Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Sermon, National Week of Prayer for the Healing of HIV/AIDS

John 9, Balm in Gilead                              Lent 4                                 March 10, 2013

Spirit of Hope, Detroit, The Rev. Matthew Bode

           The prophet, Sam Cooke, has said, “There been times that I thought I couldn't last for long, But now I think I'm able to carry on, It's been a long, a long time coming, But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.” Today is a serious day. Today is Balm in Gilead Sunday. And we are here today in the spirit of the thousands, the millions who have died from AIDS. Those who have come before us, whose names were never even spoken by their families for the shame they felt. The sadness, the preventable tragedy that the world, the church, stood by and has watched as a bystander, often times without compassion, much less a sense of justice.
            Before we get into all of that. Before we understand all of these issues. Before we get too heavy, let’s recognize that a change is coming. Can we say this? As Jesus walks to the cross getting closer to Good Friday, a change is coming. God is intervening, and the spirit is even entertaining good news. Some hearts, and I am not saying enough hearts now, but some hearts are beginning to melt. Some parts of the church are becoming somewhat less blind. I know it’s not a high measure of success, but a change is coming.
            Drugs, medications, are transforming lives and the way we look at this disease. Cures and vaccinations are not here, but perhaps one day. Gay people, disproportionately affected by HIV, once completely ignored or oppressed in this world, are in some areas receiving some equity in how they are treated, and how they live in society, and even in a handful of churches. A change is coming.
            We are slowly, but surely, beginning to talk more about sex, and safe sex, even in our own churches. We are beginning, even if just a little bit, to treat the disease as the enemy rather than the person with the disease as the outcast.  A change is coming. We have recognized the scripture and held it close. (2 Corinthians 4:8-10) “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”
            In our bodies. The life of Jesus may be visible in our bodies. Our imperfect, sometimes fragile, always perplexing, water-based bodies. The life of Jesus is visible in our bodies. Whoa. Afflicted, persecuted, struck down, bodies show us the life of Jesus! Blind bodies.
            I hope you heard this story from the gospel today. The disciples see a blind man on the side of the road. And being the curious students of theology and Bible that they are, they asked Jesus a question, the question asked by every three and four year-old since the beginning of time. Why? Why is this man blind, Jesus? And then they qualified it, like good church folk do. I know you caught this. Is he blind because he sinned, or because his parents sinned? See, we may think that is silly, but that was the world view of the time. God, in their mind, created all affliction, all disease, all, or at least most, bad things that befall a person. So there must have been a reason that this man was born blind. He was blind, so he must be a sinner. They were not blind, so they must be righteous. And Jesus answered, no. This man was not born blind because of anyone’s sin.
            Let’s ask that question in a different way: Jesus, why does this person have HIV? Is it because he is gay or because he is a drug user? In what way is he different from me, that I might have no responsibility to care about him, that I might know that he is a sinner, but I am not?
Has anyone here ever had it all figured out before? I mean, help me out. You know exactly what God is doing in your life. You are faithful. You have good sense about you. People even tell you that you have good sense about you. People like you. They come to you for wisdom because you have good explanations about how the world works. You have good experience. You go to church, and you are a good church person.
            Everyone in this gospel story, with the exception of Jesus and the man who was born blind, is a good church person. They know how this is supposed to work. The man is blind because of a sin, and he is getting what he deserves. I am not blind, therefore I am less of a sinner than he is. Everything makes sense. Everything is in its proper order. You belong here, I belong here. We have a structure. Let’s stick with it. We can be comfortable. We don’t have to question anything. Life makes sense.
And then this Jesus, this wandering preacher/teacher/healer person who claims to have the authority of the Son of God, helps this blind man to see. And the whole order is completely messed up, jacked up if you allow me to be vulgar this morning. I won’t go further than that. Things don’t make sense anymore. The man who was born to be over there, is now over here and I don’t know how to deal with that.
And, hopefully we have enough humility about ourselves to say, there’s nothing quite like a good church person who just had their realities questioned. “But, you belong over there, and I belong over here. What do you mean this Jesus brought you over here? You were a beggar. You sit on the ground. Covered in dust and dirty. In fact, I cannot even believe that is you. You cannot be one of us. You are a sinner. I am a good church goer. We cannot be together. We have never done it this way before.”
            Our church has never let those people in here before. We have always understood those people to be dirty, sinning, disgusting people. They don’t belong. They certainly must deserve their plight. We need to keep them away from us so we do not get touched by their sin. Those sick people. “Then I go to my brother And I say brother help me please But he winds up knockin' me Back down on my knees.” Ha, and right then and there, Jesus walks into church, right down the center aisle, and says, “A change is gonna come.”
            About thirteen years ago I spent a month in Tanzania. It was my second trip back there, but this time was different. A seminary classmate and I were going to spend some weeks living with and learning from caregivers and patients who were living with HIV or AIDS. We stayed with a service agency of doctors and nurses, all Tanzanians. They operated their own non-profit because at the time there were very few government hospitals who would deal with AIDS patients in a compassionate manner.
            One particular day I was doing home visits with one of the nurses. We would visit patients, walking several miles a day around the city of Morogoro, and see how they were doing. Usually we visited women because the men were too ashamed to seek treatment or help. There, like here, those with HIV are often treated like they have a social disease as much as a physical one. At the time I was pretty good with my Kiswahili, and so my nurse companion, who had quality relationships with all of these patients, had me lead some of the medical questioning. I would ask and she would listen to and follow the responses. One of the most important questions is finding out how people are eating. So I would ask them how their stomach was feeling.
            Now, in Kiswahili the word for stomach is “tumbo.” But I didn’t use that word. Instead of tumbo, I would say tembo. Now, they sound close, but they don’t mean the same thing. All day, I would ask people about their tembo, and they would laugh. Even if they were not feeling well in their stomach, they still laughed. See, tumbo means stomach, but tembo means elephant. So all day I was asking all of these patients if their elephant was hurting. Where they able to keep food in their elephant. So later I asked the nurse why she did not correct me. And she replied that everyone was having such a fun time with it, why mess that up?
            Imagine the possibility, of instead of judging one another, striving to categorize one another, we decided to laugh with one another. Instead of trying to determine someone else’s sin, we worked to keep ourselves compassionate. What if, just throwing this out there now, the church was the first place to talk about sex in a healthy, real way instead of the last? What if the church was the first place that tried to be honest instead of the place that tries to sweep everything under the rug. What if we good church people were the first people to show God’s love, and we did it instinctively. No committee meetings, no love the sinner hate the sin, dishonest, ugly platitudes designed to make us feel good about discriminating against other people, keep order but still keep people out. That phrase, “love the sinner and hate the sin,” is about the most ugly church phrase that has ever existed. We put the word love in it to hide our spite, fear and discrimination against those we label “sinner.” That’s not real love. What if we actually decided to love each other fully for who we are, no conditions?
What if we became a part of the change that’s gonna come instead of fighting against it? Part of the body of Christ instead of striving against him. Loving and embracing his people rather than stepping on them. Recognizing that Jesus’ love for all people includes you. And if it includes you, you have no reason to be jealous, hateful, spiteful, exclusive or even rude to anyone else. What if we knew that a change is gonna come? That in the cross, all things will be transformed. The outsiders become the insiders. The haters become the lovers. Death becomes life. Struggle becomes hope. Dark nights become bright days.
            Jesus told us that a change is gonna come. And then he showed us. His body became a place of healing. His touch brought people together. And it does still. Hold onto the cross, sisters and brothers. Be transformed. Be healed. It’s already started. A change is gonna come.  

Friday, March 1, 2013

Condoms and the Cross

Is it possible to righteously use these two words in the same sentence? Condoms and the cross.  The former labeled by the church a sign of human depravity and immorality, our fall from grace and God’s disappointment in our loss of purity. The second is the most venerable physical sign of Christian orthodoxy and the place where we believe that we become reconciled to God. Those who value and appreciate one certainly would not value the other, would they?
 Not long ago, our Detroit church restarted a small safer sex kit distribution program that will grow over the course of the year. It reaches church members, those who take advantage of our food pantry and community kitchens, athletes who use our gymnasium and more. Of course the kits include condoms and other items that make for safer and better sex, as well as educational materials and a sentence or two of scripture intended to remind recipients of the love of God and love of neighbor. Thanks in part to Gospel Against AIDS and the energy of members of our church and community, the program has so far been a success.

Some have asked us why we would distribute kits with condoms. Of course the easy and most accurate answer is, “Because people need them.” Many Christians, however, do not accept that reasoning. Even in 2013, it seems that the vast majority of churches in most denominations, maybe even most faith groups, still have a very hard time talking about sex and sexuality. Our modern Christian cultural rhetoric has taught us that things are changing and the forever held value of abstinence, sex only in the context of marriage, has fallen in the past generation or two. (Ask my family elders born out of wedlock in the 1950s and 1920s about the long-standing practice of abstinence!)  It is a frightening time to be in the church when it appears that our values and long standing cultural teachings are being challenged by every television show, advertisement and pop culture icon.

Nevertheless, the beauty of being a Christian is not found in declarations of righteous and unrighteous behavior, but in the person of Jesus who walked among the people and turned the eyes of the church to the needs of those who surrounded him. The religious leaders attacked Jesus for allowing people to do the work to get something to eat on the Sabbath and for touching people scripture and the religious leaders deemed unclean. I am certain they would have condemned him for handing out condoms as well. He always turned the argument, however, from ideological purity to the needs of the people.

We are in a world, in 2013, with a rapid expansion of HIV. It is our call as church to meet the needs of the people with compassion, love and life—changing power. We walk with people in their lives, all of us changed when we authentically love one another as neighbors. The traditional teachings of the church, of abstinence-only sex, are so far from the reality of our culture that it is time we understand the needs of the people and respond rather than living in the ivory towers of supposed moral righteousness.

It is immoral for the church not to respond to the spread of HIV. In fact, it is doubly immoral for us not to respond because we are responsible as an institution for discouraging honest talk and loving behavior. In the 1980s and 1990s we, as church, contributed to the isolation of HIV patients and led a supposed moral crusade against those who did not live what we determined to be righteous lives. Even if we did not actively isolate those with HIV, or those at greatest risk for the disease, we were silent when others who called themselves Christians did so. As in any crusade, many people died.

As HIV takes a breath, digs in its heals and begins to grow again in this era, we as Christians have the chance to redeem ourselves and live our faith. When we talk about sex openly in the context of trust, respect, honor, love and honesty rather than on the platform of religious purity, we are more authentic to the faith. We also stand a better chance of changing peoples’ lives for the better.

When we offer safer sex kits, a wall comes down. In almost every case, whether received by members of the church or strangers, a bit of unhealthy fear of the church and religion begins to fade. We are able to have a real relationship with each other, and even with God. The cross is the place where fear goes to die. Liberation and freedom take fear’s place. The cross is the perfect symbol of the power of transformation. As church, may we be transformed by the cross enough to be honest with ourselves, our own people and the world around us. Honesty for us means we need to distribute safer sex kits. It is time we loved people as much as our ideologies.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Guns, Fear, Faith

My first scare with a gun caught me completely off guard. A person in my community took a head first dive into a deep depression, finding solace in nothing but a bottle. The depression had become so severe that someone close to him came to me for support and to investigate what was going on in his apartment. No one had heard from him for weeks and we went to find him in the bright sunshine of an early afternoon. We heard no response after knocking, so we opened the door with a key, making sure to make as much noise as possible as not to alarm him. The apartment smelled like bad body odor. Empty bottles of cheap vodka lined the one wall and the person we came to see was at least thirty pounds lighter than the last time I saw him. His drunken stupor was disturbing enough, along with his anger at us for interrupting his day. He lifted up the pillow where he had been laying and revealed a black handgun. While I know very little about handguns, I knew it carried at least a few rounds in the clip. Thankfully his severe drunkenness had taken away any physical or mental ability to use it.

Guns are a part of life in Detroit, and in all of our major cities. After twelve years doing work in this city I love, very little about guns is shocking. Even after living in four different neighborhoods, all considered safe, it is not uncommon to hear gun shots, mostly young people shooting into the air as a cheap form of fireworks and entertainment. When I recently approached a neighbor and told him my house would be empty for a week while on vacation, he made it clear he would be protecting it with his shotgun. What can a person say but, “thank you”?

As the debate about gun control and regulation escalates this year, the reality of gun life in our cities has not surfaced in the largest media outlets. Fear of guns and fear of gun owners tend to dictate the boundaries and terms of our discussions. What if we stopped living in fear?

Not long after I came out of the closet as a gay person to one of the congregations I served, a very mentally unstable person threatened me over the phone. Twenty minutes of rambling, psychotic messages were left on the church voice mail, including a gun threat. She was certain that someone would be bringing a loaded gun to the next church meeting. The police and a lawyer friend diffused the situation. In our world, guns are most often used to intimidate, threaten and create fear.

Faith and wisdom lead us away from fear and into confidence. The roots of all of the major religions lead us to find peace in God and one another. Of course true faith and wisdom are not ignorance or naivety, walking into dangerous situations without an understanding of that danger. Rather, they are a counterbalance to the irrational nature of fear and its cousins, ignorance and hatred. Guns, and especially assault rifles and high magazine clips and all the related weapons that go with them, are sold on a premise of fear, ignorance and hatred, depending on America to empty our individual and collective wallets. Gun manufacturers want us to be afraid. Our fear, especially of one another, makes them more rich.

More guns do not create more safety. If there was a gun on me the day I was carjacked, I would not be alive today. An addict needed a fix and my car and my wallet would get him closer to what he needed. The broad daylight boldness of his offense rocked my world for weeks. The small revolver in his hand remains burned in my mind. Somehow the federal debate about guns has yet to speak to this reality. Gun advocates would want me strapped. A gun however would not heal my fear, but increase it. Fear makes people dangerous.

It would be irrational and impossible to gather up all the guns and destroy them. It is far too late for that. Still, we must acknowledge that the cold, impersonal nature of firearms helps us remain cold and impersonal with one another, and allow us to threaten those whom we fear, almost completely devoid of conscience. Most guns are for people who are afraid. They are afraid of the uncertain and uncontrollable nature of life, and in America, we work to control everything.

The first gun I fired was put in my hands by my grandfather. It was a shotgun for game birds and I was about seventeen years old. That lesson taught me about respect for the weapon, safety for me and others and how not to be afraid of something with which I was not familiar. The lesson was about a gun. Now, in this time, let the debate be about people, that we may respect each other, build safety for all of us and not be afraid of people with whom we are not familiar. Guns do not allow us to achieve these goals, and in fact push us backward toward fear. No civilization has ever survived on fear.