Homily, Absalom Jones: Loving God is Loving Others
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, 2023
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF
Today’s Lectionary Readings:
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is black history month! And so I am highlighting for us stories of black Christians in our history to help us unpack our Scripture readings. This week we remember the Rev. Absalom Jones, the first black priest in the Episcopal Church, whose feast day is tomorrow. He was born enslaved to a Delaware plantation owner in 1748. From an early age Jones had a passion for learning and learned quickly to read from anyone that would help him. At age 16, his mother and siblings were sold with the plantation, and he and the one he called “master” moved to Philadelphia where he worked for him in a store. In Philadelphia he met his soon-to-be wife, who was also enslaved, and worked tirelessly to purchase her freedom so that she and their future children would be free, which he eventually was able to do in 1778. After that he earned enough money to purchase his own freedom, and though for years his master repeatedly rejected his pleas, after much persistence, he was eventually granted his freedom in 1784.
Absalom Jones cared deeply for the wellbeing of those in need around him, and is most famous for starting the Free African Society with his friend Richard Allen, which became Philadelphia’s first black church and eventually joined the Episcopal Church as the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, which still exists today. In 1802 Jones was ordained a priest to serve this congregation, though sadly he was ordained under the condition that he and his congregation would take no part in diocesan conventions. Despite the circumstances, the church quickly grew into a successful and important church community for African Americans in Philadelphia.
The story of Absalom Jones is one of courage, persistence, faithfulness, brilliance, and love in the midst of great suffering, and I hope you’ll spend some time this week learning more about his life.
This year, as I spent time again with his story, I found myself wondering about his “master”—the one who enslaved him. Abraham Wynkoop was his name, and later his son Benjamin. It is noted that these two men were very active in their churches, Christ Episcopal Church and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. They were generous tithers. They served as vestry members. And yet, they enslaved another human being. They severed Jones from his family. They forced him to work hard, long hours. For years, they rejected his pleas for freedom. This morning I’m wondering why somehow there was a disconnect for them from the gospel of love they heard on Sunday and the labor of slavery they forced on Monday. It seems they just didn’t understand one of the core aspects of the gospel: that our relationship with God is determined by our relationship with others.
Such is the message of our gospel passage this morning.
(Now, I have to say this is a very difficult passage, especially in its discussion of divorce, adultery, and lust, and unfortunately I don’t have enough time to cover all aspects of it. And so I encourage you to listen to this week’s podcast, Hear These Words, to reflect on some of its more challenging aspects.)
That said, as a whole, this passage is all about fostering loving relationships. Jesus is showing here what we talked about last week by breaking open the law to show that at its heart is really love. And so if its heart is love, it is not enough to simply follow the letter of the law; we have to follow the spirit of the law. It is not enough, he says, to just not murder. If we want to be shaped by the love at the heart of that law, we should also avoid anger and estrangement from others. It’s all about fostering loving relationships.
But here is what I find particularly interesting in our passage this morning. Jesus also says, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your sibling has something against you, leave your gift there and go; first be reconciled to your sibling, and then come and offer your gift.”
In other words, our relationship with God is determined by our relationships with others. We cannot approach the altar if we refuse to approach a neighbor. How can we draw near to God when we refuse to draw near to others? How can we be shaped in love by God if we are not practicing love for our neighbors? You can’t come to church week after week expecting to grow in your relationship with God if you are not growing in your relationship with others. They are connected to one another.
Which is why, here at church every Sunday morning right between the confession and the offertory, and right before communion, we pass the peace. Passing the peace is a deliberate part of the liturgy. Passing the peace is not just the service’s half time or intermission break. It is a deliberate part of the liturgy which intentionally creates space for us to be reconciled with one another so that we can be reconciled with God at the communion table. We enter into communion with God by sharing communion with one another.
The measure of our love for God is our love for those around us. And thus, if there are relationships in our lives which are driven by hatred or prejudice or hostility or old grudges, they are hindering our relationship with God. They are preventing God from being able to fully shape us in love.
That’s what the Wynkoops and so many others neglected to understand in their participation in slavery. And even with slavery abolished (thanks be to God!), the principle remains. We may not be enslaving others, but are there others in our lives we harbor ill will towards? Are there others we are prejudiced towards? Are there people in our lives from whom we withhold love? Dorothy Day once said, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” So if we want to grow in our relationship with God, we have to work at growing in our relationships with others.
This morning as we remember the story of Absalom Jones, we also remember the story of his enslavers. As Episcopalians both Jones and the Wynkoops are our ancestors. They demonstrate for us two paths of Christian life. One is that of love, and persistence, and sacrifice. Which recognizes that our love for God is tied up with our love for others. The other is a shallow faith which clings to the outer aspects of religion without letting the love of God transform our love for others. One is, for us, an example. And one is, for us, a warning. Let us learn from their stories and remember that our relationship with God has everything to do with our relationship with others. Amen.