We should not have to tell you, we should not have to teach you, that we are the very image of God. You should see God when you see us.
But you worship a pale deformed perversion of God that mirrors your biases.
I find myself saying again: We affirm that black lives matter and are sacred in the face of actions that communicate the opposite. This is not a philosophical conversation on the value of all life because all life is not equally imperiled in the United States of America.
We are your fellow citizens, your neighbors, your sisters and brothers sharing a common humanity, we are all children of the same God.
I should not have to remind you that we who are blessed with radiant blackness are the image of God.
When you grind our faces into the dirt, you grind the very face of God into the dirt.
When you slaughter us you slaughter God.
Whether we share a religious worldview or not we are co-citizens of a common humanity.
We call on you to live up to and into your own humanity by respecting our humanity and that of our children.
On days like today I think you would rather slaughter God than accept that she is black like me.
You shall be called the repairer of brokenness, the restorer of neighborhood streets.
Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen. (sermon audio here)
Free at last! Free last! Thank God almighty we’re free at last! Our people are free. We have the right to vote. One of us is President of the United States. But, freedom doesn’t seem like what our ancestors struggled and died for, marched and died for, voted and died for. Slavery was replaced by sharecropping, Jim Crow and Jane Crow, lynching, denial of voting rights, segregation, work place discrimination, police brutality, economic disenfranchisement and discrimination in every facet of life, often reinforced with lethal violence. And now our right to vote is under attack again, schools in our neighborhoods are falling apart, understaffed, under-resourced and overcrowded, and folk are shooting our children like dogs in the street and getting away with it. Adding insult to injury, all of those killing us and our children are not other folk. There is brutality in our own house, in our own neighborhoods, in own our schools. Blood is on our hands. How is this freedom? Our neighborhoods are broken. We need some ‘hood theology.
The people of Judah in our first lesson were also asking: How is this freedom? Isaiah’s people had returned to their holy land; the Babylonians who exiled them were crushed by Persians and they were free at last, free at last, thank God almighty they were free at last. But freedom didn’t look like what they expected. Times were hard. They were not prepared for the wreckage they found when they returned home. The temple, the palaces, the government buildings and their homes were all scorched piles of rubble. Their fields were torn up, overrun, unproductive. There was no milk and honey. They were poor and hungry. Some were poorer and hungrier than others. Some turned on their own. They bought and sold each other and, to get their money’s worth, some took what they wanted from the girls sold to pay their family’s debts before their fathers’ could buy them back. Blood was on their hands. How was that freedom? Their neighborhoods were broken. They needed some ‘hood theology.
To them and to us, God speaks through Isaiah’s seminary students writing in his name and says:
You shall be called the repairer of brokenness, the restorer of neighborhood streets.
But first, God and Isaiah’s disciples say: Tell my people they’re rebellious sinners. That’s kind of harsh. The folk are already beat down. It certainly doesn’t make me feel any better. It sounds like God is blaming me and you for everything that’s wrong in the world. Sin language is hard. It is so easily corrupted into blame. Some folk have made a career out of blaming folk for the terrible things that befall them. Others unravel every social contract and support system and when desperate, frustrated, undereducated, underemployed people make terrible choices they are there to point fingers.
But that’s not what God is doing. God is not saying it’s your fault you’re poor, it’s your fault you’re hurting, it’s your fault you’re struggling. God is not saying it’s your fault violence came to your home. God is not saying it’s your fault federal and local government are dysfunctional. God is saying sin poisons the world, corrupts the nation and destroys people and, we are part of that sinful world. God is not talking about personal, individual sin here. God is talking about national sin.
Me they seek, day after day and delight to know my ways, just like a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the judgments of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments.
As Episcopalians, we know something about communal sin. We confess our sin together, saying the same words. We don’t say, I don’t have to say this part right here – I haven’t done any of that, but brother, you need to say that line right there twice. We understand that by virtue of being human we are prone to sin and when two or three of us are together in any community or institution that society reflects and magnifies our human, frailty and failings. We are broken and broken down and some of us are just plain broke.
The text seems to be written specifically for folk like us, good religious folk who honestly wonder why the world is as bad as it is. It is an especially timely word before Lent:
Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why do we humble our souls and you do not know?
We and the Judeans have the same issues. All too often religion is something we do – especially when folk are looking – when it should be who we are, whether there’s anyone around to see or not. Who are you when nobody’s looking? What’s your religion look like then? What’s your prayer life look like then?
Here is what God observed:
Look! On your fast day, you find your own delight, and oppress all your workers.
Here’s where the comparison breaks down, right? We don’t do that. We’re not all bosses, ballers, business owners, job creators, shot callers. Isaiah and ‘em need to go on over to the First Church of the Tea Party Patriots. I know that’s right. But the words of Isaiah 58:2 keep coming back to haunt me: You act like a nation that practiced righteousness. The state of your ‘hood is directly related to the state of your nation. That’s ‘hood theology 101. Whether you live in a gated community or a garbage dump, we’re all in this together.
What’s going on in your ‘hood? Is there crime in the streets? Are brothas and sistas slinging on the corners because they’re desperate and don’t have any other opportunities or because they just don’t care about anybody or anything but the Benjamins? Maybe that’s a little too downtown for your ‘hood. Is your ‘hood is a historic neighborhood with manicured lawns and gardens but you wouldn’t go for a walk there after dark? Maybe your ‘hood is picture perfect, but behind the immaculately painted shutters is lovelessness and loneliness, violence and addiction, depression and family secrets.
And don’t get me started about the neighbors. Do we even know our neighbors? How are you going to love your neighbors if you don’t even speak to them? If we do know our neighbors, do we do more than nod and speak? Maybe we can’t end gang violence in Chicago or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but we can forge links in a chain of communities to anchor our neighborhoods during storms. Many have done just that in this here winter of our discontent, but too many will return to indifference once the crisis passes. This entire nation is also our ‘hood, and its brokenness is our brokenness. As we go to church week after week, observe Lent year after year, sometimes praying for our ‘hood, sometimes not, the text calls us to account by asking what are we doing to heal and transform our ‘hood ourselves. The power is in our hands. We are the salt and light of the gospel. We are agents of change and transformation. What are we doing with our power? Are we sitting on it like so many sit on the power of their vote?
That we are responsible for the state of our nation – not to blame, there’s a difference – ought not be a surprise. After all we live in a participatory democracy where the right to vote is a right, and a responsibility, as is serving for jury duty. But the text is talking about more than that. The national sin that God and Isaiah are talking about is not simply a matter of public and foreign policy. Then we could wash our hands and say we’re not responsible. Judah could say the king used to make all those decisions; now we have a Persian governor. None of this is our fault. We could say I can’t stop drone attacks under Obama any more than I could keep Bush from invading the wrong country or one with no WMDs. See, it’s not our fault either. But the text doesn’t let us off the hook.
Isaiah describes a situation where instead of being focused on God – in the text it is a fast day – the people were focused on themselves and as a result were unjust in their dealings with others but never missed fast or feast day. It was as though they thought they could do whatever they wanted to anybody all week long then come and say a few prayers, erase the slate and go back to doing the same old things with no intention to change, no attempt to try to do better. God says I’m not interested in those prayers; I’m not interested in that kind of Lent:
Your fasting, just as on today will not make your voice heard on high.
It’s not enough to fast and hope the world changes. It’s not enough to fast and pray somebody else does something about your ‘hood. It’s not enough to go to church, pledge and tithe, serve on committees and neglect the world around us, lest we forget that there is no one who is not our neighbor. God says:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to open the shackles of injustice, to release the straps of the imprisoning-yoke, to set the downtrodden free, and to tear off every yoke?
Where is the injustice in your ‘hood? That’s where we should be. In addition to celebrating our Civil Rights sheroes and heroes, we should be making our own black history. We are called to tear off every yoke, every shackle that imprisons. In our lives, the old Jim Crow has been replaced by the new Jim Crow, with prison shackles replacing slave shackles. We’ve got work to do opposing the criminalization of black boys from the third grade, targeted to fill up prisons being built instead of schools. Let’s clean up our ‘hood.
Is not this the fast that I choose… Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the vulnerable poor home; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide from your own flesh-and-blood?
God, can’t I just write a check to fix my ‘hood? No baby, you’ve got to get some skin in the game. Every homeless person is related to somebody. And yes, there are often difficult, complicated situations. It’s one thing to try and help someone and have it fall apart and another to never even bother make the effort. We’ve got to share what we have because it’s not even ours. Everything we have, we have been given by God for maintenance and restoration of God’s ‘hood on earth. The earth is the Lord’s. The world is God’s ‘hood, and she’s sweeping the streets, cleaning the curb and taking out the garbage whether we help or not. But if we work with God, partner with God, then we will experience God in a whole new way. We won’t have to go looking for God because we will be where God is, doing the work of God with God. We are the ones we are waiting for. We can heal our nation and our world. One broken neighbor, one neglected street, one decimated ‘hood at a time.
You shall be called the repairer of brokenness, the restorer of neighborhood streets.
Let’s get to work church.
*Vayigash Mandela. Mandela stood. And now he is at rest. I dedicate this drash to the memory of Rolihlahla, Nelson, Mandela, Madiba. (Vayigash, “he stood,” is the first word of today’s Torah portion, Gen 44:18-47:27.)
Ex 46:20 To Joseph in the land of Egypt were born Manasseh and Ephraim, whom Asenath bat Potiphera, priest of On, gave birth to for him.
I was going to begin: “Jewish folk and black folk have shared experiences of diaspora, involuntary and voluntary.” But that language is not quite right. Those binary categories presume there are no black Jewish folk (or African Israelites). We know that’s not true, and no, I’m not about to convert. But what language should I use instead?
Slavery. Freedom. Diaspora. Migration. These are some of the themes that drew enslaved Africans in the Americans to the stories of the Israelites in spite of the best efforts of the slavers – black folk are the only folk in the United States for whom reading was illegal, primarily to keep my ancestors from reading the bible and concluding it called for their liberation. Though to be clear Africans were not dependent on slavery, white folk or Western Christians for their introduction to either testament, Judaism or Christianity.
Africa looms large in many of our hearts this week as one of her lions has taken his final rest.
South Africa is one of the spaces in which Jewish and African identities meet and mingle, in the very kohenic DNA of the Lemba people. (The Lemba are South African and Zimbabwean African Jews with genetic links to the Kohen, priestly gene, previously identified in Jewish populations.)
Joseph’s Egyptian sojourn complicates the issue in interesting ways. On the one hand, Joseph marries an Egyptian woman so the tribes of Ephraim and Manesseh are half-African. Westerners have worked really hard at separating Egypt from Africa although we don’t separate any other northern countries from their continents. American Biblical scholar Martin Noth writing in the 50’s and 60’s was scandalized by Egyptian art and wrote that the Egyptians were quite simply wrong to portray themselves with brown skin and wooly hair as though they were Negroes. (Clearly a Freudian reaction to issues at home.) I see similar motivations in the claims that aliens or the residents of Atlantis built the pyramids, anyone other than Africans.
Generations of folk of all races have asked what the Israelites looked like, for many, in order to identify with literal, cultural or spiritual ancestors. According to Mishnah Nega‘im 2:1: R. Ishmael stated: the children of Israel – may I be an atonement for them! – are כְּאֶשְׁכְּרַע like eshcara-wood neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.
Well, that settles that. According to Jastrow eshcara-wood is either box-wood – which looks to me like wood-colored wood, kind of tan – or eshcara-wood is ebony, which completely changes things. I published an essay on blackness and whiteness in rabbinic literature last year and am borrowing some of that today:
It Does Matter If You’re Black or White, Too-Black or Too-White, But Mestizo is Just Right
Rabbi Shimon bar Lakhish says in Bavli Bechoroth 45b:
לבן לא ישא לבנה שמא יצא מהם בוהק
שחור לא ישא שחורה שמא מהן טפוח
Lavan lo yisa’ lavanah sh’me’ yatza’ lahem boheq
shachor lo yisa’ sh’chorah sh’me’ yatza’ lahen t’fuach
A-white-man should not marry a white-woman lest they produce boheq, a-too-white-child, and a-black-man should not marry a-black-woman lest they produce, t’fuach, a-too-black-child. It is important to remember that the rabbis are discussing their own kinfolk, black, white, red, spotted and speckled, who are also their skin-folk.
The texts are about how to tell when someone has a plague spot on their skin and how skin-color affects the inspection and determination. Given the range of skin tones evoked by the range between “excessive whiteness” and “excessive blackness” – ebony, ivory, cocoa, mocha, caramel, sandalwood, perhaps even peaches and cream, along with black coffee – no sugar, no cream, how will the nega, plague spot appear on all of these skin tones?
The terms boheq and t’fuach, “excessive whiteness” and “excessive blackness” are not always negative in the rabbinic lexicon. Boheq means “bright” and “brilliant” and “beautiful” in reference to jewels and candlelight and Sarah’s beauty and the brilliance of scholars across the tradition. (Cf: Yerushalmi Pesachim 27b, Bavli Kiddushin 33a, Gittin 11a and Sanhedrin 100a.) “Excessive blackness,” t’fuach, is related to a particular type of pitcher used for hand-washing, t’fiyach, – leading to Rashi’s interpretation “black as a pitcher;” no one seems to know what sort of black pitcher Rashi meant, but it was certainly not pejorative. There is a secondary lemma that refers to “grass” and “grain” leading Jastrow to say that t’fuach might refer to the skin discoloration of a person dying from starvation due to lack of grain. Following Rashi t’fuach was the same shade of black as a well-known household object, now obscure but with no negative associations. So then, according to Resh Lakhish, the kohanim (and likely the rest of the Israelites) range in skin-tone from blacker-than-black to whiter-than-white with only the extremes on both ends perceived as problematic.
The full Mishnah Nega‘im 2:1 text:
The bright spot in a German (girmani) appears as dull white, and the dull white one in a Kushite appears as bright white. R. Ishmael stated: the children of Israel – may I be an atonement for them! – are like eshcara-wood neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.
Germani is used in rabbinic literature to refer to the inhabitants of the Roman province of Germania, the ancient Cimmerians (related to the Thracians), the biblical Magog and stereotypical white folk. FYI: The Cimmerians have crossed over into popular culture as the people from whom Conan the Barbarian emerged, played by the Austrian (not-quite-Germani) actor Arnold Schwartzenegger and by the half-Hawaiian – mestizo? – actor Jason Momoa.
Bringing us back to today’s parsha, Bereshit Rabbah 86:3, identifies Joseph as Germani: Everywhere a Germani sells a Nubian, while here a Nubian is selling a Germani! This refers to the sale of Yosef by an Ishmaelite, descended from Hagar the Egyptian.
Which brings me back to Joseph and Asenath and their children in our parsha. My ancestors looked to the ancient Israelites as spiritual kin and proof of a liberating God active in the world. Generations of lay and professional biblical scholars have charted out complex relationships between people of African descent and beney Yisrael, especially in the places where they overlap and intersect, like the land itself, a bridge that connects Asia and Africa. The ancient Israelites and Biblical Hebrew are characterized as Afro-Asiatic by scholars. Yet whiteness and Jewishness go together in the popular and rabbinic imagination though in neither are they completely inseparable.
Each of us is a series of interwoven and overlapping identities. We operate out of multiple identities at a time. As I offer this drash I am most aware of being a member of Dorshei Derekh, a biblical scholar and a black woman. Others may be more aware of my Christian identity than I am myself at this moment.
My questions are about identity:
Which of your multiple identities are at the forefront of your self-articulation in differing contexts and why?
Are you aware of others perceiving you through the identities that are more important to them than those that are for you?
So much of the bible and its interpretive literature is about constructing and maintaining identity, which of those constructions are still meaningful and which are being reconstructed in your life and religious practice?
Michael Jackson famously sang, “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.” The space between unacceptable blackness and unacceptable whiteness in Bavli Bechoroth 45b, what Soncino translates as “excessive blackness” and “excessive whiteness” is to borrow a term from the Latina and Latino interpretive lexicon, a mestizo space. Implicit in the prohibition, A-white-man should not marry a white-woman lest they produce boheq, a-too-white-child, and a-black-man should not marry a-black-woman lest they produce, t’fuach, a-too-black-child, is the solution, that black and white people should marry each other and produce beautiful mestizo babies. Shabbat Shalom.
A Letter to My Enslaved Ancestors,
I don’t know your names or from where you were stolen. I don’t know how many of you freed yourselves or died in bondage. Yet I claim you all and I honor you. The savage ferocity of slavery has torn your names from the memories of your descendants but not your lives, your survival, your strength. I want to thank you for surviving and enduring the unimaginable. As I give thanks for you, I weep for you. I give thanks for your sacrifice – not that you sacrificed yourselves, but that you were sacrificed – human sacrifice on an epic scale to greed and misanthropic racism.
I know that I cannot know the fullness of the horrors you faced, endured, survived and to which some of you succumbed. Yet I must try to give voice to them. In your stolen names I now name some of the horrors of American chattel slavery: intergenerational terrorism, murder, kidnapping, rape, forced pregnancy, forced miscarriages and abortions, child abuse and neglect, physical, mental, emotional, sexual and spiritual torture, beating, burning, stabbing, scarring, maiming, forced illiteracy, extirpation of culture and religion, violent imposition of a morally bankrupt idolatrous Christianity, and much, much more.
What ever it is that I am and all that I am, I am because you were. I cannot contemplate my future without reflecting on my past, our past. Our nation now looks back 150 years to the Emancipation Proclamation. Many will pretend that one man freed the slaves in the United States and its territories with the stroke of a pen. They will not tell the stories of dirty tricks and politics. They will not say that the Proclamation only freed some slaves in some circumstances. They will not say that the majority of slaves freed themselves. They will say that their own ancestors were all on the side of the angels. But we know different. We know the truth and the truth has set us free.
Remembering that you built this country with your bare hands, your blood and broken bodies forming the mortar that cements it together – on a bloody foundation of other massacred peoples, that you freed yourselves and this nation from the curse of slavery, that you reconstructed this nation after it began cannibalizing itself over the right to exploit your bodies, I now look to the future. I look to the future that will be and I look to the future that I hope will be.
The racism, sexism, xenophobia, misanthropy and greed that characterized your times endures and adapts. And those plagues are hounded, challenged, diminished, transformed and rejected in our time by many of those who have benefitted from them and as well as by those of us who have borne its burdens.
The future I envision is one in which the United States is further enriched by the presence and contributions of citizens who reflect the breadth of the world’s peoples, and one in which ethnic majority and minority status will be upended and have no power. I also see a future in which power and resources which are currently concentrated in a dwindling segment of society multiply across race and class categories leading to a strengthening of us all. I also foresee a future in which some will still exploit others: we still disenfranchise some people with state and federal laws and taxes as it pertains to marriage and its benefits; we have not closed the pay gap between women and men; we have not done justice for the native peoples of this land; sexual slavery and trafficking endures, the poor remain with us.
In a future which yet may be, I see your children’s children’s children across the ages transforming our society, economy and infrastructure with renewable energy sources and eradicating abject poverty and hunger in partnership with sister and brother Americans whose ancestry circles the globe and in partnership with all peoples everywhere.
In order to reach our future, we must survive our present. Our children must survive and thrive and there is much that imperils them: poverty, substandard education, violence, lack of access to health and dental care, astronomical incarceration rates, a deeply flawed justice system, failure and inability to dream a world beyond the one they know or to which they have been confined, hopelessness.
In your name, in your memory we work and pray and struggle, weeping and rejoicing at what has been and what will be.
The Commemoration of Fr. Absalom Jones
By the rivers of Babylon, Israel sat down and there they wept when they remembered Zion. By the rivers Mississippi, Potomac and Chattahoochee, our ancestors sat down and there they wept when they remembered Mother Africa. On the willows, Israel hung up their harps, one translation says, “on the poplars.” From American poplar trees our ancestors were hung:
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
In Babylon, Israel’s captors asked them for words of songs and their tormentors for joy saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” In America and the Caribbean, our ancestors’ captors asked them for songs and minstrelsy, saying, “Sing us one of those Negro Spirituals.” How could they sing the song of the God of Mt. Sinai, in Egypt, in Africa, on foreign ground? How could we sing on command, shuck and jive, shuffle and scratch where we were not itching? If they forget Jerusalem, may their right hands wither and their tongues cling to the roofs of their mouths. If we forget Mother Africa, may our right hands wither and our tongues cling to the roofs of our mouths. If they do not remember, from whence they came… If we do not remember, from whence we came… There’s no place like home.
And home is also where the heart is, here, in Jerusalem, in Africa, Europe and the Caribbean, throughout our diasporas. Persons of African descent do not seek to return to our ancestral homeland as a collective any more than do all the world’s Jews seek to immigrate to Israel. These rivers have become our rivers. This land has become our land. And because of the lives and deaths of our ancestors, the land that once held us captive has become home for many of us here today. Here, biblical stories have been re-enacted and reinterpreted and reincarnated, from Harriet Moses Tubman to Canadian Canaan and back again with radical, threatening love, the kind of love that transforms people, places and even politics.
The Israelites eventually made a home in Babylon in spite of the violence with which they were transported. They transformed Babylon and left their own stamp on its culture. From then on, the name of Babylon would be linked with the Jewish theological tradition in the form of the Babylonian Talmud. Africans in America also made a home here in spite of the violence with which our ancestors were first deposited on these shores, surviving and thriving, changing American culture even as we were changed by our ancestors’ violent encounter with it.
Here in this Episcopal Church our ancestors made a home, carving it out of the ignorance, racism and sometimes, hatred that infested and infected it. We must never forget that our Church as did many others – once told enslaved Africans that the promises of freedom in the Gospels and in the Baptismal Covenant did not apply to them in a literal, physical sense. They would get the only freedom they needed to worry about in the next world. Yet our ancestors like blessed Absalom Jones found a home or the makings of a home in this church in spite of the racism and white supremacy that stained it, and transformed it into our home, with radical, threatening love. Those who were threatened by their claims of God’s love for them burned this church down. More than once, I believe. But look at us now, bishops, priests, deacons, acolytes, vergers, lay-readers, vibrant multi-cultural congregations; we are the Church along with a myriad of sisters and brothers from all nations and races. Now it is our task to continue to make this church home for all of God’s children, preaching the gospel of Isaiah and Jesus:
… good news to the oppressed,
…bind up the brokenhearted,
…preach to the captives, liberty,
and to the prisoners, release, freedom…
We need that gospel today, for though we’ve come a long way, oppression endures. People and institutions use their privilege and power to trample the rights and dignity of other people. Nearly twenty-five hundred years after the time when it is thought that the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites because they were different, ethnically, culturally and religiously, cultural, ethnic, religious and racial hatred endures in our world, in our nation and, if the truth be told, in our Church. There is still systematic oppression of women and girls in our world. Bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth and adults, and in far too many cases, assaults and murders or coerced suicides. The poor, the working poor and the desperate poor are ground down by the wealthy and sometimes by the middle class, even though most of the middle class is just a paycheck or serious illness away from becoming desperately poor themselves. The oppressed are yet with us and if we tell the truth, sometimes we are complicit in their oppression. We participate in and benefit from a system where workers in China and Indonesia make our electronic gadgets and tennis shoes at slave wages. Our economy depends migrant labor toiling for pennies an hour with no benefits so we can have fresh fruit and vegetables and coffee and tea. Even slavery persists, in factories, and in private homes. And then there are the untold numbers of women, girls and boys sold into sexual slavery each year. Radical threatening love requires unpopular truth-telling. That is also the Gospel.
The world needs this Gospel, this good news. We need to be reminded of the good news, that the Spirit of God has already anointed us, already sent us to proclaim this gospel with our words and with our lives. And it is good news. The good news is God’s love made flesh in Jesus the Messiah. God’s response to the brokenness of this world is divine love, not a warm, fuzzy feeling, but living, breathing, redeeming, transforming love active in the world, a radical, threatening love. As Fr. Absalom reminds us in his sermon, God came down into human history to deliver Israel from her oppressors. That’s good news.
This good news was also clothed in the Virgin’s womb. Jesus is the good news, his very existence, his life, his love, his witness, his example, his teaching is good news to those broken down by the mighty of this world. Even his suffering and death were transformed into good news by his glorious resurrection. The good news is also that God continues to redeem and to save, intervening in our lives and in our world, bringing real, literal freedom to those in bondage. God came down into our very nation, across the Atlantic, even to Great Britain, Spain and Portugal to wipe out the Atlantic slave trade. But this time, God didn’t come down into a virgin’s womb. God didn’t raise up a Moses, woman or man. God worked through women and men in houses of worship and government. The abolition of slavery, renunciation of Jim Crow and securing of civil rights for all Americans were the fruit of the Spirit of God moving through the hearts of women and men without number. Sometimes I think we forget that.
Sometimes, I think we get so fixated on individual heroes that we forget that we all have a role to play in proclaiming the good news, binding up the broken hearted and preaching liberty, freedom and release to captives and prisoners. And for all the freedom we have, we are still captive to so much in our world, in our lives and sometimes in our minds. Yet whatever the forces marshaled by the tyrants of this world, they will not stand because it is the Spirit of the Living Loving God who anoints, enables, empowers us.
The Spirit of God. The Spirit who fluttered over the waters of chaos giving birth to creation. The spirit embodied in fire and cloud leading her people from slavery to freedom. The Spirit who thunders like mighty waters, crashes like breaking rocks and speaks in a small, still voice – the sound of sheer silence. The Spirit who accompanied her people into Babylonian exile and shepherded them back to their homeland, keeping her promise. The Spirit who spoke new and unimaginable life in the womb of the Virgin of Nazareth. The same Spirit who taught and guided and accompanied Jesus of Nazareth, empowering him and raising him from the dead – that same Spirit calls us, sends us, anoints us, prepares us, enables us, empowers us.
And that is why we can proclaim good news to the oppressed. How could we not? Bind up the broken pieces of the broken hearts around us and even our own broken hearts. It’s possible because of the power of the Spirit. Preach liberty, release and freedom and know that it is coming because the Spirit has never failed to deliver. Proclaim that this is the year of God’s favor. As was last year and the year before that, and the ancient year in which this text was first composed. And we who have just buried our dear Billy Valentine, and those mourning Whitney Houston, the Spirit comforts us and accompanies us as we comfort each other. And while we are waiting the long years it may take for God to break open our prisons and change the heart of nations, God is always with us, hearing our prayers, accompanying us on our journey, sharing in our suffering. This too is good news. We are never alone. And that’s a good thing, because the path of love is not always an easy path.
And yet what neither Jesus nor Absalom Jones did was check the prevailing cultural and political winds before opposing the religious authorities in the name of love in their day. They did not choose the easy path, the popular path. They chose the path of love, radical, threatening love. Threatening the establishments of their day, threatening their spiritual power and economic interests. With love. The love our Gospel calls for, life-surrendering, life-saving love. The love Fr. Absalom had for his wife when he bought her freedom from slavery, when he could have used that money for himself – he had no way of knowing if he would ever get his hands on that much money again. But he chose to lay his life down in the bonds of slavery so that she and their children would be free. That’s love.
This is the good news that Father Absalom Jones preached. This is the Gospel. This Gospel is that God’s love for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from every oppression and from death itself. Jesus the Messiah, the Son of Woman and the Son of God, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many.
In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.
Isaiah 61:1 The spirit of the Sovereign God is upon me,
because the Holy God has anointed me;
God has sent me to proclaim good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to preach to the captives, liberty,
and to the prisoners, release, freedom;
2 to proclaim the year of the Gracious God’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion,
to give them a wreath instead of refuse,
the oil of jubilation instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a fainting spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Faithful God, to wreathe God in glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
the former desolations, they shall raise;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the desolations of many generations.
1 By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there we hung up our harps.
3 For there they who took us captive
asked us for words of songs,
and our tormentors for joy, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
4 How could we sing the song of the God of Sinai
on foreign ground?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
Thanksgiving Sermon, 1 January 1808 An Epistle from Fr. Absalom Jones,
The history of the world shows us, that the deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage, is not the only instance, in which it has pleased God to appear in behalf of oppressed and distressed nations, as the deliverer of the innocent, and of those who call upon his name. He is as unchangeable in his nature and character, as he is in his wisdom and power. The great and blessed event, which we have this day met to celebrate, is a striking proof, that the God of heaven and earth is the same, yesterday, and to-day, and for ever…He has heard the prayers that have ascended from the hearts of his people; and he has, as in the case of his ancient and chosen people the Jews, come down to deliver our suffering country–men from the hands of their oppressors. He came down into the United States, when they declared, in the constitution which they framed in 1788, that the trade in our African fellow-men, should cease in the year 1808: He came down into the British Parliament, when they passed a law to put an end to the same iniquitous trade in May, 1807…
Let not our expressions of gratitude to God for his late goodness and mercy to our countrymen, be confined to this day, nor to this house: let us carry grateful hearts with us to our places of abode, and to our daily occupations; and let praise and thanksgivings ascend daily to the throne of grace, in our families, and in our closets, for what God has done for our African brethren. Let us not forget to praise him for his mercies to such of our colour as are inhabitants of this country; particularly, for disposing the hearts of the rulers of many of the states to pass laws for the abolition of slavery; for the number and zeal of the friends he has raised up to plead our cause; and for the privileges, we enjoy, of worshiping God, agreeably to our consciences, in churches of our own. This comely building, erected chiefly by the generosity of our friends, is a monument of God's goodness to us, and calls for our gratitude with all the other blessings that have been mentioned.
John 15:12 “This is my commandment, that you keep on loving one another just as I have loved you. 13 A greater love than this has no one, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants any, because the servant does not know what the lord is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.