This sermon was preached on the Feast Day of the Rev. Absalom Jones on Monday, February 13 by second-year Peter Homeyer. The texts for this sermon are: Isaiah 11: 1-5, Psalm 137: 1-6, Galatians 5:1-5, and John 15:12-15.
Anyone here ever feel like the writer of Psalm 137? Like you need to grieve a little, “to sit down and weep”? That it is painfully obvious that our choices for ourselves and how to live our lives are being held captive by the powers of this world? Have you wondered, “how shall we sing the Lord’s song”, when what we see around us are restrictions on the most basic recognition of our lives: like who we can love or where we can travel? I know I have.
Today we remember a man who lived in a time of oppression more profound than that experienced by many of us and as deep as that of the Israelites when they were carried into captivity. Today we honor Absalom Jones. Born into slavery in Delaware before the Revolutionary War, he eventually became the first African-American Episcopal priest, and his lifelong song of praise to the Lord remains an inspiration for all those who find themselves bent under the yoke of oppression by those who will not grant them the basic dignities of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But before I continue, would you please join me in prayer? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing in your sight o Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Just over a year ago I had the good fortune of worshipping for a few weeks with the congregation of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Inglewood, CA. The church, like the city of Inglewood, is predominately African-American. They offer weekly Bible study, which I was able to attend a few times. On Sunday mornings the room was packed and lively discussion buzzed around from participant to participant. People talked not only about that day’s passage, but how it related to their own lives. In each class, no matter the scripture passage we were studying together, eventually someone in the room would give a little chuckle and say, “Sounds like you got a life lesson on the difference between Chronos time and Kairos time.”
Chronos, is the Greek word for chronological or sequential time but Kairos measures time differently. It is not any particular amount of minutes, hours, days, or years. It is indeterminate in length, measuring instead transformational change. The members of Holy Trinity understand this to be God’s measurement of time. And working in God’s time, means putting aside the schedule and the timetable. Working in God’s time takes patience and humility.
Absalom Jones understood kairos time. In the United States before the abolishment of slavery, babies born to female slaves were the property of their masters. Absalom Jones at sixteen was sold away from him mother and sister and moved with his new master to Philadelphia. Later, when, he met his wife, Mary, he carefully saved his money not to buy his own freedom but first obtain her liberty. He did this to make sure that his own children were born free, breaking for one family, a cycle of bondage which passed from generation to generation.
At church Absalom Jones suffered through the kind of faulty thinking which Paul warns the Galatians to abandon. After his own manumission, he and other freed blacks in Philadelphia tried to join a local church, but once inside they were told they could not worship with the other members. They could not sit or kneel with the rest of the congregation, but would need to segregate themselves to the balcony. Instead, after completing their prayer, Jones and the others walked out. Not welcome to participate as full members in the white church, they established their own black congregation, independent of white control. This church became a gathering place for those speaking out against slavery and it was here that Jones was ordained as a priest in 1804. Unlike the Galatians, or the members of the white church, Reverend Jones was not to be fooled: differences to the exterior of our bodies are not material in our relationship to God.
Does anyone know when it became permanently illegal to import slaves into the United States?
January 1, 1808, 20 years after the ratification of the Constitution. Many people were not sure it would happen at that time. The way the Constitution is written, this prohibition could not be made before 1808 but did not specify that the international slave trade must be abolished, simply that it could be. When Congress did pass a bill outlawing the international slave trade, Reverend Jones gave a sermon entitled, A Thanksgiving Sermon. Using Exodus 3:7-8 as his text, he reminded listeners of the, “nearly 400 years” the people of God lived, “degraded and oppressed” by the Egyptians, when “all was misery. all was grief. all was despair.” But even during that time, “God was not indifferent to their sufferings”, open to, “every tear they shed… every groan they recorded”. And, in due time, in Kairos time, we might say, God came down to them and transformed their lives.
Reverend Jones did not live long enough to see God manifest herself by ending slavery in this country. During his lifetime the number of people living in bondage increased ten-fold. There was good reason to sit and weep. To forget how to sing the Lord’s song. But, instead, in his Thanksgiving Sermon, Reverend Jones suggests a celebration. An annual gathering on January 1st as a time to: (1) celebrate the partial victory represented by the end of the international slave trade; (2) show gratitude for allies still struggling alongside them: (3) pray for further heavenly influence; and (4) encourage virtuous living in the face of hardship.
These components are just as relevant in our own time, as we sit and weep in a land for from what we imagined God had in store for us. We must remember God’s past presence with us. We must support each other to bring about God’s justice. We must remind each other of the standards of gentleness, mercy, compassion, and conviction God asks of us. And we must cry together to the Divine One for intervention. These are the notes of the song faithful in all times and in all places. As Reverend Jones reminds us,
“the history of the world shows us 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.”
– Absalom Jones, 1/1/1808
In the name of the Great Liberator. In God’s time. Amen.