Monday, February 13, 2012

Absalom Jones & the Gift of Difference

Sermon preached on Absalom Jones Sunday (the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany) at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene:  Galatians 3:23-28; 5:1



            The first Service of the newly organized St. Thomas’ African Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, was held on July 17, 1794.  Absalom Jones, the leader of the congregation, did not preside at the Service since he was not yet ordained.  The officiant was the Rev. James Abercrombie, an assistant minister at Christ Church, Philadelphia and the preacher was the Rev. Samuel Magaw, rector of St. Paul’s Church, Philadelphia, both white men, of course.

            As the members of the new church  planned for the Service, it may have seemed somewhat insulting to be sent an assistant minister to preside on this auspicious occasion, but the members of St. Thomas’ had not yet heard the sermon, which is to say that they had not yet heard the true nature of the word “insulting.”

            Mr. Magaw preached to the members of St. Thomas’ about their duties, now set before them in this new church.  Here are his words:[1]

The first [duty] is Gratitude to God, for having directed, in his own wise Providence, that you should come from a land of Pagan darkness, to a land of Gospel light…

The next duty is to your earthly benefactors, who planned your emancipation from slavery.

            It must have crossed Absalom Jones’ mind in that moment that no one but himself had “planned” his emancipation from slavery.

            Magaw went on:

Another duty, is compassionate love to your brethren, who are yet in darkness, or bondage, in other parts of the world.

            And here we must give credit to Mr. Magaw for praying at this point in his sermon:

O, mighty God! Thou dost encourage us in this thing. For notwithstanding the confusion of nations, and the corruption and madness of human passions, there is some prospect that the general cause of justice, of freedom, and of peace on earth, will at last prevail!

            These are words that expressed the angel of the better nature of the Episcopal Church at the time.  Unfortunately he did not rest in that good place.  He continued:

Humility is the next duty.  Remember your former condition….when you are tempted to cherish the least pride, in your freedom -- in dress -- in your favorable reception among your fellow-citizens, and even in this stately building; or in any of your civil, as well as religious privileges; then check yourselves, by confessing privately and publicly, that “a slave ready to perish, was my father:” or if all cannot say this; you may unite in expressions still more humbling, and say “a sinner -- a fallen man -- a rebel against God -- an heir of wrath; and, until redeemed, a child of hell, was my father.”

            Do not forget, I hear him saying, your place.  There’s more, but you have undoubtedly heard enough.  Clearly Absalom Jones and his people truly wanted to be Episcopalians!

            The story of persons of African descent in the Episcopal Church is primarily a story of incredible perseverance.  What was that perseverance about?  And what is the gift of that perseverance for us today?

            It is clear that Absalom Jones and the other leaders of St. Thomas’ Church were not entirely enthused by Mr. Magaw’s words. Within a month they published a statement entitled, “The Causes and Motives for establishing St. Thomas’ African Church.”[2] It does not mention the occasion of the church’s first Service, but it clearly is a response to what was heard there.

            It actually is written with great humility.  Included are these words:

…we are now encouraged through the grace and divine assistance of the friends and God opening the hearts of our white friends and brethren, to encourage us to arise out of the dust and shake ourselves, and throw off that servile fear, that the habit of oppression and bondage trained us up in. And in meekness and fear we would desire to walk in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free.

            The key line is near the end, I think:

…it is needful that we enter into, and forthwith establish some orderly, christian-like government and order of former usage in the Church of Christ; and, being a to avoid all appearance of evil, by self-conceitedness, or an intent to promote or establish any new human device among us. 

            In other words, the folk who established St. Thomas’ African Church sought affiliation with the Episcopal Church because they wanted both to be able to exercise their own dignity and freedom and to do so in fellowship with the historic church, even if that meant they would continue to struggle for equality within that larger structure.

            That is either the very definition of insanity or it is the grace of what St. Paul calls koinonia, a word usually translated as “fellowship” or “communion.”  In other words, Absalom Jones and his people knew the truth of what we heard St. Paul say this morning, that in Christ there

…is no longer slave or free…for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

But they also knew, whether consciously or unconsciously—either way by the grace of the Holy Spirit—that they had that gift to give the larger Church, a gift they fully knew that Church would at best resist and at worst refuse.

            And resistance and refusal is indeed the story of the next two hundred years of Episcopal Church history, yet, again by the grace of God, progress, as the great hymn says, “with a steady beat.”

            I do not think Episcopalians of European descent—of which I, of course, am one—are fully cognizant of their own duty of gratitude to our sisters and brothers of African and Caribbean descent, without whose perseverance this Church of ours would not be the voice for the good news of God in Christ that it is today.  We would not proclaim our duty to uphold and promote the dignity of every human being, the promise of our baptismal covenant that has shaped this church more than anything else in our generation, without the steadfast and tireless witness of African and Caribbean American Episcopalians.

            As one who has brought his own challenge of difference to the church, I am grateful to you, a gratitude that deepens every moment I am privileged to be a part of this community of faith and its history.

            Besides this incredible legacy, what this history of perseverance means for us today is, at least partially, the ongoing witness we make to what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks[3] has called “The Dignity of Difference.”

            The vision of God is indeed, of one humanity, a humanity equally created and beloved and gifted by God.  This is the God to whom St. Paul witnessed in a world where the differences between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free were the very bedrock of society and Christians were thought of as those people who turn the world upside down (which was not meant as a compliment).

            But the vision of God is also the gifted uniqueness of each and every one of us.  The good news is that our unity in Christ does not obliterate our uniqueness in Christ.  Difference remains a gift that in some mysterious way, makes our unity possible—a unity that is not forced upon us, but a unity in which “for freedom Christ has set us free.”

            A couple of sentences from Rabbi Sacks that express a truth that I believe Absalom Jones knew full well and was precisely his motivation—or at least the Holy Spirit’s—in taking the hard road of affiliating himself with the Episcopal Church.  Sacks writes:

We are particular and universal, the same and different, human beings as such, but also members of this family, that community, this history, that heritage. Our particularity is our window on to universality, just as our language is the only way we have of understanding the world we share with speakers of other languages.  Just as a loving parent is pained by sibling rivalry, so God asks us, his children, not to fight or seek to dominate one another. God, author of diversity, is the unifying presence within diversity.[4]

            The gift—and the hard work—of a community such as ours is that each one of us can give the gift of who we uniquely are, and receive that same gift from others, and in this exchange of gifts we find, together, the freedom for which Christ has set us free.


[1] The entirety of Mr. Magaw’s “discourse” can be found at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3h471t.html.
[2] The entirety of this declaration can be found at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3h1588t.html.
[3] Jonathan Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the [British] Commonwealth, a post he has held since 1991.  He is a member of the House of Lords and the other of many books.  Learn more about him at http://www.chiefrabbi.org.
[4] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (Continuum, 2003), p. 56.

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