Humility – Lectionary 10/31/2019

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Sermon Text

A Pharisee and a tax collector walk into the temple. One praises God for making them so good. The other cries out to God, “Have mercy.” One is justified, the other is not. Humility separates one from the other, but what sort of humility are we talking about? How do we keep ourselves honest about our standing before God without resorting either to self-exaltation or self-deprecation? The task begins in identifying what kind of people Jesus is using for this example. The Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

For most modern readers, we immediately associate the term, “Pharisee” as something bad, but this was not the case. Jesus had several Pharisees among his followers – Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea among them. They were people who had a certain way of following God, one defined by asceticism that was not in itself wrong, but when taken to extremes produced a great deal of trouble. They taught that whatever the law was, it was better to go above and beyond it, that way you never even approached violating it and you always treated those around you better than was prescribed even by the strictest interpreters.

The Pharisees were a neutral party in the Jewish context. There were some that were only Pharisees in appearance – they kept their strict code in public but not in private, or else only to look good. Others did not keep the Pharisetical codes but used the association the title gave them to amass power or a strong reputation. Still, others were genuine, keeping their strict rule of life out of devotion to God and service to their neighbors. They were a diverse group of people, some among them good, others bad, but never so cut and dry as we like to read them as today.

The Tax collectors were universally hated though. They were either Roman dignitaries or Jewish locals, but in either case, they had the unsavory job of collecting Roman taxes to fund the empire. This would be enough reason for people to have a cut reaction of dislike – very few people are excited to get a call from the IRS after all, but not enough reason to hate them.

The hatred came from how they made the bulk of their money. The ancient tax collectors would receive the taxes they were to collect – let us say 3 denarii a month, one-tenth of a working person’s salary. The tax collector would then go to each house and ask for the money, telling the people within that the tax was 4 or 5 denarii for the month. And that extra bit of money was enough to let tax collectors amass a decent amount of money off the top of the imperial amounts. There is a reason that Jesus was so scandalous when he called Matthew and welcomed Zacchaeus.

These were the two actors in the parable. The upright Jewish citizen that, although there were some bad apples among them, were largely considered to be good and the no-good lousy thief who sold out their own people to Rome. The parable is positioned, just like so many of Jesus’ stories to have the listener look at two examples from their life that they already had a view of. The Pharisees as mostly good, the Tax Collectors as completely evil. Both approach God in the temple, and the listener has a preconceived ending to this story.

The proud Pharisee is given all honor and glory for having practiced a good life. The Tax Collector for having stolen from those around him is reviled and cast out. The ending was written on our hearts. Before the story ended, we know it. As soon as the charges were laid against the Tax Collector, we can think of everyone we know who fits the description. Pathetic sinners – greedy, unrighteous, lustful, and fundamentally ungodly. Our eyes dart across the room because we can pick them out even as we hear their sins read to us.

Jesus was not content to give us the ending we wanted though. The tax collector, of all people, is lifted up as a paradigm to be followed. The Pharisee is the deluded party, not because they have done anything wrong, but because of why they did it. Their hearts condemned them, even with such radically different actions being played out by either party.

The two model for us how we can approach God. There are times when we question God, and so we lament. There are times where we oppose God, and so we fight. What about in the day to day though? When life is not tumultuous and we are at peace. When we are not knocked to the ground or locked in battle with God what is our attitude toward God? Or perhaps asked better toward ourselves?

We are not called to self-hatred by the Gospel, but into a radical self-love that sees ourselves improve over time. We chase off what is sinful and embrace all that is good and lovely. We push away selfishness and self-interest, all desire for notoriety and power. We embrace a self-emptying that allows us to be filled with Godliness. We embrace a future which is better than our present, one in which we own all our actions as good because they really are.

However, we can only make this sort of movement toward good when we first face up to what we have done wrong in the past and what we are doing wrong now. The Pharisee in this story is not wrong for having done all this good work, but they are looking to God and praising themselves rather than God. Jewish prayers traditionally praise God and thank God for God’s existence. “Blessed are you God, Ruler of the Universe,” but instead the Pharisee praises God for what they do not do, “Lord, I thank you for me.” So radical is the self-interest of the Pharisee that the Greek can be translated in several ways, “The Pharisee stood up and he himself prayed,” “The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself,” or most scandalously, “The Pharisee stood and prayed before himself.” His self-interest was so great that even as he stood before God, he was really looking in a mirror and praising what he saw.

The Tax Collector knew their sin though. They knew they did wrong, they acknowledged their failure to do right. They threw themselves on God’s mercy and they acknowledged that only that mercy could preserve them. They were not convinced of themselves like the Pharisee but were convinced of God’s power to deliver them. More than that, Jesus assures the audience that anyone who is willing to do this, to throw themselves down and acknowledge their sin will be exalted. Not only in that they will one day see heaven, but that what keeps them there will be removed. They can grow beyond their sinfulness, put away the evil in their heart, and truly be raised beyond where they are.

A favorite song of mine, which recounts someone struggling with some unnamed problem contains a line that for me can teach us about humility. This song, “Thunderbird,” by secular prophets, “They Might be Giants,” tells us that, “Before you fall, you have to learn to crawl. You can’t see heaven when you’re standing tall To get the whole sky On the ground you have to lie.” This is what a humble heart is like. Before we are knocked flat, we can take the time to fall on our knees, to acknowledge what we have done wrong. Standing up and looking down on everyone we will never understand God’s ways. However, the moment that we who acknowledge our sin, who truly let the mercy of God into our hearts do look heavenward. In that moment we will see all of Heaven, all that our sin and the Pharisee’s pride has kept hidden suddenly imprinted on our eyes, written on our hearts, and resting in our ears.

Let us be humble, let us look on ourselves as we are – no more and no less, and let us be lifted up into the goodness which Christ is working in our lives and in our hearts. – Amen.

A Fight for the Ages – Lectionary 10/20/2019

Genesis 32:22-31

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.



Sermon Text

Israel was born, not because of any great act of devotion or piety, but because Jacob was willing to wrestle the God of creation. Alone, by the side of a river, looking across the river that he had just sent his entire household to ford, Jacob encountered God and fought God. Unlike so many other theophanies throughout scripture there is no mention of Holy Ground. There is no worship of God until after the event takes place. God meets with Jacob, the two fight, and only when the fight is over do we see Jacob worshipping God.

In fact, throughout this whole episode Jacob is acting in ways that we would not typically consider a biblical hero to act. He has just sent his family across the river to meet his brother Esau ahead of him. Jacob stole essentially everything Esau rightfully owned before leaving home – as a result he imagined that Esau was going to be angry when they met, that Esau would kill him. So he sent his family ahead of him, bearing as many gifts as they could carry. It did two things, firstly it would let Jacob know how vengeful Esau was – if he killed people bearing gifts he would not hesitate to kill Jacob. Secondly, it gave Esau a chance to put his anger in perspective. Yes, you rightfully dislike your brother, but he has a family now. Would you make them orphans?

Jacob has set the stage to protect himself at the expense of his loved ones. Jacob in his fear and worry has emptied himself of all his worldly possessions, and is sitting on the literal edge of a new life. When the sun rose the next day he would either be killed, or be reconciled to his brother. Either way, there was nothing that would be the same. The night would end and with it an entire season of Jacob’s life would come to a close. At this river there was a clear separation between what was and what will be, and into that moment God entered to make the separation clearer.

When God appears there is no description of what God looked or acted like, only that God appeared as a, “man,” who wrestled with Jacob. Ancient wrestling was an intense sport, but in this context of what would have seemed life or death to Jacob it would have been even more aggressive. The two did not engage in any sort of organized struggle, it was Jacob striking out and trying to prevail over this stranger. Like anything else in his life, we can imagine that Jacob would not have fought fair in this fight. Anything he could do to win he would use – perhaps this is why the word used here for “wrestle” has the connotation of involving dust. This was not an organized struggle, it was a down and dirty fight.

What is puzzling about this text is that God does not win this fight. The lesson of the text is not that we are doomed in our efforts to oppose God, or else Jacob would be knocked flat here. Instead, Jacob is described as bringing the fight to a standstill. God does not prevail over Jacob, but neither does Jacob prevail over God. The two are locked together, they are equals in this moment. The God of all creation, locked in combat by the side of the river with one of God’s chosen people.

Christians have not liked this image. We turn it very quickly into a variety of things that the text simply does not support. We change this appearance of God into an angel, that way Jacob’s ability to match it in combat does not seem offensive to our sensibilities. Others have made the entire struggle metaphorical for the people of Israel, saying that what this is really saying is that the Jewish people are so basically rebellious that even their namesake refused to stop fighting God. Therefore the one leg of Jacob which is hobbled comes to represent the rebellious people of Israel, and the good strong leg becomes an image of the Christian church. The Body of Christ literally divided for the sake of a more hateful but palatable reading of scripture.

Yet Jacob was not beaten that day, and more than that Jacob was blessed because of his willingness to fight God. In an ambiguous moment of fear, fighting God seems to have been the correct course of action. When God seemed to be an enemy threatening Jacob, when God visited upon him in the secret of night, a fight was what needed to happen. Blessing came from it, enlightenment came from it, the full realization of what happened came after that. After struggling against God, Jacob comes to worship God and shouts out the name for the place the battle to place – “רָאִיתִי אהלים פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים” – I have seen God, face to face.

While being overly analogous with this text is dangerous, it does offer us a model for what our struggles with God can be like. In other conversations of grief and doubt, we have talked about being honest. If we are not honest then we are left in the same place, we do not approach any new understanding of God and we do not really heal so much as bury our feelings. In the same way, this scripture shows us just how brutal our interactions with God can be. When we feel in danger, when we are uncertain of tomorrow, when we are left alone with God the interaction is not always going to be a sweet conversation or a feeling of peace.

Sometimes we will strike out against God. Fists poised and ready before God has said anything to us we assume the worst is on its way. We strike out, we push back, we let God have it. And the strange thing is, God does not end the fight. God who could in a second crush us chooses not to. God who has all the power in the universe, in interacting with us acts as one of us. We can strive against God, we can meet an equal, we can even play dirty, but we will never beat God. God can take our striving, God can come down and be equal with us, and no matter what tricks we try to pull on God, we will never beat God. Yet, somewhere in all these struggles, the two parties draw closer together.

We cannot say all of this struggle is a positive example though. We are a violent species. We, like Jacob, can do some terrible things when we see something that we want. At the root of all our violence there is the desire for power – to show power, to acquire power, to consolidate power, but always to alter the economy of power. Jacob was willing to lie to his dying father, to steal from his starving brother, and now he was facing down God and he made one last play for power.

Having already been blessed by God, Jacob asks to receive God’s name. Now, Jacob is frequently shown being the least willing of the patriarchs not to worship more than one God. Whereas other people are shown destroying idols, Jacob only buries them in well-known locations. Whereas other people are shown to use the divine name, Jacob is more prone to refer to God in the relatively neutral term, “Elohim.” So here, Jacob is asking two questions of God – One, “What is the name of the God I have just fought with,” and two, “What is your name so that I have control over you?” Because, for those in the ancient world, knowing a God’s name meant you had the ability to control their actions, and for them to know yours meant the same.

We, in our interactions with God and with other people, are often thinking about what we can get out of the interaction. We want to take control of the situation and to exert our will on the other party. We want, we want, we want. Yet, deep down in whatever we are after there is some deep need. For Jacob, the need was to know that no matter what happened down the line, God was going to see him through to tomorrow. Where Jacob thought he needed control, God gave assurance – but how could either know what the other needed if the two did not first have their struggle by the river.

And Jacob was transformed by that struggle. Not only in taking on a new name, “Israel” – he who wrestles with God, or perhaps the one with whom God wrestles – but in his approach to this entire situation. Going forward to face his brother, he is no longer fearful. The fight of the previous night is still fresh in his head and the pain in his leg is real. As he walks across the field to meet his brother he would be limping, he would be tired, but he kept on walking forward. The battle against God left him empty of any anger toward his brother, of any fear of what might come next.

Jacob walks across the field – he plans out how he will kowtow to him. He will bow seven times, he will approach with all reverence and power. All his family is already in front of him, and he is prepared to face whatever comes next. How surprising then that Esau, rather than getting revenge against his brother, rather than accepting his submission to him, runs and meets his brother. The two embrace and we are told that Esau celebrates the goodness that God has given to his brother. The two had fought their entire lives, Jacob had stolen everything from him, yet somehow the two had prospered apart from one another. Esau, not as concerned with power as his brother, sees him as a member of the family, as someone he has missed, as someone who he wants to be in community with and work toward a better future together.

Jacob, seeing this act of kindness abandons his own preconceived notions of his brother. He has sought forgiveness for his past cruelty, and now his brother is transformed in his eyes. Esau is not some great villain waiting to take away what he has, he is not power-hungry. Jacob no knows he had projected these feelings onto his brother. When he looks at his brother the words he said at Penuel come back to him, and to Esau, he says, “רָאִיתִי פָנֶיךָ, כִּרְאֹת פְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים” – “looking at you is like looking at the face of God.” His brother, his enemy, the one he has struggled against for so long – becomes the image of God to him. Can we do this? Can we be honest when we fight God, can we let God transform us, can we see in our enemy the face of God? Let us fight the good fight and find out. – Amen

God of All Nations – Lectionary 10/13/2019

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-9

This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord

Sermon Text

God never lets go of us. This truth is something which comes to us as a relief sometimes and a major cause for worry other times. For the Psalmist it meant that God was always ready to do good, always present no matter where they found themselves. For Job is was a source of worry – God, why can you not leave me alone for one second, just long enough for me to swallow my spit even. Two responses to the same truth, that God was present even in the most unlikely of circumstances.

This was not a common belief in the ancient world. The Gods always had some special home. The Gods of Mezo-America lived in the caves that crisscrossed that country, the Greek Pantheon lived on Olympus, Ba’al lived on Zaphar Aqar or on Mount Zaphon. Even the Israelites for a long time considered God to only be present on Sinai, and after it was created wherever the Ark of the Covenant was placed.

God always had God’s place. God always had a way of appearing to people. The fixed nature of God gave the universe something to spin around. When in doubt, when everything seemed mixed up or not quite right, you could always turn toward that place. There was always a temple or a mountain or a river. God was there. God was easy to find. God was a destination we always had a chance to get to. What happens if that place does not exist? What happens if that place of orientation is removed from the face of the world?

For the Jews in exile this question was not hypothetical. The reality was that God did not have a house any longer. They could no longer climb up Zion’s hills and meet in the Temple square. There was no place of centering or peace, there was no home for them. As far as they knew, without a Temple in Jerusalem there was no place where God could possibly live.

The people in exile did not take for granted the omnipresence of God. While the Psalmist imagined a cosmos that God was fully engaged with, they did so seated in Jerusalem. They could see smoke rising up into Heaven with the sacrifices. They could see the graves that dotted the Hill. They could imagine God throughout the created order because they sat down where they thought God entered into it. Behind the curtain, in the holy of holies, that is where Heaven met earth.

Removed from this context there is room for despair. Removed from this context there is room for distrust. Removed from this context there is room for vengefulness and contempt. There is also an opportunity. In the midst of their suffering, the people of Judah were faced with God in a way they never knew before. Removed from Judah, by the Rivers of Babylon, they were faced with the opportunity to meet God outside of the context of a Temple, of the Ark, to return to something far more distant. Reaching back to a time where God was not locked into a single place but seemed to be everywhere. A guest at the dinner table, a visitor in a dream, someone you could wrestle by the riverside.

In Babylon the question of where God could be was answered in the lives of the people of Judah. They continued to gather together, they lived as a people set apart among Babylonians. Keeping Kosher and refusing to accept imperial decree, they retained their heritage in the midst of these struggles. Through the lessons of the prophets and of brave individuals the people of Judah found that even though they were far from home, God still found a way into their lives. In every gathering around the table to pray, in study of their sacred scriptures, by the rivers where they mingled their tears with the Euphrates. It took some time, but soon it was clear to the people in exile that God was not dead, not homeless, but that God made a home in all the world.

The realization that God was on the move was a comfort more than anything to the people of Israel. Ezekiel talks about God moving toward God’s people in more explicit terms, how God was not willing to abandon them and what hope they had before them. However, today we encounter a new revelation of God – namely that God’s ability to move, the lack of an anchor to limit God’s activity, meant that the people of Judah were not the only ones who could experience the community of God. In a letter to the people of Judah we are given the first open invitation from God to God’s people to widen the circle of faith, to marry non-Israelites.

The Torah is clear in various places the Israelites were to avoid mingling with the other nations. Frequently God’s people are described as too easily swayed to interact with other nations. The Torah seems to suggest that the next step from talking to a Moabite is to start worshipping Moabite gods. As if a friendly conversation over coffee could not be removed from immediate sacrifice to an idol.

Yet, on the feast day on which the giving of the Torah is celebrated the book of Ruth is read. A book that describes a Moabite entering into relationship with Israelites. Not only entering into relationship with them but excelling as a member of their people. The Moabite who was forbidden from ever being a part of Israel is named as a hero, she has children, and not far down her family tree comes King David. Clearly, the matter is not so cut and dry as a cursory reading of the scripture might suggest. God did not close doors often, and sometimes the doors that we would like to keep closed open out into a brighter future.

In this text of Jeremiah the prophet instructs the people to do things that were unheard of. Marry in Babylon, marry Babylonians at that. Have as many children as you could ever want. Thrive, plant vineyards and olive orchards. Become a part of this nation, and see it grow.

The world today is more aware than ever that what was is no longer what is. The troubles of the past have in some cases passed away, while in other cases they are alive and well albeit in altered states. We have become a global culture. We have become more diverse. We have become more connected. As we have grown and changed we have met new challenges and new responsibilities. We have faced growth and hardship, progress and regression, and all about us there is a general uncertainty of what lies ahead. We are divided even as we are brought together, we are in the dark even as we learn.

The lesson which Jeremiah can give us in a world that faces uncertainty and questions, that is grappling everyday to redefine how people of all nations can come together and live in community, is multi-valent. God is not locked into any one place, so no matter where we go God is with us. Because God is not limited to one church, one people, one nation – no one is out of bounds for us to be in community with. Because no one is out of bounds, God seeks to create a world in which people from all over the world can come together and not only live together, but grow together, become a family in the truest sense of the word.

The moment that the people of Judah were thrust out of the world they knew, from the experience of God and country that they knew, they were able to see things more clearly. The concern that they could become idolatrous from interactions with other people groups had in itself become a form of idolatry. They had built up a concept of God that was limited only to them, only to their experiences, and ultimately only to they themselves.

The destruction of the temple was a tragedy which cannot be made light of. The exile caused untold trauma that in itself could not be called good. Yet, in this atmosphere of uncertainty and reflection the people of Judah were able to come to new understandings. If a doctrine is removed from its context, and the life it once gave is chased out of it, it becomes lifeless and before too long it becomes an idol. The only way to deal with these ideas is to air them out, to see whether we built them off of God’s revelation to us or if we’ve been propping them up with our own thoughts, our own insights, our own desires.

What will make the difference for us today is whether or not we are willing to explore the status quo that we have invented and truly discern what is and is not Godly. If we will look to a future that does not concern itself with the circumstances of a person birth, the culture that they bring into the assembly of God, or however they may appear then the future will naturally be brighter. The kingdom of God can grow, it can become something more than it ever was before. We can gather as one people, not uniform but united, not speaking with one voice but with many voices in harmony. Together we will seek the prosperity of one another, we will pray for good things to come to all peoples, because through their prospering we will prosper.

We must not let ourselves be deceived – by anyone who claims dreams or visions contrary to this message of God. These are not God’s dreams but are the dreams we have forced upon our prophets. Our twisted visions that makes God and the world into carbon copies of us, and does not allow us change in the face of revelation. Let us embrace a God who is among all peoples, and seek to reflect that diversity in our hearts, minds, and in those we commune with. – Amen.

The Table Without End – Lectionary 10/06/2019

Psalm 137

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 harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
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.

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!”
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
and dash them against the rock!

Sermon Text

Grief does incredible things to a person. It can make us stronger than we ever were before. It can leave us without faith, losing that thing closest to our hearts in the wake of the terror of loss. Further still, it can cause us to become angry, to become bitter, to lash out and wish ill on others. The cries of those who are hurt cannot be expected to remain as well-wishing and dreams of a better tomorrow. Our emotions are not so simple, they are not so binary as good or bad, there is more to how we respond than simply reacting to a situation.

The people of Judah, taken away from their homeland and set to work for their new Babylonian masters would have been left with almost no hope. There was nothing that could bring them out of this period in their history but a major shift in the order of the world. Those at the top could not stay that way because they had built their thrones on the bodies, on the labor, of the oppressed peoples they had conquered. When the foundation of your kingdom is cruelty then it is almost impossible to change it.

For this reason, the exiles imagined a day when they would see someone treat the Babylonians as poorly as they had been treated. Thinking of their home, of the life they used to have, they were compelled to anger at those who had brought them to such a place. The request to sing the old hymns to God were bitter and mocking in their ears, they did not want to think of home they wanted to be home. They wanted every evil that was done to them to make its way back to the Babylonians. Even up to and including the murder of their children. Morality had been erased, they did not see this statement for what it was, for as vicious as it was. When grief, and especially communal grief becomes great enough – survival naturally takes precedence over civility, the desire for bloody redemption overtakes the desire for peace.

Psalm 137 is perhaps the most butchered psalm in the history of the Psalter. The later readers could not accept that scripture would say something as disgusting as it does, “Blessed are those who dash your children against the rocks.” The early church changed its meaning entirely, insisting it was actually about destroying worldly desires. Over time it simply fell out of the vernacular of the church – even as songs would adapt the opening lines of it. “By the Rivers of Babylon,” is a popular gospel song. “On the Willows,” brings Godspell into its third act. We know the opening of this Psalm so well, but we never conclude it because we know it advocates something vicious, something disgusting.

The tendency we might have then is to throw this verse away, to make sure it never sees the light of day and that no one ever has to think about it. It can go into the sea of other verses we skip because they make us uncomfortable, never to attack us or to attack our sensibilities again. Bury it deep, bury it far away, do anything and everything we can, but be sure to bury it.

Perhaps even now we try to explain it away – that was the Old Testament after all. We must not even entertain this thought. God was not cruel when God spoke Hebrew. God did not suddenly become good when God spoke Greek. If we believe that God is One, that God is eternal, then we cannot push away this verse with muted anti-Semitism. The 137th Psalm stands as a testament to human grief, it stands as a testament of us calling out to God for something to happen, it stands as a testament to how dark our vision becomes with our horizon darkens and no escape seems possible. It stands as a witness to us. How do we react?

We are not like the people of Judah. We are not exiles in a land that would see us dead. We are not displaced wanderers in the world. We cannot see, except in very particular circumstances, the world as the Psalmist did. So we cannot pray these words sincerely – we hold too much power in our hands for us to speak these words from desperation.

The most fitting response we can have is to make sure that no one every prays such a prayer against us. That we never are part of wrongdoing so great that anyone would want to see us destroyed. We must never become Babylon, we must never mock those who are in danger, we must never build ourselves up on the pain and suffering of people in need. We must be better than this. Moreover, we must never have a fellow Christian pray such a prayer against us.

No one should suffer on our account, but if we cannot be kind to those in our own faith then there is no hope for us to ever be kind. If we cannot do good to the least of these in the household of the faith, then we cannot hope to ever do good to the least of these outside of it. Our goodness cannot be particular, our goodness cannot be limited by our own worldly hold-ups. Our goodness must be like God’s.

One of the earliest moments in which the Church acted out against its siblings in the faith was shortly after 70 AD. When the Temple was destroyed and their Jewish brethren sought safety, the Church shut its doors. “Hypocrites! Christ Killers!” The people of God were strangers in their own countries, and they were strangers among the people who worshipped the same God as them. They became the victim of marginalization and violence throughout Christian history, violence that culminated in a supposedly Christian extermination of them in Germany.

Christians went to war with one another soon after they gained power. After Constantine gave them power and then they used it. They attacked political enemies, exiling them. Wars began to start over aspects of worship and political power. Europe was so scarred by years and years of violence that to this day people do not overly associate with a single church, so afraid are they that the old fights will start up again.

Christians attacked foreign powers and other faiths as well. Whatever argument of defense could be made for the first Crusade fell apart the moment crusaders reached Jerusalem. Killing anyone they found – Christians, Jews, Muslims – they all died together in the streets as soldiers bearing the cross struck them down. They died because they were darker skinned than the invading armies, they were killed because they did not care if they were combatant or non-combatant. They died because the church was callous and cruel. Today, Christians in the Christian African Republic make war with their Muslim neighbors, seeking not to defend themselves but to wipe out a people they see as inferior, as less than worthy of living.

Violence. That is not the defining aspect of faith or of God. Killing. This will not bring about the Kingdom. We worship a God who died under the oppressive rule of a broken system. Why do we insult that God by becoming like the people who killed him? We come to this table today, and we are joined by all those who came before us in the faith. Those we agree with, those we disagree with, those who lived like saints and those who did great violence. We take today as one body, we celebrate as the Church throughout the world today. We take as oppressors and as those who are oppressed.

This table, this offering of grace is offered to all, and we must offer ourselves and our love as freely as this bread is given. The world should drink grace without restraint, should eat the goodness of God and never tire of it. Yet, we kill, yet we steal. We create a world where a family loses a son, where a church loses a member, and the best we can do to bring the perpetrator to justice is give them a ten year sentence they will likely serve two years of. We live in a world where we let our politics get in the way of accepting the reality that global poverty, and our exploitation of economically weak nations has led to mass migrations of people. We let our quest for power and security allow us to forget that children, children as innocent as our own family members, are dying on their way to find safety. Drowning in rivers we will not let them cross, dying of diseases we refuse to cure. We cannot wince in a pulpit when a scripture advocates the death of children and then look the other way when they die under our care.

We have made this table weak. We have made Christ’s body become a byword of the nations through our cruelty. The Church lost its place in the mind of the world as a beacon of light and peace and love because we refused to embody those principles. The world is hungry for the grace of God, and we must feed it. If we are not prepared to love, then we must pray our anger and our fear. We must put it in God’s hands to do something with. Because regardless of where we stand politically, we must agree that there is something wrong in this world. We must agree that there is something broken if we have people who are willing to see children die – whether we wish it upon others or they wish it upon us. Something must be wrong, something must be broken, and the only thing that can possibly fix it is sitting right here. Grace, sacrificial, self-emptying, and willing to die for people of all nations, people in all social standings, people who we love and people who we hate.

If we are not prepared for that reality, for the fact that this table includes those we would sooner see die. Then we should not gather around it. We should not take of this grace if we are unwilling to receive it. However, if we are not willing to desert the grace of God, then we must be thoughtful, we must be prayerful, and we must stop wishing harm on one another. We can pray the words of Psalm 137 and mean every one of them, but we cannot shut up our ears when God gives us an answer we do not want. We cannot forget grace that is not as vindictive as we are. We cannot deny this table has no end, we cannot limit it to a nation, a church, a pew, a preacher. – amen.