Sanctuary: In Three Acts
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,
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
[ix] Leviticus 19:34
[x] Matthew 25:35
[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.