**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.
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
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.
We’ll be a living,
sanctuary for you.