Sunday, November 18, 2001

"Give Me A Little Shelter"
How God protects us in order that we might serve others in His name, and why we need a Sabbath

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, November 18, 2001
Texta: Leviticus 23:34-41, John 7:37

I have seen and experienced some very difficult things in my life. But one of the most strenuous and stressful was something that occurred not once, but unfortunately, over and over again when I was living in Bermuda.

For those of you who don't know this, on the island of Bermuda, everyone drives on the left-hand side of the road, just like they do in Britain. As you are entering the great capital city of Hamilton, there is a huge roundabout that you have to navigate.

Every day, on my moped, I went around that roundabout. I will never forget the first time I saw the most awesome sight that you have ever seen: a group of American tourists, going round the roundabout the wrong way.

Many a Bermudian will tell you that they have collided with a palm tree or gone into a ditch along the way at the sight of American tourists in brightly coloured shirts and white helmets, heading towards you at warp speeds. And you actually take your life in your hands at times when you go on the roads on that beautiful island.

Now, why am I saying this? Well, because of something I saw in a magazine not long ago that caught my imagination. It said: "Remember, if everything is coming your way, you are in the wrong lane."

Well, there are many people for whom the contrary is true. Things are not always coming the right way for them, and they are indeed in the wrong lane. We do not realize that the events of the last few months have had quite a deep toll on the lives of many people within our society, where things are definitely not coming their way.

This past week, for example, I decided to get a head start on my Christmas shopping, so I went to the Eaton Centre on Friday morning, walked around and noticed that the place was almost a ghost town. In fact, there were hardly any shoppers there whatsoever. So I went into one store and got into a conversation with a salesclerk, whom I later found out was one of the owners, and I made the comment (this is never a good bargaining position, by the way) that the prices seem lower than they would normally be for some of the products. The salesclerk/owner said to me: "Well, actually the fact of the matter is that these are the same prices that we were selling goods at during the Boxing Day Sale last year." She said sales have been so down within her store that she is actually having to unload things just in the hope of being able to stay level. Things are not always coming our way.

I phoned my travel agent on Friday to book a flight I will need in the winter to go and preach somewhere. She was recounting to me the woes that she has in her industry. That with the collapse of one of the airlines, so much of her work is actually trying to deal with people who are stranded or who have lost money. And she said: "I really don't know, Andrew, even if there is a pick-up in the economy later on next year, whether many of us as travel agents are going to be able to survive the current crisis." Not everything is coming our way.

And just to top things off, this week I had lunch with an environmentalist who is a climatologist. I made the comment that it seems unduly warm these days, that usually around Grey Cup time I have my snow tires on and I have my woollies out and I'm ready to brave the cold, but now I'm going out in T-shirts and washing my car.

And he said, "Andrew, this is nothing new or a surprising. The fact is, our climate is changing dramatically and unless we do something it is going to change, actually, for the worse." Hard to convince me, though, that this is a bad thing, when it's 16 degrees on November the 17th! But, in fact, it is a bad thing. In fact, not everything is coming our way.

And so, this morning I want to combine two texts from the Bible that address the fact that not everything is coming our way, two texts that are separated by hundreds of years in time.

One of them is the story of the Feast of Booths that Lorraine read for us this morning, an ancient ritual that Israel celebrated. It was a celebration that would last eight days with a Sabbath at the beginning and a Sabbath at the end. It was a time when people made sacrifices, when people made sure that they had a time of rest, when they poured water as a libation, as a reminder of God providing rain when they were in the wilderness. Although this is a very ancient ritual, the meaning is very explicit: That when the people of Israel lived in the desert after they had left Egypt, they relied on God to provide them with shelter and sustenance and strength.

The other passage is a passage from Jesus in John's Gospel. We read that on the last day of this great feast that was probably the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Booths, Jesus says to his disciples: "If you will believe in me, streams of living water will pour out, and God's Holy Spirit will bless you. You will have the joy of life."

So, I want to bring theses two texts together. You might be saying, what has this got to do with a day in the middle of November? Well, this morning we have just baptized children into our church. We have just poured water onto their heads; we have reminded them and their parents that they belong to a covenant community. And just like the people of Israel when they had the Feast of Booths, the celebration of baptism is a reminder of two great truths. The first is: God is our shelter.

Our Manager of Communications brought to my attention this week that the title of this morning's sermon is much like the title of a song by The Rolling Stones: "Gimme Shelter." Now, I must admit I did not realize that, it's purely coincidence, so if any of you are looking for a little "Satisfaction" this morning, you are not going to get it!

But, "Give Me A Little Shelter" is what this text concerning the Tabernacles is all about. It talks about God's protection of the people when they were living in the wilderness.

It has been argued that only when Israel actually moved into Jerusalem, when it became an urban and a sophisticated nation, did it need to remind itself of the importance of this feast when they were originally in the wilderness. And the story of the Booths is the story of shelters, or branches that were placed over Israel to remind them that they were protected in a time of difficulty.

Years later, in a similar period for Israel, when the Psalms were written, the psalmist wrote something similar, he said, "Keep me as the apple of your eye and hide me in the shadow of your wings."

In other words, this was the symbolism of a psalm that was being used to sing during the Feast of Tabernacles as a reminder of God's eternal protection. Israel did not know why it was special. Israel often didn't know why it was chosen at all. But one of the things that Israel needed to be reminded of was that God had protected, saved and spared it when it was facing difficulty in the wilderness.

My friends, I believe that the same is true even to this day. God acts as our shelter. Now, there are some people who pour scorn on this idea. I think, for example, of what I have been reading this last week, of a man in New York City who believes that his life was spared by God preserving him amidst the collapse of the World Trade Center. Oh, people have scoffed at this man. They say: "Oh, is God so arbitrary that he would save you, but he's not going to save the people that were killed? What kind of a God is this?" So they laugh at this man.

Well, if you take their criticism to its logical and its ultimate conclusion, it would imply then that God preserves and shelters no one. That the whole of the Bible, the story of God's chosen people is, in fact, a lie or a ruse. That God does not save or shelter people. And, so a finger is being pointed at this man, and people laugh at him because he believes that he was spared.

The same is true, I think, of something that the Reverend Harries pointed out for me this past week. He phoned me on Friday, and I do wish you wouldn't do that, John, because I've already got my sermon neatly planned by Friday! But it was a very profound point that John made.

He said, "Have you read the story of the two young women in Afghanistan, the Currie girl and the Mercer girl?" Both of them represented an organization called "Shelter Now." So I went back and I looked at the organization's web site. There is something very interesting about the nature of the mission of that place, and I want to quote it to you:

"The purpose of 'Shelter' is to respond quickly and with compassion to those who, as the result of war, persecution, and natural disaster are homeless and who are in desperate need of shelter and in so doing to be instruments of Christ's love for all people and especially the poor."

Now, there is a lesson in all of this. These young women believe that their lives were spared in the midst of the agony of this war, in order that they can help others. This man who was saved from the calamity of the World Trade Center genuinely believes that he was protected by God in order that he could bear witness to God's grace and God's love. These are not people who feel that, arbitrarily, they are any more important that anyone else. Rather, they are people who believe they have been spared in order that they can do good. They believe that the reason that God chooses people is not pernicious or arbitrary, but that He calls people to serve others within the world.

Recently I was reading "A Man Called Peter," the biography of Peter Marshall; by his wife Catherine. There is a wonderful moment in Peter's young life in Bamburgh, in the north of England, near the border of Scotland. It's a real dark and moorish place.

One night, Peter was walking through the moors to a neighbouring town, it was, to use his language, "as black as ink, you couldn't see a thing." As Peter was walking along the moor he said he heard a voice: "Peter."

He stopped, looked around and saw nothing. And then he kept on going and there was a louder voice:

"Peter, Peter!"

And he stopped dead in his tracks. He couldn't see anything, had no idea where he was going and he was wondering who was calling him. So he got on his knees and he felt around in front of him and realized that he was standing, literally, a inch from a huge quarry. Had he taken one more step, he would have fallen to his death.

Peter Marshall looked back on that moment and he said, "I don't know where that voice came from, but I know whose it was. I know I was saved in that moment, not just for myself but in order that I might be able to bear witness in the rest of my life."

You see, my friends, the Feast of Tabernacles is a reminder that God still shelters us, that God still guides and preserves us, not because we are by virtue any more wonderful than anybody else, but in order that our lives might be used for the service of others and for the glory of God. That is why Israel was called "the chosen people."

But, there is a second theme, and that is the theme of the Sabbath. At the two ends of this great story, there is a Sabbath day's rest to begin the feast and to end it. And the Sabbath was very important to the people of Israel.

In the culture in which we live today, I think it has become less and less important, and one of the reasons it has is that different peoples celebrate the Sabbath on different days. That's not an excuse not to celebrate the Sabbath when our particular faith tradition calls for it. There is a need, I believe, for the Sabbath, and the people of Israel were reminded of this - to take a day aside, a time aside in order that they might renew themselves and remember what God had done.

The great philosopher Socrates once said: "The unexamined life is not worth living." One of the great dangers in our culture at the moment is that we are not taking the time to examine our own lives. We're so busy rushing, doing the things that we think that we should, ought, or must do that we don't take that time. So, we are becoming a shallow culture. We're becoming a culture without depth, a culture without an examination of the eternal verities and the things that matter, without asking ourselves our reason for being and our purpose for existing.

One of the great dangers is that with all the noise and with all the movement and with all this rush, we do not have a Sabbath, a time set aside to examine ourselves and our relationship with God.

This time last year I was back in my hometown of Manchester, in England, and I saw a huge billboard not far from the house where my uncle used to live. The billboard was for a cellular phone company. The sign said: "Everyone, everywhere, all the time." The goal of this company was to make sure that everyone could be reached everywhere, all of the time. Now, I don't know about you, but that's my definition not of Heaven, but of hell on earth, to be quite honest.

But, this is one of the expectations that we have: that you never actually get away! You never have a Sabbath, a time away with God to examine yourselves, because the expectation of employers is that you are always to be reached. 24/7, is that not the rhyme of the day? My God, 24/7! Even the Lord doesn't do 24/7. He rests, and He works 24/6, and on the seventh day, rests.

If you don't think this is an aggravating concept, you should have seen what I went through earlier this month, when I was at a prayer breakfast. I had given what I thought was a very meaningful, deep and inspiring speech (which for me is rare, so I remembered it). Afterwards, we had a time of intercessory prayer, and during this time of intercessory prayer when we were quiet and waiting on the Lord, (you know what happened, don't you?) a cellphone rang. Right in the middle of it. But, it wasn't just: beep, beep, beep, it was the theme tune for Bonanza! I thought it was the 1812 overture but, no, I was assured it was the theme tune for Bonanza.

And just at a moment, that salient moment, when we were praying for the plight of the people in Afghanistan, this wretched thing goes off. And, I thought to myself, that is a symbol of the age in which we live. It is a symbol of noise where we do not listen, we do not take the time to have a Sabbath, to be quiet before our living God. One of the great dangers to not having a Sabbath is that we don't take time to pray.

I was very moved in watching Nelson Mandela yesterday in Toronto. I was thinking back to something that happened many years ago, on the day he was released in Cape Town.

One of the first places that he went was to visit his good friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in a place known as Bishop's Court. One of the things that Mandela stressed on the first day that he was out was that he wanted to send a word of thanks to the World Council of Churches. He wanted to send a word of thanks to Bishop Tutu himself, and to all the Christians throughout the world who, through the years of his incarceration on Robben Island, had lifted him up in prayer. "I want to thank you," he said, "for the prayers that have been offered on my behalf."

Lo and behold, as I read the article John gave me from the Toronto Star, there is a report from President Bush after he had spoken to the two young women in Afghanistan. This is what he had to say: "They both said to say thanks to everyone for their prayers, for they realize that there is a good and gracious God and their spirits were high."

You see, my friends, if we don't take a Sabbath rest, we often don't take the time to pray. And if we don't take the time to pray, then God's shelter, God's protection is often not recognized. Jesus said that when the Spirit comes, streams of living water, streams of the fountain of God's grace would pour upon us. But we are so busy, so wrapped up in our lives that we do not take the time to open ourselves and therefore do not experience the streams of living water. So wrapped up in our own existence and charging around that we do not take time, like those two young women, to go even into the midst of a terrible situation to help refugees and to be their shelter. So wrapped up that we do not give thought to the peoples of the world who are crying out for God's protection and desiring in their hearts that somebody, somewhere will pray for them.

On this great sacrament of Baptism, as we remember the Feast of Tabernacles, let us recall that it is God who gives us shelter if we will take the time to recognize it. Amen.

This is a verbatim transcription of the original sermon.