Dr. Carol S. Franklin
Feast of Absalom Jones 2022
Isaiah 42: 5-9; Psalm 1; Galatians 5: 1-5; John 15: 12-15
Spoiler alert – I have to tell you that I watched the Diocese of New York’s Absalom Jones service yesterday with Presiding Bishop Curry as homilist and he was on fire as usual. Hopefully not many of you saw that service, not that I stole much from him mind you. Anytime I get to hear him preach is a blessing, but given that I am today’s homilist I feel it is also a curse. I think I was also the homilist the Sunday following the 2017 Diocese of Ohio Convention when he was also the preacher. Now as then I just want to sit down in a corner and shut up. But that is not an option, so here we go.
When I read the lessons for the day they made me reflect on all the homilies I’ve written that deal with love and probably in one way or another that’s every homily I’ve ever written. One of my favorites was entitled “What’s Love Got to Do with it?” (And yes, that is a song and a movie title.) And though love is once again at the heart of my homily today so is fear and how that fear separates us from each other and from God. It’s about how we allow fear to enslave and blind us to His love. In 2010 I was the homilist for the Diocesan Absalom Jones Service on the topic “Are we there yet?” No worries as I am not reprising that homily either although some said it was a good one. The answer now as then is no we are nowhere near the end of our freedom journey. In 2010 we were two years into Obama’s first term and though I was under no illusions that the race question had been resolved I think my tone and vision for the future was hopeful that we were on the right track on that journey. But as we stand here in February 2022 it feels as if our forward journey on the freedom road has been interrupted and maybe we have taken a few steps or even leaps and bounds backwards.
It’s safe to say that we are countless miles and more than 220 years from that day in 1780’s Philadelphia when a group of free blacks refused to be relegated to the slave gallery of St. George's Methodist Church, a gallery which they helped to build. The people of St. George's clearly took a misstep in the journey of faith that day. Somehow, they missed Christ’s call to love unconditionally and to welcome the other as self. Maybe they hadn’t gotten to that point in the lectionary when John 15:12-15 was to be read or if they read it, perhaps they failed to understand its meaning. Whatever the case, it is clear that love was absent in that singular act of expelling a people from God’s house, a house that love built, because of the color of their skin. Though Christ has set us free from sin and people of African descent were freed from slavery more than 150 years ago the color of skin still enslaves us all.
The extraordinary Miss Lee was fond of reminding me and anyone else who would listen that if we don’t know our history, we will be doomed to repeat it. In last Sunday’s paper Dr. Lonnie Bunch III, Director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History, amplified her comment when he said, “You can tell a great deal about a people, about a nation by what they deem important enough to remember, what they build monuments to celebrate, ….” Dr. Bunch made this comment in reaction to a letter writer’s assertion that we didn’t need the Museum as America’s greatest strength is its ability to forget. The recent controversies about confederate monuments, sports team names, who gets to vote or what should or should not be taught about race and the history of our country’s treatment of the other is a clear indication that we are fearful of remembering, fearful of having those uncomfortable conversations because there are truths we don’t want to hear or face. If we can deny it happened or relegate it to a past that no longer matters, then we don’t have to deal with the consequences. But the reality is though we may want to forget we must learn what that dark past has to teach us, for until we heal the wounds that the blow made, it will continue to fester. Legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead (and yes, I had to go there) said she can tell a society is civilize when she sees evidence of broken and then healed bones, a telltale sign that people look out for each other.
Unfortunately, I sometimes question how civilized we are as we continue to have to navigate around that unhealed wound, to live in a present shadowed by the past that some seek to forget. To know, however unreasonable it is, that some of us if we step out of our place as defined by others make them uncomfortable or fearful. A fear that allows the people of St. George’s to deny the humanity of its black parishioners. A fear that beats and kills a 14-year-old Emmett Till. A fear that kneels on the neck of George Floyd as he takes his last breath. A fear that chases down and shots a young man for jogging while black in the wrong neighborhood. Failing to heed Paul’s admonition this fear also enslaves and oppresses those who fear as much as it enslaves the other, for that fear warps communal life and limits societal potential. It is a fear that sees the other as less than self and that ultimately belittles and weakens us all as a nation and as the people of God.
But on this day when we celebrate the life of Absalom Jones, the lesson we must learn is that we need each other because we are better together for when we all do our part we move forward as one. Today’s lessons remind us that our purpose is and must be greater than our fears. Our purpose is to love and love has the power to change what’s possible. Unlike that letter writer I believe that our greatest strength is ‘we the people’, a people willing to be honest about who we are. A people who, remember and celebrate our shared humanity. A people willing to face our shared history and heal the wounds. We have to stop standing in the shadow of fear and step out into the light and bask in the love that is Jesus Christ. We the people must take the message of justice and equality seriously and speak the prophetic word of love, for God wants all the oppressed to go free.
Today in Luke we are reminded again as people of the book, about the power of the word, but not just the written word – but the power of the word made flesh in Jesus Christ and that word is love. We know how easily words can be shaped to many purposes and interpreted in many ways as our nation’s troubled history of race, class and gender demonstrate. Over the centuries even the words of the Good Book have been used and interpreted in many ways both good and bad. But Christ, love made flesh, reminds us that we do not stand by ourselves alone. Christ stands with us as he stood with that great cloud of witnesses including the likes of Absalom Jones and the free blacks of St. George's and Sojourner Truth and Fredrick Douglass and Mamie Till and Martin Luther King, Jr and Pauli Murray and Byrdie Lee who turned and stood in the breach to confront evil.
How you and I in this day and age engage and interpret that word made flesh is both the challenge and opportunity ‘we the people’ face as we struggle daily to live in covenant with God and make real in King’s words the beloved community. We are a people of the book of living words and our story continues to be written in its pages for it is a story of our unfinished business. We have become way too comfortable living in the gaps – the gap between the way God wants us to live and the way we are living, and the gap between the written and the living word that is love. To be human is to care about other humans simply for their humanity, but to be Christian is to go a step further and welcome the other as self. ‘We the People’ are the body of Christ and must be the embodiment of love in the world. The word made manifest in the rituals that we perform remind us of who we are, whose we are and who we are called to be in the world. We must not only keep the faith but activate the faith. The living word of love must change us so that we may change the world. When the labor of our hands feeds the hungry or clothes the homeless there is the living word. When ‘we the people’ walk for justice, proclaim liberty to all the captives and tear down the walls of division there is Christ. On this feast day let’s keep our eyes on the prize and don’t give up, but turn and engage in the work of building the beloved community and redeeming the world by loving others as God loves us. Amen.