The Way of Authority (Saint: Mary McLeod Bethune)

The Way of Authority (Saint: Mary McLeod Bethune)

This message is part of our fall stewardship campaign, during which we are encouraged to prayerfully consider the ways God is calling each of us to support the ministries of First United Methodist Church in the coming year. Our stewardship sermon series is entitled “The ‘Saintly Ways’ of Stewardship,” during which we are looking at stewardship through the lenses of various saints of the church. Today’s message focuses on Mary McLeod Bethune.

Sermon #1: “The Way of Necessity”
Sermon #2: “The Way of Generosity”
Sermon #3: “The Way of Poverty”

Scripture: James 2:1-9

At a recent staff meeting we were talking about what goes into being a leader when Yvette shared a wonderful quote. She said, “A leader with no one following them is just a person out for a walk.” In other words, the first mark of a leader is that there are people following them. If no one’s following, you’re not leading.

How about the matter of authority? I think there are some parallel dynamics. True authority is the result of what? You could argue that authority automatically comes with one’s position. For example, because of their position in the family, a parent has automatic authority over their children. By virtue of their position, a manager or supervisor usually has authority over the hourly employee. But if that hourly employee goes on to become a police officer, and happens to pull their former supervisor over for speeding, guess who has the authority now?

No doubt, position and title give some people a certain amount of automatic authority over others, but true authority rarely comes by way of position, title, or even rank. There’s a wonderful scene in the film The King’s Speech which demonstrates this fact. The movie is a slice of life of King George VI, king of Britain, who found himself thrust onto the throne when his older brother abdicated his kingship. The problem was that from an early age he suffered from a stammer. And as king, he’ll be expected to give lots of speeches, both in public and on the radio. And so he hires a speech therapist to help him lose the stammer This scene takes place the night before the coronation. He’s there to rehearse with his therapist, but just minutes before, he was informed that the therapist isn’t, in fact, a doctor. He has no official schooling, and the king, who goes by Bertie to his family, feels hoodwinked, and is angry because he has no official credentials…other than a high success rate of his patients. Take a look.

The king put stock in the authority of position – including his own. But he soon learned that his friend and therapist’s authority came from his ability to cure stammering despite not having any initials behind his name.

photo of Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune was born in 1875, and was an American educator, stateswoman, philanthropist, humanitarian, and civil-rights activist best known for staring a private school for African-American students in in Daytona Beach, FL. Most of her siblings were born into slavery, so she knew injustice and poverty firsthand. But life couldn’t keep her down; there was no way she was going to let society dictate her course in life. I don’t have nearly enough time to go into her extraordinary life, other than to say that she took it by the horns and worked for what was most important to her, which was equality for African-Americans. No doubt she was an inspiration to those who came later and headed up the civil-rights movement.

As an adult, she ended up becoming a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, someone who had both influence and wealth. In her later years, the school she began in Daytona Beach eventually  became a college, and Bethune became its first president.

One of the great leadership qualities of Bethune was her ability to advance her school, even though she hardly had a penny to her own name. When it came to maintaining the physical building, Bethune 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 most wealthy Americans of her day. And the fact is, not only did she raise a ton of money through the years through her friendships with some of the wealthiest people of her day, but she also wielded a level of influence and authority that was utterly unheard of by a woman of color in her day.

And here’s why. Mary McLeod Bethune’s authority was not an inherited status or a position that she bought with money or earned with an advance degree. She had moral authority. She never showed partiality to one group over another. She enjoyed teaching and spending time with poor black children, fearlessly faced white opponents (even sometimes converting 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 or what stood in her way. In the 1920’s, she even faced down the KKK, who were trying to stop her from registering black voters in Florida. Bethune had true authority, the kind granted to somebody on account of a life of integrity and a commitment to doing what’s right no matter what.

Switching gears now, wherein lies a church’s authority and influence within a community such as our own? Down through the years I’ve heard lots of long-time church-goers lament the fact that that churches no longer enjoy the level of automatic influence and authority they once had. It’s no longer the case that the general public respects a pastor, or people active in their church simply on account of the fact that they’re Christian. If I had a nickel for every time someone complained about the fact that Wednesdays and Sundays are no longer respected by school and other youth sports organizations, I could be a donor to Mary McLeod Bethune’s school! The fact is, the authority of position the church once enjoyed is no longer there. In some ways, we lost it on our own; and in other ways, it’s just the result of our every-changing culture.

So, if the church no longer has automatic authority and influence within a community, where does it come from? Wouldn’t we all agree that we want to have an influence on the people of Adrian? If so, then what will make people to listen to us?

First of all, we can’t make anyone listen to us. Respect can’t be forced…and it can’t be bought. And by that I mean, people these days couldn’t care less if a church’s membership includes those who are socially, politically, and commercially connected in the community. Maybe there was a day when it meant something that the mayor or police chief was a member of such-and-such a church, but not anymore. People don’t connect with a church because someone important happens to go there. Influence and authority can’t be forced or bought.

But it can be earned. I have a colleague who I’ve quoted more times than I can remember. Every church he serves grows, so he knows what he’s talking about. He says, “People don’t come to your church because you give them free stuff; they’ll come to your church when they hear that you give away free stuff.” That’s because people want to be a part of a church they know is making a true impact upon the lives of people in the community. When word gets out about the ways a church is transforming lives, it gets peoples’ attention. Therein lies true authority and influence.It’s how Mary McLeod Bethune rolled, and it’s how today’s growing churches roll.

Listen to author Audrey Warren describe how her church threw away the playbook and attempted to meet the people where they were at. She writes,

“I served in a community that included a large number of immigrant families. Each day many of these men would gather at a central location with the hope of being employed for the day. Many were new to the United States, and most were living day to day. The church began a ministry called Café en La Calle. These Monday morning gatherings became as consistent as the Sunday morning services that had happened 24-hours earlier. Members of the church, along with the pastor, would prepare coffee and food to share as these men gathered. Individuals could write down prayer requests and put them in a prominently displayed box. At times, there were deep conversations about family and faith. Café de La Calle became a way of sharing the faith in new ways and in a new place among new people.”

In our reading from the book of James, James comes down hard on the church for overlooking the poor among them, whether it happens consciously or unconsciously. He makes it clear that our primary mission field is not those who can increase our coffers with their generosity, but those to whom we can be generous with our love and presence. He says it this way in v. 8: “You do well when you truly fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving them, serving them, finding out who they are and what their needs are and then doing what we can to help them—that’s when a church starts to be noticed, and heard, and listened-to. I believe the degree to which we find ways to minister to the people who aren’t here will be the measure of our moral authority and influence. For the church of Jesus Christ, the way of authority is the way of grace. And the way of grace is the way of authority.

As a church, what are we all about? Our task, or our mission, is to cultivate and build up people. Specifically, so that they might come to faith in Jesus Christ. And it’s also to assist those of you who have faith in Christ so that you might continue to grow in your discipleship. But let’s be very clear about something: our primary mission field is not ourselves. God placed us here for the purpose of serving others. 1245 W. Maple Ave. may be where we gather to worship, and where we gather in classrooms to learn, and where we sometimes gather to serve. But our mission field and focus are the people out there. Just as Mary McLeod Bethuyne was driven by a vision of educating African-American boys and girls so that they might have the same opportunities their white peers enjoyed, this church is driven by a vision of a community transformed by the love and grace of Jesus Christ with the result that  marriages are strengthened; grieving people have a place to heal; students do better in school; teachers feel supported; parents are resourced with all sorts of help; the homeless feel connected and cared for; those with addictions come into freedom; families have fun together; all while faith in Jesus Christ is on the rise.

My hope is that this is something you want to be a part of. And my prayer is that this is something you’re not just committed to supporting, but truly excited to help make a reality.


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