Remembering Our Future

A sermon by Father Bill Danaher delivered at St. Stephen African Methodist Episcopal Church

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It is a profound blessing to be with you today on your Heritage Sunday. I am grateful to your centennial pastor, the Rev. Darryl Williams, for the gracious invitation to preach and for the incredible hospitality offered to my congregation as we come to worship with you today.

When Pastor Williams first invited me to preach about the Rev. Absalom Jones (1746-1818) and his double legacy in the AME and Episcopal Churches, I politely declined. In the Episcopal Church, African Americans usually preach about the first African American ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church in 1802. I therefore did not feel worthy or qualified.

However, after Pastor Williams invited me to pray over my decision – and of course many of you know what is implied when a pastor asks you to “pray” about a decision –  I realized that this invitation represented a way for us to begin healing a historical wound. It represented to me and to my congregation a new beginning brought into being by the God who makes all things new in Christ.

Let me explain: As many of you know, Mother Bethel AME Church and St. Thomas African Episcopal Church were both founded as a result of institutional racism. Initially, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen (1760-1831) had been lay ministers at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. Indeed, following their leadership, African American members of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church contributed money and labor to the construction of an expanded church campus at St. George’s when the church had outgrown the seating capacity in its existing space.

However, at the first Sunday service held at St. George’s after the completion of the renovations, trustees informed them that, from now on, African American members had to sit in a segregated section. As Bishop Allen recounted in his autobiography, trustees even went so far as to pull Absalom Jones and other worshippers up off their knees while they were praying. Instead of moving to the segregated section, however, every African American in attendance immediately walked out. Jones went on to found St. Thomas in 1792 and Allen to found Mother Bethel in 1794.

As historians have noted, God redeemed this bitter experience by empowering the emergence of the black church as a powerful force for positive social change and a visible expression of African American Christianity. As St. Paul reminds us in Romans, “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (8:28).

However, just because God has been able to redeem an evil doesn’t mean it should have happened in the first place. By coming together today we have, then, fulfilled in part the original hope that Jones and Allen harbored of creating a truly multiracial Christian community. May the bread of God’s Word we break together today and the prayers we share be the start of a new relationship between our congregations, our churches.

On Heritage Sunday, it is customary to stop and give thanks to God for the brave and believing people who brought the Gospel to St. Stephen AME. I would therefore go astray if I did not begin by lifting up and acknowledging the faithful witness this church has provided to the city of Detroit.

Founded as a mission in 1918, St Stephen AME has a long tradition of providing faith-filled fellowship, family care, and community service. Major histories of the black churches in Detroit, in particular Dr. Angela Dillard’s Faith in City (2007), speak of the ways in which St. Stephen AME, along with Hartford Memorial Baptist Church and St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, were hubs for activism and artistic expression. The pastors and leaders from St. Stephen AME, such as the Rev. J. D. Howell, advocated for African American economic empowerment, self-determination, and cultural development as a necessary complement to the spiritual proclamation of the Gospel.

That St. Stephen AME has done so is no mystery. From its roots in the Free African Society, the benevolent society that Jones and Allen founded in 1787, the AME Church has carried within its spiritual DNA a charism that churches must care for both the body and the soul. In doing so, this church faithfully proclaims the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who comes to us fully human and fully divine, who calls us to love one another.

Lying behind this witness to Jesus Christ as God’s reconciliation entering time and space is the firm belief and confident hope in a God who acts powerfully in history on behalf of the oppressed. For Christianity, Howard Thurman wrote in 1949, “is a technique of survival for the oppressed.” And the open secret lying at the heart of this survival technique is Christ’s love and graced acceptance of each of us as a beloved child of God. When we embrace this truth together, we learn to live, as Thurman wrote, “in the chaos of the present” with the “high destiny of a son of God” (Jesus and the Disinherited, 1949). Through Christ, we learn to love one another and share the same love that God has shown us, and this relationship of love constitutes the heart and soul of social justice. Love also holds cities together, as Aristotle once said, for love in the form of friendship is basis for justice.

Inspiring this history from the beginning was the double-witness of Absalom Jones and Richard Allen. As a recent biographer has written, if Richard Allen had been white, he would certainly have been numbered among the founding fathers. His face would be engraved on Mount Rushmore. In Washington, DC, there would be a marble memorial preserving his memory.

The same can be said of Absalom Jones. Jones was fifteen years older than Allen, and the relationship between them was deeply fraternal, including even with a bit of sibling rivalry. Like Allen, Jones been born in slavery. Like Allen, he learned to read and attended schools owned and operated by Quakers. Like Allen, he earned his freedom, purchasing his wife’s freedom before purchasing his own six years later. Like Allen, he become prosperous. Like Allen, Jones became an abolitionist and worked tirelessly to end slavery and to create opportunities for his African American brothers and sisters. Like Allen, Jones lobbied politicians for equal protection and representation under the law, ideas that congressional representatives of his era found, to their shame, unacceptably subversive and unconstitutional.

In addition to church-planting and political activism, with Allen, Jones organized heroic relief efforts in Philadelphia when the citizens of that city suffered from a yellow fever epidemic in 1793. With Allen, Jones wrote and published a refutation of slander that was circulated after the epidemic abated that falsely claimed that the African American community had unjustly profited from their work to care for the sick and dying. As with the other insults they suffered, Jones and Allen treated this refutation as an opportunity to make an appeal to the white community. “We wish you to consider,” they wrote to the white citizens of Philadelphia, “that God himself was the first protector of slaves.”

This description of God as “the first protector of slaves” helps me to turn to the Scripture I wish to address in this sermon. My text is the same as the one Jones chose when he preached a thanksgiving sermon in 1808 to celebrate the abolishment of the international slave trade.[1] Jones’ reflections on that text in the famous sermon he preached will guide my own reflections in the sermon I preach.

In Exodus 3:7-8, we read:

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

Jones was not the first African American to cite the Exodus experience in writing. In 1774, Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), an internationally renowned poet, published a letter she wrote to Samson Occum (1723-1792) a Presbyterian minister and member of the Mohegan tribe: “in every human breast, God has implanted a principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient with oppression, and pants for deliverance; and by the leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us.”

As Wheatley knew well, the Exodus story had inspired the early colonizers from England, the people known to us as Pilgrims and Puritans, who saw themselves as the Israelites of their day, fleeing their own oppression in England so that they could come to the promised land of America. By turning this conventional interpretation on its head, Wheatley raised in the minds of her adoring public the troubling thought that the promised land of this country was in reality Egypt for those they had displaced and enslaved. Rather than being Israelites led by a Moses, the injustices they perpetuated had made them Egyptians led by a Pharaoh.

In the sermon he preached on this Scripture, however, Jones wants his public to see three points: The first is that God saw the affliction of the Israelites. “What tongue, or pen,” he wrote, “can compute the number of their sorrows? To them, no morning or evening sun ever disclosed a single charm; to them, the beauties of spring and the plenty of autumn had no attractions: even domestic endearments were scarcely known to them: all was misery; all was grief; all was despair.”

Jones then recounted in detail the atrocities enslaved African Americans experienced. Operating in the background was, despite his relatively good fortune, his own personal trauma: At the age of 15, Jones’ owner sold his mother and siblings, taking him alone with him to Philadelphia.

God has seen, Jones therefore preached, the “pangs of separation between members of the same family” that happened when “sons” were “dragged from the arms of their mothers. . .” God saw his own pain, his own trauma, and this assurance of divine empathy was the key to Jones’ resiliency.

The message of divine empathy that Jones proclaimed in 1808 remains fresh and true to us today. God sees our afflictions. God sees our injustices. God sees our inhumanity. God sees our brutality. God sees our selfishness. God sees our cowardliness. God sees our oppression. God sees our traumas.

What’s more, the God who saw evils in the past is the God who sees them in the present and the future. And just as God has rescued the oppressed in the past, so will he rescue the oppressed in the present and future. For God, Jones wrote, drawing from the letter to the Hebrews (13:8), “is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.”

The second point Jones saw in this Scripture is that God heard the cry of the oppressed. The oppressed were not confined to a chosen people or race, but the God of the Bible is, Jones wrote, “the Father of the human race.”

Therefore, everyone who suffers injustice should see themselves in the same place as God’s chosen people. To all who suffer injustice and struggle against systems of oppression, Jones reminds them that God has “heard their cry. . . his ear [was] constantly open to their complaint: every tear they shed, was preserved, and every groan they uttered, was recorded; in order to testify, at a future day, against the authors of their oppressions.”

God also heard the prayers of the oppressed, even in times when these prayers seemed to go unanswered. God, Jones preached, “has heard the prayers that have ascended from the hearts of his people; and he has, as in the case of his ancient and chosen people the Jews, come down to deliver our suffering country-men from the hands of their oppressors.”

In other words, God hears us when we cry out to him. God weeps when we weep. God is outraged when we are outraged. Although the powerful seek to silence the cries of injustice, nothing escapes God’s ears. And, further, what is just as important, God not only hears our pain, but he listens to our prayers. God hears our prayers, even when they are expressed, as we read in Romans, “with sighs too deep for words” (8:26).

The third point Jones saw in the Scripture was that God will act. God, Jones wrote, would rise “from his throne – not to issue a command to the armies of angels that surrounded him to fly to the relief of his suffering children – but to come down from heaven in his own person, in order to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians.”

For Jones, the ultimate eyes and ears of God belong to Jesus. Jesus Christ not only sees us and hears us, but he is spiritually present at every moment in which the oppressed are liberated and justice rolls down like waters. Jesus is as present in every small step we hesitatingly take in the direction of righteousness as he was when was born in Bethlehem.

For the Christ who made all things is present in all things and will bring salvation to his people. Jones therefore asked his congregation at the end of his sermon to join him in singing a Christmas hymn he draws from the Gospel of Luke (2:14) and the Psalms (105:1): “Glory to God in the highest, for these first fruits of peace upon earth, and good will to man: O! let us give thanks to unto the Lord: let us call upon his name and make known his deeds among the people.”

In other words, the promise of the presence of Jesus is a promise of solidarity, a promise of redemption, and a promise of rebirth. This is good news when we feel alone, lost, and left for dead. Christmas is not confined to a season. Christmas happens each day we experience the birth of Christ in us and in our community. For as we read in Romans, if Christ is “for us, who is against us? .  . For I am convinced that neither death, not life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God” ( 8:31-32, 38-39).

On Heritage Sunday, when we celebrate the past, it is important for us to remember that the past was once a precarious present and an uncertain future. The churches these saints started, that seem so fixed in our lives, were once fledgling enterprises hoping to gain traction. And our spiritual forebearers battled bravely against the powers and principalities that continue to weigh us down today. Like Allen, Jones never tired of welding the weapons of the spirit. Working with less than what we have, they managed to do more than we have done by bearing witness in a way that is a testament to the grace that comes when we turn to Jesus.

Their example is important for us to remember, because they lived in a time, as we do, when the forces that divide and separate us have entered the light of day and shamelessly seek to divide the body of Christ. The legacy Jones leaves to us is that racism is a failure in Christian discipleship. It is not only found in human hearts but in systems that often remain hidden in plain sight to those of us who are not on the receiving end of the evil these systems perpetuate. Like the evil of addiction, racism is cunning, baffling, and powerful. It is diabolical.

Jones and Allen lived in a time in which the abolitionist cause was constantly in danger, when the country they learned to love had revealed an underside that was capable of incredible violence when fear, rather than love, becomes the controlling emotion. Looking back on what they experienced, it is hard not to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

For, like them, we are living, as Rabbi Abraham Heschel once wrote, in a “hour of spiritual scarcity, dominated . . . by powers of pompous vulgarity.” This spiritual scarcity and pompous vulgarity will lead, Heschel wrote, to tragedy, unless we learn to see that the “exodus from slavery” spelled “redemption for both Israel and Egypt.” The powerful do not see such redemption as the good and liberating news it truly is. This is why, Heschel reminds us, that Exodus ends not only in triumph but in tragedy, “Would that Pharaoh and the Egyptians had joined the Israelites in the desert,” Heschel wrote, “and together stood at the foot of Sinai.”

Jones and Allen persevered because they had learned to stand, not just at the foot of Sinai, but at the foot of the cross. They persevered because they had found a way to bear witness to God even when times seemed bleak, when the cause of abolitionism faltered and faded and nearly flickered out. They persevered because they believed in their hearts that God saw their afflictions and heard their cries and prayers. They persevered because they leaned on their Lord and celebrated each victory as a miraculous act of a merciful God. In all they did, so should we, by God’s grace.

Most importantly, when all else failed them – when their political work proved unfruitful and the racism they fought against held the upper hand, they took refuge in their churches. For the churches they founded provided them with the healing communities they needed when they were broken. Their churches helped them remember that another world is possible, which gave them the power to live according to a kingdom, Jesus tells us, that is not of this world (John 18:36). The churches they founded helped them remember that they were salt and light, preserving and illuminating, as we read in Philippians, all that is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy (4:8).

May our churches also lead us to these spiritual graces as we come together today to begin healing the wounds of our history. May our churches be places of healing and hope. May God bless our present with the same spiritual blessing of discipleship that God gave to Absalom Jones and Richard Allen. May this day that we celebrate together be a day of new beginnings, in which our congregations live out the dream of God that inspired these two remarkable saints. May their dreams be our dreams. May the same Spirit that filled them fill us. May we have courage and hold fast to the faith that liberates us and gives us life.

Finally, may the friendship these two saints shared kindle in us a new friendship with each other. May God bless the budding friendship between Christ Church Cranbrook and St. Stephen AME, so that the world might see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen

A copy of this sermon can be found here.