This sermon was given on January 8, 2017, to the congregation of First Church Granby, one of my many home churches (and the one where I currently spend most Sundays).
For more readings on Sanctuary Churches, I suggest starting here: sanctuarynotdeportation.org
The readings this week are hard readings. “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted, he was furious, and he ordered all the boys in Bethlehem who were two years old and under to be killed”.
It was only a few short weeks ago we were singing Mary’s song. Remember that? “He puts forth his arm in strength, and scatters the proud-hearted. He casts the mighty from their thrones, and raises the lowly.” I felt hope.
But backlash always comes, and it comes hard. After a song that sings of justice, and food for the hungry, and the hope that God will finally deliver us, Herod orders the slaughter of the innocents. A man with near-unlimited power strips hope from an impoverished community, and thoughts of justice and mercy are buried under grief and shock and horror.
In current events, many of us feel backlash in a president and cabinet that are anti-gay, anti-black, anti-trans, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-women, anti-climate, and more. Today, just as in Jesus’ time, those who feel the brunt of this backlash have the fewest resources with which to protect themselves.
Knowing what we do next is hard. How do we still feel hope? How do we feel like we can make a difference, in a world that is so out of our control? How do we, as the God of Deuteronomy instructs us, make sure that there is enough for everybody?
In times of backlash, it is even more important that we “Be The Church”. We have to figure out how to stand up against hate, to provide shelter, and to mitigate harm. We know, even before we start, that this work is always messy, and that there is no such thing as “doing it right”. But we aren’t asked to do things right- instead, we are asked to do them imperfectly- over, and over, and over again, while continuing to declare the coming of justice and mercy.
We recently hung a sign up on the building that says “immigrants and refugees are welcome here”. And as a community, we’re working on some of that already. The refugee resettlement project that First Church Simsbury is coordinating is moving forward. Our church has pledged $1000 to the initial settlement funds, and Ginny is a core member of the steering committee. We collected a pile of coats for refugees, and North Church members have been at the meetings figuring out what’s needed, and how we can help a refugee family call Connecticut home.
These public displays of commitment and love are vital in times of backlash, or else our communities can fall prey to the rhetorics of fear and ‘us vs them’ mindsets, that lead to great suffering.
But, as the church, we can’t stop there. Following in the footsteps of Jesus means that we extend love and resources and sanctuary to all people, regardless of state approval for our actions.
Our communities contain hundreds of undocumented immigrants, who move through our towns and our lives, who have undertaken journeys that we can barely imagine. 80% of women and girls who come to America without state recognition are assaulted during the journey, and they know those dangers before they begin. But the journey, and the life of constant fear, is safer than staying home. In the words of Warsan Shire, the British-Somali poet who immigrated to the UK,
“You have to understand,
No one puts their children in a boat
Unless the water is safer than the land”
President Obama has deported more people than any president in history- and many of those were children and single mothers fleeing violence in Central America. Deportations of undocumented people are expected to rise under President Trump.
The state has never been the decider of what justice and mercy look like, though it has always claimed that position. The state has always crucified innocent people, whether on a cross, or by sending children and parents back to countries where they know they face violence and death.
To follow in the footsteps of Jesus means that we don’t let the government tell us what is right. Rather, it is our job, as the church, to extend sanctuary to everyone, and to remind people what justice and mercy really mean. Our instructions are to love so hard that we threaten the status quo, bringing the kingdom of God a little closer to home.
During this time of backlash, we can bravely love by declaring ourselves a “Sanctuary Church” – a church whose members and buildings will be available to step in and provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants who are in danger of being deported.
By naming ourselves a Sanctuary Church, we can continue to sing Mary’s Song, even during these dark and bewildering times. We can continue to say that there is enough for all, that all will be fed, and that justice will come.
There is no easy-to-follow blueprint for what Sanctuary Churches do – the needs are constantly changing, and will depend on what our local undocumented families need. But it would mean being public in our commitments, standing up against hateful rhetoric, and making it easier for other people to do the same. It means singing lyrics that other people have forgotten, and inviting them to join with us in song.
There are over 400 churches who have joined this movement already, and we need about 4,000 more. In times of backlash, what protects communities from violence is a fierce, loudly-stated love for those who are different than us, and a refusal to back down in the face of fear-fueled aggression.
So let us sing Mary’s song still, and let us do the work that it calls us to do, no matter the backlash we’re in the midst of. We can share what we have, trusting that there is always enough, and we can extend sanctuary to those who seek it here. We can do what Jesus is calling us to do.