Stewardship gets a bad rap these days. So often, when we talk of stewardship in the church we mean it only as “the way we spend our money.” More specifically, we mean that stewardship is “giving money to the church,” and while the gifting of the first fruits of our labors to God is important for the church and for our own spiritual wellness, the reality is that we are called to be stewards not only of our money, but of all the gifts that God has given us: the gift of speech, the gift of compassion, the gift of intellect, the gift of prayer, even the very gift of life – the list goes on and on. This call to be good stewards of all that God has entrusted to our care is made abundantly clear in the first letter of Peter; a letter written to encourage the fledgling church in Asia Minor in the face of persecution. For a church that was still very much without a structure, this letter would serve as an important reminder to hold fast to the faith. In the short passage we heard read this afternoon, the letter was also intended to encourage the followers of Jesus to be good stewards of their gifts for the up-building of the kingdom.
“Serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies…” Throughout generations, these words have encouraged disciples of Jesus to be steadfast in their ministry despite ongoing hardship, which is why they were selected as the New Testament lesson on this day that the Episcopal Church sets aside to remember four strong women who were unafraid to use the gifts that God had given them despite societal pressure and persecution. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Jenks Bloomer, both members of Trinity Episcopal Church in Seneca Falls, New York dedicated their lives to the rights of women in the late 19th century.
Stanton used her gift of language to write a commentary on the Greek New Testament, focusing on the way in which certain passages of Paul were used to keep women from ordained ministry. Bloomer used her ability to write to engage in newspaper and pamphlet debates with members of the clergy over dress codes which kept women subordinate and put them in real physical danger. She argued that “The same Power that brought the slave out of bondage will, in his own good time and way, bring about the emancipation of women, and make her equal in power and dominion that she was in the beginning.” Stanton and Bloomer, both white women, used their gifts to bring about social change for women, which ultimately led in 1920 to 19th Amendment and the right to vote. Sojourner Truth and Harriet Ross Tubman, both black women, born into slavery, used their gifts to bring about freedom for African Americans.
Sojourner Truth was given the name Isabella at birth, and spent the first 28 years of her life as a slave, sold from household to household and given a new last name each time she was purchased by a new master. She escaped from slavery, and began serving homeless women in New York City. At age 46, she heard God call her to the life of a travelling preacher. Despite the fact that Sojourner Truth had never learned to read or write, she used her gifts of charismatic presence, wit, and wisdom to share her message of God’s freedom for slaves and women throughout the country.
After two decades of severe treatment and beatings, Harriet Ross Tubman escaped slavery at the age of 24. She returned to Maryland at least 19 times between 1851 and 1861, freeing more than 300 slaves and leading them to safety in Canada. When the Civil War began, Tubman joined the Union Army as a cook and a nurse. The gifts she honed leading slaves to freedom were put to use as a spy and a scout, and because of her ability to lead, she became the first woman to lead troops into military action when 300 black troops joined her on an expedition to free over 750 slaves.
Stanton, Bloomer, Truth, and Tubman each had gifts from God, and each were willing to use them to bring about God’s dream of freedom and dignity for every human being. May God grant us the wisdom to discern our gifts and the courage to use them to bring about his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.