A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
Until his death from a stroke last year, author Will Campbell wrote in a log cabin behind his house in Mt. Joliet, TN. On the wall of his study in that cabin was a sign that read, “Thank you for not cussin’.”
There could never be a sign on the Bible that says, “Thank you for not cussin’,” because the Bible has a lot of cussin’ in it! I know that may come as a surprise for some, but it is true! Just don’t mistake real cussin’ with slang or mere scatological language. Real cussin’ is a very important part of the Bible. I’m sure this needs further explanation.
Cursing is the flip side of blessing, and both are rooted in religion. When I use the oldest blessing in the Bible at the end of a service—the one that begins, The Lord bless you and keep you—the flip side of that would be something like this: “The Lord curse you and abandon you.” One is a benediction, and the other is a malediction. The Bible has both!
Now we can go a step further. The Bible may be considered a divine book, but it is also a very human book. It is full of human emotion. And what is more human than rage associated with tragedy? That rage is expressed in the Bible in the form of curses often centered around one of the great defining events in Jewish history: the fall of Jerusalem in the sixth century before Christ. It was a bloody, bitter, cruel military devastation. The book of Lamentations opens with a poetic description of the immense destruction:
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!
She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.
It was a shattering of faith! It raised all kinds of questions about God and about their perceived place as the chosen people. It literally shook them to the core, and they would spend centuries sorting out what it all meant.
In the midst of their grief and bitterness over such a defeat, we have a body of literature within the Bible which can only be described as cursing. Many of the psalms are classified as cursing psalms. They lament the fall of Jerusalem, and they call for vengeance on those who perpetrated such cruelty.
Psalm 137 is perhaps the most familiar of such cursing psalms. Its opening lines are sublime in their heart-breaking beauty: By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. The psalm goes on to describe their bitterness when their captors begged them to sing for us one of the songs of Zion! It was turning their grief into a minstrel show; it was turning something holy into entertainment! They just couldn’t do it. They would rather hang up their harps for good than to entertain their enemies with their sacred songs.
By the end of the psalm the bitter rage rises to the surface. The author’s anger is directed first toward the land of Edom: 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! Edom was a neighbor, located just south of Jerusalem. The people of Edom sided with the Babylonians in destroying Jerusalem! The sense of betrayal the Israelites felt lasted for hundreds of years.
Then the writer’s seething hatred toward Babylon erupts. His fury is so great that he creates a back-handed curse in the form of a blessing on those who would wreak vengeance on Babylon by brutally killing their children, presumably the same way the Israelite children were killed.
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!
So ends the curse, and so ends the psalm! It may still be rather shocking that such as this is in scripture! But remember: there is no sign on the Bible that says, “Thank you for not cussin’!”
Let’s think together about this. It is no accident that we begin every worship service with a hymn of praise. Why do we do that? Don’t we all recognize that sometimes we enter the service with anything but praise in our hearts? Don’t we all know that sometimes we enter this place with our own version of Psalm 137? You may come into the sanctuary today thinking, “By the rivers of worry—there I sat down and wept.” “By the rivers of misunderstanding and estrangement—there I sat down and wept.” We all have our own version. Someone else might say, “By the rivers of loneliness or anxiety or credit card bills or red ink—there I sat down and wept.”
See where I’m headed here? We all enter this sanctuary from time to time with anything but praise in our hearts. Yet we always begin with praise. Why? The answer is simple—sometimes we sing praise to God, not because of, but in spite of! That is the beginning of an adequate faith. It is the praise of God in spite of all that we have been facing.
The title of this sermon is a spin-off from the old Paul Simon song entitled “Still Crazy After All These Years,” in which he sang about picking up the thread of a relationship that had once been strong, and then time and distance had separated them. He runs into his old flame on the street one night, and they share a beer together, talk of old times, and then part ways again. Then he concludes, “Still crazy after all these years, still crazy after all these years.” We are left to wonder exactly what he means. Was she still crazy after all these years? Or was it he? Or was it his feelings that were still crazy? We don’t know.
But in this sermon I am talking about faithfulness—“…still faithful after all these years.” I am talking about an adequate faith that is still there even when we sit down by the rivers of time and weep, even when our anger and rage rises to the surface and we strike out at life or even those around us. I am talking about faith when we feel like cussin’.
To read a psalm like this is to be reminded that faithfulness has no illusions. It is unshockable. We are not thrown off balance by some respected minister who runs off with his secretary; our faith is not shattered because of some priest abusing children. Sad and outraged…but our faith is not shattered!
Mature faith is not shocked because goodness is not always rewarded the way we think it should be. Our faith does not stumble over leukemia attacking an innocent child, or a drunk running his car up on a sidewalk and killing pedestrians. In short, our faith in God is not dependent on our escaping the inevitable disappointments and tragedies of life! An adequate faith is one that is not surprised by the potholes. Like New England roads in the spring thaw, they are just part of the journey.
Now we can go a step further and actually find inspiration in a cursing psalm like this. An adequate faith is not afraid of expressing our disappointments and even anger within the community of faith. Let’s get out of our minds that church is all back-slapping and hugs. As Dan Ivins would say, “Here we agree differently!” A mature community of faith is willing to deal with both our feelings of cursing as well as blessing.
Oh yes, one more thing. An adequate faith knows that bad things really do happen to the best of people. Marriages fail among the finest of people; germs pay no attention to church attendance; broken promises are not just for the bad guys. But does that mean that God has left us? An adequate faith knows better.
Two women were overheard in the checkout line at the grocery store. One of them, admiring the other woman’s grey hair, said, “I don’t know you, but I’ve been admiring the color of your hair. I’d give anything in the world to have hair that color. I know this is a personal question, but would you tell me what you put on it?” There was a pause, and the second woman said, “Honey, I don’t put anything on my hair. It turned this color almost overnight. We had a child to die suddenly and my husband got sick and lingered and then he died. Things were just hard then and it just happened! My hair turned this color grey.” And then she said, “Honey, you can’t get this out of a bottle!”
There are some things you can’t buy over the counter or get out of a bottle! God comes to the hard places, the unfair places, and the difficult places of our lives, even if we feel alone, even when we find ourselves cussin’ the world!
What if in today’s worship, you laid all your deep-down resentment and anger over some past event before God? What if you heard the words of Jesus, Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest, rest from the anger that is debilitating, the resentment that is demeaning, and rest from the visions of revenge that seem delicious.
If you today could lay those burdens down like rocks on a cairn, you would finally be free to move ahead in your life. You could once again take your harp from the willows of time and sing the songs of Zion. In the ever-contemporary words of the prophet Isaiah, you would this day go out in joy, and be led back in peace (Isaiah 55: 12).