Gospel: Luke 12:49-56 [Jesus said:] 49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” 54He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was growing up, I knew sanctuary to mean one thing. It meant the room inside the church building where we gather for worship on Sundays. When I grew older, a liturgical manual told me I was wrong, that the sanctuary was only the little part of this space that is inside the altar rail, and that the bulk of this worship space is really called the nave, which comes from the Latin word for ship. If you turn this space upside down, it might even resemble such a ship!
Just over a week ago, in our Churchwide Assembly, a resolution was passed declaring the entire ELCA to be a sanctuary body. If we were to go all the way back to my childhood understanding of sanctuary, that would be easy, because all congregations have worship spaces, even if they are in gymnasiums or on the shores of Lake Superior.
Even my later understanding could be easily adopted by nearly everyone, because we all regularly bring out the bread and the wine to participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion gathered at least toward a smaller space or several smaller spaces.
If only it were that easy…
Right away after the sanctuary body resolution was passed, a news program gathered a panel of three people to respond to this resolution. None on the panel were ELCA. None were present for the discussion that led to its passing. All seemed to assume that the resolution would either require or at least encourage the entire church body to shun the law and illegally shelter criminals. (This is not what the resolution does.)
In recent months, there have been cities in the United States that have declared themselves to be “Sanctuary Cities.” These are cities that limit their cooperation with our national government’s efforts to enforce immigration law. This is likely what the people on that news program were thinking in their quick response to the resolution our church body passed.
Andrew Lewis, an ELCA pastor in Macon, GA, then published a pastoral letter on his congregation’s website with the expressed hope of addressing any concerns that might be raised by the news panel I mentioned earlier. The letter was reportedly widely shared.
And that’s where today’s Gospel reading comes in.
Another ELCA pastor responds angrily, accusing the first of deflating the statement with his letter, including a Bible quote about God spitting out those who are lukewarm, and noting the first pastor’s race and gender as white and male… (The angry pastor is also white and male, but apparently since he’s on the other side, it must matter less…) He believes we should all be installing shower facilities in our buildings to shelter those who enter the country illegally.
We are against one another in many ways, and this sanctuary resolution is one more in a long line of issues that people use to try to prove how one side is right making everyone else wrong and encouraging us to despair promising this is never going to work.
How many denominations of the Christian Church exist in this world? How many within this community? Is dividing and separating the only way we can all get along?
A deacon on synod staff in the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA named Erin Power shares what sanctuary looks like in her synod, which borders Mexico from California through the western part of Texas:
-Offering temporary hospitality in our congregations to families released from detention
-supporting sanctuary coalitions
-being present as the church at immigration hearings of unaccompanied migrant minors
-Hosting border immersions for folks to learn about the realities of the immigration system
-hosting ESL classes
-Offering our sanctuaries so communities can worship in their own language
- providing Bible study and worship in Spanish in the women's prison
-Working with our advocacy offices and other networks for just immigration policies
-Financially supporting the work of LIRS and Lutheran Family Services
She says the list could go on.
Bishop Pedro M. Suarez of the Florida-Bahamas Synod also published a letter. In his summary points he says:
- The Churchwide Assembly did not call for any illegal actions. All actions mentioned by the Churchwide Assembly are legal, and whether any person or organization chooses to engage in civil disobedience (and therefore accept the consequences) is up to them;
He continues in the body of his letter, “In the ELCA, each congregation will decide how and if it will be involved in sanctuary ministry. This decision by the Churchwide Assembly does not mandate or obligate congregations to do anything specifically. In its simplest form, becoming a sanctuary denomination means that the ELCA is publicly declaring that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith. The ELCA Churchwide Assembly, the highest legislative authority of the ELCA, declared that when we preach on Sunday that Jesus told us to welcome, we will use our hands and voices on Monday to make sure it happens.” Later he adds, “Welcoming people is not a political issue for us, it is a matter of faith.”
At its root, “sanctuary” really means “holy space” or “holy place.” The Assembly Action, however, is not about our buildings. It refers specifically to immigration. It recognizes long-term and growing commitment of the ELCA to migrants and refugees, and the legal work toward immigration laws that are just. It asks for more transparency and suggestions for our future work for just immigration. Where the action declares the ELCA to be a sanctuary body, however, there is no clear definition.
There is no clear legal definition for sanctuary cities in the United States of America either.
Finally, we are left to live our lives in the freedom of the Gospel, even while we sit here beside neighbors with whom we may disagree on one matter or another. We are here in this “holy space” (the building) discerning how we ourselves can be “holy space” in community. How that might entail any one of us, or any group of us, working with people working to immigrate to this country, I cannot say, and I’m not sure I want to know! Immigration law is not my area of expertise!
Doing my best to help you to be your best is why I am here. Encouraging you to be holy, to function in your life out there as a child of God, sharing God…
How can you be “holy space” for the people you encounter? How are you “sanctuary” in this community? Let us ensure that people in this world are reminded that sanctuary is much more than the narrow understanding shouted in the headlines. Sanctuary is holy space… in Jesus’ name.