On the first day of January in 1808, the Rev. Absalom Jones, the first African American Episcopal priest, preached a sermon of Thanksgiving. The day was remarkable, because it was the first day the importation and sale of human beings enslaved in Africa was illegal in the United States. Many had worked and dreamed of this day, and blessed Absalom and his congregation, St. Thomas African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia were among them.
The day was remarkable, and the sermon was remarkable.
Because the preacher didn’t just give thanks for the end of the slave trade. He dared for more. In the thanksgiving sermon, Absalom Jones estimated that in the story of Exodus God’s people were enslaved in Egypt for nearly 400 years. Modern day hearers can’t help but notice, just last year we passed the 400 year anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved human beings from Africa on these shores in 1619. 400 years, Fr. Absalom Jones said, is a long time to wait for justice. The sermon was remarkable, because this sermon is one of the first published public statements of a black man, an Episcopalian preacher who called not just for the end of the slave trade, but for the end of the institution of slavery. Absalom Jones even dared to say that God had a covenant with Black Americans, and that God won’t rest until Black Americans are truly free.
My sermon today is about history. It matters what history we claim as our own. It matters what history we teach and claim and our own. I grew up an Episcopalian, a cradle Episcopalian the saying sometimes goes. My grandmother would actually have said we are “genetic Episcopalians.” We can trace my mother’s family’s ties to the church, some clergy, some lay leaders, almost all the way back to Absalom’s day. But here’s the honest truth. I hadn’t heard of Absalom Jones until I was in my Church history class in seminary. I spent a lot of time in Sunday school growing up. My mom was a priest, and I’d never heard of Absalom Jones.
Today’s lessons, both from the second book of Kings and from Mark’s Gospel are about history. Elisha is inheriting Elijah’s power. Jesus is standing, with his followers and the prophets. Jesus is a bridge between the great prophets, and his own day. Jesus stands in the lineage of the greatest of the prophets, the Transfiguration tells us. Both of these stories have an element of secrecy, because in both a claim of power is made. Elisha will inherit the power of his predecessor. Jesus will stand in that same lineage of Elijah the great prophet, the one who challenged unjust rulers. Jesus will also stand in the ancient lineage of Moses, the one who walked with God’s people into freedom. Claiming your history can be a political act. Claiming your history can be dangerous for the status quo.
So the question I want to ask you today is this, “Who are our predecessors in the faith?”
Who are our predecessors in the faith?
As a kid, I couldn’t have told you who Absalom Jones was. I couldn’t have told you he was one of the earliest priests in our church, the first man born into slavery and the ordained. I could tell you about a whole bunch of white men. I could list many of the presidents who were Episcopalian. I could tell you that the chaplain to the Continental Congress was an Episcopal priest. As I kid, I could tell you that Samuel Seabury was our first bishop. (It would take the musical Hamilton to introduce me to the inconvenient truth that Samuel Seabury had argued against the American Revolution from the pulpit).
Our history, as a church, is a mess, it really is. The majority of US slaveholders were Episcopalians. Much of the establishment church, especially in the early days of the country, was Episcopalian. Even after the trade of enslaved human beings from Africa was outlawed, Episcopalians sold slaves to one another domestically. Our first rector at Holy Communion was a confederate soldier. An Episcopal bishop served as a general for the army of the Confederacy. Many Episcopalians fought to retain slavery. Just a few years ago, a church in Virginia finally voted to change its name from Robert E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church. They are now called “Grace Episcopal.”
History is messier than the history books often allow, especially history books written for school age kids. If the only Episcopalians you know from history are Washington, Jefferson, Robert E Lee or Samuel Seabury, you’re going to be disappointed when history takes a second look at these men. If they are all you know, then it might seem that the people you relied on to point the way are being toppled. In whose lineage do you stand?
That’s why, I’d argue, we need to know our history more broadly. We need to transfigure our textbooks. We need to know more stories. Who do you count, whose story do you remember, when you think about your history?
In 1808, on the day the trade of enslaved Africans became illegal, the first black Episcopal priest, Absalom Jones climbed into the pulpit. As a young enslaved man, he had taught himself to read. Scraping together every cent he could, he had purchased first his wife’s freedom and then his own. He had persuaded our first presiding bishop to ordain him, and to enroll his congregation in the Episcopal Church. St. Thomas African Episcopal Church still stands in Philadelphia. It was also the site of the first ordinations of women in our denomination, 150 plus years later.
This week a documentary is coming out on PBS called simply “the Black Church.” It features an interview with our presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, the first black man to lead our denomination. Also interviewed is arguably our leading theologian, The Very Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, the first black woman to lead an Episcopal seminary. We are standing at a remarkable time in the history of the Episcopal church. For the first time in our history, African Americans are occupying the highest church offices with some regularity. Our bishop, consecrated last year, is the first black person to be elected bishop of Missouri.
The Legacy is Long
But, friends, if you like me, didn’t learn it as a child, know this. The legacy is long. The Episcopal Church was the church of Thurgood Marshall, the first black man to sit on the Supreme Court, and the attorney who argued Brown V. Board of Education which desegregated America’s schools. The Episcopal Church ordained Pauli Murray, the first black woman priest in our church, but before she was a priest, as a law student she wrote the paper that gave Thurgood Marshall the roadmap for the case. This has been a church of black organizers, black doctors, black teachers. Our church has a black history, and we could all stand to know it better.
And in 1808, from a pulpit in Philadelphia, Blessed Absalom Jones dared to preach a sermon which challenged the dominant idea in America, the idea that God blessed the institution of slavery.
Friends, it has been a long winter. This is the last Sunday of Epiphany. I remember the last Sunday of Epiphany last year well. Our newly elected, and not yet consecrated bishop visited us that Sunday. At the end of the service this kids held up an Alleluia banner. It was the last time Alleluia was sung by a church full of people.
If you are struggling. If you are struggling in a city that seems to be covering up injustice in our city jails. If you are struggling to live in a state that wants to make churches and schools and bars open-carry zones. If you are struggling with the long lines and the state government distributing more vaccine to places with fewer people of color. If you are struggling with the freezing temperatures and our more erratic climate. If you are still struggling with the deaths of black human beings at the hands of white police officers. Friends if you are struggling, know that you aren’t alone.
We need saints we don’t learn about in school
If the only history we know, in this country, if the only history we teach is the history of the so-called “winners” we impoverish ourselves. If the only historical figures we know are the white “masters,” then we might think that when we face difficulty then God must be punishing us, we must not measure up to their example. We need a word from a historic preacher like Absalom Jones
Because that’s not the whole story. It’s not. God doesn’t bless just the winners. In fact, as Elisha and Jesus both hint, sometimes God’s blessing will upset the status quo. The Black Church, including the Black Episcopal Church and its historic leaders knows, when there is no way, you make a way. You make a way out of no way.
At the end of Absalom Jones’ Thanksgiving sermon he prayed a prayer. He prayed for our nation, for our president and congress, a prayer of thanksgiving that they had ended the slave trade, and then he asked God, and I quote: “that this highly favoured country may continue to afford a safe and peaceful retreat from the calamities of war and slavery, for ages yet to come.”
We stand in the ages yet to come. The peaceful retreat from the calamities of war and slavery, that is still our work. We are still in the midst of that retreat. But friends, ours is a history rich, rich, with folks who dared to dream, who dared to preach, who dared to stand in the lineage of the prophets. Don’t forget, even when it seems there is no way, there is always a reason to pray. There is always room for an Alleluia. Don’t settle for a partial history, because sometimes you need the saints you didn’t learn about in school.