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The Gifts We Bring

The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

The Gifts We Bring
February 9, 2019
The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, West Newton , MA

Exodus 25.1-19

25The Lord said to Moses: 2Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receive the offering for me. 3This is the offering that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, 4blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine linen, goats’ hair, 5tanned rams’ skins, fine leather, acacia wood, 6oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing-oil and for the fragrant incense,7onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breastpiece.8And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.9In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.

10 They shall make an ark of acacia wood; it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. 11You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make a moulding of gold upon it all round. 12You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on one side of it, and two rings on the other side. 13You shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 14And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, by which to carry the ark. 15The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. 16You shall put into the ark the covenant that I shall give you. 17 Then you shall make a mercy-seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its width. 18You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy-seat. 19Make one cherub at one end, and one cherub at the other; of one piece with the mercy-seat you shall make the cherubim at its two ends.

The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved…..8And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.


Good morning! I am so honored and delighted to be with you this morning. Thank you for the invitation. I have such respect for your dear rabbis and the work of your beloved community. See so many friends here this morning. None of whom I had laid eyes on two years ago today. But all of whom I now consider friends who have taught me, and guided me, and supported me, and inspired me and welcomed me here this morning. I am verklempt beyond words to have been asked to speak with you here and now.

And I am further delighted to be talking with you in the context of today’s reading from Exodus – the Terumah. The gifts that are offered for the creation of a sanctuary where God dwells among us. A text that speaks explicitly about the tangible intersection between your community of faith and mine: about the offering of our mutual gifts in service to a radical contemporary sanctuary where God surely and palpably dwells in our midst.

Tell the people to bring Me gifts; ….from every person whose heart is so moved…..8And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.

It’s that last bit that makes this exhortation a holy endeavor and not just another project. The part about God’s desire to dwell not in the structure of sanctuary, but in the ones who are building it. Have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them. As Toba said earlier. God does not intend to dwell in the sanctuary, but in the gathered community that is there.And so this text seems tailor made for our mutual work together as the Newton Sanctuary and Solidarity Collaborative.

I have to say that this reflection in the context of Exodus 25 required quite a bit of foundational preparation for me. Because this chapter of Exodus is never read in the common lectionary that designates the scriptural readings for most mainline Christian churches. Chapter 25 in The Book of Exodus never surfaces in any mainline church on any Sunday morning or feast day. Never. We hear from the Hebrew Scriptures every week. But never from this particular section.

I suspect it is for the same reason that we rarely hear from the books of Leviticus or Deuteronomy.Because they are full of particularities. Specifications. Instructions that detail exactly howlife is to be orchestrated. Rules for living. Laws for purity. Directions for….almost every facet of life. The howof living as a people of God.

And it’s not that Christians can’t follow a….recipe (although that is possible). But Christians have a different set of criteria for living intentionally in the presence of God. And I think I understand that divergence with a new clarity since I attended services for Yom Kippur last September, a first-time experience for me. And one that was long overdue.

Such invitations have been a treasure trove of unexpected gifts from our sanctuary work together. The opportunity to experience, to participate in, some of the touchstones of your faith tradition, like being here this morning.

And participating in Yom Kippur is at the top of my list of thanksgivings for our shared ministry. As you well know, it is the holiest day of your year. But it could not be further in character from the holiest day in the Christian year, the Feast of the Resurrection, a.k.a. Easter. For Christians, Easter is a day of everlasting joy. It is the day when we revel in God’s promise of everlasting life to us. It is a promise that we take on faith. The promise that death has been defeated by God. On our holiest day of the year: Joyful is the descriptor. Invincible is the hashtag. Faith is the currency.

But the holiest day for you is a day of remembering sin and brokenness and of asking for forgiveness that you might do better next year. A day when the faithful bow before God and confess that we have not lived up to God’s intention or creativity or expectation. On the holiest day of the Jewish year: Prayer is the descriptor. Remembering is the hashtag. Repentance is the currency.

The holiest day of the Christian year hangs on our belief in God’s promise, and answers the question: What has God done for me? The holiest day of the Jewish year hangs on repentance, and answers the question: What can I do for God? The holiest day in the Jewish calendar is not grounded in God’s promise to us, but in our promise to God.

That is not say that Christians do not have a day dedicated to repentance and forgiveness. We do. But it is not our holiest day. It is Ash Wednesday, the mid-week-holy-day that begins of the season of Lent and leads straight on to the real Holy Week.

And it is not to say that Christians do not value good works. We do. But we come at those works from a different angle. And this understanding of these fundamental differences in the character of our holiest observances has helped to explain for me how our sanctuary collaborative got off the ground.

The NSSC was not founded by its host, the Parish of St. Paul. It was founded by the preponderance of gifts that were offered by you, and by other Jewish partners, before we had even begun to entertain the possibility of offering our own gifts, our own sacred space. The first gifts that built God’s sanctuary among us came from the incredible broad and deep support of the several Jewish communities that provided both the commitment and the en-couragment (in the truest sense of that word, as in to put heart into each other, en-couragement). You en-couraged St. Paul’s to say yes; to set aside our sacred space for God’s sanctuary.

The initial conversations were between a few of us from St. Paul’s and a parish-hall filled with soon-to-be level II partners. After months of those conversations with your community and Temple Sinai and Temple Beth Zion and the Newton Centre Minyan and Hebrew College and the Boston Workman’s Circle our lone Christian church, our Episcopal Parish of St. Paul felt enough sacred support to offer up our gift of sacred space.

On June 4th2017 we resolved to serve as a physical sanctuary for at least the next two years. And it was not because immigration had been a focus of our ministry or mission, because it had not. Our congregation was primarily focused on Creation Care, and LGBTQ dignity, and feeding the hungry – we were among the founders of the Centre Street Food Pantry. But after the 2016 election, we had a congregation full of distressed folks who no longer felt like we belonged in this country. Like our undocumented neighbors, we too, felt like aliens in a strange land. And we craved something concrete to do.

Our various outreach programs were just not enough. And unlike you, we had no dedicated tikkun olam initiative that was already at work mending the wider world. But what we did have to offer was a great big bundle of sacred space. And for those undocumented children of God seeking sanctuary, only sacred space would do.

Ours was largely unused for most of the week. And it was zoned with a newly renovated heating system that, for the first time in our history, allowed a modular use of our building. Is that God at work in the background or what!? Our space was: Empty. Sacred. And zoned for climate control. The perfect sanctuary.

And so after months of prayerful discernment, our parish offered up its space to be a new sort of dwelling place for God…..a sanctuary that has ultimately been less about the refuge provided by the physical space and more about the mutuality of the work that is happening there.

After over a year now of live sanctuary, as our collaborative becomes even more amazingly adept at navigating our challenges, our parish is realizing that we may have had some misunderstanding regarding the fullness of the concept of sanctuary. As many of you know, our community voted almost unanimously to offer our space to this endeavor. That is an amazing fact. But it counted only votes, not hearts.

Because we now see that part of our initial unity around sanctuary seems to have resulted from some different expectations of what “sanctuary” meant. That is to say we did not all have the same understanding of what we were talking about. Despite our attempts to plumb the many meanings of the term before we levied a final vote, sanctuary was clearly heard differently by different folks.

It reminds me of a story.

Kevin had shingles.

He walked into the doctor’s office and told the receptionist that he had ‘Shingles.’

So she wrote down his name, address, medical insurance number and told him to have a seat.

Fifteen minutes later a nurse’s aide came out and asked Kevin what he had…

Kevin said, ‘Shingles.’

So she wrote down his height, weight, a complete medical history and told Kevin to wait in the examining room.

A half hour later a nurse came in and asked Kevin what he had.

Kevin said, ‘Shingles..’

So the nurse gave Kevin a blood test, a blood pressure test, an electrocardiogram, and told Kevin to take off all his clothes and wait for the doctor.

An hour later the doctor came in and found Kevin sitting patiently in the nude and asked Kevin what he had.

Kevin said, ‘Shingles.’

The doctor looked him up and down and asked, ‘Where are they?’

Kevin said, ‘Outside on the truck. Where do you want me to unload ’em??’

Sanctuary. We now seem to be a community that is populated by some who have worked their way through the protocols and await the next step of the process, and others who just want to unload the truck and move on.

For some it was just going to be the use of our space by what they perceived would be an outside collaborative for a finite period of time – 2 years is the length of our community resolution. But for others, for me, and for what I think is the majority of our community sanctuary was going to transform our way of being church.

And it has indeed been a seismic shift. We have moved from a small village church grounded in programming and dedicated to the expansion of our own ranks (like the church that I grew up in) to an expanding intentional community that includes an interfaith dimension and is dedicated to changing the way we are in the world. Sanctuary as just another program versus sanctuary as an existential transformation of identity and purpose. We still have some discerning to do!

The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved…..8And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.

Even for those of us who expected sanctuary to be transformative, our understanding of its paradigm and purpose has evolved with time and with the work. I can only speak for myself, but in the beginning, I expected that our small endeavor was part of the larger movement to change the inequity and injustice of the national immigration system. The work and its publicity that we expected to be forth coming would raise awareness and propel us to take a stand in a way that would help to change not just hearts and minds, but laws and institutions. We were to be a small flame igniting a bigger fire.

But I have come to understand this work to be so much holier than that. We are changing so much more than laws and protocols. We are changing the way the world works and the way we work together in the world. And so we are so much more than advocates or a social justice initiative. We are in fact a thriving change agent for nothing less than the respect of human dignity.

I will just speak for myself. The sort of work that we do as a sanctuary is the antithesis of the work that we are wired to do, especially as people of privilege and relative power. We are used to having far more information about where our gifts of time and energy are going than we have with sanctuary. We are far more comfortable when we know the lay of the land and that we can control the variables and at least attempt to fix what we view as…not-best-practices. And yet every minute of every day for the last 13 months, two unsung companions have been present in our church to keep watch and to keep company with a family that many of them have never even laid eyes on, and never will. A family about whom they have very little information, and will never have more. Understanding that the privacy and agency of this unknown family who might be choosing things that we might not choose is more important than anything else. And we will abide.

Speaking just for myself, this work itself is true sanctuary. For those of us who have never had the opportunity to relinquish our privilege quite so powerfully this work is excruciatingly life-giving.

As you might expect, folks are forever asking why we are devoting so many resources, so much time, such energy and such precious bandwidth to the care and companionship of one small family. Over 500 volunteers have served companion shifts over the last year. We have raised over $30,000 to support the family and education of the kids. And we have accepted countless gifts of all shapes and sizes in the building of this small dwelling place for our undocumented family unit. All of that for just one family?

And I remember the moment when my answer to that question was formed in my own heart. The ethical answer is that we would not ask that question if it were our own family. But the theological answer is a bit more fundamental.

It was 2007. And I had just accepted the job as the Executive Director of the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry (RCFM). It was at a critical time in the same-sex-marriage movement here in Massachusetts. The legislature was deciding whether to put that civil right to a public vote. I had been approached about the job at RCFM before, and had dismissed it on several occasions for a whole host of reasons. I had the corporate experience necessary to run such an organization, but I was not a “gay rights” activist. Despite my membership in the flock – even as a kid I was more interested in badminton than boys, and believe me, I was not that interested in badminton – I had never been all that committed to the gay community as a political entity, and had never lent my time or talent to that particular agenda. I had always been more concerned with the “bigger” fish of systemic evil like world poverty and the health of the planet and a spectrum of more, as I saw them, weighty and universal injustices. But, for some reason, in May of 2007, the President of the Board who was and is a dear friend and mentor asked me with a more…..determined, shall we say, demeanor than ever before. And so I caved in and I took the job.

That week, my mother (who lived in Peoria, Illinois) called to congratulate me – or maybe I called her to congratulate me…. whatever, but she said, “Darlin’, good for you. That’s just great. (looooong pause) Gay people should have the same rights as straight people. But tell me again why you want to spend your time on this…I mean, it’s important, but what about all the bigger problems facing the world? What about the war? What about global warming? What about world hunger? Aren’t there bigger problems to spend your life fixing?”

I was not ready to defend my decision. I was only ready to accept congratulations. I had not done any piece of the heavy theological lifting, at least consciously. But I heard myself respond without hesitation. The answer, seemingly etched on my very heart, flowed from my lips, as my granddaddy would have said, as swiftly as goose poop flows through a tin horn:

“No!” I almost shouted. “There is not one thing that is more important. There is not one problem that is bigger than this one. There is not one priority that is more necessary than supporting and ensuring the dignity of all of God’s creation. The fight to protect equal marriage is not about raising the gay community to the status quo, it’s about broadening the horizons of our collective imagination. [Which I think is what we are doing with sanctuary] We are forging new frontiers of hope and expectation for the whole of humanity! [Again, just what we are doing with sanctuary] We are doing nothing less than revisioning the world! This is about the way we value and relate to each other as human beings.”

I remember stopping to take a breath. And there was another looooooong pause. And my mother said: “Oh. So how are the dogs?”

I feel the same passion about our intensive care and constant companioning of one small family in the face of the much larger and more wide-ranging behemoth that is our national immigration system. Separating children from parents at the border. Detaining and deporting human beings in inhumane ways. Denying services and opportunities and basic human rights on mass based on country of origin. These are horrific travesties that indeed need to be addressed and changed, and now.

But the work that we are doing together in our small sanctuary is bigger than all of that. It is about the way God dwells among us, and the way we dwell with God. It is about changing the paradigm of life together in a world that is uneven and unforgiving for those who ride on the margins, and more than enough good fortune for we who do not. And it is about our willingness to do that work without any fanfare; under the radar. When no one is watching. No one, but God.

In her book The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg quotes Rashi on the first verses in Exodus 25: “Let them make Me a housefor holiness – that is, not a sacred object, but a space in which holiness is potential”[1]She continues, “The definition of sanctuary, therefore, is the space at its center.”

Have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.

Despite the fabulous work that our communities are doing together, and I could not be more grateful for all that you have contributed, the real abundance of dignity and grace in our collaborative resides in our family. The sanctuary that is being built rests on the foundation of their offering, not ours. By trusting us to be a sanctuary for them, they have invited us to the height of spiritual integrity by requiring that we put our most valuable resource on the line for the other; our privilege. And for my parish, that includes our sense of ownership of our church. Our notion that we are the magnanimous ones for offering our property, and that we are entitled to make that decision.

Our welcome of this family has required that we reflect on our deepest values. Do we really believe that we are accountable for our welcome of the stranger? We say we do. But do we have the integrity to live into that claim? Because true welcome requires a release of ownership. And so although our privilege tells us that our space is ours to manage and determine, our faith tells us that we are only stewards of that space. Because if our space is as sacred as we claim, it belongs not to us, but to God. And if it belongs to God, then our family, who has made it a sanctuary, is equally to it entitled.

As I read the detailed protocols for material use and construction of the tabernacle in today’s reading – it immediately reminded me of the many moving parts of our sanctuary collaborative. Of the many gifts that have been so generously and freely offered so that God might dwell among us. But as we have grown together in the work that we share, it has become ever-more clear that the sanctuary that we are building is not what we are bringing or even what we are providing, but rather it is the work that we are sharing. In the very substance of the work itself is the dwelling place of God.

And the people said: amen.

© February, 2019, The Reverend Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

[1]Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus(New York, NY: Doubleday, 2001) 331.


Thu, March 23 2023 1 Nisan 5783