Sermon at the Annual Council for the Diocese of Southern Virginia

Sermon at the Annual Council for the Diocese of Southern Virginia

Williamsburg, VA
February 15, 2009

One of the many fascinating conversations I had at the primates meeting in Egypt recently involved the archbishops of Burundi and Tanzania. I think the primate of the Indian Ocean was also sitting at the dinner table with us. All three of them are in contexts with a significant Muslim presence. We were talking about AIDS work around the world, and the partners we can bring into the work. Burundi piped up and said, we do a lot of work with the Roman Catholics and the Muslims, but they won’t have anything to do with condoms. That work is up to the Protestants. There isn’t any official Muslim consensus about condoms as there is with the Roman Catholics, but in those contexts, Muslim leaders won’t talk about it.

AIDS has often been likened to a modern leprosy. Certainly as AIDS emerged as a global pandemic, it has produced the same kind of horror, misunderstanding, and discrimination as leprosy did in the ancient world. The disease that’s identified as leprosy in the Bible is probably actually several different skin conditions, Hansen’s disease among them, but the social isolation was the same for all.

There are many parallels between leprosy and AIDS. Hansen’s disease was the first human disease to be identified with a particular microorganism, in 1873. AIDS was first described about 100 years later, in 1981, and very quickly identified with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. But an understanding of the disease process, and effective treatment for each of them, took a long time. Hansen’s disease is significantly different in that only 5-10% of human beings are susceptible to the infection. Without treatment, about 90% of human beings infected with HIV progress to full-blown AIDS. Treatment for each disease consists of a lengthy course of several drugs, and while Hansen’s disease can be largely arrested and contagiousness ended soon after treatment begins, we have not yet figured out how to end or cure an HIV infection.

The other and perhaps greater parallel between the two diseases is their social stigma. Lepers are described in ancient texts going back to at least the 6th century BCE, in the Bible as well as in Chinese and Indian texts. Those with visible disease have often been segregated to live in different communities, and excluded from normal social interactions. People known to be infected with HIV still lose jobs, family and friends, and normal social support in many parts of the world, including here. And the religious community has been among the first responders in both disease systems.

The two healing stories we heard this morning have something significant to say about how this religious community responds not only to HIV/AIDS, but to any human condition that stigmatizes. Naaman’s story is a heart-breaker - and a heart-changer. Successful military man and leader, struck down by disfiguring disease - not unlike Viktor Yushchenko, apparent victim of dioxin poisoning in 2004. But Naaman’s disease is likely to get him ousted from his post, in a society even more fixated on appearance than ours. If Naaman can’t get his skin cleaned up, not only will he have to leave office, he’ll be banished from polite and religiously observant society.

Naaman’s route to healing reads almost like a spy novel. A word dropped by the slave girl who works for his wife - and why would this little girl who was captured in an enemy raid want to help him? But her tiny shred of hope has him rushing off to his king to get a letter of passage to the enemy. When the letter comes to the king of Israel, he despairs, for he knows he can’t fulfill this request. But Elisha gets wind of the visitor and says, come see me and I’ll see what I can do. Naaman goes, but he’s too proud to enter Elisha’s house. Elisha sends a message out - go wash in the Jordan, and you’ll get what you’re after. It must have sounded amazingly dismissive, because Naaman leaves in a huff. But his own servants offer him encouragement, and he finally goes off to the river, and gets his youthful appearance back. Maybe this is where the fountain of youth idea came from.

Slave girl, servants, enemies, kings, and prophets - an impressive set of links that bring Naaman to his knees.

Jesus’ healing of the leper is more direct. The leper appears and asks to be healed. He’s actually a bit whiny about it - he says, if you really wanted to, you could make me well. This translation says Jesus was moved with pity, but in Greek it’s a lot more graphic. It says, he was moved in his guts. It means to feel compassion, and today we’d probably say he was gut-wrenched. And Jesus reaches out his hand and touches the leper and says, I do want to; be clean. Jesus chooses to foul himself - touching a leper makes him unfit for polite society. Being gut-wrenched may also carry the sense that Jesus touched the man in spite of his own revulsion - or, more likely, the revulsion of the people around him. Those onlookers, just like the people around Naaman, are accustomed to keeping themselves clean by excluding anybody who threatens them. They don’t want to get too close, and they certainly don’t want their eminent visitor and rabbi to get too close.

Healing takes a whole community of unlikely partners, and it takes getting past our own fear of contamination. Dealing with AIDS in Africa or Madagascar takes an unlikely partnership of Christians, Muslims, and government agencies. Each is clear about its limits, but together a whole lot more healing goes on than if they went about their work separately. In order to heal, we, too, have to get beyond our understandings of who is clean and who is not. We can work with Mormons and Pentecostals and environmentalists and even atheists, if each is concerned about healing the pain and illness in the world around us.

The fear and stigma of illness has to be openly confronted and acknowledged. Most of Jesus’ healings are from things like leprosy or mental illness that are pretty evident to others, and can’t be hidden. But he doesn’t heal anybody until he’s asked. You can hide your HIV status for a while, and many people do, because the reaction can be so intense. But healing cannot begin until the diagnosis is accepted. That’s often the biggest hurdle. It certainly is when the disease is something like addiction to alcohol or other drugs. The 12 step program begins with acknowledgement of the diagnosis - that the alcoholic is powerless over alcohol, and that life is out of control. In a culture like ours that is so often addicted to other things like shopping or jockeying for position or winning, it’s not always easy to recognize or acknowledge what our illness really is. But it is essential to healing.

Jesus is further revolted or gut-wrenched by the leper’s idea that he might choose not to heal him. Are we as energetically revolted by the idea that some people don’t deserve to be healed? Because that idea really is what lies behind an unwillingness to heal our society, it is what made this nation so blind to the continuing crime of Katrina and its aftermath. It made us slow to respond to the genocide in Rwanda, and the AIDS epidemic here and around the world. The sense that some are more deserving than others has led us to wink at torture - well, it’s ok if it’s God will use the children among us, and the people on the margins - servants and enemies, Muslims and secularists - to remind us that everybody can be healed, even the people we love to hate. God’s mission is the healing of the whole world, and every part of creation. That is the reason for Jesus’ presence among us in human flesh. And it is the reason why each of us is here - to be healing hands and hearts and tongues - as we will remember in those baptismal promises.

Healing. Where will you start, and what will you continue? Who and what needs healing?

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