“Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true. With thanksgiving I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.”

I wonder how many hundred times I’ve sung those words at camp, on retreats, and in contemporary worship services of the early 2000s. I’ll bet a lot of you know it and have sung it too.

“All who would like to help decorate the sanctuary for the season of Advent are welcome and encouraged to join the altar guild this coming Saturday from 10-2.”

“Please silence your cell phones before entering the sanctuary.”

“How many people will your sanctuary seat?”

All of these are phrases that, if you’ve ever hung around a Lutheran church, you’ve heard some variation of many times.

Come to think of it, the ELCA (and its predecessor bodies) has always been a sanctuary denomination. We worship God in a sanctuary. We sing and pray that we might be a living sanctuary. Clearly this word, this concept, is fairly central to our very identity. Holy, set apart, safe space. Sanctuary.

But biblically, particularly in the Old Testament, sanctuary morphs into not only a place of worship but also a safe haven for fugitives, even the worst of criminals, so long as they hang on to the horns of the altar. It’s not unlike “base” when we played the childhood game of tag. When touching the base, you were safe. Old Testament sanctuary was like that. A prime example is Adonijah fleeing from Solomon in 1 Kings 1:50. No harm could befall Adonijah while he clung for dear life to the altar’s horns in the sanctuary. Again, this safety and protection, or “sanctuary,” may not have been permanent and it didn’t change even the culpability of violent criminals or enemies of the state or religious establishment, but in that special, set-apart sacred space, even they as image-of-God precious children, could flee for refuge and find welcome, safety, and respite.

Indeed, since the very beginnings of our Judeo-Christian tradition, we have been a sanctuary religion. No doubt about it. Martin Luther, after each section of lifting up baptism, confession, communion, prayer, Ten Commandments, or Creed, asks the critical question of our catechisms, “What does this mean?” In the swirl of national media coverage surrounding all of the 2019 ELCA Churchwide Assembly actions last month, virtually none of the celebratory and joyful actions were covered. Only one line—and that an amendment on the floor to the memorial from Metro New York Synod we had all received prior to the assembly—mattered. The media focused just on the words, “and that the ELCA declare itself a sanctuary church body.”

After careful pleading in the brief discussion period by churchwide officials, ELCA legal counsel, and a bishop, someone called the question on this amended memorial. My biggest concerns—shared by many—at this point were twofold. One, if we declare ourself a “sanctuary church body,” that will be spun in media and received by many of our own dear and faithful parishioners as a purely and foundational political or even partisan move in this polarized context. Two, we voted on a hot-button word (same as if we had said “gun control,” thereby shutting people down from listening any further), without having any clarity at all on “What does this mean?” And we even knew it! For 70% of the assembly, “sanctuary church body” seemed the right thing to say in regard to immigration in this country, even with the addendum that the ELCA spend the next three years figuring out what we meant by what we had already passed!

I understand bold declarations and then living into them—sort of like professing our creeds or baptismal promises. But in my humble opinion, this was classic “cart before the horse.” The last thing we needed in this church in a time of deep division was one more large, sharp wedge. But, at least in the NC Synod, we got one. Not, perhaps, in the substance of the passed memorial, but in how it is being received and interpreted, and in that we could have said basically the same thing without “picking the fight.”

The bottom line is, for all sorts of reasons, including our polity—the memorial is only binding on the churchwide expression of the ELCA, not the synodical or congregational expressions—being a sanctuary church body already does, and will moving forward, look very different in different contexts in this church. We are not urging and surely not “requiring” that you or your congregation do anything illegal. We are asking, as always, that you find your deepest convictions that inform your actions, alliances, and votes, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ and in how he treated the little, the least, the last, and the lost. We pray that no matter our political leanings, we, like God’s people of old, value the image of God and therefore the human dignity and humane treatment of every individual.

If you’re interested in delving deeper into this churchwide assembly and the sanctuary conversation, some helpful links may be found here.

I’ll be in Papua New Guinea visiting our companion synod in the Yabim District August 27-September 15, but when I get back, I’m happy to discuss these issues together.

Privileged and blessed to walk with you,

Tim signature

Bishop Tim Smith