February 13, 2022: Sermon for Feast of Absalom Jones – Preached by Rev. Katie Holicky, Assistant Rector
Sermon from 2/13/22, Feast of Absalom Jones Rev. Katie Holicky, Assistant Rector
Today we celebrate the feast of Absalom Jones, the first black Episcopal priest. His is a story that we should be sure to tell over and over again. It is a story that helps us to understand the history of racism and oppression in our nation. And it is a story that celebrates many, many generations of black resilience. The life and legacy of Rev. Absalom Jones has left a long reaching impact on both our tradition and on the many black people and people of color and theologians that have looked to him for hope, faith, and strength.
Now, before I get into the details of his life, I want to share with you something I discovered this week in the midst of my research. For over two hundred years white people have been the primary source for the history of recounting his life. This summer at General Convention, the tir-annual convention of the Epsicopal Church, an updated version of his history will be presented. It will draw from Absalom Jones’ telling of his own life that can be found in Douglass’ Annals of the First African Church. This is very important because it helps us to realize anew how much of history has been told from the perspective of the privileged and the oppressor and not from the oppressed. So, what I share with you today is drawing from this updated account, and from his own words.
Absalom Jones was born a slave in Delware in 1746. He spent his early childhood working the fields and was brought inside by his wealthy Anglician master to work in the house as a small child. In describing his childhood he wrote, “being very fond of learning, I was careful to save the pennies that were given to me by the ladies and gentlemen from time to time. I soon bought myself a primer, and begged to be taught by any body that I found able and willing to give me the least instruction” (Douglass’ Annals). He goes on to talk about buying spelling books and other resources, and even eventually a “Testament” to further his own education. Rev. Jones accredits his love of learning to the foundation for the path his life took; “By this course I became singular, and escaped many evils, and also saved my money.” (Douglass’ Annals).
As a teenager his siblings and mother were sold and he was taken to Philadelphia. He worked for his master helping to run a store, and after asking for permission was able to go to night school to further his education. Once marrying his wife, who was also a slave, he used all of the money he had saved, was given donations, and borrowed funds from Quakers and others to buy her freedom. He worked hard to pay back those funds, bought land and built a home, and upon realizing because he was still someone’s property so too his land belonged to his master, he worked hard and relentlessly to acquire his own freedom through manumission, meaning he was eventually released. He stayed on working for the same man for a living wage as opposed to forced labor as one man owned by another.
The Episcopal Archives say, “Upon his manumission in 1784, he served as lay minister for the black membership at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church with his friend, Richard Allen, and together they established the Free African Society to aid in the emancipation of slaves and to offer sustenance and spiritual support to widows, orphans, and the poor” (episcopalarchives.org). He and Allen built up the black membership, and the white members of the congregation made the decision to segrate members forcing black members to the balcony. This is when they left that community to start the first black worshiping community in the Episcopal Church, The African Epsiocal Church of St. Thomas. Jones became a deacon, and then after years, not months like his white counterparts, was made a priest. Through his career he preached many sermons reminding people that God held preference for the oppressed. “He denounced slavery and warned the oppressors to “clean their hands of slaves.” To him, God was the Father, who always acted on “behalf of the oppressed and distressed.”” (from proposed amended biography for General Convention ‘22).
Absalom Jones lived a life that is a clear reflection of the passage from Luke put before us today, especially this section we know to be called the beatitudes. Luke is known as the gospel of the poor (WBC, 496). This subversive text pushes against societal norms and the values of empire. Luke’s primary concern is for those who are marginalized. We start with Jesus healing those who have come to hear him and be healed by him. Then, Jesus turns to talk directly to the disciples, to the church. A clear point that this message is for those who follow Jesus, not for the entire world (FOTW, 356). It’s not a summary of faith for the world, rather an invitation to how we are called to live in the world as followers of Jesus.
Through the “blessed are” statements we are reminded that God is often all the oppressed have. And that we are called to be a part of blessing them. We are invited to remember historical context. That the, “Jewish tradition (of the original hearers of these words) regards the poor, the hungry, etc. not as cursed or to be improved but as deserving recipients of divine and earthly care” (JANT, 113). Through the “woe to you” statements, “Luke descries the rich who refuse to give alms and encourages extreme generosity” (JANT, 113). As modern hearers, we too are being called to transform and stretch our understanding of who God is and who we are in relation to God.
God turns the world upside down. In line with this, Jesus is fulfilling the prophecy Isaiah. In turning the world upside down he is taking the disciples far beyond a simple “follow me” into understanding that: “God does not bless us when we maintain the status quo”… building up institutions that support the empire. Our human inclination is to fit God into our own small definitions, cultures, and places. But God is always breaking down the barriers we construct to keep God in or out ” (FOTW, 360). This is a message that calls us to reject the unbridled materialism and consumerism that is the mark of the very society or empire we live in (FOTW, 360).
When I look around this nation today, I can clearly see the legacy of Abaslom Jones lived out in many activists and theologians. I am currently reading a book that is a prime example of this. In Dante Stewart’s, Shoutin’ in the Fire, an American Epistle he speaks of the tension for him of being black and Christian living in this nation that has and continues to be the empire that endangers his and all black bodies. He reflects on his mother’s favorite Old Testament story; the story of the three boys in the furnace. He writes: “The three Hebrew boys my momma loved to talk about underwent two fires: a physical burning in a furnace, and a prolonged burning set ablaze by empire. These boys didn’t simply make it through the fires, somehow just embracing the violence of the empire politely and passively. The miracle was their audacity. The miracle was their courage to stare down terror. The miracle was the revelation that violent empires don’t have the last say.” So, today as we remember Rev. Abaslom Jones, how are you ensuring that you are helping the church live into the “blessed are” statements? How are you ensuring that you don’t fall into the “woe to you” statements? And how are you coming alongside our oppressed siblings and making sure the violent empire doesn’t have the last say?
Resources: Episocpal Archives on Absalom Jones, Episcopal House of Deputies proposal for amended biography of Absalom Jones, Douglass’ Annals of the First African Church, Feasting on the Word, Jewish Annotated New Testament, Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle, Women’s Bible Commentary