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A sermon on Luke 1:39-55
Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church
19 December 2021

From 2010 through 2016, I served as the director of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations.

Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church

Memories of precious people, painful international events, and amazing happenings swirl in my heart and mind.

Among my favorite memory is the moment I have come to call the good night ritual.                   .

Each night, I shut off my computer,
turned out the light,
and left the office.
I walked down the hall to the elevator
and pushed the call button.
When the cab arrived, I pushed “1” to go downstairs.
Hector would be there to see me out.
Always.
And always we spoke.
Sometimes we talked about weather or family.
Often, we talked sports. Conversations got interesting the week my Steelers beat Hector’s Jets.
After some conversation, I made for the door,
As I stepped across the hallway, I heard Hector’s final words:
always the same words,
always in the same, kind voice:
“Good night, Marko.
Get home safe.”

In Advent and Christmas, we think of home in many ways.

“Please Come Home for Christmas,” sings Aaron Neville.

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” sings Oscar Peterson.[i]

Spoiler alert. If you have forgotten the ending of A Christmas Carol; if you have never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, I invite you to plug your ears for a moment. I will let you know when the spoilers are done.

After the visits of three ghosts in A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge sends a feast to Bob Cratchit’s home and then travels to celebrate at his nephew’s home.

After the visit of one rather ordinary angel second class, in the climactic moment of George Bailey’s renewal, he makes his way home. 

I see places I have lived at different times when I hear the word “home”.

Unique sights, smells, and sounds.

Home also recalls people. Beloved people. Family. Friends. Chosen family. Different in different homes. But always people.       

Home is a place.
123 Sesame St.
80 Main St., Apt. 23D

Home is people.

Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri observes that as a poor, unwed teenager, Mary was surrounded by dangers and uncertainty – both physical and societal. When she learned of her pregnancy, Mary sought a haven, a sanctuary, home.[ii]

Home for Mary was a place. The house of her relative Elizabeth.  Home was people. Zechariah was there. Silent, but there. More importantly, Elizabeth and the baby in her womb, were present.

They welcome and affirm Mary. And in a moment that Stephen Sondheim could have written, Mary breaks into a song. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The Magnificat. A song that has been set in many ways over the centuries, including the Canticle of the Turning which we will sing shortly.

The Magnificat holds together the grittiness of life on the margins, the resilient hope of those who trust in God, and the power to image a new way of living.

My friend the Rev. Margaret Aymer suggests that we need to revise our view of Mary. Rather than gentle Mary, meek and mild, Margaret says Mary is better seen as Jesus’ radical Jewish Mama. A woman full of strength and courage and hope. An alternative vision fires her imagination. God’s vision of justice, equity, and peace. This vision, sung in Mary’s song, no doubt found its way into the lullabies she sang to Jesus and the stories she told him. It shaped him. It guided his living. His words and deeds exemplify his mama’s song.[iii]

Consider, church: the Triune God – Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit or whatever formula you use – exists in relationship.

Made in God’s image, we are made for relationships. The late bell hooks reminds us of this when she says that healing is an act of communion. Rarely, if ever, she says, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing comes through relationships. Life comes through relationships.[iv]

We are made for each other. We are made for relationships of integrity, compassion, justice, equity, solidarity, accountability, responsibility, and love. We are made to be home to one another.

The village of Le Chambon in France provided sanctuary and home to Jews during the Second World War. Fleeing the monstrous, sinful evil of the Nazis, Jews would arrive in this Huguenot village. They made their way to the building we Presbyterians would call the manse. They knocked and were usually greeted by Magda Trocme with the words, “Welcome. Come in.” The process of creating home began. Years later, asked why their village and people became a sanctuary of home, Magda replied, “They knocked. What else could we do?”[v]

This theology – that God has made us and called us to be home for one another –  was shared by those who ran the Underground Railroad. It is shared by those who welcome refugees, who support citizens returning from incarceration, and who offer sanctuary to individuals and families at risk of deportation to the violence-filled places they have fled.

Whether they are running for their lives or they are buffeted and battered by life, we will encounter people in need of refuge, haven, and sanctuary. Through Jesus Christ, God who is love, God who is our sanctuary and home, empowers us to say, “Welcome. Come in.”

Part of what allows us to create home is God’s gift of imagination. Our shared humanity allows us to imagine the pain and the fear of people in need.

More importantly, our faith allows us to imagine our relatedness to the entire human family. Each child is our child. Every person created and loved by God is a person to whom we are bound by the unbreakable cords of God’s love.

Imagination is an act of faithful subversion in a world that tells us nothing will change. Things will always be the same. There is nothing we can do about it.

Not so, says imagination. Not so. There can be, there is, another way. Imagination is the root of joy. Imagination is the source of hope. When we dare to imagine that Jesus just might be on to something when he tells us to love one another; we take the first steps toward loving one another.

At home with Elizabeth, Mary’s imagination inspired her to break into song about what God has done, what God will do, and what God is doing. Mary’s song, Rachel Held Evans reminds us, declares that God has chosen sides. [vi]

God has chosen not narcissistic rulers or leaders, but an un-wed, un-believed teenage girl for the holy task of birthing, nursing, and nurturing God.

God has chosen not the powerful, but the humble.

Not the rich, but the poor.

Not the occupying force, but people pushed to the margins.  

God has made a home. That home, Jesus reveals, is among the people the world casts aside. Women. Children. The poor. Lepers. Samaritans. Tax collectors. Sinners. God’s home includes people of every sexual orientation and every gender identity, people living on the streets, people whose immigration papers do not match the government standards, people battling addiction, people dealing with mental illness, and anyone pushed aside by the culture of domination.

Any time we human creatures seek to keep some of God’s children out and we draw a line to exclude and we say, “you do not belong,” God wipes the line aside. “Hold my beer,” the Holy Spirit says, and she begins the patient, careful work of removing the line and welcoming all God’s children home.

Church, we know that does not happen quickly enough. We know people, too many precious people, are wounded in the time it takes God to erase the lines. That grieves us and God. But we also know that patiently, persistently God is at work. And God invites us to join that work.

In her defiant, prophetic, imaginative song, Mary—a dark-skinned woman who would become a refugee, a member of a religious minority in an occupied land—names this reality: God makes a home for and with those who have been driven to the margins by the powerful. And we are invited to meet God there on the margins and be welcomed home.  

During Advent, we journey home.

During Advent, we work to create home.

During Advent and always, may we journey and work with the stubborn, unsentimental hope of Jesus’ radical Jewish Mama – a woman so convinced the baby inside her would change everything, she proclaimed that:

The powerful have already been humbled;

The vulnerable have already been lifted up;

The world is turning;

And it is turning toward home.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] Many artists have recorded both songs. The versions by Aaron Neville and Oscar Peterson were the first to appear in my iTunes Library.            

[ii] This comes from Vilmarie’s commentary on Luke 1:39-55 in the Sanctified Art Close to Home Sermon Planning Guide for this Sunday.

[iii] I found this image from the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer a couple years ago. I can no longer find the source.

[iv] https://www.uua.org/worship/words/quote/healing-act-communion.

[v] The story of Le Chambon is told by Philip Haille in Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Chambon-sur-Lignon.

[vi] https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/unsentimental-advent.

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Sanctuary: In Three Acts

Sanctuary: In Three Acts
Luke 11:1-4
Numbers 35:9-15
28 July 2019
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. Mark Koenig 

Sanctuary. A safe place. A refuge. Act I.

You can find following story online in the Tennessean and other sources. Often, the stories include video.[i]

A man drove home in Nashville. His 12-year-old son sat beside him in the van. Did they notice the car following them? They certainly did when they pulled into their driveway and the car stopped behind them.

Two men got out and identified themselves as ICE agents. They showed no identification and they never gave their names. A statement from an ICE spokesman said the officers had a removal order based on misdemeanor convictions of the man.

The man and his family understood that ICE agents cannot enter a vehicle or a home without a warrant signed by a judge. Or unless they receive permission to enter. The man refused. His wife and neighbors alerted their friends and support community.

Neighbors arrived. Family arrived. Media arrived. Immigrant rights activists arrived. City council members arrived. Nashville police arrived, called by the ICE officers. They assessed the situation, learned they had no warrants for either the man or his son and determined their only role would be to keep the peace.

The man and his son stayed in the car. Because it was hot, neighbors brought gasoline so the man could keep the car air conditioning running.

Eventually, the ICE officers determined to leave. The neighbors formed a protective shield around the car that extended to the front door of the house. The son and then the father ran quickly inside. Family, friends, neighbors, all cheered.

The practice of sanctuary – providing a safe place of refuge is ancient. In scripture, the idea appears in the book of Numbers. Here God gives the Hebrew people instructions for their life together as they made a new beginning after leaving enslavement in Egypt.

The culture at the time was based on vengeance. If I murdered someone, that person’s family could take vengeance on me and on my family. Who could then take vengeance on that person’s family and away the cycle of violence could spin.

When the laws in Numbers establish that those who commit murder, and only those who commit the murder, could be put to death, they disrupted this cycle. The principle the laws established of “an eye for an eye” sought to define justice and minimize vengeance. And then Jesus came along and disrupted this principle with teachings of nonviolent responses to violence.[ii]

The laws established in Numbers took another step toward disrupting blood violence. The verses Beth read for us today talk about “a slayer who kills a person without intent.” In modern terms, we might speak about unintentional killing as involuntary manslaughter.[iii]

Cities of refuge were created for people who committed such acts. They could flee to one of these cities and be safe until a trial could be held.

Over time this understanding of providing a place of refuge – providing sanctuary grew. During the religious wars of the Protestant Reformation, worship spaces in churches came to be seen not only as sanctuaries where God was worshiped, they came to be seen as sanctuaries where people could flee to take refuge and safety from the violence.

In churches and barns and homes, the Underground Railroad provided sanctuary to people fleeing enslavement for freedom.

Japan and China went to war in 1937. On December 13, 1937, the city of Nanjing fell to the Japanese.[iv] The events that followed are known as the Rape of Nanjing. Between 40,000 and 300,000 Chinese people were killed. The numbers are contested. The people were killed brutally. Many were tortured. Perhaps as many as 20,000 women were raped.

Amid the horror, the Nanjing Safety Zone was established to offer sanctuary and refuge. Chinese and people in Nanjing from other countries helped create the Safety Zone. But scholars agree that the man who made it work was a businessman named John Rabe. Ready for a twist? John Rabe was German. John Rabe was the head of the Nazi Party in Nanjing. While his party was killing Jews and Slavs and gypsies and LGBTQ people by the millions in Europe, the sanctuary he helped establish and managed saved the lives of between 200,000 and 250,000 people in Nanjing.[v] Rabe was not a “good person”. He was a person who served an obscenely evil cause. But for a moment, he did the right thing.

During the Holocaust, many people provided sanctuary for Jews. Muslims in Albania among them.[vi] My friend Steve Yamaguchi tells about Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who had served in China and Finland, and ended up at the time of the Second World War in a solo diplomatic post in Lithuania. He became an Orthodox Christian along the way. At his wife Yukiko’s strong urging, he signed visas saving over 6,000 Polish Jews. Sugihara summarized his actions by saying, “I may have to disobey my government, but if I don’t, I would be disobeying God.” His act of providing the sanctuary of Japanese ended his career as a diplomat. But within the Jewish community he is viewed with deep affection.[vii]

In the 1980s, people fled violence in El Salvador and Guatemala. They arrived in the United States as undocumented refugees. The Immigration and Naturalizations Service implemented a policy of returning people to their country without allowing them to apply for asylum. “On March 24, 1982, six congregations in Arizona and California declared themselves “sanctuaries” and began building communities of support for the growing number of refugees seeking asylum.”[viii] Other congregations across the country joined them. Other congregations and people of faith and good will joined in establishing safe places of refuge.

Fast forward to 2019. People come to the United State fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries. The book of Leviticus teaches the people of God to treat the foreigner as a citizen.[ix] Jesus proclaims that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome him.[x]

Yet our government’s responses seem designed to deny safety and refuge to those in need. Families are separated. Individuals are detained in horrific conditions. The processing of asylum requests and citizenship processes slows to a crawl or a complete stall. That happens to people on the border and it happens to people in the country. As do deportations. We have begun to hear stories of citizens detained and deported; of immigrant men and women who have served in the United States military being deported.

Conversations about sanctuary have been ongoing for some time, perhaps since as long ago as 2007. They have taken on renewed urgency recently. Some congregations have opened their doors and host people in their buildings. Other congregations provide them support. Some congregations make sure their neighbors know their rights in relation to ICE. Individuals volunteer to accompany neighbors to ICE check-ins or deportation hearings. There are a variety of ways for individuals and congregations to become involved.

I invite you to pray and think about this situation. If the Holy Spirit moves you to learn more; if God calls you to consider how you or we together might respond, let me know. We can set up a conversation to explore what we might do.

Sanctuary. A safe place. A refuge. Act II.

In 1969, legal segregation remained the rule across much of the United States. Among other places, swimming pools had signs saying, “White only.” Just five years earlier a famous photo was taken of a hotel manager pouring acid into a swimming pool filled an interracial group of young people who were trying to integrate the pool.[xi]

May 9, 1969. A gentle, peacemaking Presbyterian minister enters the set of his children’s television show he has developed. I have not been able to track down the video, so I don’t know if Mr. Rogers sings, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood”. I don’t know if he goes to the closet and carefully takes off his coat and put on his sweater and then zips it all the way up and then halfway back down.

From both the online episode summary and the book Peaceful Neighbor, I do know that he carries a wading pool. After carefully explaining what the pool is, he takes it outside and fills it with water.

He says that “on hot days he enjoys soaking his feet in cool water.” As he sprays his feet with a hose, Mr. Rogers spots Officer Clemmons nearby and invites him to sit down and join him. When Officer Clemmons says he does not have a towel, Mr. Rogers says they can share. Officer Clemmons pulls up a chair. He takes off his boots and socks, and the camera provides a closeup of four feet sharing the same small pool. Two white feet. Two black feet. When they are done, Officer Clemmons and Mr. Rogers share the same towel to dry off.[xii]

Remember that Mr. Rogers is also the Rev. Rogers. He knows the story of the Last Supper as told in John’s Gospel. Where Jesus washes the feet of his followers and then dries them. Jesus does so to model for his followers loving service.[xiii] The Rev. Fred Rogers got the message.

By sharing a cool pool and a dry towel on a hot day with an African American police officer, Mr. Rogers demonstrated that we are made for each other. We are not made for separation and enmity. We are made for love. For those of us who know and love Jesus, Mr. Rogers made that demonstration out of the Gospel.

And for a moment. He created sanctuary. In a segregated world, Mr. Rogers made a safe place. A refuge.

Friends, whether it is with family, with friends, with church members, with people we know only a little, with people we have just met, we can create sanctuary.

When we listen or provide help when requested.

When we smile and act kindly.

When we act for justice, show mercy, and do our best to walk with God.

When we love.

And when we pray for each other. We create sanctuary.

May we heed the urgings of the Holy Spirit to do so.

Sanctuary. A safe place. A refuge. Act III.

“Lord, teach us to pray.” It was a request from his disciples to Jesus.

“Lord, teach us to pray.” In response, Jesus provided the words the church has adapted a bit over time, and we know as the Lord’s Prayer.

“Lord, teach us to pray.”

In prayer we turn to God. And God meets us, accepts us, loves us as we are. The gift of prayer is a gift of sanctuary. It is a safe place. A refuge.

As the Rev. Shawna Bowman posted on Facebook:

God hears our prayers,
broken prayers,
silent prayers,
angry prayers,
joyful prayers,
prayers given through tears,
prayers given with no conviction, rushed prayers,
prayers shouted with rage,
prayers that come from our deepest places,
prayers that connect us, one to another,
prayers that remind us that we belong to God.

Friends, pray. Open yourself to God. Tell God what is on your heart. Pray aloud. Pray in silence. Pray by thinking. Pray by calling images to mind … friends in needs … situations for which you are concerned.

Two ideas for how to pray when we need help.

First, Anne Lamott offers a three-fold pattern for prayer: Help. Thanks. Wow.[xiv]

God, help me with …

God, thank you for …

God, I stand in awe of …

Or we could use the prayer Jesus teaches us. Pray those familiar words again and again and again.

Pray. Knowing that when we pray for others, we help create a sanctuary for them.

Pray Knowing that however we pray when we take our lives—our joys—our concerns—our whole selves to God in prayer, God will take and shield us. And we will find a solace … a refuge … a safe place … a sanctuary there.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2019/07/25/viral-video-ice-agents-tried-arrest-man-nashville-immigration/1828008001/ – this article, as well as other uncited online sources, provide the basis for the first eight paragraphs of the sermon.

[ii] Matthew 5:38-42

[iii] https://www.justia.com/criminal/offenses/homicide/involuntary-manslaughter/

[iv] http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/nanking.htm

[v] http://day1.org/614-who_is_my_neighbor and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanjing_Massacre and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Rabe

[vi] https://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/besa/index.asp

[vii] http://day1.org/614-who_is_my_neighbor

[viii] https://religionandpolitics.org/2017/02/21/the-sanctuary-movement-then-and-now/

[ix] Leviticus 19:34

[x] Matthew 25:35

[xi] https://www.npr.org/2014/06/13/321380585/remembering-a-civil-rights-swim-in-it-was-a-milestone

[xii] Michael G. Long, Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015),p. 88.

[xiii] John 13:3-10.

[xiv] https://www.amazon.com/dp/B008EKMBDM/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

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25 Dec #Celebrate #AdventWord 2018

48391553_10156356621014440_5197715648628654080_oThe Advent devotional project, #AdventWord  is offered by the Society of St John the Evangelist. Each day a word is provided and participants are invited to share images and/or reflections and to use hashtags so our reflections may be included in an Advent Calendar with others from around the world.

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When incivility becomes the norm

by J. Herbert Nelson, II | Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) General Assembly

This statement is a response to the violence on America’s streets after the election of Mr. Donald Trump as President–Elect of the United States of America. It was originally posted by the Presbyterian News Service

Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson

LOUISVILLE – I read several post-election statements and heard news accounts of violence, riots, and protests while in Central America visiting Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission partners. The news images were shocking to both our partners and me. We struggled to understand the results of the election, particularly given Mr. Trump’s stance on immigration, which was the theme of my visit. However, I was not as startled as my Central American friends. Serving as director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., for six years prior to becoming Stated Clerk prepared me to understand the outcomes we face in electoral politics. Although I have shared parts of this writing before with congregations and audiences, there seemed to always be a sense of skepticism among the hearers. I proclaim the message once again, because the apparent shock for many has left people raising the question, “What happened?”

I wish to affirm in this moment that many in our congregations and communities hold legitimate fear about their safety and the protection of their human rights. We hold close our Muslim, Hispanic, African American, immigrant, and LGBTQ neighbors, and those from other marginalized groups. We hold close the women who give us life and the poor for whom daily bread is not promised. The rash of hateful harassment [1] reported in the wake of the election insists upon the urgency of the call to be one who “… executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:18–20, NRSV).

This writing is not a denial of the results of the election. President-Elect Trump is our newly elected leader. However, it is my hope that the post-election anger, pain, and frustration demonstrated on the streets will lay the foundation for a transformed political system in the years to come. Through coalition building and community organizing, we have an opportunity to create a vision of shared prosperity, safety, dignity, and justice that is truly inclusive and compelling to a broad base.

I insist, though, that no matter how robust the infusion of energy into the struggle for justice, it will never be worth the pain, suffering, and yes, death, which will be wrought by the promised policies of the incoming administration. My integrity as a spiritual leader commands me to face the reality that some of our communities are under grave threat. In my recent travels to El Salvador, I spoke with many who expressed fear for their family members’ safety in the U.S.; that the violence they fled El Salvador to escape would be brought upon them tenfold if they were deported back to their country of origin. People with preexisting conditions are troubled over what a sudden loss of healthcare would do to their wellbeing. Same-gender parents are rushing to finish their adoptions and secure their rights as a family. Survivors of sexual assault are contending with a culture that would elect to our highest office a known abuser. In this dark night, the doors of the Church are open as refuge, resource, and organizing home.

As Christians, we cannot accept a nation that normalizes violence, exclusion, and racism in our political rhetoric and public policy. We know God has called us to co-create a world where a dignified life is available to all, and anything less offers no suitable worship. In the coming months and years, “… From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Lk. 12:48 NRSV). We will be asked to open our church basements to late-night meetings, our sanctuaries to provide Sanctuary to those facing deportation, and to intervene in public harassment.

Just as the doors of the Church are open, so too are the doors to the movement for justice. We invite you to join us in our steadfast commitment to stand with the marginalized and our humble desire to contribute to strategy and vision that will help create the kingdom of God.

Read more.

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