Sanctuary (A sermon on Orlando)

**Originally preached at the 8, 9:30, and 11 am services at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, on June 19, 2016**

Bulletin cover quote: “love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept aside” – Lin-Manuel Miranda

1 Kings 19:9-15

9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ 10He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’

11 He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ 14He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’ 15Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus

—–

Galatians 3: 23-29

23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

 

There is a poem that goes like this: “Before I die, I want to be somebody’s favorite hiding place, the place they can put everything they know they need to survive, every secret, every solitude, every nervous prayer, and be absolutely certain I will keep it safe.  I will keep it safe.” (Bone Burying – Andrea Gibson)

Sanctuary. What does it mean to you?

Is it vaulted ceilings and stained glass and beautiful organs that make a sanctuary? Or prayer and communion and preaching? Or is it something else?

Is sanctuary a place where you feel claimed and known and home? A place where you can breathe deeply in the affirmation of your own belovedness? Where you can let your guard down and just be? Is sanctuary a place where, no matter what hard or awful thing is happening in your life or in this world, you feel safe?

Perhaps sanctuary is what you’ve come looking for this morning. If so, I’m glad you are here. We call this very space a sanctuary so certainly there is some assumed connection between sanctuaries and churches.

In our Galatians text for this morning, Paul describes the kind of perfect community—an ideal world—that Christ’s love creates. In this ideal that Paul describes, faith and belonging are what hold us all together rather than rigid boundaries and rules of law. The world transformed by Christ is one where there is “no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female.” It describes unity not only for Christians or for Jews, but for all children of Abraham—all children of God.

It’s worth noting that the unity Paul describes here isn’t a unity devoid of differences. In fact, throughout his writings Paul celebrates differences in story and background—emphasizing over and over that Gentiles, that is non-Jews, need not become Jews to join with them in faith. What changes—what is erased and eradicated—is the “or”—the divisiveness and the hierarchy that oppresses one group to preserve the privilege of another. What is absent is judgment that deems one person or group less valuable, less valid, less worthy of love and embrace, less human. In the world defined by Christ’s love, we are all beloved children of God, and in God and one another we find belonging, home, affirmation, and safety.

Sanctuary.

This is the promise that the church is called to embody with every fiber of its being. I hope you’ve known that feeling in the church. I have. My church growing up was one of the first places I felt that kind of belonging and safety—my deepest sense of home and belovedness. That experience has brought all the way here. To this pulpit. To this community. To a life of ministry.

But the angry, tragic truth of our broken world is that many have not found sanctuary in churches. Many have experienced exactly the opposite of the kind of community that Paul describes in Galatians—instead of belonging and unity, they’ve experienced expulsion, rejection, and judgment. So many of the people who have encountered church in this painful and damaging way are the people who need love and belonging and sanctuary the most. As a bisexual woman, I have known that experience of church too.

I have seen and resonated with a lot of pieces written this week in the wake of Orlando’s brutal tragedy which seek to explain to those who are not lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gay, or queer how LGBTQ spaces—centers and bars and nightclubs like Pulse in Orlando—operate as sanctuaries for LGBTQ people, many of whom have been rejected by their churches and even their families.

These queer spaces allow LGBTQ people like me opportunity to be in community together where we are affirmed and embraced and allowed to be fully who we are—who God created us to be. Even as I love and serve the church, I know how crucial such spaces are.

The poem I quoted at the beginning of this sermon is by a queer poet named Andrea Gibson who I see perform every chance I get. Andrea’s shows are a profoundly queer experience where myriad variety of bisexual, transgender, gay, lesbian, and queer person come together and cry and laugh and celebrate the truth of our identities and our belovedness reflected in Andrea’s poems.  Even though Andrea is not religious, there is so much God-love and gospel truth in those poems. I often tell people that Andrea Gibson is a queer experience of church.

But I went to an Andrea Gibson show on Tuesday night—just days after a man walked into a gay bar in Orlando and killed 49 mostly latinx LGBTQ people, and at this show, everything felt different. Security was heightened and so was anxiety. I found myself wondering if such LGBTQ safe spaces would ever feel like sanctuaries again.

In Galatians, Paul describes the way the church and the world should be—the truth and promise we know in Jesus Christ—but at times like these, the distance between us and that ideal world seems impossibly, devastatingly far.

In this world, when we remember the violent, racist massacre in a Charleston church that claimed 9 black lives just a year ago… When we remember San Bernadino and Sandy Hook, and the excruciating number of shootings in between—especially in our own city, When we remember Paris and Brussels and countless acts of Islamaphobia in our own country, When we remember Matthew Shephard and the racist and homophobic violence that claimed 50 lives last weekend—we know we don’t live in a world where the barriers and walls of division, hierarchy, and oppression have been torn down—not even close. And we cry out to God wondering where we might find sanctuary from all that is so very broken.

In truth, these days, it feels like we have a lot more in common with Elijah than with Paul. Elijah lives in a deeply broken world, surrounded by violence and abuses of power and injustice. There are no purely good guys in Elijah’s story—including him. But he feels persecuted and isolated and afraid. Things have gotten so bad that he is running for his life—desperate for refuge and God’s help. He is looking for sanctuary. He cries out to God “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

We hear echoes of his cry as we listen to accounts of Orlando survivors and how they prayed for safety in the midst of their terror. We hear it in the voices of latinx LGBTQ folks as they talk about the intersections of discrimination they face daily as people of color, sexual and gender minorities, and often immigrants. We hear it from so many people in this world today cast into the wilderness of the margins by our systems of injustice and oppression, by racism and sexism and heterosexism, by transphobia and xenophobia.

We are a world where divisions and prejudices leave so many persecuted, isolated and afraid. Paul calls us to a dream but Elijah’s is the experience we resonate with these days.

As Elijah hides in his cave, disastrous events continue to unfold, one after another without ceasing. A great wind, an earthquake, and then a fire. And God does not speak to Elijah in these acts of destruction. But when they over—when the world has quieted down for a time—Elijah gathers himself up and goes out, and God speaks. I have often heard this text interpreted as how God uses silence, but God is not silent. God speaks. God is not passive, and neither is Elijah. Elijah gets up, he leaves the temporary refuge of his cave and goes out to meet God.

And when Elijah tells God of his fears in search of solace and sanctuary, God commands Elijah to venture into the wilderness.

It isn’t the sanctuary Elijah was hoping for. At least not right away. But others join in his work. Elisha takes up his mantle. Bit by bit, inch by inch, Elijah’s world draws closer to the world of God’s promise.

We too will have to leave the temporary refuge of this place and wherever else we go in our lives to hold back the tide of what’s hard and broken all around us. It is tempting to stay. And we should take hold of one another—comfort each other, breathe deep in the solace of community and affirmation of our own belovedness.

But when the loud furor of this latest storm quiets down (and far too soon, it will), we will have a choice. To stay hidden in the silence and in the comfort of our old familiar prayers, or to go out and meet God. And when we cry out to God in our fear and our longing and our pain, God may indeed send us into the wilderness—right into thick of all who are hurting and cast aside—to do the work of justice and seek the world of Paul’s dreaming, the world of God’s imagining, the world of Christ’s promise.

It may feel to us, as it has this past week, like that wilderness is so very wide. Like the distance between us and the world to which we are called is so very far. But we are called to be the church in this world. And the world is crying out for sanctuary, and God is looking at us.

Heart-heavy and unsure as we may be against the tide of all that is broken around us, we know and trust that we don’t go out alone. We go with a promise. That God is here. And God is out there. And God is not silent. God has never been silent.

God sent Christ into this world to transform it. To break down every wall and every barrier that divides us and sets us against one another so that might be held together in one love.  The promise that we are all beloved: gay and bisexual and asexual and straight. Male and female. Transgender and nonbinary. Black and Asian and Latinx and white. Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and all else. We are all held together by the love of God.

Whatever the world looks like today and tomorrow and six months from now—that promise made known to us in Jesus Christ is still true. Already true. Maybe the world has yet to recognize it, but our faith assures us and so we know. And even now—even in the midst of it all—we catch glimpses. There are moments when the truth of who we all are—one beloved family—breaks in.

All week, in Orlando and all over this country, LGTBQ people have gathered in queer spaces and danced in memory and in defiance of hate and fear.

Two years ago today, our national denominational body—the General Assembly, voted to approve marriage equality.

And last night, in the 60th year of our ordaining women to ministry, our Presbyterian denomination elected to be led by two women for the first time. They are different ages, different races, with different stories. But they and our whole denomination have committed to being agents of racial reconciliation, of justice and inclusion for all people, and to being witnesses of Christ’s radically transforming love. And that sort of in-breaking is happening here too.

On Wednesday something amazing happened, and it happened here at Fourth. After a spark of conversation at Tuesday’s staff meeting—in the space of just 24 hours—the request to chime our bells 50 times on Wednesday afternoon in honor the lives lost transformed into an interfaith prayer service and a historic blossom of color and welcome on the outside of our church.

On Wednesday morning, young people from a visiting youth group worked with some of our clergy and other staff to cut hundreds of rainbow colored ribbons and tie them onto our railings along Michigan Avenue. Still others of our clergy staff climbed out onto the roof above our front doors to drape a giant rainbow flag for all to see. And that afternoon we gathered with friends from Chicago Sinai and the Downtown Islamic Center and others, and with the powerful musical gifts of our dear friend Lucy Smith and the jazz quartet. We sang together, we prayed and read sacred texts together. We tolled the bell in silence for every life lost and we read the name of each victim aloud. We stood as one people and cried out for a better world—the world we believe we were made for.

It was not everything. It was not enough to change the world. But it was a beginning. Here on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago, it was a beginning. It is our calling to carry that promise of God’s love out into this world, onto our steps and into the streets. We carry it to each other and to all people. We are called to bear the promise of sanctuary to all who need refuge and safety and home and belonging. And together we work for a day when that promise of sanctuary encompasses the whole world. That is how we make it through the wilderness. That is how we cover the distance between.

All week, I have been thinking about Sanctuary. Not just the concept. I have been thinking about the song. Do you know the song I mean?  [singing]:

Lord, prepare me

            to be a sanctuary

            pure and holy

            tried and true

            with thanksgiving

            I’ll be a living

            sanctuary for you.

 

I’m sure some of you know it. It was a favorite of mine from church camp days – it always felt like a promise and an invitation. It took me years to realize that some of the implicit themes behind—of biblical purity and perfection—were holding people out as much as they felt like they were holding me in.

But this week I have been thinking about this song in a new way. What if we decided it wasn’t about purity or being set apart? What if we understood it instead, as our promise to be a sanctuary to others? To all people and especially to those who are marginalized or hurting? And even and especially to those who have been led to believe the church cannot be safety and home for them?

Let that be our prayer for this day and every day. That God would prepare us to be a sanctuary for everyone who needs it. That we might be pure and unhesitating in our love and holy in our work for justice. That even as we are tried by the horrors and hardness that this world sometimes delivers, we would remain true to the promise that we are all one and all beloved by God. That we would give thanks for God’s steadfast love and for our chance to be a part of it, and that we would always be a living, breathing promise of grace and sanctuary for each other and for all. Let that be the prayer and promise we carry out from this place.

If you know it, will you sing with me? [all singing]:

Lord, prepare me

to be a sanctuary.

Pure and holy,

tried and true.

With thanksgiving,

We’ll be a living,

sanctuary for you.

 

Amen.

vigil

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Enough (a sermon)

**Originally preached at Jazz Worship at Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago on June 5, 2016.

1 Kings 17:8-16

The Widow of Zarephath

8 Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, 9‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ 10So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.’

11As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.’ 12But she said, ‘As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.’

13Elijah said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’

15She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

For many years, the church I grew up went on mission trips to Mexico every summer to build houses with an organization called Constructores Para Cristo (CPC). This organization sought to confront the reality of homelessness and poverty in Piedras Negras, Mexico one small house at a time. Every week, when a new church group arrived to begin work, the staff of CPC told them the same story. It’s a common fable, so maybe you’ve heard it before.

The story goes that one day a man saw a his child walking along the beach and stooping over again and again to pick something up and throw it in the water. The man drew closer to the child to investigate, and realized that the beach was covered in starfish as far as the eye could see—brought in with the tide and now stranded. The little girl was picking them up one at a time and throwing them back into the ocean.

Amused, the man asked his daughter, “Why are you doing that?”

And she replied, “If the starfish don’t get back into the ocean, they’ll dry out and die. So I’m putting them back.”

The father laughed and said, “But there are thousands of starfish on the beach, there’s no way you could possibly save them all. Even if you tried to do this all day—it just wouldn’t matter.”

The little girl picked up another starfish and stared down at for a minute. Then she held it up to show her father and said, “It matters to this one.” And she threw it in the water.

The point of the story is simple and clear: even the small things we do matter. Whatever we can do to help makes a difference. The little girl understands this, but the father doesn’t. He’s overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem and what impact he could make doesn’t seem worth the effort or cost. And so, he does nothing.

****

In our scripture passage for today, the scope is smaller, but the stakes are higher. Elijah is a stranger far from home. He has no community to rely on and no resources. And so he asks a woman—a widow with a son—for help.  When he asks for water, she obliges—it seems easy enough to do. But then he asks for food. A morsel of bread.

The woman falters. Elijah is relying on her on the most basic level. Her faith and culture suggest that it is her responsibility to show hospitality—to care for him. But she feels incapable of meeting his needs. She doesn’t have enough—not even for herself and her son—so she can’t give enough. She tells Elijah that she has only enough meal for her and her son to eat and then they will die.

She feels overwhelmed, just like the man in the starfish story. But Elijah encourages her and tells her to trust in her faith in God. And so the woman does what she can. She gives him food and has enough for herself and her son and the meal and oil do not run out so that the 3 of them are fed for many days.

My life does not look like the life of the woman in this story—or Elijah’s life, for that matter. Though I may sometimes stress about my budget or my future, I am not on the verge of death. I am not short on food. I don’t wonder where I will sleep tonight. But I do know what it feels like to be overwhelmed by the scope of someone else’s need—to feel like I don’t have enough to give. Like I can’t do enough.

Maybe you know this feeling too. When we turn on the news in the morning, or scroll through our Facebook feed, or even just walk down the street—we are inundated with all the hard, terrible things happening in our world.

A quick glance at yesterday’s Chicago Tribune revealed 5 dead and 18 wounded in our city just one night into the weekend. It told the story of a young man—a Stanford student—convicted of sexually assaulting a woman at a party and being sentenced to only 6 months in prison. It talked about the professor killed in last week’s shooting on the UCLA campus. And of course it covered the death of Muhammad Ali while remembering the realities of racism he contended with and worked to overthrow in his lifetime.

We rejoice at the good, hopeful stories that find their way to us, but we cannot ignore all that is troubling around us. Countries and regions shredded by war. Ceaseless gun violence in our own streets. The seemingly insurmountable realities of climate change and our hurting planet. Hate and fear, pain and prejudice, illness, poverty, loneliness, and loss. It isn’t hard to see—it’s hard not to see.

As Christians, we believe that we are called to be generous. To work for justice. To care for creation, to serve others and especially to help those who are most vulnerable. But I think this question of enough often gets us stuck. In a world as broken as ours: where do we begin? And perhaps a more troubling question: where do we stop? For surely if we tried to solve every problem and meet every need, we would lose everything—maybe even die—while hardly making a dent in all that’s wrong in this world.

We fear that we don’t have enough to give—not enough to do and give as much as we’re supposed to. And what we can give—isn’t enough for the ones that need it.

This is, on some level, the struggle that overwhelms the father in the starfish story and makes the widow falter before Elijah. It is a struggle that I have known deeply—and personally—for most of my life.

Growing up, my parents were divorced and, over my early years, my father’s financial circumstances deteriorated so that—by the time I was in middle school—he was struggling to keep a roof, any roof, over his own head. Sometimes—there was no roof. Or there was just a shelter, or the broken-down van he’d been given by his church. My dad struggled with alcoholism, with job loss, with mental health issues, and diabetes—all of which impacted his stability and finances.

I learned about income inequality and the complexity of circumstances surrounding homelessness and poverty by watching it happen to my dad from the comfort of my 3-story, suburban house less than 2 miles away from him. I remember sleepless nights spent wondering if he was safe, if he was okay, if he would have a future, and why our lives looked so different. It didn’t seem right or fair. At 10 years old and at 13 and at 20—I was flooded with worry about all that my dad faced, with guilt over my own profoundly different reality, and with my own sense of utter helplessness to fix any of it. I knew that it would take more than a dollar, or a meal. I knew that there was something bigger broken, but I didn’t know what I could do about it.

I’ll confess something to you. I remember this feeling well not just because I felt it so often about my dad growing up, but because I still feel it—sometimes about my dad, but all the time walking through this world and the streets of this city. Every time I pass someone on a street corner asking for food, or change, or work, or help—I see my father. I wonder whose father/mother/child this person is and who might be somewhere worried about them.

Sometimes—I’ll admit—I duck my head and walk quickly—trying to think of something else. Sometimes, I try to calculate how much it would cost if I gave $5 or even just a dollar to every person I passed who asked for help. Sometimes, I think to myself all the reasons why it’s okay that I didn’t stop and engage. Always I feel that same overwhelming flood of helplessness. What can I do, really? If I couldn’t do it for my father, what can I do for all of these? Whatever I have to offer—it is not enough.

These are hard questions. Questions I imagine many of you struggle with too—whether about homelessness and poverty, or violence, and something else. There is some value to recognizing that there is a larger system of brokenness at work that one simple act of generosity or kindness cannot fix.

Another modern fable tells of a river with a village on its shores. One day, a villager notices a baby floating down the river and jumps in to save it. Then more and more babies come down the river and the villager gets a bunch of other people to help her save them all before they drown. Eventually, one woman leaves the group and starts to head upstream along the shore. Someone asks her, “Are you giving up?” And she says, “No, I’m going to find out how to stop these babies from ending up in the river to begin with.”

We need both direct service and love, and deeper work to dismantle systems of injustice. Both are crucial.

As Christians we are called to love one another and to work toward a world that is just for all people. Our faith demands that we act with care and service toward others in all the ways we can, when we can, as much as we can. Too often though, our awareness of the extent of brokenness in this world keeps us from doing anything at all. Knowing that a single act can’t solve the problem and that it is beyond us to fix the whole system—we avert our eyes from the painful realities of other people—we bury ourselves in our own concerns and comfort ourselves with the reassurance that we just can’t do enough—don’t have enough to give.

I don’t believe there is a clear answer to how much we should offer or how or when. There isn’t a prescription in our faith for how much good is enough. But we are told where to begin. Anywhere. And not to stop. We are called to do something, to give something. As much as we think we can spare—and then perhaps a little more. We are called to see each other and not avert our eyes—not surrender to our sense of helplessness, but trust that we are part of the larger work of God. And so are the ones we serve, and so are others serving. No single one of us is called to do everything, but we are called to recognize that we are connected and that only by committing to that connection and loving one another will needs be met and healing happen and good prevail.

It’s significant, but perhaps easy to overlook, what happens next in our scripture today—after the woman shares what little she has.  I don’t mean the miracle where God allows her meal and oil to never run out, so reminiscent of other bible stores. I mean this little detail in the text, verse 15: “she went and did Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days.”

Did you notice what happens? That Elijah is included with them for many days? He was just a stranger on the road—an unknown traveler who—having been denied help or kindness—might easily have gone on his way and remained a stranger. Instead, his fate, his life, his well-being and that of the widow and her son become bound up together. In fact, it is because of this relationship that Elijah is around to help save the widow’s son when he dies.

The widow acts because she believes and trusts that—more important than her fear of scarcity or her sense of helplessness—is her call to relationship and community with Elijah. For her, that relationship is enough to make it worth it.

This is the kind of love and care we are called to. The uncomfortable twist in our gut as we walk by someone struggling or bear witness to the injustices of this world is the Spirit reminding us that we are all one. That we are made family by the God who loves us all. Whatever we do in the face of that discomfort, we cannot ignore it. When we avoid it, rationalize it, ignore it—we fail to see each other. When we act in love—whatever we do—we are reminded that we belong to each other. That our struggle is one struggle. That our story is one story. And that our hope is one hope.

The little girl in the starfish story doesn’t ask whether she has enough to give or can do enough to matter. She just knows that it matters enough for the starfish whom she encounters—and they matter enough to her—to try and keep trying.

What is enough? This is a question our faith compels us to wrestle with, but our faith also tells us that this is not a question that God asks at all. God offers us love and grace—and that love and grace help us to see each other, bind us up together, and empower us to love and serve one another in ways beyond what we imagine possible.

Even when we feel we don’t have enough or can’t do enough, we can trust in God. When it comes to how much of that love and grace God offers—to us and through us—the measure is never just “enough.” The measure is more than enough. Abundant. More than you can ever imagine. The measure of God’s love and grace is “endless.” Thanks be to God. Amen.