by The Reverend Craig Lemming, Associate Rector

In the name of our Loving, Liberating, and Healing Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I am very grateful and honored to be invited to be this year’s preacher for Holy Trinity’s annual celebration of the Feast of Absalom Jones. As we continue to honor our diocesan commitment to Justice: Becoming God’s Beloved Community our celebrations of saints like Absalom Jones are absolutely vital to seeing and being seen in all of our racial multiplicities. We sometimes find ourselves in churches that are racially monochromatic. It is feasts like today’s celebration of The Holy Eucharist for Racial Healing that we can creatively, lovingly, and joyfully disrupt the ubiquity of exclusively white representations of biblical figures and saints by seeing our vibrantly colorful multiplicities of race in sacred icons, in one another, and indeed, in the Triune God in whose divine image and likeness each and every one of us is made. This spiritual practice is vital in doing our interior and exterior work of healing from apartheid. Through celebrations of God’s Word, God’s Sacraments, and God’s Saints we can tell the truth about the sin of racism, resist and turn away from the sin of separating ourselves into racialized categories that European colonizers invented and imposed on all bodies, and work with the Holy Spirit to heal our divisions, so that our churches might actually start to look like what we heard in today’s Epistle. St. Paul proclaims, “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves in Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Today’s sermon is steeped in what our catechism says about the communion of saints and how the impact of Absalom Jones’ Christian witness to the reconciling Gospel of Jesus Christ can equip and empower us to love one another as Christ loves us and calls each of us into sacred friendship.

Since we don’t spend enough time in our Catechism, I would like us all to turn to page 862 in The Book of Common Prayer. I would like us to read together in unison whatThe Episcopal Church’s Catechism states as a response to the question: “What is the communion of saints?” Let’s read this answer out loud together: “The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.”[1] Sadly, in our church today, we don’t always see that “whole family of God” represented in our pews. We do not see people of all races, all abilities, all ages, all educational backgrounds, all social classes, all sexual orientations, all gender identities, and all ethnicities. How can we become more like the communion of saints we say we believe in? When we the church intentionally and unintentionally exclude those who are part of that whole family of God, those whom we hurt includes saints like Absalom Jones. The Episcopal Church was complicit in the sin of slavery. Those who enslaved Absalom Jones and his family sold his mother, his sister, and his five brothers when he was 16 years old. As heartbreaking as this country’s white supremacist legacy of ripping families of African descent apart is, this unspeakable horror shall never have the final word. As we affirmed together in the words of the Psalm appointed for Absalom Jones:

Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.

Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

In spite of the racist ways slaveholding colonizers traumatized Absalom Jones and his family, the loving, liberating Word of God  that Absalom Jones heard, and then read for himself in the Bible, gave him the spiritual power to trust in the Good News of Jesus Christ who turns our tears and weeping into songs of joy. The catechism says, the communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise. Those three spiritual practices are why we are here this afternoon. To celebrate the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood; to pray for an end to the sin of racism; and give praise to God for saints like Absalom Jones who worked to bind us together across our racial lines of difference in Christ. For Christ commands us in today’s Gospel to love one another as Christ loves all of us.

That love is what liberates us from the colonizers’ racialized categories of apartheid. Because in Jesus’s words if we do what he commands us to do – if we love one another as Christ love us, then together we become Christ’s friends. The Gospel says, “I have called you friends.” Will we say yes to Christ’s calling? Will we accept Christ’s vocation to sacred friendship across our many lines of human difference? Saying yes to this sacred calling will require us through the sacred gift of friendship to create a multiracial ecosystem. An ecosystem filled with a biodiversity of all the multiplicities of our human differences reconciled in friendly diversity. A thriving communion of saints who choose to love one another and choose togetherness; especially when we’re tempted to be hateful, disconnected, and lonely. So, I ask you, how will you choose to love those whom society and the church has hurt? How will you love those who are hurting? How will your love be like the love of Christ for all people? What does being a friend of Christ look like?

Unlike his dear friend Richard Allen, the celebrated preacher, Absalom Jones was known for his quiet, priestly, pastoral visits. In Lesser Feasts and Fasts we learn that it was Absalom Jones’ constant visiting and mild manner that made him beloved by his congregation and by the community.[2] We all feel loved and feel like we belong to each other when we turn up and care for each other. That gift of our presence is sacred. Being present in all of our racial multiplicities in spaces and places society told us we do not belong in is precisely how we can disrupt the exclusivity of white supremacist culture. We, in all of our kaleidoscopic colors, flavors, fragrances, and spices, must turn up in all of our fabulous differences to be the whole family of God, to truly be one in Christ Jesus, to be completely liberated from the sin of racist apartheid. Absalom Jones truly believed in the truth of that verse from Galatians he cherished most: For freedom Christ has set us free. We have been freed to turn up as Christ’s friends to free one another and others from being enslaved by racist coloniality. Absalom Jones persisted in being what we heard from the Prophet Isaiah. Absalom Jones persisted in being “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

This work of Justice: Becoming God’s Beloved Community is challenging. That is why I need to know that saints like Absalom Jones chose Christ’s love and friendship, in spite of slavery, in spite of heartbreak, in spite of the church’s harmful complicity in racism, in spite of all that violent, racist, demonic coloniality, Absalom Jones obeyed his Lord Jesus Christ’s calling to love and friendship.

My devotion to saints who embodied, lived, and worked as antiracist and decolonial agents of Christ’s reconciling love has become a slight obsession of mine. I want you to fall in love with these saints and to be as obsessed with them as I am. Who will your cherished saint who worked for racial healing be? Find their feast day, study their life and work, and remember that you are bound to them in Christ, through sacrament, prayer, and praise. The saints teach us how to do the hard work of love that Christ has commanded us to do.

I will leave you with a short excerpt from the preface to Lesser Feasts and Fasts.This explains why centering the lives of saints who worked for racial healing in our eucharistic liturgies is so vital. It says,

What we celebrate in the lives of the saints is the presence of Christ expressing itself in and through particular lives lived in the midst of specific historical circumstances. In the saints we are not dealing with absolutes of perfection but human lives, in all their diversity, open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Many a holy life, when carefully examined, will reveal flaws of the bias of a particular moment in history or ecclesial perspective. It should encourage us to realize that the saints, like us, are first and foremost redeemed sinners in whom the risen Christ’s words to St. Paul come to fulfillment, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”[3]

May the life, the love, and the legacy of Absalom Jones continue to inspire us to know that we are loved radically by God in all of our weaknesses, and empowered to be completely free agents of Christ’s reconciling love and friendship for all people, today and always. Amen.

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, 862.

[2] Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 92.

[3] Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2022, vii.

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