This is adapted from a sermon preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Hazard, KY on June 28, 2015, on the lessons 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43.
Let me tell you a story. It takes place, or at least some of it does, over 200 years ago, in Pennsylvania, where a young African-American boy named Richard was a slave on a large farm owned by the Pennsylvania attorney general. At the age of seven his whole family was sold to a plantation owner in Delaware named Stokely Sturgis. Richard later wrote that Sturgis was “what the world called a good master.” He allowed his slaves to hear local preachers (many plantation owners forbade this because the slaves might get ideas about freedom). But when he got into debt he also sold off Richard’s mother and some of his siblings.
When Richard was 17, he was converted while hearing one of those sermons. He wrote, “I cried to the Lord both day and night. . . . All of a sudden my dungeon shook, my chains ﬂew off, and, glory to God, I cried.” He convinced Sturgis to let preachers come and preach in Sturgis’s house. Soon Sturgis too was converted and became convicted that he needed to free his slaves. He let Richard work to purchase his freedom, with Richard agreeing to pay him $2000 over five years.
It took Richard only about 3 ½ years to come up with the money to purchase his freedom. He took the last name “Allen” and became a traveling preacher. He also worked as a wagon driver and a sawyer. Walking everywhere, he traveled through the southeastern U.S. preaching and working. Eventually he ended up in Pennsylvania again, this time in Philadelphia. He became part of a church in Philadelphia called St. George’s. His preaching was popular and the African-American membership in the congregation grew. White leaders said he could preach only at 5:00 and only to African-Americans, not to whites. The crowd kept growing. Allen founded a Free African Society with one of his friends in order to minister to all the people.
There were soon so many black members of the church that St. George’s decided to build a gallery for them so blacks and whites would not have to worship together. When the gallery was built, Allen and his friends were praying there, but according to the white leaders they had misunderstood where they were to pray. A white trustee began pulling Allen and his friends off of their knees, but they refused to get up. When the white trustee persisted, Allen wrote, “We all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued with us in that church.”
Allen and his friends founded a church of their own in 1793. As you may or may not have figured out, one of those friends was Absalom Jones, and the church they founded chose to affiliate with Anglicanism, becoming St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Jones became the first African-American Episcopal priest. But as Paul Harvey often said, you might not know the REST OF THE STORY.
Allen did not want to become Episcopalian. He had been converted by Methodist preachers and had always considered himself a Methodist. He began a church on Methodist principles in 1794 which he called “Mother Bethel.” It too grew, but there were continued fights with white Methodist leaders over property and control of the church. Finally, in 1816 courts ruled that their church building belonged to them and not to the white leaders, and the group separated entirely. They began to call themselves Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Founding church of the AME. A denomination founded, in its beginnings, because white people would not let black people pray in peace.
For us, both of those kinds of words can be found in the Scriptures. So let me tell you another story.
David, the shepherd boy from Bethlehem, knew he was going to be King of Israel. The prophet Samuel had anointed him when he was still a young boy watching his father’s sheep. But he also know that it was not his job to remove the man who was at that point the king over Israel, Saul. David went to Saul’s court. He became a musician who played to soothe Saul when Saul got in bad moods, which he got in lots of times. He became friends with Saul’s son, Jonathan.
The prophet Samuel had told Saul that God had rejected him from being king over Israel for a number of reasons, most of which had to do with disobedience to God’s orders, and so Saul became jealous of David. We don’t know if he found out somehow about Samuel having anointed David, or if he just was jealous of David because he was popular. David’s victory over the Philistine Goliath was big news. As he got older he became one of Saul’s most victorious generals, leading the Israelite army to great victories over the Philistines and others.
Saul first tries to kill David with a spear while David is playing the harp for him. Then he sends him on a suicide mission, saying he will give him his daughter Michal in marriage if he comes back, but not expecting him to come back. Except David does come back. So Saul still hasn’t killed him off and he has to keep his promise about David marrying Michal. Saul gives orders to have David killed, and David escapes. He becomes an outlaw and begins gathering an army around him. Twice it happens that he would have the occasion to kill Saul, but he doesn’t, because Saul is still the king. David even ends up taking refuge with the Philistines at one point.
Finally, Saul and his sons and army fight a huge battle with the Philistines. Saul’s sons, including Jonathan, are killed. Saul is badly injured and when he asks his armor-bearer to kill him the boy refuses. However, a passing Amalekite does the job for him when asked. Amalekites were also among the enemies of Israel; David just before this has actually been pursuing and defeating a raiding party of Amalekites. Probably this man was hanging around Saul’s army in order to loot the camp.
The Amalekite shows up, tells David he’s killed Saul, and presents David with the crown and bracelet he’s taken from Saul’s body. These are signs of kingship and the fact that the Amalekite knows to give them to David means something about his anointing must have been public knowledge. He expects to be rewarded. Instead, David is so angry he has him executed. (This is all in the part of the reading today which the lectionary skips.)
And then David says….this. This lament which we have in our Old Testament lesson today. Out of all the complicated politics and even more complicated emotions that were going on in David’s head as he thought about the death of his mentor and of his best friend, he expresses one of the greatest psalms of lament we have in the entire Bible as he mourns the death of people whom, after everything, he loved.
Click here for the rest of the story, part II….