Sanctuary

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.

Parroquia San Germán de Auxerre, San Germán, Puerto Rico

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.
Seek justice:
    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.

Freedom

There’s a great song by the Soup Dragons that celebrates, with a great beat and bravado, that “I’m free to do what I want, any ol’ time.” This is the ideal in our society’s mind’s eye – we are free to choose what we want, to live how we want, to say what we want, and to believe what we want. Freedom!

And to an extent, this is what the American system is designed to do. The Constitution of the United States limits the power of the federal government to restrict individual liberties, providing for a great deal of personal freedom for everyone who lives in the shadow of the American flag. Exercise your liberties. You’re free to do what you want, any ol’ time.

But for we who also live at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave, there’s more. Saint Paul writes that “You have been called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love” (Galatians 5:13). We live not for ourselves, but for others. We are free not for our own sake, but for the sake of others.

Elsewhere Paul writes that Christians are called to “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39, quoting Leviticus 19:18), pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), deny ourselves (Luke 9:23), and give for the sake of others (Luke 18:22). Central to the Christian faith is the call to serve our neighbors.

This Independence Day I encourage us not only to celebrate freedom, but to use our freedom for the sake of others. For indeed, freedom kept just for one’s own use is as useless as a light kept under a bushel (Matthew 5:14-16).

(Top image: John Trumbull, 1820, oil on canvas. The original hangs in the rotunda of the US Capitol – http://www.aoc.gov/cc/photo-gallery/ptgs_rotunda.cfm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1379717)

EVERYTHING WILL BE GIVEN!!!

Seen today:

  1. disses my beloved East Coast, but whatever.
  2. a Pew Research Center study showed that only about 17% of Americans attend religious services on a weekly basis; thus, most Colts fans aren’t rushing home from church to watch the game.
  3. if they were rushing home from church where the Gospel of grace was proclaimed, and the free gift of our Lord’s presence was shared, Colts fans would bristle at the false Gospel that EVERYTHING WILL BE EARNED. Instead, they’d clamor that EVERYTHING WILL BE GIVEN!!! Believing with all their heart that EVERYTHING WILL BE GIVEN, these fans would live in the EVERYTHING WILL BE EARNED world with a transforming dissatisfaction seeking to reshape the world according to the promises of God’s capacity to give rather than our capacity to earn.

It’s a t-shirt. But, it’s a little more than that, too.

Peace.

Playing the Wall Street Victim

In her widely shared “Two Views of Pope Francis” Ms Noonan unnecessarily condescends the Pope and his economics, and regrettably plays the Wall Street victim to the Pope’s cautions about capitalism.

Reagan_with_Peggy_NoonanMs Noonan’s experience with capitalism is legitimate, from her vaunted perch as a presidential speech writer and Wall Street Journal columnist. She has lived and worked at the center of American political and economic power, and she fervently believes in the free market’s power to unleash human potential, create wealth, and contribute to the common good. Her experience is legitimate.

Cardinal_Bergoglio_argentinaBut so too is Pope Francis’ experience. He has ministered in the slums of Buenos Aires, at the tip of a continent whose politics and economics is covered with American fingerprints – political, military, and economic. He has seen the worst of capitalism’s imbalance, mixed with corruption and imperialism, and he rightfully has his concerns about capitalism – particularly its underside.

Instead of condescending the Pope as someone who, “doesn’t, actually, seem to know a lot about capitalism or markets, or even what economic freedom has given—and is giving—his own church,” Ms Noonan could perhaps consider as valid the Pope’s perspective as one who has lived on the other side of the world’s economy, and refrain from playing the victim of an otherwise powerless spokesman who speaks truth about the poor.

Please read her article (linked, below). It reflects Ms Noonan’s faith and affection for the Pope, and her deep commitment to the free market. But ultimately I find her commentary flawed in its failure to see the legitimacy of another perspective of the global economy, one deeply rooted in personal experience and in longstanding church teaching.

Peggy Noonan article pope

If All Lives Mattered, There Wouldn’t Be #BlackLivesMatter

If All Lives Matter in our society, there wouldn’t be such disparate experiences of violence or of poverty along racial lines. Yet an examination of  crime statistics, of poverty statistics, of education statistics, of employment statistics and so forth, shows that clearly our society does not act as if All Lives Matter … or, at least, do not matter as much as other lives.

“Black Lives Matter” is a necessary mantra, no matter how imperfect those who chant this slogan. Black Americans are disproportionately the victims of violence, of an imbalanced justice system, and of all kinds of social and economic struggles, of a direct and evil legacy of slavery and of Jim Crow and of all the ways that racism has manifested itself in our society.

“Black Lives Matter” shakes us from our resignation to, and tacit acceptance of, a broken society that lets such disproportionate violence and suffering happen to one group of people … for generation upon generation.

“Black Lives Matter” reminds us that we cannot accept a society where one class, one group of people struggle so. much. more. than others. blacklivesmatter1

“Black Lives Matter” calls us on the fact that, as a society, we have conducted our affairs as if Black Lives Do Not Matter … or at least, do not matter as much as other lives (3/5ths, perhaps?).

Black Lives – lives which our society has too often disregarded and devalued – Matter. Why is such a statement so divisive? Perhaps because we don’t want to face our own racism, past and present.

“Blacks Lives Matter” says just that. Black lives matter. It does not say that other lives do not matter. It does not say that Black Lives Matter more. No. It just says that Black Lives Matter. Period. And this is a truth that our society seems to have forgotten … or perhaps never quite knew in the first place.

“Black Lives Matter” may be an imperfect movement (show me a “perfect” movement,
please). But it is an important truth. If we are to be a society of liberty and justice, a society that some claim is Christian, we will embrace a slogan that lifts up the value and dignity of those that our society has historically devalued, and we will demand liberty and justice for those to whom it has been delayed and denied.

“Black Lives Matter.” It needs to be said in a society that too often has conducted its affairs as if Black Lives Do Not Matter. Even if Especially because it is hard to hear. 

Jesus Grieves: The Cross at Half Staff

I drove past a church today that has two flag poles on its property – one for the American Flag, and one for the Christian Flag. They were both flying at half staff in an act of public mourning for the victims of the Chattanooga shooting.

Now, I find the Christian Flag to be somewhere between silly and heretical. Flags are emblems of nation states, signs of a government’s authority over territory and people. Christianity is not a nation state and it needs no flag. Our Lord Jesus rejected efforts to give him the kind of authority that a flag represents. Christianity’s symbol is a cross on which our Lord found victory through death (not conquest), and power through weakness (not might). On that cross, our Lord bid us to do the same. To that end, I find the impulse to slap a cross on a political symbol to be odd, at the least.

Nonetheless, the Christian Flag gave me a different kind of pause today, as it flew at half staff. I am accustomed to seeing the American flag flown in such a manner, a sign that calls us to public mourning. But to see the cross similarly flown, well, that struck me. It reminded me that Jesus grieves.

Our Lord grieves at the senseless death of any of his children. Our Lord grieves at the sin that grips our nation and world. Our Lord grieves when the demons of anger or sickness or passion or evil possess any of his children and lead them to take the life of another.

Yes, our Lord grieves at the brokenness of our world – a world that produces enough food to feed all people, but does not have the will to do so. Our Lord grieves at all the -isms which, coupled with the power of majority rule or government mandate or social acceptance, keeps people from realizing the fullness of their promise in God. Our Lord grieves, because our Lord loves.

I’m no fan of the Christian Flag, but on this day I am grateful for its humble flight at half staff that recalled for me the grieving Lord of love who is present with us in our sorrows and sufferings, and who shows us a better way.

Mormon Bashing

“‘All things are lawful,'” but not all things are beneficial.
All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” – 1 Corinthians 10:23

This week The Current in Westfield and The Current in Carmel included a 12-page “advertising supplement” entitled “Non-Mormon Temple Visitors Guide.” In this “guide” provided by Tri-Grace Ministries of Ephraim, Utah, you’ll read all kinds of claims about the Mormon faith written by non-Mormons and by people who claim to be former Mormons.

Twice on the first page this “guide” refers to Mormon teaching as “deception.” I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that this is not an entirely fair “guide.”  This guide may be sincerely written by people of faith, but it is harmful to our community and particularly to our Mormon friends and neighbors.

“‘All things are lawful,'” but not all things are beneficial.
‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” – 1 Corinthians 10:23

It is entirely lawful for The Current to run this “advertising supplement.” The First Amendment protects and guarantees their free speech and that of the authors of this “advertising supplement.” But this massive “advertising supplement” is not beneficial. It does not build up our community.

It is not beneficial for a newspaper that arrives at every single house in our ZIP Code to distribute such a “guide” that dismisses as “deceptive” the teachings, practices, and faith of the Mormon Church. This “advertising supplement” is a form of public bullying, disparaging the faith and church of many of our neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens. Mormonism is a minority religion whose adherents have, for much of their history, been bullied, harassed, persecuted, and chased out of town. That ugly tradition continues with this “advertising supplement.”

Next week will The Current run a 12-page screed against Jews? Roman Catholics? Muslims? Lutherans? Homosexuals?

No matter what theological qualms some may have about the Mormon Church (or the Roman Catholic Church, or Islam, or Lutheranism, or whatever), it does not build up our community when a public asset such as The Current distributes divisive and biased literature to every single household in our community. Rather than spread divisive and biased literature, The Current should seek mutual understanding, interpret the words, faith, and actions of our neighbors in the best possible light, and celebrate when members of our community celebrate (such as our Mormon friends are doing this week with the opening of their new Temple).

Martin Luther, in his teaching on the 8th Commandment (“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”), says:

We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead, we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.

I am attending an Open House at the new Mormon Temple in Carmel next week. I am doing so to learn more about the Mormon faith so that I can “come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” I am also attending the Open House so that I can stand with my friends and neighbors against the unfair attacks and slander they experience all too often.

Theological differences between the Mormon Church and the Lutheran Church are real. But so too is the unfair treatment our neighbors, friends, and fellow children of God of the Mormon Church receive to this day. My friends and neighbors don’t deserve to receive, on their doorstep, such a publication. I cannot remain silent. I have to speak out.

For me, living a life of faith is not about projecting my faith into the public square to the detriment of others, or seeking public assets – be they government or business – to enshrine and propagate my faith through their power and reach. Instead, living a life of faith is about coming to the defense of my neighbors, seeking the good of the community – particularly the most vulnerable and “least of these” (Matthew 25:40) – living into the promises of the coming Kingdom of God, and having the opportunity to worship and live according to the dictates of faith.

I pray for mutual understanding among the faith communities of Westfield and Carmel.
I pray for a renewed commitment by our communities to seek the common good.
I pray for God’s grace to strengthen us, and especially those oppressed by bigotry and prejudice of any kind.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

UPDATE – Saturday, July 11

After three days I have turned off comments on this post, as the conversation in the comment thread was no longer constructive. We all seem to be talking past each other. Thank you for the conversation and for sharing your different points of view on this matter.

Blessings.