For many Christians, the word “sanctuary” refers to the space in which they gather for worship. It’s a holy space, set apart for the radical, intimate encounter we have with our Lord when his Word is proclaimed and his Sacraments are shared with God’s people.
A sanctuary is where God’s promise is revealed to us most clearly. A sanctuary can be a centuries-old Gothic cathedral, a simple church building built ten years ago, a living room, or the hood of a humvee for Soldiers deployed overseas. If God’s promises are proclaimed there, that space becomes a sanctuary – a place of holy encounter with God.
Some Christians, citing 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, emphasize that our bodies and our lives are a sanctuary. A popular praise song intones, “Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true.” I first sang these words at a church camp I attended as a young adult. Perhaps you’ve sung this tune at camp or at worship. “With thanksgiving I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.”
What does it mean to be a living sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true? We often connect these ideas to worship, devotion, and prayer; and, often, to how one behaves in their interpersonal relationships. If we listen to the prophets, we hear in their cry that worship and sacrifice is nothing but vacant, blathering words without actions that honor God by caring for people who suffer.
In Isaiah 5 we hear the prophet sing a love song about God’s tender care for his people. Isaiah uses the metaphor of a vineyard for God’s chosen people, and describes how God tilled the ground, built the watchtower, and cared for the vineyard that is his people.
Yet despite all of the care that God has given the vineyard, it yielded rotten grapes rather than an abundant harvest of good grapes. The prophet laments that God’s possession had failed, and thus speaks God’s promises to destroy the vineyard. But just a verse later the voice shifts from judgment back to lament. You can hear the prophet’s sorrow and weary disappointment in these words:
“The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed;
righteousness, but there was a cry of distress!”
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed.
Earlier in Isaiah (chapter 1, verses 10-17), the prophet puts an even finer point on it:
Hear the Lord’s word, you leaders of Sodom.
Listen to our God’s teaching,
people of Gomorrah!
What should I think about all your sacrifices?
says the Lord.
I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts.
I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from you,
this trampling of my temple’s courts?
Stop bringing worthless offerings.
Your incense repulses me.
New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—
I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!
I hate your new moons and your festivals.
They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.
When you extend your hands,
I’ll hide my eyes from you.
Even when you pray for a long time,
I won’t listen.
Your hands are stained with blood.
Wash! Be clean!
Remove your ugly deeds from my sight.
Put an end to such evil;
learn to do good.
help the oppressed;
defend the orphan;
plead for the widow.
The prophet here quite literally calls out the prayers and sacrifices that take place in the temple – in the sanctuary – as inadequate without the accompanying works of justice. That work is clearly defined as helping the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow (vs 17).
It is not enough to pray when your hands are stained with blood and your lives betray the grace that has been given to you.
Words are not enough in the face of human suffering. Saint James tells us that words of faith aren’t worth a hill of beans without faithful action (James 2). Christians are called to action that flows from faith in the One who defied how things are done in this world, and calls us to follow him in a life of faithful defiance.
Our Lord defied death and rose from the grave. He defied illness by healing the sick and raising the dead. Jesus defied hunger and oppression by filling the famished with good things, and by including those whom society excluded. Our Savior’s words were defiant against those in authority, and generous for those who suffered. As followers of this defiant Prince, we are called to lives that reflect the values not of this kingdom but of the coming Kingdom of God. As citizens with the saints (Ephesians 2:19), our priorities come not from man but from God (Acts 5:59).
Perhaps this is what sanctuary looks like. Pure and holy, tried and true, any who seek to be a living sanctuary for our Lord do so by feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the outsider, healing the sick, comforting the downtrodden, and defying the forces that degrade human dignity. That’s sanctuary.
My church – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – recently declared itself to be a sanctuary church at its triennial Churchwide Assembly. In this case, the term refers to the historic practice of churches being places where fugitives could find safe haven from apprehension. Offering “sanctuary” has been a ministry of the church since medieval days. In our own country churches have extended sanctuary as part of the Underground Railroad sheltering African Americans fleeing (legal) slavery, and defying northern laws requiring the capture and return of escaped slaves. More recently, congregations opened their doors to Central American refugees fleeing civil wars and political persecution in the 1980s.
This calling to be a place for fugitives – from the Latin fugitīvus, fleeing – places the church in a unique position in society. Called neither to be beholden to the shifting opinion polls of society, nor to be a tool of governing authorities, the church fixes its gaze on the vulnerable who flee unfathomable horrors and it seeks to offer its balm in obedience to God’s command to care for people who suffer.
More than many churches, the Lutheran Church in the United States has a long history of welcoming immigrants and refugees. As an immigrant church whose faith and practice came to this land from Northern and Western Europe, North American Lutherans had for generations reached across the Atlantic to help their families and coreligionists make their own journey of faith to a new land.
After World War I, Lutherans began organizing to support refugees fleeing war in their ancestral homelands. Their work expanded with the massive refugee crisis spurred by World War II. Throughout the 20th century – from Cuba to Vietnam, Hungary to Uganda, Central America to the Balkans – Lutherans partnered with the federal government to resettle refugees and help them find a welcome home in the United States of America.
Care for the immigrant is, at its core, a practice of faith. Besides all of the examples of Jesus calling us to care for “the least of these” (see Matthew 25:31-46, among others), the Hebrew Bible is filled with exhortations by God to his chosen people Israel to honor immigrants and strangers, “because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt.”
Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.
– Leviticus 19:34
This construction – “because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt” – shows up at least five times in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, extolling the Israelites to treat the immigrants as one of their own. Leviticus 17:8 and 10 call for the equal punishment of Jew and immigrant if they bring the sacrifice before the Lord in an unworthy or unholy manner. Deuteronomy 10:18 tells us that the Lord “loves immigrants,” and Deuteronomy 24:14-15, 17-18 call for the Israelites to protect fair pay and legal rights for immigrants. In Leviticus 25:23, the LORD even tells the Israelites that they, too, are immigrants. “You are just immigrants and foreign guests of mine.”
What does it mean that the ELCA has declared itself a “sanctuary church”? The details are still being worked out, but at its core the declaration by the Churchwide Assembly is an affirmation of our church’s longstanding commitment to welcoming the immigrant and refugee as an expression of our faith in Jesus Christ.
More, it is an affirmation of our church’s 2016 AMMPARO mission strategy of accompanying and supporting migrant children and their families with legal, humanitarian, and advocacy support; and, of working with partners in the United States and in Central America to understand and advocate for resolutions to the systemic violence and poverty that prompts so many families to risk everything to leave their homes in the first place.
Does “sanctuary church” = “sanctuary city”?
The sanctuary that our church offers is not the same kind of sanctuary that some “sanctuary cities” are offering – namely, a refusal by local and/or state law enforcement agencies to partner with federal agencies to enforce federal immigration laws. Making the comparison between “sanctuary cities” and our “sanctuary church” is nonsensical – the church in this country never has been, and never will be, a governing body nor a law enforcement agency. Our church simply does not interface with the federal government in the same way that cities and states do.
The call by our Churchwide Assembly declaring the ELCA a sanctuary church is not a call to break laws, but instead is an invitation for agencies, congregations, and members of the church to care for the immigrant with steadfast faith, love, and sacrifice. It is true that some congregations might welcome undocumented immigrants, house them in church buildings, and provide legal aid. Others will provide financial and in-kind support to relief efforts along both sides of the US-Mexican border. Others will advocate for changes in immigration policy or funding for refugee resettlement. And yet others will commit themselves to prayer for families fleeing violence and poverty, and for leaders in the United States and in Central America whose words and deeds will have significant impact on the welfare of millions of people for years to come.
The Lutheran Church’s commitment to welcoming the immigrant and refugee predates the current global migrant crisis. Our commitment to the immigrant and the refugee is born out of our own experience as an immigrant church, and is rooted in the command of God and example of our Lord Jesus Christ to care for the outsider and seek the welfare of our neighbor in need.