Sermon: Absalom Jones

Cathedral Church of St. Luke

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh

St. Luke’s, Portland

Feb 13, 2022; Absalom Jones Day Jeremiah 17:5-10; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26

 

Before I begin, I acknowledge that we are worshiping on what was Wabinaki land and that some of the money that built this cathedral may have come from sugar and other industry related to the slave trade. 

Today, February 13th, is the Feast Day of Absalom Jones, the first Black Man to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. Liturgically, Sundays take precedence and celebrations of Saints Days and what are known as Lesser Feasts and Fasts are usually transferred to weekdays. However, as we celebrate of Black History Month and continue our anti-racism striving toward the goal of becoming beloved community, recognizing Absalom Jones today seems more than the right thing to do.  Listen to a short biography of Jones written by a member of the Becoming Beloved Community Committee: Absalom Jones was born into slavery in Sussex, Delaware in 1746. As a young boy, he taught himself to read. When he was sixteen, his family members were sold, and he was taken to Philadelphia where he worked in his owner’s store and went to an all-Black school at night. With permission, he married a fellow slave and was later able to buy her freedom (so their children would be free Blacks) and eventually, his own. He was an active member and lay preacher for the Black members of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, where he met Richard Allen. As a result of their evangelistic efforts, Black membership increased ten-fold but was met by a directive to sit in segregated seating in the balcony. Jones, Allen, and other Black members left the church as a result. Jones and Allen founded the Free African Society in 1787, an organization that helped greatly in caring for the sick of Philadelphia during a yellow fever epidemic in 1793 due to the belief that Blacks were immune to yellow fever. The African Church grew out of this society and decided to affiliate with the Episcopal Church in response to their persecution by the Methodists at St. George’s. While Allen remained a Methodist, Absalom Jones became a leader of St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, the first Black Episcopal parish in the United States. He was ordained a deacon in 1795 and became the first ordained priest of African descent in the United States. In 1816, Richard Allen became the first bishop of the newly formed African Methodist Episcopal Church. He and Jones continued to work together until his death in 1818 to petition for the abolition of slavery and later in condemnation of the American Colonization Society which encouraged freed slaves to return to Africa. 

 

Having heard the history of Absalom Jones, consider a little more history of the diocese of Maine and this cathedral.  The first Bishop of Maine, George Burgess, planted congregations in and died on his way home from Haiti – beginning a relationship that we continue today.  This was particularly meaningful in because since the Haitian revolution and abolition of slavery in 1791, Haiti had been shunned by much of American business and trade. As mentioned in our territorial acknowledgment, it is likely that some of the funds from the building of this cathedral came from sugar – particularly JB Brown sugar since two members of the Brown family were on the first vestry of St. Luke’s. Life, however, is more complex that it seems. Our cathedral historian recently reminded me that at least one of the Brown family members was known to be an abolitionist. Stories are also told about the Cathedral deanery being a stop on the Underground Railroad. That said, however, the economic benefit that Portland and indeed Maine derived from slave labor is undisputed. As reminded by a current exhibit at the Maine Maritime Museum, Bath was known as “cotton town” because of the large amount of cotton that came through there to feed the great mills and factories of Maine. That cotton – like the sugar at the JB Brown factory on the Portland waterfront – was not harvested here. 

 

In reading about Jones, I was struck by the mention that his evangelistic efforts were so successful that there wasn’t enough space for the newcomers them to sit on the main floor of the church and they were asked to sit in the balcony. One source was a little more direct, saying that the church leaders so threatened by the increased number of black people in the congregation that they made them sit in the balcony. This isn’t hard to imagine. St. John’s, the church I served in Maryland before coming here, was built in 1832. It originally included just such a balcony – known at the time as a slave gallery. (Look at First Parish UU Church on Monument Square for an example.) To its credit, St. John’s leadership took the balcony out in the 1920s so that everyone would sit together. Interestingly in the same period they put up large bronze plaques in the back of the church honoring civil war heroes from the congregation who had served in the confederate army. Life, again, is complex. St. John’s started a private Episcopal School in 1967 because of “the new math.” Not long after that, however, St. John’s began a non-profit development program which by the year 2000 had given away more than $1 million to human need in Africa. In 2006, they hired their first black head of school. It wasn’t until I started the anti-racism work here that I saw how all these pieces fit together. History – a full reading of history – can open our eyes in new ways. During seminary, I spend a semester at Codrington College in Barbados, where I was the only white student and only American and where I served at a rural church – another St. Luke’s — where I was the only white person in the congregation. It made me listen. As I listened to their stories, I heard different versions of my own. I discovered a whole new explanation of why the British let the American colonies win the American Revolution and why the American attack on Grenada (which on I had forgotten about) was so unjust and wrong and left wounds that are still unhealed. 

 

So what does all this have to do with us? For those who are oppressed, Absalom Jones offers a story of perseverance, of keeping on keeping on and of digging deep into the hope found in Luke’s version of the beatitudes:  “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”  It is likely that everyone who is here today has experienced challenges, persecution and even prejudice. It is likely that everyone here has tried to be a peacemaker, have had moments of being poor of spirit, of mourning, and everything else. If this is true for you, if you are going through these things, Luke’s the beatitudes are here for you. Blessed are you. Blessed are you. 

 

Today, however, our focus is Absalom Jones. As we hear his story, it is important to recognize that most of us fall more into the role of to the members of Jones’ church rather than Jones himself. Do you remember how they forced him and his followers to sit in the balcony? We say that we want this cathedral congregation to grow and that we want to welcome all people, want to become the beloved community, and more. We are thrilled, for example, to have a growing number of young adults who are here. What would happen, however, if the number of  young adults grew so much that they started sitting in our favorite pews, changing some of our favorite hymns, and having babies whose crying shattered our beloved time of silence? We are delighted with the New Mainers in our midst. Would we feel the same if our choir was replaced by a West African drumming group and the formality of our worship was loosened to make them more at home? Would we want to segregate newcomers the to the “balcony” known as the lower hall – or to “their own service” at a time other than 10am? Now imagine if we had a growing number of new members whose points of view on various issues were, shall we say, different than our own? Echoing our second reading, would we say that Christ had died in vain, that our work here was in vain, that it was no longer possible be the church…. or would we see this all as a gift of new life and a chance to be the church in a new more inclusive and more Christ-like way? Remember that, after all, that the Episcopal Church represents only a small 1.5 million of the more than 70 million member world-wide Anglican Communion – most of whom African and mostly conservative – folks.  If they showed up, would we perceive them as a threat? Would we slow their ordination process (as happened to Absalom Jones)? Or, would we, like Jones – and like Jeremiah – trust in the Lord, knowing that the arc of history bends toward justice and the arc of salvation history bends toward the kingdom – the beloved community of God? Here again the words of Jeremiah: “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit” Absalom Jones knew these words and lived them. Today, as we remember his history and our own and in our hearts consider how to move forward, our task is to do the same.