A sermon for the feast of Absalom Jones

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, but our bishop has asked us to celebrate the observance of Blessed Absalom Jones. His day on our church calendar is actually tomorrow. You probably know that he is the first person of African descent to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. That was an 1802, it was right here in our Diocese of Philadelphia, so we especially lift him up. I think there’s a little bit of team spirit in that.

He was born in the 1740s on a plantation in Delaware, enslaved. As a boy, he was put to work in the house where he had the opportunity to earn some tips. So he had a little money. He bought three books. He bought a primer, he bought a spelling book and he bought a Bible, and he learned to read, which in some ways changed the course of his life. But he was enslaved, so he wasn’t in control of his own life at that point.

And his owner died and the plantation was sold. His mother and his siblings were sent somewhere else. He never saw his mother again. This is when he was a teenager. He was taken to Philadelphia where the son, who now was his owner, had a store, and because he could read and write and do math, he was put to work as a clerk at the store, where again, he had some opportunities to make a little extra money by doing extra jobs and so on.

He married when he was about 20. He was able to buy his wife’s freedom with his savings and with loans and gifts largely from members of the Society of Friends in Philadelphia. This was significant for a couple of reasons, one of which is that had his wife been enslaved at the time she gave birth to their children, his children would also have been born enslaved, but since she was free, they were free.

He continued to save his pennies. He paid back the loans. He had enough money and he asked his master several times if he could buy his own freedom. He was turned down repeatedly, but eventually granted his manumission, and he continued to work in Philadelphia. There’s a record, which was shared with us by one of our priests who teaches at Penn, in the Penn archives, in the handwritten ledger books from the 1790s, I believe it would’ve been, where he was paid to clean the chimneys at the campus, which was in Center City then. So even the educated, the free Blacks got the jobs that nobody else wanted.

Well, he was also busy in this time with Richard Allen, who’s a big name in Philadelphia history. They founded the Free African Society, which was a mutual aid society for freed African people, freed former enslaved people in Philadelphia. They also were very active, there was a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, and many people, the rich people, fled the city. They went somewhere else to get away from it. The Free African Society stayed, and they served as nurses and ambulance people. They took away bodies. They exposed themselves to the disease in caring for people of all races in Philadelphia.

Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were worshiping at that time at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. And at one point the white members decided that they would confine the African-American members to a separate section and The story is dragged Absalom Jones off his knees in prayer before the service started to put him in this separate section, and he led a walkout.

The African-American members left that church and they started their own church. And eventually, if you make this long story short, eventually they asked to be received as a parish into the Episcopal Church and their request was granted. And they had also asked that Absalom Jones, if he were considered able, be ordained as their priest, and he was.

He served at first as a lay reader, which was a formal role. He was ordained a deacon in 1795 and a priest in 1802. And so we celebrate him today for all he went through, and for his faithfulness and perseverance. And his church, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, still exists, in Overbrook. And for some reason they celebrated this Feast last Sunday. So I got sort of a preview. They had Bishop Gutiérrez with them, and also Bishop Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. They had lots and lots of music.

And I’m almost sorry I watched because I saw Bishop Curry’s sermon and I feel like it’s a little bit of plagiarism for me here, but actually he said pretty much what I wanted to say myself. He talked a little bit about those biographical details I mentioned, and then he talked about love. He talked about the love that is discussed in our readings today. The self-sacrificial love that was embodied by Abasalom Jones, buying his wife’s freedom first, the service he provided during the yellow fever pandemic and the way he was known to his congregation, especially for his tender love in providing pastoral care and so forth. He is remembered for his love.

When we look at somebody like Absalom Jones, I think the first thing that comes to mind is the achievement of overcoming the limitations of racial prejudice and being able to succeed and become somebody. Become somebody. become who you are despite all those limitations.

So we see it as something that benefits the individual who was being discriminated against. But I think there’s something more to it than that. I think that whenever a child of God is not able to flourish, that suffering, it diminishes all of us. It isn’t just that it hurts that person, it hurts all of us because we lose the gifts that they would have had to give.

So since I’ve been tiptoeing around the edges of plagiarism, I’ll tell you, some of you might have been reading about artificial intelligence, AI and some of these chatbot things. You can tell them a theme and they’ll write something about it, like in four seconds, your sermon in four seconds. So there’s actually a lot of discussion among priests about it. Can we tell it to write our sermons and preach that, and would that be okay? Well, I’m not going to do that. I asked though, I asked chatbot to write a sermon on the theme of, “Whenever one of God’s children is not able to fulfill their true potential, the entire body of Christ is diminished.” And in about four seconds, it wrote a sermon. That sermon turned out a little flat, so I’m not preaching it to you today, but there were a couple of parts of it which I thought were so dead on and important and moving. I actually am going to read them.

This is a ChatGPT, a nightmare to teachers because … yeah, this new technology, wow. Anyway, this is from the chatbot’s sermon:

When anyone anywhere is denied the chance to fulfill their purpose, to realize their potential, to achieve their dreams, we are all made smaller. We are all diminished. We are all impoverished by their loss. We are all weakened by their pain and we are all robbed of their gifts. For you see friends, every single one of us is part of the body of Christ, and when if any part of the body is hurting, we all hurt. When any part of the body is suffering, we all suffer. And when any part of the body is denied the chance to flourish, we all wither. Friends, this is not an optional part of our faith.

So, is there a kid in West Philadelphia today who has the brains to develop advanced medical treatments for some of the diseases that plague us now, except that he doesn’t get the education he needs in elementary school and high school to have the science background to actually accomplish that?

Is there a girl in Afghanistan who has the potential to be developing clean energy sources for the 21st century and beyond, but never will do that because she’s not being given an education?

Is there a kid in Kiev, hiding in the subway, who has the basic ability to grow up to be a true peacemaker, except that kid is never going to be able to do it because of the disruption to education and family life?

Is there a Dreamer in this country … Those are the kids that were brought here by their parents when they were children. They grow up here and go through our educational system to high school, but the way the system is set up, it’s very hard for them to go to college no matter how smart they are, because the funding all tied to citizenship. Is there a Dreamer who has the potential to be a politician who could really unify this country instead of dividing it, who will never be able to go to college and do that?

Is there a kid in the heartland somewhere where the factories have closed—the places where drug addiction and what we call death by despair is common—is there a kid who has the potential to be a great political leader, a scientist, a teacher, or maybe apresiding bishop, maybe a person whose words preaching the Gospel would challenge and inspire and comfort us, but who will never get that far because the despair catches up with them.

This is a loss not to all of those individuals, but to all of us.

So the computer wrote a prayer:

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the gift of your love, for the gift of your grace and for the gift of your Son. Help us to be true children of God, to love as you love, to serve as you serve, and to bring your Kingdom to earth. Help us to be agents of change, to speak up for those who are marginalized and oppressed, to fight for justice and equality for all. And may we never forget that when any child of God is denied the opportunity to live up to their potential, we are all diminished. In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray.

Now a computer wrote that prayer, but computers can’t pray. But we can pray. We can live the truths that the computer was able to form into language. So let us make this our prayer. Amen.

Preached at St. James the Greater Episcopal Church, Bristol, Pa.