“In the shadow of the Almighty” | Sanctuary II | October 8


Texts: Psalm 91, 2 Corinthians 5:16-20

 “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who lodge under the shadow of the Almighty, will say of Yahweh, ‘My refuge, my fortress, my Highest Power, in whom I trust.’”

These are the opening words of Psalm 91.  It’s a sanctuary Psalm.  It might be referring to the physical sanctuary of the Jerusalem temple, but it certainly refers to the sanctuary of the Divine Life, the ultimate place of refuge.

The Psalm goes on to describe the full degree of protection one receives under the “wings of God,” another of its poetic images.  “You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day.”  “Because you have made Yahweh your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.”  “I will protect those who know my name.”

It’s so unwavering in the protection it promises, there’s reason to pause and ask “Really?”  “A thousand may fall at your side, but it will not come near you.”  Really?  “He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways.”  Really?  “You will tread on the lion and…the serpent.”  Really?

A mis-reading of this Psalm is exactly how the devil tempts Jesus during his 40 days of fasting in the wilderness after his baptism.  The devil quotes the Psalm directly – the part about commanding the angels and not letting your foot strike against a stone.  Jesus rejects the thought that his body is somehow immune to the pain that comes with being human.

But it would be an equal mis-reading of this Psalm to believe that God is only concerned about protecting the soul, and not the body.  Jesus lived his life in such a way that he became a walking sanctuary for those seeking refuge.

The Psalm speaks to something one can only know through a particular kind of orientation to reality we refer to as faith.  It’s this faith that enabled the writer of Colossians to say to that congregation, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  It’s this faith that enabled Archbishop Oscar Romero to tell the poor people of El Salvador, whose side he had taken at the beginning of that country’s Civil War in the late 70’s, “If they kill me I will be reborn in the Salvadoran people.”

The God of the Bible is a protector of vulnerable persons.  Full stop.  And so too, when they’re being faith-full, are the people of God.  Jesus embodies this, and beyond his execution, he is reborn in those who follow in his way.

This is week two in our worship focus on Sanctuary.  If you missed last week and didn’t get to read the sermon online, this may feel a little bit like watching the Empire Strikes Back before watching the original Star Wars.  These first three weeks will build on each other, giving some historical, and theological background for the practice of sanctuary.  By way of warning, today will have an above average amount of quoting from medieval law codes.

Last week we looked at the story of Eutropius taking sanctuary in the Great Church in Constantinople in the year 399.  He was a high ranking Roman official who had made too many political enemies.  When he sought sanctuary within that church building to save his life he was welcomed by Bishop John Chrysostom.  This included much drama and intrigue.  In one of his sermons to the congregation, preserved through all these years, Chrysostom speaks poetically about Eutropius being in sanctuary there: “A few days ago the church was besieged: an army came (not a metaphor), and fire issued from their eyes (metaphor), yet it did not scorch the olive tree; swords were unsheathed, yet no one received a wound” (Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, Karl Shoemaker, p. 27).  Sanctuary was an established enough practice by that time that the emperor himself called off the royal army.  He instructed them to honor the sanctity of the church, and Eutropius’ protection inside it.

This happened during a pivotal time in the relationship between the church and the powers that be.  For the first decades of its existence the church had been a tiny minority within the Roman Empire – at times ignored, at other times discounted as atheists who didn’t honor the Roman gods, or cannibals who, in their secret ceremonies, ate the body and drank the blood of their Lord.  I almost mentioned that last week, but decided to wait until after World Communion Sunday.

Ignored, discounted, and at times persecuted and scapegoated for society’s ills, like when the first century Emperor Nero blamed a massive fire in Rome on the Christians, which was news to them.

As the church grew in numbers and converted people of social standing, it grew in social power.  The Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the early 300’s and over the next century Rome became Christianized…or, depending on your perspective, Christianity became Romanized.

We don’t know when sanctuary became a common practice among the churches.  We do have records from the Sardican Council, convened by the Roman Emperor, at the urging of Pope Julius, around the year 343, counseling bishops on this matter.  It said:

“But since it happens often that those who suffer injury, or who for wrongdoing are condemned to exile or to the islands, or those, in fact, incurring any sentence, flee to the mercy of the church, these are to be aided and indulgence (forgiveness, reconciliation) is to be petitioned without delay”  (Crime and Sanctuary, p. 22).

But then, fifty years later, during the time of Eutropius and John Chrysostom, the empire struck back, restricting sanctuary through three different edicts.  The first said that debtors could be dragged out of churches if they or the bishop couldn’t settle the debt.  The second forbade Jews who pretended to be Christians from taking sanctuary in a church.  The third limited certain public officials from taking sanctuary, likely the idea of Eutropius himself, striking out against his political rivals.  But when Eutropius needed sanctuary, John Chrysostom and his congregation were willing to disregard the law that Eutropius had helped create.  A legal historian could interject here noting that laws in the ancient world didn’t carry quite the same notions of authority and enforcement as they do now.

These laws restricted sanctuary, but then, less than 50 years after that, those restrictions were reversed, and an extensive practice of sanctuary became enshrined in edicts that shaped its practice for the next 1000 plus years.  The Theodosian Code, named after the current Emperor himself, affirmed the churches, and a buffer zone around them, as locations for sanctuary in all kinds of cases.

Even though it was likely added to the Code years later, one rule that became widely circulated across medieval Europe went so far as unhooking sanctuary from the church building itself.  It said:

“If some unfortunate fugitive (someone seeking sanctuary) crosses paths with a bishop or presbyter or a deacon, either in a city street or in a field or any other place, we order that they be detained or abducted by no one, because in priests the Church consists.” (Sanctuary and Crime, p. 69)

Overlay that with the later Protestant theology of the priesthood of all believers and you’ve got yourself quite a rule.  “In priests the Church consists”…“In the people the Church consists.”  Imagine if all people of faith, priests every one, had this identity of being sanctuary people “either in a city street or in a field or any other place.”

One of two temptations might be to overly romanticize sanctuary.  The good old days, when the churches and their priests were truly places of refuge.  The other temptation might be to discount sanctuary as the church merely playing a role that a well-organized government should be doing.  Our Anabaptist tradition does have a thing or two to say about the mismatched marriage between church and state that was Medieval Europe.

From all I can tell, the church, at its best, brought a theological approach to sanctuary.  The church taught the centrality of intercession and penance.  If someone had committed a crime, rather than seeing the person as merely a criminal, and the crime as something to be punished for its own sake, the church saw it as a sin against God and humanity.  But sins can be forgiven, and harms against fellow humans can be reconciled.  Penance can be done, for the sake of the penitent, to restore them as a human being, and for the sake of the one who has been harmed – to find a way to right the wrong, return the stolen item, repay the debt.

At its best, the church has participated in what the Apostle Paul referred to as the ministry of reconciliation.  This included reconciliation with God and reconciliation between people.

The church stood in the way of vigilante justice and the cycle of violence.  The church was a home base in the game of tag-with-knives that often produced more and more victims of violence.

At its best, church has been like the shadow of the Almighty, a place of refuge from the heat of human wrath.

One law declared that if a murderer flees to a church he must admit his homicide, and “with half his goods, be placed in servitude to the heirs of the slain.”  After his death, his remaining possessions or estate are handed over to the family of the slain. (Crime and Sanctuary, p. 79)  But he gets to live, and the family of the victim gets material compensation.

And at times, of course, those who claimed sanctuary were innocent, vulnerable people.  Sanctuary offered due process before there was due process.

In the 1300’s sanctuary remained important enough that when it was violated the authorities did whatever they could to restore it.  Sometimes this involved returning someone physically to sanctuary if they were still alive, but sometimes it required more creative measures.  In 1301 a man took sanctuary in Bury St. Edmonds in England after killing another man.  But the parents of the dead man came and dragged the killer out of the church.  They brought him before the bailiff, and he was hanged.  But after this the bailiff was reprimanded by a superior that this had been a violation of the liberty of sanctuary.  The records are preserved ordering him to make a “sign of the restitution of the said Liberty.”  This was to happen by placing in the church an effigy “in the form of a man with the name…of the aforementioned felon” displayed (Crime and Sanctuary, p. 141).  So, even though there was no way to restore this man to sanctuary, the bailiff who had him executed was to create a life-size doll of this man, with a nametag, and symbolically restore him to the safety of the church, so that whoever saw him/it would call to mind the shelter he sought there.

Sanctuary as a legal practice affirmed by kings and magistrates did not last past the 1600’s.  And, at least in England, the decline of sanctuary coincided with the rise in the construction of jails (Sanctuary and Crime, p. 114).  There were many currents that converged to cause this, but here’s one that feels especially pertinent to the attitudes of our time.

It was declared back in 1203, not by a king, but by a Pope.  The author of the book on which I’ve been leaning heavily for this history highlighted this brief written statement by Pope Innocent III as emblematic of the shift in consciousness.  It says, “It is in the public interest that no crimes remain unpunished.”  (Crime and Sanctuary, p. 163)  It is in the public interest that no crimes remain unpunished.  This circulated widely, and the idea it expresses led to sanctuary being seen as more of an obstruction than a service to good and right and just order.  It is still circulating.  We can feel it in the air.  Rather than justice as getting what you need, it is justice as getting what you deserve.

When you mix the idea of no crime remaining unpunished with the criminalization of migrating peoples, we are into the present moment.

Faith is a particular kind of orientation to reality.  It is oriented toward the ministry of reconciliation, toward mercy, toward restoration.  The church, at its best, has been a place of sanctuary.  People of faith, at our best, have been sanctuary people, in the streets, in a field, or any other place.

The God of the Bible is a protector of vulnerable persons.  The Shadow of the Almighty still invites rest and refuge.  It is in that shadow that we find our peace.  It is in that shadow that we find one another, We escape the arrows of the day, and release the fears of the night.  May we lodge under the Shadow of the Almighty, and make room as new friends join us.