Lection Connection - Spirit Sightings

February 16, 2020: Grow

From Paul Turley

A news item from the end of last year that you might have missed with the rush to the end of the year: early in the year, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency threatened six-figure fines against immigrants taking sanctuary at churches. In October, ICE withdrew those threats. The National Sanctuary Collective, a coalition of attorneys, organizers, and other advocates for immigrants has counted the backdown as a victory.

Immigrants have sought relief from deportation at houses of worship because immigration officials consider them “sensitive locations” and avoid enforcement action at such sites.

Some churches have had to rethink what it means to be church in their response to people who have crossed the borders of the U.S. seeking asylum. Numbers of churches have invoked an ancient principle of sanctuary. They assert that their church buildings are a sanctuary for the poor, the disposed, and those seeking justice.

While there is no law of sanctuary as there was in some parts of Europe in the Middle Ages, the sanctuary movement has succeeded, so far, in dissuading ICE agents from crossing church thresholds to detain asylum seekers.

Historians trace the origin of the religious sanctuary movement in America to the early 1980s, when the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, AZ, declared itself a sanctuary for Central Americans escaping civil war.

Many churches and church leaders who are involved in offering sanctuary take inspiration from the book of Numbers in the Hebrew scriptures, where cities of refuge offered asylum to those denied justice.

While ICE has removed the threat of these huge fines for the moment, agency spokesman Richard Rocha says that ICE will enforce its regulations “using any and all available means.” He also said that the fines could be reassessed.

In some churches, particularly those with little space, caring for immigrants and asylum seekers takes precedence over an ordered and cleared worship space as bedding and possessions must be moved aside or navigated around. In doing so, these congregations and faith communities are giving a literal interpretation of verses 23 and 24. They are willing to disrupt their worship in order to seek ways of righting the world.

Jesus’ words must have shocked his faithful hearers. The idea that sacred duty owed to God – sacrifice at the temple – could and should be interrupted by anything or anyone would have meant that God has other things that were more important than the sacred duty of temple sacrifice.

On the other hand, perhaps Jesus’ hearers and we should not be so shocked. Seven hundred years before Jesus, the prophet Hosea told his hearers, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).

Explore…Matthew 5:21–37

  • If you are in the U.S., how would your faith community go about having a conversation about your response to the efforts of the Trump administration to deport undocumented immigrants? If you are outside the US, how would your faith community have a conversation about the role of churches in defying government dictates?
  • How do you respond to the idea that if your faith community was to be involved in something like the sanctuary movement, normal church life might be severely disrupted?
  • What might Hosea 6:6 and Matthew 5:23–24 have to teach you in your context?

God, thank you for the call to justice and compassion
that we see all through the life of Jesus and the scriptures.
Give us the courage and the faith to live out
that justice and compassion in our communities here, today.

Learn more…
Religious sanctuary movement gains traction in Houston
ICE issuing fines to immigrants taking sanctuary
ICE withdraws big fines from immigrants taking sanctuary

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