Let us pray: Holy and loving God, through your apostles you have taught us that it is the poor and humble in spirit who is indeed blessed in your kingdom. Help us to remember that all we have belongs to you. As we gather with our families later in the week to partake in scrumptious feasts, help us to be mindful of those who food insecure—unsure of when and from where the next meal will come. As we gather in warm homes and create another year of memories and celebrate new and old traditions, let us be mindful of the widow, the orphan, and alien among us who, like every person, seeks a place to belong and a community in which s/he can contribute. O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing and acceptable to you. For you, O LORD, are my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
Mary McLeod Bethune was a fascinating Christian woman! She had many older brothers and sisters, most of whom were born into slavery—yet as an adult, Bethune was considered a close friend by the extraordinarily wealthy Eleanor Roosevelt. Bethune was a faithful Methodist, who supported the union of the Southern and Northern churches, yet she voted against the union when segregating Black Methodists in their own jurisdiction was included as a “compromise” measure. The Central Jurisdiction in the Methodist Church was created over the protests of Black Methodists, with the result that the Methodist Church was segregated into the late 1960s. My own home church in San Antonio was one of the first Methodist churches to be integrated.
Bethune was the only one in her family to receive a formal education, and she became president of the college she founded. She salvaged and repurposed items that others threw away, considering money the least important resource in her work—and yet she solicited funding from some of the wealthiest Americans in her day.
The author of the letter of James is likely writing to an audience within the first generation of people after the death and resurrection of Christ. Based on some of the clues from the letter, scholars estimate that the first readers of this letter are or perceive themselves to be among “the poor” who are called into God’s kingdom and are persecuted and oppressed by the rich. Although James is written to a first generation audience, this letter speaks to people of every generation in Christianity. First, it is uncompromising in its clear rejection of the “world,” and consistently seeks to understand reality as measured by God. Second, because its teaching is rooted less in the study and understanding of Christ and more in a practical way to understand God, James is one of the most ecumenical writings in the New Testament, speaking both to those who confess Jesus as Lord and to those who do not confess Jesus as Lord but who share the faith of Abraham. Lastly, it is this New Testament writing that most clearly yields a social ethics grounded in the perception of the world as created and gifted by God.
Today’s passage reflects both the first point of rejecting the world and the third point understanding and believing that the world was created and gifted to us by God. The author exhorts the audience not to play favorites. We have probably experienced playing favorites in our lives. As an elementary school student, I remember classmates choosing their friends as the quiet kids who got to go outside and play while the less popular kids like me were reported to be talking (even if we were not) and had to sit inside and write “I will not talk in the halls” in cursive 100 times. Children ask their parents and/or their teachers “Who is your favorite child?” “You are my favorite daughter or son,” a wise mother with only one of each child would truthfully answer. And how about in church? Where do we witness favorites being played? In the last Roman Catholic congregation I worshiped in, the favored people included the “20% who supported 80% of the church’s expenses—a fact we were reminded of every week, during every. Single. Homily. As a pastor, names are dropped during meetings. “Things are just not the same since Mr. So and So died.” He was such a generous giver. “What happened to Mr. and Mrs. So and So? When they left, so did their generous gifts of money.” We, the church, fall victim to equating one’s financial offering with one’s winning personality, so that the one who gives the most money is often coincidently among the—if not the—most popular person. The dangers, of course of regarding people by the amount they give is 1) the person is going to die, and with the person, likely their gifts 2) we negate all of the other gifts that people offer in love and discourage the larger population to offer anything to the church at all.
Last week, we talked about St. Francis of Assissi’s approach—to just give up on money all together! But, Mary McLeod Bethune took a different approach: give people the opportunity to financially support a ministry without giving them control over the ministry. In fact, she took this a step further. She didn’t simply keep givers in their place, refusing any gift with strings attached. Instead, she used her relationships to talk about what things she was needing in order for the ministry to come to fruition among people who had the means to help.
Mary’s authority and the authority which she sought out in others was not an inherited status or position, but Mary had and Mary sought out in others—moral authority. Bethune did not show partiality to one group of people over another. She enjoyed teaching and spending time with poor black children, fearlessly faced white opponents and even converted some opponents with her loving welcome). She was as comfortable with children and opponents as she was spending time with the First Lady and president of the United States. Bethune was undaunted by obstacles, but instead did what was right, regardless of who stood in her way—even when the Ku Klux Klan tried to stop her from registering black voters in Florida in the 1920s.
In our recent mid-term elections, I was surprised by the number of politicians who made it a point to say that the money raised in their campaign was not donated by a specific Political Action Committee or by lobbyists working for a specific cause. Why is this significant? Because when we accept gifts, either for our political campaigns or for our church, from a person with a specific goal in mind, we find ourselves in a situation to focus on the end result of the gift instead of God’s ability to equip us all to offer gifts for the sake of the mission of the church. Today, we will be consecrating the pledge cards we sent home last week. Please hear me when I say that the amount you pledge, the percentage you choose to give has no bearing on how beloved you are in the kingdom of God or in this community of faith. Each gift, given in faith, is a fragrant offering to God, and each person in this faith community is a sacred person of worth. Never let anyone convince you, otherwise. It is not the size of your gift that makes you holy; it is that you have been created and known by God since the time of your conception that makes you holy and gives you worth.
God is the ultimate authority, and God’s delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner; but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those whose hope in [God’s] steadfast love (Psalm 147:10-11 [NRSV]). Mary McLeod Bethune’s genius was in recognizing God as the only authority. People could see that they were on a level playing field with her: their money, their threats, their power, their status, or their lack of status in society were all meaningless to her. What was meaningful was whether they supported her in her stand for God’s vision of justice and inclusion, or if they stood against that vision.
How we offer our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and through all of these, our witness conveys to others what the priorities are in our lives. The gifts we offer to God and to the church do not need to be extravagant in order to be counted, but rather each gift we offer is extravagant because of the One from whom all of our gifts and resources come and to whom we return a portion in love, adoration, worship, and praise. May God receive our collective pledge and bless it in order that we might go forth from here to bless others in the name of Jesus Christ, our risen Lord. AMEN.