"Sanctuary", A sermon preached by Kathleen Tice and John Medeiros
University Baptist Church, November 27, 2016
A pastor and two lawyers walked into a room …
Well, we’re Baptists and nobody told us we couldn’t. You might say that we’re celebrating so many things today that it will take more than one person to bring the Word. Today is the first Sunday of Advent and thus the beginning of the church liturgical year. At the beginning of every year we have a theme for the new year which is quite broad --it’s about peace and justice with an emphasis on the criminal justice system and other systems that keep us from living fully in God’s gracious loving-kindness. In adopting our theme, we wanted to emphasize that the theme is not just for study and discussion, its purpose is to participate in and do something.
A dominant part of the theme this year will be focused on the criminal justice system in general and many other things more specifically, so the worship team thought it might prove useful to invite a couple of attorneys from our congregation to be a part of this opening service of the year.
Our first text, from Isaiah, is the text for the beginning of the church year. It is set during a time of war. In the prior chapter, (Chapter1), the “holy” city of Jerusalem is accused of murder, rebellion, injustice, and corruption (Isaiah 1:21 – 23).
21 How the faithful city
has become a whore!
She that was full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her—
but now murderers!
22 Your silver has become dross,
your wine is mixed with water.
23 Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not come before them.
The texts immediately following claim that God’s people have forsaken God’s ways. The vision that Isaiah has is not taking place now but will be “in the days to come.” People of every nation will stream to Mt. Zion and will be transferred by this teaching. This teaching is looking forward as we are looking forward in Advent toward the birth and the promise—the promise that…
they shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their Spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
This is a text of hope, which we’re all looking for. We’re hoping – longing--for that time when we shall learn war no more. We are looking for justice and peace.
In the advent of this new year and the shock and fear of our recent election, people of faith are asking again “what can we do?” If we look back to history what lessons can we learn about bringing God’s love to bear on these 21st Century kinds of warfare. Warfare like elections filled with lies, for instance, and attacks on human decency in the form of mass deportation of people who are other than we are.
Sanctuary is an old idea. And sanctuary is a new idea – a big idea—a spiritual idea. It means different things to different people, as we discussed with Denise a few minutes ago.
There are not only physical places we long for – a cabin in the mountain say, or just a quiet place to seek spiritual solace: sanctuary. Since the election, more and more folk have probably thought of sanctuary. Think Canada.
Just last Fall some of us read the book, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson-- all about people who have been incarcerated illegally.
That led us to thinking about immigration and immigrants – especially undocumented ones—a vast population of folks who are in grave danger who might benefit from sanctuary.
President-elect Trump and many Republicans can’t seem to move quickly enough to figure out how to deport everyone they don’t approve of-- breaking up families in many cases.
Of course, this is already happening and has been for years. The church I served in New Jersey rented out some of our space to other congregations just as we do here UBC. One group was an Indonesian congregation that was very cooperative in our small congregation, bringing their choir to some of our special functions and taking part in our Christmas pageants and other services. The pastor and his wife had 2 teenage boys—one in collage and one in high school, and a beautiful baby girl. We went in one morning and Mama and Papa and baby were gone—back to Indonesia. ICE had come in the night and split this family up – and they did it to a church group! No sanctuary there. The boys have by now finished college and are still there with the church, doing their ministry –their sister and parents back in Indonesia, praying for justice.
Again, as the church, we think we should do something but aren’t sure what. We ask what can we do? How can we help? Does the Bible tell us anything definitive? What would Isaiah do?
When we look to the Bible for answers it’s not immediately clear. Hospitality has long been high on the list of rules to live by.
We read in Leviticus 19:33 to welcome the stranger. It says, “when a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong… he shall be as native among you and you shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Jim Wallis of Sojourners calls this “the Levitical immigration policy.”
I like it, but it’s not really a mandate.
And in Hebrews 13:2
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Nice but again, not a mandate – more like prooftexting.
If we dig a little deeper in the Hebrew Bible we find some instructions about what to do with sojourners who have accidentally killed somebody. Under a strict “eye-for-an-eye” system if your chain saw slipped and your neighbor was in the way and got killed, death to you. But the right of asylum was recognized in Jewish law and Sanctuary Towns were created from the get-go. So, a person who had treacherously and intentionally sullied his hands with blood could find no refuge at the altar of God. At the same time, though, protection was granted to those who had unintentionally taken the life of another (Deuteronomy 19:2-7).
A man who had accidentally caused death to another person could flee to a city of refuge – an appointed Levitical city, where he could stay, safe from the avenger of blood, until the issue was settled and he could leave the city of refuge safely.
The cities were to be distributed proportionately through the nation, so that where there were larger populations and larger areas of land, there would be more Levitical cities, so that no one in Israel would be far from a city of refuge.
The magistrates of each city were responsible to survey the road to their satisfaction, making certain that the road was clear of all debris and easily passable. There must be no obstacles in the way which would hinder anyone who might flee to the cities of refuge. The magistrates would send out work crews to remove all large rocks and fallen trees from the road, taking greatest possible care to remove every stumbling block. Any low places in the road would be filled any high places would be leveled.
To justify his claim to immunity the fugitive had to prove to the authorities of the sanctuary or town that his deed was unpremeditated. After submitting his evidence, he could remain within the prescribed precincts. He could not return to his old home, nor could he appease the avenger by money. Thus, he became virtually a prisoner within the boundaries of the city to which he had fled. And now in He could leave it only at the risk of his life at the hands of the avenger of blood. Whether his family could join him in his exile is not clear, either. His salvation was tied to the magistrate of the city of refuge—as long as he—the magistrate-- lived, the sojourner lived, and when he died the sojourner was atoned for and finally free.
It seems to me that in the final analysis the instructions about the cities of refuge alone don’t spell out a mandate. However, when you put all the Scripture in the Hebrew Bible, including many texts of hospitality, together with the spirit of the law in the New Testament as epitomized in Matthew 25:35
35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…
it seems clear then that giving sanctuary is not just a spiritual act, it is a spiritual imperative.
Throughout the ages there have been many examples of sanctuary offered to people fleeing violence, such as convents housing battered women in the Middle Ages, the Underground Railroad helping slaves escape to freedom in the 19th century, and families hiding European Jews from the Nazi terror in the 20th century." One example worth addressing that moves toward the end times described in the Isaiah 2 scripture, is the re-imagining of sanctuary begun by the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s: (1) first, to understand flight from poverty as form of flight from violence; and (2) second, to understand sanctuary as the goal of justice work.
The Sanctuary Movement began when a Presbyterian minister by the name of John Fife wanted to help Central American refugees apply for asylum in the United States. He started a non-profit organization to help them do so, but of the 13,000 applications filed, only 328 were approved.
Those whose applications were denied were sent back to their home countries to suffer under the very people they were fleeing from. Fife started a secret smuggling operation, and this became known as the Sanctuary Movement.
Based on the original Judeo-Christian concept of sanctuary, member churches declared themselves official “sanctuaries” and committed themselves to providing food, shelter, and legal advice. Soon over 500 churches joined the movement, including Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Jews, Unitarian Universalists, Quakers, and Menonites.
This, of course, was done in defiance of the law. At trial, Fife and the other defendants argued that this was the call of the Gospel and an exercise of religion. The movement won the sympathies of many, and in 1984 it received an international human rights award.
Are we prepared to be this kind of Sanctuary?
Fast forward 15 years. An initiative known as the New Sanctuary Movement took shape with coalitions of congregations in major cities throughout the country. As immigration increased, these congregations opened their doors to provide refuge to those facing deportation. But the New Sanctuary Movement focused its energies on passing policy and legislation to stop or slow down the deportations. It ultimately helped influence the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize its deportations to help keep families together, and it played a role in shaping President Obama’s Executive Actions on Immigration, which offered benefits through executive orders after Congressional inaction. The New Sanctuary Movement takes the idea of sanctuary beyond its traditional meaning by stepping outside traditional sanctuary walls to fight for immigration reform.
Rev. Alison Harrington is the pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church, in Tucson, where the Sanctuary Movement began. She writes, “[S]anctuary is more than a specific tactic used to fight a deportation order. It is a grounding principle that seeks to maintain safe places where protection is found from persecution. And the geography of sanctuary, as a principle, reaches beyond the walls of a house of worship; true sanctuary has no borders and is not bound to a specific organizing group. Instead, the need to create Sanctuary space is essential for all social movements.” This is particularly true for those communities most vulnerable under our new Administration – including members of the LGBT community, our Muslim neighbors, women, and people of color.
Are we prepared to be this kind of Sanctuary?
Even today, the concept of Sanctuary exists in our own communities. Cities across the country – including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, and St. Paul – have declared themselves Sanctuary Cities. This means that the city will not use its local resources – including its police force – to enforce federal immigration laws or assist federal immigration authorities. Under our new Administration, these cities run the risk of losing federal funds for providing such sanctuary. Deportation reform activist Marisa Franco takes the evolving idea of sanctuary a step further:
“Sanctuary is a spiritual stance. It recognizes that oppression is trying to fill our lives with fear and blood and daily numbing horror, but not here. Not in my home. Not in my bed. Not in my movement. Sanctuary makes a ring of fire around our people. Sanctuary grants us a taste of reprieve and protection so we can gather strength to go out and fight again. Sanctuary is our duty.”
Are we prepared to be this type of Sanctuary?
And just last week a petition began circulating among the University of Minnesota community. The petition requests a number of things that help provide sanctuary, including
A commitment to nondiscrimination based on national origin
Providing legal counsel to members under threat of deportation
Preventing University police from working with immigration agents
Shielding student records from law enforcement
These are all types of Sanctuary. Are we prepared to be any of these?
Sanctuary is a spiritual stance. Sanctuary is our duty. If we adopt this view, where does it lead? It leads to a view of justice that eliminates boundaries of all kinds. It leads to a view that justice requires eradicating the need for sanctuary, to make the conditions associated with sanctuary—peace, security, safety—the norm rather than the exception.
So how do we do this?
We can walk in solidarity and accompany leaders in the struggle for civil and human rights;
We can make phone calls and write letters to our legislators demanding an end to actions that affect vulnerable communities;
We can provide friendship to the vulnerable;
We can provide financial support, taking care to respect the pride of those we seek to help;
We can sign petitions;
We can open our church space for other groups to gather and organize.
Are we prepared to be this kind of Sanctuary?
[invite ushers up to the front with the collection plates full of cards and safety pins]
By now most of us have heard of the Safety Pin movement inspired after the Brexit vote, where people began wearing safety pins as a symbol for standing up against sexism, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and xenophobia. By wearing a safety pin we declare ourselves allies and friends to marginalized groups. By wearing a safety pin we say to them “we are creating a safe place – a sanctuary – for you.” So today, we ask you to join us in wearing this symbol of solidarity and support.
But it is crucial to understand that by wearing the safety pin we are telling others that we are a safe space for the marginalized. All of the marginalized. We don’t get to pick and choose. We can’t protect LGBT people but ignore the Muslim woman who needs help.
We can’t stand for African-Americans who are dodging racial slurs but ignore the disabled person who is dealing with a physical attack. If we aren’t willing to stand up for everyone, we don’t wear the pin.
If we wear the safety pin, we are telling people we are willing to confront violence on their behalf. And if we’re not willing to do that, we don’t wear the pin.
As people of faith, we are called to offer sanctuary to those who need it.
And so join me in wearing the safety pin. And as we do so, let us read the message on the cards in unison:
As a person of faith, I am called to welcome the sojourner and love my neighbor. I wear this pin to offer sanctuary to those most vulnerable to sexism, Islamophobia, homophobia, racism, and xenophobia.
Sanctuary is no longer something provided by the relatively privileged on behalf of the displaced; it is a re-imagining of place to include as full citizens all who have entered. To paraphrase our affirmation, “there is neither welcoming nor welcomed, for we are all one…”
In the words of Danez Smith from the poem summer, somewhere:
no need for geography
now that we're safe everywhere.
point to whatever you please
& call it home, church, or sweet love.
paradise is a world where everything
is sanctuary and nothing is a gun.
Returning to the words of the prophet Isaiah:
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.