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.