Saturday, October 1, 2016

Sermon for 10/2/16: When pain is left to fester...

This weeks sermon is published on a Saturday night because tomorrow morning, as most of you are in worship, I'll be on an airplane traveling back from meetings in our denominational offices in Cleveland. This sermon is based on Psalm 137. Although I quote it in full later in the sermon, you may want to take the time to read it, first.


30 years ago, I was working at a group home back in Ohio sitting with a group of kids laughing and giggling. These were my favorite moments. The kids I was working with had either been abused; facing some sort of mental health challenge that made it difficult for them to be at home; or had runaway from a difficult family situation. This particular group home was where kids came as the social service system figured out where their next stop might be so they were only with us for a couple weeks at the most. This was a lighter moment and we were all laughing and giggling as the kids told some bad jokes and funny stories that ranged the gamut from misunderstood conversations to, um, unexpected bodily emissions at importune times; to practical jokes they played on others or had been pulled on them.

Into this last set of stories the youngest resident at 10 years old decided to add his story. In the same kind of mood, this 10 year old boy laughingly talked about how his father sprayed his pant leg with carburetor fluid, lit it on fire and then laughed as this child tried to dance around to put it out.

“Man, that’s not funny,” said one of the other kids.
“But it’s OK, I wasn’t burnt” said the 10 year old. “It was funny!”
“He shouldn’t have done that to you” said another kid. The circle fell silent.
The 10 year-old continued with his mood changed, “That’s what I told him when he did it. I was so scared and my hands did get a little burnt. I told him it wasn’t funny.”
The kids were all quiet, making room for this child to say what he needed to say.
“I wanted to light my Dad on fire.”
The other kids nodded until one of the other kids said, “I want to light your Dad on fire.”

After this moment, this kid’s anger bubbled out at all different sorts of ways during his stay with us; for awhile it was always anger followed by tears or tears followed by anger. We already knew this child’s Dad was in jail and wouldn’t likely be getting out until well after the 10-year old was into adulthood but filed the reports we knew we had to file, anyway. The staff therapist met with the kids in a group every few days and with each kid individually. He let us know that this story was something all the kids were talking about. Many of them had suffered many worse things but the fact that they heard the youngest kid among them tell a story that they all agreed was wrong brought them together and was giving space for them to tell their stories and express their own anger. The other kids made space for this kid’s anger and, in their own way, understood when that anger came boiling out here or there. It made sense. He should be angry. He had a right to be angry.

We never knew the long-term stories of the kids we worked with but this 10-year old was placed in foster home with some a great couple who had a reputation for being able to show and share love for kids who were sure they were unlovable.  With placements as short as ours, we never knew the long-term story but we all agreed that this kid was getting a really good chance to have a better life.

I’ve just started watching the HBO miniseries about John Adams. I’m still in the beginning stages but, just as a reminder, John Adams was - among many other things - one of the United States’ “Founding Fathers,” the first Vice-President and 2nd President, a diplomat and many, many other things. As I said, I’m in the beginning stages, but the central rallying cry of “no taxation without representation” has already come up as a key reason for the conflict repeatedly. Without question, this was the philosophical rallying point for the Revolutionary War but there was also a more visceral one.

The philosophical rallying point was one thing but the way the oppression or expression of this idea emerged through violence and anger was another. The intractable disagreements moved from conversations to shouting to contests of political power to contests of political expression to violent expressions of political and social power. These expressions of violence started small at first through the oppression of individuals and reactions to the oppression of individuals and then escalated through greater and greater acts of violence and revenge; each side able to offer some rationalization for each escalation along the way.

And, I don’t know about you, but I never remember hearing or being taught that this anger and violence by the colonists was somehow unjustified. I never remember being taught that the colonists should have controlled their anger and gone about this another way. I never remember being taught that the Tea Party was actually a riot or that the colonists were somehow wrong in asserting that white, male, land owning colonists’ lives mattered.


One of this Sunday’s lectionaries texts is Psalm 137.  It is beautiful, honest and troubling. Go ahead and read the whole thing:

(NRSV) 1 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 sense of grief is so palpable and so real and that is usually where we are asked to meet this text within most of our churches. There are beautiful songs written that include the mourning of the first half of this text. It is about the grief of a people who have been defeated and oppressed being asked to sing happy songs to those who are their oppressors. When we ignore the 2nd half of this text we can see this as only deep grief, pained mourning or helplessness.

When we read the whole Psalm we see something different. This Psalm is also about anger and the desire of revenge. War is an atrocity in and of itself but every war tends to have particularly terrible atrocities within it. The attack on Jerusalem was likely no exception. Verse 9 is always one of the hardest to read of Psalm 137; “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.” However, because of the verse preceding it, I’m pretty sure this wasn’t some sort of violence they were thinking up themselves for the first time. I think it’s likely that this was something that happened to them and they were looking to do the same to their oppressor. Imagine it with the emphasis on the first, “your” in verse 9; “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.”

The temptation for many of us within the church is to move from honoring the mourning but then distancing ourselves from the anger and violence. The temptation is to say the mourning is justified but then critique the method of expressing the anger that’s intermingled with that mourning. We can support the peaceful protest of those refusing to have their songs of joy misappropriated by an occupying force that tries to compel them to sing those songs. However, that violent anger scares us. It seems out of of control and even unfaithful to many of us.

Its taken me a long time to get there but I’m becoming more and more convinced that it’s not anger itself that’s unfaithful as much as the fear of anger that’s unfaithful for most of us. I confess that this has been a difficult lesson I’ve had to learn regardless of those who have so persistently tried to teach me differently. I recognize that, for some, there have been some encounters with angry people in their lives whose anger was an expression of violence poured out on those who were not, in any way, the cause. I can understand how some might have had their lifetime quota for being around anger filled. However, for most of us, avoiding anger is more about discomfort than danger and all too frequently we don't know the difference.

Anger doesn’t come out of nowhere. We humans are social animals and we depend on shared experiences. Its why we celebrate together and worship together and sing together and find reasons to be together. One person’s laughter makes other people smile and one person being hurt can make other people wince. When we see someone else in a scary position, our hearts beat faster, too. Whenever anyone feels immediate pain, people all over the world say some equivalent of “Ow.” I don’t think that reaction is for ourselves, alone. I think there is some deep part of us that fully expects that this response will be bring a response from others. Sometimes, the response is one of the things that helps keep us alive. Our outloud to reaction to pain carries that hope within it. We need each other.

Anger is an expression of pain. Think about stubbing your toe or hitting your thumb with a hammer. We sometimes express anger when we have pain that is too much for us to bear at that moment. We also express anger when our pain is ignored by others or express anger when our pain is delegitimized by others. Yes, we may walk around with various levels of defensiveness or awareness of danger but when we are in immediate pain there is something in us that expects others to help us and when they don’t, first we get fearful and then we get angry.

When our pain is overwhelming, ignored or delegitimized and we see person or person’s intentionally ignoring, delegitimizing or causing that pain, I don’t think we should be surprised by the fantasies of violence or the literal violence that comes next. When pain is overwhelming, ignored or delegitimized it can turn to anger. When anger is overwhelming, ignored or delegitimized it can turn to violence.

We frequently critique any expressions of anger as counterproductive or as an ineffective ways to make a point when others express it and then use it to justify our own angry reaction. We critique someone yelling as we yell back. We critique a loud protest as we try and overwhelm or silence the protesters’ voices.  We respond to rioting and uprisings with police violence or other means of suppression. We get stuck in cycles of actions and responses in which we quickly cycle through who is identified as a victim, villain or hero at any one moment.  

We talk about seeking to end the cycle of violence by calling on people to not respond to violence with violence. However, maybe what we need to address even more urgently is how to address the cycle of pain; how to make room for the reality of pain without a patina of shame or weakness; how to make room for the expression of pain recognizing that expression may make us uncomfortable; and how to best try to address the causes of pain, when possible; or help each other cope with the pains that just don’t go away. Pain is a part of life. It is unavoidable and yet we try and pretend it somehow is.

The reality that we will be the cause of pain for others is unavoidable, too. We have to figure out how to address that we may be at least part of the cause of pain for others regardless of of our intent. It’s hard to admit when we might have justified causing pain to someone else. It’s hard to acknowledge that we didn’t see how our actions might have have unintended consequences. I know it’s always hard to do this because acknowledging pain can be, in and of itself, painful. It makes it extra hard, in the case of historically and socially endorsed violence and oppression. We might not be the initiator of the pain but we may not be aware of the ways we are ignorantly benefitting from the current oppression that, in and of itself, may be causing harm to others.

As we read the text today from Psalm 137, the violence suggested within it may make us uncomfortable, but it’s understandable. It comes from a people who have experienced a deep pain that is being ignored and delegitimized by their captors. Reading it may make us uncomfortable and even disturbed but it makes us make room and respond to the pain that is at the root of their anger. It calls us to do what we were created to do. We must make make room and respond to the pain of our friends, our families, ourselves and our communities. We must make make room and respond to the pains spoken by those whom we share in the life of our faith community. We must make room and respond to the pain of those that the world seems to have left behind and those who are oppressed and treated unjustly. We must make room and respond to the pain of the earth itself and those who care for it. We must make room and respond to those who tell us that we are the cause of pain or are contributors to it. We must make room and respond to those who call us to confession without our suggesting that their goal needs to be offering forgiveness. We must make room and respond to the comfort God promises as we are called to reconcile and be willing to ask for help with the painful part of reconciliation.

Those who bear and express their pain are our prophets calling us to truth and action. We can’t ignore them or our own pain. If we in the church think that any part of our calling is to participate in the healing of the world, we have to know and acknowledge where the pain is, first.