Sunday, December 19, 2021

Sermon: “Let Us Build a House: Seeking Sanctuary”, Exodus 15:1-4, 10-13, 17-21/Luke 1:46-55 (December 19, 2021 -Advent 4)

(This is the fourth sermon in our Advent and Christmas series, "Let Us Build a House", based on the Advent theme from A Sanctified Art. The others can be found here and here - the third was given by a guest preacher.)


Throughout Advent, we’ve been examining the process of building a house to help us better understand how we should be working towards God’s kindom: the sense of homesickness that inspires us to start building, the importance of a strong foundation that allows us to build something taller and sturdier than we otherwise could, and the understanding that, at least as far as God is concerned, our house needs to have enough room to include everyone. But in all the dreaming and planning and striving we’ve been doing over the past few weeks, there’s one fact about building that we haven’t yet addressed. The truth is, no matter how hard we work to build it, it doesn’t matter how big or tall or wonderful a house is if it isn’t SAFE.

There’s a reason why our country’s laws include building codes, and why any sort of major construction requires permits and inspections (and it’s not JUST a fondness for bureaucracy, believe it or not). We, as a society, understand that a building is only as good as the safety it offers those who will be using it. The most magnificent structure is useless if it leaks in the first rainstorm or collapses as soon as someone walks through the door. The skill and intentions of the architect and construction crew are important, but not enough; the integrity of the building needs to be tested and proven. You may FEEL entirely safe on a deck built by your uncle, or in a house with electrical wiring done by your best friend, or with windows installed by your neighbor, but unless they’ve been inspected, you don’t necessarily KNOW that they’re safe. That extra step transforms your trust into practical certainty.

I say “practical” certainty because human inspection standards are, of course, imperfect. You can still trip and fall down the stairs, even if they’re at a reasonable angle and have a handrail. Electrical fires can still start in a perfectly wired house if the outlets are overloaded. There are “Grandfather clauses” that allow comparatively unsafe conditions to remain in older buildings. An inspection doesn’t provide COMPLETE certainty, just a comfortably high degree. GOD’S standards for the kindom that we build together, on the other hand, are perfect. If God’s standards are met, then we can know, with ABSOLUTE certainty, that we’re in a place where no harm will come to us, where we don’t need to fear and can reliably find rest and respite.

This is what “sanctuary” is. It’s a place that exists according to God’s building standards. It’s a place where you KNOW you’re safe. Finding a true sanctuary, a place where you both feel AND know that you’re safe, is a special occasion indeed. Most of the time, we simply aren’t certain; we just have to trust God. But every once in a while, God comes through with exactly the affirmation we need in order to help us not only BELIEVE we’re safe, but to KNOW it for sure.

When the people of scripture have this experience, when they recognize that they’ve found a place of real sanctuary, they rarely allow the occasion to pass unnoticed. Sometimes, they construct an altar or memorial to mark the location. Other times, they lift up prayers of thanksgiving right then and there. But sometimes, when the sense of sanctuary is especially strong or especially needed, they stop what they’re doing and SING. (I hope the people who argue that musical theater is unrealistic are paying attention.) Their joy is so overwhelming that it’s the only thing they can think of to do.

When the Israelites make it to the other side of the Red Sea and watch the waters crashing over their oppressors, they know, for the first time in a long time, that they’re truly safe. So they sing. When Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s home and realizes that all of God’s promises are finally coming true, she knows that, in spite of her seemingly impossible situation, everything will be okay. So she sings. Neither the Israelites nor Mary had an easy road ahead of them. Their sense of sanctuary wasn’t permanent by any means—and I think they knew that. Yet, in that moment, they discovered what it was to know, with certainty, that God is in their corner. And so, they sang.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never sung upon learning that my house has passed inspection. But if you think about the peace of mind that that certainty brings, you can begin to understand what this sense of sanctuary meant to God’s people throughout history. Their trust had been rewarded. Their fears had been assuaged. Their bodies and souls were SAFE. Whether or not this sort of thing inspires YOU to sing, I think we can all agree that this knowledge IS a big deal.

Imagine what it would be like NOT to have this sense of security. Now, imagine what it would be like to be in a place that you believe is God’s house, but to not feel the sense of sanctuary that you expect. Or, even worse, to THINK that a place has been built to God’s standards, but to find out in a traumatic way that you’re not safe at all. The problem is that, although God’s standards are perfect, we don’t always meet them. All too often, we build what we want and stop there. We cut corners in the kindom. We think, “Well, *I* feel safe, so that’s good enough.” But guess what? It’s not.

Secular building codes aren’t established with the TYPICAL person in mind; they’re designed to take the needs of as many people as possible into account. The floor has to support the weight of ANYONE who might use the building, not just those whose weight is considered “average”. The doorways have to be wide enough for those with mobility issues to get through with their equipment, not just for those who can walk through on their own. The ceilings have to be tall enough to accommodate everyone comfortably, not just those who fall within a standard deviation of the mean.

In the same way, God’s sanctuary standards aren’t based on what it will take to make the average person (or what we imagine to be the average person) feel safe. They’re not just for those who are in the racial or political majority; they’re not just for those who have a college degree; they’re not just for those who belong to a “traditional” family. They’re for oppressed people escaping from slavery. They’re for young, unmarried pregnant women. They’re for all the people who get forgotten or excluded in other places. They’re for people whose brain chemistry, gender, career path, chosen partner, or physical abilities don’t match what the rest of society deems “acceptable”. In other words, they’re for exactly the sort of people that Jesus would hang out with.

So, the obvious question, as we’re working hard to build God’s kindom, is “How do we make sure we’re building to God’s standards instead of our own?” How do we make sure that our construction will pass divine inspection? How do we make sure that it’s not just a house, not just a home, but a sanctuary? We may WANT our corner of God’s kindom to be a safe place for everyone, but we don’t always know the best or most effective way to do it. Churches are notorious for thinking that an internal commitment to inclusion and welcome is sufficient, but Scripture insists otherwise.

When Mary visited Elizabeth, it wasn’t the fact that she was admitted into her cousin’s home that created her sense of sanctuary. After all, welcoming family was a cultural obligation—it wasn’t anything particularly unusual. Instead, her sense of sanctuary kicked in when Elizabeth proclaimed that Mary was loved, blessed, and worthy *in a loud voice*. As an unmarried pregnant woman, Mary would have found this FAR more meaningful than the reflexive hospitality that etiquette required. It wasn’t the fact that Mary was permitted in Elizabeth’s house that made it a sanctuary for her, it was Elizabeth’s bold affirmation that let Mary know she was in a safe place.

Solidarity is the act of providing sanctuary with our very being. Someone may hope and even believe that a place is safe for them, but they KNOW it is when the people around them loudly proclaim their worth and demonstrate a willingness to protect and support them. To stand WITH them, not just near them. This is one of the central tenets of God’s construction standards: the kindom of God must be built with reinforcements for ALL who seek a home there.

And what’s the first step for US to take in order to make sure we’re “up to code” in this respect? We sing. Like Mary and the Israelites, we sing. We loudly proclaim to all who can hear what sanctuary REALLY means to us. We don’t just enjoy our own sense of safety and assume that it’s good enough for everyone. We make God’s standards clear to the world and outline exactly what we’re doing to live by them. Not for the purpose of congratulating ourselves, but in order to invite others in—to make sure they KNOW that God’s kindom is really, truly safe for them.

Some people might not like God’s standards. They might even try to argue that they’re not God’s standards at all. But Mary’s song doesn’t leave much room for doubt: “[The Lord] has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. [God] has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. [God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.” The kindom is to be built according to standards that make it EQUALLY safe for ALL people. No one should have easier access than anyone else. If ANYONE feels safer than others, then that means the house is far from finished. There’s work yet to be done.

So let us sing loudly of the Lord’s sanctuary. Let us share what God has done in our own lives to make us feel at home in the kindom, but let us also describe what God is doing to create a home where ALL can find sanctuary. Let us proclaim it in every corner of our lives, from our conversations, to our text messages, to our votes, to our website, to our advocacy, to our prayers and even beyond. Let us preach this good news especially to the marginalized and the outcast, remembering that our standards aren’t the ones that matter. Let us sing of the sanctuary that we are building together with God, and let us ensure that this house is a place of safety not just for us, but for all. Amen.

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