Shall we build three dwellings?

White Episcopalians commemorate Absalom Jones by getting off the mountain and staying in the struggle”

Good morning, God’s people!

This is the last week of the Season of Epiphany. As you know, “epiphany” means “showing forth”. Epiphany always ends with the Transfiguration, the story that takes place on a high mountain, where Jesus is transfigured while standing with Moses and Elijah as God declares Jesus, once again, to be God’s beloved child, and Peter, James, and John watch in amazement. It is in many ways the mother of all epiphany stories. Think of this passage itself as a “high mountain”. On one side, we climb up through stories of Jesus’ healing, liberating ministry. And on the other side, we’ll descend to the cross. Today, we arrive at a clearing on the mountaintop — and from here we can survey both how far we’ve come and the Lenten journey ahead.

If you’re feeling nervous for me right now, don’t worry. I know the Transfiguration is not the gospel reading printed in your leaflet. This year, as we stand in the center of where we’ve been and where we’re going, we also celebrate the life and ministry of Blessed Absalom Jones, the first person of African descent to be ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church – in America! – right here in Philadelphia in 1802. The gospel reading for Jones’ Feast Day is Jesus’ core commandment: love one another as I have loved you. 

This commandment is a part of the farewell address Jesus gives before he is arrested, condemned, and crucified. 

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In these final words, Jesus tells his disciples all they need to know to understand what is about to happen, even though they don’t realize it at the time. He reiterates the power of the relationship between him and God, Abba and Beloved Child. It is this loving relationship that makes everything Jesus does possible. Then he tells them he will go away soon, but that he will not leave them alone. Jesus will send the Spirit, the Advocate. The Spirit is a part of the loving relationship that is the One God. So too Jesus’ followers are those who abide in this love and, as such, the Spirit will empower Jesus’ followers to carry on his mission. That mission, Jesus reminds them (reminds us), is carried out through radical acts of loving service and bearing witness to the truth, the truth of how we treat one another and the truth that God is doing something different. And one more thing, Jesus predicts opposition. “As they hated me, so they will hate you.” 

Abide in love. Bear witness to the truth. Expect struggle.

And while I worry this reading was chosen because the traditional translations use slavery language, this foundational teaching, like the Transfiguration, is one of those high points of the Gospel. It “shows forth” to us that Blessed Absalom Jones lived his life as a disciple of Jesus, a recipient of the Spirit, and an heir of God’s kindom.

Absalom Jones was born into slavery on a plantation in Delaware in 1746. When he was 16, he watched his mother, sister, and five brothers sold off to other slave owners, and he himself was moved to Philadelphia with his master, Abraham Wynkoop – who joined this very congregation when he relocated here.

Over the next twenty years, Jones got married to Mary Thomas, who was also a slave; collected enough money to buy her freedom; attended a Quaker-run night school; bought land and built viable rental properties. He also spent those two decades trying to buy his own freedom. In 1784, Wynkoop finally agreed to release him, and Jones was free.

Absalom Jones, along with Richard Allen, served as lay ministers for the black membership at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church a few blocks from here. Their active evangelism greatly increased black membership, and the black members worked hard to help raise money to build an upstairs gallery to enlarge the church. Without telling these members, the church leadership decided to use the gallery to segregate the black worshippers. One Sunday morning, most likely in 1792, Absalom Jones was accosted for attempting to worship in a downstairs pew. He and most of the black members walked out of St. George’s that day.

The same year, Jones and Allen established the “First African Church” in Philadelphia. They applied to join the Protestant Episcopal Church, issuing three non-negotiable requirements to the Diocese: the Church must be received as an already organized body; it must have control over its own affairs; and Jones must be licensed as lay-reader and if qualified, ordained as its minister.

In 1794, the church was accepted into the Diocese and renamed the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. The following year Jones became a deacon, but was not ordained a priest until 1802, 7 years later. At 56 years old, he became the first black American priest. He continued to serve and advocate for black Americans for the rest of his life, dying in 1818.

Abide in love. Bear witness to the truth. Expect struggle. 

I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me not to get caught up in my awe for someone like Absalom Jones. How did he do it? Bear the abuse? Keep the faith? Not punch someone in the face? Like, a lot. I feel kind of like the disciples on the mountain during the Transfiguration. Amazed. But also overwhelmed. Not sure what to do next. You probably remember that in the midst of this experience that is beyond explanation, Peter tries to provide an explanation and, like a man after my own heart, establish some kind of plan. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 

What does he mean? There are all kinds of possibilities. As one commentator writes, It’s a bumbling, endearing proposal, if a bit tone-deaf and presumptuous (after all, if these three great prophets wanted shelter, they likely would have already made arrangements!). Is Peter thinking of the Greek custom of building a shrine at the site of a god’s appearance? Is he trying to corral the astounding wonder into something more manageable, more domesticated? Or is he simply “terrified”, grasping for something to say, something to offer? 

This mix of awe and bumbling feels really familiar to me, as a white person who is working to be anti-racist. I think this is especially important to name as I preach to a predominantly white congregation on the commemoration of the first black priest in our denomination. I think it’s especially important during Black History Month, a holiday that – like Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Juneteenth – we know matters but don’t exactly know how to honor that in real and meaningful ways. Like Peter, I can find myself wanting to dwell in romanticized images of black leaders. To dwell in my own despair and shame over the depths of white supremacy. Or just to dwell in the awe of what God can do against all odds.

Our awe in how far God will go and how much those who follow God can overcome is misplaced awe. My hunch is the Transfiguration probably annoyed Jesus. It may be the mother of all epiphanies, but there are many epiphanies, many stories – like all of them – that show forth God’s love for us and the power of that love to change the world. Jesus never teaches us to be in awe of him. He teaches us to follow him. To get off the mountain. To abide in love. To bear witness to the truth. And to expect struggle.

 

How do we do that? 

By continuing to listen to and trust people of color in real and even risky ways. Like this: 

 

How do we do that? By committing to, as Joe Tatnall described it, the dailiness of anti-racism work – praying for our daily learning like we pray for our daily bread. Maybe by adopting the Lenten practice of spending 40 days with the Equal Justice Initiative’s Calendar of a History of Racial Injustice. Sign up here.

 

Perhaps most difficult, we do that by expecting struggle. By believing Jesus when he says part of God’s kindom is facing opposition. By facing conflict. bell hooks wrote:

How we cope in conflict includes how we engage our fellow white siblings. The majority of people who voted for Donald Trump, who attacked the capitol, and who subscribe to the Q-Anon conspiracy theory are white. We cannot ignore that. Denounce? Yes. But we cannot just keep watching from afar. 

We have to confront our white siblings whose pain has been distorted into hate. Whose pain has been distorted into hate. We name that pain, see the suffering, recognizing that is where Christ met people and transformed them. As one organizer said at a recent anti-racism training, “If you aren’t organizing white people around their suffering, you better believe someone else is.” We confront the hate, exposing the lies that fuel that hate, like the idea that white people’s suffering is caused by people of color, undocumented migrants, educated women, the lgbtq community. We show that, in truth, those who gain the most from white people’s suffering are the same people who gain from all people’s suffering. And that these people will always stoke hatred at the expense of healing because it benefits them to do so. 

 I direct you to the Poor People’s Campaign to see how to do this without privileging white people’s suffering over others’. To truly unite all kinds of people around a moral vision and agenda that centers the most vulnerable to save the whole community. 

This is what it means to live in the Spirit. To follow Christ off the mountain: 

Abide in love. Bear witness to the truth. Expect struggle. 

Only then do we find the confidence – the faith – to live out the Gospel, like Absalom Jones did. Only then, do we truly honor Jones and join him in the work of proclaiming the gospel. May it be so. Amen.

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