“For the Sake of the Good News”
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
21st Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 23B) - October 14, 2018
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
You may know that I enjoy learning history and try to read up on it when I can. I stumbled across an article recently that caught my attention and wound up relating to our Gospel story this morning. Dr. Mary Donovan published a short piece in Anglican & Episcopal History about Episcopal schools for freed slaves in the Reconstruction-era South.
The Freedman’s Commission was organized by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1865, almost immediately after the end of the Civil War. Its leadership was composed primarily of white women who organized to establish schools for former slaves in the South. This was the first major Episcopal organization with significant female leadership. It predates the ECW / Women’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions by a few years (Donovan, pp. 295-296).
With hindsight, we see that the Freedman’s Commission had something of a mixed legacy. They met some of the basic needs of freed slaves and sponsored the foundation of many historically black Episcopal parishes and schools around the South. For example, in 1867, the Freedman’s Commission established St. Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute in Raleigh, NC, to train black teachers and clergy (Ibid., 300). It is now called St. Augustine’s University and a handful of our members went to college there.
But the Freedman’s Commission was also deeply mired by the racism of its day. It rarely escaped the pervasive negative stereotypes of blacks in its publications. They forget that the black people whom they served, however poor, oppressed, or neglected they were, were truly human beings, made in the image of God, with dignity and intelligence equal to that of white people. The Commission also made institutional choices that reinforced separate but unequal segregation for black Episcopalians in and out of the Church for generations to come (Ibid., 305-306). For instance, black congregations and schools were often excluded from Diocesan Conventions, including here in Georgia.
That said, on the whole, teachers were far less prejudiced than those who sat on the Freedman's Commission board. Actual relationships with black people changed their worldviews and made them more loving and compassionate (Ibid., 304). Once they got involved with the communities they served, they discovered the love of God expressed to them in a mutual exchange of Christian service (rather than one-way charity). The wealthy white women discussed in the article weren’t entirely free of prejudice and privilege, but they certainly were better than most of their white contemporaries.
Try as they might to work together with the surrounding communities, these free schools were woefully underfunded. The Freedman’s Commission had a very limited budget that based mostly on donations (the federal Freedman’s Bureau apportioned some funds beginning in 1866; Ibid., 297). The often didn’t have enough books; students frequently lacked food or appropriate clothing; their schoolhouses sometimes had no fire for heat in the winter; teachers were underpaid or not paid at all. Their funding pool was rather small. In 1869, only about 17% of all the Episcopal churches in the USA directly supported the Freedman’s Commission financially, and most with very small contributions (Ibid., 302).
“Boston native Matilda Hicks, teaching in Richmond, Virginia, commented [in 1867], ‘Sometimes I get careworn and weary, and then I am too apt to think that perhaps I might accomplish as much good in some Northern locality, where I could enjoy the society of friends, and the comforts of life; but such thoughts are but momentary. I call to mind the words of our Saviour: ‘And every one that hath forsaken houses or brethren, or sisters, or fathers, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundred fold, and shall inherit everlasting life’’” (Ibid., 298).
Mrs. Hicks quotes the parallel passage from the Gospel of Matthew (19:29), which is somewhat unfortunate for her. Only in Mark’s version does Jesus say that those who give up possessions for Jesus’ sake will get them back “with persecutions.” Perhaps Mrs. Hicks and the other teachers would have done well to remember that the love of Jesus often sparks ire and hatred in the hearts of others. Jesus’ love for all people, regardless of their color, kin, or kind, can stir up the prejudices of others. It can lead to persecutions for those who love boldly and against the grain of their culture.
But that long-standing prejudice was not simply an individual problem for these teachers. It was also a problem for the Freedman’s Commission and The Episcopal Church as a whole. Like I said earlier, only a tiny percentage of Episcopal parishes at the time supported the Commission’s work financially. And this was at a time when the Episcopal Church was incredibly wealthy and influential in the USA. Hatred and indifference to the needs of others contributed to the suffering of many blacks throughout the South in the Reconstruction era.
Jesus, looking at [the rich man], loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
In this text, Jesus addresses the human tendency to hoard, to avoid giving what we don’t have to. We often remain self-satisfied in our current level of generosity even when presented with the new and everchanging needs of the world. Episcopalians around the nation had indeed suffered during the Civil War, but 83% of them chose not to support the relief and development efforts of the Freedman’s Commission in war-torn South among the severest victims - former slaves.
And so it’s not surprising that Mrs. Hicks and the many other teachers in the free schools faced hardships. Despite their prejudices, they did go out on a limb to serve the neglected and oppressed. They answered the call of Jesus to give of themselves for the growth of the Kingdom of God on earth, “for the sake of the Good News”. And it wasn’t easy.
Likewise, we are constantly surrounded by the needs of the world and the church. West Savannah in general and Cuyler-Brownsville, in particular, are places of intense neediness. We deal here with poverty, crime, mass incarceration, underfunded schools, and systematic racism against people of color, especially black Americans.
And in the middle of all that suffering, we stand here at St. Matthew’s Church trying to be a small witness to the love and hope of Jesus Christ. We try to proclaim the Good News that God is love and love came down to live among us. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God had come near and was among us (Luke 17:21). And Jesus says that we, the Church, are the salt and light of the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit to live the Kingdom’s love, justice, and peace here and now.
We wait together for Jesus to return in his resurrected power and make all things new. We wait for Jesus to fix all our brokenness and sin. We wait for Jesus to give justice to all people who suffer in this life.
But, we don’t wait idly. Instead, Jesus calls us to bring remedies to this broken world through acts of love, kindness, and generosity, both small and great. Jesus calls us to sacrifice our time, talent, and treasure “for [his] sake and for the sake of the Good News.”
We give to our church because it is our mission outpost. We give to charities who alleviate other kinds of suffering. And we listen for the call of the Spirit to boldly love the people whom others neglect. We try our best to love as Jesus would love even if we are persecuted for it.
So live generously. Give all that you can give. And don’t be afraid of anyone who stands in your way, or shoves you down when you try to do what is right. For “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Amen.
Donovan, Mary S. “Educating the Former Slaves: Episcopal Freedom Schools, 1866-1877.” Anglican and Episcopal History 87, no. 3 (September 2018), 295-306.