Rev. Virginia Herring’s Call for Freedom

With our Dialogues on Diversity series, we have had the opportunity to partner with amazing organizations and community leaders to help us continue the conversation.

Along with our forums blog, Rev. Dr. Tom Pfaff and the Sarasota Ministerial Association are providing us with insightful and inspiring sermons throughout our Dialogues on Diversity series. This week’s sermon is from Rev. Virginia Herring, discussing the contribution of two slaves that helped establish the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Episcopal Church. In this sermon, Pastor Virginia calls for freedom to love unconditionally without prejudice.

St. Wilfred, Sarasota, FL – Feb. 12, 2017

Absalom Jones – The Rev. Virginia Herring

Isaiah 11:1-5, Psalm 137:1-6, Galatians 5:1-5, John 15:12-15

Tomorrow is the feast day of blessed Absalom Jones.  Here at St. Wilfred it has been our practice for several years to interrupt the normal flow of the church calendar and pause to remember Mr. Jones and the gifts he gave through his life and ministry.

However, I begin today by confessing to you that, for the first time in a long time, I do not feel like I should be standing here.  I have not earned the  right to preach this sermon.  That right belongs to a man whose shadow is long, a man who would be here today if physically able.

So my efforts to proclaim the gospel this morning are dedicated to the Rev. Jesse Anderson, and offered with a humble heart and great gratitude for his witness among us.

Absalom Jones was born in slavery in Delaware in 1746.  He managed to learn to read as a youth – an unusual accomplishment for a slave.  When he was sixteen his owner sent him to work in a retail establishment in Philadelphia.  Jones obviously had a head for business.  He was allowed to work for himself in the evenings and keep his earnings.  He found the time to attend a Quaker school and learn handwriting and mathematics.   In 1770 he married Mary Thomas, also a slave, and purchased her freedom with the funds he had saved.  In 1784, his owner freed him.  By this time he had also acquired several properties.  Born a slave, by young adulthood he was a man of substance.

He was a friend of one Richard Allen, another man from Delaware who had been born into slavery, but  also freed by his owner.  Together they worshiped and served as lay preachers at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.  In 1787, Richard and Absalom founded the Free African Society, which was a social, political and humanitarian organization helping widows and orphans, assisting the sick and providing burial costs for those in need.  Their care for their congregation and their deep piety caused the black constituency in the church to grow, and tensions arose with the white members.

As racial tensions increased, the two men led their congregants away from St. George’s and in 1792 they organized The African Church.  There were differing opinions about whether to affiliate with the Methodists or the Episcopalians.  In the end, Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1794, while Absalom Jones continued with those wishing to remain in the Episcopal fold.  His church became The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, and Jones was Lay Reader and Deacon.  In 1802, Jones was ordained by the Rt. Rev. William White as the first African American Episcopal priest.

During a severe epidemic of yellow fever, Jones and his friends mobilized the black community to care for the sick.  In 1797 and again in 1799, with other free Africans, they presented petitions to Congress opposing slavery.  Two schools were also developed under his leadership.  When the first African Masonic Lodge of Philadelphia was created, Jones was installed as First Worshipful Master, and later the First Grand Master of the First African Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.  Jones died on Feb. 13, 1818 and his ashes are enshrined in the chapel altar at The African Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia.  His feast day was added to the calendar of the Episcopal Church in 1973.

It is always interesting to consider the scriptures appointed for particular saints.  For Jones we have heard this morning the magnificent poetry of Isaiah – “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse…” – a reading also found in Advent.  It is definitely messianic in tone.  A savior will rise up and lead the nation.  It is a bold move in a white church to consider these words applied to a black man.  The stump of Jesse defines deep roots in Judaism.  The one who will come is seen as bearing “the spirit of the Lord, of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and fear of the Lord.”  He will have qualities of righteousness and faithfulness.  History tells us these words indeed fit Absalom Jones and his relationship both to God and to his people.

The psalm appointed sings of the human experience of exile.  This experience will later find its fullest expression in the musical form known as the African American spiritual.

The reading from Galatians speaks directly to the institution of slavery.  “Christ has set us free,” said Paul, “…do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  Here are the very scriptures that white owners sought to keep from the ears of their slaves.  Slaves were often baptized even before they left Africa.  Taken from their tribes they were brought to shipping ports on the Atlantic coast.  They were processed into holding cells built under rooms which served as baptismal chapels.  Each slave was baptized, and given a Christian name, then loaded on a boat for transport across the ocean.  Their African name was gone forever, as was any history or information about tribal connections.  Scripture was used to teach loyalty, obedience, and faithfulness – to slave holders, rather than to God.  Any texts which taught individual freedom were suppressed as being dangerous to the future of slavery.

Finally we come to the magnificent reading from the Gospel of John.  It is as if Absalom himself has risen up from the grave to speak to us:  “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….I do not call you slaves (that is the direct translation of the Greek – not servant, but slave) any longer…but I have called you friends.”

If received history is a true witness than this gospel directed Jones’ entire life.  He was devoted to his Lord Jesus Christ.  Jones rose above every obstacle devised by humanity to live a life that was not only free, but also dedicated to love of those he called friends.  Clearly he understood himself as a “friend of God” as well as a friend of his people.

I do not know much about other parts of Jones’ life, but we have a great deal of information about the ministry of the church he founded.  As of this year of 2017, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas has given witness to the gospel for 225 years.  That is a remarkable and rather incredible achievement for any congregation, but even more so for St. Thomas,  given that it has always been and continues to be a historically black congregation, founded by a former slave.  A very fine website gives those of us who do not live near Philadelphia just a glimpse into the life and ministry of this amazing institution.  Across that 225 years St. Thomas clergy and laity have engaged in public service in almost uncountable ways.  One rector was a major spokesman for passage of the 15th amendment to the Constitution, giving African Americans the right to vote.  Another was a founding member of the NAACP.   Through the Civil War, WWI and the Great Depression, the work of the church continued at St. Thomas and was always true to its founder’s vision to worship God, care for the poor and the dispossessed, and always to love each other.

In 1944, as the nation entered WWII, the Rev. Jesse F. Anderson, Sr. became the 14th rector of St. Thomas.  He was passionate about his faith and his church.  He was deeply conscious of the need to recognize and lift up Black Episcopal leadership.  He was the first president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians and a leader in the Civil Rights Movement in his day.  Jesse, Sr. was rector at St. Thomas for 31 years.   It was his life’s work. During his ministry the church grew strong and prospered.  It became nationally known as a seedbed of black leadership.   He died in 1975.

From 1976 to 1990, St. Thomas was led by the Rev. Robert Earl DuBose, Jr., also a man dedicated to service to the community.  His vision included the founding of the St. Thomas Historical Society.  In a land where black history has often been ignored and even suppressed, this organization has an amazing archive of the people and the work of St. Thomas in the city of Philadelphia.

In 1991, our own Jesse Anderson, Jr. became the rector of St. Thomas.  Now just pause here to consider the courage and sheer chutzpah it took, not only to step into the path blazed by Absalom Jones, but to take on as well the mantel of his father’s lifework.  But Jesse was true to his calling.  He too was President of the Union of Black Episcopalians.  His vision for the church included the renaissance of black gospel music.  According to the website, Jesse “renewed the parish with the incorporation of his Liberation Mass, the Afro-centric depiction of Christ and the formation of the St. Thomas Gospel Choir.”  In other words Jesse called his people back to their roots, empowering them to be more of who God created.  Jesse retired as rector in 2001.

So there is the story, and amazing, incredible story.  Begun by a slave, born in the ugly confrontations of racism, led by a succession of men and women of God, The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas has manifest the good news of Jesus and the glory of God’s kingdom for literally thousands of people. This good work has been accomplished in the face of continuing racial strife and the persistent presence of racism in our country at large.  It is truly an extraordinary story, an extraordinary achievement. Men and women nurtured in that place have, for more than two centuries, spread out across our country and indeed the world, infected with the love of Jesus, and putting a new face on the image of African American leadership – in business, government, churches, schools, indeed, at every level of our society.

It is tempting in these present days of 2017 to feel despair, to think that we have not made any sort of progress against the demons that work to separate us.  Racism and intolerance continue.  Jesse himself has shared with me incidents in which his own grandchildren have experienced racist remarks and behaviors. Black men continue to be arrested at a disproportionate rate.  Black children struggle to stay in school and achieve.   Some days my personal prayers are simply a long litany, placing before God all the ways we seem to keep falling short.  I ask God again and again “have we learned nothing?”

The answer, found in the witness of Absalom Jones and those who followed him is that some of us have learned a lot.  Most of those folks, it seems, are in the black church.  There, generation after generation of African American Christians have continued to love God and love each other, even in face of and in spite of abuse, ignorance, and oppression.  They have taken Jesus’ words to heart and lived them.  I was raised by parents who were deeply prejudiced against black people, raised in a whole community of like-minded folks, and yet, somehow I have managed to learn that these prejudices are wrong.  Here at St. Wilfred are a bunch of us who have learned to be black and white together, loving, worshiping and working under the same roof.  We have learned that hope, the sustaining gift of Easter, can carry us through dark days and help us stand in the face of all sorts of evil.

Absalom Jones, a black African man, was an improbable descendant from the Hebrew shoot and stump of Jesse.  In Jones, God was doing a new thing.  We, black and white Americans together in the 21st century are equally improbable descendants of that same stump and shoot.  But God continues to do new things.  Our mission, our life work, is the same as his:  to love God and one another, to care for the poor, the sick, and the needy, and wherever we go, to lift high the cross of Christ.

Paul said, “For freedom Christ has set us free.”  It is past time for slavery to end – in all its permutations.   Dear God grant us the courage and conviction to stand against racism in whatever form.  Please God grant us the voice to proclaim love to all God’s children, regardless of race, creed, gender or any other thing which would divide us. Stir up within us the wind of your Holy Spirit, that we may be moved from our comfortable ruts out into restless world around, carrying with us your light, your mercy and your grace.  Amen.

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