Saturday, December 1, 2007

Today is World AIDS Day

You may know that I'm a member of the board of Episcopal Response to AIDS, a New York charity that gives grants to Episcopal ministries involved in AIDS work. Today is World AIDS Day and we announced our 2008 grant awards (I'll post them separately.) I was invited to preach the Eucharist at St. Paul's Chapel, Manhattan, today, and this is my sermon:

St. Paul’s Chapel, New York City

World AIDS Day, December 1, 2007

Isaiah 53:3-9, Psalm 90:1-12, Mark 7:24-30

The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr.

“Keep the Promise – Take the Lead”

May only God’s word be spoken, and only God’s word be heard. Amen!

I want to thank the Rev. Dr. Stuart Hoke, Missioner to St. Paul's chapel, for the invitation to worship with you today. On Sept. 11, 2001 and after, I watched on TV from Indianapolis as this holy place was transformed. We all know St. Paul's Chapel, even if we've never been, and for me it's a profound privilege to be here.

But I want to take you back even further, twenty years earlier still, to 1981. Nineteen eighty-one. Where were you and what were you doing in 1981? Do you remember? It was, after all, twenty-six years ago. You might remember, that was the year Ronald Reagan became President of the United States. It was the year Walter Kronkite resigned from CBS news. The Space Shuttle went on its first mission. Lady Diana married Prince Charles. MTV aired its first video. The PC was invented. And the first person in New York City died of what would become eventually known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, AIDS, on January 15, 1981.

Twenty-Six years ago. The AIDS epidemic in New York is over a quarter-century old. Since that time, nearly 33 million people worldwide have acquired the HIV virus that causes AIDS, and 25 million have died, including nearly 85,000 New Yorkers. Perhaps you yourselves know someone, perhaps more than one, with HIV/AIDS. I do, and my heart breaks whenever I think of my good friend in Columbus, his life hanging by a Damoclesian thread of potent drugs and good insurance. On this World AIDS Day, 6,850 people, mostly in Africa, mostly women, mostly black, very few with insurance or access to medications, will contract the virus, and most will not even know it. In some African nations the infection rate is nearly 1 in 4. By the time I step down from this pulpit, nearly 50 people, children of God, created in God’s image, will have their lives changed forever by an insidious - and still incurable - disease that until 1981 we didn’t even know existed.

And the terrible truth is, we can stop this disease from progressing. We know how. It’s not really difficult. When you have sex, use a condom or dental dam or sheath. Every time, unless you are absolutely sure of your partner’s status. If you shoot drugs, use a clean needle. Every time. If you’re worried about your status, get tested. Don’t put it off. That’s pretty much it.

I realize that this sort of straight talk about AIDS may be uncomfortable to some of you. But I’m not going to apologize. A little discomfort on this one day of the year to help raise awareness of HIV and AIDS is a small price to pay, it seems to me. We Christians are unfortunately guilty of not taking a whole lot of leadership here. We’ve gotten sidetracked into focusing more on details of who they are than whose they are. For many of us, we’re still stuck in the mode of our passage from Mark. A foreign woman, not Jewish, comes to Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter. At first, Jesus begs off. He seems to be saying, “Well you know, you’re not the right sort of person, and I couldn’t possibly help you. I’ve got my own kind to help, and you’re just going to have to get your own help someplace else.”

Shocking, isn’t it, if a bit polite. We’re not used to a Jesus who says things like that in quite that way. You should know, though, that what he calls her – a dog – is as incredibly insulting back then as it is today. It’s about on par with hanging a noose on a tree or by a locker or in a tractor cab. Of course, the story doesn’t end there. After the foreign woman argues with him, Jesus relents and tells her that she can go because her daughter will get better. But she has to beg him first. In other words, this Jesus initially seems concerned about her background and who she is – a foreigner. He stigmatizes her, in a sense blames her for being different. Sounds like something we’ve done in the past. We Christians have been guilty of that, too. We’ve said that gay men aren’t worthy of help because of who they have sex with. We’ve said that intravenous drug users are beneath our help because drug use is illegal and immoral anyway. We’ve not lived up to the second part of the story – the part that actually turns it into the Good News. That’s the part where Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go. Your daughter has been healed.” Jesus sets us an example of true openness, true growth, true generosity of spirit. It doesn’t matter where you were born, Jesus says. It doesn’t matter your sexual orientation, or your class or economic status or whether you use drugs or receive blood transfusions or what. It doesn’t matter how you got sick. That’s completely beside the point. What matters is that each and every one of you here, and every person affected with HIV/AIDS, and every person on this planet, is a child of God and worthy of the respect and dignity that comes from being created in the very image of God. Every single person!

And that’s not all. Our Jesus is not simply the magnanimous healer who comes from God and then just pops back again. Hear again the ancient Servant Song from Isaiah about the Messiah:

Surely he has borne our infirmities

and carried our diseases;

yet we accounted him stricken,

struck down by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,

crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,

and by his bruises we are healed.

Jesus our Messiah suffers on the Cross with every person suffering from HIV/AIDS. Our God does not ignore the tragedy of two-and-a-half million African children who are orphans because of AIDS. Our God is right there with each and every one of them. What Isaiah proclaims to us is that the Body of Christ is HIV positive. Jesus is bearing our infirmities and carrying our diseases. More shocking language, perhaps. But understand this. We who will in just a few minutes approach the altar for Holy Communion are also the Body of Christ. We will take into ourselves the holy Bread and sacred Wine. When we do that, we become Christ’s body and blood in the world. And we become HIV positive too. Isaiah is talking not just about the Messiah. Isaiah is talking about us!

My friends, HIV/AIDS is not simply a pandemic. It is not simply an economic tragedy. We who are Christians must recognize our own complicity in not talking honestly about AIDS because we’re embarrassed about sex and drug use and the other ways HIV is spread. We need to get over that. We need to follow Jesus’s example and learn and grow into our place in the world. We Christians need to take leadership and remind the world that we’re not talking about throwaways, but with precious children of God, just like you and like me. The Good News is that God loves each and every one of us with an indescribable love. God loves us so much that God bears our afflictions when we do, and carries our diseases right along with us. The time for passing judgment, as if we ever had that right, is long since past. In the end, Jesus didn’t pass judgment. He grew, and so can we. We Christians need to take the lead of Jesus our Savior. We need to stand up once and for all for all those who are vilified or worse because of their HIV status. We need to be clear and say to those who ignore the problem, in Africa and here in New York, No more denigrating! No more disparaging! There’s work to be done, and we need to be about doing it!

After this service, Episcopal Response to AIDS, of which I’m privileged to serve as treasurer, will announce its 2008 grant awards. The organizations to whom these grants will be given are really living out the Good News. They are the HIV positive Body of Christ in the New York area, bearing our afflictions and carrying our diseases. We can and must follow their lead in ensuring that all those suffering with HIV/AIDS with whom they minister are held in God’s arms. We, you and I, need to hold them in our arms, too.

A foreign woman talking to Jesus. An impoverished single parent with young children in Africa. An immigrant living in the Bronx with little English. My dear friend in Columbus, Ohio. No one should have to beg for what is rightfully theirs as children of the Living God. Today, on this World AIDS Day, I invite each of you to join with me in God’s vision of a world where no one is turned away, where all are treated like the children of God that Jesus insists that we all are. In another twenty-six years – in less than twenty-six years! - we can change the course of this disease, right here in New York and around the world. There’s still work to be done. After all…50 people just contracted HIV.



Troglodyteus said...

I often feel like the cur sitting under the table awaiting the children's scraps.

However, that doesn't affect today's sermon. The numbers in New York alone are astounding. But I detect a 'Not My Problem' mentality across society.

RFSJ said...


Yes there is. the advent of the drug cocktails have caused some people to consider AIDS to be just something they live, kind of like diabetes. The problem is that the drugs that keep the virus at bay cost from $10 to $15 thousand per year, most of it covered by insurance for those fortunate enough to have it. The poor and un and under-insured in the US can't afford it, and of course those drugs are simply not generally available in Africa. But HIV always kills. Always. And it doesn't have to be that way. I have often wondered if the laws regarding patents and specifically covering generic meds shouldn't be revisited.