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.