The Restoration Project 1
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, September 13, 2020
Reading: Psalm 80
It was a day that can best be described as traumatic and transformative. It was a hot 38 degrees this August, when I went downtown into the heart of Toronto to pick up a cool shirt. I took the subway, and there were very few people on it, just the odd one, masked and keeping their distance. I got off at the King Street Station and walked up to Adelaide, not passing a single person on the sidewalk. I went into one of the underground stores where there was one clerk and I purchased the shirt. It was barren.
I went back to the subway and sitting on the corner was a man begging. But there was no-one there to beg from. I knelt next to him, gave him a little money, asked him where he was from. He said he was from Northern Ontario, had come down from a reserve to meet his friends in the city, but when he got here, they weren't here anymore, and for the last two weeks, has been wandering around, not knowing anyone. He now wanted to get home. My heart was broken. I got onto the subway, came home, and I just cried. This is Toronto, a vibrant city, a place where you meet people who are your friends and who are complete strangers. This is a city of joy, of ethnic diversity, of fun, yet it didn’t appear that way, and I was sad, and felt lonely. I know I am not alone in that feeling.
After those tears, I sat down to read a passage of Scripture that I had prepared not this summer, but last, to preach at this time of the year, from Psalm 80. As I read that psalm, I understood what was in the heart of the psalmist when he wrote it. It was a psalm of restoration and a plea for salvation. It was a prayer from the heart about the brokenness of Israel, how its enemies were laughing and how bad things had become. It was a pouring out of the heart, as John Calvin called it, the prayer of sorrow, nevertheless a succour, a source of comfort for the church.
As I heard this word, I thought how incredibly prophetic it is to describe how so many within our world are feeling. How incredibly central to this plea is an outpouring to none other than God Himself, from the very depths, the very heart of his soul. We do not know the occasion for this, whether it was written before or after the exile. We do know that it was written in order that the monarch might be reinstated and that there might be this incredible turning up of the life of the people. But more than anything else, from the depth of it, is a plea, “Lord, let your face shine upon us. Lord, come to us that we may know that you are with us.” This was the plea from the bottom of his heart.
As I look at our world today and I listen to this incredible prayer, it makes me ask, what is it that we should be praying for? What is in our hearts that we need now? If we were writing Psalm 80, what would we be writing to God? What would be our plea?
I think that we should be praying for a vaccine. I encounter a man on a regular basis on my walks, who does not have my religious tradition or background, but every week he says to me, “Reverend, I hope that you're praying for a vaccine.” As if my prayers are the only ones that are going to mean anything.
I did ask him, “Are you praying for it as well?” But then we turn to another subject, like cricket or something.
I listened to him and thought there was deep within him this desire, we should be praying for a vaccine. We should be praying for wisdom about how we are going to conduct ourselves in the months ahead. We are facing enormous uncertainty, we have no idea what the future is going to bring, and we need divine wisdom, as well as all the wisdom humanity can muster. We need self-control, for we will not come through any of this if we do not have that gift. It is needed for every age group, in every country, in every place. If we are going to get through this safely, we need self-control.
We also need compassion. It is so hard when tensions rise, when people feel stressed or uncertain, or when they don’t know if they’ve got jobs. It is hard to relate to other people when we’re tense. We need a spirit of compassion to wash over us, a compassion of understanding and tolerance, and I appeal to you to always act that way.
Professor, Paul Wilson, last Sunday in his wonderful sermon said, “Is it not also the fact that we also should be praying, that we are not alone, that God acts?” Therefore, while we can have wisdom, we can have a vaccine, we can have self-control, we can have compassion, we also need God. This is where Psalm 80 comes to life for us. Here in this psalm there is this overwhelming sense that above all things, God comes first. “Restore us, O God.” The way that the psalmist talks about God, is glorious. He speaks of the need for God to the Sovereign and the Shepherd of Israel.
Now, these are high words, putting God above everything else. “You are the Shepherd” and that language goes back deep into the history of Israel. “You are the Sovereign above all sovereigns, you are the One. You are the One who can let your face shine upon us, you are the One who can be gracious to us. You are the One.” Not us, You. “You are the vine that brought the people of Israel out of Egypt. You are the vine who provides shade and comfort to people in need. You are the vine that continues to grow and is passionate. You are the vine and we are the branches, and we are connected to you.”
If there’s ever been a moment in our history to remember things like 9/11 nineteen years ago, or look at the state of the world as we see the wildfires burning in California, or the hurricanes – God bless them and pray for them today – my beloved Bermuda. When we look at the devastation that COVID has reaped on this earth, it seems to me that the secularist empiricist world view that says that we can get along just fine without you, God, is ending. This is a time when we need to turn once again, like the people of Israel, and say, “Restore us, O Lord.” This is what we need.
There is also sadness within the psalmist. Who among us has not felt this over the last while? It seems that God is inattentive. The psalmist is wondering where God is. It seems that God has disappeared from the scene. He says, “Our enemies laugh at us.” Things were not going well and for all his pleas, it comes from the heart of wondering whether God was there and helping them. He describes this in the most human of language. He said, “Our tears are like bread, our tears are what we’re drinking.” This is from the heart stuff, tears of bread, tears of drink. That is exactly what people are feeling.
Maybe we haven't cried enough. Maybe our tears have turned at times to rage, or we’ve turned to something else for solace. But there is as time to cry, and there is a place for tears.
As I went on a beautiful walk in Chorley Park I encountered a mother and her child who were both wearing masks out in the open air. I had taken mine off because there didn’t seem to be anyone around. Then this little girl broke away from her mother and for some reason, ran towards me. Her mother was pleading for her to stop, and she called her name three times, and the little girl still ran towards me. This woman cried out to me, “Please don’t welcome my child.” So, I put on my mask because I could see the stress in her eyes. The mother finally came over to me and grabbed her child and said, “My child is immune-deficient, she seriously cannot fight diseases. It’s hard for her to be outside. Please don’t take it personally, but I can't have her around other people.” We just stood eye-to-eye with the masks on our faces, and both of us had tears in our eyes. A child can't even greet a stranger.
There have been tears, tears during the burials we have performed. We’ve had incredible support from the funeral homes, and from families. We have a list of people in the Order of Service, who have died since we were last here, and we have not been able to memorialize them in this place. We have buried saints with ten people present, and families unable to say goodbye. It has been both moving and heartbreaking. There have been weddings – just a couple – restricted to a few people. The most central moment in many people’s lives, and it’s me and maybe ten others.
I couldn’t help but think what a memorable service this will be, but how difficult. There have been many tears. It appears that God seems inattentive as we wash away those tears.
The psalmist does not end there. God’s light will shine. Three times the psalmist says, “Restore us and save us.” Three times he says, “Let Your light shine.” He knows deep in his heart that God has a history of restoring. God is the God of restoration, God is the God who seeks to put things right, no matter what humanity faces, no matter how hard we are with one another, no matter how sinful, no matter how broken our environment may be, no matter how difficult nature may be. He knows that his light will shine upon us.
The psalmist puts it so beautifully. Listen to the language of verses 14 and 15: “Return to us, God Almighty. Look down from heaven and see, watch over this vine. The root Your right hand has planted, the Son You have raised up for Yourself.”
No wonder John Calvin and others have read this and said that this is exactly what we find in Jesus Christ. Whether the psalmist had in mind the presence of the coming of Jesus, who knows, but he knew that God and the branch of God, the Son of God would do something majestic and wonderful.
The whole story of the New Testament is one of restoration, of good putting the wrong right, of God forgiving the sins of the broken, healing the sick, restoring the lost. We have a Lord, and if we ask for his face to shine upon us, this Lord will surely come to us.
Throughout the summer I have been reading Martin Buber, a philosopher who is profoundly Jewish in his origins and thinking. Buber had to flee from the ravages of the Nazis in the late 1930s, but many of the people he knew were in the concentration camps. In 1952 he wrote an epic book entitled The Eclipse of God. In it he suggested that it appears that there is an eclipse, where it seems that the light is not shining. It is there, but we do not see it, it appears it’s dark for a moment. He says, there are moments when there is this eclipse of God, not that God is not there, or has ceased to care, but we cease to feel God’s presence.
As I'm reading this, on a day when one country in the world has seen the numbers of those who had died from COVID spike, I feel like I’m watching an eclipse, but God’s light will shine, and this is what we should be praying for. And not only praying for from the depths of our hearts but putting that belief into practice and actively talking about it and bearing witness to it; being willing to pray for people and the world openly and actively.
I love a story that I read about a priest in the island of Crete. They had had this terrible drought for months, maybe even years. Finally, he said to his congregants, “I think what we need to have is a Sunday when we have a litany of prayer for rain. So, for the next two weeks, let us fast and let us pray, and let us come back into this sacred place and pray on a certain day that the rain will come.” Finally, that day arrived, and the people came and said, “We have fasted and we have believed,”
The priest said, “I don’t think you believe.”
They said, “What do you mean, you don’t think we believe?”
He said, “If you believed, you would have brought your umbrellas. You would have been ready to act on God doing something great.”
My friends, that is the spirit in which we need to move forward, the spirit that we need to come back into this church, the spirit that we need to have in our society and our world. It may appear that there is an eclipse, but God’s face will shine. This is our faith, our hope and our prayer. May the Lord our God be with us all. Amen.