The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evening Prayer Online      2nd August 2020
'Restore us, O God'
Ayla Lepine

Hampstead Parish Church
Trinity 8 – Evening Prayer – 2 August 2020
Psalm 80
1 Kings 10.1-13
Acts 13.1-13
‘Cherish this vine which your right hand has planted, and the branch that you made so strong for yourself.’ Verse 16 of Psalm 80 implores God to ‘cherish’ God’s people. Psalm 80 is a lament in three parts. The chorus, at verses 3, 7, and 19, connects two significant ideas: restoration and salvation. ‘Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.’ The psalmist laments not only the situation of the people, but also why and how it’s happened. The beautiful vine God has planted has been destroyed because it is God who has pulled down the protective wall. And yet there is also a ‘They’, neither God nor the people, mentioned towards the end of the psalm. What has happened? It’s likely that this is a psalm responding to the destruction of Jerusalem and the deep anguish of being at the mercy of oppressive forces. That God has done the destroying, actively working against the people, is an assumption and, even in the psalm itself, an unstable one. The people don’t know why this is happening to them and are grasping for an answer. That God is the one who brings growth, hope, salvation, and restoration of dignity through compassion is the consistent truth, running through the chorus verses. We might summarise the psalm like this: ‘We are suffering. You have helped us before. You made us strong and beautiful. Help us to be strong again.’ As Walter Brueggemann explains, ‘appeal is made to YHWH for restoration, for Israel has no alternative source of help.’
The parish book group is currently reading Azariah France-Williams’ Ghost Ship. His descriptions of racism in the Church of England confront us, no matter who we are, with the insidious toxicity of racial injustice. We spoke on Saturday morning about the overwhelming evidence of racism within and beyond the church, not only historically, but now. There were also questions about how to precisely put a finger on the problem and say ‘Aha – this was the moment when the Church, as a group of leaders, behaved in a racist way.’ There are examples of that too, but often the key force that allows racism to continue is not aggressive direct action (though that does happen, certainly), but inaction. The evidence is often to be found in the silence, the absence, the dismissive wave of the hand that says ‘This is not my problem.’ It is to be found in the reports to General Synod – and there have been many – that have had their time to be debated by a majority-white Church leadership body and then all but ignored. The evidence is in the appallingly tiny number of black clergy and people in senior positions that bears little relation to the communities in which we serve. It is in the assumptions white people make about the skills, abilities, interests, and gifts of black people in our parishes. It is the microaggressions of saying, as a church, that all are welcome and then, in so many subtle and unconscious or good-intentioned ways, showing people that in fact they are not. It is the very issue of power in relation to the us-and-them dynamic. When white people in the church refuse to see the power they already hold, refuse to understand the damage that this power does every day, and refuse to see the face of Christ and the infinite worth of every person in the face of a black person, all the while saying ‘everyone is welcome’, then the suffering continues.
France-Williams compares this situation to Cain and Abel. When God asks Cain, ‘Where is your brother?’ Cain responds, infamously, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper? France-Williams writes, ‘if we are not fighting injustice, we are complicit with our brothers’ and sisters’ deaths, social, spiritual and societal. With mass incarceration, stop and search, hurdle after hurdle to get access to education, opportunities in the jobs market and decent housing, and woefully low access to its own church leadership, the roar of blood is crying out…We are Abel…We need to be free. But it will cost.’ And so it should. Why should white people continue to live comfortably because black people are oppressed? Why should power be retained in a system that is poisonous and unethical for everyone in it, regardless of identity? If we root this in psalm 80, no wonder the bewildered voices of the damaged people cry out that only God can help them. No one else seems to want to, and they are surrounded by persecution, not mercy.
We have clapped for the NHS. There are rainbows in windows. We are grateful every day for their tireless work. And yet why is it that a black 21-year-old who works for the NHS in Bristol was deliberately hit by a car only a few days ago? He has given his name only as K-Dogg because he is too afraid to reveal his real name. Even though the media is, as one would hope, sympathetically reporting the incident, he explains: "I'm traumatised. I don't even know if it might happen again,…No-one has been arrested yet so the suspects are still at large. They could come to my house right now and anything could happen. For my family, for them going to the shop and so on, they probably have started to feel like it's not safe for them. Something has to happen and something has to change because we can't keep living like this.’ That sounds a lot like psalm 80: ‘Restore us O God, let your face shine, so we may be saved.’
Over the past few weeks, the Bible Book Club has met twice to explore the psalms. They reveal wisdom, hope, sorrow, joy, exhaustion, anger, desire, confusion, and every possible emotion. One of the great gifts of reading the psalms, Hebrew poetry that links our Christian life with the faith and heritage of Judaism’s scriptures, is that they often don’t align with how we’re feeling or what we think we know about God. The psalms can wash over us, making little empathetic connection, or they can suddenly offer a phrase or an emotional register that takes hold of us in an unforgettable way. It’s essential not only that we explore the psalms, but also that we do so with psalms that don’t seem to make an immediate connection with us. Pray with them when they are sorrowful and you are joyful. Pray with them when they are hopeful and you are in despair. Searching for words of comfort with which we can identify is a great gift from our scriptures. Seeking understanding about experiences that are not our own, and placing ourselves deliberately in the spaces of pain and fear that are unlike what we have ever experienced, is a gift too. It’s how we grow. We have a responsibility to do so. Exposing ourselves to the pain of those around us in a way that elicits not just sorrow but action is essential. When we deepen our relationship to words and experiences that are not only different from our own, but also uncomfortable or upsetting, we can choose to become, as Azariah France-Williams describes it, ‘our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, supporters, and friends.’ 

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