Day 42--Sanctuary--"Responsible Stewardship: Num 32:1 - 36: 13
February 11, 2021, 8:53 AM

Day 42—Why Sanctuary?

From the very beginning, holy places, holy people, holy buildings were set apart. The word holy means to keep whole, intact or uninjured, something that cannot be violated. Holy people, then, should be aware of offering the grace of wholeness to others. Paths of holiness should lead to an awareness of wholeness, an integration of our humanity and our spirituality. Separation of those humanity and spirituality (or humanity and soul) leads to neither one being fully realized. God made us for this journey, and he has commanded us to bring others along with us.

Our readings today talk about cities of sanctuary. God established places of safety, six separate cities, each one overseen by the high priest of that city. The specific purpose of these cities was to protect people who unintentionally killed someone. Until the time of trial, the person would be protected from being killed by a family member of the person killed. The person who seeks justice by killing the killer is referred to as “the avenger of blood”. Not revenge, but avenge. An avenger seeks retribution on behalf of someone else. Revenge is seeking retribution for yourself. Now you know why the Avengers got their name!

My interest in this concept is not about this ancient establishment, but about how this has continued to evolve since then. Obviously the holiest of holy places in the tabernacle was a sanctuary, and today, most of us consider our churches as sanctuaries, although it is now more of an architectural term that refers to a part of the church.. But it has its roots in Numbers chap 35, and it became the right of criminals and up till today to receive temporary safety for a person (or people) to literally stay in the church and be protected.

In a dramatic scene in the novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, Quasimodo, the hunchback, swoops in to rescue Esmeralda who is about to be hanged in the church, and as he does so he yells out “Sanctuary!” as he grabs her, temporarily staying her execution.

Modern examples of sanctuary have not always been so successful. The Catholic and Protestant churches in Rwanda were supposed to provide sanctuary for the Tutsis who were being targeted by the Hutu mobs who were systematically trying to wipe out the minority group. Horrifyingly, the Hutus did not recognize churches as places of safety—rather they treated them as a convenient way to easily kill thousands of the Tutsi gathered in one place. The Catholic Church had priests that actually participated in the violence, inviting the Hutus into the churches and even killing some of the Tutsis themselves. More Tutsis died in churches and parishes than anywhere else. Decades later the Catholic Church formally apologized for its role in the genocide, and a local church, Ntrama Church in Bugesera, has been turned into a museum of sorts, leaving the remains of more than 5000 Tutsis who were killed within its walls in one day, piling up the bloodstained clothing, allowing bullet holes and weapons to remain as silent witnesses of the unthinkable violence. (If you have seen “Hotel Rwanda”, none of this surprises you.)

But there is a relatively new movement in some US churches and cities, beginning in the late 1980’s and continuing through today, where churches and cities can declare themselves to be sanctuaries in order to house immigrants, particularly those from Central America, who are in danger of deportation. That’s right—to house people, families, children and adults. It has been likened to an underground railroad for the modern era. Protection has been guaranteed by a bill signed in 2011 which stated that churches, playgrounds and schools were off-limits to immigration agents.

But for churches it can come at a steep price. Families living in churches, without being able to set foot outside the building for years can take a huge toll on a congregation. Volunteers must provide for all needs, groceries, doctor’s appointments, communication, legal fees and meetings.

In Bedford, MA, practically our neighbor, a Guatemalan woman has been living in a Sunday School room at the First Parish Church for more than three years, and overall, there are an estimated 40 to 50 churches across the US currently housing immigrants in danger of deportation.

In the past several years, entire cities or counties in the US have declared themselves Sanctuary Cities/Counties which means that they will not cooperate with federal agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

We all get to make decisions about whether or not we think these are correct uses for ‘sanctuary’ in our churches and our country, but the intention was always to protect those who would have had no other means of finding legal protection or safety. The overall concern has always been about unjust loss of life: will the person be returned to a place where they are in imminent danger of being killed without any means of self-protection?

But back to Numbers—we will read more about cities of refuge, about avengers who camped outside the gates of the city, waiting for the person they wanted to kill to simply wander outside the borders or gates of that city, when they could kill the person without punishment or retribution. Justice, and the determination of justice, is never easy.

In the case of these cities of refuge, God was looking out for those who might have suffered for crimes they never intended to commit, and he was making sure that this new nation paid attention to the care and protection of people who might have otherwise suffered or been killed unjustly.

And with that, we move onto Deuteronomy….

Be blessed, and be a blessing,


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