On August 7th, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declared itself to be a sanctuary denomination at the 2019 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. This is a declaration that has been met with much commentary and discussion, fanfare and lambasting, passion and confusion. As a result of this bold declaration, the ELCA has received a surge of media attention across the gamut of social media and mainstream media outlets alike. It’s been a topic that has made nation-wide news coverage sparking great debate and harsh critique on Fox News, as well as one that has been heralded by the The Washington Post, Star Tribune, and more.
While I must acknowledge that there certainly are significantly varied opinions on this matter, I feel compelled to share that, as a pastor in the ELCA and person of Christian faith, I celebrate this declaration with great joy. I know that many congregation members want the church to steer clear of “politically charged topics”, but how can we expect our congregants to live out their faith in the public square (and not just on Sunday mornings) if the church does not involve matters of the public square in our lives of faith. We need our church-wide organization to stand up and boldly make declarations that inspire and guide our congregations and individual members to live our faith with authenticity and passion. The Lutheran church was founded out of the efforts of those reformers who bucked at the corrupt systems of governance, rule, and unquestioned spiritual authority of the papacy. Our spiritual heritage as Lutherans is to call out injustice and seek to reform our present realities into a world befitting of the Gospel we profess.
As stated on ELCA.org, 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. Yes, how we treat our neighbors is now and has always been a matter of faith! As I stated in a sermon I preached on Immigration and Refugee Sunday on June 23rd, it doesn’t matter what your stance is on immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees entering the country. We’re talking about the ones who are already here. They are our neighbors, and we have a duty as faithful Christians to love and serve our neighbors as Jesus Christ loves and serves us. As stated in an ELCA Advocacy post, Christians have offered sanctuary for two thousand years, continuing an ancient biblical practice in which cities and houses of worship provided refuge and asylum for people fleeing injustice. I am proud to belong to a church body that carries on this sacred Christian mantle of faithful service to the neighbors in need.
That said, there is indeed some confusion regarding what this means for individual ELCA congregations. Are we all now required by edict of our churchwide organization to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants? No, not at all. That is not how the governance of the ELCA has ever worked. Individual congregations are separately incorporated bodies who self-govern and discern/determine their own policies/guidelines. This churchwide declaration does not force any congregation to change their policies, or break any laws, but I, for one, do hope this churchwide declaration serves as a challenge and inspiration to all ELCA congregations to think and act earnestly about how we bear witnesses to the gospel for all people: Citizens/foreigners, documented/undocumented, young/old, male/female, straight/gay, slave/free, of all ethnicities, races, cultures, and creeds. Our clear and unquestionable call, commission, and commandment as Christians is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength [and to] love your neighbor as yourself. I believe the moment we allow our own inclinations, fears, and prejudices to get in the way of living out this simple yet powerful commandment is the moment we allow the world to water down our faith. So if others would care to critique us as sinners for our faithful convictions, let us follow Martin Luther’s advice and let our sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. May we all be so fervent of faith and steadfast of heart as we strive to live our faith united in Christ in the midst of this fractured world in which we live.
Grace and peace to you this day and always.