The Feast of Absalom Jones

Today, though technically the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, we observed the Feast of Absalom Jones. The lectionary is found here. This decision was made as part of our commitment to a larger observation: Black History Month. St. Stephen’s, Millburn is humbled and grateful to take part in the diocesan-wide observation of this month, which we understand is to nourish our year-round calling to share the Good News in word and liturgy, as well as in how we live our faith each and every day.

I’ve had a recurring dream this week, and it’s one of those that feels so real that I wake up and I have to remind myself that it was a dream. And, if I happen to wake up for a few minutes and then fall back to sleep, the dream picks up right where it left off. 

I’m an engineer or a contractor or someone who builds massive structures I’m working on a bridge

I see myself at the side of a wide river, looking up at the start of what looks like a beautiful bridge.

And I’m stumped. I’m frustrated.

I know I’m having a conversation with someone about finishing this necessary project. Apparently, if this bridge doesn’t get finished a whole community will suffer, in ways I can’t begin to imagine. And I can’t get what I need to complete it.

I keep thinking I’ve got a handle on the next bit and then my hopes are dashed. I know what is needed.

I know it is possible. I know that all it would take is the good will and commitment of people who have the goods. My frustration grows as I hear over and over again, “You need to be patient.”

And I realize in that moment, in that way that feels like an internal explosion,  that patient is the last thing I need to be.  What I need to be is faithful and diligent in doing the work I’ve been given to do. Peoples’ lives depend on it.

Today we celebrate the life and ministry of Absalom Jones, commemorated as a saint in the Episcopal Church. Jones was ordained to the diaconate in 1795 and to the priesthood in 1802. He was the first African-American whose calling was formally recognized by the Church. That, in and of itself, would be remarkable. It seems even more remarkable when you remember that he was born enslaved in 1746,

making the usually arduous road to ordination even more challenging.

His life was a life full of the kinds of obstacles to freedom that none of us here can know firsthand.

While still enslaved, he had to pay another slaveholder in order to be able to marry his wife. He received manumission in 1784, and went on to establish the Free Africa Society, be a part of the African-American community that raised money to expand St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia,

before being segregated to the gallery their fundraising made possible. He then went on to cofound the African Church of Philadelphia, and successfully petition the Diocese of Pennsylvania to admit the African Church of Philadelphia into the Episcopal Church, and become the first African-American licensed lay reader. Admitted as the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in 1794, that parish remains a vibrant and vital congregation in Philadelphia.

Absalom Jones trusted in a liberating God, seeing himself as one of those to whom the prophet Isaiah declared,

“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, 
I have taken you by the hand and kept you; 
I have given you as a covenant to the people, 
a light to the nations, 
to open the eyes that are blind, 
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, 
from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

Absalom Jones believed the Church is an instrument of God’s love, called to be a beacon of hope and justice in a broken world.

Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”

Absalom Jones lived his life following Jesus’ commandment, as if it depended on it, because it did. And he did it not just for himself, but for all who are seen as less than because of the color of their skin. 

February is Black History Month and our Bishop has said that the whole diocese will observe it in some way. This service is one of the ways we at St. Stephen’s are doing that. Celebrating the saints of the Church, calling out the contributions of gifted artists, as we do with Carl Haywood, who wrote the Gloria and arranged the gathering hymn we are singing today, and using a litany written by a White man for a group of clergy gathering to discuss the sin of white supremacy as the Prayers of the People are other ways that can participate in this observation.

And that is good. But it is not good enough.

Jesus’ words about loving one another are not meant just for special occasions or for how we relate to our African-American or Black siblings whose contributions to the Church and the world rise to the level of Absalom Jones or Martin Luther King or Pauli Murray, the first Black woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. Jesus’ words are meant to inform our lives in such a way that the lives of people who are perhaps not so extraordinary are honored and respected. Jesus’s words tell us that we are to want for every person that they know they are beloved by God and loved and cared for by us because we know that to love someone means you want for them everything and all that you want for yourself and your family and friends. Jesus’ words are meant to remind us that all people are created in the image of God, not just those who have a certain outward appearance.

Jesus’ words mean that we should live our lives in ways that contribute to eradicating the evils of white supremacy and racial injustice.

Jesus’ words mean that we should never accept the physical and social violence that targets our Black siblings.

Jesus’s words mean that we should acknowledge the ways that our country and the world elevate and celebrate the contributions of some people, usually people who look like us, over the contributions of others.

Jesus’ words mean that we should acknowledge the ways in which those of us who are White continue to benefit from systems that are designed to see us as more important, more valuable, better than, whether or not we believe those things to be true.

Jesus’ words mean that we should do all that we can, with all that we have, in whatever way that we can, to be the Church that Absalom Jones believed us to be.

We are called to celebrate and share the Good News that all people are created in the image of God.

We are called to be bold and disruptive.

We are called to be brave and daring.

We are called to be radically welcoming.

We are called to justice and reconciliation.

We are called to transformation.

We are called to bridge the gap between what we say we believe and how we live our lives every day.

We are called to Love.

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

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