Sunday, February 16, 2014

For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free: Absalom Jones and Richard Allen (J. Barry Vaughn, Feb. 16, 2014)

Today we commemorate Absalom Jones and Richard Allen. I knew very little about them before I began to prepare for today's service, but now I'm convinced that they are not only saints but American heroes.


Born a slave in 1746, Absalom Jones saw his family split up and sold to different parts of the country in 1762. Jones had the good fortune to be sold to a merchant in Philadelphia. That city was becoming a hotbed of abolitionist ideas, thanks to the Quakers who founded it. There he worked in a grocery store by day and by night attended a Quaker school where he learned to read, the Bible being his principal textbook.


He was also converted by the preaching of the Methodists and joined a Methodist church where he met another slave, Richard Allen. Jones also met and married a woman named Mary King. Jones was industrious and saved enough money to purchase his wife's freedom in 1770. The fact that he purchased his wife's freedom before his own sounds like an act of extraordinary altruism, but in fact was profoundly practical: If his wife was free, then their children would be free. It took him another six years to save enough money to purchase his own freedom.


In 1772, Jones, Allen, and other black worshipers were forbidden from sitting on the main floor of the Methodist church they attended and told that they would be allowed to sit only in the balcony. Understandably, they left the church and founded the Free African Society, a mutual aid society that later became the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.


Richard Allen continued to be a Methodist and was ordained in that denomination, although he later withdrew and founded the first independent black denomination in the U.S. - the African Methodist Episcopal Church.


Jones petitioned William White, the Bishop of Pennsylvania, to be ordained and to admit his church as a parish of the diocese. White ordained Jones a deacon in 1795, but he had to wait another nine years before being ordained to the priesthood.


In 1793, a malaria epidemic struck Philadelphia, then the national capital. Washington and other government leaders understandably withdrew from the city to avoid infection, but so did many of the city's other white leaders, including physicians and clergy. But Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, and other blacks fearlessly served the sick and dying.


It is estimated that 20 times more blacks than whites nursed victims of the epidemic, a fact that was crucial in gaining social acceptance for blacks in Philadelphia.


But I don't want to give you a lecture on church history or African American history or U.S. history. I don't want to give you a lecture on any kind of history. In fact, I  don't want to give you a lecture at all. I want to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.


I have no idea what it is like to be the object of racial prejudice. I have never experienced it. On the contrary, I am a white, male Southerner. So, I am likely to have been on the wrong side of racial prejudice, and I am certain that I have benefited from my status as a white, male Southerner.


I lived in Philadelphia for four years and served a parish there, as well as founding and leading a non-profit organization. My deacon was an African American woman, Elyse Bradt-Ray, who was a native of Philadelphia. At first, Elyse was a little suspicious of me. After I had been called and before I arrived, she referred to me as a "white man from Alabama." But we soon became friends. When both she and I preached sermons on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, I kidded Elyse about referring to me as a "white man from Alabama." She responded, "Well, I meant that as a term of affection!"


However, I do know what it is like to experience prejudice and discrimination. A well-known Episcopal priest, someone whose name you might recognize, the author of several books, had an opening on his staff about the time I was ordained. Without any prompting from me a friend of mine in his congregation asked him to consider me for the opening. "Oh, I couldn't hire him," he said. "His lifestyle makes him unacceptable."


When the predominantly black St. Phillip's Church in Brooklyn, New York, first petitioned the Diocese of New York to be accepted as a parish, some members of the diocese objected to the presence of blacks in the diocese. They said, "...we question their possession of those qualities which would render their intercourse with members of a church convention useful or agreeable..."


"His lifestyle makes him unacceptable..."


I only want to make two simple points my sermon today.


The first is this: Prejudice and discrimination can have no place among us. Today's second reading is from Paul's letter to the Galatians. Paul wrote, "For freedom Christ has set us free... do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." There were some 5 million slaves in the Roman empire in the first century. About 10-15 percent of the population were slaves. But more than likely a majority of first century Christians were slaves. We know this because the New Testament is written in Greek, which in the first century, was the language of slaves. When Paul wrote, "For freedom Christ has set us free," he was saying that Christian baptism had abolished the distinction between slaves and free persons.  Elsewhere in Galatians Paul wrote, "In Christ there is neither slave nor free, male nor female, Jew or Greek."


They were powerful words in the first century and they were powerful in 18th and 19th c. America. They empowered former slaves such as Absalom Jones and Richard Allen to seek and win their freedom. They inspired abolitionists to work for the emancipation of all slaves and the abolition of slavery itself.


They are still powerful words. They remind us that distinctions of class, gender, and race cannot separate us, that we must look not at the color of people's skin or the size of their salaries, but instead peer into their hearts. Or as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "I dream of a day when my four little children will be judged not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character."


The second point I want to make is this: I owe a debt of gratitude to that priest who judged me unacceptable because of my lifestyle. I would not for a minute say that everyone who has experienced prejudice and discrimination should be grateful to the person or group that discriminated against them. But being on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination can make us stronger, better, and wiser people. It can show us what is really important. And it can point us in new directions and make us see the world in a new way.


I had desperately wanted the power and status I would acquire if I had been given a place on the staff of that priest's church. I had badly wanted his approval and blessing. And frankly, if I had gotten what I wanted, it might have led to success, both professional and financial. But even though I might have gotten what I wanted, I'm not sure I would have gotten what I really needed.


Instead of becoming an associate on the staff of a wealthy, suburban church, I went to a small rural church 90 miles away and served there for five years. It was often a difficult and lonely experience, but it deepened me. It forced me to reach down into my heart and soul and develop new skills and find new qualities in myself.  As a result of going to that small, rural parish, I had the opportunity to respond when three small black churches in my town were mysteriously burned to the ground. I brought together my fellow white clergy to respond to those burnings. We raised money. We even received $50,000 from what was then the Presiding Bishop's fund to help rebuild the churches.


Absalom Jones and Richard Allen and the black worshipers who were ejected from St. George's Methodist Church in Philadelphia were forced to go in a new direction. Absalom Jones helped found St. Thomas' African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, a church that has been a beacon of black empowerment for 200 years. Richard Allen helped found the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination in the United States.


In a sermon about Absalom Jones, Canon Harold Lewis wrote that Jones, "seeing the need for blacks to have an economic as well as a spiritual base in the community, he founded, along with Richard Allen, the first black insurance company, and acquired ... real estate. Jones, who earlier had purchased his own freedom, recognized the importance of freedom for all blacks, and through the establishment of the Free African Society, he... effectively aided the emancipation of slaves and the protection of the rights of free blacks."


Would Jones have achieved all that if he had continued to worship quietly at St. George's? I don't know.


Please don't think I'm saying that prejudice and discrimination are in any sense good things. Not at all. What I'm saying is that God can use them, and we can see the hand of God at work even in the disappointments, disasters, and sorrows that come our way.


One more thing about Absalom Jones: He was in many ways a nonviolent warrior for freedom. Jones and other blacks were among the first people to petition the U.S. government to abolish slavery, fifty years before Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation. In 1808, the year that the U.S. Constitution outlawed the slave trade, Jones established the tradition of preaching an annual anti-slavery sermon.


In his 1808 sermon, Jones said these words:


"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 on behalf of oppressed and distressed nations as the deliverer of the innocent, and of those who call upon his name.... The great and blessed event that we celebrate this day is a striking proof that the God of heaven and earth is the same yesterday, and today, and forever... He has heard the prayers that have ascended from the hearts of his people; and 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..."


When the brothers of the patriarch Joseph sold him into slavery, they thought that they had seen the last of him. "We shall see what will become of his dreams," they said. But when Joseph became the second most important official in Egypt, there was a famine in the land of his family and his brothers came to him seeking food and he rescued them from starvation. Joseph said to them, "You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good." (Gen. 50.20)


So let us give thanks for Absalom Jones and Richard Allen. Let us give thanks for all those who endured oppression and remained not only faithful but defiant. "Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
W.E.B. Du Bois once said that "the Episcopal Church had probably done less for black people than any other aggregation of Christians."