Sermon Archives

Sanctuary

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Jan 22

Texts: Leviticus 19:33-34, Hebrews 13:1-2 and Ephesians 2:19-22

What a week this has been. I saw some of you yesterday at the Women’s March on Boston Common. I was trying to meet up with a few of you until our phone lines went down, and I know many more of you were there. Who was there, yesterday? (Show of hands.) I heard that Susie Longfield marched in Auckland, NZ! And some of us were in Washington D.C. If you see anyone this morning who’s looking particularly zombie-like, be kind. It may be that she’s been on an overnight bus home from D.C.

It is becoming clear that things will be different with this new administration. Different in many ways, one of which may be in the area of immigration. Let us be clear from the outset that President Obama’s administration deported a record number of undocumented immigrants—more than any other administration ever. That is our baseline.

Candidate Trump made immigration enforcement a central theme of his campaign, sparking concerns that his administration will be more aggressive still, in enforcement, possibly dividing families and targeting individuals who have been relatively assured of safe refuge in the U.S. We do not know yet what will happen. But the promises of the new administration are prompting a new sanctuary movement. This is the moment in which we find ourselves.

I want to speak about sanctuary today because as a congregation we are beginning some conversations, and because sanctuary will be a consideration at our Annual Meeting next Sunday, January 29. More about that later. My purpose this morning is not to argue for a particular position, but to situate the concept of sanctuary within our scriptural and religious tradition.

Many of us think primarily of physical shelter when we think of sanctuary, but it’s more than providing housing. The New York City Sanctuary Coalition defines sanctuary as “moral, spiritual, psychological, financial, legal, and sometimes physical support for people who are about to be detained or deported.” (1)

In our everyday lives and recent history, we know of many who need sanctuary. Some will remember the sanctuary movement of the 1980s and ‘90s, in which congregations across the country took in refugees who were fleeing violence (often civil war) in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. U.S. involvement in destabilizing those countries—some argued—was an imperative for offering shelter who were fleeing from the ensuing violence.

But the need for sanctuary is also simple and close to home. Sometimes, we get word of a student who needs short-term housing, while they work out their immigration status post-graduation. Just last month when there was a terrible fire in East Cambridge members of our congregation offered shelter and assistance. Maybe one of our own children is looking for work and living at home—something so intimately familiar to many of us that we hardly think of it in these terms. It’s simply what families do.

But there are global tragedies, too. Historically, we think of Raoul Wallenberg, who set up safe houses around Budapest to harbor Jews who were fleeing the Nazis, or the Dutch family that hid Anne Frank.

More recently, we have all seen images and heard horrific stories of the Syrian refugee crisis. It may be that our nation’s doors are so firmly shut to Syrian immigrants that we will not have an opportunity to offer shelter.

Two summers ago, here at First Church, we had visiting speakers from the LGBT Asylum Seekers, an organization based in Worcester. These Asylum Seekers are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human rights refugees who have fled their home countries under threat of violence and death. They come from places where the very nature of who they are is prohibited by law.

As Christians, how shall we respond to such needs? We know that radical welcome is central to Christ’s gospel. We know that hospitality is a spiritual practice the embodies who we are as followers of Jesus. But do we also know that the practice of sanctuary is rooted deep in the Hebrew Scriptures?

There was an ancient Israelite tradition of creating “cities of refuge” to which anyone who “kills a person without intent” can flee. The Torah appoints six cities of refuge, geographically dispersed throughout Israel and Judah, so that anyone fleeing for their life could reach a refuge city within a day’s travel. It even specifies that the roads to such cities must be clearly marked and in good condition, presenting no impedance to passage. These cities are enumerated in Exodus, Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Joshua.

Those seeking refuge were supposed to report to an authority in the asylum city, not to simply disappear into thin air. My research has not revealed exactly how (or how often) these cities of refuge were used, and how the practicalities played out. But the underlying principles are clear: persons should be protected from vengeance and from disproportionate punishment. All deserve a fair trial.

This tradition of asylum cities may apply to some contemporary cases of refugees seeking sanctuary in the U.S. Some refugees may have broken the law. They may be in the country illegally. But tradition may compel us to ask, what consequences are proportional? What do justice and mercy require? Are we called, in some way, to provide sanctuary?

I want to be clear that I am not advocating for any specific action or stance. I am with many of you: I need to sort this through—in my own heart and conscience, with this congregation—in light of this historical moment.

In addition to the Israelite tradition of sanctuary cities, there something basic for us to consider: Who we are as a household of God. (As we sang in our opening hymn, “The household of God has room for us all.”) In the offer of sanctuary, I believe our fundamental identity is at stake.

Our morning scriptures point to it, but here’s a vivid example from yesterday’s Women’s March in Boston. Claudia Fox Tree, a local activist of Arawak Nation, addressed participants. She greeted the crowd of about 175,000 saying, “On behalf of the Wampanoag, first inhabitants of this land, on behalf of Water Protectors—the Standing Rock Sioux, on behalf of all First Nations Peoples, welcome—everyone else!” (2)

Fox Tree flipped the script, reminding us that most of us have immigrant ancestors. Whether our forebears were fleeing violence or oppression, seeking economic opportunity or a better life, whether they came willingly, or were brought here by force, most of us were “strangers and aliens” on this soil once.

Fox Tree’s comments are particularly helpful to comfortable white folks whose families have been around long enough for us to become complacent and entitled. Again, as our scriptures remind us— we were all “strangers and aliens” once.

Those of us who feel secure in our privilege may not wish to be reminded of our vulnerability. But perhaps this is the uncomfortable truth at the heart of the gospel. That in our beloved-ness by God, none of us is more entitled than any other to safety, security, respect and dignity. And that it is our collective responsibility to assure this safety and dignity for all. Leviticus makes it clear: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy… You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 19:2)

There’s a logic of the heart at play, here, a wisdom of relationship. Leviticus reminds us not to set ourselves apart, or build our identities around a sense of entitlement and deserving. We, too, are vulnerable. We, too, have been sojourners. Our own experiences of being “othered” place a moral and spiritual claim on us that steers us toward lovingkindness, mercy and justice.

Sanctuary is not only about providing shelter. It is fundamentally about whether we see ourselves as connected and “at one” with sojourners among us.

In the 1970s, my family was touched by Vietnamese refugees who came to the U.S. in search of political asylum. My grandparents’ UCC Church in Southern California took in the Nguyen family, providing housing, clothing and legal assistance, and helping the children get settled in school.

The Nguyen family had legal immigrant status in the U.S., so providing sanctuary for them did not incur legal risks for the congregation. But it was a lot of work- a big commitment! It was also the beginning of rich and enduring friendships. Such intimate friendships that the Nguyens called my grandparents “Mom” and “Dad.” Decades later, when my grandmother died, the entire Nguyen family came to her funeral. And they took our family out to an elegant meal in L.A.’s Little Saigon, in honor of those relationships. My grandparents had come to cherish that family and the feeling was mutual!

There are many ways to provide sanctuary. One of you sent me a beautiful and powerful story of an Arizona congregation, about 45 minutes from the Mexican border, that had a practice of going at night into the desert to leave water and warm clothes for those attempting the hazardous (and illegal!) border crossing from Mexico.

In the coming weeks, we will consider if any of us—as individuals—might wish to participate in the new sanctuary movement. We will consider whether First Church might wish to partner with other local congregations, as part of a wider sanctuary network. And even—possibly—whether we might wish to provide physical sanctuary to a family or individual. (You can see these categories spelled out on the Sanctuary FAQs Sheet on your bulletin insert. Please take it home and study it.)

Did you notice, friends, that when we welcomed new members this morning, our scriptural grounding was in these very same verses from Ephesians that I’ve been speaking about? “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

In closing, I charge you to study the issue of sanctuary, to become informed, to ask the questions that are essential to your personal discernment and to our congregational discernment.

To be emphatically clear, we are not voting next week on whether to declare ourselves a Sanctuary Church! We are voting whether or not to explore the question with earnest deliberation, open to the possibility that—in some way yet to be discerned—we may be called to offer sanctuary.

What does it mean for us to be “the household of God?” How radical is our welcome? What risks will we take? What does the gospel require of us? Will we sing together one day, “Lord prepare us, to be a sanctuary?” and mean it in the most literal sense?

1) Donna Schaper, “Sanctuary Movement Sees Post-Election Resurgence,” Sojourners, 12-05-2016.
2) A paraphrase of Claudia Fox Tree’s words. Find more on Claudia Fox Tree here: http://www.mcnaa.org/claudia-fox-tree.html