We Are Sanctuary
A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
November 13, 2016
At Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, Minnesota
I look out this morning and I see weariness. It has been a long 18 months for our country. It has been a brutal slog through a campaign season that illuminated the tragic reality of just how divided we are in these United States. We have watched as news cycle after news cycle chewed ravenously through one scandal after another. As John Oliver would weekly remind his fans – “Remember last week when I said we’d hit rock bottom in this campaign? Well, if you look up you’ll be able to see that moment.” It was funny then. It is much less funny now. We are exhausted and we are weary.
This morning’s scripture lessons speak to that weariness in the language of apocalypse. We are drawing to the end of another liturgical and church year and as we do we hear again the unfamiliar language of apocalyptic – the intimation of things coming to an end. This will mean that some things are revealed that have lain hidden in secret. Apocalypse promises that painful truths will come to light. The rich and the powerful will be confronted. Reliable institutions and edifices will come crashing down. Apocalypse means tumult, transition, change.
Sound familiar? It should. The world is always crumbling and crashing to the ground. The lie of power is always being put to the test, being revealed for the idol that it is. The truth is always coming to light.
I have to admit, the truth that we are a divided nation is not really a revelation at all. But, what has been a revelation for me, is the degree to which so many of our neighbors, so many of our fellow citizens, have felt left behind by an economy and a government that appeared to them to care little about their lives and livelihoods. As the mayor of Monessen, Pennsylvania described in an interview on NPR the day after the election, the anger and sense of abandonment in towns like his was palpable this election year. Decades of change in the economy and in manufacturing have left his city as a shell of its former self. “It looks like Beirut.” He said “If ISIS were to come here, they would keep on going because they’d say somebody already bombed us. And that’s the way all the communities look that had steel mills up and down the Mon Valley.”
The truth is always coming to light. The election also had the painful effect of illuminating just how divided we are along issues of race, religion, class, sexual orientation, gender, and so much more. As I said last week, we’ve seen some of our darkest thoughts and beliefs aired in the public square this year. While we’ve seen a simmering anger and hurt in a large swath of the population. Still more hurt, and now deep fear exists in several other large portions of our country.
The afternoon after the election I received an email from the principal of my son’s elementary school letting me know what the conversation had been among students and teachers. “A first grader expressed worry to his teacher that his family might be sent back to the country where his parents were born,” he wrote, and “a Muslim middle schooler said her dad didn’t go to work today because he was afraid.” And, as if the rhetoric of the campaign weren’t enough, this week brought with it tragic story after tragic story of hate crimes and intimidation – student’s chanting “white power”, rallies of the Ku Klux Klan, death threats to journalists, the beating death of a Saudi student just across the state line in Wisconsin, and the list goes on and on. Women are left wondering about the safety of their own bodies and their right to speak up in defense of them. Our gay and lesbian neighbors are left to wonder if their marriages will still be valid in the year to come.
These are the realities we have awoken to. These are the truths that have been laid bare.
But, apocalypse not only reveals the truth. It has also always been a rhetorical device for the oppressed to somehow communicate solidarity, hope, and to cryptically express their critique of oppression. This morning Jesus is standing in sight of the Temple, with its beautiful and ornate pillars and walls studded with precious gems and overlaid with gold, and he predicts its destruction. “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Of course, since Luke was writing his gospel well after the destruction of the Temple, this prediction looks more like propaganda. Luke likely gives this prediction to Jesus because he wants to encourage the community that was reading his gospel.
When the end seems to be near, Jesus says, when all the signs point to destruction and hope seems to be lost. When you place your hope in systems and institutions and even the community around you, and these things crumble and fail – don’t give up! “By your endurance,” says Jesus “you will gain your souls.” Keep the faith, press on toward the prize, stand up and bear witness… you know the drill, he seems to be saying. After all, Jesus would remind his followers then and us now, while there was great faith in the Temple as the dwelling place of God, we need to remember that God’s first home, his actual sanctuary is within each of us. God dwells with his people, and always will.
Yesterday I came to spend a couple of hours with TEC, to watch and to learn and to see how we as a church can better support this amazing program and the lives it seeks to transform. I walked in in the middle of worship, just as the gospel was being proclaimed, just before the celebration of Eucharist. And, as I walked into the nave, it occurred to me that it had been a very long time since I last entered into worship, not as a leader, but, as a participant. Suddenly I could feel the weight of my own weariness from the week, my sense of sadness for the many who felt unsafe and left behind, my frustration over the outbreak of hatred and violence, and I suddenly felt very vulnerable. As we prepared to come to the holy table, we began singing a praise song I remembered from my days being an Evangelical.
Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary
Pure and holy, tried and true
With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living
Sanctuary, for You.
As we sang those words, words I had once disregarded as too pietistic and individual, I heard the fears and frustrations of our neighbors, and the call the church has at all times, to be sanctuary, to be a safe place for those who are oppressed and marginalized, and the words caught in my throat. I had to stop singing and breathe.
We are the sanctuary of God.
And, if this is true, then we must also be sanctuary to those whom God has closest to his heart, the ones Jesus said “whenever you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me”. So, this morning, amid a nation split, amid fears and angers, we, especially those of us with great privilege, are called to persevere, to, as Paul says, to not grow weary in doing what is right, to endure so that we might gain our souls. As Barbara Harris, the first woman ordained bishop in the Anglican Communion was fond of reminding her congregations, “We are Easter people in a Good Friday world.” It is our welcome, our kindness, our words of truth and justice, our acts of solidarity and peace that truly show forth the resurrection hope of God. There is no sanctuary for the beloved of God unless we become it.
So, this week, and this month, and this year, begin if you have not, and continue if you have, the work of becoming sanctuaries for others. Let your lives, your homes, your church, be a safe place for any the world has hurt or left behind or forgot.
You, my friends, my brothers and sisters, you are the sanctuary of God.