Absalom Jones’s Day 2019
St. Thomas Thomas’ Church, Philadelphia
By: The Right Reverend Carl Walter Wright
I must begin with a Confession. In my mind, I’m speaking to you from the text, “Do not be afraid; for from henceforth you will be catching people! (Luke 5 and 10).” That’s in my mind. But in my heart, I will be speaking from the Cross. I can’t help it: I always talk about the Cross; I always return to the Cross. For as the old hymn says:
“Mercy there was great and grace was free…
Pardon there was multiplied to me…
There, my wearisome soul found liberty… At Calvary!”
That is my testimony. They say all preachers have only really have only one sermon. The Cross is mine.
You know, Archbishop Tutu loves to tell the story about the newly-ordained young Curate who was a one-note Charlie. All he could ever preach about was the Cross. No matter what the Gospel lesson was, he’d find a way to bring it back to the Cross. So, one day his Boss the Rector decided he was going to cure the Curate once and for all. He issued an ultimatum: you cannot preach again from this pulpit till you learn to vary your sermon topics!
Then, much time passed and the Curate hadn’t preached in quite awhile. The Rector [just think of Father Martini Shaw] decided to lift his sentence and allow the new priest to preach; whereupon the young man rose to the pulpit’s height; said a prayer and crossed himself. Then he began “Dearly Beloved: I not that today is the 19th day of March, St. Joseph’s Day. As we all know, St. Joseph was the Father of our Lord. And he was a carpenter. And carpenters work with wood. So, I’m going to talk about the Cross!
My brothers and sisters – please forgive me; but no matter what else I say this morning, I want you to know that I look to the Cross! For, as another hymn says:
“At the Cross, at the Cross, where I first saw the light…
And the burdens of my heart rolled away.
It was there by faith I received my sight.
And now I am happy all the day!”
On this Blessed Absalom Jones’s day, I can think of nothing better to extol than the Cross of Christ. I can say with confidence that what guided Absalom was the Cross. That ill-fated day when Absalom and Richard Allen were praying in St. George’s Methodist Church, they were undoubtedly focused on the Cross. Surely it was the Cross that inspired them – that gave them their marching orders if you will – to step out on faith and start their new ministries. It could only have been the Cross – where Jesus gave His life – that would give Absalom the strength to go in a totally new direction and do something for Christ that had never been done before! Not away from the Christians who persecuted him, but to towards them, to boldly proclaim that “God is no respecter of persons; that there is no such thing as a White Jesus or a Black Jesus, a White Church or a Black Church. There’s only one Lord! And WE are followers of that same Lord. WE are children of the same God. WE have just as much right to be here as you do!” And, so a Movement began; a movement that continues to this very day!
You know, it is not easy bearing one’s Cross. I am reminded of the Good Friday a few months before I was elected Bishop. I was Rector of a wonderful little Parish in the Diocese of Maryland…Well, as fate would have it, that entire month of March I was stricken with kidney stones! The pain was excruciating!
One of my favorite parishioners, a lady from the great state of South Carolina, ministered to me. In trying to cheer me up, I remember her saying, “You know, Father Carl, I’ve had two children and one kidney stone; and I would willingly have another child!” By the time we came to Good Friday, I was like that new young Curate who hadn’t been allowed to preach: I was determined to do the Good Friday Service – which we all know is one of the most moving Services in the Prayer-book. Pain and all, I did it! -You may recall that the Good Friday Service requires the Priest, at the climactic moment, to bring in a large, crude wooden Cross for the Christians to venerate. “Behold the wood of the Cross; on which hung the Savior of the world. O Come, let us worship!”
Well, I don’t mind telling you I was hurting! That Cross was hard to bear! But somehow the Lord gave me the strength to bear that Cross the full length of the Nave. And I would swear that gradually and gradually I forgot about the pain because I was focused on the Cross. Just like St. Simon of Cyrene – who is always depicted as Black – I was honored. My soul was revived because I bore the Cross. As Paul would say, “God’s power was made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12)!!”
Finally, my friends, we will never know the details of all the humiliation and pain Absalom undoubtedly suffered for the sake of the Cross: a slave in Delaware; securing his freedom and that of his family by sheer tenacity and determination; obtaining an education; a spiritual friendship with Bishop White; being a Black man in a White Church…But this much we do know: Absalom bore his Cross with equanimity! We know he is an important forerunner of what Gandhi would later call, “passive resistance.” We know that heroes like Martin Luther King stand on the shoulders of saints like Absalom Jones. We know that Absalom left us an enormous spiritual inheritance. We know that he knew that if you serve Jesus Christ, the Crucified One, He will turn your pain into bliss and your sorrow into joy. No matter what you must suffer, it you look to the Cross you will be saved!!
So, congratulations, Saint Thomas, on your patronal feast, your 227th birthday. Thank you, Saint Thomas, for letting me be here today, if for no other reason than to “preach Christ and Him crucified (2 Corinthians 4:5)” one more time.
I leave you with the encouraging words of one more hymn:
“Look to the Saviour on Calvary.
See how He suffered…for you and for me.
Mark how the Cross will set your free.
Look and thou shalt live!”