Who’s Sanctuary? Whose Sanctuary?

This Sunday we begin consideration of the monthly spiritual theme of "Sanctuary." Rev. Peter and Worship Associate Kathy Alston reflect on what it means for our church community to be a "sanctuary," as both a place to come to and a place to go out from. 

Sermon: Who’s Sanctuary? Whose Sanctuary?; Rev. Peter Friedrichs

When our heart is in a holy place,
When our heart is in a holy place,
We are blessed with love
and amazing grace,
When our heart is in a holy place.

It’s a simple song, isn’t it? With a bouncy tune that gets us going in the morning. For some, it’s an ear worm that sticks with us for days after we sing it together. It’s such a simple song, in fact, that we can sing it without even really thinking about it. About what the words mean. Some of us, I’m guessing, might stumble over the theological terms “holy” and “grace,” but for the most part, this is one of those hymns that’s the vocal equivalent of Chinese food. It’s good in the moment, but an hour later you’re hungry again. So today I’d like to spend a little time with these words and explore the tasty morsels hidden within.

What do we mean when we say our “heart is in a holy place?” Is that about our bodies being physically in church? I guess that’s what it sounds like on the surface. We could translate these words to mean, “If we drag ourselves to church on Sunday morning, if we deny our desire to sit with our cup of coffee and Sunday crossword puzzle, if we prioritize church over Sunday soccer games or getting the laundry done, then we’ll feel better about ourselves.” I think we can all admit that that’s a pretty superficial reading of these lyrics. We know as Unitarian Universalists that it’s not a sin to skip church – every once in a while! So, what do these words really mean?

First, let’s look at this notion of a “holy place.” What is a “holy place?” Is it a physical space? Is it this sanctuary, this room we’re sitting in together, this place where we gather for an hour hoping something might happen? Yes, I think it is. I think there are “holy places.” We can all picture them. Places like Mecca or St. Peter’s or Stonehenge or the Bodhi Tree in India. These are places that have been assigned “holy” status by virtue of events that took place there or by their usage over centuries. These sacred sites are of significance to believers of one faith or another and, in many cases, that significance has rubbed off even onto the non-believers among us. We make pilgrimages to these places, in hope of healing or connection or receiving some sense of understanding our place in the larger human story.

A couple of years ago, Irene and I visited El Santuario de Chimayo outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Chimayo has been called “the most important pilgrimage site in North America” for Catholics, and hosts more than 300,000 visitors a year. Miracles are said to have taken place here, and there is a room in the chapel whose walls are lined with the crutches and canes of pilgrims who have been healed. The dirt in this sacred place, when eaten or rubbed on one’s body, is said to have these powers. I’m not a believer in miracles, at least not miracles of this kind. But when I entered the small, low-ceilinged room, no bigger than a large closet, really, where the sacred dirt sat in a pile, I felt something. Not a miracle, not a healing, but a sense of the holiness of the place. It was a place where, for more than a century, people have brought their grief, their pain, their suffering, their need, as well as their hope, their faith, and their love. How could you feel that it was anything less than a holy place?

So, there are holy places and then there are places that we make holy. I’m betting that you can probably name a place or two that you consider holy. Maybe that needs a little more unpacking, too, because the word “holy” can be fraught with all sorts of theological baggage. A “holy place” might be a place where you feel close to God. It might be where some kind of miracle happened for you. Maybe it’s a place where you felt connected to something larger than yourself. It may just be a place where you’ve experienced a sense of deep contentment or peace. Let’s take a moment and think about our holy places. Can we name a few?

For me, what comes to mind as a holy place is a dock on a remote pond in northern Maine. I’ve laid out on that dock on moonless nights and gazed up at the stars. From that spot, I can see the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon. I can see stars that are billions and billions of miles away and older than life itself. Looking up, I feel incredibly insignificant. And I know that I’m also part of that whole cosmic dance that’s going on. I feel like I was part of it before I was born and that I’ll be part of it after I die. That dock on that pond is as holy a place for me as any of the great cathedrals of Europe or the Ganges river.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are the inheritors of a tradition that freed up God, the sacred, the holy, from the Bible and from the church. Until Ralph Waldo Emerson and the transcendentalists came along in the mid-19th century, we Westerners were told that to be close to God, to experience the holy, we had to come to church and hear the inerrant word of God from the pulpit. Emerson and his kin rejected this limited, boxed-in view of the holy. Instead, he told us, everything is holy. Everything points us toward God. All is divine. As a strategy for increasing church attendance on Sunday morning, this wasn’t such a good idea. But imagine how it transformed our view of nature, our view of other people, our view of ourselves. “Everything is holy now,” as the Peter Mayer song goes. It’s something we take for granted these days – this ability to claim, to see the sacred in everything and everyone. But at least for Euro-Americans it wasn’t always so.

Let’s get back to the song again. “When our heart is in a holy place.” That doesn’t necessarily mean a physical space, a place on the map, does it? It doesn’t mean we need to take our bodies somewhere. We just need our hearts to be in a holy place. Or, maybe to put it another way, we need to find ways to spiritually ground ourselves so that we can actually see the sacred in our lives. So that we can hear the messages the Universe is sending above the din of our lives. So that we can taste and smell and feel the beauty and lusciousness of our lives through pleasure, which is a divine gift.  We can physically be in the holiest of shrines, and if our heart is shut down, our emotions closed off, our spirits deadened, we won’t experience the presence of the divine. But if our hearts are open to love, our emotions are open to making connections, our spirits are open to the song, we will hear the music of the Universe and see that we are all members of the choir no matter where we are. We’ll be “blessed with love and amazing grace” whether we’re sitting in a church or sitting stuck in traffic on the Blue Route.

We often say – I often say - that this room, this church, this sanctuary “is made holy by our presence.” Because, let’s face it, if we weren't here, what would it be? Just an empty room. It would be like doing that nursery rhyme: “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors. Where are the people?” This room is really just a container. These walls create and hold space. And don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful space and I love it dearly. But until we fill it with our bodies, our hearts, our spirits it’s just a lifeless, inert emptiness with pretty uncomfortable chairs.

And, of course, it takes more than just our bodies, our physical presence to make this place holy, to make our time together sacred. It actually intrigues me to think about why you all come here on Sunday morning. For some, we say it’s our kids. Most of us say it’s “the sense of community.” I wonder how many of us show up seeking or expecting a miracle? Some kind of revelation. Something that will transform us in some way. One of my favorite passages about church was written by Annie Dillard in her book, “Teaching a Stone to Talk.”

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”[1]

We bring our hearts to this holy place each week and, if we’re lucky, we’re greeted heartily. We’re welcomed home. We’re seen by others. We find an hour in which to reflect. Maybe we’re inspired. We might be comforted. Maybe we hear some words that will sustain us through the week ahead. The thing we get from showing up on Sunday morning is a sense of belonging. Belonging to a group of like-minded people. Belonging to a group of people who share our values and our principles. We come to relieve our sense of isolation and alienation that seems to be inherent in our modern world. In a very real sense, each of us is sanctuary to each other. We create holiness right here, every time we gather.

This is holy work. To make this “small-s” sanctuary into a “capital-S” Sanctuary doesn’t happen by itself. It takes commitment and dedication It takes folks who say, “we can be better at welcoming” and starting the hospitality teams. But more than the nuts and bolts, it takes a shared commitment to transforming a couple hours on a Sunday morning into something sacred. It takes faith and it takes love. It takes all of us opening our hearts to each other. It takes bringing our joys and our sorrows not just to our stones and our bowl of water, but to each other. We make this place, this time holy when we accept the challenge that is implicit in the invitation to come worship together. The challenge to create holy space by opening our hearts to each other. By being vulnerable and real. By daring to share parts of ourselves that we dare not reveal anywhere else.

There is another challenge that comes with the invitation as well. And that is to create a capital-S Sanctuary, a holy place, not just for ourselves and not just for those in whom we see and recognize ourselves. We need constantly to strive to be a place of belonging, a place that responds to the longing, of people of diverse backgrounds, histories, and experiences. We need to stretch ourselves, to spread our arms wide and wider still, so that everyone who shares our values feels welcome here. That they, too, might experience the magic of the capital-S Sanctuary I’m talking about. To be part and parcel of the holiness of this place.

You’ll be hearing more about this from our Black Lives Matter group in the coming months, but I want to give you a sneak-peek of something very concrete that they’re working on. This year, they’re going to be asking us to consider adopting what’s referred to as “The 8th Principle.” It’s a proposal to add another principle to the seven that have guided our faith for more than 50 years. The 8th principle asks us to affirm and promote “journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”

True to UU form, that’s a lot of words. And to live into this principle we’ll have to do more than we’ve been doing, individually and collectively. But this, too, is holy work that we’re called to do. Because it’s only through such work that we can transform open space into holy space. It’s the only way that every heart that seeks a holy place might find transforming love and amazing grace here and in every UU congregation.

In the maelstrom of our lives, our hearts need a holy place. May we find one for ourselves. May we be one for others. May we create one together for all who seek it.

This day and every day, I wish you peace. Amen.

[1] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, 40-41

Closing Words: Our closing words today come from Episcopal priest, theologian, and author Barbara Brown Taylor in her book “An Altar in the World:”

“Whoever you are, you are human. Wherever you are, you live in the world, which is just waiting for you to notice the holiness in it.”