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World AIDS Day Sermon, Advent 1 (B) – 1996

December 01, 1996

This is the first Sunday of Advent, and while the secular world around us trivializes the coming birth of our Savior with garish displays of commercialism, we Anglicans have a time-honored tradition of taking Advent seriously. As we await the birth of hope, Anglican preaching for the four Sundays of Advent has focused in turn on death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

This also happens to be the Sunday of the week in which World AIDS Day is celebrated. Death and AIDS. Not exactly “Silver Bells” sentimentality, right? As Christians we have another word; an antidote: Hope. Coincidentally or not, the theme for World AIDS Day this year echoes and expounds on this promise: One World, One Hope.

How do today’s texts speak to these promises of universality and redemption? Moreover, after 15 years of AIDS, where is our comfort in the bread of tears we have been fed, and the full measure of tears we have drunk in this pandemic?

Appropriately enough, both the Psalm appointed for today and the Isaiah reading are laments. Death — whether the death of light we experience as days grow short and the winter solstice approaches, or the death of those we have loved who have succumbed to AIDS — make us mournful. In our sorrow, we plead with God to “restore us … let your face shine that we may be saved.” The universality of the human condition is confessed in Isaiah, where we read that we are “all like one who is unclean … all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth … all fade like a leaf.”

Like the Psalmist, Isaiah affirms the source of our hope and goes on to call out for a rebirth of hope saying, “we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” If we but let God, God can remake us. In our own time, our Presiding Bishop has called us again this year to a season of prayer on HIV and AIDS. Lamenting our shortcomings and looking for a similar rebirth of hope, he has offered us this prayer as a place of beginning:

We acknowledge and give thanks for the hope now breaking forth for those living with HIV/AIDS through new treatments, but we must confess that economic injustice and racism will make this hope stillborn for many in our own nation, and for the most in the developing world.

The body of Christ has AIDS. Lord have mercy.

We have sought to be a source of loving support for those we encounter who suffer from AIDS, but we must confess that we have also seen our sisters and brothers naked and hungry and oppressed due to their HIV antibody status, their color and their economic status in our own society and around the world. And we have too often failed to see Christ in them and have not clothed, fed, or liberated them out of love for the one who saves us.

The body of Christ has AIDS. Lord have mercy.

We have known for years precisely what must be said and done to help change from behaviors that spread HIV infection, but in our timidity and fear we have too often failed to tell these truths in love which can spare sons and daughters from the scourge of AIDS.

The body of Christ has AIDS. Lord have mercy.

Yes, we have much to lament, but we are a people of hope. Paul reminds the Church at Corinth, and us today, that if we are faithful we will not be lacking in any spiritual gifts as we wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is true of Advent, and it is true of AIDS. We have not been paralyzed while we have prayed all these years for effective treatments, a cure, and a vaccine that would end AIDS. We have made great and good use of spiritual gifts in comforting those infected and those affected, offering the ministries of anointing and laying on of hands for healing, of pastoral care, of Christian charity and hospitality.

We are people of hope, and we are people of the resurrection. As we live through this season of the dying of the light, and as we live through the global horror that is the AIDS pandemic, we know — because God is faithful, even when we aren’t — that death is not the final word. The collect appointed for today marks, “this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility,” but anticipates the day, “when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, so we may rise to life immortal.” So even in the midst of death, the dirge-like notes of our laments invariably give way to the triumphant chords of Easter hymns.

But there is a word of caution here, one for us to take very seriously in the face of the hurly-burly marketplace that the Christmas season has become to the world all around us. We do not know when the time will come. We do not know when death will come to separate us from those we love. Jesus, in the parable of the householder, puts us in the place of the doorkeeper. We are to “beware; keep alert … keep awake.” We dare not be distracted by the secular sales cyclone whirling about us. We are to watch and wait on the Lord. In every one of the Lord’s manifestations.

Some may think that the job of the doorkeeper is to lean hard against it to keep out those who should not enter. But everything in our tradition teaches us that as Christian doorkeeper we are to keep awake and alert so that none slip by without being invited in. Isaiah has reminded us that we are all the work of God’s hands. No one is dispensable; no one can be left out. So keep alert, hold open the door, invite the stranger in.

Our Episcopal Church has kept alert to welcome the stranger in responding to AIDS. We have invited the stranger in, saying, “Our Church has AIDS.” We have invited strangers in and made them our sisters and brothers. We have established care teams to comfort the ill, parents and partners groups to support those who mourn, and peer education programs to protect our children from this avoidable infection. We have invited the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt into our midst, and we have sewn our own panels for those whom we have loved and lost. In the process some of us have mourned so much that tears have “tabernacled” in our eyes, and we have grown weary of this work.

Which may be why we have Advent. We have it because AIDS isn’t over yet, and because we need reminders of who we are and whose we are. We need a season of staying alert to what God promises us, and what God expects of us.

A parish I know has a wonderful tradition of giving out signs for this season. Year after year they pass out these signs which people take home and tape to their refrigerators, or pin up in their cubicles at work, or copy and give out to their friends. And they’re changing little corners of the world everywhere they appear. The signs have just five simple words.

Slow Down. Quiet. It’s Advent.

I would add two more words. Keep Awake! Cast off your weariness and be awake to hope.

Remember that our hope is in Jesus Christ who called all people to himself and made them whole. Remember that our world is not defined by geographic boundaries, but by the fullness of God’s love, through whom no one is forgotten or neglected. One World. One Hope. Let this be our clarion call, and the focus of our commitment to prayer for all who suffer due to HIV and AIDS throughout this next year.

This first Sunday of Advent we have been called to confront death and hope. As we reflect on the coming of Christ, and as we pray for all those who suffer due to AIDS, let us remember that we worship a God who “did awesome deeds that we did not expect.” That same God has not finished with creation or with us. That God caused hope to be born into the world two millennia ago, and wants hope born in us this day.

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Christopher Sikkema


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