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2.12.2012

Absalom Jones & Richard Allen

Sermon Preached on the Occasion of the Celebration of the Feast of Absalom Jones
at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Evanston, Illinois
Sunday, February 12, 2012



For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.[1] Paul writes with a sense of urgency to the Christian converts as they have fallen victim to an intra-Christian dispute between Paul’s missionary message and the missionary message of other Jewish Christians.   At the heart of the dispute is whether it is necessary for gentile converts to take on the Jewish laws and practices in order to really belong to God’s people.  And in the letter to the Galatians we have Paul’s response: a resounding No!  These words from Paul’s letter to the Galatians are as important to us today as they were when they were written.
Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.[2]  Paul tells the Galatians that they are justified – that is, set in right relation to God – right now, as they are. That is the gift of God – true freedom.  To attempt to become justified through the law is to reject God’s gift.  Any conditions that are placed on a people in order that they might be full members of the body of Christ are a perversion of the gospel – a perversion of the Good News of God in Christ Jesus that Christ alone has set us free.  Period. 
***
Absalom Jones and Richard Allen[3], were among the earliest ordained black ministers in the United States. Jones was born a house slave in 1746 in Delaware and sold to a Philadelphia storeowner at age 16. In 1770, Jones married Mary King, another slave.  By 1778 he purchased her freedom so that she and their children would be free.  Seven years later he purchased his own freedom. Both Jones and Allen were educated by Quakers in Philadelphia where they were students at antislavery activist Anthony Benezet’s night school for Blacks. 
At St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, Jones served as lay minister for its Black membership.  The active evangelism of Jones and that of his friend, Richard Allen, greatly increased Black membership at St. George’s. This growth in membership alarmed the all-white vestry who voted to segregate Blacks into an upstairs gallery of the church.  When on the following Sunday, ushers tapped Jones, Allen and others on the shoulder during the opening prayers, and demanded that they move to the balcony without waiting for the end of the prayer, they walked out in a body.
In 1787, Black Christians organized the Free African Society, the first such organized society, and Jones and Allen were elected overseers. Members of the Society paid monthly dues for the benefit of those in need. The Society established communication with similar Black groups in other cities.  Under the leadership of Jones and Allen, plans were made to transform this mutual aid society into an African congregation. Although the group was originally non-denominational, eventually members wanted to be affiliated with existing denominations.  Jones and Allen chose to proceed in different directions; however, they remained lifelong friends and collaborators. 
Allen formed the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1793 and by 1816 the African Methodist Episcopal Church was recognized as a separate denomination from the Methodist Church. 
Jones, on the other hand, wanted to affiliate with the Protestant Episcopal Church and in 1792 founded the congregation of the African Church in Philadelphia. The African Church applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania on the following conditions:
1.            That they be received as an organized body
2.            That they have control over their local affairs
3.            That Absalom Jones be licensed as lay reader, and, if qualified, be ordained as minister
In October 1794 the African Church was admitted as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Bishop William White ordained Jones as deacon in 1795 and as priest on September 21, 1802.
***
More than two centuries later, you and I join together for worship and to celebrate the life and legacy of Absalom Jones and Richard Allen.  That Paul’s letter to the Galatians is appointed for this day is no accident for it stands as a reminder that Christ’s death upon the cross is, as our Rite I Eucharist proclaims, “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”
Any conditions that we place on a person or on a people in order that they might be considered full members of the body of Christ are a perversion of the gospel – a perversion of the Good News of God in Christ Jesus that Christ alone has set us free. 
You are welcome in Christ’s church, but only if you sit in the upstairs gallery.  The yoke of slavery - a perversion of the Gospel!
You are welcome to be a part of the body of Christ, but only if you vote like we do. The yoke of slavery - a perversion of the Gospel!
You are welcome to be a part of this community, but only if you have the right clothes, the right amount of money, live in the right neighborhood, . . . [you get the idea]. The yoke of slavery - a perversion of the Gospel!
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we are welcome in Christ’s church because Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Through the grace of God, we are free.
What is the nature of this freedom?  If we read Scripture with care, we will see that this is not about nationalistic pride and it is not about individual liberty. The freedom of the Gospel is a communal freedom and as the Church we are invited to embody that freedom in the very life we live together. 
Our Catechism teaches that “the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” and goes on to say that “the Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.”[4]  When we do this work, we live out of the freedom that God has given us.
When we open our doors to our homeless brothers and sisters, then we are living out of the freedom that God has given us.
When we collect food or clothing and share it with our brothers and sisters who have need, then we are living out of the freedom that God has given us.
When we talk openly and honestly about ongoing racial tensions that persist in Evanston and when we hold one another accountable for ensuring that each one is treated with justice, peace, and love, then we are living out of the freedom that God has given us. 
And when all divisions are overcome in the sharing of the bread and the wine at this one table – where everyone is welcome - we are living out of the freedom that God has given us. 
HOW COULD ANYONE[5]
How could anyone ever tell you
You were anything less than beautiful?
How could anyone ever tell you
You were less than whole?
How could anyone fail to notice
That your loving is a miracle?
How deeply you're connected to my soul?

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore. . .



[1] Galatians 5:1
[2] Galatians 5:2
[3] The historical overview is a compilation of materials from the following sources:
·         Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (New York: Church Publishing, 2010), p. 220.
·         Joe Lockard, “Introduction,” Annotated Edition of a January 1, 1808 Sermon by Absalom Jones, preached on January 1, 1808, and published by the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church of Philadelphia, Antislavery Project. Accessed online February 9, 2012. 
·         James Kiefer, “Absalom Jones (13 February 1818), and Richard Allen,” Christian Biographies accessed online on February 11, 2012.
·         “Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania,” “Richard Allen,” and “Absalom Jones,” Wikipedia accessed online on February 11, 2012.
[4] Book of Common Prayer, 855.
[5] Words by Libby Roderick, 1988.

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