Precentor - Revd Canon Gilly Myers
I am not one of those people who loves to go away in a tent. I’ll go to a festival, but I’ll stay in a hotel up the road. Give me a proper roof over my head any day.
What we were hearing about in the reading from Nehemiah, then, would be quite a challenge for me: it was the celebration of a Jewish festival during which everyone built themselves a shelter made of leafy branches and lived in it for a week:
‘Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths...’
And, according to our reading from Nehemiah, this is what all of the people did, when they returned to Jerusalem after the Exile in Babylon, and rediscovered the teachings contained in their sacred scriptures.
The Festival of Booths – sometimes called the Festival of tabernacles or shelters, or Sukkot, has dual significance as the origins are both historical and agricultural.
Historically, it commemorates the 40-years of wandering in the wilderness between the escape from Egypt, and crossing into the Promised Land – a period during which the people of Israel lived only in temporary shelters. Always on the move.
Agriculturally it celebrates the gathering in of the harvest – and, in actual fact, the Hebrew word for the Festival, Sukkot, is the plural of the word that describes the temporary dwellings in which the farmers would live during the harvesting of the crops.
So this feast has historical symbolism, looking back to the wilderness days, as well as a seasonal agricultural theme of thanksgiving for the provision of the harvest. It is a reminder of the dependence of the Israelites upon God that was so very tangible in the desert wastes, and of God’s steadfastness.
In the days of the Jerusalem Temple it was one of the three main pilgrimage festivals when every adult male had to go to up to Jerusalem. It was probably at the Feast of Sukkot that Jesus went to teach and speak out in the Temple – as recorded in Chapter 7 of John’s Gospel.
And it continues to be a significant Jewish festival. When I was at school my Jewish friends all had constructions of branches in their back gardens for a week in the Autumn. I can’t remember if they slept out there – though some people do, but they certainly ate meals in those shelters – and I found it very intriguing.
This year (2019), as it happens, the Festival of Sukkot ends at nightfall this evening.
We had our harvest festival here last weekend – but what about the booths? You already know that I don’t fancy camping in a tent. An earthy floor in a shelter made of leafy branches doesn’t sound much more appealing to me, even if we were to be in a milder Mediterranean climate at this time of year.
However - the festival of booths or shelters has called to mind for me the people I have seen this week living in fragile shelters or none: crouching in doorways on Borough High Street; sleeping on stone paving in plain sight of security guards in Piccadilly (because it is simply too dangerous to sleep at night time, when you can be mugged, attacked and robed); or the pile of damp sleeping bags left behind under London Bridge by people who have awoken with the dawn and moved on for the day, perhaps looking for somewhere warmer and safer; somewhere that holds hope.
The festival of booths of shelters has called to mind for me a bus journey I had in Malta last month, and the huge field full of refugees that suddenly appeared over the horizon without any announcement. It was unexpectedly there before us. One minute we were simply travelling through the countryside; the next… rank upon rank of temporary shelters; group upon group of young men with apparently nothing to do and nowhere to go – hanging around; older men – huddled under the shelter of a spreading tree from the scorching midday sun. It was as if everything in that field was on pause. As if it was a figment of my imagination – but it wasn’t, it was real. And then, just as suddenly, we had gone past and left it behind.
These were just some of the millions of refugees the world around, who have fled their homes – men, women, children; babes in arms and the elderly. Displaced and homeless.
This is what the Festival of shelters has called to my mind. For there are still people the world around wandering in a proverbial wilderness, where dangers are close by and hope is hard to grasp hold of.
If I needed reminding of the power and value of community symbolic action to call important truths to mind – I have it right here in this Jewish Festival. And it most certainly makes me remember to be thankful, and to remember those in need both in prayer and action.
Let us pray
- For all who are homeless or displaced this night;
- For all who seek to relief their suffering; for preparations for the Robes Winter night Shelter;
- For thankful hearts for our homes and loved ones.
- For all who are in need this night;
- For the sick, lonely, frightened and the bereaved;
- For those we name in the silence of our hearts now…
- For peace and justice in our world.
Lord, in your mercy…
Finally, let us pray for
- For Elizabeth our Queen and all who serve in Government and Parliament in these troubled days of our nation:
God of reconciling hope,
as you guided your people in the past
guide us through the turmoil of the present time
and bring us to that place of flourishing
where our unity can be restored,
the common good served
and all shall be made well.
In the name of Jesus we pray.
We draw our prayers together, as we say: