December 12th: Close to Home: "Seeking Sanctuary"

The First United Presbyterian Church of Loveland

“Close to Home: Seeking Sanctuary”

Rev. Amy Morgan

December 12, 2021

Scripture Reading:  Luke 1:39-55

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,

   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,

for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

   and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him

   from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;

   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

   and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

   and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

   in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’In those days…in those days, in first-century Judea, home was everything, the whole society was structured around it. Everyone knew their place in it. Everyone had work to do. Everyone knew the hierarchy of power, and everyone knew their responsibility. 

In those days, under the occupation of the Roman Empire, home was safe. It was where you were protected, where you showed hospitality to strangers, where you practiced your faith, where you discussed politics behind closed doors. 

In those days, home was your sanctuary. At least, it was for most people, most of the time. But for one young woman, home became a place you ran from, with haste. 

Once Mary’s impending pregnancy was revealed, she left her home and went with haste to the home of her cousin, Elizabeth. Mary had submitted to the will of God, acquiesced to be the bearer of divinity. The angel declared she was favored by God, but God’s favor did little to brunt the repercussions of being pregnant and unmarried, in those days.

In those days, the ultimate honor a woman could achieve was bearing children. But the child Mary was to bear, and the circumstances around her pregnancy, did not immediately bring her the blessings and honor predicted by her angelic messenger. Instead, it upended everything about her home life. It put her marriage in jeopardy and her place in her father’s house in jeopardy. Married, pregnant women were blessed and celebrated and belonged in their husband’s home. Unmarried pregnant women didn’t belong anywhere. They were unable to contribute to household production in the usual way, and their procreative ability did not bring honor to her husband or family. No one took responsibility for protecting her, no one showed her hospitality. She was ostracized by the faith community and discussed as a scandal. 

And so Mary ran away from home. And she went in search of a sanctuary. 

Sanctuary has a lot of different meanings these days. 

It can mean this place we gather to worship, someplace holy and set aside for a sacred purpose. 

It can mean a place of protection from danger

It can mean a place or experience of solace and peace

In these days, it can be a political term, as municipalities attempt to declare themselves sanctuary cities for various purposes. Some want to be sanctuaries for immigrants in danger of deportation. Some want to be sanctuaries for abortion care while others wish to be sanctuaries for the unborn. Some cities are attempting to claim sanctuary from guns while others declare sanctuary for guns. 

In these days, the term sanctuary has become confused and weighted. 

Which is really why it is an appropriate term for what Mary went seeking. Confused and weighted language reflects the confused and weighted situation Mary was in. She ran to Elizabeth seeking sanctuary, but probably not knowing exactly what kind of sanctuary she was looking for or what kind she would find. 

Elizabeth’s sanctuary starts out as a place of worship, with Elizabeth worshipping the fruit of Mary’s womb, the holy child she is carrying. Elizabeth’s own divinely inspired child leaps in her womb to worship. The Holy Spirit is present and active, blessings abound, and prophesies are fulfilled. 

Because Elizabeth and Zechariah have some sense, at least, that something divinely ordained is going on with Mary’s pregnancy, they are in the unique position in Mary’s family to welcome her in and offer her protection and safety. Unlike her parents and the man to whom she is engaged, Elizabeth and Zechariah have little to lose in taking Mary in. And so Elizabeth’s home becomes a place of physical sanctuary where she is protected from the dangers that an unmarried, pregnant woman was exposed to. 

Clearly, this sanctuary becomes for Mary a place of solace and peace, where her spirits are lifted and she is able to sing God’s praises. Elizabeth affirms her and blesses her, and she in turn is filled with gratitude for all that God is doing through her. Her pain transforms into praise in this sanctuary. 

But this sanctuary also has political implications. Mary’s song is more than an expression of gratitude to God. It is a statement about the kind of kingdom God is ushering in through the child she carries. Those who are proud – those who are sure and certain that they are right and others are wrong, that they deserve good things while others are unworthy, that they have a monopoly on truth and goodness – those people will find themselves grasping at straws as God’s reign arrives on earth. The political power structures of the world will be overturned, with the powerful knocked off their thrones and the lowly lifted up as beloved. The hungry will be fed and the rich won’t be able to keep hoarding. In short, God will inaugurate the fulfillment of the promise made to Israel, the creation of a world that is peaceful, just, and good – very good. 

We can hear Mary’s song as a reverent ballad of praise, but if we really listen to these lyrics, we hear a protest song. We hear a dangerous critique of the status quo, and a confident cry that things are about to change. Mary declares that God is creating a sanctuary, not just for her, but for everyone like her. Everyone who has felt judged, and worthless, and powerless. Everyone who has gone to bed hungry while food is rotting in storehouses. Everyone who has been waiting for God to show up and do something already. 

In these days…in these days, in a world upended by a global pandemic and plagued by inequality, injustice, division, in a world that is exhausted and despairing…in these days, home is a place of complicated emotions and associations. Home has become a prison for many, and a security blanket for others. Some people have felt trapped in their homes. For some, home is not a safe place, but is instead a place of abuse, neglect, or dysfunction. For others, home feels like the only safe place, and they are paralyzed with anxiety at the thought of leaving. 

In these days…hospitality is hard, not just because we may not feel comfortable hosting gatherings, and especially strangers, but because we are so divided that we cannot even be humane toward one another, much less hospitable. Instead of offering each other protection from the dangers of the world, we shun those who are not part of our tribe. proclaiming our righteousness and condemning anyone who begs to differ. 

In these days…we all need sanctuary. We all need places and people that hold sacred meaning and purpose, that feel safe and peace-filled, that give us space to rail against the unfairness of the world and insist on change. 

I know that is the kind of place 1st on 4th has been for many of you. This sanctuary has provided sanctuary for many, many people in its 115-year-history. The hungry have been fed with good things here – both physically and spiritually. Those who feel worthless out in the world know they are beloved and cherished here. And the powers that oppress have been challenged in this place. 

In these days…we are providing sanctuary. 

If you’re here onsite, I want you to turn around and look at the enormous pile of gifts and donations we have collected. And Isaac, if you’re able to pan the camera around to see it, we’ll show the folks online, too. That right there, folks, is sanctuary. There are kids in our school district, hundreds of them, who do not have a place to call home, a sanctuary where they are loved and affirmed and protected, where they can name the forces that have hurt them and hope in a power greater than those forces. But this church is literally wrapping them up in love. With blankets and warm coats. With a small gift that gives them the dignity of shopping for things they want and need. With computers that will help them succeed in their life after graduating from high school. We won’t see these kids faces or know their names. And they won’t see or know us. But they will know that there are people who come from a place that is affirming them, praying for them, and encouraging them. We are providing sanctuary for those kids. 

Our building is providing a sanctuary for community groups – Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, musical groups, that have no where else to meet. They may not be gathering here to worship, but they are building sacred community, doing meaningful activities, sharing their gifts and their lives with each other. 

The Wednesday evening choir practices and worship services, the caroling and hymn sing events, online adult faith formation – all our church activities are providing sanctuary. We are delivering sanctuary in the form of meals, cards, visits, and phone calls to one another. We are creating sanctuary in our dreams and plans for the future. Friends, in these days, the sanctuary provided by 1st on 4th is much more than this space where we gather to worship. 

But more people need this sanctuary. And I don’t mean this space in particular. More people need what many of you have experienced here. Not everyone is going to find their way to our physical space and our physical community, or even our online space and community. But some people might find their way to you, and to me. We who have the gift of sanctuary are called to be a sanctuary for others. 

This is what Mary does. She finds sanctuary with Elizabeth, and she declares that God is making the whole world a sanctuary in her song. In bearing the Christ-child, she begins the creation of that sanctuary. 

We are all called to be Christ-bearers, friends. I know that sounds funny, but of course I’m not talking literally. But God has called us all to carry the spirit of Christ within us and to share it with the world around us. This is both a great burden and a great joy. The burden of this task requires us to continually seek sanctuary – in this place and with each other. And when we experience that sanctuary, we can praise God and be emboldened to proclaim God’s sanctuary for everyone who is broken and oppressed, exhausted and despairing, hungry and humbled. Joining in Mary’s protest song, we can disrupt the status quo with a confident cry that things are about to change. We can declare that God is creating a sanctuary, not just for us, but for everyone. Everyone who has felt judged, and worthless, and powerless. Everyone who has gone to bed hungry while food is rotting in storehouses. Everyone who has been waiting for God to show up and do something already. 

In these days…let us be a sanctuary, friends, for all who are running from home, far from home, unsafe at home, or trapped at home. Let us be a sanctuary. 

To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen. 


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