"What therefore God has joined together, let no one put asunder." Mark 10:9

A Sermon for Beacon of Hope AIDS Ministry, Good Shepherd, Burke Virginia

National Day of Prayer for People with HIV/AIDS – October 8, 2000

the Rev’d Canon Elizabeth Kaeton, The Oasis, Newark, NJ

(Sung) Jesus he died on Calvary Street. Nails in his hands and nails in his feet. Mary she rocked him a little baby to sleep. But they left him to die like a tramp on the street.

I offer these words of meditation on the Holy Word of Scripture, in the name of God, whose name is Love, whose name for us is Beloved, whose gift to us is eternal life. Amen.

Well, there it is then: Divorce and AIDS. Now, in truth, your rector offered me the opportunity to preach on my lesson of choice. I thought that a very generous offer from what I had stereotyped in my mind as a conservative – if not traditional– priest in a Southern suburban congregation. I thought he was just being gracious. Then I read the lessons for today, and I laughed out loud. Indeed, by the third round of trying to preach from this text, I almost picked up the phone and called Larry and cried "uncle!" Does God have a sense of humor or what?

Of all times to have to confront these hard words from the lips of Jesus about marriage and divorce it would have to be on the National Day of Prayer for People With AIDS! And, in many dioceses around the nation, this is also Solidarity Sunday – an observance by people of faith on the second anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepherd to end Hate Crimes based on one’s race, ethnicity, gender, religious preference or sexual orientation.

The biblical fundamentalist is secretly smiling out there, somewhere, praising the work of Divine Providence for providing a word of "normalcy" in the discussion about a disease which has been seen as Divine Punishment for behavior which has strayed outside the bounds of "normalcy." And, I suppose that, on the surface of things, that’s exactly what it looks like, doesn’t it? Well, I suspect if we just stayed on the surface of things, many of the people who have known the tragedy of divorce in their lives would be squirming in their seats right now, being so harshly judged by Jesus, himself.

I invite you to come with me and make the journey a little more deeply into the words of Holy Scripture, below the rigid interpretations and the imposition of harsh judgements. Let’s follow this Jesus, this revolutionary Rabbi from the rag-tag city of Nazareth in Galilee, who dares to interpret the sacred words of Moses for the Pharisees of his day and in his time. Let us be witnesses to what happens when the Word of God is broken open and the Spirit of God is liberated from the imprisonment in the human understanding and interpretation of God’s law and rules. Let us be clear about the consequences of such behavior and action.

(Sung) Jesus he died on Calvary Street. Nails in his hands and nails in his feet. Mary she rocked him a little baby to sleep. But they left him to die like a tramp on the street.

That old Peter, Paul and Mary song kept haunting me as I prayed over these scriptures. I hadn’t thought about it for years, but it kept coming back to me as I sat in my rocking chair, bible in my lap, like the buzzing of that last annoying fly who is too dumb to know that summer has ended, having a final bit of fun before the cold of Autumn finally settles in to stay.

The song speaks to the humanity of Jesus. I think that is precisely what we are witnessing in this passage from Mark’s gospel – the humanity of our Divine Lord. Jesus was always being tested by the Pharisees in matters of the Law, but this time Jesus in on his way to Jerusalem, and the energy around him has begun to intensify, the way it always does when the end of the journey has begun to break on the horizon. Some of you who have worked with people with terminal illness know what I’m talking about.

He’s been giving hints for weeks now about his crucifixion, death and resurrection. Perhaps the Pharisees have heard him, or perhaps they only sense the constellation of the energy around him, and like sharks who instinctively know when blood is on the water, they move in for the attack. When they challenge him on divorce law, Jesus provides for them his interpretation that the Law was shaped to the character of those for whom it was written. "For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment," he tells them, a deft play on the hardness of heart with had been ascribed to the Pharaoh who had kept them in bondage in Egypt.

Jesus tells them that the only reason Moses wrote the divorce law was so that a man might be able to leave his wife and be free to take another woman as his wife. Never mind that the economic consequences of this were tantamount to slavery for the woman. Except that Jesus is mindful of this fact, which no doubt compels him to add, in a later verse, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her," and vise versa, even though this provision was not applicable to Palestine, where women could not sue for divorce.

I don’t believe that Jesus is making another hard and fast rule to replace an older, less just law. I believe there is a deeper message to these words of Jesus. Obviously, the Episcopal Church believes this, as well, or it would not have changed the National Church Canon Law on Divorce in the early 1970's to allow and sanction faithful Episcopalians to enter into divorce proceedings.

Jesus is calling us deeper, not to the letter of the law, but to the Spirit of the Law. "What therefore God has joined together, let NO ONE put asunder." The deeper, more difficult and demanding spirituality which Jesus is calling us to is this: Sometimes, in order to be faithful to the Spirit of the Law, you have to break the words of the law.

I can not think of anything in our modern time which has called us to explore the depth of truth of this spiritual lesson than the tragedy and pain which are at the bottom of what is now this world-wide pandemic known as AIDS.

Oh, at this point, I could fill you with facts and figures about AIDS. I’ve been in this battle since 1983 and I’ve watched the statistical increase and the progression of this disease in a sort of numbed horror. Personally, I stopped counting when I lost my 50th friend to this disease. I thought if I continued, it would make me insane. Or, paralyzed. Or, both – like that hideous portrait "The Scream."

Though I have stopped counting, and my horror has been channeled into activism, my memory has not been effected. I remember. I remember well. And my memory is what leads me deep into the spirituality of Jesus who remembered the words which God spoke at the beginning of creation, "It is not good that humankind should be alone (Gen2:18a)."

One of the very first people I met in the very early days of the AIDS epidemic was a young man named Jimmy Mac. It was Boston, the summer of 1983. We were just moving from calling this strange and dreadful disease GRID – for Gay Related Immune Disease – to the less judgmental and more accurate AIDS – for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Mac was a 26 year old disc jockey at a local radio station – handsome, charming, full of life, convinced that he was going to beat this disease. He left his job at the station, one which he dearly loved, and poured himself into educational efforts. He went EVERYWHERE to speak about the disease – schools, libraries, civic clubs, churches. He jokingly referred to himself as "Boston’s first and only Poster Boy for AIDS." And, so it was.

Together, Jimmy and I "did the circuit" of AIDS education and activism for almost three years. He beamed proudly as I moved into wearing my clerical collar after ordination in 1986. I watched anxiously as he wasted away before my eyes, moving closer and closer to his "grand finale," as he called it, adding "It will be my version of the Last Tango in Paris." Little did I know that I would be called upon to be his partner.

The last time I saw Jimmy alive was at Mass General Hospital. He had contracted Pneumocystis Pneumonia – something which, in those days, actually killed people. Seems strange, now, almost 15 years later, when this diagnosis is a routine event with even more routine treatment. In those days, it was catastrophic, and the hospitals were pretty strict about visiting policies.

Jimmy was kept in strict isolation in a private room at the end of the hall. In order to go into the room, one had to put on a paper gown, a paper hat, paper boots over one’s shoes, and, of course, plastic gloves. Never to be undone by such a hideous insult to humanity – his and mine – Jimmy refused to sacrifice his sense of humor, "Euwww!" he whispered loudly as I walked into his room. "Girl, you are a mess! Look at you! You’re gloves don’t match your shoes!"

We talked for a bit. We cried some. Sharing news and stories and memories brought some laughter as well as tears. When it was near time to go, I offered to pray with him. That’s when the fullness of reality came crashing in on our illusions of safety and control, and the weight of it crushed Jimmy’s chest and squeezed out a loud sob from the depths of his soul.

"Oh, baby, baby," he sobbed, "I wouldn’t be so scared if I didn’t feel so alone. God! I feel so alone." I instinctively moved my hand to his face to wipe his tears, only to find the immediate annoyance of my plastic glove. I grimaced and then moved to kiss his forehead, only to find the simple tenderness of that human act inhibited by my mask.

It suddenly came to me why Jimmy felt so alone. He hadn’t felt a human touch – hadn’t seen the fullness of a human face – in weeks. The hospital rules, designed more to protect his severely impaired immune system from further infection than anything with which he might jeopardize the health of his visitor, were an exacerbation of this dreadful loneliness.

Imagine, living in a world devoid of the fullness of human presence! Imagine dying in a world denied of human touch! The thought of denying the fullness of the human experience to one whom God had made for a little while just a little lower than the angels – to one who would, in just a little while, return to God on the wings of angels – made my heart break with sadness. God said, "It is not good that humankind should be alone."

"Please," Jimmy pleaded in a hoarse whisper. "Please, just touch me. Just this once. One last time before I go. Please?" In the midst of my tears, and from my broken heart, the Spirit whispered: "Sometimes, in order to be faithful to the Spirit of the Law, you have to break the words of the law." Instantly, I knew what must be done. Even though I am a nurse. Even though I, better than most, understood the hospital rules and why they were written. Even though I knew that I might have to pay the consequences of my infraction. Even in spite of all these things, I knew what must be done.

Pulling off my gloves and then my mask, I climbed into bed with Jimmy and took him in my arms. I found myself kissing his head and his face, and rocking him gently, I found myself singing the words of this old folk song,

He was somebody’s brother, he was some father’s son. He preached and

he healed and he loved everyone. Mary she rocked him, a little baby to sleep.

But they left him to die like, a tramp on the street.

When I left him, Jimmy was fast asleep, a peaceful – no serene! – look on his face. When I was told a few hours later that he had died, my first thought was a strange one. I found that I was a little disappointed that we hadn’t been caught in our act of subversion. In that moment, I realized why the crucifixion of Christ is called his "passion." I searched myself and found that I was willing to pay the cost of Love. Of ‘Taking A Chance On Love’ – for love. Of breaking a few well-intended rules in the name of ‘Love Divine all Loves Excelling’.

No matter whether you are talking about divorce, or blessing of people who live outside the bonds of marriage, or AIDS, or the Viet Nam War, or the ordination of women, or any other ‘controversial issue du jour’ which seems to be, at one time or another, the cause of the ‘crisis in the church,’ the gospel truth is this: The divinity of Jesus makes no sense without the humanity of Jesus, and "that which God has brought together let no one put asunder."

The limits of our humanity make no sense without occasional glimpses at the possibility of our divinity, and "that which God has brought together let no one put asunder."

For surely, "God is not concerned with angels, but with the descendants of Abraham and Sara," and so God robed in human flesh the brightest and best angel in all of heaven, God’s Only Child, who was named Jesus, "so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God – and that which God has brought together let no one put asunder."

This is the word and the Spirit of the Law of God. And, let all God’s children say, Amen.

(Sung) Jesus he died on Calvary Street. Nails in his hands and nails in his feet. Mary she rocked him a little baby to sleep. But they left him to die like, a tramp on the street. Amen.


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