Celebration of Absalom Jones at Voorhees College,
February 6, 2018
Watch video of this sermon here.
Why is it that the Church sets aside days on the calendar to remember particular human beings? A part of the answer is to preserve history and a record of significant moments that impacted people in a certain day and era. Through this lens of history, we remember Absalom Jones, the first black priest of the Episcopal Church, ordained in 1802, and rector of St. Thomas’ Church, Philadelphia (yea Eagles!), founded in 1792, the first black Episcopal Church in the USA. These are important and not to be forgotten historical facts.
There is more to it than that, however. By having Absalom Jones named on the calendar of the Church, actually February 13 by the way, we are saying that in his humanity and in the manner in which he lived his life, we recognize something of Christ in him that we want to hold up for all to see. In that way, as he walked on this earth, we declare that he was an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of the Risen Lord Jesus. We are also saying, his witness as a Christian is an example for us as we walk the earth. We are to learn something from him. Absalom Jones was an icon, or window, through which we view something of God’s desire for all people. To use Isaiah’s words and apply them to Absalom Jones: “The spirit of the Lord rested on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding,”
Absalom Jones, in his day, cast a vision that was in concert with Christ’s vision for humanity. In John’s Gospel we hear Jesus’ amazing words of embrace when he said, “Love one another as I have loved you,” then going on to say, “I have called you friends.” The love of which Jesus speaks is not passive. It is not a mere sentimental feeling. It is certainly not about being a doormat. How has Jesus loved? On a cross, which says at the very least, love is costly. It does not accept oppression. It does not countenance anyone being subservient to anyone else, much less enslaved. The love to which Jesus is pointing is sacrificial, it is a self-offering, and it sets people free as we stand on equal footing as friends.
As a loving pastor, Absalom Jones called his people to see and act as Jesus sees and acts. He denounced slavery, warning the oppressors to “clean their hands of slaves.” For him God always acted on “behalf of the oppressed and distressed. That word carries to today where the institution of slavery may not any longer specifically exist in the Untied States, but you know as I do that the remnants of the sin of slavery still hold people captive: modern forms of Jim Crow, the industrial prison complex, sex trafficking, lack of access to jobs, resources, and the continued denial of basic human rights. You can fill in the list. We must renounce with every fiber of our being anything that keeps people from being truly free, especially those of us who have power and privilege.
Have you heard of something called the butterfly effect? There are a lot of variations, but essentially it says something like this: If a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo, you will feel the breeze on your cheek here at Voorhees. What’s up with that? It’s a poetic way of saying that everything is connected. The way that God has created the universe is that everything, everyone is connected, and one thing cannot happen in one place without it in some way affecting something somewhere else. We are inextricably linked together in this creation, you and I, sometimes in ways of which we are not immediately aware.
What God does is send Jesus, perfect love, right into the middle of this splendid, beautiful, diverse, sometimes puzzling universe. And he says that amazing thing, “I have called you friends.” Do you see how radical this is? He is totally redefining our relationship with God and each other. There are not just a select few to be in an intimate relationship with God. No, it is open to everyone, and not only that, the relationship is one of friends. This is what Absalom Jones so clearly understood. We are bound in the truth that connects and holds together the entire universe – God’s love.
The love as shown in Jesus is all-inclusive, it respects the dignity of EVERY human being, seeks justice for all, and in case we have missed the point, no one is outside the realm Jesus has established. Let me give you a heads up. Sometimes we confuse hospitality with real inclusiveness. A friend has said, “Hospitality is just good manners, making people feel at home. It is not merely about tolerance, patience, kindness, or even being nice.” Those things are good to be sure, but inclusiveness in the way of Jesus leads to passionate, dancing-with-our-arms-wide-open love for everyone and everything God has made. It’s supposed to cost us something. It ought to challenge, to the core of our being, all the ways we think and behave.
The life of being the friends of Jesus is one way of living the resurrection, the new creation to which God is calling us and seeks to establish on this earth, right in this town, at this College, everywhere you live, and move, and have your being. I hope you can leave here today with a renewed sense that Jesus has called you friend and it is out of that truth and that reality where we will find true inclusivity and being set free of systems, forms and institutions that continue to bind God’s people.
As our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, might say, it is that “living, loving, liberating God” to which Jesus points us. It is that same God who Absalom Jones spent his life proclaiming as found in Jesus. Connected forever. And amazingly, he calls you and me – FRIENDS.
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Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.