Sermon for the Celebration of Two Firsts

I delivered this sermon at the Celebration of Two Firsts Honoring both Absalom Jones and James Theodore Holly, which was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Two Firsts Photo

With friends at the Celebration of Two Firsts. St. Paul’s Cathedral, February 14, 2015

It is good to be with you on Valentine’s Day, a day that is dedicated to a celebration of love. I assume that everyone here has taken care of chocolates and flowers and dinner reservations.

There are lots of stories about St. Valentine, most of them based on fairly sketchy information, but one that appeals to me is that Valentine was arrested in the year 269 for successfully converting people to Christ and was martyred — beheaded! — after he tried to convert the Roman Emperor Claudius to Christianity.

Valentine, therefore, is one more example of someone committed to Christ, used by God as an instrument of faith. Today we pay tribute to two of those people, whose words and accomplishments remain models to us as we struggle to live in a conflicted multi-racial society.

In that society this last year there have been both high points and low points.

One of the high points is the movie Selma, which revisits that key moment in our history, reminding those who were there of the pain and pride of that event, the 1965 voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. … and tells the story anew to our younger people who need to hear the history, to know where they came from, to know how hard-fought the battles were.

And the low points have come in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the resulting anger at justice delayed and justice denied, the belief that black lives do not matter, that the inability of people of color to breathe the air of freedom and justice is not a concern to much of white America.

Map of MississippiYou know that this is a matter close to my heart because of the way I was brought up. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Mississippi, in a deeply segregated society, where I could not go to school with or be friends with or worship with people of color. It was at my grandmother’s dining table, where she invited guests both black and white, that I first began to understand how wrong that was, how much poorer I was for having been denied the richness of knowing and working with people of color, and of how that made no sense in what was supposed to be the Kingdom of God.

Since God works in mysterious ways, it may not be surprising that the two figures we celebrate today — Absalom Jones and James T. Holly — have ties to two cities that are important to me. I want to believe that God brought me out of Mississippi and ultimately to Philadelphia and Buffalo, and that there is some symmetry at work there.

Absalom Jones

Absalom Jones

We know the story of Absalom Jones — born a house slave, sold to a store owner in Philadelphia, where he learned to read partly by studying the New Testament. He bought his freedom, and he began to attend St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, where his evangelism efforts greatly increased the number of black members.

That was too much for the white members of the congregation, who wanted to segregate the black members in an upstairs gallery without notice. When ushers tried to remove the black congregants, they walked out.

Subsequently Jones and others built a church that was admitted to membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, and Absalom Jones became the first black deacon in 1795 and the first black priest in 1802.

His church — St. Thomas, in Philadelphia — grew to more than 500 members in the first year. Don’t we all wish we had Father Absalom’s gift for evangelism! I’d like to know his secrets for bringing more people into the church!

He was “an example of persistent faith in God and in the Church as God’s instrument” [LFF, p.158].

William White

William White

I want to draw your attention to a great historical footnote here — please indulge me, as you know my first career was as a teacher of church history. The bishop who ordained Absalom Jones as deacon and priest was William White.

In the days just after the end of the War for Independence, the Church of England almost disappeared from the American colonies. Money that the English church had sent to support its churches in the colonies was immediately cut off. The churches here were no longer part of the structure and support offered by the Church of England. The Book of Common Prayer was immediately unusable — it held up the King of England as the head of the church, which was unacceptable for colonies that had just thrown off British rule. The churches were isolated, disconnected, no one was in charge.

But it was William White who stepped forward in that hour to save what would become the Episcopal Church.

After a series of three “conventions” in the 1780s, the newly independent Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America created, by 1789, a constitution, canons, and an American Book of Common Prayer.

The primary architect of these foundational documents was William White of Philadelphia, the Chaplain of the Continental Congress and later first Bishop of Pennsylvania and Presiding Bishop. He is described as “brilliant, diplomatic, adroit and gentle … respected and loved by all in the young church.” [Cynthia McFarland] So much of what is great and right about the Episcopal Church can be laid at the feet of William White: our structure, our understanding of ecclesiastical authority, our polity.

And it was this far-seeing, brilliant priest and bishop who took what was then the bold step in 1802 of ordaining as deacon and priest that young African-American, Absalom Jones.

He did this in the context of a new nation where slavery was still legal … where the Constitution counted a slave as only 3/5 of a person. I can imagine there was as much dismay about the ordination of Absalom Jones as there was the first time we ordained women or gay people in our own time. Yet Bishop White recognized God’s call to Absalom Jones, knew that his prophetic voice must be recognized, understood the importance of diversity among the clergy, and identified him as the preacher and teacher who was born for such a time as that.

Again we are hearing a story of faith by someone who was acting as an instrument of God.

James Theodore Holly

James Theodore Holly

We turn now to James T. Holly, the first black bishop in the Episcopal Church. He spent most of his church career in Haiti, but he has ties to Western New York. We know that he lived in Buffalo in the 1850s and worked as a school principal. I’m grateful to the Rev. Bill Wipfler, who wrote his master’s thesis on Bishop Holly and has brought forth detailed information about him that will enrich our archives.

Augustus Frank, Jr.

Augustus Frank, Jr.

You know that Western New York was an important region for the Underground Railroad. Slaves seeking their freedom made their way here hoping to cross the river to Canada.

You may not know that the earliest abolitionist organization in the nation was founded just south of here, in the village of Warsaw, in 1833 — even before such anti-slavery strongholds as Boston did so. And the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, outlawing slavery, was passed by Congress thanks to the tireless efforts of Rep. Augustus Frank Jr., a native son of Warsaw.

Holly would go on to found the organization that is now the Union of Black Episcopalians. In 1861 he led a group of African-Americans settling in Haiti, the first black republic, where they hoped to live free of discrimination. There he paid a terrible price: His wife, his mother and two of his children died in the first year because of disease. He stayed, with his two surviving small sons, to “speak of God’s love to a people who needed to hear it” (HW/HM].

He was ordained bishop of Haiti in 1874 at Grace Church, New York City, not by the mainstream Episcopal Church, which refused to ordain a black missionary bishop, but by the American Church Missionary Society, an Evangelical Episcopal branch of the Church.

He became the first black bishop in the Episcopal Church, and later was also bishop of the Diocese of the Dominican Republic.

Arthur Cleveland Coxe

Arthur Cleveland Coxe

I am proud to say that one of my predecessors — Bishop Arthur Cleveland Coxe, the second bishop of Western New York — was a co-consecrator at his ordination.

Under very difficult conditions Bishop Holly confirmed hundreds of Episcopalians, raised up dozens of Haitian deacons and priests, trained physicians, and oversaw the creation of mission stations, churches, chapels and schools in Haiti. He doubled the size of his diocese. Twice in 15 years the main church in the capital, Port-au-Prince, burned, and twice he had it rebuilt.

Today, the Diocese of Haiti is the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church. [84,301 members in 2013, per, “Baptized Members by Diocese”] The Diocese of the Dominican Republic is making major strides in a nation that is 78 percent Roman Catholic. []

These accomplishments are in no small measure the results of the groundbreaking work by James T. Holly, another leader of steadfast faith who acted as God’s instrument.

And now we turn to today. In this season of heartache over the state of race relations in our country, what are we doing to heal and reform … how do we respond to the events of Ferguson and Staten Island, and the discrimination here in our own city, reported in the pages of the Buffalo News? How do we address the sin of racism and confront the fact of inequality in our city and our nation? What would Blessed Absalom and Blessed James say to us today?

On January 1, 1808 — the day that, by act of Congress, the importation of slaves was outlawed in the United States — Absalom Jones, well-known as a fiery orator, preached a sermon at St. Thomas, Philadelphia, in which he enumerated the ways that slave importers, owners and overseers had oppressed and tortured fellow human beings: stuffing them into airless holds of slave ships, where the prospect of jumping overboard to swim for home or to face death “in a watery grave” by drowning was a preferable alternative to “their impending misery”; “all the different modes of torture, by means of the whip, the screw, the pincers, and the red hot iron.”

“Inhuman wretches!” he exclaimed. “Though you have been deaf to their cries and shrieks, they have been heard in Heaven. The ears of Jehovah have been constantly open to them. … he has come down to deliver our suffering countrymen from the hands of their oppressors.” Importation of slaves was banned in 1808, but slavery itself was still legal until the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865.

How do we make ourselves instruments of God today in delivering those who suffer at the hands of their oppressors? How do we listen with the ears of Jehovah? We are taking a number of steps:

  • Recently I joined with Bishop Malone of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo in a historic joint pastoral letter on the future of our region and the need to expand the voices at the table and insure that the new prosperity in Buffalo extends to everyone in Western New York.
  • On Wednesday, as a result of that joint letter, Bishop Malone and I met with Mayor Brown. He has asked us to work closely with him on issues of reconciliation and to publicly sign a “Buffalo Opportunity Pledge.” . He has asked me to be his guest when he delivers the State of the City Address next Friday, which I will gladly do to show that our diocese is a willing partner with the city in dealing with issues of inequality and racism, and we are eager to align our resources with the city’s to meet the needs of Buffalo’s citizens.
  • Starting tomorrow, we will conduct a series of conversations that I am calling “Do Not Be Afraid: Five Fears Facing the Episcopal Church in Western New York.” Before we can take the next steps on strengthening existing connections and building new relationships, we have to be honest about some of the things we are afraid of.

The purpose of these conversations is not to seek answers but to share with each other and find common fears, common strengths and common questions.

I hope we may draw on the inspiration and courage of our “Two Firsts,” Blessed Absalom and Blessed James, as we begin these conversations. The conversations are only the first step in bringing our region and ourselves into closer alignment with the Kingdom of God. We look to Absalom and James as examples of perseverance, patience, fearlessness and determination as we work for deliverance from captivity and bondage.

We have focused a lot today on the “Two Firsts,” but I want to close by talking about some ways in which our hope and prayer is that we may not be the first but that we may be the last. We seek God’s power and the public will to change our world and our society and ourselves so that no one need suffer again what so many have suffered for so long.

  • Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed by law enforcement officers without provocation. No more men of color should die this way. Let them be the last.
  • In Cleveland, the 14-year-old sister of Tamir Rice was tackled by police, handcuffed and placed in a squad car when she ran to the aid of her 12-year-old brother, who had been shot to death by police. No child should be treated that way. Let her be the last.
  • The women and children who today are victims of human trafficking, who have been sold into sexual slavery. No one of any race, creed or color should be condemned to this life of hell. Let them be the last.
  • The men of color disproportionately incarcerated. Our nation represents 5 percent of the world’s population — and 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned population, overwhelmingly men of color. [The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.] No young man should grow up just waiting for his time in prison. Let them be the last.
  • The adults and children who go to bed tonight hungry or cold. In a nation of abundance, no one should be without the basic elements of a decent life. Let them be the last.
  • The children who live in poverty in our region, described as the most segregated in the country. No child should grow up without dignity, without financial security, without hope for the future, without enjoying the sunshine of opportunity. Let them be the last.
  •  The parents of young men and women of color who worry whether their children will come home safe at night. No parent should have to wonder whether children will be assumed to have done wrong because of the color of their skin. Let them be the last.

In the words of Absalom Jones, from that same fiery sermon preached on that day in 1808:

We implore all these blessings and mercies, only in the name of thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. And now, O Lord, we desire, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, ever more to praise thee, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty: The whole earth is full of thy glory. Amen.

This entry was posted in Current Issues, Miscellaneous, Racism in America. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Sermon for the Celebration of Two Firsts

  1. Thomas R Michaels says:

    What a lecture you gave and very interesting.
    I love history and learning more abut the Episcopal church.
    Some day I will tell you my long hope for all of us here in a wonderful country.

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