Abandonment and Shelter


Rev. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

October 28, 2018

Texts: 2 Samuel 10:15-19; Psalms 60-61

         It was Adriana who first told me about the cat. She first noticed it after a family down the road had moved out of town. It was wandering about but was obviously not a feral cat because it was so friendly. Her kids wanted her to take it in. She felt she couldn’t do that because one of her children is very disabled and she was concerned that he might hurt it.

         “What about Joyce?” her middle son asked. “She takes in stray cats.” True, I do. So, we began with putting out food in a dish, which the cat ate. Then next we put out the cat carrier with the food inside and sure enough the cat went in and I brought it home. Not sure how the cat would do in a house, I began by putting it in the basement. That’s where I keep the litter boxes. And the cat knew what to do and when I picked him up I was able to see that he had been neutered.

         Purring in my arms, I thought, who would abandon such a wonderful cat?  A year later, this cat has not only bonded with the other cats in my house but with me. I have to say I wish there was a way to appropriately punish people who abandon animals. Whether it’s cats or people, they should not be abandoned. It’s an awful feeling, being abandoned. When you’re abandoned, it seems like there’s nowhere to turn and often, no one seems to care.

          The cry of David’s Psalmist could not be more direct. “God, you have abandoned us, breached us.” The ancients believed that gods controlled their fates whether on the battlefield or at home. David’s plaintiff cry to a God he be-lieved was angry with the people is one of abandonment. How often others must have felt abandoned when delivered into the hands of those who would destroy them.

          Twenty years ago in October 1998, a man riding a bicycle down a country road near Laramie, Wyoming, saw

a strange sight. It was as if a scarecrow was moving, but as the man approached the figure, he saw that it was a human being who had been beaten and tied to a wire fence. Matthew Shepherd died six days later, the victim of a horrendous hate crime.

          Two men were convicted of first degree murder and received consecutive life sentences. Although they claimed that Shepard’s sexual orientation was not a factor, it was clear from the testimony that they picked him as a target because he was gay. The man who found him said as he realized Shepard was still alive, he saw a tear running down his cheek. How abandoned he must have felt.

          This past Friday, his ashes were interred in a crypt at the Washington National Cathedral following a service that overflowed the 4,000 seat building. Gene Robinson presided. As I listened to Bishop Robinson, I remember how very frightened I was for my own son who had just come out at the age of 15, obviously not in Wyoming but here in New Jersey, a relatively safe place. Or so it seemed.

         Tyler Clementi, too, felt utterly abandoned as a result of the cyberbullying he experienced and committed suicide in 2010. He was just three months shy of turning 19 years old. Some may try to argue that the abandonment of a nation, such as the one that David was leading is far more significant on a world stage than the death of an isolated individual; however, abandonment is not experienced by such abstractions as nation or people, but by individuals who then may collectively make up a nation or people.

          Shelter is a different experience, a different exper-ience altogether. Shelter is more than just a physical place to be protected from the elements – or danger. It is also a place where we find a respite from everything that troubles us, upsets us, and disquiets us. The shelter of the Psalmist in the sixty-first of these extraordinary outpourings of the spirit is in the realization that God is with us no matter what.

         It’s not a promise or even an expectation that every-thing will be all right, but an affirmation of faith, or trust – perhaps a better word here, that God has been with the Psalmist up to now and will continue to be with us up to the end of our days for those of us who trust in God.

        Much of the language, that is, the choice of words, reflects the fact that the Israelites had been a nomadic desert people before settling in the land of Canaan. Tents were places of refuge from the sun, the heat, and the wind and rain. Tents become symbolic for shelter here.

         The Psalmist asks to dwell in the shelter of God’s wings, a clear reference to the images of the cherubim with their wings at each end of the Ark which held the covenant with the people. In other words, we may say that we dwell within the shelter of God’s wings as long as we do not stray from the commitments we have made with God through God’s commandments.

         Those commandments, of course, referred to the commandments brought to the people by Moses from Sinai. Here we do not need to explore whether the event in Hebrew consciousness actually occurred. What counts for the Psalmist is that he and the people believed that it occurred, that inside of the structure known as the Ark the stone commandments existed.

          Part of our own trust in God may also be based on specific sets of beliefs but we may also experience moments of trust, of faith, based on our own experience of finding shelter in God’s wings, to use this lovely poetic expression. I believe that this is deeper and stronger than any one particular belief or even a set of beliefs. Our parti-cular beliefs may buttress our experience but they are no substitute for it.

         Shelter, like abandonment, is something we exper-ience, something we feel. This is not to negate the import-ance of physical shelter so necessary for all of us as human beings. During weekends such as this one with a Nor’easter or will have with the snow, I always wonder how the home-less survive especially now that they are being kicked out of train stations and subways.

          Not the kind of music I particularly care for, but in 1969 the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards composed a song entitled “Gimme Shelter.” For those of you who are old enough to remember, it was a time of national unrest, some of it spilling out into the streets. Following the tumultuous political events of 1968, demon-strations against the continued war in Vietnam pitted many of us against police and the military. The lyrics are certainly relevant today.

           Jagger’s lyrics reflect the interplay of the personal and the political: “Oh, a storm is threatening/My very life today,” he sings, reflecting the Psalmist’s cry directly to God for personal shelter, and then it moves into the political: “Ooh, see the fire is sweepin’/our very street today; war, children, it’s just a shot away.” And often that is how we feel we need shelter from the turmoil that surrounds us.

          There are times in our lives, of course, we have no idea where to go to get the shelter we need, whether it’s from our own spiritual crises of emptiness or despair or whether it’s from the constant turmoil we experience politi-cally. And there are charlatans out there offering us a false sense of shelter.

          The political ads this season provide perfect ex-amples of what I mean here. Now, here I am, listening to Sibelius or Mozart on YouTube as I write and all of a sud-den breaking into the music is a political ad likening a vote for a particular candidate as a vote protecting us from Osama Bin Laden and Islamic terrorism, whatever that means. “Gimme shelter,” I want to cry.

          The hoped for shelter that many in the LGBTI community had counted on over the last few years seems to be dissipating in the wake of announcements that gender identity doesn’t exist, only some external signs of gender at birth. Although the highest suicide rate in the nation is among white males 45 to 54 years old, the rate among gay and transgender teens is significantly higher than the general population. Have we not learned anything at all about despair and political reality?  It sure doesn’t seem so.

          Twenty years ago this past month even the heter-osexual community was shocked and deeply moved by Matthew Shepherd’s death. But the virulence of the rhetoric we are experiencing today pushes us back to another era. There’s certainly been an abandonment of civil discussion of political differences, not to mention the idea of com-promise.

          Compromise used to be considered a means by which we as a nation could accomplish anything at all. In the musical 1776 Benjamin Franklin counsels John Adams to compromise on the issue of slavery in the Declaration of Independence. It was a terrible compromise we know for the new Nation carried the burden of that decision into a Civil War. But our new Nation would have not been born had there been no compromise. It was an awful choice.                Faced with such choices in our personal and political lives, there are issues on which we cannot compromise, such as basic human rights. We cannot abandon commun-ities seeking shelter.

          Some of those communities are, of course, immi-grants, such as those forced from Honduras by their own government-serving companies seeking land for palm oil production, others are the many refugees forced from war torn countries. Others are our own people seeking equal protection under the law. They cannot be abandoned by moving on as was my poor cat that needed the shelter of a home.

          God is indeed our shelter in these times and in response to the shelter we need and seek, we should extend God’s shelter to others. And that shelter should be more than a crypt even in a cathedral.

          Let us pray: We come to you, O God, to be sheltered under your wings of mercy, justice and peace. Help us to be witnesses of your shelter to those who need it and seek it. In the name of the One who is your shelter for all, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.