Luke 3:4-6, Baruch 5:1-9, Matthew 25:34-40
This year, we commemorate WAD on the second Sunday of Advent. The candle we light today is a candle of Preparation.
Every year, we commemorate World AIDS Day during the season of Advent. In the past, I had thought that it was an odd juxtaposition – How does HIV/AIDS connect with a season of anticipation and expectation for the arrival of Christ? Some of you might think to yourself – what has HIV/AIDS got to do with me? Do we have to commemorate this every year? Isn’t the message going to be the same every year? Zero new infections, Zero AIDS-related deaths, Zero stigma and discrimination?
Even I struggled and wondered – what does God want me to say to all of you? Is it going to be the same message?
Today, in the midst of all the violence – terrorists killing innocent people to provoke fear and hate , and getting many countries to respond with more violence, the UK whose parliament just passed a vote to launch air strikes on Syria; in the midst of all the fear and hate – especially towards of our Muslim siblings of the Book, towards people living with HIV/AIDS, TLGB people; in the midst of natural and man-made disasters – with the flooding in Chennai, and the recent haze caused by fires in Indonesia; I wonder if there is something worth celebrating, and what are we expecting, hoping and preparing for?
It is easy to give in to despair and hopelessness.
Last week, Mark wondered about how to be happy in heaven? How do we prepare to be happy in heaven? I wonder today – in the midst of all the craziness that is going on in the world – how do we prepare for the end.
Then I remembered the stories I was told. I went to seminary in Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. San Francisco, about 12km away from Castro, the gay district of San Francisco. I knew one of the things I would need to get trained in, is how to minister to PLHIV. It was serendipitous that Rev Elder Jim Mitulski becaome my mentor for my field education – he was the senior pastor of MCC San Francisco, located in Castro, for 15 years during the height of the AIDS crisis. I do not think that there is anyone else more qualified to teach pastoral care to PLHIV than him – he presided over 500 funerals and nearly as many gay wedding celebrations at MCC-San Francisco, and provided pastoral care and bereavement support during a very dark time. The church I served in – New Spirit Community Church, like many MCC churches, have more women than men – many of them did not survive the 80s and the 90s. One of the people on my teaching committee – lay people from church who provided guidance and feedback for pastoral interns – was HIV+. Jim Scurlock passed away last year and I still carry his story with me.
Rev Mitulski and Rev Kittridge Cherry wrote an article in Christian Century in 1988 titled “We are the Church Alive, the Church with AIDS.
They wrote about eschatological living. Eschatology comes from Greek root word eschatos which means last. In Christian theology, eschatology deals with the end of an individual life, the end of the age, the end of the world. Eschatological living, therefore, is how we live during the end times. Mark asked us in last week’s sermon – So, what do the end times mean to you? Do you believe in the end times? I want to ask – if you do believe that things are going to end, how exactly do you live?
In Mark’s words, “Jesus himself never says when the end would come though he does tell us how to prepare for it… Jesus talks about ‘reading the signs’ of the end times, and being ‘alert’. As I reflected on the readings for today, the sense I got was that even in his answers about the end times, he mentions only the state we should be in, and not when the end would come. And while Jesus may have the end in mind, it’s only useful insofar as the state it puts us in, in the now. That being a state of readiness, responsiveness, now-ness, present-ness, and in-this-worldness.”
Rev Mitulski and Rev Cherry wrote about how they lived in the height of the AIDS crisis that really looked like the end times. Many of us here did not experience or see how people died from AIDS. We didn’t experience how it affected the entire community – one survivor described it in this way –
“By the early 80s, I had what I would consider a really large circle of friends and acquaintances and once the epidemic really started to hit, it was not uncommon to find out three, four or more people you knew had died each month.”
And another said: “If you were living in the Castro in San Francisco, everyone in the neighborhood was gay… So it wasn’t just your friends that were dying, it was your whole neighborhood. One day your mailman would be replaced, the next day that flower shop was gone… You wouldn’t be invited to the funeral, so it was just like people were disappearing.”
It was a time of fear. A time of despair. And it was time that brought people together. A lesbian of the era said: “While I was not ‘at risk’ (per se, we know more these days), we all lost many good friends. It is true that there is a somewhat mystifying (to me) separatist attitude between some gay men and lesbians, especially back then, this tragic time really brought us together.”
Rev Mitulski and Rev Cherry wrote about many people – one of them was Steven Clover, who said “Heaven has as much to do with life before death as with life after death.”
“In October 1986, he was diagnosed with AIDS, and as Christmas approached he was hospitalized. Thirty children from a black Baptist church in San Francisco showed up at the hospital to sing carols for Clover and other people with AIDS (commonly referred to as PWAs) In the ensuing months he was able to bring together the congregations of Double Rock Baptist Church, which condemns homosexuality as a sin, and MCC-SF, which preaches that homosexuality is a gift from God. These seemingly irreconcilable churches sponsored events together, including a gospel music concert that raised more than $1 ,000 for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation Food Bank in July 1987.
In our church. AIDS has also brought reconciliation between the sexes, a rift that has been especially deep between lesbians and gay men.
When the topic of lesbians ministering to men with AIDS came up during a reception the women of our church held for Karen Ziegler, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in New York, Ziegler responded this way: “I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing — I receive energy by ministering to men with AIDS.” She told us, “how some men I love very much — my friends David and Tim — began to die of AIDS. I had the experience of coming closer than I ever had come to a man before. David and then Tim opened a door to their souls in a way that I had never experienced before and my heart has been opened in a way it never was before, too. We’re all experiencing that transformation together.”
I will always remember and carry the gratitude and the emotions of the gay men who survived the AIDS crisis. A few of them shared with me how the women stepped in when it was really, in their words, “none of their business.” They could have just remained and left the gay men to their own devices. But they did not.
In an article recently on Gaystarnews, I got to read first hand accounts –
“A lesbian of the era said: ‘Sitting at the bedside of a terminally ill friend, and just holding their hand when everyone else was just terrified, was a gift I was one of those willing to give.
‘No one should die alone, and no one should be in the hospital on their death beds with family calling to say “this was gods punishment”. My friends and I, men and women, acted as a protective layer for ill friends, and companion to mutual friends juggling the same, difficult reality of trying to be there, and be strong when we were losing our family right and left. Difficult times, that should never be forgotten.’
‘These women walked directly into the fire and through it, and they did not have to. And that they did it even as some of the gay men they took care of treated them with bitchiness, scorn, and contempt.
‘It was, at the time, not at all unusual for gay men to snicker as the bull dyke walked into the bar with her overalls and flannels and fades. Much of the time, it was casual ribbing which they took in stride. But it could also be laced with acid, especially when lesbians began gravitating toward a bar that had until then catered largely to men.
‘When the AIDS crisis struck, it would be many of these same women who would go straight from their jobs during the day to acting as caregivers at night. Because most of them lacked medical degrees, they were generally relegated to the most unpleasant tasks: wiping up puke and shit, cleaning up houses and apartments neglected for weeks and months. But not being directly responsible for medical care also made them the most convenient targets for the devastating anger and rage these men felt – many who’d been abandoned by their own family and friends.
‘These women walked directly into the fire. They came to the aid of gay men even when it was unclear how easily the virus could be transmitted. Transmission via needlestick was still a concern, so they often wore two or three layers of latex gloves to protect themselves, but more than once I saw them, in their haste and frustration, dispense with the gloves so that they could check for fevers, or hold a hand that hung listlessly from the edge of a bed whose sheets they had just laundered.
‘They provided aid, comfort, and medical care to men withering away in hospices, men who’d already lost their lovers and friends to the disease and spent their last months in agony. They’d been abandoned by their own families, and were it not for lesbians – many if not most of them volunteers – they would have suffered alone. And when there was nothing more medicine could do for them and their lungs began to fill with fluid, it was often these same women who’d be left to administer enough morphine to release them, given to them by the doctor who had left the room and would return 15 minutes later to sign the certificate (a common practice at the time).
‘I knew a woman around that time who’d had at one point been making bank in construction. But at the outset of the AIDS crisis she had abandoned her career to pursue nursing instead, and was close to her degree when we were hanging out. She was a big, hearty drinker, and fortunately so was I. We’d been utterly thrashed at a bar once when someone whispered a fairly benign but nonetheless unwelcoming comment about her. Middle fingers were exchanged, and afterwards, furious and indignant, I asked her, Why do you do it? Why did you abandon a career to take care of these assholes who still won’t pay you any respect?
‘She cut me a surprisingly severe look, held it and said, “Honey, because no one else is going to do it.” I remember feeling ashamed after that, because my fury and indignation weren’t going to clean blood and puke off the floor; it wasn’t going to do the shit that needed to get done.
‘HIV killed my friends, took my lover from me, and tore up my life. During that time, I did what I could. But nothing I did then or have ever been called to do in my life puts me anywhere near the example set by the lesbians I knew in the 80s and 90s. I’ve felt obligated to remember what they did, and to make sure other people remember it too.’
This, as Rev Mitulski and Rev Cherry puts it, is eschatological living. In their words “Making this kind of connection — between Jew and Christian, female and male, gay and straight, black and white, parent and child — is what eschatological living is all about. With the end in sight, we do more to savor and value life, including the people we once viewed as hopelessly different from ourselves. As a church with AIDS, we try to embody eschatological living. AIDS is killing us at the same time that it heals us.”
We live in a time very different from then. Being HIV+ is no longer a death sentence. Because of that there is no longer the sense of urgency. We have become complacent.
Like what Mark preached last week, the end that Jesus and Paul preached about didn’t happen after 2000 years. I think the Church has forgotten how to live eschatologically. We have fallen asleep.
A few years ago, when the Prison Services in Singapore did not provide HIV medication for prisoners, we had been supplying medications to 19 prisoners. It was a simple thing – we could only pass the medications to the volunteers who could bring the medications in – so we left it to them. Imagine my surprise when I found out that they were all women – and foreigners at that. Because back then, I assumed that it was men in prison who were HIV+. So I learned that things are not so simple – it isn’t just a matter of sexuality – but also about nationality, socio-economic situations, and politics. The Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation was also involved in providing HIV medication, but because they were an Institution of Public Character under the Charities Act, they could not help foreigners, so that was the gap we filled.
I am grateful that because of the advocacy of many individuals, Rev Yap included, that the policy has changed – the Prison Services now provide HIV medications to prisoners.
In this season of Advent, we need to wake up – we need to be present, we need to be alert, we need to be ready. And most important we need to act.
Rev Yap quoted Martin Luther King Jr earlier this week on Facebook. “To expect God to do everything while we do nothing is not faith but superstition.” King took seriously what Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount – that we ware called to be peacemakers and not just people who prayed for peace. As Rev Yap puts it – we are not called to sit on the sidelines but to put feet to our prayers and act with God.
Are we going to say things are not so bad now, so we don’t have to do much? Are we going to say it is too difficult to build bridges and connections? Are we going to say we are not ready to reach out? Are we going to say this is none of our business when a marginalised community suffers? Are we going to get involved only when we know someone personally who is living with HIV? Are we going to keep silent when unfair and unwarranted accusations are thrown at our Muslim siblings?
No. It is up to us to be the Church alive – the Church that is the lamp on the hill, and salt and light of the earth. “Heaven has as much to do with life before death as with life after death.”
The poet Adrienne Rich wrote:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age. perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
Prepare the Way of the Lord.
• Luke 3:4-6
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
• Baruch 5: 1-3
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.
Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.
5:4 For God will give you evermore the name, “Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.”
• Baruch 5: 4-6
For God will give you evermore the name, “Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.“ Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them.
For they went out from you on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne.
• Baruch 5: 7-9
For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God’s command.
For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.
• 1 Cor 11:23-24
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
• 1 Cor 11:25-26
In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
• Matthew 25:34-36
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
• Matthew 25:37-39
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
• Matthew 25:40
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
We remember the 37 million people who are living globally with HIV; 2 million people who
became newly infected this year; and the millions who died from AIDS related diseases.
We remember the 22 million people living with HIV are still not accessing treatment.
We remember that half of all people living
with HIV are unaware of their status.
We remember the women walked directly into the fire and through it, and they did not have to.
We remember the woman who said “‘No one should die alone, and no one should be in the hospital on their death beds with family calling to say “this was God’s punishment”.
We remember all those who provided aid, comfort, and medical care to those withering away in hospices, those who had already lost their lovers and friends to the disease and spent their last months in agony.
We remember those who had been abandoned by their own families and who would have suffered alone if not for those who stepped forward to care and comfort them.
God, we want to live eschatologically.
We want to live in a state of readiness, responsiveness, now-ness, present-ness, and in-this-worldness.”
We want to live knowing “Heaven has as much to do with life before death as with life after death.”
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age. perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
– Adrienne Rich
Help us prepare Your Way.
Help us fill every valley, make low every mountain and hill, make straight the crooked ways and smooth the ways that are rough.
May all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Kittridge, Cherry, and Jim Mitulski. “We Are the Church Alive, the Church with AIDS.” Accessed December 6, 2015. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=926.
Morgan, Joe. “Survivors of 1980s AIDS Crisis Reveal What Happened to Them – Gay Star News,” February 2, 2015. http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/survivors-1980s-aids-crisis-reveal-what-happened-them020215/#gs.oP4uvl0.
 Kittridge and Mitulski, “We Are the Church Alive, the Church with AIDS.”
 Morgan, “Survivors of 1980s AIDS Crisis Reveal What Happened to Them – Gay Star News.”
 Kittridge and Mitulski, “We Are the Church Alive, the Church with AIDS.