Every week the Revised Common Lectionary offers four readings for use in worship – Old Testament, Psalm, Gospel and New Testament letter. The psalm this week is Psalm 80 – a lament, and when I read it I was caught by two things in it.
One is its honesty about the mess God’s people and the kingdom of Israel are in; the other is the openness and simplicity with which the psalmist and all who pray this psalm ask for help from God and God alone. Three times – in verses 3, 7 and 19 this plea of longing rises to heaven, “Restore us, O God; / Let your face shine, that we may be saved.” It reminds us that from beginning to end and right at the heart of all our life, including our biggest messes, our true and best hope is in God and in how God looks at us.
My father-in-law at the end of his life seemed to boil his faith down to a few essentials, and one of those was an old Hebrew blessing from the Book of Numbers that Moses is said to have learned directly from God, and passed on to Aaron and his sons:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace.
Everywhere he went – to Walmart, Tim Horton’s, church, on the street, Bill Newell would stop people, put his hand on their shoulder, look them in the face, and just offer them this blessing. I wonder what it felt like – to be offered the hope of God looking upon you face to face with loving kindness.
Last week we celebrated the baptism of Ethan Beattie. It was also Reign of Christ Sunday, and we had a great time. The liturgy was full and helpful in opening us to God. Ethan charmed us all. Our spirits were high. Karen was struck by the amount of laughter in the service. The music was robust and joyful, especially the final hymn – “Rejoice, the Lord is King.” All went well, just as we had planned and hoped for.
Then something happened and something was done that no one, not even the people involved, had planned on. While we were standing and singing the final hymn, Vera Bailey quietly stepped out from her pew near the back. Leonard had to step aside to let her move into the aisle. In the aisle she made her way up to the third row from the front where Stew Beattie was standing and cradling Ethan – contentedly asleep, in his arms. As Vera stood in the aisle and looked at Ethan, her face beamed. Stew looked at her, at Ethan, and back at Vera. He and she together became one in their adoration of the baby. I wished I had a camera at that moment, but maybe I’m glad I didn’t. After maybe a whole minute, Vera nodded to Stew and moved back to her place with Len in their pew near the back.
We don’t do that kind of thing here normally, do we? And I wonder.
Vera said later she just felt she had to. There was no way not to go up and just look at the baby.
And was that event – that unplanned obedience to an inner urging of Spirit, the willingness to step outside the box of our liturgy – was that an unveiling of God’s face shining upon us? I know what came to mind for me as I watched this unfold was the Gospel story of Anna – an elderly female prophet in the temple of Jerusalem, bursting into praise when she sees the baby Jesus brought by Mary and Joseph for his dedication. Somehow at that moment we as a congregation in Winona seemed to be caught up in, and to become part of God’s unfolding story – the story we read in the Bible.
And maybe that’s what it is – what we hope for – that somehow and in some way we find ourselves living in the way of God, living out God’s good will, spontaneously living out of the knowledge of God’s kindly and loving gaze upon us all.
“Restore us, O God; / Let your face shine, that we may be saved.”
This psalm comes from a time of national crisis and distress. Generations of morally bankrupt and politically misleading leadership have led to such a state of collapse that no amount of political or economic tinkering, no amount of military re-armament no amount of restructuring or rebranding, , amount of political spin or even change of leadership will be able to undo the harm that has been done to the kingdom, nor to stop its coming-to-an-end as a power for good in the world.
In their distress and sense of loss the psalmist and whatever part of the people may have joined in reciting this psalm remember that their only real hope of being restored as a people of God for the good of the world is God’s covenant with them – God’s promise to show them the way of right relations in all things, and their willingness to listen and follow regardless of where it may take them or what it might require of them.
“Restore us, O God; / Let your face shine, that we may be saved.” They want to go back to the way things used to be – even if they never really were that way in reality, even then. They want to move ahead into a new way of being, better than what they are now – even if they’re not quite sure how to get there.
And isn’t that where we are now as well?
Just last month we were all at least a little bit shaken as a nation when in the course of one week two members of the Canadian Armed Forces were killed in attacks in Canada. I heard the news of Nathan Cirillo’s murder at the National War Memorial and the killer’s subsequent invasion of the House of Parliament on the radio in my car as I was leaving the church for a meeting.
I was driving along Fifty Road and down the ramp onto the QEW – something I do almost daily and sometimes several times a day without even thinking. That day, though, I felt a strange uneasiness and an odd disquiet. The road and its traffic seemed different, looked different, felt different. For a few minutes I found myself thinking that any one of these cars or trucks around me could be driven by a terrorist determined to crash into me or even blow a bunch of us up once we were together on the Skyway Bridge.
With the shock we have felt, and the tear we have suffered in our sense of security in our own land many people, I think, have been looking for ways to go back to the way we used to be – even if we never really were as good or perfect as we think we were. Others are looking for ways to move ahead to something better, even though we don’t really know – or cannot agree, what that should – or will be.
On the dayof the killing in Ottawa, the RCMP quickly described it as a terrorist attack, and thus quickly focused our sense of where the threat to our well-being lies. The government introduced legislation to give more power of surveillance and detention to the police and the intelligence services. Security has been heightened in a variety of places. We have begun air strikes with other nations against ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria. Our official national strategy is to restore our sense of security and well-being by protecting ourselves against radicalized people – especially Muslims, and terrorists at home, and to destroy them abroad. It’s a tried-and-true – or at least, a tried-and-tried-again plan – something we’re used to, and familiar with. It’s what we’ve placed our hope in many times in the past.
And who knows? Maybe this is the way God’s face is set. Maybe this is the way God will bless. The way that will bring us peace.
Others, though, are feeling led in a different direction. At the time of the killing some national news outlets held back from labelling it a terrorist attack, and took the time to find out what really could be known. They chose not to fuel the hysteria that could have developed, so much so that a visiting American diplomat interviewed a day or two later said he wished the American media would react to things as rationally and helpfully.
After Nathan Cirillo’s funeral a girlfriend went public in saying she wished the government and media would stop debating whether he was a hero or not, and seeing terrorism as the threat, and would start to talk instead about the state of our criminal justice and mental health systems as the real threats that have been exposed to our well-being as a people.
At Presbytery last month, Diane Matheson, one of our Conference staff also told us to get better at “connect[ing] with the youth – they’re the key! [she said]. Radicalized religious youth are being converted en- masse because they need to belong to something. Let’s bring them into our fold before they have a chance to be hurt by organizations that would exploit them. We don’t need them to be the future of the church; we want them because we can help them belong to something [constructive rather than destructive of life and community.] Helping young people to build future stories for themselves – which may or may not involve the church – is a way to keep them focused on behaviours that will help them be successful.”
And a Muslim imam said much the same thing in a radio interview a few days ago. Instead of demonizing potentially radical groups and trying to return to what we imagine we used to be as a Christian nation, we should do what we can to strengthen our many religious communities, so that religious leaders of all kinds can better reach their respective flocks with the message that when they resort to violence, God – the true God of any name, is simply not with them.
And I wonder. Is that the way God’s face is set? Is that the way of being caught up today in God’s unfolding story? And of living out of God’s loving gaze upon us all?
We need practice, don’t we, in seeking God’s face. In knowing the direction God is looking and leading, and discerning together the kinds of actions and strategies that reflect God’s way.
Is it safe to assume, though, that as it did for Vera and even for Stew last week, more often than not it takes us outside the box of what we have known so far, beyond the way we usually have acted, a step away from the same-old same-old into something we have not yet seen or been, something still in the making, still experimental, but something that will be the future that God wants us to start living towards right now because it is the best hope for the well-being of all that God loves.
In this season we remember that the God above and beyond us all, who holds all things and all people, comes to us as a little baby, a new kind of life still needing to grow, that we and others are called to welcome, to cradle, and to properly adore regardless of where it may lead us and what it might require of us.
“Restore us, O God; / Let your face shine, that we may be saved.”