Do you ever wonder in these times when our churches are so challenged if we really need a church? What does the church do for us that we couldn’t do for ourselves? What did you miss most when the church was closed for a while during the early part of the covid epidemic in 2020?
And of course you can be church without being together in a building. But that’s a different sermon for another day.
But what is it about church that makes it so essential? Well, of course there’s that feeling of community when we come together. It’s good to be with people who know us and really care about us. St. Paul tells us that this community is the Body of Christ here on earth, and we do believe that Christ himself is with us in a special way when we gather here to celebrate Holy Communion.
But you could also think of the church as a kind of school for saints, because this is where we learn to be followers of Christ. And that learning takes place at least in part through the example of other Christians. We need people who can inspire us to be our best selves, who can show us through their own lives what it looks like to be disciples.
And so on our church calendar we have special days when we remember outstanding Christians who have gone before us, not just to honor their lives but so we can by inspired by them, and try to follow their example.
So today, February 13, is the day when we celebrate Blessed Absalom Jones, who was a Philadelphian, a member of the Diocese of Pennsylvania like ourselves, and the first person of African descent to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. And our bishop has asked us to remember him in our worship today.
Absalom Jones was born enslaved in Delaware in 1746. Even when he was a boy it was obvious that he was intelligent and very quick and eager to learn, and he was put to work in the house, where he was able to save a little money from tips people gave him. And he used that money to buy books—a primer, a spelling book, and a Bible. He was always trying to learn.
When he was 16, though, that property in Delaware was sold to anew owner, sold along with his mother, his sister, and his five brothers. And Absalom Jones was moved to Philadelphia and put to work in a shop. As time passed he was able to marry, and to pool his money with money he borrowed or was given to buy his wife’s freedom. And he repeatedly asked to buy his own freedom, and he was turned down repeatedly, until finally, when he was 38, he was granted manumission.
Absalom Jones was one of the founders of a mutual aid society called the Free African Society, which provided different kinds of support and assistance to the community. And during the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1793 in Philadelphia, the members of the society were very involved in nursing and burying the sick and dying in the city, both Black and white. They were called to this work partly because the belief that Black people were not susceptible to Yellow Fever, which was not true, so that many of these caretakers actually did get sick, and some of them died.
But probably the most famous story told about Absalom Jones took place in St. George’s Methodist Church, where he had been worshiping. It was a church that included both Black and white members. And at one point the white members decided that they would segregate the seating, that the Black members would have to sit in the upstairs gallery. They didn’t mention this to the Black members, though, until a Sunday morning when white ushers came to them in their pews and told them to move upstairs. And they resisted this, particularly Absalom Jones. He said something like, wait until I’m finished praying. They tried to physically haul him out. And it ended with pretty much the entire Black membership of the church walking out.
Eventually, Jones and some of these people began to build their own church, which at first they called the African Church of Philadelphia. And in 1794, the entire church was received into the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania as the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. Absalom Jones was ordained a deacon by Bishop William White in 1795 and made a priest in 1802.
As the rector at St. Thomas, he was known as an earnest preacher, and he was beloved for his pastoral presence, caring for those who needed taking care of, visiting, being with people. He preached against the sinful practice of slavery, and he continued through his life to preach and to speak out against injustice.
To preach the Gospel, to participate in worship, care for those who need caring for, to work against injustice—that to me pretty much sums up what it means to live the Christian life.
And through all this time, he was using the gifts he’d been given by God as best he could to be the person that he was made to be despite the tremendous obstacles that were put in his way. That’s what really today’s reading from the Letter to the Ephesians is about. That’s what we’ve been hearing as we’ve been going through this season of the time after Epiphany. We’ve been hearing readings from the First Letter to the Corinthians, and that’s what Paul is talking about in that letter. Each one in the church, each member using their gifts for the benefit of all.
That’s exactly how all of us Christians are called to live.
So on this day, February 13, the Church remembers Absalom Jones. February happens to be Black History Month, but this is a happy coincidence—February 13 was chosen because it’s the day when Jones died in the year 1818.
Lately in the news, I’ve been hearing about discussions at school board meetings—even here in Bucks County—where some people want to limit how race can be talked about in the classroom. There’s this idea out there that we have to protect white students, so they aren’t made to feel guilty.
But I think that it’s really important that we do understand our history, that we understand that what we call Black history is our history, all of us, even white people. And we need to learn about it and understand it so that we have a better chance of not repeating some of the things that have happened in history.
So I want to share a little about my own family history and how it ties into that.
Like many of you, I imagine, I’m descended from people who came from a lot of different places. Some of my ancestors came from Ireland, some came from Germany, some came from England and Scotland. They came seeking a better life for them and their descendants.
Through my grandfather on my father’s side, I’m descended from people who settled in Colonial Virginia, where some of them became rich and powerful. I knew some of this history growing up, but the thing that was never mentioned in my family was that these ancestors of ours built their fortunes on the labor of enslaved Black people. It was a long time before I figured that out. But as I put more and more of the family history together thanks to Ancestry.com, I had to ask myself why it took me so long. Why wasn’t this obvious to me before?
My seventh-great-grandfather—that’s nine generations back—was a man named Robert Carter, and he was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in colonial Virginia. And before your start to wonder, I didn’t get the plantation. I didn’t inherit any of that wealth. So all that came down to me from Robert Carter was my white face.
Robert Carter was a devout man by all accounts, a regular church attender and a member of the vestry at Bruton Parish, which still exists as an Episcopal parish today.
And I mentioned that he was rich. At the time of his death, the list of properties he owned included the names of more than 700 human beings. God help us. There’s a list of these people that still exists—they had names like Tom, and Mary, and Will—though they didn’t have last names. They weren’t given that dignity. There was a man named Brown was a cooper—a barrel maker—and he and his wife, Phyllis, had two small children: Joe, who was three, and Sue, who was a year old.
I find those two things—his active involvement in the church and the “ownership” of other human beings—very difficult to reconcile.
When I look back at what apparently seemed normal and right in that time and place, and know that it is so clearly wrong to me now, I just have to wonder what kind of preaching they were listening to. And I have to resolve to do better myself, because I think one of the lessons in this story for me is to challenge myself to be very careful in accepting from society ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong, because sometimes if you pay attention you see that they actually contradict the Gospel. I don’t want my descendants to look back and think about me the way I thing about Robert Carter and his family.
And yes, I known I’m not guilty of anything he did. I’m not guilty of anything that my ancestors did. I’m only guilty of my own failure if I don’t educate myself, if I don’t try to see what’s going on and speak out about things that are wrong in my time. I’m not what my ancestor did, but we need to face history and acknowledge it and try to understand it,
And I need my brother Blessed Absalom and the stories of others like him to help me with that.
So I want to leave you with a few words from Absalom Jones himself, from a sermon he preached on the occasion of the abolition of the African slave trade on Jan. 1, 1808. This was not the end of the institution of slavery itself. It just meant that no more Africans would be taken across the ocean and sold here.
The sermon is based on a passage from the book of Exodus, about how God heard the cry of the people of Israel who were held in slavery in Egypt. And Absalom Jones speaks at length and in detail of the suffering of Africans who were carried across the ocean and held in slavery here, which would have been very familiar to those who heard him preach that day.
About the separation of families. About ship-board conditions so horrendous and unendurable that some people threw themselves into the ocean to escape. About work in the fields beneath a burning sun, and punishment with what can only be called instruments of torture.
And yet Abalom Jones’s faith in God never wavers, and he calls on his congregation to give thanks to a God who has seen their suffering and heard their cries.
O! let us give thanks unto the Lord: [he says] let us call upon his name, and make known his deeds among the people. Let us sing psalms unto him and talk of all his wondrous works.[i]
And so today we, too, give thanks as we honor the witness of Absalom Jones. And as we pray to God for the grace to follow his example of Christian faith and witness.
Preached at the Church of St. James the Greater, Bristol, PA.
[i] A Thanksgiving Sermon, preached January 1, 1808, in St. Thomas’s, or the African Episcopal, Church, Philadelphia: On Account of the Abolition of the African slave trade, on that day, by the Congress of the United States. By Absalom Jones, rector of the said church.