The term “sanctuary” comes from the Latin word for “holy,” and in the space of a church it refers to the area around the altar that is, theologically, closest to God’s presence. In the medieval era, “sanctuary” also came to be associated with protection and safety, as people sought the sanctuary of the church when fleeing violence or danger. Church was where you sought out refuge in a dangerous world, and its openness at all times was a manifestation of its mission to be the living Body of Christ.
You may recall about five years ago a homeless man entered the office of an Episcopal church in Maryland and killed the priest and church administrator. He had regularly received aid from this church’s food pantry, but he was mentally unstable, had easy access to a gun, and committed a terrible act of deadly violence. I clearly remember the conversation my Parish Administrator and I had about safety and vulnerability following this attack, and some churches around the country determined to no longer remain open and unlocked, even during operating hours.
These two ideas, sanctuary and vulnerability, are in tension once again in the wake of the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs. In addition to praying for the victims, the gunman, and all affected, we are considering big questions. How should people of faith and goodwill respond to such tragedies? How should the church act in light of these horrors? How then are we to live?
Much as in 2012, and again after the 2015 shooting in Charleston, the temptation to escalate our methods of safety and protection will be strong. There will be some who encourage churches to arm themselves and create defense teams to protect against assailants. Those suggestions are balanced against the witness and teaching of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who consistently challenges us to look to something greater than force of arms for safety and peace. When we look to weapons to give us a sense of security, we experience a false trust. Which is why the signs at each of our parking lot entrances will remain up, exerting our legal right to prohibit firearms by all persons entering our campus. We at Transfiguration will not be ruled by fear. We will continue our ministry of welcoming and hospitality, being open to visitors and the stranger. We will continue our ministry of peace, even in a world of violence.
Yet we can be wise as serpents, even as we are innocent as doves (Matt 10:16). Our Vestry has developed a set of emergency procedures that guide us in the face of all sorts of situations, including medical emergencies, natural disasters, and violent attacks. We are and will be working with key leaders such as ushers, Sunday School teachers, and the whole staff to prepare to implement these measures if and when the time arises. We will also contract with specialists to train the staff and other leaders about what to do in crisis situations. Furthermore, the Vestry is considering what additional steps we could take to enhance our preparedness for emergency situations, including the contracting of an off-duty law enforcement officer to be present at all weekend services.
I share all this with you so you know that we take the violent reality of our age seriously, even as we strive to resist the downward pull of fear. Jesus calls us again and again to not be afraid, and his words resonate deeply in this fearful time we’re living in. We must continue to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to pray that we will bear the fruits of the Spirit by our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). By God’s grace, and by holding fast to the eternal ways of Jesus, we will overcome evil with good and navigate whatever assails us.