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by Drew Cottle
Advent 1, Year C; Jeremiah 33: 14-16
November 30, 1997
Joy United Methodist Church, Joy, TX
The story in this sermon is fictional but based on this pastor's experiences with people with AIDS and their loved ones.
Christmases weren't always this hard. There were so many things that John Matthew didn't want to be reminded of. There was the fact that he never seemed to have enough money to be able to get the presents he wanted to give his friends. The scarf for his friend Steve, who always complained of a sore throat. The gloves for Joshua, who played piano so wonderfully. The box of nicotine patches for Luke, who John Matthew felt only needed that little final push to stop smoking after all these years.
Small gifts, he knew, but now that he wasn't working, he couldn't afford anything more than just the basics: rent, heat, food, gas. He even had the perfect gift for his old boss, the one who fired him so unfairly. He would get old Mr. Herrod, tyrant that he was, a little teddy bear. On that bear would be a red ribbon. Herrod would probably toss the bear out after putting rubber gloves on, but there was always the chance he wouldn't, and he would always have a reminder that he had fired someone just because they had AIDS.
John Matthew had known he had had it for five years now. It was quite a shock, but it was even more of one to his partner, Mark. After the operation Mark had had for his appendix, he never thought that he would need an AIDS test. Everyone was told that the blood supply in the US was safe. The blood they needed for Mark's operation was just one of those tiny leftover percentages, one or two percent, of which everyone forgets about, always concentrating on the success of 99 or 98 percent. Mark had been dead and buried for four years, but John Matthew never was used to facing Christmas without him.
There was the fact that those friends he had, the ones he couldn't afford to buy gifts for, had become his family after all these years, because his mother and father had told him he should never come home again. That had been twenty years ago, right after he had fallen in love with Mark. For a long time, that had been just fine with both Mark and John Matthew. Why go somewhere where you were not accepted as a child of God? But before Mark had died, they had begun to miss John Matthew's parents, and were trying to reach out through John Matthew's sister, who was a minister. John Matthew's sister had officiated at Mark's funeral, in fact. John Matthew's parents had sent flowers, but didn't go. Even sending the flowers had been a step, or so John Matthew preferred to think.
After the funeral four years ago, John Matthew had begun attending his sister's church. It was really a combination of reasons. By going to her church, he could stay in contact with family. He could learn indirectly through her what was going on in their parents' lives. He hoped they asked about him as much as he asked about them, but he was too scared to ask.
He also attended her church because of all of his friends who did, too. Yes, some of the church's members were gay, but not all. His best friend was a woman named Gail who had three kids and a husband of 20 years. In fact, they discovered in talking one time that they had met the same week that John Matthew and Mark had. John Matthew and Gail worked together on the church's finances, and had become friends. She knew of his HIV status. She knew of his parents' refusal to see him. She knew of Mark's death, and had been with John Matthew to Mark's grave a few times. He had been to Thanksgiving at their house, they had been to his Christmas open houses. Through her, the church had gotten to know him, and he had been able to use the talents that God had given him in a loving community.
You see, there was also a more personal reason John Matthew attended church. John Matthew had always been Christian. He believed that he was saved by the grace of God, and was always working toward the Christian perfection that all Christians needed to work for. John Matthew believed that Christ had died for his sins, too. He loved the church music, he loved the Bible. He read it every day. He had gotten a copy of the church's lectionary from his sister, and followed it. Sometimes he would call her with questions about the text, or what some commentator had said. She was always impressed with his questions, and they always seemed to bring out something in the text she had not seen as she prepared her sermons.
Now, this year, she heard from him even more because he was not working. It was the week before the first Sunday of Advent, and he showed up two hours early for lunch. He said that he wanted to spend some time with her library. So she worked at her desk and he worked at a card table set up in her office. She would reach for a commentary, often to find him already reading it.
They got to talking about the Jeremiah passage for the week. To her, with her seminary training, the text was full of the hope that Israel had, even in the midst of the coming Babylonian invasion. In her commentaries, the scholars placed this story, and all of chapter 23, in the time when the Babylonians were coming, but had not yet conquered Israel. Israel, however, knew that its conquest was a matter of time, and were hopeful for signs of its eventual deliverance. Since it's greatest kings were David and Solomon, they expected their deliverance to be from their descendants. To John Matthew, however, it sounded like Jeremiah was talking about the coming of Christ. After all, Jesus is supposed to be out of the line of David, and he is the deliverer. And the church has placed this text at the first week of advent, as the church waits and prepares itself for the coming birth of Christ. He thought about it, and got quiet. He stopped reading, and just stared off into nothingness. He began to tear up. She knew that it was time to get him out in the sunlight, walking around. He always felt better when he wasn't brooding on everything that had happened to him. Time for lunch.
At lunch, he began asking about hope. There was anger in his voice. The passage promises a righteous branch that will spring up. He asks "where is that hope"? Where is it for me? I am cut off from my parents. I have friends dying around me. My one true love died a horrible and lingering death. I am infected with a killing disease, myself! I am here for Christ; where is he for me? Why must my world reject me because of my sexual orientation? Why did God create me this way, if I am to be in such pain? Where is the hope?
His sister was a wise pastor. She knew that she would never be able to answer his questions. So she just listened to him vent, and slowly ate her salad.
When he sounded like he had finished, she stayed quiet for a while. Then, she asked him if he remembered when they were little, she skinned her knee, and he came out and pulled her back to the house in his little red Radio Flyer wagon? Did she remember how his friends kept lasagna and meatloaf in the fridge for three months after Mark had died? How he had helped her study night after night when she was in seminary? How the guy at the pharmacy would usually slip in a few extra days of medicine for him after he lost his job?
All of those kindnesses, she said, were acts of hope. They were acts that showed that love in people's hearts can never be completely broken. And where there is love, there is hope. You're right: the righteous branch that was to spring up has sprung, already. We're two thousand years later, and people still seem cruel. God sometimes seems as cruel as the trials of Job with hall of his boils and dead sons and daughters, all at God's hand. The sprout of David's tree has sprung, and what good did it do?
What good did it do? It gave us all a chance to be redeemed. Not just a chosen people of a certain kind. All of us. But that redemption is not instant, and it isn't freely given. Freely offered, but we have to be the ones who make ourselves able to accept it. And that takes time. Time to think, time to prepare, and time to be silent. The branch has sprouted, and still grows. A tree never stops growing: there is always potential in a tree branch. Yes, she tells her brother, you have been through a lot of stuff I can't imagine. The branch hasn't finished growing yet. You are the unfortunate recipient of the actions of a lot of immature sprouts. Our call is to bring those sprouts to grow in love, in the Christ that we believe has come, and is not here yet. Remember your friendship with Gail and her family, Thanksgivings at their house, when you can't come to Mom and Dad's? Your chosen family that you can't buy gifts for this year? Aren't they signs of a coming righteousness? So which do you concentrate on? The Christ who came and failed, or the Christ who is always coming? The Christ we recognize each Advent?
Christmases weren't always this hard. There were many things that John Matthew didn't want to be reminded of. But there were a lot of things that he loved to remember. He remembered the love and acceptance that his sister gave him, just as he was. There was the love he had shared with a loving partner. There was the wonderful friendship he had with a loving Christian woman and her family. There was the love he felt for a church that knew him as he was, and accepted him with joy. And there was the love of God in his heart, that was there because of the birth of a little boy. A little boy who was born a long time ago, and who hasn't been born yet.
Send email to Drew at firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: (bio updated 05/04/00) Drew Cottle is serving as pastor at Trenton United Methodist Church. He is a '92 Deacon in the North Texas Conference. Until his ordination, his church membership was through Northaven UMC in Dallas, which is a member of the Reconciling Congregation Program. He is married, a native of Napa, CA and a naturalized native of Newark, DE. He says, "Yes, I have two home towns. You can leave your heart in more than one place!"