Saturday, February 8th, 2020
"Absalom is of the entire world, yet he is uniquely ours."
Bishop Daniel Gutiérrez
The following is a sermon given by Bishop Gutiérrez for the Celebration of Absalom Jones at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. On February 13th, the church celebrates the feast day of the Rev. Absalom Jones, who, in 1804, became the Episcopal Church’s first African American ordained priest. Jones co-founded the Free African Society in 1787, a nondenominational mutual-aid society designed to assist freed slaves. By 1791, the Society had evolved into the African Church, which was received into the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1794. That church in our diocese - the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas - is the first black Episcopal parish in the United States.
"Get out of that pew and move.” Those words filling the ears of Absalom as he was kneeling in prayer. “Get out of that pew” directed to the beloved children of God in 1792, as ushers forcibly attempted to move them to the balcony at St. George’s Methodist Church. Painful words polluting a sacred house of God just a few miles from here. “Get out of that pew and move.”
Few would realize how those words would impact this city, nation, and the church. When those words of hate were let loose, it set off a sacred chain of events that touches each one of our lives. Christians are part of our painful history and promise of a new pilgrimage. Words used for 228 years against God’s beloved. “Get out” toward Ezell, David, Franklin, and Joseph, at that Woolworth’s in Greensboro. “Get out” of my state as heard by John as he crossed the Edmond Pettis bridge and as his skull was broken. “Get out” and move heard by Rosa as she rode that bus. “Get out” of that class pelted at the 9 at the high school in Little Rock. The vile "get out” piercing Dr. King as he was calling out the collective sins and conscience of humanity.
The millions whose names we do not even know, throughout the years. Get out of my restaurant, get out of my neighborhood, school, statehouse, and White House. Get out of my country. Then the life-giving words of Jesus. “I do not call you servants any longer. This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you. I have called you friends.”
We miss the Gospel by 18” - the distance from the head to the heart. The Gospel is meant for the heart. Heart speaks to heart. We cannot let Absalom simply be assigned to history or the head. Nor any of the other saints told to “get out.” The mind is powered by the heart, imagination, feeling, and love. Imagine his pain, faith, and love. As he was praying, and he was told to get out.
There is a description of that moment that says: “We had not been long upon our knees before I heard considerable scuffling and loud talking. I raised my head up and saw one of the trustees having hold of Absalom, pulling him off his knees saying ‘You must get up, get out, you must not kneel here.’Mr. Jones replied, ‘Wait until prayer is over, and I will get up, and trouble you no more.’”[i]
How his heart was broken. How could he pray? Have faith? Absalom was a slave until the age of 38. He purchased the freedom of his wife, who though free, could be taken at any time. Yet that faith in Jesus … when Philadelphia was hit by the yellow fever epidemic, Absalom stayed. He did not check color or status, he tended to the sick.
He buried the dead sacredly and with dignity. He did not get out when George Washington and Thomas Jefferson fled the city. He was criticized for staying and caring. Heart broke, yet holding onto his deep faith in Christ. William White, my predecessor, was reluctant to help Absalom. White said that in founding a separate church for African Americans, it was “prideful,” and unnecessary.
Absalom could not celebrate the sacraments, and it took seven years to be ordained as the first black priest. Absalom places his faith in something more significant. When people attempted to rob him of his dignity and humanity he did not get out because he was not bound by the hate or chains of man - he was uplifted by the love of God.
Love. St. John, throughout the Gospel and letters, describes God’s love. Not that God has love. Or, that love is one of God’s attributes; love names the very essence of God. Love is not God, but God is love. Think of the power. How the disciples excitedly and repeatedly told one another these words of Jesus.
Recited them with awe to those who did not know Jesus because they understood love and its power. Each moment they wanted to go deeper into this vast sacred mystery of divine love. All beautiful, living, loving beloved children bound together as the Body of Christ. God sent his only Son, the perfect incarnation of his love.
In raising that Son from the dead, God definitively saved and ratified creation. Love is why it matters that Jesus was raised from death. Over and again, we have said no to what God has made, but God stubbornly says yes. Inspired by this divine yes, we have hope. Even as we run away from Abba, we run directly into the arms of the Son.[ii]
Absalom embodied John’s declaration of God’s love. His primary identity was our primary identity - “the one who Jesus loves.” Love is just a four-letter word unless, like Christ, it becomes real, and we do something with it. This love is liberation. Jesus transcends any label we know or can create for Jesus is perfect freedom.
Absalom lived into his freedom as a beloved child of God. He knew that each time we said God’s name, it needs to be followed by breathless acts of Grace. As Paul proclaimed in our Epistle: we must grow up in every way into Christ, as a body, building itself up in love. Deep in our hearts, we know there is no black, white, or brown way to love. Love is love.
God’s love is yours. Love is not real unless it is shared and reciprocated. It is said that “in the twilight of life, God will not judge us on our earthly possessions and human successes, but on how well we have loved.”[iii] We cannot preach justice if we do not preach love. We cannot live justice if we do not live the love found in Jesus Christ.
So let’s start in this place. Absalom is of the entire world, yet he is uniquely ours. I am troubled we have not lifted up this day for the whole diocese. Where the diocese as the whole celebrates this day in each of our churches. We should lead in the celebrations. I ask the committee to chart the course. I propose an increase in funding for this day.
Let us have teaching that includes understanding. We need to establish concrete acts that deal with our past, so we move forward together. Yes, we have a great history, but we have a silent, painful, and sinful past. In the graveyard of Christ Church, many of the founders of our country are buried. Many were slave owners.
The slave owner who kept Absalom in sinful bondage was on the vestry of Christ Church and St. Peter’s. Let us find a path to reconcile that past filled with racism. Name the sins and neglect the church has placed upon slaves, slavery, and people of color: especially our black sisters and brothers. It is difficult. We need to get out of our pews and do it. It is the only way we can journey together in love. As it has been said: It is not the prostitutes or the tax collectors who find it most challenging to repent; it is often the devout who feel they have no need to repent.[iv] The racism, hate, and pain that Absalom endured or that you have endured, should not, and cannot, be forgotten or erased.
Yet, our hope is that together it will be transformed by the hope, cross, resurrection, and love of Jesus Christ. Transformed in our diocese, nation, and denomination. I want to express something heart to heart, and in love. I will never fully understand the Black experience. Those who are not Hispano will never fully understand the Hispano experience.
Those of color will never understand the white experience. Many have been told: You will never understand. It is the truth. Yet, we must remember that each person we encounter, of every race, color or status, everyone has suffered or is suffering some pain. Abuse, trauma, loss, illness. Each one of us has stood at the foot of the cross.
It is in that pain that we hold it together and come together as that Body of Christ and hope for the joy of the resurrection. We seek to journey together. We will never get to a place of peace and love if walls are placed between one another. Let us never intentionally create divisions within the body of Christ.
We may never understand, but we seek to love and walk with one another. It is in the journey together we create a new place, a new life, and new love found in Jesus Christ. Let us be patient with one another, listen, to be present, and then stand and act together in love. We need to open up a place because heart speaks to heart.
Thus, for me to suggest or plan a path toward reconciliation would be only arrogant; that is not me. So I am humbly asking that this committee chart a course. Allow your brothers and sisters formed in love to follow, assist, and at times, allow us to carry the burden. Not out of guilt, but in the same love for one another as God loves us.
The basis of my theology is heart speaks to heart. My heart belongs to you, this diocese, to Christ, and in love, we find love and life in Christ. Only then can we find peace. Change the words that Absalom heard and create a new, beautiful story. If we preach love, we will need to get out of the pews and begin to do the work of Absalom.
Let us do the work of Jesus Christ in this world. There is a significant disparity in our churches. Some have great gifts, and others are breaking their backs. Many of our churches that struggle serve communities of color and are in areas of great poverty. I will work, pray and labor to change the vision for this diocese, I need you.
We will find a way to reflect equality in our budget. Budgets speak of who we are and where our love is to be found. Where it is not a handout or even a hand up. Where we create a place of belonging and all share in the great feast. If we preach love, then we have to live love. As the new trustees of the Diocesan Corporation begin their work, I charge them with the work of aligning diocesan assets with the demands of the holy scriptures to heal the breach. As I have said, we have 135 churches and a $75 million endowment.
I do not want to be content with maintaining the status quo. We cannot waste the opportunity God has given us. What good will it serve if in 50 years we have a $150 million endowment and only 60 churches? Let’s live the revolutionary love of Christ. We should be a diocese of 160 missions and churches, and if that means an endowment of $50, $40, or $30 million, then we’ll know we take both Absalom and Jesus seriously. Where we live a life of abundance and not scarcity. We have to fight poverty. Poverty is not only economical; it is spiritual, physical, and emotional. We need to get out. Let’s get out of our old way of doing church. Let’s get out of the history that is holding us back. Let’s get out and spread the Good News.
When a child is hungry, get out and feed them. When someone is sick, we get out and tend them. When someone is lost, we get out into the streets. To walk with them without regard to the color of their skin. We know that the sin of drugs does not differentiate by income. Children are going to bed hungry.
Young men of color are dying of gun violence, children and sisters are being trafficked for sex and slavery, the elderly are neglected. All this within our diocese. Let’s drop the falseness of privilege and power. Let’s stop playing church and be the church. We need to get out, spread the Good News, and people can see the power of the love.
The power of Jesus Christ made real through our lives. This is the legacy of Absalom that we must all proclaim. Jesus declared that we should have one distinguishing mark as Christians: not political correctness or moral superiority, but love. Paul added that without respect, nothing we do—no miracle of faith, no theological brilliance,no flaming personal sacrifice—will avail.[v]
It is love, the love that is present in the Risen Christ. This is the freedom that Absalom knew and the freedom to which we are called to know. Let us rejoice in celebrating Absalom. More importantly, let us take those words shouted in his ears and get out.
Get out and continue to change this diocese through the love of Christ, get out of the pews and support one another. Get out and move and let us love. Heart speaks to heart. love everything or love nothing at all.
[ii] Bishop Robert Barron. Catholicism.
[iii] St. John of the Cross
[iv] Brennan Manning
[v] (1 Corinthians 13). Philip Yancey