Two weeks ago, the church wide assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, also known under its abbreviation ELCA (of which our congregation is a part) met in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Elected voting members from all over the country gather every 3 years to do the business of the national church – among them also people from our synod, the Sierra Pacific Synod.

For churchwide assembly, more than 900 voting members come together over the course of a jam-packed 4 days.

There is worship and Bible study, keynotes and presentations. But a lot of business is also taken care of, like the vote on the budget. This year was also an election year for the office of presiding bishop – and, by the way, Elizabeth Eaton was reelected in that capacity. But then there are also resolutions that come to the floor and are voted on by the assembly.

This year, one resolution in particular made a lot of waves, even beyond the ELCA. In this resolution, it was recommended that the ELCA become a ‘sanctuary denomination’, walking alongside people seeking refuge and asylum in this country. Of course this is a very timely issue, with large numbers of asylum seekers and immigrants coming to the U.S. and the less than human treatment of those detained at the border – among them children, who are forcibly separated from their parents.

The resolution was adopted with an overwhelming majority.

The decision of the churchwide assembly of the ELCA to become a sanctuary denomination made the national news. Newspapers like the Washington Post and magazines like Newsweek published the story. It was even mentioned on CNN. And, not surprisingly, the Fox News Channel reacted as well, implying that the ELCA was aiding people to break the law –and breaking the law itself – by ‘sheltering illegals and fighting deportation cases.’ In more conservative circles, the word ‘sanctuary’ alone is a red flag.

Now before I tell you what it means that the ELCA now is a sanctuary denomination, let me tell you that much: it is quite clear that the pundits at Fox News didn’t read the resolution. Or, if they read it, they misrepresented what is said in it. Sadly, we have come to a point in this country where almost anyone crossing the border to seek asylum, which, so far, is legal in the U.S., is considered an ‘illegal’, a criminal – and often treated as such. The debate about immigration is one of the most divisive issues in this country right now. And, by the way, in Europe as well…

In general, of course one would hope that the ELCA or any church, for that matter, were a body of sanctuary. Sanctuary means nothing else but ‘holy place’, a place where the divine is to be found, a place where people seek and find protection in the presence of God. As Christians, we come together in a sanctuary, like this one, as beloved children of God, no matter, what our age, no matter, what our color of skin or socio-economic status, no matter, what our nationality, no matter, how quiet or restless we are.

And we are to treat each other as beloved children of God here and see the face of God in the face of our neighbor. This is a holy place because it is God’s place. It is not up to us to say who is welcome here and who isn’t, to judge those who come here.  God opens the door for anyone who seeks sanctuary in this place. We all become holy in God’s holy presence, in this holy place. That’s the essential meaning of ‘sanctuary’.

But then, of course, the word ‘sanctuary’ has been expanded to mean a ‘safe space’ for any living being; we have wildlife sanctuaries, for example. And the term has become politically charged as there are cities in this country, like San Francisco, which have declared themselves to be ‘sanctuary cities’, protecting immigrants, and, yes, among them those who are here without proper documentation.

So is the ELCA in fact encouraging and calling to illegal behavior, as Fox News alleges?

The simple answer is: no.

Leaders at the ELCA churchwide assembly made it clear: it’s about people, not policies. It’s about seeing the neighbor in those seeking refuge in this country – and loving this neighbor. It’s about treating them with fairness and dignity.

The ELCA summarizes its declaration as follows: ‘In its simplest form, becoming a sanctuary denomination means that the ELCA is publicly declaring that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith…being a sanctuary denomination does not call for any person, congregation or synod to engage in illegal actions…We have a broken system regarding immigration, refugees and asylum seekers. To declare ourselves a sanctuary church body is to say that we seek to provide concrete resources to assist the most vulnerable who are feeling the sharp edges of this broken system. Being a sanctuary denomination is about loving our neighbors. While we may have different ideas about how to fix the broken system and may have different ways of loving our neighbors, our call to loving our neighbors is central to our faith.’

According to this definition, we here at St. Matthew’s are in fact are a sanctuary church. Remember D P, who used to come to our services and now is back in Germany? Not only I, but other members of this church as well walked alongside him as he was figuring out his immigration situation, translated for him, went to government agencies with him, poured over paperwork with him; there was nothing illegal about doing this, and this is the kind of action the ELCA encourages – regardless of where people are from.

This summary goes on to say, ‘…the ELCA is an immigrant church. Our decades-long work with immigrants and refugees IS how we practice our faith.’

And I think this is something important to remember: most people in this country have ancestors who were immigrants – or, like the vast majority in this room, are immigrants themselves.

But the ELCA knows it’s not just about taking care about people coming to the States, looking for sanctuary. I quote from the summary: ‘…we are also working through our global partners to alleviate the conditions that cause people to migrate.’ In other words, something needs to be done against violence and poverty in the home countries of those who migrate.

As was to be expected, the declaration that the ELCA is a sanctuary church has already caused upset and, yes, division. There have been comments from ELCA colleagues that people in their congregations have left – although it seems that those leaving believed what they heard and saw on Fox News; or maybe they just heard the politically charged word ‘sanctuary church’ and drew the conclusion that the ELCA, indeed, condones illegal behavior. And there are probably those who don’t like immigrants who don’t look like them, and consequently don’t like the attitude of the ELCA – which is, if you look into the Bible, actually along the lines of what Jesus taught – that we are called to see our neighbor in all of God’s children.

Which brings us to today’s gospel. Here Jesus speaks words that are difficult: about fire on earth, about upset and quarrels and division among people who are connected through family or friendship. About the signs of the time, which people don’t know how to interpret.

Jesus might as well have described circumstances as we experience them now, around the world and, yes, in this country. People in the U.S. are divided as they haven’t been since the time of the Civil War. Family members don’t speak to each other because of their political differences. The atmosphere becomes more and more hateful, with targeted mass murders on the rise. Just remember, the El Paso shooter said openly that he wanted to hit Latinos.

Civil discourse seems to have become impossible, and people don’t listen to arguments that go against their party line or political conviction. Many people look backward to a past that won’t come back, no matter how much we wish it would, instead of seeing the signs of the times and working toward a future that will look different, and to help shape it.

And, yes, even those who call themselves Christians in this country are divided on such issues as immigration, care for the poor, the treatment of women, the treatment of minorities, and the LGTBQ community. We are far from the vision of the New Jerusalem, where the gates of the city are ALWAYS far open for anyone – ANYONE – to enter and live in the eternal light of God and enjoy the fruit of the tree of life, with its leaves for the healing of the nations.

Now in today’s gospel Jesus is not simply describing things as they are. What makes his words even more difficult is that he says, ‘I have come to bring not peace, but division.’ Why would Jesus want to cause division?

The way I see it is that Jesus calls his disciples, and calls us, to truly commit to his cause – the kingdom of God among all people – and his teachings. And often, these teachings are difficult and go against the teachings of ‘the world’. Love of neighbor and love of enemy are probably among the most difficult things Jesus commands us. Following Christ’s commands will set us up for conflict in this world. When we truly follow Christ and his teachings, we will upset people – tick them off. There’s no way around it. And of course this causes division.

We see this right now in the conscious and courageous decision of the ELCA to interpret Christ’s command to love our neighbor to the point that they declare themselves a sanctuary church body, walking alongside brothers and sisters, children of God, who come to this country to seek a new life.

With all the talk of division, and the reality of division, where is the gospel, the good news?

Two thoughts on that. The first one: my colleagues in the ELCA didn’t only report about members leaving over the ELCA’s decision to become a sanctuary denomination, but also that there have been newcomers to congregations over this decision. There are people who feel that this is the Christ-like thing to do and join our churches because of that.

The second one is that, in the end, we all stand under the cross of Christ and depend on God’s mercy and forgiveness, no matter, what our opinions and political leanings be right now. We hear God’s grand vision of the reconciliation of people to God and people to people – I already mentioned the vision of the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation – and can trust that God’s end goal is not to divide us, but to bring us together in the peace of Christ. We can trust that, in the end, God will overcome all divisions and make us one.

In the meantime, Christ calls us to stand up for what we believe – and risk division for the sake of Christ.

Bild von Katie Moum via