Posts Tagged 'exile in Babylon'

For Feb. 8, 2015: Absalom Jones

The Reading                                                                 Isaiah 61:1-4

The first part of the book of Isaiah pronounced God’s judgment on Israel for oppressing the poor: her kings were to be cut down and her people exiled in Babylon. Isaiah 61:1-4, fittingly for the commemoration of Absalom Jones, calls the despondent returnees to rebuild and restore shattered Jerusalem—and to rejoice in freedom.

The Response                                                               Psalm 137:1-6

Psalm 137 laments the exile in Babylon that Isaiah prophesied for Israel. The oppressors’ demand for songs and mirth has echoes in later history: slaves are often not even allowed the dignity of grief when that conflicts with their masters’ demand to be amused.

The Epistle                                                                    Galatians 5:1-5

By the third century BC, Celts or Gauls from western Europe have invaded and settled in the part of modern Turkey that is called Galatia. Can these gentiles follow Christ without undergoing circumcision? Paul’s answer is yes: Christ has freed us from bondage to the Law—and that means all of us.

The Gospel                                                                     John 15:12-15

John 15:12-15 is part of Jesus’ discourse leading up to the night of betrayal. We read verse 12 as a command to love, but the Greek conjunction ἴνα, which is translated ‘that’ here[1] and in John 13:34,[2] is more often translated ‘in order that’—in which case Jesus may be telling us to do as he does so that we may indeed love as he loves.

 

Further thoughts

Feb. 13 is the feast day of Absalom Jones, priest, in the Episcopal calendar. He was born in 1746 on the Wynkoop plantation in Sussex, Delaware. Too frail for the fields, he was a house slave. He bought a reading book with the pennies his owner’s guests gave him as tips and cadged reading lessons whenever possible. When Absalom was sixteen, his owner, Benjamin Wynkoop, decided to give up the plantation he had inherited for commerce; Wynkoop sold the rest of Absalom’s family and took Absalom to Philadelphia, which featured a growing community of freedmen and a Quaker community devoted to abolition. Absalom clerked in Wynkoop’s store by day and went to one of the Quakers’ black schools by night.

The first marriage of 1770 recorded at St Peter’s Anglican Church was of “Absalom (negro slave to Mr Wynkoop) and Mary (Do. to S. King)”;[3] both owners worshiped there. King agreed to manumit Mary—to sell her her freedom—and Absalom composed an appeal to the Quakers for loans and donations for the purchase, so their children would be freeborn. He worked from dawn till dark for Wynkoop, and till past midnight for wages in order to pay the debt. When the British occupied Philadelphia in 1777, Wynkoop left town with the other patriots; Absalom could have gained his freedom by working for the redcoats, but instead he kept the store going.[4] In 1778, Absalom and Mary paid off her debt and Absalom requested his own manumission. Wynkoop declined, and kept declining repeated requests until 1784. It should give any 21st-century Episcopalian pause to reflect that Wynkoop was a devout churchman, vestryman and warden of St Peter’s and Christ Church Philadelphia and a generous donor—of money earned by the toil of his slave and the sale of slave-produced goods such as molasses and rum.[5] When at last Absalom was manumitted and registered as a freedman, he and Mary took the surname Jones; he continued working for Wynkoop for wages.

Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, as lay preachers at St George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, increased the black membership by ten times; the vestry responded by adding a blacks-only balcony and, one Sunday in November 1786, a sexton interrupted Jones and others at prayer to drag them up to it. The group walked out of St George’s and never returned. Jones and Allen founded the Free African Society, a benevolent organization that gave rise to the African Church in 1792. When yellow fever swept Philadelphia in 1793, causing many whites to flee, Jones and Allen and their followers tirelessly nursed the sick irrespective of race. Allen went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but Jones and his followers turned to the Episcopal Church in 1794 and were accepted as the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas (though not without restrictions). Jones was ordained as a deacon in 1795 and as a priest in 1802. In 1808, and partly through his efforts in circulating petitions to Congress, he witnessed the end of the slave trade into the US, though not the end of slavery itself. He died on Feb. 13, 1818.

Absalom Jones undoubtedly knew Psalm 137 by heart, and its woes were much of his life. In his dignity, determination, courage, and love, however, he carried himself as a friend to God and humans and he demonstrated to whites who thought they knew what a slave was worth what a black man unfettered could do and be. At times captive, brokenhearted, and mourning, he nevertheless lived out the call of Isaiah 61:1-4 as proclaimer of liberty, oak of righteousness, and repairer of devastations. The Episcopal Church must be honest about the slaveholding in its past, and we are all called to recognize our own prejudices—but what better way to honor the memory of the Rev’d Absalom Jones than to follow in his footsteps to bless and liberate our brethren and the world, including ourselves?

 

[1] D. Mark Davis, “Commands To Love, Or Commands In Order To Love?” Left Behind and Loving It, http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/05/commands-to-love-or-commands-in-order.html, 7 May 2012. Accessed 4 February 2015.

[2] D. Mark Davis, “Commanding Love,” Left Behind and Loving It, http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/04/commanding-love.html, 23 April 2013. Accessed 4 February 2015.

[3] “Historical Documents: Absalom Jones’s Marriage to Mary,” Africans in America, Part 3, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3h93.html, no date. Accessed 7 February 2015.

[4] Nash, Gary B. “Becoming Free.” Chapter of Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840 (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988), p. 68. Accessed 6 February 2015.

[5] Safford, Timothy B. “Who Owned Absalom Jones?” Sermon, 13 February 2008. Web site of Christ Church Philadelphia, http://www.christchurchphila.org/Welcome-to-the-Christ-Church-Website/Who-We-Are/Sermons/Sermons/202/month–200802/vobid–678/. Accessed 7 February 2015.

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For Nov. 3, 2013: All Saints’ Day, Year C

The Reading            Daniel 7:1-3,15-18

The book of Daniel is set in the sixth century before Christ, after the Temple has been destroyed and the people taken into exile in Babylon. Here the prophet recounts a terrifying vision—the omitted verses describe four huge and powerful monsters with bad intentions toward Israel—but the explanation he gets builds hope.

The Response            Psalm 149

“For the Lord takes pleasure in his people and adorns the poor with victory.”

The Epistle            Ephesians 1:11-23

The church at Ephesus was one of the first and most successful of the churches believed to have been founded by the apostle Paul. Today’s reading explains what is in store for the saints—that is, for all of us who believe—and how the power of God working among us gives us hope.

The Gospel            Luke 6:20-31

“‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.’”

 

Further thoughts

The readings for All Saints’ Day vary from year to year in the Revised Common Lectionary, and in consequence the themes vary too. In last year’s readings, Isaiah and the writer of Revelation sang of the wondrous banquet that awaits in heaven, the psalmist offered praise, and John told of the miraculous raising of Lazarus.

For Year C, the tone is more mixed. Psalm 149 rejoices, to be sure (though the fate awaiting other nations’ rulers is told with eyebrow-raisingly cheer), and the epistle sounds the celebratory note that one expects, that is consistent with the opening and closing of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s beloved hymn “Sine Nomine” and with the rousing “When the Saints Go Marching In”.

But the other texts for All Saints’ Day this year are somber, even threatening. The prophet Daniel reports a vision of four horrifying monsters wreaking destruction on everything. The gospel tells us that an easy life now is not necessarily a mark of God’s favor for the world to come while laying out a blueprint for Christian behavior in the face of assault or disregard that is decidedly difficult to follow. What gives?

These are verses of, by, and for outsiders. Daniel prophesies during the time of exile, when the Israelites were unwilling foreign nationals of low status and could count on being scorned, misunderstood, and mistreated accordingly. The gospel famously plays on the Beatitudes—beatus in Latin is a strong way to say ‘happy’—and part of the point is to tell us in what esteem to hold those on whom the world spits… for they are we and we are they. Jesus is raised to unprecedented honor and glory, yes—but first he had to be born to an unwed mother, be a refugee, be a truth-teller whom nobody understood, be spat on and mocked (and who knows how else bored soldiers might have humiliated him?) and then be paraded through the streets en route to dying the nastiest death Rome saw fit to inflict. In short, Jesus the outsider knows the very worst that can befall us and the very worst we can be, and that by no stretch of the imagination do we belong in heaven.

By no stretch of the imagination, that is, except his.

For it is Jesus’ love alone that makes God’s saint of me, and you, and every other outsider that ever drew breath or ever will. And it is by living Jesus’ love of those on whom the world spits that we soften the hearts that can’t listen yet—including, more often than not, our own.

For Dec. 30, 2012: 1 Christmas, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 61:10-62:3

The late chapters of the book of Isaiah were written probably around the middle of the fifth century BC for people returned to Israel from exile in Babylon to a Jerusalem still in ruins. Despite the difficulties, Isaiah rejoices that God’s vindication and salvation are already and at the same time are yet to come. Isaiah’s message is for each generation—including ours: let us not rest until salvation comes, but let us also exult, for Christ is born!

The Response            Psalm 147:13-21

The Epistle            Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Within the Christian community that Paul planted at Galatia, in modern Turkey, were some who insisted that non-Jews were obliged to convert to Judaism and observe Mosaic law before they could convert to Christianity.  Paul, though himself perhaps the best Jew ever, has no use for that position: Christ having redeemed us, all of us are no longer slaves under the old law but children of God the Father.

The Gospel            John 1:1-18

 

Further thoughts

The month of January is named for Janus, the Roman god of doors and gates and of beginnings and transitions. Janus had two faces, for doors look both in and out, and beginnings and transitions are also endings in their way. The Christian in this world is in something of the position of Janus.

We look in one direction at the world that is, the world that came into being through the true Light but that does not recognize its creator and king in Jesus. We see a world in which justice miscarries, a world in which light seems lacking, a world in which the vindication and glory of Isaiah’s prophecy seems very far off indeed, a world in which, as the psalmist claims, the real God is only for Israel and the circumcision that marks God’s covenant is reserved only for men, a world in which the name “Christian” is smirched, to our shame, by association with historical and present abuses that we would love to disown but cannot honestly deny. We see our lives moving inexorably toward the end; as the gates close on our hopes and dreams, it can be hard not to despair.

At the same time, however, we look forward: forward to the vindication and righteousness that, Isaiah promises, Jerusalem will represent to all people—and already does, in God’s time and in God’s eyes. We look forward with Paul to God redeeming and adopting us—as God already has, in God’s time and in God’s eyes, for how else should we dare even to want to call God “Daddy!” We look forward to the Light of the World, Jesus, from whose unfathomable and eternal goodness we will receive grace upon grace—and already have. For, as John says, the light is already in the world—and, deep though the darkness may be, it is still the light that prevails.

O come, let us adore him!