What Would Absalom Jones Say to Us Now

What Would Absalom Jones Say to Us Now

Jesus said, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.’
John 15:12-15

What better time to be at St. Luke’s, the first independent Black Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, then on the day we honor the blessed memory of Absalom Jones, the first Black person to be ordained priest in the Episcopal Church? Thank you for the honor of preaching this morning.

It is a double honor for me to be here at St. Luke’s on the day when we can announce the good news that the Rev. Kim Turner Baker has accepted the call as your next rector! It will be both a homecoming for the Rev. Baker, and a time of new beginnings for you all. I’m very happy to welcome her back to the Diocese of Washington and will do all in my power to support her and all at St. Luke’s as you draw from your heritage, seek the will of God for your lives in this day, and look to the future with hope.

With the arrival of your next priest and rector, this is a threshold movement for St. Luke’s. Indeed, it is for all of us, as we begin to emerge from yet another acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic and imagine a less restrictive future. In this threshold time, how might we strive to be faithful to Jesus and his spirit now?

Thus today is a good day to pause and consider what our spiritual ancestors would say to us now, if they could. What would those who lived through their own times of trial want you and me to hear as we face the trials and challenges before us? I will turn our full attention to Absalom Jones in a moment, but first let me ask if a particular person comes to mind for you, perhaps a family member, or teacher, or someone you admired from a distance whose insights you cherish. What would that person say to you beyond this life by way of encouragement or exhortation today?

If you think about it, much of what we have in Scripture are a beloved leader’s parting words. The entire book of Deuteronomy, for example, was written as Moses’ last words to the Israelties, when he realized that he would not be the one to lead them into the Promised Land. It’s filled with wisdom, good counsel, specific instructions, and ends with this word of encouragement:

‘Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.’
Deuteronomy 31: 6-7

In the Gospel of John, there are three chapters known as “the Farewell Discourse,” Jesus’ final words of blessing and encouragement to his disciples from his last supper with them. The passage we just heard and is printed in your bulletin are among Jesus’ parting words.

Jesus said, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.’
John 15:12-15

Parting words, you see, are also beginning words. They are gifts given us to take from the past into our future.

So on this day when we honor the blessed memory of Absalom Jones, I wonder what he would say if he were able to speak to us directly. What would he tell us about perserverance and of faith? What would he want to encourage in us, and how would he exhort us to live?

Last Thursday evening, the Rev. Canon Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union, facilitated a discussion among three Episcopal bishops to ponder that precise question.

Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown of Vermont began by acknowledging how grateful she was that Absalom Jones lived. His life and witness was an encouragement to her and a reminder of how far we have come in this nation and how far we have yet to go.

I feel the same way. I’m so glad to know about him, grateful for this week when I immersed myself in his life and writings. He was a gifted preacher, evangelist, community organizer, abolitionist, institution builder. And while Absalom Jones wasn’t one to call undue attention to himself, I have no doubt that he would want us to remember the courageous witness of his people.

He would want us to know, for example, how the Black community of Philadelphia came to the aid of the general population during a horrific Yellow Fever outbreak in 1793. The epidemic lasted for 3 months and killed 5,000 people (10 percent of the city population). Over 20,000 fled the city and countless thousands suffered illness. Practically every White person of means left the city if they could. The call went out to Black residents of the city, asking for their help in caring for the sick and grieving and in burying the dead–under the false assertion that Black people were less susceptible to the illness (as its cause was as yet unknown). Many answered the call, risking their own lives to assist others.

We might never have known how heroic their efforts were but for later accusations by a White leader that Black residents had stolen from those they helped. Absalom Jones responded with a strong defense, giving a detailed account of what actually happened.

Hear his words:

Early in September, a solicitation appeared in the public papers, to the people of color to come forward and assist the distressed, perishing, and neglected sick; with a kind of assurance, that people of our color were not liable to take the infection. Upon which we and a few others met and consulted how to act on so truly alarming and melancholy an occasion. After some conversation, we found a freedom to go forth, confiding in him who can preserve in the midst of a burning fiery furnace, sensible that it was our duty to do all the good we could to our suffering fellow mortals.

We set out to see where we could be useful. The first we visited was a man in Emsley’s Alley, who was dying, and his wife lay dead at the time in the house, there were none to assist but two poor helpless children. We administered what relief we could, and applied to the overseers of the poor to have the woman buried. We visited upwards of twenty families that day–they were scenes of woe indeed! The Lord was pleased to strengthen us, and remove all fear from us, and disposed our hearts to be as useful as possible….

We can with certainty assure the public that we have seen more humanity, more real sensibility from the poor blacks, than from the poor whites.

A poor afflicted dying man, stood at his chamber window, praying and beseeching every one that passed by, to help him to a drink of water; a number of white people passed, and instead of being moved by the poor man’s distress, they hurried as fast as they could out of the sound of his cries–until at length a gentleman, who seemed to be a foreigner came up, he could not pass by, but had not resolution enough to go into the house, he held eight dollars in his hand, and offered it to several as a reward for giving the poor man a drink of water, but was refused by everyone, until a poor black man came up, the gentleman offered the eight dollars to him, if he would relieve the poor man with a little water, “Master” replied the good natured fellow, “I will supply the gentleman with water, but surely I will not take your money for it” nor could he be prevailed upon to accept his bounty: he went in, supplied the poor object with water, and rendered him every service he could.

We do not recollect such acts of humanity from the poor white people, in all the round we have been engaged in. We could mention many other instances of the like nature, but think it needless. It is unpleasant for us to make these remarks, but justice to our color demands it.1

Yes, I am glad to know that such a man is part of our heritage as a church and ashamed of those of my race that treated him and others so poorly.

In last week’s discussion, Bishop Rob Wright spoke of Absalom Jones’ deep faith and personal agency. “He managed to stay focused on Jesus amid the failures of the church,” Wright said. “He was determined to grow something, to invite people into something positive.”

It’s not clear how and where Absalom Jones came to faith in Jesus, but his faith was strong and compelling. He felt what Jesus said to his disciples so long ago–that Jesus was his friend, his life companion, his guide and his strength. As you know, Jones and his good friend Richard Allen, were lay evangelists and preachers at St. George’s Methodist Church, a mixed-race congregation. As the Black membership grew as a result of their leadership, White elders responded by segregating worship, requiring that Black members sit in the balcony.

Absalom Jones never wrote or spoke of the wrenching experience of being forcibly removed from a front pew while praying, but his friend Richard Allen did. Richard Allen, as you know, chose to establish an independent church, what would become a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), while Jones established The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. In 1802, Jones was ordained an Episcopal priest.

Bishop Wright underscored the fact that Absalom Jones did not harbor contempt for anyone. Nor did he behave as a victim. He was clear simply about who he was as a child of God. He had a certain confidence about him, and a sense of urgency. With the creation of the Free African Society, an organization of Black People for Black People, and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, he helped instill that sense of agency and inner confidence in others.

Thus, a word that Absalom Jones would have for us today would surely be about our relationship to Jesus, an encouragement and exhortation to stay focused on him, and to ask us to take stock of what we are building and making possible for others. From where do we derive our sense of self and sense of agency? Absalom Jones would have us look to Jesus, and to claim our dignity and worth as beloved children of God and the ones Jesus calls friends.

Absalom Jones would want us to build again, to grow the church as a force for good in our communities. As your bishop, I feel a responsibility to honor the gifts and witness of the Black Episcopal Church. I dedicate the remaining years of my episcopate to the revitalization and renewal of all our congregations, with a particular focus on rising generations. I pray that St. Luke’s will once again become a vibrant expression of the Black Church, and not just St. Luke’s but all our historic and predominantly Black congregations. But as we all know, it’s going to require more from all of us than simply looking back on the past, or wishing for things to be different.

At our Diocean Convention on January 29, a resolution passed calling for a task force to study revitalization strategies for our Black congregations, with the leadership of that task force coming from those churches. We need St. Luke’s to be part of the conversation, which is, of course, not new, but now has the full attention of the diocesan leadership.

Absalom Jones invited others to join in building something positive and fruitful and life-transforming in Christ. From that core strength, the people of St. Thomas worked for the abolition of slavery, established schools, and care for their city, both Black and White.

What will we do, inspired by the same Spirit that inspired him?

Will you pray with me?

Lord, on the day we are privileged to remember and be uplifted by the life and witness of Absalom Jones, we ask for you to give us your grace and power to live the lives to which we are called. We don’t know what the future holds, and we aren’t always sure what we are to do. So please, Jesus, give us eyes to see you, ears to hear you, hearts to love you, to know you as our friend, and filled with that love, love one another and renew your church and heal your world.



1From A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, 1794