Radical, Threatening Love

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Claire Nevin-Field on the Feast of Absalom Jones.

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The world “love” gets thrown around a lot in church-so much that I often wonder if we have completely sanitized it and distanced ourselves from it. When we speak of love we tend to think of a lovely, warm, fuzzy feeling. When Jesus speaks of love he thinks, speaks, does—the sort of love that threatened people so much we hustled him to the cross. The sort of love Jesus preached, lived, is what black feminist theologian the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, whose words and thoughts infuse this sermon, calls radical, threatening love.

Absalom Jones was the first Episcopal priest of African descent, he was also a slave. Right here at St. Peter’s. Brought into this space by his master Benjamin Wynkoop, and confined to worship up there—in what we think were the slave galleries. While Jones was enslaved, Wynkoop rented him out and (beneficently, at least in his own eyes) allowed Jones to keep some of his own earnings-eventually he earned enough money to be able to buy his freedom. But he didn’t. Instead, he purchased freedom for his wife Mary. He did what so many other African American men did, not knowing if he would ever have enough money again to buy his own freedom, but wanting his wife to be free no matter what happened to him. Eventually he did buy his freedom, and left St. Peter’s and Wynkoop behind, to attend St. George’s Methodist Church, where fellow freed slave Richard Allen was a preacher. Soon, however,  St. George’s, alarmed by the increase in the number of black men and women coming to church, decided, without any notice, to segregate seating and relegate the black members to the gallery. After finishing their prayers, Jones and Allen led a walkout. Allen chose to stay with the Methodist Church, at least for a while, but Jones established a Free African Church-whose members eventually decided that they wanted to be affiliated with an established church and chose the Episcopal Church. In August of 1795 Absalom Jones was ordained a deacon by Bishop William White, Rector of St. Peter’s, probably here at St. Peter’s. In 1804 he was ordained priest at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the church he had founded. Richard Allen went on to start a new church, Bethel Church, at 6th and Lombard—a church that became the mother of a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

 

While there are many remarkable things about Absalom Jones’ story, the thing that strikes me, not just for Absalom but for hundreds of his contemporaries, is that they stayed with church. And not just with church, but with the Episcopal Church. They carved a home here despite the ignorance, racism, and sometimes hatred which infected it-despite the fact that the Episcopal church was literally and figuratively built on the backs of slaves. Our church, the Episcopal Church, once told African Americans that the freedom and dignity talked of in the Gospel and in the Baptismal covenant did not apply to them in the literal sense. In the next world they would literally be free but in this world, white rules applied, not God’s rules, and white rules certainly did not include freedom or equality for black people. Despite this racism, Jones and countless others stayed, living a radical, threatening love-a love that holds up the mirror of truth—and loves despite the reflection therein. They lived into the good news of God’s love and persisted in the call to bring … good news to the oppressed,…bind up the brokenhearted,…preach to the captives, liberty,and to the prisoners, release, freedom…

We need that gospel today, for though some things have changed, racism and oppression endure. People and institutions use their privilege and power to trample the rights and dignity of other people—cultural, ethnic, religious and racial hatred endures in our world, in our nation and, if the truth be told, in our Church. There is still systematic oppression of women and girls in our world. Bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth and adults. The poor, the working poor and the desperate poor are ground down by the wealthy and sometimes by the middle class. The oppressed are yet with us and if we tell the truth, we are complicit in their oppression.Those of us who are white participate in and benefit from a system we are taught from birth, a system that keeps us separated from people of color and dehumanizes all of us. A system in which white people start the race of life half way down the field, while black and brown people are not even on the field at all but way back beyond the end zone. Our economic system thrives on workers in China and Indonesia who make our electronic gadgets and sneakers at slave wages-depends on migrant workers toiling for pennies an hour with no benefits so we can have fresh fruit and vegetables and coffee and tea. Even slavery persists, in factories, on boats, and in private homes. And there are untold numbers of women, girls and boys sold into sexual slavery each year. Radical threatening love requires looking into the mirror, taking an honest assessment of self and culture-it requires an unpopular truth-telling—which even though it may not always feel like it is Gospel, good news.

In the months since our banners about standing with our Muslim neighbors, and loving our black/brown/Asian/female neighbors went up, we have been on the receiving end of some angry phone calls and emails—people angry that whites were not included on the banner. To be sure, the majority of phone calls and emails have been positive, we even had a neighbor stop in the church office and make a donation because she loved the signs, but it is clear they make some uncomfortable, angry. Last Saturday, 24 people joined Sean and me in a daylong anti-racism workshop, and the staff has been and will continue to work with Dr. Tom Gordon, a psychologist and consultant in anti-racism work. It is all uncomfortable—hard. Being confronted with my own bias, being made aware once again of how deep my attitudes and assumptions about race run—how much I swim in a sea of privilege was, is painful.

But as hard as it is, I need, we need to hear this part of the good news. The world needs to hear this part of the good news. Because if we cannot, do not, acknowledge the truth of the world around us and within us, we are engaging in the sin of a self-serving blindness, and we cut ourselves off from each other—from healing and wholeness. And we, the church, we who, despite our separation and segregation, are called to be one Body—knit together in Christ-in whom there is neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female—we are called to do this work-the hard work of radical, threatening love. We are to remember that the Spirit of God has already anointed us, already sent us to proclaim this gospel with our words and with our lives. We, you and me, have a role to play in binding up the broken hearted, preaching liberty, freedom and release to captives and prisoners, ending the systems that perpetuate racism. We are to proclaim God’s love made flesh in Jesus. God’s response to the brokenness of this world is divine love, not a warm, fuzzy feeling, but living, breathing, redeeming, transforming love active in the world; a radical, threatening love. And while that work is hard—very hard—we must do it. And we can do it knowing that whatever forces are marshaled by the tyrants of this world, they will not stand because it is the Spirit of the Living Loving God who calls us, sends us, anoints us, enables us, empowers us. It is the Spirit which never fails-it is she who urges us to proclaim that this is the year of God’s favor. As was last year and the year before that, and the ancient year in which this text from Isaiah was first composed. She is always with us, hearing our prayers, accompanying us on our journey, sharing in our suffering. And that’s a good thing, because the path of love is not always an easy path.

And yet what neither Jesus nor Absalom Jones did was check the prevailing cultural and political winds before opposing the religious authorities in the name of love in their day. They did not choose the easy or popular path. They chose the path of radical, threatening love. Threatening the establishments of their day, threatening their spiritual power and economic interests. With love. The love our Gospel calls for, life-surrendering, life-saving love. This is the good news that Absalom Jones preached. This is the good news of Jesus Christ. May the Spirit accompany us out of here and into the world, give us courage, and work in us and through us, that we may live, that we may be radical, threatening love.

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The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field

The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field is the rector of St. Peter's Church.

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