College did not come easy for me. I attended a small high school in the mountains of North Carolina. Fifty-three of us graduated my senior year. The size, the pace, the competition of life in a bit university proved unsettling. I was miserable. I wanted to go home. My parent said, “No way!”

So I did the only thing I could think to do. I found myself a sanctuary.

At the heart of the university sat a soaring gothic church; not on the scale of this Cathedral—yet substantive—and by design and desire, central to the campus. I discovered that they welcomed students as chapel sitters. I volunteered.

Every Wednesday night, I would pick up a chapel key in the student union and settle in for my three-hour shift. Every Wednesday night felt like a little nativity; the birth of new life in a bleak and barren season of my life.

And that is where it took hold: my love of sanctuaries, of finding places where life could be held in God’s life, where life could begin again, a sense of home. Ever since those days in 1973, as I have passed from student to seminarian to pastor, I have had in my possession keys to a sanctuary.

For most of those years, the sanctuaries have been smaller than the chapel at my university; less majestic than the nave of this magnificent Cathedral. Not as grand; no less holy.

What I love about sanctuaries is what lingers in them; the palpable sense of holiness and stillness; the poignancy and mystery of life lived in the company of Jesus; the prophetic prod to journey with him and into the world he came to save.

In this place, long after everyone has gone; the flame of small candles—the prayers of intercession and petition of the people of God—cast a flickering of light against the giant piers. In another sanctuary I remember, the heavy scent of funeral flowers filling the sanctuary for days; mixed with the freshness of the tears and laughter of grief and remembrance. And in the pew pads of another sanctuary—used to record attendance—a child who struggled more than any child I have ever known to understand the church’s liturgy left his view of the Sunday morning service. In the big, bold strokes of a child’s printing, Matthew wrote “The Lord be with you. And also with you. Blah, blah, blah.”

When one has worshiped in a place for some time—has come to know the people who gather there—the stories of God’s ongoing nativity fill the pews. Even when some of these people, as our opening prayer says, “Rejoice upon another shore and in a greater light,” their presence lingers.

Thinking about sanctuaries I have known, I see Roy, to my left and a dozen rows back, emerging from addiction to embrace a radical sense of mission and hospitality. He was always late; because before he came to church, he had to go to a meeting. In another sanctuary, I see Ken; released from bitterness and anger when he finally gave himself over to the possibility that he could open his heart as well as his head to God. His wife of many years pronounced him newly born. Teresa, in the balcony of another sanctuary; a defensive young woman, ashamed, because her mother had given her up for adoption and she didn’t look like anyone in her adoptive family. She struggled to move ahead. Yet she found new life in teaching Sunday school. The children nourish her soul, and bring light and life and laughter to her days. And in another sanctuary, Alyssa, behind me in the choir, married too young and for all the wrong reasons. Yet she finds comfort and hope in the hymns and anthems of the church, community in the choir. In music, she senses a future for herself; a newness of God’s making.

Sanctuaries serve as birthing places. They invite us to see and experience God’s extraordinary love at work, hidden in ordinary lives, the nativity of the life of God’s child appearing over and over and over again. Fulfilling the prophet’s promise: (Fruehwirth)

By the tender mercy of our God; the dawn from on high will break upon us; to give light to those who sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death; to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Be born, Lord Jesus, be born within us. Be born, O Christ, be born among us. Be born, O Savior, come and set us free!

God would make of our hearts a sanctuary: open, a place of the nativity of God’s son, a place of welcome for the world Christ came to save. Teresa of Avila believed we cultivate a sanctuary within through our prayer, through a growing intimacy with God, and through obedient service to God’s child.

God’s child comes to us and would give our hearts the cruciform shape of his life, making us prophetic, courageous, merciful signs of holy love.

In the 1980s, a civil war raged in El Salvador. The government supported military targeted anyone suspected of supporting social and economic reform. 75,000 people would be killed; including Archbishop Oscar Romero, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, her daughter, and four American church workers.

An active and ecumenical sanctuary movement assisted the Salvadorans fleeing for their lives. Many escaped by way of South Texas. Father Kelly, Oblate priest, and two Roman Catholic sisters lived in three small hermitages deep in the Rio Grande Valley. Together, they ran the retreat center, Lebh Shomea, House of Prayer.

Often, while on silent retreat, late in the evening, I would hear a knock on Father Kelly’s door; a persistent knock, finally stirring him from sleep. After a while, you would hear the faucets running. And then, the sound of the Center’s old car, sputtering to life, and heading out the long driveway, headlights off.

One night, I mustered the courage to ask, “Are they refugees, Father? The people who come in the night?”

“Oh, my child,” he replied, “I never ask them. I give them a drink of water, a place to bathe, and a ride to the bus station; such small mercies to offer a child of God.”

The little ones of God had literally worn a path through the marsh grass straight to Father Kelly’s door.

Never underestimate the power of what lingers in a sanctuary: for sanctuaries serve as birthing places, houses of continual and continuing nativity. The one who comes to us, the one who comes as child, born in Bethlehem’s stable, comes to give us work to do.

In the words of Howard Thurman:

When the song of the angels is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone
When kings and princes are home
When the shepherds are back with their flocks
The work of Christmas begins
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among the people
To make music in the heart.

These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell

Resources

Poetry of Howard Thurman, Words for Silence.

“Hidden in Ordinary Life,” Gregory Fruehwirth, OJN, Paraclete Press.

Additional Resources: