(Deuteronomy 10:17-19, Psalm 46:1-3, Luke 1:46b-55)

We gather here in this sanctuary every Sunday, for our time of worship, prayer, song, reflection. Once a month we also share the sacrament of Holy Communion. This sanctuary is where we have baptisms for those entering a life with Christ. This is where we have weddings, for those committing themselves to a life of love with each other. This is where we hold funerals – when a member of our community has died and passed on, this is where we gather to grieve together, and to pray, and to remember and celebrate the life of the one we’ve lost.

This is our sanctuary, as it has been the sanctuary for the past generations of the souls who have animated this church, and blessed it with their dreams and visions and tears and hard work. It was 151 years ago that folks got together and built the first sanctuary of First Congregational Church. When that burned down, folks got together and built another one. When that one burned down, the people built another one, and when that one burned beyond repair, folks built the sanctuary that is now our parish house because when the congregation grew and flourished they built this sanctuary, here, where there has been worship every Sunday since 1931.

This is our sacred space. That’s what sanctuary means – a space set apart for sacred activity, for all the things we do together to grow in our relationship with God. Sanctuary.

Now, isn’t it true that God can be present anywhere and everywhere? We’re talking about the God of all Creation, right? So we can go anywhere in creation to encounter dimensions of our God.

We don’t need a building to be moved by the Holy Spirit. We don’t need pews to pray. We don’t need a pulpit to hear the Good News or to learn from the Word. We don’t need walls and doors and roofs and windows to grow in wisdom. The God who is with is with us anywhere, anytime, with anyone else or no one else.

So why have a sanctuary?

A sanctuary is important not just because it’s a sacred space.
It’s important because it’s a sacred refuge. It is a place we set apart to protect what is sacred. A shelter, a refuge for what is sacred. This is what is so important, this is why we build a new sanctuary when the last one burned down, this is what we need, at times desperately.

Those times when life has got us confused, those times when we’re desperate and despairing, those times when we’re hurting, those times when we’re vulnerable, those times when we’re lost in the wilderness … Oh what a relief it is to know there is a refuge. What a relief it is to know that there is place to which we can go. There is a place that holds for us what is sacred and precious, that waits for us to come as we are and remember once again that we are beloved children of the living God.

We have a deep need to have such a place, a refuge that, yes, has a roof and four walls and a door.

That’s why we have this church. That’s why we keep the chapel open whenever the church is open, that’s why we hold regular services there in the chapel and regular services here in the sanctuary, so folks can always just come and collapse and cry out in prayer, and be reminded once again that we are each and all beloved children of the living God, who is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in times of trouble.

It is God, and God alone, who is that refuge, yes … but it sure helps to know we have a special space set apart to be like that sacred refuge for us.

Plus, having walls and roofs and doors is very helpful when it comes to trying to do the work of being a sacred community together. If we are to love each other the way that God loves us, we are to serve as a refuge for one another.

This past week our church building became a sacred refuge for folks who need a safe, warm, hospitable place to rest in the winter cold. Our Warming Center was open several nights last week – thanks to all the volunteers from this church and all over Walla Walla, and thanks to the United Way who coordinates it. And I’m happy to say that the New Beginnings chapel has also been open the nights when we haven’t been, which helps to distribute the stress of this kind of ministry. And it’s looking like this coming week we’ll need to be open again several nights.

This is one way we can be a sanctuary, a sacred refuge.

Throughout history, churches have been places of sacred refuge for folks in more ways than we can imagine.

This idea of sanctuary is something that can guide us in discerning how God is leading us to be a sacred community in our place and time.

So I invite you to pray on that question. What does it mean to be a sanctuary? What does it mean to be a sacred refuge in our place and time? Who is in need of a sacred refuge? How can we be that for them, for each other? How have we not been that?

How are we here in need of a sacred refuge? How are we doing that for each other?

And what does this have to do with God, and in particular with the love of God? How do we know that love? How do we receive that love? How do we offer that love to each other, with all our dear limitations?

With all those questions, with that guidance for prayer, I offer for your reflection a passage from Psalm 146:
“Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in Yahweh their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. Yahweh sets the prisoners free, the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous, the just. The Lord watches over the strangers; God upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”

This is the God who is our refuge and our strength.

Thanks be to God.

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