Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary: pure and holy, tried and true. With thanksgiving, I'll be a living sanctuary for you.
When I think of the word "sanctuary", that's the first thing I think of, followed by the Hunchback of Notre Dame. In our congregation, the worship space is called a "sanctuary". This English word comes from the Latin word for "holy", and now often means a safe place free from harm and danger. When I did an image search for "sanctuary", I found pictures of wildlife and bird sanctuaries. There's even a golf sanctuary!
But today, the word "sanctuary" is political. "Sanctuary cities" are places that claim to be free from harm and danger by the city to anyone whose right to be in the United States is in question. In doing so, sanctuary cities push the bounds of the US Constitution and the more perfect union we strive for (such pushing is a normal and dynamic part of our constitutional system, an action both liberals and conservatives take on a regular basis).
As you may have heard, the ELCA recently declared itself a "sanctuary denomination". What does this mean? First and foremost, as our synod bishop said, this does NOT mean breaking any laws. Instead, it is an affirmation of what we've always thought it meant to be church: feeding the hungry, helping the sick, welcoming the stranger, caring for the resident alien, and offering aid wherever aid is needed. These activities are deep in the bones of our faith, proclaimed in the Law of Moses, in the words of the prophets, and in the proclamations of Jesus Christ.
Specifically, to be a "sanctuary denomination" invites immigrants to know that the ELCA is a place they can turn to for help. Help can be given by providing information about undocumented persons’ rights, connecting them with legal assistance, providing food, funds or housing – or simply having faithful discussions of immigration issues in our churches. As a “sanctuary denomination”, the ELCA is speaking directly to those who are most afraid in our country today, migrants and refugees, and telling them what has always been true: We will provide aid where aid is needed.
This past spring, our adult forum looked in depth at the issue of immigration, and in May we shared what we learned with the congregation. In the sermon, we wrestled with all the issues around immigration, but while we did, we also heard Scripture repeatedly command us to love the alien. In fact, caring for the alien, widow, and orphan is the second most repeated command in the Old Testament (only surpassed by worshiping God). And that was the main point of what we learned: For whatever we believe about how the government should handle migrants and refugees and for however the government actually deals with resident aliens, Scripture repeatedly commands us to show love and care to them no differently than we show love and care to one another, no differently than we love and care for ourselves. Isn't that what it means to be a sanctuary?
The same is true in the New Testament. Jesus never broke any laws, but he was a place of sanctuary for the sick, the absurdly rich, the widow, the outcast, the foreign woman, the foreign military general, the grieving, the prostitutes, the mentally ill, and many more. Jesus never asked any of his followers to break the law, but he always ask them to provide sanctuary to those in need.
I will not pretend to tell you what the government should do. There are good (and bad) arguments on all sides of the legal issues. But to be a follower of Christ, we are all left with a simple question: Will you be a sanctuary today?