We have heard from Paul’s letter to the Galatians for several Sundays. While the exact date of the letter is not given, scholars have supposed it to have been composed in the late 40’s or early 50’s. In the middle of the first century the early Christian movement was still tied to Judaism, though many of the new converts were gentiles. Paul’s travels to spread the gospel meant that most of those he evangelized were not Jews. As you remember one of the early conflicts within the developing church had to do with how to handle these Gentile believers. Would they be required to follow Jewish law or not? In this letter to the Galatians, Paul gives his view of the controversy, which was formed by the Gentiles among whom he preached. Paul does not do this in a theoretical way but rather in answer for actual people, actual places and actual situations. In an earlier passage from this letter, Paul explains that he understands that Peter and James are the ones bringing the gospel to the Jews, but that he, Paul, has been entrusted with the mission to the Gentiles. As his missionary work continued he became even stronger in his views supporting that Gentile Christians do not need to follow Jewish law and customs. Paul firmly believed that this is not a condition for their belief in the risen Lord. And as we know that is the position that eventually won out.
Last week we heard the much quoted verse from Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, male or female, all are one in Christ Jesus.” This is the core of Paul’s belief, all are one. In today’s passage Paul’s strong remarks are a reminder that in the arguments regarding Jewish law, Jesus’ basic commandment has gotten overlooked. He says, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery… For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is our core identity as children of God. Through Jesus Christ we are members in community with one another. And that community is formed and based on love, God’s love for us and our reflection of that same love to others. In this passage Paul uses the word “flesh” as short hand for self-centered living and he gives a list of the results of that. He also names the opposite of the flesh and lists the results of God-centered living, a life of loving service for the benefit of others.
In theory it seems simple, but of course in living it out, it is not always that way. Whenever we are in community with others there will occasionally be conflict. It is how that conflict is discussed and resolved that matters. Putting our love of others ahead of the argument takes practice!
This morning I want to highlight a particular project that Emmanuel will be supporting over the next month and that is Magdalene St. Louis. Named after the first witness to the resurrection, this organization is based on mercy and love, found and practiced in community. So I am going to do something that I do not often do, and use the remainder of my time this morning telling you about this group.
Each year the Diocese of Springfield Episcopal Church Women chooses an outreach and encourages everyone to donate to that organization at some point in the year. Emmanuel has participated in most of these efforts, supporting outreach projects such as shallow wells, mosquito netting, solar cookers, school dormitories for girls, and more. Typically we here have done that during Lent. This year, with Easter being early, that season came at the same time we were focused on the empty tomb’s Mega Work-A-Thon. And so the vestry thought it better to select a different time of the year to support the Diocesan ECW outreach. The month of July seemed appropriate as Saint Mary Magdalene is remembered on the church calendar on July 22.
Since last fall’s synod when it was announced that Magdalene St. Louis would be the focus for 2016, I have been reading about this group and I am more impressed with them with each new thing I learn. Magdalene St. Louis is patterned after the Magdalene community in Nashville, Tennessee. The house in St. Louis is newly opened, though raising money and organizing has been going on for four years. Taking the lead in getting this going in St. Louis was Christ Church Cathedral, the Episcopal Cathedral, as well as an interfaith alliance. The founder of the original program in Nashville, begun in 1997, is an Episcopal priest, the Reverend Becca Stevens. There are also Magdalene programs in New Orleans and Atlanta.
None of these houses receive government funding; instead they are supported by donations and, in the case of Nashville, through money raised at the Thistle Farm, a business run by residents and graduates of Magdalene. A thistle is one of the symbols of the program, showing something strong and beautiful in the middle of weeds.
One thing I learned from my reading is that St. Louis is one of the top ten places for human trafficking in the U.S. All of the women in the Magdalene programs have lived on the street, supporting themselves as best they can. Most are addicts and all have suffered abuse and violence some beginning as young as age 14. When they enter the program they are given two years of free housing, medical and dental care, mental health care, opportunities for spiritual and personal growth, access to education and vocational training and perhaps most important, a compassionate and disciplined community of support.
The statistics of success from the house in Nashville are very impressive. For those who stay a minimum of six months in the program there is a 75 percent rate of continued success. (For most other recovery options the percentage is much less.)
When a woman enters Magdalene the first thing she receives is a key to the house. Only residents have a key; even employees have to ring the doorbell to enter. It is the residents’ home and the key represents that security for them. Often women will comment that it is the first key they have ever had for their own. So, the other symbol of the program is a key. Thistle and key.
Each woman has her own room with a comfortable bed and a place to keep her things. For the first week a woman is in the house she rests and eats good, nutritious food. Most have not slept in a bed for many weeks or even years. After that, they enter a 90 day intensive period where they attend 12 step groups, counseling sessions and as needed, other treatment options.
At the end of that time they start working towards individual goals, participating in an educational program or beginning a job. In Nashville often they will work at the Thistle farm which produces natural cosmetics, creams and balms. You can order these products on-line and they are sold in specialty shops in the Nashville area. It is a thriving business.
Each day the women who live in the house begin with a group meeting, called the Circle. They offer support and guidance to each other as well as keep each other accountable to the principles of the house. One of the books I read, Find your Way Home, Words for the Street, Wisdom from the Heart, outlines these principles. It was written by the Women of Magdalene, each taking one of 24 principles to highlight.
The first principle is “Come together” basically stating that they are stronger as a community than alone. The woman speaking about this principle said, “When I came to Magdalene they gave me a key to the house. I kissed the floor because I knew that someone believed in me. I felt love for the first time in my life and wondered what kind of people were in this place. It made me tingle all over, from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet.”
Some of the other principles are: proclaim original grace; find your place in the circle; make a small change and see the big difference; let God sort it out; find your way home.
The healing that occurs for these women relies on deep friendship that is long-standing, unconditional, and fostered in and through community. The graduates of the program remain involved either in their jobs or in volunteering to help in the houses.
Two of the other books I can recommend if you want to know more are: Snake Oil, The art of Healing and Truth-Telling by Becca Stevens, which includes her life story as well as how she founded Magdalene and Thistle Farms, and Magdalene House, A Place About Mercy by Sarah VanHooser Suiter. This second book is the culmination of Ms. Suiter’s year-long research into Magdalene which was funded in part by Temple Foundation and Duke University Medical Center. It is a scholarly work that cites many studies of helping communities in other places.
I have been inspired by reading the stories of the women who have come to Magdalene and experienced the healing power of a community of mercy and love. I think that the organization is well worth our support and I am grateful to the ECW for bringing it to our attention. For the next month you may put your coins into the jar on the counter in the Great Hall and/or give a check made out to Emmanuel with Magdalene St. Louis written on the memo line.
I will close with a poem written by one of the graduates of the program:
…because we need other people.
We cannot be our true selves.
Trauma and addiction break
The connections that make us
Whole and healthy.
Joining with others helps
Us rebuild our ability to love
And be loved.
Love is what makes us whole again.
St. Paul knew being a follower of Christ was all about love. He had personally experienced the mercy of Christ. At the center he tells us, “For the whole law can be summed up in a single commandment: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”