In 1978 the German Caribbean disco group Boney M covered a Jamaican Rastafarian anthem called “Rivers of Babylon.” Their cover claimed the Number 1 spot on the European pop charts that year and Number 30 on US pop charts. You may remember it. I’m going to ask our sound man to play the first minute or so of the song now.
That danceable little tune is based on Psalm 137, the same psalm the choir chanted this evening. That bouncy rhythm seems just a little bit at odds with the psalm’s words of lament, don’t you think? — and that violent imprecation at the end?
Remember the day of Jerusalem, O Lord, against the people of Edom,*
who said, “Down with it! down with it! even to the ground!”
O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,*
happy the one who pays you back for what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, *
and dashes them against the rock!
Yes, that rocksteady reggae rhythm may seem less appropriate than the choir’s plainsong, but I think Boney M and the Melodions who wrote the song and first recorded it might have been on to something.
In this evening’s epistle, Paul writes to his protege, the young bishop Timothy: “I am grateful to God — whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did . . . .” Paul’s ancestors were the ones who wrote that psalm with its hunger for infanticide. So just as we wonder about that dance rhythm, we may ask, “How could they worship ‘with a clear conscience’?” Even though I recognize that those awful words may have been for those who wrote them as heart-breakingly genuine, as horrifically honest as any prayer ever uttered, I would have a hard time worshiping with a clear conscience after reciting such words. The answer, I believe, lies in the understanding of human dignity underlying both our epistle and gospel lessons.
The second letter to Timothy seems to be a sort of personal farewell address, Paul holding himself up as a model for ministry. We don’t really know why it was written, but it seems to suggest that Timothy was distraught over something and Paul is giving him counsel. Paul’s advice to Timothy, however, is not really very comforting. What he says is basically “Buck up!” –– “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
In tonight’s Gospel lesson, Jesus gives a similarly blunt injunction to his followers: “When you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” Bill Loader, an Australian theologian, calls this admonition a slap in the face to the established order:
It deconstructs hierarchy [and] debunks the idea that we achieve value by achieving the good, as though we deserve a bonus for being decent, caring human beings. It does not let us play the game. We can’t claim: you ought to love me, because look at how good I am! Look at what I have done! The passage is probably deliberately offensive in flooring aspirations to human worth based on achievement capital. It is annoying and frustrating, and even seems mean. It gives us no credit.
Jesus’ comment subverts any system of meritocracy; very simply, Jesus is saying that we are valued by God (and thus should value one another), not because of what we do, but because of who we are! Paul’s admonition to Timothy to “buck up” is grounded in that same assurance: we are loved by God not because of what we do, but simply because that is what God does.
This affirmation of human dignity and value is hugely comforting in a world where the poor are exploited and where anger and enmity explode in violence and terror, in the very world of Psalm 137 and its cry for vengeance! This confidence in God is why Paul’s ancestors could worship with a clear conscience. This faith in God’s love for his people is why such a terrible song can be sung to a spirited, danceable, reggae melody!
The world of Psalm 137 was the world of the Babylonian exile, the conquest of Jerusalem, and the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. The year was 587 B.C.E. The armies of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, aided and cheered on by the Edomites, ancestral enemies of the Jews, invaded the southern kingdom of Judah. (The northern kingdom of Israel had already been destroyed by the Assyrians.) When the Babylonians captured Jerusalem, they raped, pillaged, and slaughtered with abandon. They seized the priests and the scribes, the king and the nobles, the wealthy leaders and the merchants, and took them away to Babylon. For those left behind, the economy quickly collapsed, food became scarce, water became foul, and daily life ceased to make sense.
Order was replaced by chaos. Jerusalem became a wasteland. Our lesson from the Book of Lamentations describes the scene:
How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people! . . . .
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations! . . . .
Her foes have become the masters,
her enemies prosper; . . . .
her children have gone away,
captives before the foe.
The psalmist, speaking for those who suffered through this desolation, curses those who caused it. The psalm’s cries of deep sorrow –– “We wept; we could not sing!” –– and its dreams of horrible acts of vengeance –– “Happy the one who murders their infants!” –– are cathartic; they are a means to work through and overcome the intense pain of defeat and exile. By voicing their anger to God, the exiles cleanse themselves of violent emotion and give themselves a reason to persist, perhaps even permission to dance.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, psychologist Viktor Frankl described his own experience in the Nazi death camps and the lessons the Holocaust taught about spiritual survival. Among those learnings was the need for a goal: “It is a peculiarity of [human beings] that [they] can only live by looking to the future,” even if that future is one of vengeance. Without a goal, the concentration camp prisoners ceased to live for the future; indeed, they ceased to live at all, they simply decayed. The one “who has a ‘why’ to live,” wrote Frankl, “can bear with almost any ‘how’.” Their anger and dreams of revenge supplied the exiles with their why, the reason for them to survive. The provocative and hyperbolic language of the psalm expresses the horror and outrage the exiles were experiencing, and describes a future for which they could live. That it is a horrific future does not deprive it of its spiritually supportive power.
In their defense, “dashing babies” was a common practice of warfare in the exiles’ time. The armies of several nations are documented killing babies, raping women, and blinding prisoners of war. The Babylonians committed terrible atrocities against the people Judah so, in their dreams of vengeance, the Jews cried out to God for proportional retribution. There is, however, no evidence that the exiles ever wreaked this bloodthirsty revenge.
Psalm 137 “tells it like it is;” anger, vengeance, hatred, rage, pain, and suffering are human realities. The people of Judah believed that everything they had hoped for and everything they relied upon –– their own country, their sacred priesthood, the Davidic kingdom, and the Jerusalem temple –– had been taken away by the Babylonians. We know that faith becomes compromised when hope is snatched away by economic chaos, by war or terrorism, by personal health problems, by hunger, or by the dysfunction (or non-function) of government. Bad things happen and people react. Many here may have been guilty of extremes of thought like those voiced by the psalmist. Have you ever wished someone dead, even in your private, unspoken thoughts? I confess that I have. Have you ever told someone (even if only under your breath) to “Go to Hell”? I know that I have! In today’s culture, that may be more acceptable than threatening to “dash babies,” but theologically speaking, it voices a much stronger sentiment than the psalm. We and our world are more like the exiles and theirs than we know or want to admit.
This is how this psalm, this awful, horrific psalm, speaks both to and for us. The Babylonians may not have attacked us, but we live in a world at least as violent as that of the exiles. Since 1900, there have been more than 235 declared and undeclared wars which have killed nearly 100 million people. It is an inescapable fact of modern history that the same barbarism described in Psalm 137 occurred in many of those wars and still occurs today. One need only think back to the Holocaust, to the ethnic cleansing of the former Yugoslavia, or to the civil war in Rwanda; one need only see the daily news of Russia’s war in Ukraine . . . . One need only look at our own country.
On January 6, 2021, we witnessed an attack on our national capital which ought to have affected us every bit as much as the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple affected the Judeans. That it was carried out by an American mob rather than a foreign army should not lessen, but rather deepen our horror and outrage. It should make us think about and examine our nation just as much as the Babylonian victory made the Judeans consider their own.
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!” they cried. We live in a country where cities once full of people now sit lonely. In March of this year, more than 16 million homes were sitting vacant across the United States. Nearly ten percent of Ohio’s housing stock is vacant; the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission reports that there are more than 31,000 vacant residences in Cleveland alone. Structures fully capable of use sit lonely and abandoned, empty and unused all over this country while hundreds of thousands are homeless.
In 2005, the first year in which homelessness data was collected in a standardized way, there were 763,000 homeless persons in the United States. Through government and private-sector effort that number was reduced by 28% to about 549,000 by 2016, but then there was a change of the party in power and homelessness began to increase again; since then, it has risen every year. On any given night in this country nearly 600,000 homeless people sleep in shelters, and no one knows how many may be sleeping in cars, under bridges, squatting in abandoned buildings, or simply out on the streets of our lonely cities.
And homelessness is not our only, nor even our worst, problem. Zion’s “princes,” said the Judean’s, “have become like stags that find no pasture.” We live in a country where many of our citizens, too, have difficulty finding something to eat. 46 million Americans regularly rely on emergency food pantries or soup kitchens. Over 85% of households with children are food insecure! Like Judah’s princes, our princes and princesses, too, can find no pasture.
Jerusalem’s “young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter,” they cried. America’s women and girls grieve and are rightfully bitter as they see their right to reproductive health care autonomy taken away, and gender-affirming medical care for trans individuals, especially for teens, is also under attack.
This is not the country we think it is; it is not the country we want it to be; and it is certainly not the country we want for our children and grandchildren! Our nation has become a strange land: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil?” Psalm 137 speaks to and for us.
The psalmist and the exiles turned their pain over to God! Giving voice to their sorrow, their anger, and their thirst for revenge, they were able to let go of them and to trust in God to act as God will. They were able to follow Paul’s advice to Timothy, to buck up, to rely not on the spirit of sorrow or anger or cowardly vengeance, but rather on the spirit of power and love and self-discipline. Eventually, they came to understand that they were valued by God (and thus should value others, even their enemies), not because of what they had or had not achieved, but simply because of who they were, because of whose servants they were! This brought them a sense of freedom — even in their exile — to dream, to hope, to pray, and eventually to dance.
Their prayers may have been, as Bible scholar Walter Wink once observed, “impertinent, persistent, shameless, indecorous, [and] more like haggling in an outdoor bazaar than the polite monologues of the church,” and they may have offered them with far less a clear conscience than Paul claims, but through those prayers they voiced the faith and courage to hand their desire for revenge over to God; through them they started the long healing process of returning home, dancing like David before the Ark as they went.
And so can we. We can end the wars and put a stop to the genocides. We can rebuild the cities and house the homeless. We can provide good nutrition for everyone and end food insecurity. We can guarantee health care and medical autonomy for all. We can do so because we have faith at least the size of a mustard seed, because we, too, have been given the spirit of power and love and self-discipline, and because (though we may be nothing more than worthless servants) we know what we ought to do. Need I remind you that every one of these issues –– healthcare and homelessness and hunger –– in one form or another will be on the ballot in next month’s election? Happy shall be the one who takes their politicians, and dashes them out of office!
We know what we ought to do. And when we have done it, worthless servants though we may be, we can worship with a clear conscience, and sing the psalm to that rocksteady reggae rhythm and dance like the exiles returning home! Amen!
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on October 2, 2022, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, to the people of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was guest preacher. This is an updated version of a sermon preached at St. Paul’s Parish, Medina, Ohio, on October 6, 2013.
The lessons read at the service were Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; and St. Luke 17:5-10. These lessons are from the Episcopal Church’s version of the Revised Common Lectionary (see The Lectionary Page).
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.
 Psalm 137:7-9 (BCP Version)
 2 Timothy 1:3 (NRSV)
 Dunn, James D.G., Commentary on 2 Timothy, New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI (Abingdon, Nashville: 2000) 835-37
 Ibid., v. 7 (NRSV)
 Luke 17:10 (NRSV)
 William Loader, First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary: Luke 17:5-10, undated blog entry, accessed 31 August 2022
 Op. cit., note 1
 Lamentations 1:1,5 (NRSV)
 Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Beacon Press, Boston:2006), p. 73
 Ibid., p. 76
 Lamentations 1:1 (NRSV)
 Jacob Channel, 16 Million Homes Are Vacant in the U.S., Lending Tree, 10 March 2022, accessed 31 August 2022
 2020 Census: Housing Units and Occupancy Status, Cuyahoga County Planning Commission website, September 2021, accessed 31 August 2022
 National Alliance to End Homelessness, The State of Homelessness in America 2013, p. 9
 National Alliance to End Homelessness, State of Homelessness: 2021 Edition, accessed 7 September 2022
 Lamentations 1:6 (NRSV)
 Fact of the Week: 1 in 7 Americans Rely on Food Pantries, Voices for Human Needs website, 27 August 2014, accessed 21 August 2022
 Food Security in the U.S., U.S. Department of Agriculture website, updated 22 April 2022, accessed 31 August 2022
 Lamentations 1:4 (NRSV)
 Psalm 137:4 (BCP version)
 Quoted in James K. Beilby, Understanding Spiritual Warfare (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids:2012), p. 67
 2 Samuel 6:5,14-15
 Luke 17:6
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