Scripture: Psalm 137
I’ll come out and say what you might be thinking: this Scripture reading ends kind of heavy for a sermon series on Mister Rogers. I’ve always felt that this is one of those psalms that gets off to a good start – the beginning is sad but beautiful, with this image of hanging up harps on the willows by the rivers of Babylon – but then we get to the last line and read something about dashing babies against the rocks and you think, wow, maybe we shouldn’t be reading this in church. And certainly not on Mister Rogers day. The man hosted a children’s television show, for goodness sake.
It may be tempting to think of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as an opportunity for a bit of escapism. Here we can put away the roughness of the real world for a while and enter into a nice neighborhood where days are always beautiful and people are kind and wear cardigans. But the Neighborhood was never meant to be a place where children went to get away from the real world. Rather, it was a place where children were given tools to process the real world at a child-appropriate level. Mister Rogers talked about things like death and divorce. His puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe acted out scenarios related to nuclear proliferation and preparing for war, always connected to things going on in the news at the time. And, always, he talked to kids about their feelings, including anger, fear, sadness.
Last week we talked about Mister Rogers’ gospel of acceptance: that we are created good, and both he and God like us just as we are. For Mister Rogers, part of being accepted as we are is knowing that our feelings are accepted too. All of them, even the ones that don’t always seem so good or holy. One of the songs Mister Rogers came back to again and again on his show was this one, What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel. Let’s listen to it now.
What do you do with the mad that you feel
When you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong…
And nothing you do seems very right?
What do you do? Do you punch a bag?
Do you pound some clay or some dough?
Do you round up friends for a game of tag?
Or see how fast you go?
It’s great to be able to stop
When you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong,
And be able to do something else instead
And think this song:
I can stop when I want to
Can stop when I wish
I can stop, stop, stop any time.
And what a good feeling to feel like this
And know that the feeling is really mine.
Know that there’s something deep inside
That helps us become what we can.
For a girl can be someday a woman
And a boy can be someday a man.
Like most things on the show, this song is addressed to kids, but its message is not just for kids. Plenty of adults have trouble naming and expressing their feelings too. I wonder sometimes if the church doesn’t make this problem worse: we may get the message, intended or not, that as faithful people we’re not supposed to feel certain kinds of ways. If we are sad or mad, we’re not grateful or joyful (2 Blessed 2B Stressed)! I know I’ve found myself buying into that idea kind of subconsciously at times – when I’ve gone through periods of depression or just had bad days, I end up feeling guilty that I’m not more grateful, when God has given me so much.
Unfortunately, when we can’t acknowledge and process our feelings, we often end up expressing them in unhealthy ways. We bottle our anger in until we explode. We suffer our sadness in silence, adding isolation to the mix. We take our stress out on people who didn’t cause it in the first place.
That’s what Mister Rogers wants us to avoid.
It may be hard for us to believe that Mister Rogers ever got angry. But he did. One particular example involves a traumatic experience that happened to his son when he was young. Johnny Rogers wasn’t even a year and a half old when he needed a hernia repair surgery. It wasn’t supposed to be that big a deal, but when they got to the hospital, a nurse brought a crib on wheels that looked like a cage, grabbed Johnny, and wheeled him down the hall as he screamed, while Fred Rogers and his wife Joanne looked on helplessly. They learned later that it took 45 minutes to get him sedated for the procedure, and he ended up needing extensive therapy on the other side of this surgery – not for anything physical, but for this traumatic experience of separation (which probably brings up lots of current events today.) Even 25 years later, Fred Rogers said, “To this day I have nightmares about it, and I get so angry when I talk about it that I find it hard to be the least bit charitable.”
Mister Rogers isn’t alone. As much as we might like to imagine the Bible is full of holy, faithful people who simply close their eyes and say that everything happens for a reason, the truth is the Bible is full of stories of people unapologetically and unrepentantly feeling feelings, from brothers and sisters jealous of a more favored sibling to prophets afraid to fulfill their prophetic commissions to mothers who refuse to be consoled over the loss of their children. Jesus himself got annoyed at people bothering him (and at his disciple’s inability to ever understand what he was trying to tell them), burned with anger at the hypocrisy of religious leaders, wept at the death of a friend, sweated drops of blood the night before his death as he begged for this cup to be taken from him, and cried out in abandonment from the cross.
Some of our most vivid examples of feelings as part of our holy story come from the part of the Bible meant to lead the congregation of God’s people in prayer, individually and together: the Psalms. The Psalms run the gamut of human emotion: there are joyful songs where every line begins with “Praise the Lord,” Psalms that speak to calming an anxious soul (“Be still and know that I am God”); Psalms that cry out in forsakenness (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” quoted by Jesus on the cross); Psalms of confession and grief (“Cast me not away from your presence”); and angry Psalms (“may my enemies be like chaff in the wind.”) All of these psalms and all of these feelings are included, not just to tell us how someone else might have felt a long time ago when they were writing them, but for our use in prayer, because undoubtedly over the course of our lives and sometimes even over the course of our days, we will feel all these ways, and at all those times, we are invited to pray.
Psalm 137 is in my opinion one of the best examples of the angry Psalms, also called imprecatory Psalms – the ones that wish smiting on the Psalmist’s enemies. Of all the Psalms, these are the ones that are hardest to use in church. When I am choosing Psalms to use for our call to worship I often find myself doing a little bit of selective editing, a little cut and paste, when we get to these parts, because the tone of a Psalm can turn on a dime sometimes, and we just don’t need to open worship asking God to zap our enemies.
I also believe that these Psalms have their place.
In 587 BCE, the Babylonian army rolled in Jerusalem, cast its leaders and elites into exile in other parts of the empire, and turned the city to rubble. Psalm 137 is the prayer of grieving people who have been exiled from their homeland, who have seen God’s Temple lying in ruins as they were led away in chains, who are still vulnerable and afraid at the hands of their captors. Sing for us, those captors taunt them, but how can they sing God’s song in a foreign land? It’s not time for singing, it’s time for devastating grief. And so that leads us to the final lines of this Psalm, which I hear as filled with anguish and helplessness: Daughter Babylon, happy are those who will repay you for what you’ve done! Happy are those who take your babies and dash them against the rocks.
I’d be careful about how I prayed this one. But it’s there. No scribe surreptitiously took it out and put something else in its place. There’s no footnote telling us how the Psalmist didn’t really mean it. It’s just there, in all its big and raw and painful feeling. Feelings like that are part of human life, and that makes them part of a whole and honest relationship with God.
Fred Rogers often quoted a mentor of his when he said “Everything human is mentionable, and everything mentionable is manageable.”
In other words, it doesn’t help us to pretend that strong people, or grown up people, or good people, or faithful people, are above sadness and anger and pain.
What does matter is what we do with those feelings. That’s the whole question Mister Rogers asks – what do you do with the mad that you feel?
The song gives us some options – do you get out your aggression by punching a bag – instead of someone’s face? Do you pound some clay or some dough, channel it all into creativity? Find some friends to do something fun and help drag you out of the pit of rage and self-pity? Work off some energy by running really fast? In real life, Fred Rogers talked about music being an outlet for his feelings, and in fact if you saw the recent Tom Hanks movie about him, that’s what we see in the very final scene – Fred Rogers sitting down at the piano, mashing on some keys. He channeled his anger over his son’s traumatic hospital experience into his advocacy for children that went far beyond the screen, that even took him to Congress.
Feelings are human, he tells us, but they don’t have to control us. We can (with God’s help, I would add) redirect our pain and our anger; they are a part of our story but we don’t have to let them write the next part of our story on their own.
When I think of Jesus getting mad, the first story that comes to mind for me is when he goes into the Temple at Passover and sees the moneychangers and knocks over their tables and fashions a homemade whip to chase them out. It’s the kind of scene where if it were anyone but Jesus, I might tell them to go watch some Mister Rogers. But there’s another scene that comes to mind, too, a very different one.
It happens in John, when Jesus has already begun to get into some public disagreements with the religious leaders. They are caught between wanting to arrest him for blasphemy and rabble-rousing, and knowing the crowds love him. One morning he is teaching in the Temple and the religious leaders bring in a woman who has been accused of adultery – caught in the act, so they say – and make her stand before him. “Teacher,” they say, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. The law says we should stone her. How about you?”
It’s a trap, you see.
How do you imagine Jesus must have felt at this moment? Far be it from me to enter into the mind of Jesus, but I think if I were him I’d be mad. Mad that they are doing this, the very people who are supposed to represent God; mad that they are using this woman as a pawn in a conflict that has nothing to do with her. And maybe sad that it has all come to this; afraid, even, of what comes after his answer.
So what does he do with all those feelings?
He is quiet for a moment, and then he looks down, and begins to write something in the dust of the ground. They keep talking, trying to get him to take the bait, he keeps writing, and then finally he looks up and says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” And then he bends down to write again.
No one really knows what exactly Jesus was doing. Was he writing something for them to read? Was he just doodling, refusing to engage? Was he buying time? No matter what, he acts in a way that changes the narrative. He doesn’t let his feelings control him or his response, instead he pauses, and he thinks, and he catches them off guard with his refusal to be trapped, and in the end, his words are intentionally chosen, and one by one, the leaders leave.
This is the kind of transformative story you don’t get by denying or bottling up your anger, but by acknowledging it and deciding where to go from there.
Back by the rivers of Babylon, the captives from Jerusalem are grieving. They are sad and angry enough that they hang up their harps on the willows; they can’t sing the old songs anymore.
The ironic thing is – what do they do with all that? They take a page right out of Mister Rogers’ book, and they write a song about it, and we call it Psalm 137.
And it’s a sad song, and an angry song, and it includes lament and curses and unspeakable wishes that as far as we know will never be acted upon, and that’s maybe even the point. This song isn’t a call for revenge. It’s a real, raw offering of everything they have right now to God. Because when you can’t sing the old songs anymore, sometimes you have to sing a new one. And if you do, sometimes, if you make that offering because it’s the only one you can make, it will lead you back to the old songs again. Or at least, some new ones in a major key again.
I’ll let Mister Rogers have the last word here in another song, The Truth Will Make Me Free:
What if I were very, very sad
And all I did was smile?
I wonder after awhile
What might become of my sadness?
What if I were very, very angry
And all I did was sit
And never think about it?
What might become of my anger?
Where would they go,
And what would they do,
If I couldn’t let them out?
Maybe I’d fall, maybe get sick
But what if I could know the truth
And say just how I feel?
I think I’d learn a lot that’s real
I’m learning to sing a sad song when I’m sad
I’m learning to say I’m angry when I’m very mad
I’m learning to shout, I’m getting it out
I’m happy learning exactly how I feel inside of me
I’m learning to know the truth
I’m learning to tell the truth
Discovering truth will make me free 
When we discover that truth about ourselves and aren’t afraid to tell it – then, with God’s help, we can write the next part of our story.
 Shea Tuttle, Exactly As You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers, p, 66
 Exactly As You Are, p. 149