The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Leviticus 19: 33-34; James 1: 2-5
February 19, 2017
Our Sanctuary Is Your Sanctuary, Part I
To start, a poem from Marilyn Nelson’s collection of poetry The Meetinghouse, published in honor of our church’s 350 years of ministry. It’s one I’ve shared with many of our boards and committees these past several months, and the time has come to share it with all of you. The poem is entitled “Christians,” and the subheading reads “Rev. Stephen Colton, Minister, First Congregational Church, 1829-1840.” Under that, we see another subheading that says: “The Amistad trial, New Haven and Hartford, 1839-1840.” The Amistad, you’ll recall, was a ship on which slaves being shipped to the United States enacted a successful mutiny, only to be captured by a naval ship in the Long Island Sound. Thereafter, the Amistad was docked in New Haven, where the ship’s African population was placed on trial. It was a moment when a convulsive geopolitical event took place in Connecticut, and Marilyn’s poem imagines how this community may have responded. Here’s the poem, “Christians.”
Are they those who go to church on Sundays,
who close their eyes and whisper the words of prayers,
whose generosity causes no pain,
but the glow of self-congratulation
on a pedestal of self-righteousness.
Are they those who treat people like themselves –
Upright, educated, with good manners –
As they would like to be treated by them.
Are they those who strive to imitate,
In minute kindnesses, His gentle life.
Are they those who know inner conversion
Into the discipleship of service.
Are they those who are good Samaritans,
Who can see straight through a black prisoner’s face
To the joy filled vastness of a free heart.
Those who know an African mutineer
Is more infinity than rich cargo.
Are they those who accept persecution
As the price of trying to feed His sheep.
Between Christmas Eve, when the Church Council
Voted to stop paying their minister,
And the June day when they bade him farewell,
The church record was carefully erased.
So much of history has been blacked out.
Zipped lips hold back many guilty secrets.
Perhaps Reverend Colton asked them to give
The Amistad prisoners Christmas gifts.
Or perhaps he pointed out that the wealth
Amassed from ships in the Triangle Trade
Was tainted by commodified people.
Did everyone in the congregation
Sigh with relief when Reverend Colton left?
Did anyone ask what a Christian is?
We don’t know, really, why Stephen Colton left Old Lyme. We don’t know why his salary was cancelled. We don’t know how the events playing out 35 miles away in New Haven affected those who lived in Old Lyme. But it seems more than possible that the Amistad trial was a subject of debate in this community, and at the Congregational Church. And it seems entirely likely that conversations occurred then that mirror the conversations occurring around and among us right now. We can imagine comments such as these: “Whatever one thinks about the matter of slavery, it’s divisive to speak of it, and it need not divide us in Old Lyme. Slavery pertains to a different part of the world, and however unfortunate that peculiar institution, it belongs to a different geography. We have local needs to attend to, and need not concern ourselves with far off problems. It’s a political matter, and it has no place in the pulpit or the church. The sphere of the church has to do with matters of the spirit, and so churches should speak of spiritual things, but not public controversies.”
We don’t know what might have been said here in Old Lyme during the Amistad trial. And we don’t know precisely why Stephen Colton’s salary was cut off, an action, I can share, that I fervently hope won’t be repeated! But then as now, conversations surely occurred in Old Lyme about how to respond to the world around us. Then as now, the gospel of Jesus pulls its adherents deeper and deeper into the life of the world. Then as now, the question that concludes the poem crosses into our own place, into our own time, as xenophobia, bigotry, and racism are enacted as a matter of open national policy: Did anyone, does anyone, ask what a Christian is?
Let me share with you several stories of encounters I’ve had over the past several weeks, encounters that have brought to mind Marilyn’s poem, and the question that hovers around it: did anyone, does anyone, ask what a Christian is?
First story: I’ve been having my class up at Harvard Divinity School read the work of a German Jewish exile named Walter Benjamin, who worked to understand the origin of the hate besetting mid-century Europe. After class, a student approached me and introduced herself, telling me she was thinking about becoming ordained. “You have a church, right?” she said. “Yeah, I do,” I responded. “Well then you’ve got to tell me, where the f— are the churches right now? And where were they in the 1930’s and 1940’s in Germany and France? If there’s ever been a time that churches have demonstrated their absolute irrelevance, with a handful of exceptions, it was then.” She went on to suggest that it felt to her that the same was true now. “Where the hell are you guys?” she wanted to know. It was a question born less of anger or accusation, but rather of anguish.
Is anyone asking what a Christian is, right about now?
Second encounter: last weekend, I spent an afternoon at the Hamou household up in Lyme. As most of you know, the three churches here in Old Lyme helped to sponsor and assist this family fleeing the war in Syria, and they’ve since become dear friends. I asked how they were getting along in this new, hostile climate, and they reported that they were OK. But after a pause, Darin, the eldest of the children, shared that another student had approached her at the high school, asking in a hostile tone, “Why are you even here?” What she reported next was heartbreaking to me. She said that the encounter made her want to leave, made her want to go back to Syria, where Syrians can be Syrians. She asked me, “Why don’t Americans like Syrians anymore?” Friends, we need to recognize how delicate, how fragile, how tenuous the sense of welcome and hospitality and embrace that we’ve provided so far actually is. For all the love and support that our friends have received since they arrived, all it takes is one, one, hostile encounter to make it all crumble.
Is anyone asking what a Christian is, right about now?
Last set of encounters: I’ve had a number of conversations with those in the gay and lesbian community these past several weeks about the deep sense of unease they’re feeling in this new ideological climate. One person reminded me that it was only one generation ago that homosexuality was removed from the manual of psychological disorders as a form of madness or mental illness. Another confided that it was only two generations ago that gay and lesbian people were being gassed. For all the advances that the LGBTQ community has made over the last several decades, that sense of inclusion and embrace remains fragile, delicate, and all too tenuous. And sadly, churches have harbored and nurtured homophobia for so long that the assumption among many within the LGBTQ community is that no matter how often or forcefully we declare ourselves open and affirming, heteronormativity is so deeply embedded within our discourses that there’s little hope of redeeming the churches. In other words, for many, places like this still feel threatening, and less than hospitable, especially in this new ideological climate.
Is anyone asking what a Christian is, right about now?
For the past month or so, I’ve been recalling practices and themes within the Christian story that can help to guide and orient us within a turbulent moment. I’ve cited the practice of solitude and the practice of discovering wonder and delight as important to our common life. I’ve cited the practice of discernment and I’ve tried to remind us of the agency and power which we all possess, an agency that enables us to enact the values and commitments that are born from our faith. And I’ve circled back to that formative episode between Jesus and Peter, shortly after the disaster of the crucifixion. Jesus offers a simple set of instructions to Peter: feed my sheep. Jesus doesn’t give Peter a theology lesson. He doesn’t quiz him about whether he believes this or that. There’s no catechism, no faith statement, no creed, no orthodoxy to affirm. If you love me, Jesus says, you’ll feed my sheep, which is to say, those most vulnerable to predation from the wolves of the world. These are all gifts of our tradition, stories and practices that can and will anchor us. They’re all clues to the question haunting me, haunting many of us, just about now.
Is anyone asking what a Christian is?
Today, I’d like to introduce the concept of sanctuary to you, an ancient practice that now has a contemporary resonance. I’ll have more to say about it in the coming weeks as well, because I think it’s a particular gift that a number of faith traditions are now providing to the world. You can find references to the practice of sanctuary throughout the Bible. In the Hebrew tradition, for example, the Israelites are instructed in the law to provide welcome to the stranger and the alien dwelling in their midst, a reminder that the Hebrew people were themselves strangers and aliens in Egypt. But that concept was extended to include the establishment of sanctuary cities, spaces in which those under threat could flee. Later, the monastics established that practice within the monasteries, welcoming and protecting those who needed sanctuary from some particular threat. In modernity, it’s a practice that was used by the Underground Railroad. It was used to provide sanctuary to Jews in the Third Reich. And it was used several decades ago in this country as refugees from Nicaragua and El Salvador, who had fled their countries because of violence aided and abetted by the United States, were threatened with deportation. Churches organized to offer sanctuary, or protection, to those under threat of deportation.
It’s fast becoming clear that we need a renewed sanctuary movement in this country to address all manner of vulnerabilities that individuals and communities are facing. And it’s fast becoming clear that our community here in Old Lyme will need to play a part. That’s a commitment that our board of deacons has clearly affirmed. And some very concrete plans are now taking shape. I’d like to tell you about one of them today.
Shortly after the election, it was clear to many that the refugee program we had participated in would likely be severely curtailed. The refugee program is one of our country’s proudest traditions and most honorable historic practices. Knowing what was likely to happen, I was quietly approached by a number of donors, who let it be known that they could offer a substantial sum toward the purchase of a house to be used for the resettlement of refugees in perpetuity. The dream was to acquire a house, and then to use that house as a space of refuge for families for a year at a time, give or take some months. It would be a place that they could live as they began the process of seeking work and permanent housing, acquiring language skills and working through the traumas that forced them to leave their homes. It would be, quite literally, a sanctuary. It was a dream, one that did, and still does, require a strong measure of faith and trust, for we don’t fully know what will become of the refugee program. Even so, we began a search. And after several weeks, what seemed to be a perfect house for our purposes came on the market for a thousand dollars less than the amount offered in donations. Time was of the essence – we knew what was coming from the new administration, and we also knew the house would soon be snapped up. It was time to make a move.
I love the symbolism of what followed. On Inauguration Day, as a cold January rain fell on Washington and Connecticut alike, a small group from our refugee resettlement committee gathered to look at the house. We expected the worst, fearing it would need a lot of work. One among that group was a contractor, who reported that it was in fine shape, needing minimal work. By Monday morning, when the barrage of executive orders began to roll out of the White House, we had made an offer. Days went by, and the ban on refugees went into full effect. At the end of the week, we learned that there were other, higher, offers that had been made, and so we countered with a significantly higher bid, refugee ban be damned. We waited again, following the news anxiously, wondering what the fate of that program would be. A week later, the refugee ban had been suspended, at least temporarily. And our offer had been accepted.
Several impediments remained, and remain. Here, you have a part to play. First, our offer was for more than our donors had committed, a sum we planned to make up over time with a modest rent. But another anonymous angel stepped forward, to cover the exact shortfall. We’ll now be able to purchase the house with cash, and without a mortgage. Second, all of you need to have a say in this. Our board of trustees has approved the acquisition of the house, but our bylaws state that any purchase of property by the church requires a special all church meeting in order to vote on that purchase. We’re planning to have that meeting next Sunday, immediately following the 11:00 service. My hope is that the meeting will be brief, because of the urgent and pressing need before us. Third, we’ll need a good many more volunteers to help resettle the next family that arrives. Our current committee is strong, but they’ve worked incredibly hard for the past year. Some members may well be ready for a break. I trust that between the three congregations in town, we’ll find the individuals and skills that we need. But finally, finally, we’re trusting that the refugee program will continue to exist. We know well that there is a significant population from Syria, but also from a good many other countries, that desperately need sanctuary right now. We’re hoping, trusting, and praying that we can help to meet those needs. But that may be beyond our control. What we can do, what we are doing, is to prepare ourselves as an act of faith. During Advent, I told you about the trapeze artist that flew in midair, hoping that he would be caught. His words: the flyer flies, the catcher catches. The flyer, hanging in midair, must trust, trust, trust. So it is with us, and this first gesture toward sanctuary. We prepare ourselves. We leap. And we trust, trust, trust.
Does anyone ask what a Christian is, here, now, in the 21st century? I don’t pretend to know the answer to that question, not fully. It’s kept me up at nights, wondering what the poets might say of us a hundred years hence, should we be remembered at all. Let them at least say that in a benighted era, we risked a response, in fear, in trembling, and in faith. Let them say that we let it be known that our sanctuary is your sanctuary.