Good Stewards – a homily

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.

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton

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Amelia Bloomer

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.

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Sojourner Truth

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Harriett Ross Tubman

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.

The Feast of William Wilberforce – a homily

Just and eternal God, we give you thanks for the stalwart faith and persistence of your servant William Wilberforce who, undeterred by opposition and failure, held fast to a vision of justice in which no child of yours might suffer in enforced servitude and misery. Grant that we, drawn by that same Gospel vision, may persevere in serving the common good and caring for those who have been cast down, that they may be raised up through Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

It’s been a while since you’ve had the chance to hear me rail against the current book, approved for trial use, from which we Episcopalians draw our celebrations of the saints of our faith. We used to have a book called Lesser Feasts and Fasts, which, in 2009, was replaced by a dreadful text called Holy Women, Holy Men. I’ll save you the details of my complaints this afternoon because I’m actually going to pay the new book, which will hopefully be tossed in the dustbin of history next summer, a compliment. The prayer which I read at the beginning of this service in remembrance of William Wilberforce is from Holy Women, Holy Men and it is far superior to the one from Lesser Feasts and Fasts because it actually deals with why we remember William Wilberforce at all. William Wilberforce has a feast day in our church because his faithful commitment to Jesus Christ made him doggedly persistent in the pursuit of justice against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Wilberforce was raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. In 1780, at the age of 21 and while still a university student, he was elected to Parliament where he served for 45 years. After four years of doing relatively little in office, other than building an erratic voting pattern, Wilberforce underwent an evangelical conversion and began to feel a call to leave politics to serve God more effectively. His friends thought his position was too powerful to give up and thankfully, convinced him to stay in Parliament and serve God there. While in his personal life, Wilberforce was keen to take on the evils of vice: gambling, drinking, card playing and the like, as a Member of Parliament, his area of deep interest was the slave trade.
By the late 18th century, between 35 and 50 thousand Africans were being shipped, every year, from the Gulf of Guinea to be sold into slavery. As much as 80% of Britain’s foreign income came via slave grown crops like cotton, sugar, and tobacco. The economics of slavery had become so entrenched that it was thought to be impossible to stop; only a handful of people even considered doing something about it, and they were mostly Quakers who had very little clout in 18th century England. At dinner one night in 1783, Wilberforce met the Rev. James Ramsay, a ship’s surgeon who later was ordained to serve in the Leeward Islands and earned his living as a medical supervisor on the plantations there. Wilberforce was horrified as Ramsay explained the conditions under which the slaves were treated on the ships and plantations, but it took him three years and that previously mentioned deep faith conversion to do anything about it. By 1787, Wilberforce had been convinced and so began “his persistent, uncompromising, and single-minded crusade for the abolition of the slave trade.”
Wilberforce and his friend Thomas Clarkson, proposed legislation to abolish the slave trade in 1789, 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805. Finally in 1807, Parliament voted to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. Wilberforce went to on work to ensure that these laws were enforced and eventually worked to make sure that slavery was abolished outright. On July 26th, 1833, three days before he died, Wilberforce received news that passage of emancipation for slaves was certain. Despite his wishes for a simple burial at a family plot next to his daughter and sister, William Wilberforce was buried as a national hero in the north transept of Westminster Abbey on August 3, 1833.
William Wilberforce was a man of stalwart faith. His commitment to the Gospel allowed him to persist over years of failure to change the slavery based economy of the British Empire. He, unlike many others who have fought for justice over the years, saw the fruit of his faithfulness. He died knowing two things for certain: that all men would be made free in the British Empire and that his home would be in the everlasting arms of his Savior Jesus Christ. This day, I give thanks for the stubbornness of William Wilberforce and ask God that he might make us just as determined in the pursuit of justice for all of his children: black and white; slave and free; male and female; straight and gay; documented and not: to the glory of his name. Amen.