One of Harry’s all timer favourite set of books and movies taken together, are the Brother Cadfael series. There were 23 novels written by Edith Parteger, who used the pseudonym of Ellis Peters and thirteen of them were made into movies by the British television company ITV in England with Derek Jacobi starring as Brother Cadfael.
Brother Cadfael is a monk living in a monastery in Shrewsbury in the 12th century and the novels are all set in the time when England was at Civil War between the followers of King Stephen and the Empress Maude.
Cadfael had been a soldier in the crusades at one time but has given up his sword for the cowl and lives now as a man of peace and is the herbalist for the monastery.
And each novel has at least one death in which Cadfael will inevitably solve the mystery of whodunnit. And most of the novels have a couple who are in love, but there is usually some barrier to their being together which Cadfael usually solves too.
The seventh novel, entitle the Sanctuary Sparrow starts with a young man running into the monastery chased by an angry mob, whereupon the young man claims sanctuary.
The young man’s name is Liliwin. He is an entertainer and juggler and the night before he had been hired to perform at a wedding. He had been thrown out for knocking over a jug of wine…. But when the master of the house was found unconscious and the money gone, suspicion turned to Liliwin and the mob was after him.
Reaching the Abbey, the boy asks for sanctuary. At that time there was a tradition that a person could have fourty days of sanctuary. That means he could not be harmed or arrested and could stay in the abbey for fourty days, but if he was found outside the monastery he would not be safe.
I won’t go into the details of the rest of the story, or how Liliwin is found innocent and finds his true love with the help of Brother Cadfael…
…..because I am interested in the term “Sanctuary.” Liliwin is given safety for fourty days. He is given sanctuary.
The English word Sanctuary is based on the Latin root word “Sanctos” which we translate as “Holy”.
A Sanctuary was a holy place. It is a place set apart and different than other places. In the Old Testament the word sanctuary was referred to the temple or to the tabernacle, and it was believed that in this Holy Place, God would come.
It was a place where it was believed that God met humans so to speak.
The Greek word for Sanctuary is Hagion which means holy place. The Hebrew word is mikdash which comes from the root word Kadash which means “to be set apart as sacred.”
But almost from the beginning of the use of term sanctuary or Holy Place there developed another line of thinking.
That is that the sanctuary should be a safe place and that people in trouble could go into a sanctuary and not be harmed.
In the Old Testament there were something called cities of refuge. These were bigger cities that someone accused of murder or killing someone could go to and claim refuge or sanctuary.
Now, it did not let someone who committed murder stay there for ever and not face justice, but at least it gave some time for some kind of trial and justice without the family taking matters into their own hands. Furthermore, those who maybe accidently killed someone, or killed in self-defence or something like that, may find long–term sanctuary in a city of refuge, safe from the family of the one who died, for the family might feel obligated in kill in return. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Cities of refuge were a preventive against ongoing blood feuds like what happened in the United States in the later half of the 1800s along the West Virginia, Kentucky Border where the Hatfields and the McCoys entered into blood feud that lasted years and there were at least 12 deaths and about the same seriously injured.
So serious the feud that the State governors called out the militia to restore order and the names Hatfield and McCoy have become synonymous with feuding.
Now there was also an understanding that the temple was a safe place to be. And on one occasion in the Old Testament Adonijah, Solomon’s brother was conspiring with others to take the thrown that was promised to Solomon after the death of King David, but King David forestalled Adonijah by having Solomon anointed as king. The supporters of Adonijah fled and Adonijah went into the holy place and grabbed the horns of the altar for sanctuary. Solomon forgave him, but tried again later.
But when David died and King Solomon took over, Adonijah tried again and was put to death. And one of his co-conspirators Joab the holy place in the tabernacle and grabbed the ark of the covenant by what was called the horns. On each corner there was a horn.
There he begged for mercy, thinking maybe that the most Holy place in all of Judaism, might be a place to find safety and mercy.
Solomon, probably quoting that proverb. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me…. Wasn’t having any mercy this time and sent his chief hatchet man to walk right into the temple and despatch Joab right on the altar.
But it seems that even from the beginning of the scripture, there was an expectation that the Holy place should somehow be a safe place.
And in the Middle Ages, this was literally law.
There were rules about sanctuary. They differed from place to place as to who could be there and for how long, but sanctuary in a church was a common and lawful thing.
Beginning in the 1980’s another sanctuary movement began, mostly in the United States but in happened in Canada as well. This is when churches started to claim that there were sanctuaries for refugees who had legitimate claims to refugee status but the government would not heed their claims.
In particular the movement mostly reached out to Central American refugees because of civil wars there, where a million refugees from Central America entered the United Stated and yet the Reagan administration would not acknowledge that these refugees had any status, because the Reagan administration was sending foreign aid to these government.
If the Reagan administration acknowledged human rights abuses, by law there would not be able to send foreign aid, so the government would not accept any refugees.
Even though in El Salvador the military killed over 10,000 people, including Bishop Oscar Romero and 4 U.S. nuns who were working there. In Guatemala over 50,000 were killed by government backed militias.
So, churches mostly in the United States, and mostly in the Southern states began to harbour refugees feed them, clothe them and house them in the actual church, claiming sanctuary, in defiance of the government. And the government was loathe to go into churches and arrest people.
About 500 churches in the United States claimed Sanctuary Status, with the Presbyterian Church USA being one of the leading denominations in the sanctuary movement
I think there were about 36 cases in Canada where churches claimed sanctuary status.
Public opinion ended up very much on the side of the churches, partly because it seemed very evident that the government was not handling legitimate refugees very well.
So today, we read the responsive Psalm and we read of the Psalmist who is hungry for a spiritual experience, thirsting to find love and acceptance from God.
Hoping for God’s comfort and help.
And where does the Psalmist find God, in the sanctuary…
I think the questions we have to ask ourselves are these:
Have we built places of worship in which people, God's children who long for God, can truly feel that they are in the safe in the shadow of God's wings?
Or have we turned our sanctuaries into "unsafe" places where broken and hungry people feel turned away or judged rather than taken under the shadow of God's wings?
It is discouraging as a minister to go out from church and run into people who think that the church is a place of point fingers and judging, that the church is a place that hates gays and lesbians…that the church is full of gossips and busybodies…
That the church is more concerned about buildings than people…
That the church is sexist, or racist, or paternalistic or homophobic…or some other bad thing…
But it is even more discouraging to ministers when they comes back to church and finds some of what is said about the church is true.
Maybe judging and gossip and pointing fingers and excluding the riff-raff and big fat egos, and power-tripping people, are just a part of human nature and we can never escape it in the church, or in any other institution that has people…
But I wonder what it would take to make this a really safe place. Not just safe so that we don’t trip over the balcony or safe that we have the right fire equipment.
Not just safe that we screen out predators and those who would do violence to our young and vulnerable.
Not just physically safe, but emotionally safe…
So that whoever you are and wherever you are on your journey you would find love and acceptance, you would find someone to listen and someone to care…
That you wouldn’t experience prejudice, or isolation or ridicule or verbal attack either in front of your face or behind your back.
That it wouldn’t matter your doctrine, your beliefs, your faith, whether you even had a faith, or whether you came from a whole different denomination or even a non-Christian faith, that you would be welcomed and loved, because that is what we believe Jesus would do welcome you and make you safe.
That you would be free to tell your story, confess your sins, be honest and vulnerable and have it not abused, or violated in any way.
That you yourself would be treated as a holy person, a sacred space, and treated as if you were Jesus, himself.
Maybe it is too much to ask of mere humans, who fail.
Many ministers over the years know what it is like to drive up to a church and have a queasy stomach because they don’t feel safe. Many ministers know what it is like to come under personal attack, to have people gossip about them and tell stories about them, or spread innuendo…
It is very real and happens more than it needs to…
And to be totally honest, there have been times when ministers have said things about others they shouldn’t have said. When they were not all love and light towards another.
What would it take to make this sanctuary, and this building and this church safe as houses? Here and now in our congregation.
You know, one of the things I often associate with being safe is home cooking.
You know sitting around the table at Christmas time or thanksgiving and all the family is there having a big meal. I don’t know whether there better times than that and isn’t there such a feeling of being safe.
Surrounded by the people you love eating too much.
That is the kind of feeling I get when I read the Isaiah passage and the prophet talks about God inviting everybody to a free dinner.
All you who are hungry for love, for acceptance, for safety, emotionally safety…
Come and eat with God,
You are invited to God’s house to eat with
It is free, it is love, it is grace, it is safety.
Your hunger for a safe place is met
Your thirst to be understood and love is met.
Dinner with God.
You know Rev Harrys remember one time being invited out to dinner in Arthur Ontario, to Cathy and Laird’s house and he ran out of milk, so he just went and helped myself to milk out of the fridge and Fiona stopped him. You can’t do that, she said. You have to ask.
But Harry said, Fiona you are wrong. Cathy and Laird told me, to just make myself at home and whatever I needed, just help myself.
And Cathy and Laird, spoke up. That is what we told him.
I wonder if we could make the church so safe, that everybody felt safe enough to get what they need…
That everyone could go to the fridge for love, for respect, for understanding, for compassion, for spiritual experience, for care… for Jesus…for community… for safety…
And nobody would point the finger and say “Hey you can’t do that. You don’t belong.”
Jesus in today’s gospel is confronted with this question.
Is God safe?
You know all those Jews that Pilate decided to kill, referring to an incident where Pilate sent some Roman soldiers to kill some innocent Galilean worshippers, was it because they were sinners.
Did God somehow send the troops because they were doing something wrong?
And Jesus says no. God doesn’t punish people, nor does God want us to punish people and think that we are the instruments of Gods’ hand to take it out on other.
Because if you think that way and act in that way that you can be violent towards others, thinking that it is God’s way, you are going to perish.
Here the gospel of Luke is foreshadowing what it going to happen to the Jews when they take up armed revolt against Rome.
Those who take up the sword will die by the sword.
If you think violence is that way to fulfil God’s plan you got it wrong.
Listen to this story Jesus said.
There was a man who had a fruit tree and it didn’t bear and fruit.
And he says to the gardener. For three years there has been no fruit on the tree. Cut is down. It is worthless.
But the gardener says. No, no. let’s give it another year. And I will dig around it and put in fertilizer and a bit of manure and I will water and maybe there will be fruit next year.
Now some say that God wants to cut us down when we are bad and it is Jesus who says No, no, give them one more chance at First Presbyterian to bear the fruit of love, to stop gossiping and whining, and get their priorities straight, so that love and care and respect and understanding and tolerance and acceptance…
Give them more time to make it a safe place…
But I don’t think that’s it. I think it is human ego that looks at other and wants to cut them down to size and God is the one is steps in every time and says: “Hey wait, feed them a little love, and water them with some respect and understanding, and dig around and aerate them with kindness…”
God doesn’t punish us or hurt us. In fact, God sends Jesus and we punish Jesus; and by that we can see that punishing and hurting and fighting and killing is not what it is about…
God sent the ultimate safe place, Jesus.
And that safe place can live in you and you in him. Amen.