2015-02-15 by Jeremy Clarke
Preacher: Simon Woodman
15th February 2015
Reading: Psalm 137:1-9 (referenced/quoted later in sermon)
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…”
“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 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 families
And so the members of the congregation
Smiled their way out of worship
With the rousing tune of the final chorus
Still ringing in their ears
They got into their cars,
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, and assuring people
Of God’s 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 façade 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 Hallelujah’s during the sermon
Had been very inspiring
Well, thought Reverend Smith
Is it likely that all those people
Were really able to worship happily today?
Is it likely that they were able
To sing the happy songs
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 two hundred people
Had come together to meet with each other and with God
And had spent the whole time deceiving
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
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
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
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 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 the one true God
They were famous for their praise songs
throughout the known world
Other nations looked at Israel’s worship tradition
But the people of Israel were now in Exile
The Babylonians had conquered them
And exported 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 sense of bereavement
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”
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 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
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?
Or would we still come along on a Sunday
To meet with our brothers and sisters in Christ
To meet with the living God
And 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.
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:
“never underestimate our capacity to deceive ourselves”
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…
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 much more comfortable to pretend
that nothing is going wrong,
not admitting even to ourselves the feelings we have
Possibly because they make us feel guilty…
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 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.
And I fear that sometimes we are so dishonest with each other,
in our attempts to appear holy and happy,
that we alienate those who 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 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 my 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.
Get some help, ask for some 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 prays?
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
Again, I have often found that talking to others can help here
as we seek to understand how we are relating to God
And 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 we often we come close!
Many Christians 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 lift out of the service
that will see us through until at least Monday lunchtime?
Or is it to meet in honesty
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.