Merciful strength | Sanctuary I | October 1

Texts: Matthew 9:10-13; Numbers 35:9-15;

Worship Theme: Sanctuary People

 In the year 399 a man named Eutropius ran from the Roman palace in Constantinople into the nearby Great Church, as it was called.  He was seeking sanctuary from his political enemies.  He was greeted by the bishop John Chrysostom and granted the protection of the church.

Eutropius began life as a slave and became a eunuch in the court of the Roman Emperor Theodosius.  He rose through the ranks, and when Theodosius died, Eutropius was in middle of the power struggle that followed.  He arranged a strategic marriage for Theodosius’ son Arcadius who became emperor over the eastern half of the empire.  Eutropius managed to exile and fend off his political rivals.  He became Arcadius’ closest advisor, eventually having himself named Roman consul.  But his enemies soon rallied and forced his removal, and he feared for his life.

Bishop Chrysotom’s thoughts on the matter are preserved in two sermon manuscripts.  He used this situation to compare the misguided quest for worldly power with the steadfast mercy of the church.  Addressing Eutropius directly, he stated: “The Church, which you treated as an enemy, has opened her bosom to you.”  One of the ways Eutropius had treated the church as an enemy was by arranging for edicts that restricted the ability of his political enemies to obtain sanctuary.  But now he, known for his conniving and greed, had no other place to turn but the refuge of the Great Church.

As you may imagine, this was not a particularly popular move with the congregation, initially.  Not only was Eutropius famous for being ruthless, and not only were there imperial officers, with swords and spears, surrounding the church demanding Eutropius’ removal, but Chrysostom himself admitted in one of the sermons that providing Eutropius sanctuary may very well be against the law that Eutropius himself had recently helped establish.  But sanctuary was an established enough practice by that time that emperor Arcadius commanded his soldiers to stand down and not interfere in that hallowed place.

In the words of one historian, summing up the situation: “Sanctuary provided opportunity for Eutropius to see the truth of life’s fleeting glory and for the church to demonstrate that it was strong enough to protect even its most unpopular enemies against a fearsome army.”

The situation unfortunately did not end well.  Eutropius tried to secretly escape from the church building, but was captured, exiled, and eventually killed.

(All quotes and information above from Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages: 400-1500, by Karl Shoemaker, pp. 25-27)

One month ago we decided to become a sanctuary congregation.  And not just in theory or belief, but in practice.  We welcomed Edith Espinal to take up sanctuary, aka live, within our church building.  It has not been a simple process, but it is simplified by the fact that rather than being a conniving, assassinating political power player, Edith is an active member of the community and mother with no criminal record.

Since that time we’ve been learning as we go, with the significant twist that Edith left our building after two nights because of a temporary extension to apply for a delay in her deportation.  This congregation was a part of the sanctuary movement in the 1980’s, and a number of you have training in accompaniment and advocacy through Christian Peacemaker Teams.  Now we’re very much in the middle of what appears to be a growing movement within the faith community, locally and nationally.

So we’re asking questions, and, to borrow a phrase from the poet Rilke, we’re living the questions.  What does it mean to be a sanctuary congregation?  What does it mean to be sanctuary people? Continuing down that line, how might the sacred space around our bodies become sanctuary space for whoever we’re with?  And how do walk the inward journey of sanctuary?

These are the kinds of questions we’ll be speaking to through the fall in our worship services.  And hopefully they’re the kinds of questions that make for good discussion around the dinner table, in small groups, and whatever other ways we are together.

This week and next will focus on the history of sanctuary, inside and beyond the church.  In other words, what has sanctuary looked like in other times and places?  I’ll be relying heavily on this fantastic book, “Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages: 400-1500 by Karl Shoemaker.

I apologize if I start sounding like I know more about this than what I actually do.  Most of this is pretty new knowledge for me.

But I will just go ahead and give away the punch line right up front.  One of the punch lines.  Here it is: The Church, big C, has practiced sanctuary extensively for the majority of its existence.  For well over 1000 years sanctuary was standard church practice.  And, sanctuary practices show up regularly in non-Christian settings.

What I’d like to do is to use this story of Eutropius and Chrysostom in the Great Church of Constantinople in 399 as a hinge.  This week we’ll start there and look backwards, and next week we’ll start there and look forwards.

The gospels portray Jesus as someone who had no official credential but who demonstrated power and authority through his teachings, his healings and miracles, and his bold actions.  There are any number of gospel stories relevant to sanctuary, including the one we read this morning.  In Matthew 9 Jesus is in Capernaum, the home base of his ministry, where his early followers lived.  He’s in “the house” which seems to be the house of Peter’s family.  He’s sitting at table with his disciples, joined by tax collectors and sinners, social and moral outcasts.  It’s nothing like an official practice of sanctuary, but when the religious leaders see this and challenge Jesus on it, he offers his guests protection, material and spiritual refuge.  He replies, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are “sick.”  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’”

The last bit about mercy not sacrifice is a quote from the prophet Hosea which the religious leaders would have known well.  It’s a bold and even comical move for Jesus to shoo them away and tell them to go study up on their own tradition and get enlightened on this thing called mercy.  It’s typical Jesus style.  To use the language of sanctuary, Jesus was a walking sanctuary, and everywhere he went, people who could find refuge nowhere else, were drawn to him.  And he welcomed them –  little children, those who sold their bodies to make a living, those, like tax collectors, who had sold out to the empire.  Jesus was a mobile sanctuary, and when he entered a house, or a field, or a boat, the wind shifted, and those who were previously at ease were on edge, and those who had no other refuge, were put at ease.

These are the same winds of the Spirit that blew at Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection and created a multi-lingual, multi-cultural community defined by the mercy and power of Jesus’ ministry, which we simply call, “the church.”

Things are pretty foggy before the case of Eutropius about the growing practice of sanctuary within the church.  One thing that’s clear is that the church didn’t invent it.  The ancient Greeks developed sanctuary practices around temple sites and sacred groves.  These spaces were considered sacred, inviolable.  And debtors, criminals, and slaves were protected if they took asylum in these locations.

Rome recognized that fugitive slaves were safe from their pursuing masters if they clung to the feet of a statue of of Caesar in Rome, or, later, the feet of a statue of Romulus.  To get their slave back the master had to solemnly swear to treat them fairly and not punish them for having fled.

In a very different part of the world, the Big Island of Hawaii has a well preserved site of ancient sanctuary where those who had violated taboos and were under the threat of death, or those defeated in war, could flee, undergo a purification ceremony with a priest, and return home free of guilt.  I definitely would not have known about this except that Melonie Buller recently visited the island for their older sons’s wedding and came upon this while doing some site-seeing.  So the next time you’re visiting some exotic site, keep your eyes open for sanctuary sites.

The Torah gives instructions for the creation of six cities of refuge for the Israelites.  Numbers 35 is one of the places these are described.  They had a fairly narrow purpose.  They were open to people who had killed another person unintentionally.  Intentional or premeditated murder was given the death penalty, but unintentional murder, or even murder in the heat of the moment that wasn’t pre-meditated, made one eligible to escape to a city of refuge to avoid the nearest of kin who had the sacred duty of redeeming the death by killing the murderer.  The accidental murderer was only protected if they stayed within the city, and they were only allowed to go home if the high priest in office died.  The death of the high priest may have been seen as purifying the land of the spilled blood, or as the great Jewish scholar Maimonides later suggested, the death of the high priest was such a sorrowful event that everyone gave up any thoughts of vengeance.   (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, chapter XL).

There’s a great piece of writing in the Jewish Misha that says: ““Therefore, mothers of high priests were wont to provide food and clothing for (the fugitives) that they might not pray for her son’s death.”  (Mas Makkoth 11a)

The Talmud noted that the roads to the cities of refuge were made twice as wide and exceptionally smooth in order to present no obstacle to those fleeing.

When the early Christians began offering sanctuary, they did not initially rely on the argument of their places of worship being sacred spaces.  Reverence for place was associated with the pagan world.  In Christian thinking there was nothing sacred and inviolable about the temples and sacred groves and the gods who populated them.

What they did rely on was the idea of intercession and penance.  They believed in the sacred duty of interceding on behalf of the accused, the criminal, the fugitive.  They believed that if one had committed a great crime, that they should be offered the opportunity for repentance and that the priest had the duty to intercede not only to God, but to the one seeking vengeance, or the public official, to give the fugitive protection from harm.  And they believed that the crime could be reconciled through penance, such as a thief paying back or working off the value of what they had stolen.  In short, they believe in something akin to what we now call restorative justice rather than punitive justice.  In short, they were committed to practical acts of mercy that Jesus demonstrated so clearly.

The early church was not without fault, and it was about to become entwined with political power in ways that have not even yet been completely undone.  But they did carry on and deepen the ancient human practice of giving sanctuary to those threatened with life and limb and exile.

Sanctuary is and always has been a practice of merciful strength.  Next week we’ll look at how it became a legal and essential practice for 1000+ years across medieval Europe with intercession, penance, and reconciliation mixed in with criminal justice and politics.

For today, we’ll end with a quote from Bishop John Chrysostom whose congregation extended sanctuary to the Roman official Eutropius.  Since we are in the sanctuary of this building, we can receive it as spoken to us: “When you take refuge in a church, do not seek shelter in the place, but in the spirit of the place.  The Church is not wall and roof, but faith and life.”  (Sanctuary and Crime, p. 17).