Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Eliminating Limits on Love

Absalom Jones was born into slavery. Along with his mother and six siblings, Absalom was the property of a wealthy plantation owner in Delaware. While doing field work, Absalom's master noticed that he was an unusually intelligent child, so he ordered that Absalom be trained to work in the plantation house. While there, he learned how to read and write and saved what little money he had to buy books, including a Bible. When Absalom was around 10 years old, his owner died, and he became the property of the owner's son, who, a few years later, sold the plantation, including Absalom's mother and siblings, and took Absalom with him to Philadelphia as his slave. Absalom's owner opened a store, where Absalom was forced to work. On Sundays, they attended St. Peter's Episcopal Church. At night, Absalom was permitted by his master to go to a night school operated by Quakers, who furthered his education.

With the permission of their owners, Absalom married Mary Thomas, the slave of another parishioner at St. Peter's. After saving up what money he could and imploring his Quaker mentors to lend him additional money, Jones bought the freedom of his wife, but, after repaying his debtors and saving up additional money for his own freedom, Jones' master refused. Several times, Absalom pleaded with his master to let him purchase his freedom, but that man would not give in to the request. Finally in 1784, after 38 years of enslavement, Jones' master granted him a manumission.

Absalom Jones and his wife left St. Peter's and joined St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church, where he became a prominent lay leader to the black congregation. Alongside friend and colleague Richard Allen, Jones worked to bring new black worshippers to St. George's. So successful were their efforts, that they raised money to build a gallery in the church where members of the growing congregation could sit. Without informing Jones or Allen, the congregation decided to enforce segregated seating, requiring all those of African descent to sit upstairs in the gallery. Jones and his fellow worshippers walked out in protest. They again pooled their resources and built a new church specifically for blacks in Philadelphia. The congregation voted to affiliate with the Episcopal Church, and they applied for membership in the Diocese of Pennsylvania under three conditions: 1) that they be received as their own organized body, 2) that they have local control over their own affairs, and 3) that Absalom Jones be licensed as a lay reader and, if qualified, ordained. Eventually, Jones was ordained a deacon and then a priest, the first African-American priest in the Episcopal Church (see https://www.hsec.us/releases/we-need-a-new-biographical-sketch-of-absalom-jones).

I wonder what Jones' sermons sounded like. I wonder what sort of spirit filled the church when he preached on a passage like Isaiah 61: "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners." I wonder what it felt like to have Absalom Jones look you in the eye and read Jesus' words from John 15: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." Do you think Jones knew what it meant for all of Jesus' followers to love one another with Christ-like love in a way that we fail to grasp at least most of the time?

Jesus said to his disciples, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." When their master--when our master--summed up his teaching in one simple commandment, that was it. You must love one another. You must imitate my love. If you are to be my followers, you must lay down your life for one another in love. You must give up your life as you know it for the sake of love.

It's pretty easy to love our families like that. Wife and husband, mother and father, son and daughter, sister and brother--it isn't hard to love them selflessly, the way that Jesus loved the world. Our friends, too, draw that love from us...on a good day, when all is right between us. And those very best friends are those for whom we really would lay down our life. But what about an acquaintance or a stranger? Would we love them the way Jesus loved us? Could we look at them with the same sort of selfless love? Does it matter what sort of acquaintance or stranger they are? If they were young and attractive and well-dressed and articulate? Would it make a difference if they were white or Latino or black or Arab? Would it make a difference if they were homeless or unkempt or drunk or high?

Absalom Jones was born into slavery. He lived most of his life as someone else's property. And the Holy Spirit helped him know that God's words of hope and promise and liberation were intended for him and other slaves like him. We grew up in the opposite culture with access and power. What is the Holy Spirit saying to us? I wonder what is harder: to be a slave and know that you have a full and equal claim on God's love or to be a descendent of slave owners and know that the poor among us have as much a claim on God's love as we do. Jesus said, "This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you." Do we?

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