Notes from the Sermon by Jan Betts – 2nd July 2017
May what I say and all that is heard be blessed by God our Redeemer.
Imagine…you are living 600 years ago. You hear that your friend got himself a bit drunk last night and had a fight where someone got injured. The injured person’s mates are out to get revenge. You’re worried about your friend. Where do you look for him? You live in a small village. There’s no A and E. So where would he go?
Well the best place to look would probably be in church, because that was the safest place to run to from hot headed revenge attacks if you had done something wrong, and especially if you had done something you really didn’t mean to do when you left home! Until 1624 – after sanctuary had been very abused as a concept – churches could be a place of sanctuary for almost any criminal. The accused then had 40 days to decide whether to face trial or to leave the country, with an escort to the nearest port. In other words you faced a civil court investigation into your crimes or you were deported. The system was designed to avoid the kind of blood feuds which could keep revenge going for a long time, Mafia style, where families took summary justice into their own hands as a matter of honour or revenge. It was about saying proper justice must be done. That’s not quite what we first think of now as sanctuary, when we think of safety above all.
Because we are thinking about the roof a lot at the moment, and about what this physical building means, this church and why we are so keen to have this church, I want to think a bit about sanctuary and what it means. I’ve been scratching my head over it as ‘sanctuary’, especially as in ‘cities of sanctuary’ is a very on message pc sort of phrase. But I realised I have little idea what it means for us now, and I am still working it out so any response to this would be gratefully received.
Sanctuary began as two things.
Firstly, in the old testament God told his people to have six cities of sanctuary where people who had done something accidently could claim refuge until their case could be dealt with under the proper laws. It was exactly as in medieval times, a way of preventing instant revenge killings, a way of containing blood lust, hatred and injustice, and allowing a proper investigation into a crime.
Secondly sanctuary, THE sanctuary, is also historically a physical part of church. In the OT again the Temple had a sanctuary, a physical place, the holy of holies, which was cut off by a curtain from the rest of the temple. The only people allowed in there were male priests, who took a sacrifice in there once a year, as a way of propitiating God, and restoring the relationship between God and the Jewish people. It was a way of showing penitence, of placating God, and it was done in this secret way because God was too holy for the people to see. There was a real barrier – God was approached through the priest. In Orthodox churches the sanctuary is hidden behind a huge screen of icons and only the male priests are allowed in there. And many churches in the west had huge screens between where the people sat and where the priest celebrated the mass. Normal churches – and when was All Hallows ever normal? – are built, at least in this country, in a cross shape where the altar or communion table is at the end of the long axis, at the east end. And all these physical spaces are called the sanctuary, the holy and hidden place where God dwells.
(But, as Heston pointed out, God was in the sanctuary but inhabited the empty space between the wings of the cherubim on the ark in the. God is spirit not object, God is presence, not threat. And last week which I sadly missed he talked about being still in this presence.)
So ‘claiming sanctuary ‘ for many years was about coming into the church, the place where God had a sanctuary guarded by men, God’s physical holy place where God’s laws refused to allow vengeance and justice and possibly mercy were dealt out.
This idea of churches as sanctuaries has been used today with varying results, but most often the people being sheltered have been deported as civil investigations have taken their course. The state doesn’t recognise any right of sanctuary in churches.
So much for history. How can we, think of sanctuary now? What’s a New Testament view of it and how do we work with that in 2017 in UKIP, Brexit, UK?
The most usual place for many of us in thinking about Cities of sanctuary, which are designed to be places of hospitality, safety and welcome. It’s right of course to welcome those who are fleeing the unimaginable horrors which we know prompt people into leaving their own homes. Jesus has made the whole world to be a sanctuary, and we are actors in that. And it’s also right to think about the justice of those claims in the light of a whole slew of other interests. But what does sanctuary mean to those who aren’t refugees or asylum seekers?
The writer of Hebrews is the one who spells some of this out. Let’s listen to what he says.
We’ve just heard how Jesus has changed the old idea of sanctuary as a place where only the priest can go, where God is kept apart from the people and their ignorance and their disobedience, to one in which Jesus has torn down that curtain in the temple which shut off the people. He himself has become our sanctuary. We can take refuge in God without the need for priests or for sacrifices.
But sanctuary is a holy place and a place where justice as well as mercy are important, and where challenge as well as love happen. You couldn’t claim sanctuary without acknowledging what you had done to need it. Of course you might need sanctuary because you are being attacked ways you feel are unjust.. The psalmist knew this – his enemies hated him and he often felt it was without cause. But we still need to reflect, to be penitent where necessary, to talk with God about our need for comfort and for mercy. Sanctuary works as a place of transformation, to send us out with new hope.
Our sanctuary in Jesus is somewhere where God’s rule runs and not the rule of human beings. It’s a space for healing where the human attributes of scapegoating and vengeance, of pride and possession, don’t prevail. And this it seems to me is where the heart of sanctuary lies. Sanctuary is the place where God is and where God’s rule is paramount, and where we face the challenge and the comfort of that.
Sanctuary isn’t just for refugees and asylum seekers but for any of us who have ever done anything to upset our God of love. Sanctuary isn’t about not facing up to what we are and have done. Sanctuary is the holy space where relationships with God and others are restored and where God’s laws of justice and mercy prevail.
In the sanctuary of God’s presence, we are not subject to scapegoating because of who we are, whether that be issues of tribe or sexuality or education or wealth. We are not to be attacked because of any of these. And when we have repented of our reason for needing sanctuary, if repentance is needed, and we are trying to walk humbly and rightly with God, the glorious thing is that these things we are ashamed of and have repented of won’t be raked up against us by God. When we accuse ourselves in the small hours of the morning of doing lots of horrible things in our past, God says ‘I don’t recognise this person you are describing’. In the sanctuary of God’s presence, whatever others may say, repentance leads to a washing out of what has gone before.
Let’s listen to one story of someone who looked for and found sanctuary.
Knowing sanctuary is the opposite of being handed over to the hatred of the world. Zacchaeus sought sanctuary and was transformed by being challenged through accepting love. Jesus was handed over to hatred and paid a terrible price for it. Sanctuary is the opposite of being handed over.
If we are building a physical sanctuary here which mirrors the sanctuary of Christ, then we have to sit down and talk about these things humbly and carefully under God’s guiding hand. Being in the sanctuary together, being observers of God’s laws rather than man’s laws means we have to think about the way in which individual and community live as church. I am reminded of the Buddhist practice of ‘taking refuge’, of saying that you take your Buddhhist beliefs seriously in the circle of the Buddha and the Buddha’s teaching and the Buddhist community. Sanctuary is part of community as well and we need to think about how we offer sanctuary as a community. In this building We are the ones who help to share the idea of sanctuary, of a place of repentance, mercy, renewal and starting again with a clean slate. We need to forgive those who have repented, to challenge those who need to repent, to love and care for those unjustly accused and much else. We know that the merciful God, took Her position upon the mercy seat, so that every sinner who comes confessing their sins, may receive mercy and pardon. We need to offer in this space what we have freely been offered ourselves, a place and a knowledge of sanctuary.