Speaking the Unspeakable | Sermon from February 17, 2019

Every Fourth of July, somewhere, usually more than once, I hear Martina McBride’s song “Independence Day.” The chorus especially seems to speak to the birthday of our country. She sings,

“Let freedom ring, let the white dove sing, let the whole world know that today is a day of reckoning. Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong. Roll the stone away, let the guilty pay; it’s Independence Day.”

Sounds appropriate for the Fourth of July, except that the song has little to do with that occasion. The tale McBride weaves through the verses tell a story of domestic abuse. The main character endures this abuse while the town looks the other way, leaving her feeling she has no option but to “stand by her man.” But, after years of enduring the trauma of abuse, she takes actions into her own hands. The third verse, and climax of McBride’s song, reads this way:

“Well, she lit up the sky that fourth of July. By the time that the firemen come, they just put out the flames and took down some names and send me to the county home. Now I ain’t sayin’ it’s right or it’s wrong, but maybe it’s the only way. Talk about your revolution, it’s Independence Day.”

Independence Day, here, refers to the day this woman was released from the abuse of her husband by burning down the house. Not only that, but the song leaves open the strong possibility that the abused spouse has murdered her husband by killing him in the house fire.

This is a hard song. It speaks of things not mentioned in polite conversation. It goes to the depth of human experience that we might think is best left unsaid. When someone wrongs us, when someone hurts us terribly, when someone arouses within us a deep anger and hatred, we bury those things deep, lest we too set a house on fire. These things are not to be spoken about. They’re not to be mentioned. They’re to be shoved away; try to forget, try to move on.

But we don’t forget. Anger over the hurt and wounds we carry eats away at our souls like a cancer. Hatred infects us like a deadly disease. The harder we shove that anger and hatred into the recesses of our soul, the more it eats away at us from the inside out. We might not speak of it out loud, but inside, we’re crying out for revenge, for justice, for vengeance.

Were we to speak out loud of this part of our experience, we would find great commonality. More of us in here than we would expect could speak to a deep anger or hatred. Very often, it comes from a family member who’s done something terrible. Other times, it’s a boss, former coworker, or another member of this church. Whomever the person, I bet all of us have known the kind of anger, the kind of hatred, that burns down deep inside, creating within us fantasies of getting revenge, of getting even, of doing something harmful back to the person who has harmed us. And at some point, should we have the courage, we must all admit that we have harmed others out of our anger. We have been the recipient of deep wounds and the giver of the same.

Anger that drives us to hurt others is a common part of being human. It’s true for all of us at times in life. And it was true in Biblical times. That’s the case in the Psalm we’ll read this morning. And because it was true in scripture, because scripture often gives voice to this silenced part of the human experience, we’ll speak of this unspeakable thing: anger that drives us toward committing harmful, wounding, acts of our own.

This Psalm is not easy. It shares much in common with Martina McBride’s difficult song. So, because it speaks to what is not mentioned in polite conversation, let us approach it with an open mind, an open heart, and a willingness to engage. We must be willing to be honest with ourselves, for what God has in store for us through this psalm offers the power to relieve us of our anger and hatred. But we have to be willing to engage it. So let us, together, lower our defenses and come before God with a willing spirit, as we hear Psalm 137.

[Psalm 137]

This is not an easy part of scripture. Some refer to it as a “text of terror,” one of those parts of the Bible that speaks of unspeakable things. In Exodus, we encounter justification for the sexual mistreatment of slaves by their masters. In Deuteronomy, we get God-ordained genocide. And here, we have the people of God, the chosen ones, the elite from the nation of Judah, telling God the thing that would make them happiest is infanticide: to murder Babylonian children.

It’s all the more remarkable that the murder of children is where the Psalm ends. It doesn’t try to spiritualize or justify its intent. It simply ends there. And it makes no apology for itself. They simply state how they feel: “God, here is what would make us the happiest. Here’s what needs to happen to rectify the wrongs we’ve experienced. Here’s what would restore balance and harmony. Inflict upon the Babylonians what they did to us. And not only that, but we want to murder their children so that their empire, their nation, dies off without a trace.”

And let us remember, this is a prayer. It’s not simple poetry, it’s a prayer to God, as all Psalms are. Verse 7 directs the conversation about getting even directly to God: “Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites,” which is another word for the Babylonians. Remember what they did! Remember their destruction! Remember how they murdered our people.

For those in exile, this memory is still vivid. They’re only a few years out from watching the Babylonians sack Jerusalem. They destroyed the Temple, which was bad enough. But then they went into the fields and destroyed the crops, sowing salt into the ground to make it uninhabitable. They then burned the city, burned people’s houses, raped women, and murdered children.

And in a coup de gras, they inflicted a cruel punishment upon the people. They took the King of Judah outside of the city while it burned, making him watch the destruction of his people and his city. They then lined up his sons in front of him. While he watched, they brutally murdered all of his sons. Once done, they plucked out the king’s eyes so that his last visual memory was of the destruction of Jerusalem and the murder of his sons.

In warfare, the Babylonians were a cruel people. Knowing this, it becomes easier to justify the rage of the people of God. Of course they’re looking for revenge! It’s no wonder they’re deeply angry and hate the Babylonians. Terrible, unspeakable, things have happened to them.

And then, as the Psalm tells us in verses 2-6, the Babylonians taunt them in captivity. The people are mourning, they’re deeply depressed, but their captors taunt them, asking them to sing the songs from the temple, asking them to praise God. Of course the Babylonians have no desire to worship God; they simply want to humiliate the people. Even here, a few years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Babylonians won’t relent lording over their captives.

But even still, infanticide? We might empathize with their anger, even if we have never experienced anything like what they have. We might see how they could be justified in being deeply angry. But to prayerfully ask for infanticide? How can that be?

We speak, through poetry, about the unspeakable all the time, especially in our music. I imagine several of us have sang along to Martina McBride’s hit Independence Day without realizing what, exactly, we were singing. Hip hop speaks to getting revenge with great frequency. Country music talks about getting even. I’ve joked that the worst girlfriend in the world has got to be Taylor Swift because so many of her hit songs are about how terrible her ex-boyfriend is. And one day, while singing along to a mid-90s pop song, I realized the song, cheerful sounding as it is, is really about covering up a grizzly murder.

In our modern poetry, and here in this ancient poetry, we give voice to the voiceless, speak of the unspeakable, because what goes on in the dark recesses of our souls needs to be brought to the light.

That’s the power of this kind of Psalm. It brings to the light what lives in the darkness. Hatred is like mold: it loves a dark environment and shrinks before the light. In the dark, it will grow and grow and grow, without being seen, inside of us until, one day, it’s overtaken us and we’re consumed by our anger and hatred. Such consumption looks like having fantasies about getting even, scheming to hurt someone, believing everyone is against you, thinking that no one really loves you, or just good old fashioned anger about everything.

But when it’s brought into the light, it shrinks away, and quickly. That’s what our popular music does, and that’s what this Psalm does, and that’s why it’s important for us today. If we’re brave enough to admit that we have anger and hatred we’re holding onto, we must be brave enough to bring it into God’s light.

The light always ushers away the darkness. That’s what we explored in the first sermon on disorientation. Back on January 20, I talked about embracing the darkness, admitting its existence, so we could bring it to God in prayer. During times of disorientation, the darkness can be overwhelming, especially because it seems to come on suddenly, throwing the order of our times of orientation into chaos. It’s traumatic when that happens, it’s destabilizing.

And it’s tempting to stuff our feelings away, down deep, trying to avoid the darkness. But we can’t. We have to embrace the darkness of disorientation. Here, in the disorientation of anger and hatred, we must do the same, in a particular, and careful, way.

For rarely does someone set out to harm someone else. Rarely does someone wake up one morning and decide that today is the day they’re going to do their best to ruin someone’s life. If they do, we call that psychosis: a psychological disorder.

For the vast majority of us, rather, we act in evil ways that hurt others because the anger has grown so large within us that it begins to control us. And that control causes us, almost thoughtlessly, to act vengefully. Like a cancer or like mold, the anger grows within us such that it comes to control us. We hurt others with our words. We malign others by spreading falsehoods about them. We say terrible things on Facebook. Perhaps we even physically assault, but regardless, we look for opportunity to do some sort of damage to another person, the person we hate, because our anger has come to control us.

I have not been immune from such feelings. Familial relationships have led me to that kind of anger because of the way others have hurt me. When I’ve served in various leadership capacities, including as a pastor, almost inevitably someone hurts me, for this is part of the nature of being a leader. But even though I know being hurt comes with the territory, when that anger comes, an anger born of a wound inflicted by someone else, it’s the worst part of my life. It impacts my home life, as I’m less present at home and have to take time away to tend to my soul. It impacts my health, as I feel the stress and sorrow of the wound inflicted. It impacts my soul, as the deepest wounds create doubt and lead me into disorientation; into the darkness.

And the way for me to not take revenge back, the way I have learned to cope, the way to not let someone else’s anger that has wounded me cause me to turn around and wound them, is to bring my anger to the light.

That’s what we all must do: bring our anger to the light. Anger, like mold, withers before the light of God. We find ourselves relieved, we find ourselves healed, we find ourselves forgiven, and we even find ourselves freed of the terrible burden that is the anger and hatred we carry around.

And to bring our anger to the light is simple: it’s to pray like Psalm 137.

Our anger needs a release valve, but we tell ourselves over and over again that we’re not supposed to feel that way, that it’s wrong to feel that way, that we just need to forgive and move on, that we’re a good Christian so we’re not supposed to have these kinds of feelings.

But we’re also human, no matter how strong our faith is. This is part of our sinful nature. Things will happen to us that are terrible, inflicted upon us by someone else. And when that happens, the worst thing we can do is not tell God about it.

So tell God exactly how you feel. Tell God what you’d like to do to make things right, even if it sounds similar to the ending of this Psalm. It might be that you strongly desire to do the wrong thing. That happens, it’s human nature; it’s called temptation. And the best thing we can do with any temptation is tell God what we want to do.

For telling God what we want to do brings that terrible thing to the light. For me, the last time I got hurt my prayer sounded like this, “God, I’ve been grievously wronged. I’m angry and I’m scared. I’m confused. What do I do? I want to take revenge. I want to stand up and say what’s right. I want the other person to know how hurt I am and I want to hurt them! God, help me.” My prayer journal from that time has several pages with prayers like this.

And I share something this personal because I want you to know how universal it is to feel this way. We do ourselves much damage by telling ourselves we’re not supposed to feel that way, that it’s wrong that we feel that way. Hear me clearly: feelings are never wrong. It’s the actions born of feelings that are wrong. Feelings are sometimes temptation. We can’t stop the feeling from coming. But we can be faithful, or not, in how we respond to that feeling.

And the way to be faithful with temptation, with hard, unspeakable, feelings, is to bring them to the light of God by turning them into prayer.

So do that. Anger, hatred, will shrink before God when we turn it into prayer. That’s what this Psalm shows us. The people of God never committed infanticide in Babylon. They never did anything to harm the Babylonians nor their children. They never took any action against them. Instead, they gave God their anger, shone the light of God on their hatred, by taking it to God in prayer.

Live into the example of this ancient psalm. Give God your anger. Don’t be ashamed of it; prayerfully give it up. Let God’s light shine on it.

This morning, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give us that option right now. In the process of creating this sermon, I realized anger I was carrying around with me, and I had to do exactly what I’ve prescribed here. And this morning, I am more free than I was before. So if you recognize anger in your life, if you can see where you’ve got hatred you’ve been holding onto, come to the altar and let God’s light shine upon it. Admit it to God in prayer. Tell God exactly how you feel and exactly how you feel about the other person. If you’ve been tempted to do something harmful or inflict some sort of pain upon someone else, tell God about that too. And if you’ve committed some harmful action that has hurt others, confess that and ask God for forgiveness. Let the light shine, for anger stands no chance against God’s light. All we have to do is prayerfully bring it before God.

Pray, for God’s light is shining down and will conquer even the most deeply-seated hatred. Pray, for the darkness of anger stands no chance in the light of God.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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