Commemoration of Alexander Crummell
Church Divinity School of the Pacific
Mark 4:1-10, 13-20
“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell . . .” (Mark 4.3-4)
Today we commemorate the life and ministry of Alexander Crummell.
Crummell is remembered in as a pioneering African American priest who steadfastly pursued his priestly calling in trying circumstances, who served as a missionary in Liberia, and who was an early voice for African American self-reliance and an influence on later thinkers like Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. DuBois.
In preparing this homily, I initially thought that Crummell was an example of the seed falling in good soil, yielding a great abundance of fruit.
In a way I think that is still true.
The seed of the gospel found good soil in Alexander Crummell and the harvest he brought in was great.
But the seed of the gospel that Crummell himself sowed fell in the hard, rocky soil of pre-Civil War America and the reality of slavery.
And he sowed in the thorn-choked patches of post-Civil War America where the promise of freedom for African Americans gave way to Jim Crow laws and deep-seated institutional racism.
These were the fields Crummell labored in.
His life is worthy of commemoration because he tended the seeds of the gospel in places
where the evil one threatened his harvest and yet he brought in much fruit.
Listen to his story and you will see what I mean.
Crummell sought ordination and was initially admitted to General Theological Seminary in New York, but with the school fearing the loss of financial support, he was told he could only attend if he did not live at the school, did not eat in the refectory or sit in the classrooms.
That is, he could be a student only if he didn’t act like a student.
Crummell turned them down.
He read for holy orders and was ordained in 1844 as a priest in Boston.
Crummell however could not find a permanent position ministering to African American congregations inthe Northeast and rarely received diocesan support that would enable him to fully live out his vocation.
Eventually Crummell went to the African country of Liberia as a missionary of the Episcopal Church, serving there for 20 years.
He imagined Christianity as a great civilizing force that would transform Africa and lead it to higher levels of morality and spirituality.
He envisioned a church headed by Africans for Africans that merged Euro-American technology and learning with African culture.
As well, Crummell hoped that African Americans would emigrate to Liberia to both
escape the racist structures of America and contribute to the transformation of their new home.
Eventually Crummell was forced to abandon his work in Liberia.
He could not secure enough funding from the Episcopal Church and the waves of African American immigrants never materialized.
Returning to the United States, he served as rector of St. Luke’s in Washington D.C.
where he found his new mission in fighting for the rights of African Americans in the Episcopal Church.
Southern bishops, in a resolution known as the Sewanee Canon,sought to segregate African Americans from their local dioceses and place theminto separate missionary dioceses meant for African Americans alone.
Crummell helped establish the Conference of Church Workers among Colored People
in 1883, the forerunner for today’s Union of Black Episcopalians.
Through his leadership this group successfully beat back the racist Sewanee Canon at General Convention and saved the Episcopal Church from further shame.
Given these highlights from the life of Alexander Crummell, the parable of the sower is an appropriate text to use to think about his life.
Crummell sowed the seed of the gospel to inspire Africans and African Americans to lives of greater discipleship, leadership, and creativity.
All the while he sowed his seed in the rocky ground and harsh environment of racism and neglect not just in American society but in the very power structures of the Episcopal Church.
All Crummell ever wanted was to be a priest and for his congregations to have a full share in the life of the wider church.
To do this he had to persevere against what W. E. B. Du Bois, in his essay on Crummell in The Souls of Black Folk, describes as the temptations of hatred, despair, doubt, and fear of failure.
Crummell’s life forces us to both thank God for the grace of perseverance given to the saints but also to ask what we will do when obstacles arise as we sow our seeds of the gospel.
Crummell, writing in the language of his time, tells us that steadfastness and a firm sense of vocation are necessary when confronting hardships.
He says in a sermon titled “Keep Your Hand on the Plough,” that “A man’s thought and interest are demanded there where his work lies; and nowhere else. It is the duty of every man to find his proper sphere. His only appropriate position is therein; and there to keep himself; there to make his activities; there to put forth his energies. It is this finding ones place and keeping it which is integrity, character, honesty, and humility.”
Integrity, character, honesty, humility.
Crummell possessed these qualities in abundance.
They are qualities we too must cultivate in our vocations.
What will we do when our seed falls on rocky places?
Crummell’s life makes us look at this parable with fresh eyes, and realize that even the rocky places need cultivation and care.
Of course, those rocky places are all around us.
The rocky places of a self-absorbed culture.
The rocky places where violence and profit margins are easier than peace and justice.
The rocky places where the Gospel is ignored, the Spirit resisted.
The rocky places where a person, or a church, would rather die than change.
The rocky places where racism abounds, even in nations that claim equality under the law.
You have been in rocky places.
You might be in one now.
You certainly will find yourself in one in the future.
In order to do work in the rocky places, it is good to attend to the teachings of the Letter of James.
To do work in these places takes faith, which in its testing produces endurance.
This testing brings one’s faith to a place of maturity and fullness.
I imagine this was the faith of Alexander Crummell.
He worked in those hard and rocky places, and nonetheless worked at nurturing the faith of others in those places.
This takes me back to the image of that seed falling in the rocky soil.
I want to offer a midrash on this parable.
A midrash is a Jewish way of interpreting Scripture that offers another reading to get at the truth of a story.
Here’s the midrash.
There was seed sown in rocky soil and the seeds grew.
A worker came to the field every day and watered the plants but the sun caused them to wither.
One night while the worker slept, the master of the field came and replaced the rocky soil with good soil.
And the plants grew and bore fruit tenfold, twentyfold, and a hundredfold.
And the worker came to the field and rejoiced.
When you find yourself in those rocky places, remember Alexander Crummell.
Keep your hand to the plough.
Tend to the seeds of the gospel.
Trust in God.