Sanctuary: Making Room At The Table

Rev. Matthew Davis Fox

Sermon delivered at All Souls Bethlehem Church, Sunday May 6th, 2007

Biblical Text: Matthew 25:34-40

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Let me start by telling you a story.

The story is about a man named Jim Corbett. Jim was a renaissance man- he led what one person described as a “contemplative life as a rancher, writer and teacher.” Moved by his passion for non-violence and simple living, he converted to Quakerism in the 1960’s, and became active in the anti-war movement during Vietnam. By the early 1980’s he was living a quiet life in Arizona, herding goats and cows, while also teaching philosophy

In 1981, a friend of Jim’s picked up a hitchhiker from El Salvador- a hitchhiker who was later arrested, and deported. I don’t know the exact details- but from what I understand, Jim learned about this and was troubled by what happened- by this person who entered his friend’s life briefly, and then disappeared again. Jim started digging deeper, trying to find out what had happened to the hitchhiker, and why. And what he found greatly disturbed him.

He discovered that this hitchhiker his friend had met was part of a long and steady stream of political refugees, fleeing the violence that was running rampant in Central America at the time. They came here because they wanted safety. They wanted sanctuary.

What troubled Corbett most was his discovery that our government of the time, the Reagan administration had instructed judges to deny the petitions for asylum for those fleeing from countries whose governments Reagan was supporting as allies against communism. These refugees were trapped; forced to flee their homes to a land that saw them as politically problematic. They had no idea where to go. Corbett began reaching out to others in his community, speaking to clergy and lay people about how to organize communities of faith to help these refugees the government had turned its back on. From those discussions was born what would come to be known as the Sanctuary Movement.

For 10 years, a network of more then 500 faith communities, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Quakers, Unitarians and many others, worked together to provide sanctuary for these refugees. They looked to their various faith traditions, all of which held stories of the divine reminding humanity of the need to open our doors to those most in need, to those for whom all other doors have been closed. Stories like the one we heard this morning from the Gospel. Stories like the ones I heard every year at my father’s house at Passover when Jews are reminded to “let all who are hungry come in and eat”.

The founders of the Sanctuary Movement looked to these stories, and to movements like the Underground Railroad, and looked to follow in their footsteps.

I tell this story today, because this idea of sanctuary has been on my mind a lot lately. As a student of religion, one thing I’ve always been fascinated by are the common themes. Many religions have a flood story somewhere in their creation mythology. Many sacred texts include a story of someone born into poverty and obscurity, who becomes a great prophet or leader. And, from the little research I’ve done, it seems many faith traditions have a story or a proverb or an admonition similar to the one we heard from the Bible, reminding us that it is by giving shelter and comfort to those most in need, that by giving sanctuary to the “least of these” that we best serve God.

Sanctuary is a powerful idea. It is the idea that when you are on the run, when you are hungry or poor, be it physical or spiritual hunger- that when you are in need- Sanctuary is the place you can go. This room in our church that we are in now, the place where a community comes to worship- we call it the sanctuary. It is the place where we come together as a community, to befriend each other, to support each other, to learn from each other- to experience the divine through each other.

For me, that last idea, of experiencing the divine together- is what I find strongest in this idea of Sanctuary. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus doesn’t encourage us to offer sanctuary to the poor and naked, to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger, simply because Jesus loves those people. The reward of clothing the naked is not that God loves those best and thus wants us to help them. No it goes far beyond that- it is the idea that we experience God IN those people we help- in the least of these. That when we feed the hungry, we feed God.

That idea- of finding the divine IN those needing sanctuary- of an encounter with the divine through opening ourselves up to the least of these, seems to be central to all of these stories. Genesis contains a number of stories of angels or other divine actors, approaching humans in the guise of poor and hungry strangers, to see who will welcome them. Greek mythology tells a similar story, in which Zeus and Hermes disguise themselves as poor and hungry travelers, to see who in the town will offer them hospitality. It is in that moment of kindness to a stranger, of making room at our table, or giving a place of solace and rest to someone on the run, that moment of giving to another from whom we have no thought of reward, we give simply because they are a stranger in need- that we experience the divine.

I imagine this idea of Sanctuary was somewhere in the mind of Rev. Howard Moody, and all the others who came together in the years before Roe V. Wade, and formed the Clergy Consultation Service. The film clip we saw today was just a small portion of that story- of clergy who came together to offer women a place of safety and security, and counsel, as they made the difficult decision of what to do with an unintended pregnancy. Like the Underground Railroad and the Sanctuary Movement, those clergy were dealing with people who were on the run- not just spiritually or psychologically- but legally. In the late 1960’s, those women were among the “least of these” and the Clergy Consultation service offered them sanctuary.

As I mentioned all of this has been on my mind lately- and on the minds of many of those I work with in the reproductive justice movement. As you probably well know, a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that is, in the words of Rev. Carlton Veazey, the President of RCRC- “a serious setback for women’s health and for a woman’s ability to follow her conscience in medical decisions.”

Now, as the child of two lawyers, I’ve been known to go on at great length on an issue of legal minutia, and I could speak for a while about what this specific decision means, and the dangerous doors it opens up for the future. But I’m up here to preach, not to give a legal lecture. For this sermon today, just a few points about that decision are important.

First, that this decision is not only problematic in and of itself, but opens the door to many further restrictions on access to abortion. Secondly, that this decision represents a major shift in legal thinking- a shift that could lead to Roe itself being overturned. Finally, the decision has turned new attention, not only to the potential for new limitations, but to the limitations that already exist- just a little too far below the radar screen for most of us to notice.

Consider the woman who lives in any of the 37 states, that do not allow the use of Medicaid or other public funding for abortion, and thus can not afford to have one. Consider the woman who travels hundreds of miles because no abortion clinic is nearby, and is told she must wait 24 hours before having an abortion, and now must find a place to stay for the night, let alone figure out how to get back, or what to tell her boss. Consider the teenaged girl who can not get an abortion in her state without parental notification, but fears the violent reaction that telling her parents she is pregnant might elicit- are not these, today “the least of these”? Are they not among those who today need Sanctuary?

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision, a number of people have had a number of discussions about possible responses. One of those responses discussed has been the idea of communities of faith coming together to offer Sanctuary to women and families dealing with unintended pregnancies, and in need of a place to turn. Already there is a great need on behalf of all of those facing restrictions that already exist, and if, as I fear, the new reasoning of the Supreme Court allows further and further restrictions, or goes so far as to overturn Roe itself, that need will only be greater. As communities of faith look at this situation, I wonder what we can learn from Jim Corbett. What might a Sanctuary Movement for Reproductive Justice look like? A movement in which communities of faith come together as they did then- to educate others about the issues involved, to raise funds and public awareness, and when needed, to offer a place to stay, or a warm meal, or a ride to a clinic for a woman who has traveled far from home to seek the medical treatment she needs.

And what does this mean for us? Because just as I’m not here to give a legal lecture, nor am I here to deliver a lecture on the latest theological trends in the reproductive justice movement. No, I’m up here today to preach. And so I want to invite you into this discussion of Sanctuary, and abortion, and reproductive justice- and ask you to keep it in mind, and hold it in your hearts in just a few moments when this sermon comes to an end and we gather around this table to break bread together as a community- in the sacred meal we call Communion.

I invite you not only to hold the thought of Sanctuary in your heart as we gather at this table, but to ask yourself the question I’ve been thinking about since these discussions began- what can the Communion Table teach us about Sanctuary? What can Sanctuary teach us about how we approach this sacred ritual together?

When I think of all that the church does to offer Sanctuary in so many ways- both the big C Church and this sacred community right here that we are all a part of in this congregation- Communion is what I think of. Think of the language that is often used to describe this meal- “spiritual food.” “Bread for the journey.” To gather at the table is be travelers, pilgrims, finding a way-station, a place of sanctuary along the road of life.

But beyond that idea of being fed, is the idea that this table is a place of justice. That it is here at the table where Jesus again and again demonstrated his call to welcome those who are different. To offer them Sanctuary. Throughout his ministry, when Jesus wants to shake people up, to challenge ideas of power and privilege and who is clean, or unclean- he does so by sitting down and breaking bread with those on the outside.

And here, we in this church proudly follow in a long and sacred tradition, of letting the table be a place where barriers fall away. For each of the streams of religious tradition that have flown together to form the river that is All Souls Bethlehem Church, for the Disciples of Christ, the Unitarian Universalists and for the United Church of Christ, the idea of an open table, open communion has a central place in our theology.

When others have said, you are not part of our particular church, or denomination- you are not welcome here, we have said- come to our table.

When others have said you can not break bread with us, you were not baptized in the right way, or by the right person, or you do not hold the right belief or theology, we have said- come to our table.

When others have said, you are the wrong color, or class, or do not fit our idea of who is holy, we have said- come to our table.

When others have said, you can not break bread with us, because you are gay, or because you are divorced or because in some other way you do not love as we believe you should, we say- come to our table.

And in our traditions, we’ve gone beyond simply saying- come and sit at our table. Come and make a place for yourself at the table that we control.

Here we say- come and make the table your own. Bring to this table whatever theology or spiritual meaning you bring to the sharing of bread and wine. And when others have said, you are not worthy to be a minister, because of your race, or your gender, or the gender of those you love, when others have said, you may dine at the table, but nothing more, we have said- come and serve the meal. Come and lead us. Ours is a church where the spiritual and ministerial gifts of all are welcomed. Where we all work together, to create Sanctuary for each other.

Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.

A place is set for you at the table. Here you can find food for the journey. Here you can find Sanctuary. And gathered around this table- here we can offer Sanctuary to others.

As we prepare the table, I hope you’ll join with me in this prayer:

*sung *

God, prepare me, to be a Sanctuary.
Pure and holy, tried and true.
And with Thanksgiving, I’ll be a living
Sanctuary, for you.


Amber Royster