For Black History Month – A Commemoration

The Reverend Absalom Jones (November 7, 1746-February 13, 1818), first Black priest of the Episcopal Church

Excerpts from my sermon, Of Birds and Lilies [1]


“Look at the birds of the air…Consider the lilies of the field…”

Jesus calls our attention to carefree birds that neither sow nor reap, yet whom God feeds and to contented lilies that neither toil nor spin, yet are robed more splendidly than Solomon…

When, contemplating my countless cares and concerns, these idyllic images are nearly unintelligible. Yet I also know that Jesus doesn’t ask me to forget my troubles. Such amnesia is escapist unreality. Rather Jesus, who was troubled unto death, therefore, in the words of the spiritual, “knows the trouble I’ve seen,” points to birds and lilies to remind me to trust God. If God provides for birds and lilies, God provides for me…

As a person of faith, I know that I am to trust God. But I also know what Isaiah knew. God’s ways are not my ways.[2] And what the Apostle Paul knew. God’s ways are inscrutable.[3] Hence, at times, I think (feel!) that God needs supervision! That I must tell God what I need, when, where, and how. (Truth to tell, sometimes, I pray like this!)

But whenever I do this, I rediscover that God is incorrigible, refusing to play by my rules. So, I confess, I trust God, but waver between faith and fear…

(This, I think, is why) Jesus counsels “strive first for the kingdom of God.” The cure for care about many things is to care for one thing: God’s kingdom…No earthly or heavenly domain, but rather God’s very life. Of justice, fair dealing one with another. Of compassion, shared living and loving in suffering and in joy…

We commemorate the life and legacy of Absalom Jones as one who trusted God, striving for God’s kingdom of justice and compassion. Never one or the other. Always both.

For Absalom knew that justice can shape fair policy, but without compassion can fail to see the individual hungering for liberation. Absalom also knew that compassion cares for the individual, but without justice can fail to see the corrupt system that needs transformation…

Absalom trusted God, striving for God’s kingdom of justice and compassion, helping to establish the Free African Society, and later the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, Philadelphia, for the spiritual and social, political and personal redemption of God’s people…

(Thus) Absalom is honored as “zealous for the prosperity of the Church, unwearied in doing good…especially beloved as a consequence of his devotion to the people of God, particularly the poor, the sick, and the longsuffering.”[4]

(Therefore) Absalom is a trustworthy mentor for anyone who longs to sing God’s kingdom song of justice and compassion in the foreign land of this world.[5] (A world) whose moral economy often is bankrupt…(A world) whose political currency remains power in the hands of few who exercise control over many.

As this is all-too-true of this world, I know that, from time to time, my trust in God will wane in my fear that the “what is” will continue to overwhelm the “what ought to be.”

Remembering Absalom, I say, “Nevertheless!” In the face of my fear, nevertheless, I will sing God’s song…daring to see the world from the point of view of the victory of God’s kingdom already achieved in Jesus’ life of justice and compassion for all…

As Absalom knew, then I will know that when I dare to sing God’s song, striving for God’s kingdom, I, truly, never can be afraid.

© 2023 PRA

Illustration: Absalom Jones (c. 1810), Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825)

[1] A sermon, based on Matthew 6.25-33, preached on the occasion of the Absalom Jones Day Celebration of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Saturday, February 16, 2013.

[2] See Isaiah 55.8-9

[3] See Romans 11.33-35

[4] From the Reverend Dr. George Freeman Bragg’s Richard Allen and Absalom Jones (1916), page 7

[5] A reference to Psalm 137.1-4

4 thoughts on “For Black History Month – A Commemoration

  1. Dear Paul,

    I have been learning a bit about The Reverend Absalom Jones. Emilia has been preparing for and attended his feast day celebration on Saturday at St. Mark’s Cathedral just a couple of blocks from here. She was in charge of arranging the streaming and videoing of the service. Afterwards she sent me the link to it and advised that I watch at least the sermon, which was delivered by The Reverend Doctor Dorothy White, who is the new head of the religion department and the chaplain at Breck School, an Episcopal Church-related school near here. I wondered whether you might know her, since she came here from Virginia. She gave a wonderful, rousing, challenging sermon in her beautiful, familiar-sounding Virginia accent, and I found myself rejoicing that the children at Breck now have her on their campus as a leader, mentor, and guide. I would give something to be able to be a fly on the wall as she teaches and leads in that setting! (Apparently the Bishop’s 7-year-old son is completely taken with her and her teaching.)

    Thank you for sharing your sermon on The Reverend Jones. I’m glad to know about him and his very early leadership and faithfulness to the Gospel’s truth vis a vis the society he inhabited. Slowly some of the things we white Americans have not known because our ancestors did not choose to pass them down to us are being made known and our woeful ignorances may be, I pray, starting to become lacks too great to sustain. Thanks to people like you and The Reverend Doctor Jones for helping to fill the absurd gaps in our knowledge of history.




  2. My dear Karen, if you or Emilia would grant me access to the Reverend Doctor Dorothy White’s sermon, I would be most grateful. (I looked up The Breck School. Dorothy White looks familiar to me, but I do not think that we have met.)

    Please, given my kindest regards to Emilia.

    Love to you and Ted,


    1. Paul,

      I forwarded the link to you via email, and I forwarded it to you too, Loretta. I hope you like it as much as Emilia and I did!




  3. I love y’all’s post / response so much!!
    This is such a great reminder because we all have periods where we lack faith!! When I sick for 13 years I kept wondering why God wasn’t making me well and I was mad! But I kept the faith and began trying to determine the lesson I was supposed to learn!! Now I believe I had that long illness to prepare to care for Mom. I’m glad I kept my faith AND that I figured out how to really listen to God – even when I’m mad!!

    I also love learning more about Absalom Jones each year!!

    Much love to you both!!


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