The Rev. Jennifer Adams – February 6, 2010 – Epiphany 5A
This morning I want to introduce you to someone whom we all should know. His name is Absalom Jones and on the Episcopal calendar of saints known as Holy Women, Holy Men today is his day. Absalom is an Episcopal Saint because he was the first African American ordained priest and today is his day because he this week in the year 1818.
Absalom Jones was born into slavery in Sussex county Deleware in 1746 and he was owned by the Wynkoop family. Absalom’s jobs were primarily inside the Wynkoop home and using their children’s books, he taught himself to read; as the story goes he had read most of the Bible by the time he was about twelve. When Absalom was sixteen the Wynkoops moved him to Philadelphia to work at their family retail store as a handyman and clerk which Absalom did for several years. In Philadelphia, he met Mary King, also a slave; they married in 1770 and eight years later, Absalom purchased Mary’s freedom. Since children’s status was based on their Mother’s all of their children were born free and seven years after Absalom purchased Mary’s freedom, he had enough saved to purchase his own. He was thirty eight years old when he was freed.
Absalom and his family attended St George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia which was an integrated congregation. Absalom and his friend Richard Allen, also a freed slave served as lay preachers lay and when Absalom and Richard began to preach somewhat regularly, the numbers of black members grew significantly which made the white leaders of the congregation uncomfortable. So, they added a balcony to the church, with the intention of moving the black people in the congregation to the very back. One Sunday after the addition had been completed, Absalom and Richard were kneeling side by side in a pew and an usher came and asked them to move to the balcony. They refused so the man began to physically force them to. Well Absalom and Richard stood up and moved. But instead of moving to the balcony, they walked out the doors of the church and never came back to that congregation. And most of the black members of the congregation left too.
Jones and Allen then organized the Free African Society which helped widows and orphans, and helped newly freed people assimilate into urban life. Absalom and others also founded “The African Church and in 1793, one year after founding the church, the two men organized the Black community to serve as caretakers during Philadelphia’s epidemic of Yellow Fever. That year, Jones was also part of the first group of African Americans to petition the U.S. Congress. Their petition related to the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act which they believed encouraged brutality and put free blacks at risk of being kidnapped and sold back into slavery.
In 1794, the Plague having receded and the petition ultimately denied by Congress, “The African Church” was looking for a larger denominational home and Absalom Jones led the congregation in applying to Bishop William White for membership in the Episcopal Church. That year they were received into the fellowship and communion of the diocese of Pennsylvania although (in the all-to-human tradition of slowly doling out one “right at a time” they weren’t actually allowed to vote at Diocesan Convention for several decades.) “The African Church” became The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, and Absalom Jones was ordained Deacon. Nine years later he was ordained Episcopal Priest, becoming the first priest in America of African descent. St Thomas is still a vital congregation and contributes not only in significant ways to the city of Philadelphia but to the national Episcopal Church too.
There is so much in this one story. Even when you tell it in a way that only takes up one page there’s a lot in this story. Absalom was born a slave and earned his freedom. He was a man who purchased freedom for others before he had it for himself. He was a prayerful, compassionate soul who when others fled the plague stayed, because staying was the loving thing to do. He was a passionate soul who when others stayed in the balconied church, walked out, because stepping away was the faithful thing to do. Absalom petitioned. He prayed. He led. He read. He followed. He fathered. He preached and presided and married and buried. And he helped his people of the ‘African Church of Philadelphia’ find a larger church home. And because of Absalom Jones the larger church became more of the church it was called to be. And today, we thank him for it.
You are the light of the world, Jesus said. All you have to do is put your lamp on the lampstand and can “give light to all in the house.” Isn’t that sort of wonderful and kind of amazing. All it takes is one person to hold their light up a bit, and suddenly the whole house can see. That particular light might not immediately change the house, but if everyone allowed to see, eventually the house will change. When Absalom taught himself to read there was light there. When he fell in love, fell into enough love to want freedom for Mary he was shining. When his kids were born as free boys and girls, there was a light raised up that helped his whole family see the world differently, and potentially helped the world see them differently too. When Absalom and Richard walked away from the balcony, they turned the lights on when they left that house and when they petitioned Congress, they lit on a cruelty that our country intentionally worked to keep in the dark. And then finally, in Absalom’s finding the Episcopal Church a whole denominational light was given the opportunity to shine more brightly than ever before.
And you know, rumors have it that he was a relatively humble man so if we talked to him today, he would probably say something like he was just being Absalom Jones the whole time. He didn’t set out to be a saint. He just did the loving thing even when it put him at risk. He did the faithful thing even though sometimes that meant letting go. He did gospel even when that meant challenging other people of faith. Sure Absalom had a particular call at a particular time but so does each of us. When we challenge unjust systems, feed hungry people, care for the dying, offer our gifts with the intention of earning freedom for those who have yet to fully experience it, when we respect and defend the dignity of any child of God, like Absalom Jones, we are being light for the world.
And it’s not always easy, but Absalom Jones would never have said it was either. Sometimes just holding up your light requires all the strength you can possibly find. But according to the gospel that action in itself matters. Those kinds of moments not only spread light in the house, they give strength to others who might be letting the bushels of the world win out.
So, these little lights of ours? We’ve gotta let’m shine. Let’m shine. Let’m shine. Let’m shine.