Sermon on the Feast of Absalom Jones

Bishop Jennifer preached this sermon on February 9, 2019, at the Diocese of New York’s Blessed Absalom Jones Celebration in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Good morning Saints!

I want to bring you greetings, hope and peace from your kin in the Diocese of Indianapolis, the Episcopal Church in Central and Southern Indiana.

Words cannot express how wonderful it is for me to return to my home diocese and my first cathedral home, as we mark the feast of Absalom Jones—the first black priest of the Episcopal Church.  I’m grateful to Diane Pollard for the invitation, and to Bishop Dietsche and Dean Daniel for the hospitality and welcome.   There is nothing like coming home.

You may know that August of this year will mark 400 years since the first documented arrival of Africans who came to English America by way of Point Comfort, Va. And 2019 marks two hundred and one years since Blessed Absalom’s death. I can’t help but wonder if we are at a crucial pivot point. The stakes are so high and there is a tension to these days, and as my grandmother used to say, the world’s gone crazy and something’s gotta give. 

I recently devoured a book that has me thinking about the power of stories—the stories that operative in the world, the stories we tell ourselves, and the power we have to co-labor with God to write a different story. In their book, “The Seventh Story,” Brian McLaren and Gareth Higgins posit that there are six stories operating in the world that divide us and that the end of violence will come when we listen for and learn to tell the seventh story—the seventh story is the one that unites.

The first story is domination—we rule over them.

The second story is revolution—often expressed as revenge—one form of domination replaced by another.

The third story is purification—all the troubles of the powerful group are blamed on a minority who are to be excluded or exterminated.

The fourth story is victimization—some begin to define themselves by their suffering.

The fifth story is isolation—some will withdraw believing in the righteousness of their own group.

And the sixth story is accumulation—where some pretend that happiness comes from having stuff and working to keep said stuff at all costs.

The stories we live over and over again are us over them; us versus them; us versus some of us; us in spite of them; us away from them; us competing with them to get more stuff.

But the seventh story is the one of our longing.  It is the story wherein Christians have and still find hope.  It is the reconciliation and liberation story. It is some of us for all of us. Today’s gospel lesson is a seventh story.

On the night before he is to die, Jesus is gathered with his closest friends and tells them the most important and essential things. The things he wants them to remember when times get really hard—as they soon will.  Greater love has no one than to lay down his life for his friends.  I have called you friends. The disciples had willingly left behind all that was familiar, conventional, and predictable to follow Jesus on an incredible journey and now he is washing their feet and showing them what service in the name of love looks like.  He is breaking bread and pouring wine and commanding them to remember so that they might know God is present in the brokenness of the world.  And to make the point about what self-giving, sacrificial love is about, he tells them before he shows them what the greatest love looks like.  It is self-giving, sacrificial, and ultimately reconciling and liberating.

The seventh story can vary in the details, but it is always a story of reconciliation and liberation. The life and story of Absalom Jones is of a man and a people who knew what it was like to be dominated, excluded, victimized, but also liberated. The story of Blessed Absalom demands to be known and retold for the hope and inspiration he provides to those who long to be set free and reconciled. 

And what a life. His faith in God, his learning to read, his purchase of freedom for his wife before his own, his friendship with Richard Allen, his co-founding of the Free African Society, his witness and protest, his historic and groundbreaking ordination and leadership in the Episcopal Church, his always keeping his eyes on freedom. For Anglicans of the African Diaspora, he is the foundation of the long and proud history of black history, culture, and tradition in the Episcopal Church.  It has been suggested by the Hon. Byron Rushing that Absalom Jones may be the most recognized and observed of all the worthies in our calendar of feasts. 

In this time of deep division in our country, when so many lives are threatened and killed for being black and brown, when so many are discarded or disregarded for being broke and poor, we don’t have to wonder which stories are operating most powerfully—us over them; us versus them; us competing with them to get more stuff.

Our continuing, polarization, separation, and classism is a form of sanctioned violence on the bodies of those in the human family and the body of Christ.  But we know we are called to a greater love. We are called to a different story.

Having been born and raised in New York City, I’m learning the stories of a new place—Indiana is different in some of the most heartbreaking and beautiful ways. I now live in a state where between 1890 and 1940 more than 200 towns and counties in Indiana became sundown towns—places that were “all white” on purpose.  There are folks in our churches who remember these days.  These were places where signs marking the city limits typically read something like, “N-word don’t let the sun go down on you in New Harmony, Whiteland, Whitestown, Zionsville, Martinsville, Morgantown, Evansville.”   

We are watching you, New York. The work of your committee on reparations, bail and mass incarceration inspires us.  Our congregations are beginning to do the deep work of casting forth new stories—New Harmony and the sundown signs; researching lynching sites, erecting fences around the holy family on the grounds of our cathedral as a statement against immigrant family separation. And we are doing the work of examining the culture of whiteness which gets in the way of the full inclusion of those who aren’t white. Doing this work scares us to death. And there is no avoiding it any longer because to avoid the work is to pretend white supremacy isn’t literally killing us.

But there is more to do. Some of the great theologians and historians of our day—Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Dr. Emilie Townes, Dr. Wil Gafney, Dr. Joseph Tucker Edmonds among others—remind us that dismantling white supremacy is hard enough, but we must also undo the violence we perpetrate upon one another when classism, respectability politics and internalized oppression get in the way. By refusing to see all bodies—black bodies, differently abled bodies, poor bodies, female bodies as truly sacred, we dishonor the image of God and undermine any chance at true liberation.

We can do the work of racial healing and justice all day and night, 24/7/365, but unless and until we do this work through a lens of intersectionality, we will labor in vain.  When a country is built and sustained on the commodification of other human beings, the evil we seek to address is not just about color—it is about money.  Blessed Absalom is revered for being so self-sacrificing that he would purchase his wife’s freedom before his own.  There is a lesson in that for all of us who bear the weight of economic privilege.  No matter what color, race, or ethnicity predominates in our congregations, our evangelism, our mission, and our service in the ways of Jesus will be compromised until we get real about power money has on our lives and our relationships and the way we see and experience the world. No matter how much we have or don’t have, the value judgements we make on ourselves and on others will get in our way unless we bring it to consciousness and deal with it as a matter of liberation.

Our own tradition holds that those who are most on the margins, who have been rejected or ejected from true mutual relationship in our congregations have something to teach us about God and Jesus.  Could it be that, those operating outside the confines of the institutional religious structure would have something to show us about another kind of freedom?  Might the Episcopal Church be better practiced in the ways that are loving, liberating and life giving if we made space for the activist on the protest lines to teach us their liturgies?  I just wonder. Might our congregations learn something about Jesus—who operated on the margins of the religious institutions of his day—if we looked for God in the housing projects like the ones I grew up in in Brooklyn and Staten Island and tract homes across the streets from our sanctuaries? I just wonder.

Dismantling white supremacy, racism and classism is not work we are called to do after our attempts to save the institutional church.  Our call is to be faithful to the story that centers Jesus and sets his self-sacrificing love as the standard.  This is the central vocation we have in following Jesus—all of us—of whatever race, class, country of origin—this is the hard work of the Way of Love—and though we often grow weary, dare we place ourselves in the midst of a new story of reconciliation and liberation that is being written even now? You see glimpses of it, don’t you? Jesus has already proclaimed the good news that a new narrative is being written this very moment and every Eucharist we celebrate is a taste of freedom as we are reunited and reconciled to one another and to God in Christ Jesus.  All we need to do is the hardest thing—act as if that story were really true.

May we remember that God’s yearning for us to truly love one another is stronger than evil and that we have icons to show us what the movement from slavery to freedom looks like. God calls us to live the seventh story, but with God’s edit.  No more us versus them.  No more them over us. How about, all of us for all of us? No greater love, said Jesus. There is no greater love.

Let us pray:

Holy God, strengthen our witness as we recommit to action that will break down systems of injustice and racism and lift up those who bear the undue burden of our national shame.  You have already given us eyes to see the humanity and dignity of every human being—give us the willingness to use them, O God.  You have already given us voices to proclaim your justice and love—give us the courage to use it, O God.  You have already given us hands to release weapons of death and reach out in love—give us the strength to be gentle, O God.   You have already given us ears to hear the cries of the oppressed—give us the heart to be moved to action, O God.  You have already given us the taste of freedom that is the gift of being born as your beloved—give us the hunger to work and fight until all are truly free. And so, we pray, let there be peace among us and let us not be instruments of our own or others oppression.  Amen.

photo: the Rev. David Rider