Sermon preached by The Rt. Rev. Franklin Turner, retired Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, February 13, 2003
BISHOP TURNER: I want to take my cue from the Pointer Sisters. I'm so excited and I just can't hide it, and I'm losin' control and I think I like it. Good evening, saints.
What a joy and privilege it is for me to be here this evening, and I am indeed grateful and honored--I think to have been invited to participate in and to preach at this opening service of this national conference on Christian Formation from Generation to Generation on the Feast Day of Absalom Jones. In my opinion, this will be one of the significant conferences in the Episcopal Church this year for the important reason that a conference which addresses the concern “Will our faith have children?” must be at the top of the church's mission priorities if we are to influence generations to come and ensure the future of the church by passing on the lessons and the legacies of the faith. And the presence and participation of our presiding bishop, along with a number of other bishops, Christian educators, and leaders speak volumes about the seriousness and the urgency of this concern before us. Martin Luther King, Jr., I guess, coined the phrase, "The urgency now, the urgent now."
As many of you may know, if not, the people in the Diocese of Pennsylvania will tell you that I have been an advocate for children's ministry and the ministry with children as a priest and bishop for 20 years. Children and young people, not excluding adults, must be at the center of the church's mission and be included in and involved in the worship, ministry, and total life of the church so far as they are able. Now the church in which I grew up, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, children were told that they were the church of tomorrow, which meant, "Don't bother us. Be quiet. Be good little boys and girls, be seen and not heard except on the annual children's program." But they insisted that, "You will be the church of tomorrow." Friends, I wanted to be a part of the church today ... so that I would be prepared to be the church of tomorrow.
I recall that during the days of the Civil Rights Movement one of the many criticisms made against Dr. Martin Luther King was that he involved children along with adults in the movement, in the marches and demonstrations, exposing them to the dangers and violence and police brutality. I happen to agree with Dr. King and supported him in including children in the struggle to break down the walls of segregation, discrimination, and racism because it was their freedom and liberation for which they were struggling, not just for adults. It was their faith which informed their action. Those children who were included in the movement are still involved in the struggle today for human rights and the dignity of every human being. This was an early version of a faith-based initiative!
As John Dewey, the great American educator, said many years ago, "We learn to do by doing." I'm also excited and eager to be here as we begin this conference during Black History Month by celebrating the life and ministry of one of my heroes in the faith, Absalom Jones, the first black American ordained in the Episcopal Church as a deacon in 1794 and as priest in 1802 by Bishop William White, and it is about Absalom which I want to speak this evening. But, you know, I could hardly believe that my course in the history of the American Episcopal Church mentioned little or nothing about Absalom Jones as though he never existed. He was, indeed, the invisible man. I was deprived of his story and the great contributions which he made to the Episcopal Church and to the American society. The 64th General Convention of the Church attempted to correct this omission by authorizing February 13th as a feast day in his honor.
Now I have been blessed to serve in the diocese where Jones was ordained and served, and I have witnessed first hand the great contributions he made in the Diocese of Pennsylvania and in the City of Brotherly Love and sisterly affection and because of his pioneering ministry, many other African Americans have had the privilege and opportunity to serve in the diocese and in the Episcopal Church as lay leaders, as priests and bishops, including the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion.
God does work in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform. As I reflect on the theme of this conference and specifically on the life and ministry of Absalom Jones, a passage from the Book of the Prophet Joshua kept looming up in my thoughts. And it reads thusly, "When your children ask their parents in time to come, 'What do these stones mean,' then you shall tell them that Israel crossed over the Jordan on dry land." Joshua succeeded Moses as the leader of the Israelites and was charged with the responsibility of leading them across the Jordan River. Before they crossed, Joshua chose 12 men from the people of Israel -- I don't know why he didn't choose women, but he chose twelve men -- I guess that was in his day -- a man from each tribe and instructed them as they passed through the river to take up a stone upon their shoulders according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, the whole nation, and to erect a memorial that this would be a sign to the people when their children ask in time to come, "What do these stones mean," you shall tell them that the people crossed over the Jordan.
Joshua recognized that people need signs, symbols, and memorials to remind them of who they are and whose they are, and of the mighty act of God in liberating and setting them free from bondage and slavery. Joshua was concerned about all the people, but especially about the children, the future of the nation, that they must know the story, could tell the story, and live the story. It is, therefore, essential that people have symbols and sacraments and saints and memorials to remind them of the mighty act of God which effected their salvation. These signs and symbols point the way to our ultimate destination, the Promised Land. The old Negro spiritual puts it quite well when it says, "We are on our way, we are on our way to Canaan land. We are on a journey from Earth to Heaven." When our children ask, and I hope that they will in time to come, "What do these stones mean," we shall tell them about Jesus, about the cross, about the sacraments, about the faith. We must also tell them about the meaning of the celebration of Absalom Jones, this man of God, a pioneer, a prophet, a priest, and a giant of the faith who led his people in their journey towards freedom, justice, and liberation.
Let me share with you a short biography of Absalom Jones. I see you have one in your packet. But, you know, it really does not hurt to repeat things. Ginger Goodrich, who's from the Diocese of Pennsylvania, and pardon me if I make reference to Pennsylvania a lot -- that's my home -- said that, you know, we really -- for church people -- I don't know about people outside the church -- that for church people you have to repeat things at least seven times before they get it. So I'm going to repeat this. Hopefully not seven times tonight! But in the future. Jones was born a slave in Sussex County, Delaware in 1746 and spent half of his 71 years as the property of another man, unable to fully pursue his own ambitions, and at the tender age of 16 he was torn away from his family and was sold to a shopkeeper in Philadelphia, a city where he spent the rest of his life. He purchased several books, including a New Testament and a primer, and basically taught himself how to read and to write. His owner did permit him to work other jobs after-hours and by so doing, he saved his money and he eventually bought his wife's freedom and later his own. Let me just pause for a moment there. He bought his wife's freedom before he bought his own. Now that should qualify him for sainthood!
Without detailing all of Jones' hardships and headaches and heartbreaks and set-backs and disappointments, suffice it to say that his life was a triumph of the human spirit and, indeed, a miracle. He was a devout Christian, studiously studying scriptures which helped to perfect his character and shape his life's mission. And it is not surprising that he became a lay reader and preacher in St. George's Methodist Church. Along with his closest friend and brother, Richard Allen, Jones and Allen were so successful in evangelizing blacks for St. George's that church officials became concerned that blacks would overrun and take over the church. So they relegated blacks to the balcony. They could not pray in the main sanctuary and were only permitted to receive communion after all the white members had received. Of course, this was unacceptable to Jones and Allen and the other black members of the congregation. So one Sunday as they were kneeling to pray, they were yanked up off of their knees and told to go to the balcony. Jones and Allen and other black members of the church walked out en masse and vowed never to come back.
This group founded the Free African Society in 1787, the first black organization in America, which was a combination of church and social welfare agencies. But after some time, members of the Society felt they should affiliate with a denomination. Jones and Allen felt strongly that the group should affiliate with the Methodist Church because they felt that the Methodist Church was more suitable and compatible with the spiritual and emotional needs of blacks. However, the majority of the members of the Society voted not to affiliate with the Methodists and Jones left, took a small number of the group with him, and founded the AME Church. But Jones was asked to stay with the remaining group and become their leader. And he did. And for a short time this group flirted with becoming affiliated with the Quakers because the Quakers had been supportive of and sympathetic to blacks in the city, been very, very helpful, but, you know -- well, no, you don't know -- can you imagine black folks bein' Quakers ... going to a meeting house ... and sitting there ... without being able to say, "Lord, have mercy!" "Lord have mercy! Jesus!"
Finally, this group eventually affiliated, applied for affiliation with the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania and was received into the church as an organized congregation in 1794, and thereby become the first black Episcopal church in America. At age 58, Jones was ordained a priest and served St. Thomas' Church for 22 years with the mission focus of worship, education, social, and political action. The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas is still alive and well today with a membership of about eight or nine hundred people.
This is a living memorial and legacy to the ministry of Absalom Jones. Well, let me just throw in a little -- I'm going to hasten, I'm going to finish …
I said I came out of a church where when the minister got up and said, ah -- I guess I was -- had to be 25 years old before I ever thought -- knew that the word "brief" meant brief. So these black preachers would get up and say, "I'm going to be brief this morning." Well, you settled in. But now my research tells me that there's creditable evidence that the song that we sing in the church today, "Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees" emanated out of St. Thomas' Church. You all didn't know that, did you?
Now you do. You didn't know this either, that St. Thomas' Church was the first black church in America to use the organ as a musical instrument in worship. And they were really criticized by the AME bishops and the AME bishops forbade their people to have organs in their churches because they said that the organ was an "instrument of the devil." When your children ask in time to come, "What do these stones mean, specifically, what is the meaning of the celebration," we shall tell them that a great and noble saint crossed over the Jordan.
Now I want to hold up before us three dimensions of Absalom Jones' life and ministry for us to consider and ponder as we begin this conference. The first is Identity. Identity, and I think we're going to have to face that here, tomorrow, the day after that, Identity. Absalom Jones was always confronted with the question of, "Who am I? Who am I in American society? Who am I in the church," because he experienced discrimination and rejection not only in the Methodist Church, but in the Episcopal Church. And he had to grapple with the question, "Who am I?" But he was clear about his identity. It seemed as though he was born knowing who he was. He knew who he was and whose he was, a child of God created in the likeness and image of God, and still by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ's own forever. And he would not permit or accept his status as a slave to mar and scar and distort the image of God in him. He endured numerous restrictions upon his liberty without ever surrendering his personal integrity or his will to be free. He suffered racial indignities without losing his dignity or his sense of Christian community, for God had indeed made of one blood all the races and nations of the world dwell upon the Earth in peace, harmony, and love. His identity was in Jesus Christ because he had crossed over the Jordan from slavery to freedom, and Jones must have read in the Book of Daniel about Daniel, and he came out with this response. "Did my Lord deliver Daniel, then why not every man and every woman?" "Did my Lord deliver Daniel, then why not every man and every woman?"
Secondly, Faith. Absalom was clear about his faith in God, the god of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Hagar, and Rebecca, and he believed that God was the Father of all and that God heard the cries of his people and saw their affliction and would deliver them from their oppression and slavery. This was his message -- this was his message which kept hope alive among his people that a better day was coming. His steadfast faith as a servant of the most high God helped him and his people in their struggle to overcome barriers of origin and race which ultimately led to liberation, freedom, and reconciliation. He belonged to God and was, therefore, a valued member of the family of God. And he no doubt read in the New Testament, which he had purchased early in his life, the passage from Galatians 3, which says that, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, for all are one in Christ." He fought the good fight of faith. And to the despondent masses who lived by faith he gave realism and substance to things hoped for and a taste of things not seen. His faith and trust was rooted and grounded in Jesus Christ.
Third, and this is last, almost next to the last. This is -- this is the last Part A. Third, Mission. Jones was clear about his mission and about that of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, and he describes it this way, "To restore our long lost race to the dignity of man." Slavery, that evil and sinful institution, had done its worst by devastating black life individually, family, and community, and there was a tremendous need for rehabilitation, restoration, and rebuilding individual, family, and community life. And he carried out this mission and the mission of the church through worship and prayer, education, pastoral care, community outreach, and advocacy for the abolishment of the slave trade and working for justice, peace, reconciliation, and the restoration of all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. But he did not act alone, but sought the help and support of other religious groups, community leaders in accomplishing this monumental task. He challenged the diocese to join in this effort by becoming an inclusive fellowship rather than an exclusive club or ethnic sect. He believed the church to be a divine institution, one holy, Catholic and apostolic. And in spite of the indignities suffered in the diocese, he stayed in the church and made himself an instrument through which the Episcopal Church, at an early early stage of its existence, would take a halting step toward inclusiveness. His persistence, presence, and witness in the church opened the way I believe, for women to be ordained priests, some 178 years later. His vision was for a diverse and inclusive church, a house of prayer for all people, a church that would be open to the poor, the outcast, those who did not fit, the wounded, the broken in society, nurturing and nourishing them back to health and wholeness. This was the mission for which Jones lived and dedicated his life. His life and witness served to remind us again and again that in our struggle against racism and injustice, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We can have deep faith in the future because we know that we have cosmic companionship.”
I firmly believe that there would not be a significant black presence or a minority presence in the Episcopal Church today had Jones decided to go with his friend and brother, Richard Allen, and establish another denomination. He stayed, he challenged us, he witnessed for the gospel, and for this, we celebrate and commemorate his life and mission. Today in the Episcopal Church we celebrate our diversity which is our strength and our salvation. And I want to tell you, I want to tell the whole world that I'm proud to be an Episcopalian. I'm proud to be an -- an Episcopalian, and I can't understand why everybody in the world is not going to be Episcopalian!
Saddened as we all were by the loss of the Shuttle Columbia, devastated by the loss of those wonderful people, that crew, and we mourn their loss and we grieve with their families. But you know when I saw the image of that shuttle and I saw the picture on the magazines and on the television of the crew, do you know what came to mind? Noah's ark. Noah's ark. Black, white, brown, Christian, Jew, Hindu or Muslim (I don't know which one) male and female, family -- the family of God and the faith of America. That's what I saw and we pray that their souls are with their Maker.
When our children ask in time to come, "What is the meaning of the celebration," we shall tell them the story of blessed Absalom Jones, how he lived, loved the Lord, and led his people across the Jordan into the land of promise and hope in his day. And we are called upon to lead and guide and teach the faith, share the love of God and the caring of Christ with all of God's people. On February 13th, 1818, Absalom Jones died and crossed over the Jordan to be with the Lord and to live with the saints in glory forever. Bishop William White, reporting his death to the convention, the convention which Jones was never permitted to attend, said of him, "I do not recall this event without a tender recollection of his imminent virtue and his pastoral fidelity."
I was elected a bishop in the Diocese of Pennsylvania some 186 years after Absalom Jones was ordained. And a few years ago I had the opportunity and privilege of presiding at a diocesan convention and during that convention I felt as though Absalom Jones was looking over the balcony of Heaven and smiling and saying to me, "You go, man." I believe in the communion of saints. I believe in the communion of saints.
So let me conclude with a prayer written by one of my favorite people, William Sloan Coffin. Some of you know Bill Coffin. He writes, "May God give us grace never to sell ourselves short, grace to risk something for something good and the grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love." Amen.