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Sermon Preached on the Feast of Absalom Jones at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City (Episcopal Diocese of New York)

The Rev. Absalom Jones

Good Morning Church!! First off, I want to thank the New York Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians, your Diocesan Anti-Racism Committee, the Diocesan Reparations Committee, and the Bishops, Clergy, and Lay Persons of the Diocese of New York for granting me the honor and privilege of preaching here this morning.

I once attended law school just down the street from here, and even worshipped here on occasion during those years. But I never dreamed that I would actually be invited to preach here. To borrow a line from the great Thomas “Fats” Waller: “One never knows, do one?” So again, many thanks for gracing me with your invitation.

I also bring greetings from Bishop, Mark Beckwith and the people of the Diocese of Newark, and our own anti-racism committee: NAMASTE. And I give thanks for the collaborative work we are doing to promote healing and understanding through our joint anti-racism work.

Finally, I want to take this opportunity to congratulate my brother in Christ, the Venerable Carl Walter Wright, who, even as we speak is being consecrated as the 7th Bishop Suffragan for the Episcopal Armed Forces and Federal Ministries. Our best wishes and prayers are with you Carl, as you undertake this important ministry.

Thank you all for gathering us together this morning to commemorate the life and witness of the Rev. Absalom Jones, who is in the truest sense, the spiritual father of each and every one of us. His life and ministry taught us what hope means, what courage means, and what faith means. And I suspect that given these troubling times, if we ever needed faith, hope, and courage before, we sure do need them now.

Consider this. Despite being the first black priest in the Episcopal Church, Absalom Jones is rarely mentioned in the histories of black religion in America. He was responsible for founding one of the first black churches, St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Yet it took more than 200 years for us to recognize him as a true son of this church. Here, I want to give special thanks to UBE for its hard work and dedication in erecting a statue to commemorate the life and work of Absalom Jones.

 Many of us know the story. The story of a man who dared to step out in faith in order to challenge a system that tried to deny his very humanity. A man who practiced forgiveness and Christian charity despite being the victim of discrimination and prejudice throughout his entire life. One who persisted in his dream that black people would one day be accepted as equals in the Body of Christ known as the Episcopal Church.

His dream began as a nightmare. Absalom Jones endured the shame of being forcefully evicted from St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in 1787 while peacefully praying. Ironically, it was that very same church that he had helped build, and whose own members he had taught in Bible study every Sunday.

Yet, in spite of the indignities that he suffered at St. George’s, Absalom Jones nevertheless elected to remain an Episcopalian; convincing others to join him in founding St. Thomas in 1794.

But there is more. The brief biography of Absalom Jones found in our Lesser Feasts & Fasts omits a critical part of the story – For it fails to acknowledge the intentional racial exclusion and discrimination practiced by the Episcopal Church at the time.

Omitted is the fact that Absalom Jones was forced to accept the postponement of his own ordination to the priesthood for nearly 10 years as a condition of St. Thomas’s acceptance into the Diocese of Pennsylvania.

By the way, that acceptance also included a stipulation that neither the priest nor the congregation would be permitted to attend diocesan convention. So, throughout Absalom Jones’ entire ministry, he never knew true and equal acceptance into the community of the Episcopal Church.

Our gospel for today describes the ministry of Absalom Jones so well: “Greater love has no man…”

So, let’s press the pause button for a moment to ask: “Why does our church need to hear this story? And why now?”

Certainly, we can readily acknowledge that overt racism while alive and well in the early days of our church’s history is no longer a fact. We don’t put people out of a church on account of their race anymore. At least not as pointedly and demonstrably as they did at St. George’s.

Yet, we often overlook the evidence that in the ensuing years of our church’s history, black people were systematically and canonically excluded from governance and meaningful participation at every level in the Episcopal Church, whether it was congregation, diocese, or General Convention.

And so it came to be that the spirit of Absalom Jones fell upon 17 black clergy that gathered at St. Philip’s Church, Harlem on February 6, 1968. That convocation gave birth to the Union of Black Clergy and Laity, and ultimately to the Union of Black Episcopalians. And I trust there is something already in the works to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that convocation next year.

The stated mission of the UBCL was to “remove racism from the church and society and to stimulate the growth of black membership.”

And for the past 50 years, we have fought the good fight in this church against racism, both corporate and individual. And I will leave it to each of you to ponder just how successful we have been as a church in that endeavor.

But presently, we as Black Episcopalians and indeed all of us as Americans face new challenges that are eerily similar to those we faced in 1968.

Recall if you will, the anxiety and fear that many of us experienced with the advent of the Nixon Administration. In the day, it was Haldermann, Erlichman, Mitchell and Dean, Law & Order, and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI campaign of suveillance. My friends as the French are wont to say: “The more things change, the more they stay the same!”

But those years also saw the dawning of Black consciousness – Black Power heralded by SNCC and the Black Panthers, and by our proud assertion: “Black is Beautiful.” That legacy of self-affirmation and resistance lives on today through the tireless efforts of the Black Lives Matter Movement. God bless them!

So, it is meet and right that we gather here this morning to reflect on our faith – a faith that is so deeply and richly rooted in the nurturing dark soil of our trials and triumphs. Lessons that we would do well to remember in these perilous times.

  • Lessons about a God who made a way out of no way.
  • Lessons about a God who don’t make no junk!
  • Lessons about a God who is forever faithful – yesterday, today, and tomorrow!
  • Lessons about a God who always, always has the last word.

For our God is good! All the time!
[God is good all the time. And all the time, God is good]

I believe God has a vision and a future for our church and indeed for this country – a vision that we must dedicate ourselves to building even though many of us gathered here today will not be blessed to see it in all its fullness.

Even if it may seem sometimes that our work might be in vain, we must ever strive on the upward way. For there is no turning back – not now, not ever.

Where my friends, do we go from here?
Who do we say that we are?
And what do we seek to pass on to our children?

Let me share this story with you that I came across some time ago.

There was once a skillful hunter from a small African village who one day managed to kill an elephant in the jungle. But because of the sheer size of the animal, this elephant could not be moved by a single person.

But this hunter was greedy and wanted the elephant all to himself. Yet he knew that he could not get the animal to his hut without some help. So he promised the villagers that he would share the elephant with everyone if they would help him drag it back to the village.

The villagers, knowing the hunter’s reputation for being selfish, at first refused. But finally, lured by the promise of elephant meat for all the villagers, they agreed to help him.                                                                                                                                

So out went the entire village into the jungle to retrieve this elephant. When they arrived at the place where the elephant lay, the villagers were so excited, that they came up with a song.

One of the villagers would sing out: “Whose elephant?” And everyone would respond: “Our elephant!”

Again a villager would shout: “Whose elephant?” And the others would cry out: “Our elephant!”

This went on for quite a while. And indeed great progress was being made in bringing the elephant back to the village. But the villagers were still suspicious of the hunter’s motives.

So they agreed among themselves: “The next time one of us calls out ‘Whose elephant?’ we will say nothing. And instead, listen closely to what the hunter says.”

When the next cry went out, “Whose elephant?” Everyone fell silent except the hunter who shouted out: “My elephant!”

And so, my friends, the hunter’s treachery and dishonesty were exposed.

And the tale goes – the villagers left him there with his prize elephant still a good distance away from the village. And because no one would help the great hunter, the elephant carcass was left to the vultures and the hyenas.

Now, there are two great truths to be found in this parable:

Never forget who you are. And never forget whose you are.

You see. The hunter thinking only of himself never understood what it meant to be part of a community. His selfishness and his self-centeredness would not allow him to imagine his community working together for the benefit of all the villagers. It was all about him. No one else mattered.

The hunter chose not to remember that he was more than just an individual. That he was also part of a village that had raised and nurtured him.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, the story of this Church – dare I say, of this country – has everything to do with remembering that it is all about “Our elephant” and not “My elephant.”

Remember this: We are a good and holy church! And we serve a good and loving God!

Good church! Good People! Good God!

We are a holy people called to this place at this unique time in history to witness and proclaim the “Acceptable Year of our God.” And if we dare to be Christians – that is, followers of Jesus – we must be about the ministry that Jesus was about.

Consider for a moment, Jesus’ ministry here among us. He was always on the move! Going from village to village proclaiming the Good News! He called those who would listen to wholeness and holiness.

And he did not suffer fools gladly. He spoke truth to power at the cost of his own life. And he spoke of compassion and peace, equality and justice for all God’s people – Contrary to some who said that life was a Zero Sum Game – that there always had to be more for some, and parenthetically, less for others.

Jesus’ proclamation of the Good News called his followers into new life and into a new way of being. He promised: “I come to bring you life and life in all its abundance.” So, “Do not be afraid. I am with you, even to the end of the age.”

And Jesus was clear that abundant life was not to be found in complacency, or in apathy or in resignation. It was not about giving up or giving in to a “the play-it-safe,” “take no risks” status quo world. That was not Jesus’ way!

Jesus taught that God was not the least bit interested in the status quo. God was always stirring things up. Turning the tables – dashing expectations. Refusing to accept the way things were. Calling out the high and mighty – the powers and principalities – of this world.

That’s why the least, the last and the lost were always the winners in God’s kingdom. Their faithfulness allowed them to be transformed – not just changed – but transformed into people who fully understood the liberating power of God. As Bishop Curry has proclaimed: “They joined the Jesus Movement.”

And ours is a story of liberation as well: the stories of generations of faithful sons and daughters. Stories of:

  • How our spiritual ancestors responded to the call of God to gather the faithful from the outcasts of society.
  • How they got over – persevered and overcame in spite of overwhelming odds.
  • How they discovered blessing even in the midst of despair.
  • How they kept faith with God even when it was hard to believe in anything.

That, my brothers and sisters, is the legacy that has been bequeathed to each and every one of us.

We are sons and daughters of the Jesus Movement. We have surely passed this way before and with God’s help we overcame and will continue to overcome.

Make no mistake. It is not about giving up or giving in.

But it is about setting a future trajectory that dares to dream and to risk, and always looks expectantly for God’s kingdom and God’s revelation, because we know whose we are. We belong to God – first, last and always. Sons and daughters of the Jesus Movement!

So here is our mission: to recall God’s goodness, to reclaim God’s passion, and to proclaim that our God is surely on the move – and that nothing – nothing- is impossible for this God and for God’s beloved. For we are the Jesus Movement!

Let our children hear from us, “This is the unshakeable faith that I learned from my people – what it means to be a disciple in the Jesus Movement.” To say to them, “It is that faith and that belief and that love, that I now pass on to you: God’s vision and God’s dream for all of creation.”

We of the Jesus Movement must put on the Mind of Christ, proclaiming to the Powers and Principalities that every one of us – without exception – is stamped with the very mind and spirit of God – “the Imago Dei.” That every human being is of infinite worth in the eyes of God.

And we fervently pray to not only be able to “talk the talk,” but also to “walk the walk” of Jesus’ steadfastness and courage in the midst of and despite all the chaos we see swirling around us. For, we are the Jesus Movement!

For Jesus’ sake, we must count ourselves as holy people, consecrated and dedicated to being reconcilers of the breach – a church where we model for all he world to see how we practice love and value the worth and dignity of every human being – every race, every culture, every faith – all people without exception. For, we are the Jesus Movement!

Instead of dispairing at what we see, we must point to the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom in this place where we strive every day and in every way to be free – free from those prejudices, hatreds, and fears that seek to bind us.

Apropos of these trying times, our own Paul Abernathy once pithily posed this question:

“Do we in our impotence, concede that the problem is implacable, the people intractable, and the plan improbable? Or do we confess that with God anything is possible?”

My brothers and sisters in Christ: Have we not seen things seemingly thought impossible, nevertheless come to pass by God’s grace?

  • The hard fought victories of the Civil Rights Movement
  • The end of apartheid in South Africa
  • The election of a black man as President of the United States
  • The election of a black presiding bishop in this Episcopal Church

We serve a good and loving God –

A God that will never give up.
A God that will not abandon us.
A God that will never let us go.

So my brothers and sisters in Christ, here are our marching orders for you as the beloved of God: In the spirit of Absalom and Martin and Nelson, and Ida, and Fannie Lou, and Pauli, and the countless others upon whose noble shoulders we proudly stand:

Let us go into the darkness of this world and bring the light of Christ’s love to whomever you meet along the way.

Let us go out into the world as brothers and sisters of the Jesus Movement. Christ sends each of us out there – out into the world, to set the captives free.

So inspire every kindred soul you meet to find some way – as Dr. King taught us – to be a “Drum Major for Peace.” And if they can’t be a drum major, at least sign them up to be a member of the band, marching for and proclaiming God’s peace and God’s justice.

Let us find some way to be the sword that heals the divisions of race, sex, gender, religion, culture and class across this land and around the world.

“For this world is too dangeous now for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love” (William Sloane Coffin).

Let us find some way to step out of that cocoon of convenience and comfort, and out of the shadows of fear and resignation. Instead, let us plant our feet firmly in the arena of challenge, resistance, and controversy.

And finally, let us find some way to be in solidarity with the poor and the outcast – ‘the Least, the Last, and the Lost’ – To offer the open hand of friendship and understanding instead of the folded arms of doubt and suspicion.

My beloved, eventhough God’s vision is yet to be fulfilled, nevertheless, we do not despair. We will dare to see visions and dream dreams in defiance of what the world tells us, and in the face of all the fear around us. God’s dream is not impossible.

This much I know to a certainty: God alone has the final word. We can’t give up and we can’t give in. Too much is at stake, for us and for our children.

And as the spiritual children of Absalom Jones, we must be bearers of the dream – fulfillers of the promise.

We have work to do – Holy work to do. So we press on, children, inspired by the words of that old gospel song:

“I don’t feel no ways tired,
I’ve come too far from where I started from,
Nobody told me the road would be easy, but
I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.”

And may the People of God say: “Amen.”

Texts: Isaiah 42:5-9; John 15:12-15


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