Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Practice of Sanctuary

In 1986, during the height of the Central American crisis, a pastor I consider a hero and mentor, was arrested and convicted of violating federal immigration law. He had opened his church as a sanctuary for migrants fleeing the civil wars of El Salvador and Guatemala. He and a network of churches had created a kind of underground railroad, where they provided shelter and services to people fleeing intense violence and oppression. And they broke the law to do it.

I met John Fife many years later, during a seminary trip, where he sat in the churchyard where he created this sanctuary in Tucson, AZ. There was a memorial in that yard to those who had lost their lives cross the border and John sat back in cowboy boots as he remembered the days when he faced trial and possible jail time for following what he believed to be the call of the gospel. What I remember most is how he closed his talk. He got a big smile on his face, looked at all of us seminarians, and drawled; “Just remember one thing: the bastards never win in the end.”

The practice that John Fife was using, the practice of sanctuary is an old one. The term itself originates in England and medieval Europe, during a time when the church could harbor any person accused of a crime and advocate for them with the authorities. In the United States, it is a practice that has been used many times, and usually in defiance of the law itself. It was used during the time of slavery, when runaway slaves would take refuge in houses and churches as they made their way north in the Underground Railroad. This was illegal, according to the Supreme Court at the time, but it was deeply rooted in faith and a commitment to a gospel that proclaimed freedom for all. It was used in the civil rights movement, especially when things got dangerous and violent for protesters in the south. It was used during the immigration waves of the 70s and 80s.

And now, many churches are talking about it again. And so are cities and universities, as it has become a point of contention with the incoming administration. I want to talk a little bit about this idea, this idea of sanctuary, and why I think it is important.

First, the practice of sanctuary is deeply rooted in Jesus’ gospel

In the gospel this morning, Matthew introduces Jesus with the words of the prophet Isaiah. Matthew says that Jesus’ movement was like a light coming on in darkness. It was reminding people of life in the middle of so much death. As a whole people suffered under the heel of an occupying empire, the Jesus movement brought hope.

And it brought hope by banding together a bunch of poor people—revolutionaries, fishermen, carpenters, homeless people, people on the run from the empire and eventually on the run from the law. Jesus’ central message was a message of offering freedom and liberation and healing to poor and suffering people. A different kingdom, a different government, a different world. Turn around, he says, for the kingdom of heaven is coming. And this great movement of people follow him, from all these little towns in the middle of nowhere.

And, throughout the gospels, this band of people, and especially Jesus and his core group of followers, find places of sanctuary. Someone is always wanted to kill Jesus and Jesus has no permanent home in the gospels. But Simon Peter’s family in Capernaum open their home as sanctuary to Jesus and his movement. So do other families throughout Galilee. So do Mary and Martha, much later, when Jesus goes to the capital. So does the owner of the upper room before Jesus is arrested—and that person opens their home or space to Jesus when there is already a warrant out for his arrest.

So this idea, this practice, is one that is deeply rooted in the gospels. It is part of what Jesus did and what Jesus is offered as the head of a new poor people’s movement.

 Second, this practice goes further back and is rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures

Our Psalm today reads:
For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe in his shelter;
he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling
and set me high upon a rock.

It’s a psalm about being hidden in the temple, about being hidden in a place of refuge, in the dwelling of God, away from the psalmist’s enemies.

And that practice comes from the Priestly codes in Deuteronomy, where six cities were set aside as cities of refuge. These were particularly designated for people who had unintentionally killed someone and had people trying to kill them. So, if you had intentionally murdered someone, you were dealt with by the community, but if you had been exonerated and the victims family still wanted to kill you, you had a place to run to and stay safe.

While that is the stated reason for cities of refuge, this was a common practice in the ancient world. And the people who came to these cities, or who came to sites of worship for sanctuary, were often escaped slaves, people accused of pettier crimes, people in debt, and political rivals and refugees. When Solomon becomes king, for example, his brother who had organized a coup, fled to the temple and clung to “the horns of the altar”, claiming sanctuary.

This Psalm of David, Ps 27, is a song about hiding out in the temple, “living (it says) in the house of the Lord” so that the singer will be delivered from his enemies.

This practice of sanctuary is an ancient one, a practice that sometimes brought to light the intense inequality of the times, and provided some kind of safe place for those hunted by those in power.

Last, this practice of sanctuary is deeply motivated by a longing for liberation

That text from Isaiah that Matthew quotes and that we read as our first reading? Did you hear that last part?

Isaiah talks about light in darkness and life in death, not as metaphors, not as fancy language. He goes on:
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.

In other words, the goal is the ending of oppression. The goal of Isaiah, the goal of Jesus, is to end oppression. To end slavery, to end suffering, to end poverty, to end oppression.

Right now, in Westport, our church has offered sanctuary to about 15-20 people every night. We started, we opened the church, in response to very public threats made against us and against our people. And we have managed to keep the church open for 89 days.

We have offered sanctuary to people who are homeless, people who are cast out and made refugees by our economic system.

We have offered sanctuary to people who are sometimes using drugs as part of their survival strategy, people who are considered in our society as less than human. I have heard business owners on the harbor openly say in city council meetings that they want drug addicts to die. By offering sanctuary, we publicly proclaim that people who use drugs are human and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and are loved by God.

We have offered sanctuary to people who are in trouble with the law, in a system that criminalizes poor people and catches them in a lifetime of criminal charges, jail time, probation, and fines. We openly ask, just like sanctuary churches in Europe, for officers of the law to stay off the property without invitation. We do so because we need to create a safe place for people, where we take their side against an unjust system, and try to find ways to navigate services and court systems with them.

We have offered sanctuary to young people. At least half, and probably more, of the people who stay in our church are under 30. We live in a society and a world that throws away their children. We want them to live and to thrive. We have lost too many young people, with such gifts to give the world, and so we have opened specifically for our young people, who are deeply marginalized and hated in the community.

We do this in hope. We do this in the hope that Jesus’ first followers found. Hope for the end to oppression and suffering. Hope that our young people have a better future. Hope that we can see ourselves as human beings and fight together to build a different world.

I don’t know if any of you remember the Disney movie, Hunchback of Notre Dame, but I am going to leave you with some of the lyrics of the soundtrack. When Esmerelda, the Roma girl who found sanctuary in Notre Dame, sings in the church:

don't know if You can hear me
Or if You're even there
I don't know if You will listen
To a humble prayer
They tell me I am just an outcast
I shouldn't speak to You
Still, I see your face and wonder
Were You once an outcast, too?

God help the outcasts
Hungry from birth
Show them the mercy
They don't find on earth
The lost and forgotten
They look to You still
God help the outcasts
Or nobody will.