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Let me inherit a double share of your spirit.

This is Elisha’s one wish from his teacher, his mentor, Elijah.

Let me inherit a double share of your spirit.

He could have asked for anything. Let me inherit your followers, or God’s favor, or enough goats and sheep to provide for my entire family, but no. Let me inherit a double share of your spirit.

Not just your spirit, but a double share of it.

It’s a bold ask. Perhaps Elisha had impostor syndrome, feeling inadequate compared to the great prophet Elijah. Perhaps Elisha had some ego going on, and wanted to surpass his teacher. But I think it’s more likely he knew that Elijah had left big shoes to fill, and he would need double the strength, double the spirit, to keep going.

This weekend in the Episcopal Church calendar, we conventionally celebrate the feast of Blessed Absalom Jones, the first African American to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. His feast day is on February 13, this Tuesday. And while being the first African American priest is what he is known for, it’s not the first thing you read when you come across his biography in the Episcopal Church archives or in our calendar of saints and feasts. The very first fact you read about Absalom Jones is that he was born a slave.

And while that’s an easy fact to gloss over as you get to the more interesting things he accomplished, let it give us pause today that this is a phrase that could ever be said about anyone. He was born a slave. The same church that celebrates God in the form of an infant celebrated for centuries the form of an infant in chains, innocent lives born into a system of exploitation it endorsed with a divine seal of approval.

Absalom Jones was still enslaved during the Revolutionary War, when the same people who enslaved him were enshrining the belief into the nation’s founding that all men were created equal. He was not granted manumission until 1784, at which time he became the lay minister for the black membership at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. Working with his friend, Richard Allen, the two greatly increased black membership at St. George’s. Alarmed by the rise in black attendance, in 1791 the vestry decided to segregate African Americans into an upstairs gallery without notice. When ushers attempted to remove the black congregants, they exited the church together.

And before you think how awful it was that people could be so horrible back then, the truth is, this is not just a sad story from long ago. The church still lives this out today when neighborhoods change, different kinds of people start filling the pews, and churches dissolve into petty infighting in order to protect the status quo, or choose to close rather than see their church be “taken over” by “those people.”

So Absalom and his congregation left, and created their own church, and a few months later petitioned for membership in the Episcopal Church on the following conditions: 1, that they be received as an organized body; 2, that they have control over their local affairs; 3, that Absalom Jones be licensed as lay reader, and, if qualified, be ordained as minister. In October 1794 it was admitted as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Jones was ordained deacon a year later, and priest seven years after that.

And if that weren’t already inspiring enough, Absalom Jones spent the rest of his ministry fighting for the freedom of enslaved people. He continued to be a leader in his community, founding a day school (as African Americans were excluded from attending public school), the Female Benevolent Society, and an African Friendly Society. And he did all this while serving as  a beloved and caring pastor to his church, which grew significantly in his lifetime, making him become known as the “Black Bishop of the Episcopal Church.”

Let me inherit a double share of your spirit.

We don’t know, or at least hear, much about who took up the mantle of leadership of St. Thomas Church after Absalom Jones died in 1818. I have to wonder if he (because back then it would have been a he) shared Elisha’s sentiment, needing twice as much the spirit of Absalom to continue the work he began. We do know that St. Thomas continues, over 200 years later, to be a thriving African American Episcopal congregation. And we do know that the witness of Absalom Jones, a man who became free from the bonds of slavery to not only become a first, but was committed to the work to ensure there would be a second, and a third, and a fourth, remains an annual call to us to celebrate his life and honor his legacy.

It’s a necessary legacy. One that reminds us that people are not what they are born into. Whether they are born into slavery, or born into wealth and privilege. People are not what they are born into; they are who they are born as. People are born no more or less than as beloved children of God. The designations and advantages and characteristics this world assigns people are not at all who they are. This is something Absalom Jones knew and patterned his life after. It is what strengthened him to walk out of a church that wanted to silence and sideline him because of his success. It is what strengthened him to buy his wife’s freedom long before he was able to purchase his own, so that his children could be born free. It is what strengthened him to start the Free African Society which was dedicated to helping emancipate African Americans.

Let us inherit a double share of your spirit.

The work remains ours to do. And there is so much work to be done before all people are truly free, and all people are truly created equal. The battle over the plight of migrants in this city and this country; the rampant income inequality; the imprisonment of innocent people for years in a dysfunctional legal system simply because they can’t make bail; our disordered values that see health care as a privilege for some rather than a right for all; the list goes on.

This work is being done, of course. It continues. Churches everywhere, including St. Michael’s, feed the hungry and help the poor. They join with civic life in advocating for more just policies. And in small ways, every day, communities like this one care for each other. And it is in those places that the dullness of the world is transfigured for us, and we see God at work, reminding us she was there all along.

And yet, we know this work takes a lot to stay committed to. We can lose hope, or stamina, or even the goodwill that got us started.

And so we need to be strengthened for the work that Absalom began. Fortified to live the truth of the gospel in a world that is often not ready for it. Prepared to risk relationships with those who wield power and deny the dignity of every human being. Committed to the biblical truth that we are not born as anything other than God’s beloved children. Rooted in the love of God, bearing the fruit of righteousness.

Blessed Absalom, please, let us inherit a double share of your spirit.

Amen. – p.232

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