Sixth Sunday after Epiphany; Black History Month
Preacher: Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking
Scripture: Psalm 1
Message: Like a Tree Planted by the Water
Last week I was in Kansas City helping my mother move and had the blessing of watching a sermon with her from her pastor, Aaron Roberts at Colonial United Church of Christ, and I took inspiration from his sermon that day for this sermon. Pastor Aaron’s sermon was part of a series called “Lessons from the Black Church.”
Pastor Aaron began by sharing a truth he had learned before he became a pastor. And this is it: “Your church community’s soul will be revealed to newcomers before the first word of the sermon is ever spoken.” It’s important for us to hold this truth as we prepare to return to in-person worship next week, and to consider what it means for the new digital space that we’ll continue to inhabit through the livestream.
Your church community’s soul will be revealed to newcomers before the first word of the sermon is ever spoken. Given this, we have to ask, Is each person who walks through the doors of Epworth, whether virtual or actual, welcomed as Christ? Do we greet them as someone who has been longed for, and is now home? Does a person new to Epworth experience compassion, joy and a genuine sense of Epworth’s particular commitments to freedom and dignity for all?
One of the reasons the Methodist movement gained momentum in its early days in the 18th century was that it was a movement that welcomed all. The gospel the Wesleys and other early Methodists lived and preached stood against the tyranny of class and hierarchical systems, and other systems that kept people divided. The Methodist movement enjoined people to move away from legalism, away from arguing about what was right doctrine, and into the freedom of striving for right relationship. It was a movement that didn’t doubt the weakness and fallibility of humans but trusted in the fullness of God’s grace and mercy.
As part of that striving for right relationship, John Wesley, the primary founder of Methodism, was an ardent abolitionist and denounced slavery as the “major sin of the British nation.” [source: 1] As the Methodist movement began to spread in the colonies and the new nation, this nation, that call to strive for right relationship, that emphasis on grace and freedom spoke to many, including persons brought to this nation from Africa against their will, in enslavement.
One of those persons was Richard Allen. I know many of you know Richard Allen’s story. It was shared by Dr. Greg Downs as part of our Holy Conversations series on Race, Racism and Racial Justice. Richard Allen was born into slavery in Philadelphia in 1760. He and his family were then moved to Delaware, though some sources say that he was born in Delaware. Some history books say that as a boy, Richard was “given” the time to learn to read, but of course, no one has the right to “give” someone else their own time.
Richard proved to be a prodigy in literary and oratorical pursuits, and at age 17, being moved by the preaching of an itinerant Methodist, Richard converted to Christianity and Methodism and began preaching himself.
At about the same time, the man enslaving Richard Allen heard a travelling Methodist preacher on the Delaware Circuit by the name of Freeborn Garretson. Garretson preached the sinfulness of slavery and had freed enslaved persons formerly in his charge. He was among the first Methodist itinerant preachers born in this country, a strong abolitionist, and a direct mentee of early Methodist leader Francis Asbury. Garretson’s preaching led to the emancipation of many enslaved persons in Delaware, and by 1810, 76% percent of Delaware African Americans were emancipated, though slavery remained legal in Delaware.
Garretson’s preaching convicted Allen’s enslaver of his sins. He said that when slave owners were "weighed in the balance, [they would be].. found wanting." Allen’s enslaver "believed himself to be one of that number, and after that he could not be satisfied to hold slaves, believing it wrong." Allen was told he could buy his own freedom. He proceeded to earn money by working as a non-combatant in the continental army during the revolutionary war. In 1783, he had his freedom. [source 2]
Allen moved to Philadelphia where he began to worship at St. George’s Methodist Church, a diverse congregation with both Black and White members where they became deeply involved. Allen and a dear friend Absalom Jones were two of the first freed African American persons licensed to preach in the Methodist Church. Allen was given the 5am service at which to preach where he preached of Christ’s vision of a new heaven and new earth, of freedom and right relationship between all people and God. Even though the hour was early, Allen’s service began to grow faster than other services at the church.
In 1787, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones formed the Free African Society, that assisted fugitive enslaved people from the South and new migrants coming into the city of Philadelphia. Their call and skill to organize on behalf of the rights and dignity of others was also present at St. George’s as the formerly more integrated church began to engage in segregated seating. White members required Black members to use the chairs around the walls rather than the pews.
During one service in 1787, a group of Black members sat in some new pews that, unbeknownst to them, had been reserved for whites. As they knelt in prayer, a white trustee came over and grabbed Absalom Jones and began pulling on him, saying, ‘You must get up—you must not kneel here.’ Though Jones asked him to wait until prayer was over, the trustee retorted, "No, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and force you away." But the group finished praying before they got up and walked out. They repaired to a blacksmith shop in Philadelphia which became the first site of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
One would have thought that St. George’s would have soon seen that they had made a grave mistake and lost some of their best and brightest members. You might have thought they would have come in confession and penitence to make right the wrong. But no, that’s not what happened. Instead, the Methodist denomination used litigation, fines and harassment to stop Allen, even to the point of trying to take the property of Bethel AME.
But Allen and his supporters acted quickly, raising over $10,000, a huge amount of money at that time, and bought the property back.
Bethel grew to 400 members in just a couple of decades and was a critical stop on the underground railroad. It was considered the most important institution for African Americans in Philadelphia and is the mother church of the AME. Absalom Jones formed a Black Episcopal congregation.
The first Psalm tells us this: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on God’s law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” The way of the Lord led Richard Allen and Absalom Jones out of St. George’s Methodist Church. Bethel African Methodist Episcopal became like a tree planted by the water.
In these days when the Methodist denomination is struggling again over a future of inclusivity and freedom versus a future of exclusion, hierarchies, power and control, I have to wonder, have we lost our way? As in-fighting continues about laws and rules, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones remind us that the Methodist movement was successful in the early years because it stood for human dignity. It stood against the tyranny of class and systems that separate people. It wanted to move away from the legalism of right doctrine to the freedom of right relationship. This was the stream by which they planted, and they prospered.
We have to wonder why this short Psalm was chosen to lead the entire book of 150 Psalms. Why do you think? It begins, “Happy are those…” and then it’s counsel can be summed up to say “be not self-centered, but God-centered.” Don’t be pulled into squabbles, but be like a tree, planted by the water, as you stand for, and delight in God’s ways. Keep the main thing the main thing. At many many points in his life, Richard Allen could have sunk into despair. He could have given up on God. But instead he kept insisting on the path of the living God: the way of faith, the way of dignity, the way of freedom. Amen.
Order of Worship
Order of Worship
The Community Gathers... Prelude - Rev. Jerry Asheim Welcome - Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking Gathering Music: "As the Deer" The Faith We Sing #2025 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Cathryn Bruno Prayer for Illumination - Steve Coambs
Opening Hymn: "Marching to Zion" UM Hymnal #733 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Chris Poston To Hear the Word... Scripture Reading: Psalm 1 - Pat Bruce-Lerrigo Children's Message - Susan Jardin Anthem: "Thank you God for Past and Present" - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Chris Poston Message" - Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking To Respond and Renew Commitment... Hymn of Response: "Stand by Me" - M Hymnal #512 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Chris Poston Prayers of the People: "Down in the River to Pray"
If you have a prayer request or are interested in longer-term spiritual accompaniment from a Stephen Minister, please email email@example.com The Prayer Jesus Taught (The Lord's Prayer) Our Creator (Father/Mother), who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom (kin-dom) come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for Thine is the kingdom (kin-dom), and the power, and the glory forever. Amen. Offering Our Resources and our Energy Give online at www.epworthberkeley.org/donate or, send a text message with the dollar amount you wish to give to +1-833-276-7680. Offertory: "Going Home" - Emory Prayer of Dedication - Steve Coambs To Go Forth with Love and Compassion *Closing Hymn: “We Shall Not Be Moved” - Judy Kriege Sending Forth - Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking Postlude: "We Shall Overcome" - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Special Thanks To: Preacher: Rev. Joseph Kwon Worship Leaders: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Pat Bruce-Lerrigo, Cathryn Bruno, Steve Coambs, Susan Jardin, Judy Kriege, Chris Poston Guest Musician: Emory Video produce: Tai Jokela Podcast producer: Ethan Toven-Lindsey Director of communications: Merrie Bunt
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