A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
by Bruce Garner
Propers for Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, alternate to April 4):
Psalm 98: 1-4
Exodus 3: 7-12
Luke 6: 27-36
How many times have we read or heard Jesus' words from the Gospel appointed for the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.? "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.turn the other cheek."
Today we honor the life of a man who understood Jesus' message, regardless of whether it was to love his enemies or to take care of the needs of the least around him. He resisted oppression with love. He turned the other cheek countless times. He knew what principles guided him and his ministry and he knew they were of God. He lost his life - he lost his life living out the Gospel. He knew why he was on this earth and what his ministry was to be.
For those of us who have ministries in HIV/AIDS, we know there are still those who curse us for it..who abuse us for what we do or try to do. Many want us to just go away! I think they always have! Was it because we were trying to sing to the Lord a new song, a song of hope, a song of mercy?
I suspect that might be because we have always tried to hold up the Gospel as a mirror - sometimes we don't want to see what is in that mirror. And I think it has been that way since this pandemic began. Trying to tell the truth is not always popular.
I was on hand for the precursor event that ultimately resulted in the founding of the National Episcopal AIDS Coalition (NEAC). Many of you know that event as the conference that took place in February, 1986 at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. It was the first national conference on AIDS by any church. Any of you who were present remember that we were a group of folks who had indeed been slapped around - and we didn't have another cheek to turn. We had been beaten down by sickness and death, battered by bigotry and prejudice. We didn't even have shirts or goods or resources to give to those who begged from us - we had given out..literally and figuratively. For most of us, it was the first time to be with others who had been engaged in the same ministry we were doing. Our general attitude was that all of us were pretty much going it alone wherever we were. We spent a lot of time in tears at that conference - tears of relief as well as tears of sadness.
So many of us had held the hands of friends as they died, trying, sometimes in vain we thought, to assure them that they would rest in the arms of Almighty God - despite what they had heard from the less enlightened quarters of God's community. So many of us had attended funerals for our friends where they were condemned for evil life styles. Or we heard of death bed conversions.
Or worst of all, we heard the silence of unspoken words. The cause of our friends' deaths were hushed up as if scandalous. It was the same silence of denial that tried to hide the cause of illness while they were still alive. We all knew from personal experience that silence did indeed equal death.sometimes physical..often times spiritual. That has not changed.
We had also been conducting funerals and burials for our friends - those with no faith community and those whose faith communities had abandoned them, despite a Gospel imperative to do otherwise. That conference provided me - as many of you have heard before - with my own conversion or "mountain top" experience.
Sitting in Grace Cathedral as the healing service began, I had no idea what to expect. I had never attended a healing service before and all I knew of such things was the picture presented by televangelists. Having someone bop me on the forehead and say "heeuhll" didn't really offer me much. I'm not knocking their ministries, but they do little for me. It was in that sacred space that I saw the hand of God at work. It was in that sacred space that I think I learned to truly love my enemies, to do good to those who hated me, to bless those who cursed me.
Those approaching the altar rail for anointing and laying on of hands appeared to have the weight of the cathedral itself resting on their backs. But when they turned to go back to their seats, a visible transformation had taken place: Faces glowed, bent backs were straight - healing had taken place - not a cure - a healing, a making whole. So palpable was the presence of God in that cathedral that I felt I could reach out my hand and physically touch God.
Life was never quite the same for me after that. I suspect life wasn't the same again for anyone who attended that conference. I'm not sure who got what messages from that conference. Perhaps we realized that God had heard the cry of those in distress, that God observed the misery of those to whom we had ministered. Their cries had reached God's ears. It's not too great a stretch for any of us to have felt sent into our ministries by God. But I can just about guarantee you that every one of us was also asking ourselves the same question Moses asked: "Who am I that I should go..??" At some point it had to become clear to us that we also had to trust in the same promise as Moses: That God would be with us in the ministries entrusted to us.
You, me, NEAC - all of its constituencies - we are all still being sent into the field of battle of AIDS, a battlefield whose faces continue to change as the virus changes. We are - even on the battlefield of AIDS - still required by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us and to bless those who curse us and to pray for those who abuse us. That's just a part of the territory that comes with being who we are and the ministry we represent. We are to tell the truth - even to those who don't want to hear it - battling the oppression of bigotry and prejudice, ignorance and lies.
And even on that battlefield we have to remember that Jesus still tells us to - in the language so familiar to us - "turn the other cheek." We learned long ago do that as well. I wonder if we understand the importance, the how and why we are to do that?
At the time of Jesus this was a fairly radical concept. The type of slap on the cheek of which he spoke was the backhand slap that a person of social status gives to an inferior. Turning the other cheek meant that the person who slapped you could not then backhand you again. If that person wished to slap you again, they had to use the open palm - the type of slap given to an equal not a social inferior, not a victim. Contrary to misconception, Jesus was not telling anyone to lie down and become a door mat!
But we are also guided and directed by another part of the Gospel.the 25th Chapter of Matthew's account of Jesus' ministry. We are to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, water the thirsty, tend the sick and visit those in prison. And we have been advised that our failure to do these things for the least among us represents our failure to do them for God.
Furthermore, if we are prone to take such things literally, our failure to do these things will have us standing with the goats on judgment day, waiting to be cast into eternal hellfire!
My challenge to us is that we never forget why we gather, what we represent, who we serve and who might depend on us. We will still have enemies.and we will love them. There will still be those who hate us.and we will do good to them. Some will abuse us..and we will pray for them. Others will curse us..and we will bless them. We will continue to tell the truth to those who don't want to hear it, whether the truth is about who is getting the virus and how or whether the truth is about pushing forward with a message of hope in the face of resistance. We will continue to tend to the sick and dying, to provide food, clothing, water and shelter to those without and we will continue to visit those in prison. We will hold the hands of not just the dying, but of the living as well - and we will honor the fact that the hands and faces may not always look the same from year to year. We will offer the other cheek, but as equals of those who would slap it.
Why??? Because we know the Gospel Imperative, whether in the age of AIDS or any age: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And by the grace and patience and perseverance of God, we don't look for exceptions to that simple rule.
NEAC Board Meeting
January 15, 2005
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