A Service of Healing for Those With HIV/AIDS
18 November 2007
Trinity Church, Abbeville South Carolina
Mt 26:26-30, 36-39
Dorothy Stang walked through the Amazon rain on a warm February Saturday morning. Between her breasts, she wore the pectoral cross of the Sisters of Notre Dame. Engraved on its back side, in French, it read: "Ah qu'il est bon le bon Dieu". (“Ah, how good is the good God".). She was headed to Boa Esperança, a village not far from her home in Anapu in the northern Brazilian state of Para. She had her Bible tucked under her arm to protect it from the steady rain. In Boa Esperança, a small group of peasant farmers was waiting for her—praying that an American nun could help them get a new start, after their homes were burned by thugs who worked for the timber industry.
From the dripping trees lining the muddy road, another small group emerged to surround Dorothy Stang. They taunted her, but she smiled. She saw in them the image of the God she served, his own children, suffering just like the peasant farmers waiting ahead. She opened her Bible to give them a word of comfort. At the same moment, they opened their coats.
Six bullets pierced her heart and lungs. Dorothy Stang died, in the rain, in the forest, in the middle of the muddy road, her blood washing slowly down the hill, still clinging to her Bible. The earth writhed, groaning with the pain of her death.
Two hundred fifty miles east of Moscow, on the banks of the Oka river, rises a weirdly beautiful metal tower, a hyperboloid electricity pylon, once part of the great scientific advances of the old Soviet Union. The rusting tower, long disconnected from the Russian energy grid, overlooks Dzerzhinsk, which holds the distinction of being the most polluted city on earth. The Soviets, in their mad quest to dominate the world through scientific progress, made chemical weapons here—cyanide, arsenic and mustard gas—and dumped the leftovers on the ground and into the river. Today, the water is a threatening black soup of poison, the air permeated with rot, and the ground long ago deadened. If you beat the odds, you might live past the life expectancy of 42 for men and 47 for women, but the death rate still exceeds the birth rate by 260 times. The barren landscape cries dirty tears mourning over its own death.
All over the world, the story is the same: the polar ice caps are melting, deserts creep over increasingly larger portions of the earth, heat waves and powerful storms ravage even the developed nations of Europe and North America, entire species of plants and animals are disappearing faster than any time in the past 65 million years. The entire creation is suffering together in this crucible of pain. And God save the prophet, like Sister Dorothy Stang, who calls for environmental justice and concrete steps to create change.
But it is not just our natural environment that is suffering. Tuberculosis kills 2 million people each year and is the leading cause of death for people with AIDS. At least 1 million people die from malaria each year, mostly children in Africa. AIDS is the world’s fourth leading cause of death. Since first being reported in 1981, AIDS has killed over 25 million people. AIDS killed an estimated 3 million people in 2006 alone. Globally, 15 million children have lost one or both parents to AIDS. 12 million of those live in sub-Saharan Africa.
Meanwhile, chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, most of which are preventable, threaten to unravel the health care systems of the world’s richest and most advanced nations. Where once, the plight of the poor could be seen in their wasting frames, now they are the most likely to be obese, as cheap, unhealthy food has been shoved at them, while their poverty remains as stark as ever. The world groans for healing.
Where can we turn? Matthew’s story of the last night of Jesus’ life tells a tale so dark and painful that reading it you feel the groans deep in your bowels. But in the upside down universe of the God who suffers with us, it reveals hope intoned in our groans.
The moon over Jerusalem was full. It was the first week of spring, but winter’s last breath crisped the night air. In a second floor apartment, around a low table piled high with roasted lamb, with crisp, toasted matzoth, apples and cinnamon, horseradishes, and romaine, Jesus and his friends were feasting. Though laughter and singing rocked the room, the sweetness of the new spring wine finished bitter and acid on their tongues.
Above the din, Jesus began to pray: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with your commandments, and commanded us to eat unleavened bread.” He took one of the loaves of matzoth, broke it and passed the pieces around. He paused for a long moment. They looked at him, for the familiar next words of the Pascha. He looked around the table. “Take, eat, this is my body.”
They were all suddenly frozen, no one daring to move. He nodded, “Go on, eat it.”
As they chewed, they stared at him, unable to understand, unable to resist. He lifted a chalice. “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who has created the fruit of the vine.”
They knew what he was about to say before he said it. Each of them could feel the blood pulsing in their veins. “Go on, drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” They passed the cup around, sipping at the blood red wine, panic and fear rising in their throats.
Jesus tried to lighten the mood with a couple of hymns, but no one really felt like singing. Finally, he gave up. “I need some air. Let’s go out for a walk.”
They wandered up the winding path, just outside the city walls, to the little hill where they had lunched a few days before. From the olive grove, the city spread out beneath them, ten thousand lighted torches in ten thousand homes, where families were still singing holiday carols. At the center, the Temple rose, resplendent in the moonlight.
They waited, expecting him to give them another teaching, another parable, another something. Quietly he said, “You all need to pray.”
He nodded at Peter, James and John and they slipped off a few yards from the others. As they walked, they could see his shoulders start to heave and the tears pouring down his face. “I’m so...I don't know--I feel like I could just die, right here. Please, stay with me and pray for me. Please don’t go to sleep.” They knelt to pray, but he walked on a few feet, rocking and holding his head in his hands. His sobs rose above the canopy of olive branches.
He crumbled, suddenly, nearly folding over into himself, and cried out, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Behind him, his three friends dropped off to sleep.
“Not what I want but what you want.” What Jesus wanted that night was a little company, a little comfort, a little hope, a little peace. He wanted his heart to quit breaking over a friend’s imminent betrayal. He wanted that old feeling he had when he knew God was right there with him. He wanted to feel strong, empowered, the Holy Spirit fairly jumping from the tips of his fingers.
What he got was silence. What he got was a cold wind that smelled like death. What he got was the muddy earth, writhing in pain below, yearning with him for redemption. Not what he wanted.
We know how that cold and bitter night ended. We know that he died, alone at the end, forsaken by God, his heart broken in two. But he got what God wanted: the full, complete and redemptive suffering that saves the world.
Years later, contemplating both Jesus’ suffering and the pain all humans share, St Paul wrote: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” Jesus suffered, says Paul, because that was the only way to open the door to glory for the creation he loved so much. In the strange and mysterious way of the One who created all things, the Incarnate Lord took the human parable of betrayal, loneliness, and heartache, and gave it a new ending: freedom of the glory of the children of God.
It is a healing that has taken all eternity to bring about. From the very beginning of human history, sins committed and obligations omitted have spread their sickness of suffering, pain and death to all creation. Even now, we wait, still groaning with the universe under the weight of it all, still crying for a little company, a little comfort, a little hope, a little peace. Paul says the seeming futility of creation is infused with hope that one day it will be set free from decay, despair and death.
It’s that hope we gather today to celebrate. It’s that hope that swaths our wounds with balm. It’s that hope that the hills will bring forth our help, from the One who made heaven and earth. It’s that hope that brings us the redemption of our bodies, even while they waste away before our eyes.
We will gather shortly to pray, to be anointed with oil, and to gather around the table to take some of that bread and wine that Jesus has given for us to share in his healing. In the mystery of the Eucharist, we will get a swallow or two of the food that lasts for ever, and that brings the salvation of the universe.
When we are need in of healing, as all of us are, whether or not we think we’re healthy, the temptation is to ask for the cup of suffering to be taken from our lips. But if Jesus’ suffering teaches us anything, it’s that healing doesn’t usually come that way. It comes first in the quieting of our souls, the giving way to the greater will of God, the sure knowledge that our help is in the Name of Yahweh, the Maker of Heaven and Earth. It is in the dawning awareness that our suffering is redemptive, that we are participants is the suffering of all creation, in the suffering of God, in the suffering that will finally bring freedom.
It is precisely we why are not giving up. For what looks like futility says, Paul, is hope-full. What looks like meaningless is pain is really labor pains, which give birth to a whole new creation: first in ourselves, and then in the universe itself.
That’s why we Episcopalians are leading the faith-based movement to end world poverty through achieving the Millennium Development Goals. We have, along with the universe, caught a glimpse of the new creation, tucking its head out, trying to be born. We know that it’s there, we know the world can be healed. We’ve tasted the bread and wine of healing. We’ve prayed, and sung and cried. We know, says St. Paul, that it’s coming.
And so, like a mother whose pain gives way to joy, we push—towards healing, towards freedom, towards the redemption of our bodies in the glorious existence of the children of God. Yes, we groan, but we sing. We cry, but we laugh. We die, but we live life eternal in the shadow of the One who keeps our going out and our coming in from this time on and for evermore.