Monday, February 13, 2012
A Sermon on Absalom Jones
Where do you sit? There are places, thin places, where it is possible to enter into mystery. They are full of the reverberating presence of something powerful and beautiful. It can be hard to explain. A reverberation is the persistence of sound in a particular space after the original sound is made.
In 2006, I was on an East Coast Tour with The Anglican Chorale of Southern California. The choir sang in churches along the East coast on its way to the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. We stopped in Philadelphia for just two services. One of which was at St. Peters Church.
We arrived early to practice and take a tour of this historic mid-Georgian church. Most of the church remains as it was in the eighteenth century. The guide pointed out the original high-backed pews, including the Mayor’s box where George and Martha Washington had sat and the tall clear paned windows reflecting the age of reason.1
Slaves and servants of members sat on hard benches at the west end of the gallery. One of these slaves went on to become an early leader of the African-American community in Philadelphia, founded the first African-American Episcopal Church, and became the first black Episcopal priest.
His name was Absalom Jones. The tour guide briefly pointed out what she believed to be Absalom’s regular seat in the gallery nearest the pulpit. The pulpit and lectern stand on top of one another, with a lectern on the bottom and a raised pulpit above it. It projects into the congregation as if to emphasis the Word of God.2
I skipped the last part of the tour and ran up the stairs to sit where Absalom sat. I imagined Absalom listening to the word of God being broken open, leaning forward, taking it in, trying to make sense of what he was feeling.
This place, this thin place, seemed to echo with the stirrings of his heart, his hopes for the future, for his freedom and the freedom of all people. I felt my heart stir.
Absalom Jones is a bit of an enigma. He is claimed by Quakers, Episcopalians, Methodists, Evangelicals, and the African American community, but as we’ll see, Absalom belonged to no one, but God.
According to Holy Women, Holy Men, “Absalom Jones was born a house slave in 1746 in Delaware. He taught himself to read out of the New Testament, among other books. When sixteen, he was sold to a store owner in Philadelphia.” 3
However, the current rector of St. Peter’s relates a slightly different story. Absalom was born on the Wynkoop family farm in Sussex, Delaware.4 At an early age, he was taken from the fields and became a house slave. Benjamin Wynkoop was not happy working his parent’s farm. He sold Absalom’s mother and six siblings, and brought the 16 year-old Absalom as his slave to Philadelphia.
Absalom attended St. Peter’s, in part, because his “master” was vestrymen, warden and benefactor of the Church. He was not “sold to a store owner in Philadelphia”, but worked for his Episcopal church-going master from dawn to dusk.
Absalom was eventually permitted to attend a night school for blacks, operated by Quakers. The Quakers gave him a good education, instilled in Absalom a love of freedom and introduced him to the Abolitionist movement. At twenty he married his neighbor, Mary. She was owned by a fellow parishioner from St. Peter’s. Working through much of the night, with his master’s permission, Absalom was able to save enough money to purchase his wife’s freedom, but Absalom was still a slave.
Though some members of the congregation wanted to see the end of slavery, and over 70% of all Blacks in Philadelphia were already free, Absalom’s master refused at first to allow him to purchase his freedom.
Absalom knew the lament of the children of Israel captured in the Psalm for today – By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion. As for our harps, we hung them up on the trees in the midst of that land. For those who led us away captive asked us for a song, and our oppressors called for mirth: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How could he sing as slave in a foreign land? Yet somehow there was a song in his heart, a melody full of yearning and passion. Though he was taken to church as a slave, he entered into the kingdom of heaven, that “thin place” which is both now and yet to come.
Absalom knew the God of the Bible was in the habit of bringing people out of exile - And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their task-masters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians.
“THESE words, my brethren,” said Absalom in a sermon, “contain a short account of some of the circumstances which preceded the deliverance of the children of Israel from their captivity and bondage in Egypt.”5 Absalom knew that the cries of America’s slaves would surely heard by God. He knew that God’s promises were meant for his people, too.
Today’s reading from Isaiah reminds us that God not only plants the desire for freedom in our hearts but works with us to bring it about. When we work for the rights and freedoms of others, when we use our voice to speak up for those society has silenced or rejects as worthless, when we reject institutions that enslave the poor in debilitating debt, and stand up for the human dignity of all God’s people, our actions reverberate with the hope of Absalom.
The excuses of the slave owners will not stand up in the court of heaven; with righteousness God judges in favor of the poor, and decides with equity for the meek.
In 1784, Absalom was finally allowed to buy his own freedom. He began attending St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church with his good friend, Richard Allen. His friend told him about the anti-slavery stance taken by many Methodists, and the movement’s emphasis on holy living. Together they reached out to slave and free and increased the Black membership of the Methodist meetings tenfold.6
Alarmed at the increase, the vestry decided without notice to segregate the Blacks into the old gallery upstairs. Absalom and his friends arrived a little late to church on Sunday. They came in quietly and joined the congregation kneeling in prayer. When the Ushers tried to make them get up and move to the balcony, Absalom asked them to allow him to finish the prayer and he would bother them no more. At the end of the prayer every Black member got up and left that church.7
They formed the Free African Society and used their monthly dues to provide members with descent burials and care for their widows and orphans. The society decided to build their own church. When it was finished they applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania on the following conditions: I, that they be received as an organized body; 2, that they have control over their local affairs; 3, that Absalom Jones be licensed as layreader, and, if qualified, be ordained as minister.8
They would not take no for an answer. In October of 1794, St. Thomas African Episcopal Church was consecrated by Absalom’s former rector from Christ Church, and the first bishop of the Episcopal Church, William White. Bishop White ordained Absalom a deacon in 1795 and as priest seven years later.
St. Thomas African Episcopal Church still serves as a beacon of hope today. This past year they presented 38 candidates for confirmation.9 They are a vibrant community, believing in God’s love and power to transform and reconcile.
It’s been said that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Absalom was not a martyr in the strict sense of the word, but by his bloody sweat and tears he worked toward making his world a better place for others, first, and himself, as well. In the Gospel of John we hear that “there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Certainly, Absalom Jones showed us the way.
His way was slow, practical, full of effort and heart wrenching prayers. Surely he leaned forward to hear the good news that all God’s people shall be free. He knew hope was stronger than fear, and that reconciliation and forgiveness had power to transform relationships. He chose not to be a slave; he freely chose to forgive his master. Absalom wrote that he continued to work for his former master after he purchased his freedom and that there grew a forbearance and warmth between them.10 We cannot dismiss the years of servitude, of refusal to allow Absalom to purchase his freedom, but we do know that their relationship continued for many years and at Absalom’s death on February 13, 1818, his former master spoke of Absalom with due respect.
My mind wanders back to Absalom’s seat in the gallery at St. Peter’s Church. Do I sit with Absalom, do I really sit with Absalom or am I just another vestryman on the church board with good intensions – remaining silent. No one owns Absalom’s story. Many traditions tell Absalom's story differently, but I believe that it can speak to us today. He shows us that it is possible to love as Christ loved us. He shows us that it is possible to extend the kingdom of God on earth - that this is a thin place. What will we do? Where do you sit?
1 “A Brief History of St. Peter’s Church,” St. Peter's Church, http://www.stpetersphila.org/history.html (accessed February 12, 2012).
3 Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (New York: Church Publishing, 2010), 220-221.
4 Timothy Safford, “Who Owned Absalom Jones?” (sermon, St. Peter's Church, Philadelphia PA, February 13, 2008), http://www.christchurchphila.org/Welcome-to-the-Christ-Church-Website/Who-We-Are/Sermons/Sermons/202/search__absalom%2bjones/month__200802/vobId__678/ (accessed February 13, 2012).
5 Absalom Jones, “A Thanksgiving Sermon” (sermon, St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, PA, January 1, 1808), http://antislavery.eserver.org/religious/absalomjones (accessed February 13, 2012).
6 Milton Sernett, Black Religion and American Evangelism (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. and The American Theological Library Association, 1975), 116-17.
7 Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (New York: Church Publishing, 2010), 220-21.
9 “The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas,” St. Thomas Church, http://www.aecst.org/home.htm (accessed February 11, 2012).
10 Absalom Jones, “A Thanksgiving Sermon” (sermon, St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, PA, January 1, 1808), http://antislavery.eserver.org/religious/absalomjones (accessed February 13, 2012.