Life and Ministry of the Reverend Absalom Jones
Sunday February 11th, 2018
St Mark 1: 40 And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean
” Here Jesus is making a revolutionary declaration to an outcast boldly declaring without you the society is not whole. “I will” can easily be interpreted as “I must” there is now an imperative force being attached to the healing.
Each year, on the Feast Day of Absalom Jones I struggle with the question “Should I stay or should I go?” On that fateful day, when he, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were shunted out of St. George’s church; asked to leave the front pew that they comfortably occupied, these two men, close friends and allies, were separated in a profound and meaningful way. It was a separation that affected the history of Black Christians. Richard went on to develop the AME denomination while Absalom remained under the direction and discipline of the Episcopal Church and later to become the first Black Episcopal priest. The AME denomination, on the other hand, went on to flourish and over the years has provided a religious sanctuary for thousands and thousands of Black people. This organization today is a forceful religious group impacting the religious life of a significant group in our nation, encouraging indigenous leadership and worship.
My ambivalence arises when I contemplate the extenuating reality: was Absalom Jones by remaining in the ‘catholic faith’ and being a part of a disheveled and powerless group without control of its own destiny still struggling with dust. While the AME moved from dust to great destiny. The Black Episcopal Church, which even now, powerless and without direction, has become so dissipated that it teeters now on the brink of annihilation and dissolution in many of our dioceses. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones chose two different paths. The AME created a tremendous sanctuary for blacks to explore their faith while the Episcopalians are still lingering, as they seem to be struggling to find a way out of the chaos of dysfunction. Witness how we struggle not only to survive but even more critically, how we struggle for recognition of our worth and value within the mainstream Episcopal denomination! The black Episcopalian in many ways can be perceived as a nomad without a home. Despite the fact that a great historical feat has been achieved with the consecration of Bishop Curry as the Presiding Bishop, this unique situation only serves to elucidate the impotence of its history and reminds us that even though President Obama was an African American this has in no way halted the scourge of racism but instead, in many ways, it has exacerbated it.
What makes me persevere, in spite of my ambivalence? Is there something yet worth salvaging?
I am originally from Tobago and I am deeply honored to be your guest preacher. I am the Rector of St Elizabeth’s Church in Elizabeth N.J and I am not sure who is responsible for this gracious invitation but I certainly hope I meet the expectations. I mentioned that I am from Tobago. I did that for one reason. From its multifarious history, its language has developed some dynamic and powerful colloquialism. I want to introduce you to one of them: it is pregnant with symbolism and most apropos for us today as we discuss Absalom ones and the Black church. The word is “TABANCA”. Tabanca is a colloquial expression used to describe a horrible case of love sickness. One is struck with tabanca when one pours out ones love for an individual, eventually to have it rejected. Unrequited love, ‘tabanca’, brings a forlorn, wretched and abandoned feeling. It creates feelings of unworthiness, causing one to lose their appetite. It is a total absence of the joy de vivre. When left untreated, it can lead to death by suicide or alcoholism. There is only one cure for tabanca. One has to make a complete about face turn and dedicate oneself to rebuilding one’s self image without guilt or self-blame or shame. The black Episcopalian, in many ways, has found itself struggling with spiritual tabanca.
From the very early stages of colonial life, the African slave was introduced to Episcopal Church based upon a warp understanding that it was good for his soul but not necessarily to restore his human dignity or equality. In so doing, the Episcopal Church took no cognisance of the unique message that the teaching of St Paul brings in “The letter to Philemon.” That irrevocable distinction that there is to be no wholeness without the complete restoration of Onesimus both as a man and as a Christian. ‘In the flesh and in the Lord.’ This is a continuation of Jesus’ understanding of societal healing that begins with the leper. Throughout the history of blacks within the Episcopal Church the relationship was built upon the benevolence of the one rather than the worth and value of the other: there seem to be no value in what we bring to the table.
What is the significance then of celebrating Absalom Jones? It must certainly be more than the fact that he was the first Black priest. We ought to celebrate because he sought to bring a new perspective to the church, the leper became the leader. In the independent church he started he brought an independence that was sustained outside the walls of the church. He started out with his friend Richard Allen. When he invited his friend Richard Allen, who a powerful speaker it was no coincidence that it led to friction and turmoil. Heretofore, the church did not fully understand the Philemon Ministry. Without the black presence based upon their gifts and talents then the church is not whole. Without our gifts and talents then the Lord’s song cannot be heard in its fullness and in symphony with that of the angels on high.” How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange place?
Absalom Jones saw the dangers involved when black clergy enslaved by the ‘tabanca ‘spirituality and depended upon outside sources for their lower than standard salaries which did not foster self-determination or institutional independence. Mendicancy did not free them up for the concept and ramifications of ‘mission. If the black church cannot run its own affairs then it cannot help those who sit within its pews to learn to become independent and strong.
No more Tabanca type ministry was the challenge for him and Richard Jones. Together they formed many black businesses such as insurance, burial societies and real estate ventures. They trained black women to become nurses. They led the struggle for the abolition of slavery and equality for the newly freed slaves. In their memory we are called to go further than “can we all get along” to boldly declare I am here with all my gifts and talents and skills to honor the God who saves. I am here as an instrument of community building and wealth accumulation. The Black church of Absalom Jones did not see itself as an appendix but an integral part of the reality of the whole church.
When the Free African Society decided to build a church which was dedicated on July 17, 1794 Absalom Jones composed a document, called “The Causes and Motives for Establishing St. Thomas’s African Church of Philadelphia,” that stated their intent was “to arise out of the dust and shake [them]selves, and throw off that servile fear, that the habit of oppression and bondage trained [them] up in.” In other words they pierced a dagger into that subtle but overwhelming force of racism, the negativity of tabanca spirituality. Absalom decided to choose to live out his faith in freedom. He may have actually started “The Black faith matters movement.” The more you see what distinguished Absalom Jones and his friend was his refusal to be an agent of his own oppression, and celebrating his day should become a focusing point for all of us to reflect on our church’s institutional racism, still alive and well almost two hundred years after Jones’s death. The Episcopal Church if it was genuine would view every black nurse as it’s gift to the world. But today I would like us to think about Absalom Jones in the light of what Jesus said “I must” … My friends I am a firm believer and wish for us to teach our children that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Whether you hear these words through the filter of your social location, your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, your body image, or your job, the witness of Absalom Jones has something radical and life giving to say to us.
Absalom Jones realized that his racial identity was not the final word about him. He realized that his racial identity could be used as a tool of his oppression only if he consented. We remember and give thanks for Absalom Jones, then, because he graciously and courageously said, “No.” to the world and yes to Jesus. He refused to consent to feeling inferior. He refused to become complicit in his own oppression. To use Jesus’ language, he ceased being a leper and built a new identity, a Christian. He became an instrument of wholesomeness; Absalom Jones claimed his status not as a scorned leper but a servant and friend of Jesus.
Thus my friends when we sing “What a friend we have in Jesus” it is more than a song of comfort but a bold challenge that we must continue the work of declaring like Jesus that without a fully restored leper the church is not yet whole. “What a friend we have in Jesus is our get over Tabanca song.”