When I was in middle school in the mid 1980s, I had a teacher whose offbeat presence has stayed with me ever since. I remember noticing him when I started off my seventh grade year. At an age when kids were highly aware and critical of what we wore, when the last thing anyone wanted – or at least the last thing I wanted—was to stand out, this guy wore the loudest, most hilarious pants, made of strange, printed fabric. He could lovingly cut right through our horrific pre-teen dynamics with humor. “All right, princess poo-poo,” he could say to a macho, misbehaving guy, laughingly re-directing him to whatever the task at hand might be. He taught Medieval European history as a kind of theater of the absurd, regaling us with the bizarre and macabre as much as with the basic dates, politics and facts. His stories had us in stitches. I can remember sitting at a desk in his classroom, laughing so hard that I made no noise. But what struck me the most about Mr. Kennedy was how he made space for the most awkward, the most maligned, and often the most self-loathing kids. To me and to so many, his classroom was a sanctuary. It was a space of safety, creativity, and hilarity. From that space, from this person, a spirit of refuge and of persistent, unquenchable life was able to flow through the school counteracting other, diminishing currents, offering hope. I think of Mr. Kennedy as having practiced a kind of sanctuary. It wasn’t necessarily dramatic and obvious, and it worked in unconventional ways, but it created a relational space of safety, life, and possibility to people who desperately needed it.
In our first reading, sanctuary operates in ways that definitely are dramatic. It is the classic story of how the Israelites are liberated from their Egyptian oppressors through the parted Red Sea (Ex 14:19-31). This is a story of fundamental importance both to Jewish and to Christian communities. For Christians it is so significant that we read it at the Easter Vigil, honoring how our earliest forbears came to understand the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection – the Paschal Mystery, as we call it -- through it as a lens. Today’s reading conveys the moment when the Israelites finally are able to untether from Egyptian clutches and make their way toward the land of promise. Moses had said to Pharaoh multiple times now, “let my people go!” The Egyptians had withstood the pressure of several divinely foisted plagues until finally in a moment of desperation Pharaoh had let them escape. But then shortly, as was his wont, he changed his mind and sent his army after them. God created separation between the Israelites and the Egyptians with a pillar of cloud that, as our reading describes it, lit up at night. When they arrived at the Red Sea, Moses stretched out his hand and God, in response, drove back the sea with an east wind, creating walls of water for the Israelites to escape through. This iconic pathway became for the Israelites a safe portal, a sanctuary of liberation, a way out of no way. It also became for the Egyptian army a tomb. As they continued to pursue the death of their former slaves, their own lives became subject to destruction. A place that had been for the nascent Israelites a safe haven from famine through the largess of Joseph who had been sold in treachery by his own brothers (a story we heard on August 13th and 20th)—this complex refuge had become a place of death and enslavement. A people had been called into sanctuary—had been called to be and to become sanctuary – on their way to the promised land.
Our gospel reading offers a very different, but no less dramatic, story that opens a window onto the commitment and challenge of becoming sanctuary. The direct subject of this parable is fundamentally forgiveness, and more specifically about the need to practice it repeatedly, with abundance as opposed to scarcity. How many times should one forgive a member of the church who continues to sin against one, as Peter puts it to Jesus-- seven times? That seems like a lot, yes? No, Jesus responds: how about seventy-times seven? He is gesturing toward the infinite well of God’s mercy and grace, a cycle of forgiveness into which we are invited. The story he goes on to tell is sobering. A slave and his family owe their master a significant sum and are called to account for it. But the master forgives the debt when the slave pleads with him to have patience. The slave then turns around and fails to take up the same spirit and the same practice of forgiveness with his own debtor, throwing him into prison when he couldn’t pay up. This practice and this space – prison – are the very opposite of sanctuary: spaces and practices of retribution and death. This story dramatizes how one can receive a kind of sanctuary and yet not practice it.
These readings illumine how sanctuary is much more than a space. It is a practice or set of practices, a way of being in the world. It is a process rooted in the gift of God’s grace and mercy, drawing us in gratitude to become agents of that gift, becoming vehicles of God’s restoration and reconciliation. Sanctuary is also a challenging vocation. It embodies the several questions that we call and answer when we renew our baptismal covenants: repenting of our own embeddedness in structures of evil, resisting that evil and turning to God, striving for peace and justice, respecting the dignity of every human being. It is about creating spaces that manifests these qualities, opening up pathways of liberation and possibility, being people who find and make a way out of no way not only for ourselves but also beyond ourselves. It is about being on a path of ongoing transformation and becoming, of growing in community, of being made new.
In our context here in the United States, and in San Francisco in 2017, sanctuary also has some specific qualities on which we have already been zeroing in: it is about combating xenophobia and racism. It is about doing the interior work to recognize how we are each impacted by racism and xenophobia, how those of us who are white benefit from how these forces structure so much of the world and our daily lives. This intentional, inner work has been happening in our own anti-racism committee here at St. Aidan’s for some time now, and it continues. Practicing sanctuary here and now also means talking within our deaneries and deciding at our upcoming convention about becoming a sanctuary diocese, as two resolutions invite us to do. Today we also begin a period of discernment here at St. Aidan’s about what it could mean to declare ourselves a Sanctuary Congregation, and whether through Faith in Action (FiA) we might like to do so together with other communities, both like and different than our own. We begin today with a conversation after our worship, lead by Julie Arronowitz of FiA. We will also have several other opportunities for reflection and conversation in these weeks leading up to the Quarterly Parish Meeting on December 3rd. All of this also dovetails with our book series on Walter Brueggemann’s Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks. Brueggemann invites us to confront how the idea of “American exceptionalism” is linked to our history of slavery, the violent erasure of native peoples, and the upbuilding of this country as a nation of immigrants. Practicing sanctuary invites us to break through the layers of denial that fail to perceive the injustices that American exceptionalism cover over, to grieve the breaking of that denial, and to respond with prophetic hope. “The task of the prophetic church,” he says, is to “bear witness to the irreducible reality of God and the irreducibility of the neighbor as the reference points for a viable life in the world that even exceptionalism cannot nullify” (37).
But most of all, it seems to me that our discernment about practicing sanctuary might most fruitfully begin with the question of how we ourselves have experienced it. Who has offered sanctuary to us over time? What was that like? How did we experience the good news in that moment or relationship? As for me, I have been fortunate to have had many such experiences. Mr. Kennedy came into my mind as one particularly powerful example. As a gay man teaching middle schoolers in the mid-1980s in San Francisco, a man who, unbeknownst to us at the time, was living with AIDS and who would die about two years later, this man created a space of refuge, of hope, of possibility for so many young people who were struggling. He did it with grace, with warmth, and with outrageous humor. I am so grateful for him. Over time as a Christian I have come to frame such experiences of mentoring and community as emblematic of the good news of God in Christ, of the up-building of beloved community here on earth as it is in heaven. And in response to that gift of sanctuary I have become determined to carry it forward, to practice such sanctuary myself, in small ways and in larger ways. And so I invite you to consider today, who has given you sanctuary? How has it happened? What has that been like? I what ways are you called to offer it in return? With gratitude to God for the agents of hope and of sanctuary in our midst, let us pray:
Gracious God, you pitched your tent in our midst and in the person of your Son placed your body in harm’s way, outside the city gate. May we be strengthened to join you as you have joined us, outside the camp, even in the midst of the city. May we be catalyzed to alert our senses and open our hearts to all who bear in their bodies the marks of the walls that divide and dehumanize us. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.
John 1:14; Hebrews 13:12; Galatians 6:17