Mary McLeod Bethune was a fascinating Christian! She had many older brothers and sisters, most of whom were born into slavery – yet as an adult, Bethune was considered a close fried 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 union when segregating black Methodists in their own jurisdiction was included as a “compromise” measure. (The Central Jurisdiction, sadly, was created over the protests of Black Methodists, with the result that the Methodist church was segregated into the late 1960s.) She was the only one in her family to receive a formal education, and she became the president of a college that she herself had 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 of her day.
In the selected Scripture, James describes an ailment all too common in churches – status infatuation. If you have not seen this in the church you serve, then you likely saw it in your last church, or in the church in which you grew up: some contingent within the congregation begins to regard this or that person as particularly important because of some sum of money that he or she has given to the church. This is a danger in a stewardship campaign – or a building campaign, or when there is a large bequest – money can be a source of division in a church.
In Francis of Assisi --The Way of Poverty, we talked about Francis’s approach – just give up on money altogether! 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 it a step further. Bethune didn’t simply keep givers in their place, refusing gifts with strings attached – she used the relationships she formed with the rich and powerful to put her words in their ears.
Mary McLeod Bethune’s authority was not an inherited status or a position that she bought with money; instead, she had moral authority. She did not show partiality to one group over another. She enjoyed teaching and spending time with poor black children, fearlessly faced white opponents (and sometimes converted them through loving welcome), and confidently walked into the White House to advise the President and First Lady. She was undaunted by obstacles, but did what was right, regardless of who disagreed or stood in her way – even if it was the KKK trying to stop her from registering black voters in Florida in the 1920s.
Looking at the James passage… Are there certain individuals honored above others in the congregation? Oftentimes, this sort of partiality is a systemic problem, best addressed by modeling studied disinterest in who gave what, and perhaps raising a dissenting voice in committee meetings. But that does not mean that you cannot talk about it in a sermon. Obviously, you do not want to shame anyone in the congregation! You cannot preach, “Let’s stop acting like Old Mrs. So-and-so is such a big deal just because she paid for our fellowship hall!” So how can you preach about money, influence, and impartiality in the context of the stewardship campaign?
One way might be to approach the problem by analogy. Talking about Bethune’s relationship with her donors, you might contrast that with some politicians on the state or federal level, and the influence that donors and lobbyists have on them. (If you go this route, be careful to take examples from both parties!) Another approach could be to speak in general terms, assuring the congregation that the amount (or percentage) they give will not have any impact on their access to your office, for good or ill.
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 who hope in his steadfast love. “
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 who hope in his steadfast love. “ (Psalm 147:10-11, NRSV) As the King James Version has Peter say in Acts 10:34, “God is no respecter of persons.” Mary McLeod Bethune’s genius was in recognizing God as the only authority. She too, was “no respecter of persons.” In a sense, her moral authority was borrowed from God. People could see that they were on a level playing field with her – their money, their threats, their power, their status (or 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 instead they stood against that vision.
In what ways does your congregation already live into this borrowed moral authority – this steadfastness in pursuing God’s aims? In what ways do they fall short of this goal? And how can the insight of the Letter of James and the example of the life of Mary McLeod Bethune inspire your congregation to see the funding of the church’s ministries in a new light?
Further preparation notes:
- If you are celebrating Communion this Sunday, you might expand upon the words in the great Thanksgiving, “He ate with sinners.” Jesus ate with rich and poor, with religious officials and prostitutes, with fishermen and tax collectors – sinners all. Because we are all sinners – and we are all invited to “The Gospel Feast” – Jesus demonstrated throughout his life, perhaps especially in whom he ate with, that he was “no respecter of persons.”
- If you use visual aids in your service, Wikimedia Commons has several free images of Mary McLeod Bethune. See http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Mary_McLeod_Bethune
- Children will probably best relate to Mary McLeod Bethune being a teacher. Invite them to share stories with you of their own teachers. Teachers’ very important job is to teach EVERY child they are given to teach, loving and working on behalf of each child equally.
- Possible hymns include:
Lord, You Give the Great Commission (United Methodist Hymnal, 584)
Freely, Freely (United Methodist Hymnal, 389)
The Summons (The Faith We Sing, 2130)
More Like You (The Faith We Sing, 2167)
Welcome (Worship & Song, 3152)
Portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune is in the public domain. It is by Photographer Carl Van Vechten, 1880-1964.T he Carl Van Vechten estate has asked that use of Van Vechten's photographs "preserve the integrity" of his work; i.e, that photographs not be colorized or cropped, and that proper credit is given to the photographer.
Sarah McGiverin is a writer, worship consultant, and public speaker.