, not grumbling,
            and doing okay thank you for asking

Actually no, 99 were doing okay.
            John had indicated that he had a problem
                        but there had been so many people queuing behind him
                        that there had been no time to talk or pray with him.
            Or even to find out what the nature of his problem was.

They had all rousingly sung the songs:
            the volume of the singing
had been quite up to its usual standard,
if not slightly louder!

The ‘Amens’ to the prayers had been resounding,
            and the ‘Hallelujahs’ during the sermon
            had been very inspiring……
                        ………(Oh, nevermind!)

Well, thought Reverend Smith,
            is it likely that all those people
                        were really able to worship happily today?
            Is it likely that they were all able
                        to sing the happy songs with integrity,
                        the songs which told God how much they loved him?
            Is it likely that they managed to mean every word?

Somehow Reverend Smith thought it unlikely.

After all, if he was in pieces inside,
            and he was a Reverend,
            why should he expect more from the congregation?

What if the truth was more depressing?

What if a hundred people
            had come together to meet with each other and with God,
and had spent the whole time deceiving
            each other
            and themselves!

Surely this couldn’t be the case could it?

But what if it was?

What if the way the church was structured,
            the way they ‘always did things’,
forced people into behaving a certain way,
            smiling a certain smile,
            singing certain songs,
            and praying certain prayers…

When actually most of them could not,
            in all integrity,
            mean a word of it?

What would it take for the worship of his church
            to allow people the space
                        to be honest about
            where they were before God?

What view of God would be necessary,
            for people to be able to own their hurt,
            their anger, and their frustrations
                        before God?

What about those people who were angry with God
            for the way their lives had gone?

Was it really realistic to expect them to sit there
            and pray happy prayers, and sing happy songs?

And so Reverend Smith wondered…

What does the Bible say to people
            who have had it up to here with happy songs?

Who feel that they never want to sing another happy song again?

And Reverend Smith’s thoughts turned to Psalm 137…
            That well-known psalm
            with the little-known ending

And it was especially to the last verse that Reverend Smith’s mind went

Psalm 137.1-9
    By the rivers of Babylon--
        there we sat down and there we wept
        when we remembered Zion.
    [2] On the willows there
        we hung up our harps.
    [3] For there our captors
        asked us for songs,
    and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
        "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

    [4] How could we sing the Lord's song
        in a foreign land?
    [5] If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
        let my right hand wither!
    [6] Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
        if I do not remember you,
    if I do not set Jerusalem
        above my highest joy.

    [7] Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
        the day of Jerusalem's fall,
    how they said, "Tear it down! Tear it down!
        Down to its foundations!"
    [8] O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
        Happy shall they be who pay you back
        what you have done to us!
    [9] Happy shall they be who take your little ones
        and dash them against the rock!

The people of Israel in ancient times were a people of song.
            They had rhythm in the blood;
                        and their whirling dancing,
                        their praises to the one true God,
                                    everything about the way they were,
                        shouted praises to their God

They were famous for their praise songs
            throughout the known world.

Other nations looked at Israel’s worship tradition
            with awe.

But the people of Israel were now in Exile.

The Babylonians had conquered them
            and deported them to a foreign land.

And so they sat beside the rivers in Babylon,
            looking wistfully at the horizon,
            remembering their beautiful land,
            their beautiful temple.

Knowing that it was all in ruins

Their places of worship destroyed.
            Their homes burned.

They knew they were never going back.

So what were they to sing now?
            How did their happy, renowned worship songs help them now?

And all the while the Babylonians tormented them
            “Come on… sing us a song”
                        “What about your famous worship?”
            “What about your joyful dancing?”
                        “Come on… Give us a number!”

And the Israelites looked at one another in despair,
            and there by the river, they wept.

They wept with grief as they remembered their homes,
            their temple, their places of worship.

They wept that all that had been so good
had been taken from them.

They wept that God seemed to have abandoned them…
            How could they cope?
            What were they to do?

They cried out before God of
their disappointment
            their sense of bereavement
            their loss.

They asked how God could have allowed this to happen?…

And the Babylonians wanted them to sing a happy song of the Lord?…

So they hung their harps on the trees
            and said to one another:

“how can we sing the songs of the Lord
            whilst in a foreign land”

And they refused to sing their happy songs,
            because those songs were not the right songs to sing.
Not now, not here.

Singing happy songs now would be lying.
            It would be mocking God,
            it would be refusing to face up
                        to what had happened to them.

But they still sang…

They sang of their sadness.
            They sang of their anger.
            They sang of their disappointment.

They were honest about their feelings.

Not for them some oh-so-British effort to push their anger
            deep down inside,
where it would fester for years
            before coming out to haunt them.

Not for them some necessity to pretend everything was fine,
            when actually everything was awful.

They knew that God could take whatever they needed to throw at him.

They knew that he could absorb their anger.
            They knew that he could cope with their bitterness
                        and meet them in their hurts

So they were honest before God, and with one another

And they sang before God
            “happy is the one who grabs the babies of the Babylonians
            and smashes their heads on the rocks”


Well, you don’t get much more honest than that, do you?!

These people knew God well enough to know
            that he wasn’t about to disown them,
simply because they were honest with him about their feelings.

Their relationship with God
            was such that it could withstand
            the brutal honesty of emotions like this.

And I wonder if we could usefully ask ourselves the question of whether,
if we hated somebody enough to want their children dead…
we would be prepared to admit it,
            even to ourselves,
            let alone to others
            or to God?

We live in a world where children are killed in war on a regular basis,
            with airstrikes against ISIS strongholds in Syria
            reportedly disturbingly indiscriminate in their targeting. [1]

And none of us are immune from complicity
            in systems where children are exploited for our benefit,
                        with around 6 million children worldwide
                                    used as forced labour within the clothing and fashion supply chains,
                                    many of them in life-threatening conditions in factories.[2]

We may not actively wish them dead,
            but our buying choices all too often condemn the innocent
            and our lack of action incurs guilt by association.

And yet we still come along on a Sunday
            to meet with our brothers and sisters in Christ,
            to meet with the living God,
and all too often we behave like the congregation in Reverend Smith’s church…
            All smiles and happiness;
            fooling ourselves, others, and God.

What would it take for us to have a church
            which modelled the example of the Israelites?

Where we could praise, and sing happy songs
            when we had things to praise and be happy about;
but where there was also the space
            to be honest and open about our darker emotions,
            where we could own our guilt and complicity.

What would it be like to have a church,
            where the voices from the dark underside of our humanity,
            could be heard from time to time?

What would it be like to have a church
            where honesty and integrity was more important than anything else?

How can we learn to be honest in worship?
            Honest with ourselves,
            honest with one another,
            honest with God.

The first battle to be won here
            is probably learning to be honest with ourselves.

A phrase from my days as a student at ministerial training college
            still sometimes returns to haunt me.
I can still hear Brian Haymes’ voice exhorting us to
            “never underestimate your capacity to deceive yourself”

It is all too easy to kid ourselves that we are doing fine
            to convince ourselves that we are coping,
            that our relationships are going well,
            and that other people can’t hurt us…

But the reality for many of us is that when things get tough,
we don’t like facing up to the truth of what has happened to us
            or is happening to us.
It’s often much more comfortable to pretend
            that nothing is going wrong,
            not admitting even to ourselves the darker feelings we have.

Possibly because they make us feel guilty…

I mean, if I wanted to smash someone else’s child’s head against the rock,
            I think I’d feel pretty guilty about that emotion.

Much more comfortable to ignore it,
            and deceive myself into believing
            that I am doing fine.

Rather than admitting it to myself,
            facing the guilt,
            and beginning the path towards healing.

Of course, being honest with ourselves is only the first step.

We may know deep down inside that things are far from right,
            but that doesn’t do anything about the public face,
                        the happy smile,
                        and the twinkly eyes,
                        that belie the pain underneath.

The problem with being honest with one another
            is that we can’t be honest with one another all the time.

We would just never cope!

We don’t really want to hear everybody else’s problems.
            We are too damaged ourselves
            to be able to cope with everyone else’s honesty

But one thing that is worth thinking about here
            is that one of the main criticisms of Christians
                        by people outside the church,
            is that we are a bunch of hypocritical, self-righteous whatsits.

And if we go round giving the impression that we are eternally sorted,
            always having a happy smile.
            with all our problems in the past;
who can blame people for finding that off-putting?

A bit of honesty from time to time
            would go a long way towards rectifying this.

If we could be honest about he fact
            that all we are is a bunch of sinners
            who just happen to be forgiven,
maybe others wouldn’t find God so intimidating?

Jesus, after all, didn’t hang around with the religious, sorted, people.

            He said that they didn’t need him

Jesus hung round with prostitutes & foul-mouthed fishermen,
            he took drinks with adulterers,
he spent time with people
whose sinfulness was so obvious
            that it offended the church-going types of his day.

His meeting with the Samaritan woman by the well
            broke taboos relating to ethnicity, gender, and social class.

But I fear that sometimes we are so dishonest with each other,
            in our attempts to appear holy and happy,
            that we alienate those whom Jesus died for?

And my worry is that if this is so,
            we might find Jesus not wanting to spend much time with us.

            Leaving us to our singing,
                        whilst he is off spending time with those who need him.

But the truth, of course,
            is that we need Jesus just as much as anybody else:
                        we still sin,
                        we still hate people,
                        we still have broken relationships.

If only we could find a way of being honest with one another about it.

For some of us,
            that place of honesty will be found through involvement
            in a small group of Christians who meet regularly,
a place where we can build the kind of close relationships
            where honesty becomes possible
            and where we can find the support from our sisters and brothers
            that will help us through the tough times.

Some of us will find the place of honesty
            as we meet with another Christian for prayer,
            being honest together about what we hear God saying to us.

My own journey has found great honesty in the wise counsel of a spiritual director,
            a companion on the journey
                        who has helped me to learn to be honest with God
                        and so to grow in my relationship with him.

At a simple level, we can find honesty in the opportunities for prayer
that are on offer at church week by week.
            If only we learn not to leave, pausing only to pick up at the door
                        our coat and the burden we put down when we walked in.

            If life is awful, be honest with someone.
            Seek help, ask for prayer.

Maybe in these and other ways
            we can be able to learn how to be honest with one another.

And a word of caution:
If someone trusts us enough to be honest with us
                        we must treat them sensitively,
            because there but for the grace of God we go.

But finally, let us seek to be honest with God.
            And in many ways this is the hardest thing.

Being honest with ourselves is tough,
            and with others is difficult.

But admitting our darkest feelings before God
            is a terrifying prospect.

How is God going to react,
            if I tell him I want to kill my enemy’s baby?

Well, the Israelites told him,
            and he didn’t disown them.

Let us look at how we relate to God,
            and consider what the opportunities
for honesty and dishonesty are…

What about our prayers?

How we pray, and whether we pray,
            may tell us a lot about our relationship with God.

Do we always seem to be saying the same stuff to God,
            or finding ourselves not bothering to pray any more,
            or only praying in the same old ways?

Maybe we might start to pay attention
to what it is that we are not saying to God.

We may find that we are not being honest with God
            about some area of our lives.
Maybe the time is upon us
            to own up to who we are before him,
            and to receive his forgiveness and healing.

One of the prayer practices that we have used
            over the last few years in our evening services
            has been to intentionally create the space for honesty with God.

We have framed this around two questions
            – the first being an invitation to pause and reflect on where,
                        over the last week,
            we have been particularly conscious of the presence of God.

This is often an opportunity to give thanks to God,
            and to bring to mind those moments of grace
            where God has reached out into our lives to comfort or strengthen us.

But the second question, and much the harder question,
            has been an invitation to reflect on where, over the last week,
            it has felt as if God is absent from our lives.

The experience of the absence of God
            is not something to be ashamed of,
            nor is it something to be denied.

Rather, even the greatest spiritual writers
            talk of their journey through the valley of the shadow of death,
            of their sense of being God-forsaken.

And it is these dark moments,
            when God seems impossibly distant,
            that invite us to our greatest honesty before God.

Whether it is our sin, or our circumstance, or the actions of others,
            the absence of God can point us to those places in our lives
            where God is asking us to have the greatest courage of deep honesty.

It is in the dark and lonely spaces our souls
            that we confront our inner demons of self loathing and hatred,
            where we discover the truth about our identity, sexuality, and sinfulness.
And it is here that honesty is hardest to achieve.

Again, I have often found that talking to others can help here,
            as we seek to understand how we are relating to God.

So what about in our Sunday worship
            How do we do there?…

What are the opportunities for honesty or dishonesty
that Sunday presents us with?

We may not be quite up to Reverend Smith’s congregation’s standards
            But I wonder if sometimes we have tendencies in that direction!

Christians, of all different worship traditions, can have a tendency
            to expect victorious, joyous, Christian living;
which is fine - until their lives fall apart.

So sometimes we need to get real ourselves,
            and ask just why we think we’re here on a Sunday.

Is it get an emotional or intellectual lift out of the service,
            that will see us through until at least Monday lunchtime?

Or is it to meet in honesty
            with ourselves, with others, and with God
Who loves us, and longs to forgive us
            to heal us
            to renew us
            to refresh us
            And to comfort us

And to teach us to worship him
            in Spirit and in truth


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