Sermon — August 30, 2015 (14th Sunday after Pentecost) — Mary Beth Mills-Curran

Hello, I’m so glad to be here with you this morning. I know a few of you through the work I do at Episcopal City Mission, a few through other work in our diocese, but for those who don’t know me, I’m Mary Beth Mills-Curran. And I’m ECM’s coordinator of church-based ministries and also postulant for the priesthood in this diocese. As part of this multi-year process, every postulant is assigned a mentor through the Commission on Ministry.

In April I had my first meeting with my COM Liaison, as they are called, and he asked if I had ever read the Bible cover to cover. To those of you who, like me, grew up in the Episcopal Church, it will probably not shock you to hear that my answer was ‘no.’ So he suggested that in this year, before I go to seminary, I try reading it straight through and recommended one of these phone apps that helps you go through the Bible in a year. So since April, I’ve been reading through the Bible from beginning to end. At the rate I’m going, I’m probably on track to finish in about a year and a half, because I always miss weekends – so just last week I finished Leviticus.

And MAN. Are there a lot of rules to follow in the Bible. Some rules are truely serious – telling us not to kill one another, and to honor God and our family members. Others are a little less obvious to me – describing the exact dimensions of altars for honoring God and the exact weight of flour needed to make amends for various violations of the rules.

At Episcopal City Mission I think we are more about changing the rules than following them, so the fact that “Following the rules” seems to be a major theme in today’s lessons, presented me with a bit of a challenge. 🙂 But each of these readings offers a slightly different spin on the issue than the one before. This teaches us something about what God is calling us to do – and calling ECM to do.

Rules and following them seems to be at the heart of the Bible. It’s certainly one of the first things some children are taught in Sunday School.

When I was growing up one of the first things I remember talking about in Sunday school was the 10 Commandments. The image of Moses descending the mountain with two stone tablets in hand, ready to share the rules that God had prepared for the Israelites is emblazoned on my memory: flowing robes, luscious beard, one stone tablet raised in each hand. And we he gets to the bottom of the mountain, he finds the community having one big party, already breaking the rules.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that three chapters later, in Deuteronomy, Moses is still talking about following the rules. They can be so hard to abide by! In today’s first lesson we hear him warning the Israelites to give heed to the statutes and ordinances that he had conveyed from God to the community [- but he also celebrates the nearness of God and the justness of his rules.]

Next we heard James’s Epistle, where things are made slightly more complicated. The warning is against being merely “hearers” of God’s word. We must instead be doers. He says it’s not merely enough to hear God’s word, we must also act accordingly.

And in Mark’s Gospel things seem to be turned on their head. The authorities question the adherence  to the rules of Jewish Society of Jesus and his followers and subsequently their purity. But Jesus rejects their insinuation and instead tells the gathered community that purity or defilement comes from within – not from success or failure at following the rules.

One way I could have gone was trying to argue that the Gospel frees us from these earlier requirements to discipline and rule-keeping. Sometimes in the Christian Church people like to draw a line between our religion and Judaism by saying that they were bound by this law and that now through Jesus we are free from the law – from any commandment other than loving God and our Neighbor. Not only does this have a complicated history with regard to anti-semitism, but it’s also not really true that jews were only concerned with the law and christians with love.

Indeed the phrase “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength,” which we think of from the Greatest Commandment shows up first only two chapters later in Deut. 6. Deuteronomy Chapter 10, also focus on changes in the heart rather than external ones.

This tension between doing what we are told is right and doing what we know to be right in our hearts is not a new one – and I don’t actually think it can be resolved. Because I think we need both the rules and the heart.

When I think about how this applies to the work we do at Episcopal City Mission my mind immediately jumps to other type of rules. Not the laws of the Bible, but the laws of our country.

Now, I think that our laws are often very important.

Traffic rules for instance seem pretty important. For us all to stay safe on the road it’s important that we all stay on the right side of the road. It’s important for our own safety that we wear seat belts. I would even say it’s important that we respect the speed limit, although sometimes I find that one a little hard myself. These rules keep the road safe.

But sometimes we all know that there are rules that don’t make sense to us anymore – don’t seem to keep us safe.

I know here at the Church of the Good Shepherd, you have been following the stories of Black Men and Women who have not been kept safe by the rules of our society. Similarly advocates for immigration reform share stories of our our country’s immigration rules are not working for many people – putting lives at risk. There are many many more examples…

I think the multiple perspective on rules in today’s readings have something to teach us about the multiple truths when it comes to how rules operate in our world. Sometimes we draw closer to God through disciplining ourselves to the rules – but sometimes when the rules are causing harm – we are called by God to work for change.

Both in the laws, the legal rules of society, and sometimes in the “rules of the game” so to speak, the unwritten systems that cause society to function in one way or another. Determining where success is possible.

Some of you already know a little bit about Episcopal City Mission, but for those who don’t I want to give you a little back story. ECM was founded in 1844 in the city of Boston. Our “origin story” includes men and women, clergy and lay people, rich and poor. There is even a bit of action and adventure involving a burning church and a late-night rescue! For 100 years or so from the 1840s to the 1940 the people of Episcopal City Mission did amazing amounts of good work for the QUOTE “urban poor and oppressed” in the city of Boston. Summer Rest Homes for working mothers, chaplaincies at all the hospitals and prisons, Tot-lots for the children of poor families, 6 mission parishes, many hungry fed and many poor given clothing.

But after about 100 years, we’d hardly made a dent on poverty in our city. You might say we’d played by the rules.

And finally we decided the rules needed to change. It took a little time, but by 1970 ECM has moved fully into working for structural change in the conditions that lead to poverty. Initially this mostly took the form of supporting Community Development and Affordable Housing work, but now it takes many forms.

We work primarily through three types of partnership.

Our Partnerships with the Wider Community were the core of our work in the 1970s. Affordable Housing continues to be part of ECM’s mission through the building we own which provides nearly 200 units of section 8 housing, and through the organizers we support, working for new affordable housing and fair housing laws in our state. Our largest grant fund, the Burgess Fund is also one of the ways we partner with others in the community. We support community organizers who are working to change the rules of the game – the systems that lead to poverty in Eastern MA.

ECM also has partnerships within the Diocese of Massachusetts, and these two I see as working to change the structures of the church that help us for doing God’s will in the world. In the Diocese we support and partner with several organizations that are working to raise up prophetic leaders who call us to action inside and outside the church. The Leadership Development Initiate and the Life Together Program are two groups doing this sort of work.

Finally we also work with individual parishes who feel called to do God’s work of justice in the world. We support a number of projects each year financially. And we work to connect parishes to community organizations that are working for structural and legal changes to our society.

I think the multiple perspective on rules in today’s readings have something to teach us about the multiple truths when it comes to how rules operate in our world. Deuteronomy reminds us of the wisdom of knowing the rules well and sharing them with those we love. James reminds us that knowledge alone is not enough we must also take action. The Gospel demonstrates a moment in time when the rules began to change and reminds us that the most important thing is honoring God with our hearts.

When in your life have you encountered multiple competing truths when faced with following a rule – either one passed down through your faith, or one that is given to us through our society? When have you felt drawn to acts of civil or spiritual disobedience in the name of a deeper love?

To me, the amazing thing is, when it comes to God at least, breaking the rule for the deeper love seems to be something we are really called to. Sometimes this is even explicit – In Jewish law, the Pikuach Nefesh is the principle that preserving human life overrides nearly every other law. That the law was given for human beings to live by – not to die by.

But other times we find ourselves called to the discipline of obedience. Following the rules because we know a greater good lies inside them – whether that means obeying the rules of the road – or exploring for ourselves the impact of the sometimes challenging and counter-cultural to keep a sabbath for ourselves.

In ECM’s work for justice we and the partners we work with ask ourselves this same question. When do we work for justice within the law – doing things like ensuring that minorities are truly counted during the census and voting districts are fair – and when do work against the laws that do not protect life – more often for us this takes the form of advocacy than breaking the law. Today’s readings offer us a glimpse at how one can faithfully serve God in each of these ways of relating to the rules of our world.


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