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English Law Provided a Way for Sinners to Find Refuge

During the Middle Ages English law provided a way for "sinners" to find refuge. When a criminal or debtor wanted to flee to safety, he would travel to the famous Durham Cathedral and plead for asylum. The runaway banged on the cathedral's north door, using the enormous bronze sanctuary knocker …. Then the fugitive desperately clung to the knocker's ring, waiting for someone to usher him in and toll the church bell to notify Durham's citizens that a felon sought sanctuary. (At night, two men waited in a room above the north door, looking for sanctuary seekers arriving in the dark.)

Once inside, the criminal confessed his crime to a priest, surrendered his weapons, paid a nominal fee and donned a black gown. He lived in a railed-off alcove above the southwest tower, and within thirty-seven days decided whether to stand trial or leave the country. If a criminal chose to "quit the kingdom," the law afforded him nine days to exit England's borders, traveling solely on the king's highways. For the journey, he wore nothing on his head and a long white robe. He carried only a wooden cross.

For centuries, this sanctuary principle remained the same: if you've committed a horrible crime, run to the church for protection. During this anxious journey, signs of the cross often pointed the way. Stone crosses inscribed with the word Sancturarium stood as signposts along the highways, leading sinners to their haven ….

This practice blessed the repentant offenders with forgiveness and a clean start. Today, it's difficult for us to condone this protection. Offering asylum to criminals? Their presence taints a community, a country. They should be punished. We do not like such lavish compassion.

Thankfully, God's love flows deeper and wider than we can imagine. So does his mercy. Early medieval sanctuary laws can only faintly reflect God's endless patience. Whatever sin we commit, however many times we fail, he forgives us. God waits in the night of our souls, swinging open his broad door of grace when we flee to him and repent. He accepts us however we arrive.

Possible Preaching Angle:

"During the medieval sanctuary process, signs of the cross accompanied sinners in and out of asylum, stepping them toward an altered life. Today, Christ's cross bears the same promise of forgiveness, helping us find refuge in God's grace. Even more, God doesn't banish us from his kingdom or force us to stand trial. When we slip back into life, spiritually we are totally free. Wearing robes of white, carrying the sign of the cross—the mark of the King's forgiveness—we can begin again."

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