Searching for a Sanctuary

Jonathan L. WaltonSermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, for Harvard Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service, Knafel Center, Radcliffe Yard.


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“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Luke 2:7


Does anyone desire to be on the wrong side of history? As a social ethicist who thinks about history, I have trouble imagining so. How many people wake up in the morning and declare, “Today is the day I will immortalize myself in infamy.”

Let’s comb through the archives of American history. I doubt most folk desired to be remembered badly. Consider those who worked in the American slave trade. Shippers, auctioneers, and plantation overseers were just normal people trying to make a living. They were “one with their age,” to cite W.E.B. Du Bois. I doubt that many ever reflected on how we would view them today. I doubt that many ever imagined that their offspring would feel compelled to revise, if not outright conceal, their occupations.

Consider soldiers from the 7th Calvary Regiment in South Dakota. In 1890, they were just soldiers serving their country at Wounded Knee. Twenty were even awarded Medals of Honor. Yet fast forward a century and a quarter. Today few can stomach the unconscionable extermination of up to three hundred Sioux Indians. History turned men of valor into soldiers of shame.

Or consider New York City police officers in 1969. When four undercover cops planned to raid the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, they just figured they would throw a few “queers” in a paddy wagon and call it a night. They were just doing their job. Few thought that their quotidian homophobia would spark a definitive moment for LGBTQ rights in this nation.

When I think about examples like these — individuals on the wrong side of history — I am drawn to a character in this week’s scripture lesson. This character is not typically mentioned when we tell the Christmas story. We mention Mary and Joseph. We recall Caesar Augustus and Quirinius. We reference the wise men and the angels. Nevertheless, without this one pivotal character, the story of Jesus’s birth would be quite different. I am talking about the unnamed innkeeper.

His words are not printed. His name was not recorded. But from the way the story transpires, we can infer an attributable quote. “We have no room for you.” One can imagine that the innkeeper wants this night back. Here we have Joseph and Mary knocking on his door. This couple is about to give birth to arguably the most influential person in human history. Mary is about to deliver the one whose very name will divide time in two halfs –— before him and with him. Yet the innkeeper looks at her and says, “We have no room for you.”

To be fair, we do not know why he told them no room. Possibly it was true. His hands were tied. There was no room at the inn. Yet something tells me if this innkeeper knew that this woman was about to deliver a baby that had the power to deliver him, he would have made room. If the innkeeper knew it was Jesus, the promised Messiah, he most likely would have given up his own quarters to this young peasant family.

Maybe this is a Christmas lesson about what you and I privilege. Some of us break our necks to get close to those who we consider to be somebody. We bend over backwards to curry favor with the perceived “rich and powerful.” Yet what about when God’s blessing emerges from an impoverished couple? What about when precious divinity presents itself in the womb of a teenage mother, impregnated under questionable circumstances? It seems all too easy to declare, “Sorry, there is no room for you.”

Or maybe there was room at the inn, but the innkeeper had another reason for denying Mary and Joseph access. Maybe when he looked at their imperial documentation he didn’t like what he saw. When he checked their recently gained papers, he noted that they weren’t from Judea. Mary and Joseph were from the northern region of Palestine known as Galilee.

Galileans had a rough reputation. Cities like Nazareth and Sepphoris were known for their militancy. They were known for their anti-imperial sensibilities. They were known for being trouble makers for the Roman Empire. In fact, right before Jesus’s birth we know that Herod the Great, Rome’s puppet in the region, had just died. This led to sustained uprisings in Galilee as bandits, the term used for insurgents, sought to expel Roman occupying forces. It took military power from outside the region to help calm the revolt. According to the historian Josephus, 2000 Galileans were crucified as a result, as crucifixion was the official form of lynching reserved for political dissenters.

So maybe when the innkeeper saw where Joseph and Mary were from, he became nervous. He heard about their reputations. Galileans were violent. They were troublemakers. They were “uncouth.” He did not want any trouble. He wanted to keep his hotel rating and review score high. So it was easier to look at this young couple, not as people, but as a problem. And if they are just a problem — not people with problems, like all of us here — but rather a problem people, inherently and innately problematic by virtue of their birth, then it becomes easier for the innkeeper to declare, “Sorry, we have no room for you.”  

This might be another moral lesson for us this Christmas. What social markers do we use to decide whether there is room?

When confronted by those in search of sanctuary, what do we see. Do we see a problem? Or do we take time out to see people?

I shudder when I think about all the opportunities we have missed. Think about the potential beauty we have aborted and wonderful ideas we have deported — ideas that laid latent in the minds of young children in this country who constantly hear, “There is no room for you.”

Think about the infinite possibilities of positive human achievements. Positive possibilities are precluded when we say to current and potential residents of this nation, “There is no room for you.”

My point here is a simple yet subtle one. Those of us who end up on the wrong side of time are not tragic accidents of history. The innkeeper did not just wake up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He made choices. We make choices. And these choices decide ultimately where we end up on the historical record. Will we be one with our age, and end up on the wrong side of time? Or will we stand with those God cares most about, the victimized and the most vulnerable, and then pray we end up on the right side with God for all eternity.

Suffering, misery, violence, and hatred are not foregone conclusions. Bombs do not just drop from the sky. Gun triggers do not pull themselves. God does not will that some are born in poverty while others are born in privilege. These are our choices. Small yet decisive choices that you and I make each day. And the sum total of these small choices has ripple effects across the society.

Recently I read an incredible novel by Mary Doria Russell entitled Thread of Grace. It takes place between 1943 and 1945, and tells the story of how northwestern Italian peasants, nuns, and Catholic priests provided sanctuary to Jews from Rome and Eastern Europe following Mussolini’s surrender. There was a Jewish rabbi named Iacopo Soncini. Though in underground, he continued to teach and serve the souls of the community. What kept Iacopo going was a pretty straight forward philosophy of life. “When the preponderance of human beings choose to act with justice, generosity, and kindness, then love and decency will prevail. When we opt for power, greed and indifference to the suffering of others, war, poverty and cruelty will prevail.”

Iacopo understood that his Italian neighbors who risked life and limb to provide them shelter were making a choice. They could have said, “we are just simple poor people.” They could have said, “the German forces are just too strong, we better protect ourselves.” And they could have said, “we better not run afoul of the law. We should try legal means.” Yet in the words of one Jewish peasant woman in the story, if one needs to tell a lie or break a law to save a life, so be it. God’s love for every precious human being tips the scales of justice toward compassion over the rule of any human law.

I am inspired by this rich history — communities of faith that have stepped up and spoke out when it came to protecting human life. When the law said, “No room,” there were people of faith who quoted the words of Jesus, “Come unto me, all ye who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

For instance, congregations throughout New England were part of a network that we now know as the Underground Railroad. If the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was the “law of the land,” these churches chose life over law. The Lutheran Confessing Church both publicly opposed Nazi Germany and privately harbored Jewish families. Sanctuary is not just about harboring people in secret. It is also bearing witness to our collective sin and their individual suffering. And as recent as the 1980s, when El Salvador and Nicaragua were mired in political violence, churches throughout this nation formed the Sanctuary movement to provide protection against deportation agencies in this nation. They sided with human lives over the law. They provided safety for those who sought sanctuary.

This is an issue that has challenged our campus and so many others in recent weeks. Recent political rhetoric has declared, “there is no room” for those born in certain countries. Recent hate crimes have declared, “there is no room” for those of a certain religion or race. Understandably many students are searching for sanctuary. This is particularly the case for the more than the five dozen students from across this University that are undocumented or from mixed-status families. With a possible change in federal immigration policy, students want to know if there is room for them.

I appreciate the efforts of this institution, and the ways they operate in the law. President Drew Faust has tried to make it clear, “wherever you came from, you are here. And if you are at Harvard, you are home.” These are not just words. This University has established a legal support for all undocumented students in case there are changes in federal law. The University has identified a point person in central administration to address any and all needs of undocumented students. And we are actively working with student groups to identify concrete measures to ensure the safety and security of all of our students.

But as the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, I continue to adhere to a higher moral law as well. The law that we have been preaching and proclaiming at the Memorial Church clearly and consistently.

What have we always said? Everyone at Harvard may not belong to the Memorial Church, but the Memorial Church belongs to everyone at Harvard.

What have we always proclaimed? The Memorial Church is a space of Grace at the center of Harvard Yard for all of God’s people.

And what have we always professed? How can I say that I love the Lord, who I’ve never ever seen before? But forget to say that I love the one who I walk beside each and everyday.

At the Memorial Church, we do not care who you are or where you are from. If you belong to Harvard, you belong to us. More importantly, we belong to you. So if sanctuary is what you seek, this is the perfect season to tell you that the Memorial Church is a place for you to lay your head. We will not allow anyone to defer your dreams. A space of grace is not a slogan. It is an ethical orientation.

My first couple of years on the faculty at Harvard, I was a scholar in residence at Lowell House. My twins were in first and second grade. And our world all took place down near the Charles River. When I was appointed the head of the Memorial Church, my family moved to Sparks House, a home on the complete opposite side of the campus. Overnight my kids had to adjust to a new sense of space. They had to develop a new feel for a different reality.

One day I took them outside and told them to look up. I pointed to the steeple at the Memorial Church, the highest point on campus. I said, “If you are ever lost around campus. If you ever get turned around. If you ever have a problem. Or even if you ever just need a little bit of company, look up. And make your way to the Memorial Church. Because even if I am not there, there will be somebody there that can give you whatever it is you need.”

And this is what I want to tell somebody on this campus today. We don’t care if your name is Michael, Miguel, Ming, or Muhammad. We don’t care if you pray five times a day or never prayed at all. If you are ever scared. If you are ever lonely. If you are ever unsure to where and to whom to turn, look up. Find the steeple and then make haste to the Memorial Church.

 In the name of the Christ child who beckons us to him, if it’s sanctuary that you seek, then we declare, “there is room for you.”