Recently, it was reported that the ELCA became the first “Sanctuary” denomination in the country.

The reaction has been interesting. There are those who are opposed to this and those that support this designation. The humorous part of all of this is the reality that we really don’t know what it means to be a “Sanctuary” denomination – yet you could assume that this designation came with concrete steps if you only listened to the reactions. In reality, we’re in unchartered territory. The denomination, bishops, and pastors are putting out plenty of letters telling everyone what the designation means and doesn’t mean. (I.e. – it doesn’t mean the denomination is encouraging anyone to do anything illegal.)

But reactions have been swift and immediate. There have been people who are leaving the denomination and there are people who are discovering that they are Lutherans and didn’t know it.

Sanctuary. Ah, a word that causes an emotional reaction for so many.

Yet the word has actual meaning. If you go to Merriam-Webster’s website, you’ll find some interesting things.

So what does sanctuary mean? Well, here’s a screen shot from the website:

(Source: http://www.merriam-webster.com)

Lost in the debate about “Sanctuary” denomination is the fact that where we worship is called a Sanctuary. It’s considered a consecrated or holy place because it is a place that we believe we encounter God through worship.

For Lutherans, we have an established Ordo of worship – or order of worship. At the very beginning of most worship services includes the Confession and Forgiveness.

During this time, there are a few options of what the congregation says together. One of them is this:

“Most merciful God, we confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.” (Source: ELW, pg. 117)

In response, the pastor declares the following:

“In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all our sins. As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” (Source: ELW, pg. 118)

Did you catch what happens during the confession and forgiveness that is done in the sanctuary? We seek sanctuary with God in a sanctuary. We seek the forgiveness of sins. And what is sin? Well, for one thing, it is a violation of the laws of God. So during a regular Lutheran worship service, the people gathered come to a sanctuary, to seek sanctuary from God for violating God’s laws. And the good news is that God grants this sanctuary to those present.

According to Merriam-Webster.com a sanctuary is a place of refuge and protection. It is a place that shelters people. It is a place that offers immunity from the law.

This isn’t new. In fact, there is a great deal of history for churches being sanctuary places. If you read further on Merriam-Webster’s site, you would find this entry:

(Source: Merriam-Webster.com)

Which leads me to wonder – why do some object to a church being designated as a “Sanctuary” denomination when we have sanctuaries and offers sanctuary to sinners before the law of God? Why is sanctuary good for those of us in worship, but not for others?