Lord, If You Choose, You Can: An Advent Sermon for World AIDS Day
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean." Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. (Mark 1:40-45, NRSV)
Lord, if you choose, incline your ear to us, for we have something we need to talk to you about. We have something we need your help with. We have something we need to ask you. Your word says that with persistence we have the ability to get what we need. You said if we ask it will be given to us; if we search, we will find; if we knock the door will be opened to us. Lord, if you choose, you can. Amen.
I like the way the Gospel according to Mark starts off in Chapter 1. The first sentence says, "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Period! I wish we could pick up the newspaper every morning to see a breaking news headline or the first sentence of a newspaper article start out with "The beginning of the good news is ..." I'll leave it up to you to complete the headline or the sentence.
But today's good news is that we just stepped into the Season of Advent, where we count down four weeks until Christmas Day, the day we remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a time in the church calendar year during which we reflect on where we are and how we got to where we are. It is a time for us to evaluate whether where we are is where we need to continue to be. During Advent we have the opportunity to expect something new, make some different choices that could birth new life, if we choose. The process of choosing places us in a position to select from a number of possible alternatives. To do so can be scary because we may not be too sure what the result of that choosing will bring to our lives. We hope, don't we? We hope that whatever we choose will give us what we need for life.
The Greek word for "choose" is "eklegomai,"which means to single out, to pick out for oneself, to declare something beyond the grasp of our minds understanding or imagination. Choosing is a judgment call, and whether we want to admit it or not, we make judgment calls every single day.
Mark 1:40-45 tells us that one day a leper came to Jesus and not only began to beg but knelt before Jesus and said, "If you choose, you can make me clean." He was hoping for a new life. In the days of antiquity, lepers were not supposed to approach someone who did not have leprosy. Leprosy is a disease of the skin characterized by sores and boils, and it was attributed to a divine curse that was deemed contagious. Lepers were considered unclean and were to dress in torn clothes and warn others not to come close. Societies were organized around distinctions between those who were deemed clean and unclean, holy and unholy. People considered unclean or contaminated were cut off from society and considered unholy. They were ostracized because people in society chose to reject, isolate and stigmatize them. The legal tradition held that only a priest had the authority to declare a leper clean or unclean. This meant that the leper had to be healed first before he or she could see the priest to be declared uncontaminated.
I can imagine how lonely and alienated our leper felt, how much he wanted to interact with the rest of society, maybe with his family and friends, maybe to worship in the temple, as he did before. I can feel his desperate need to talk to someone who wouldn't say, "Get away from me! You are dirty, diseased and contaminated." I can sense that he wanted a touch, a smile, an embrace, someone to say, "In spite of where you are and what you have, I choose to connect with you, interact with you, support you; I do choose."
With society's constraints on a leper's interaction with those who did not have leprosy, it was a bold undertaking for our leper in today's lesson to choose to come close to Jesus and declare that Jesus could make him clean if he chose to. It was an act of faith. Traditionally, anyone who touched someone with leprosy was deemed unclean. But Jesus defied the rules of tradition and the norms of society. With outstretched hands, he touched the leper and said, "I do choose. Be made clean." The text then tells us that the leprosy left him and he was made clean.
Who are like lepers in our society today, ostracized, marginalized, rejected, isolated, stigmatized, deemed untouchable? Are they in your neighborhood? On your job? At your school? In your church? If they are, how do you treat them? How do you interact with them? Do you choose to approach them, to reach out and touch them? Do you feel you are like the leper?
In 1984, a woman who was addicted to drugs and living in Las Vegas, Nev., abandoned her baby girl at a hospital shortly after she gave birth to her. The baby was moved to a county-run temporary children's facility until she could be placed in a foster home and eventually adopted. After several weeks the baby was placed with a couple who had four adopted children and had experience caring for foster babies who were born addicted to drugs. The couple cared for the baby until it was time to take her to an adoption fair, where the couple decided to adopt the baby themselves. They named her Hydeia, which in Swahili means "again."
Hydeia was chronically ill. She caught the chickenpox several times and had frequent respiratory infections. Her parents did not understand why she was so ill. Then in 1988 on New Year's Day, Hydeia's parents heard a news story about a child born in Las Vegas who was believed to be the first acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) baby. Hydeia's parents did not realize it could be her until they heard four months later that the AIDS baby shared Hydeia's biological mother.
Hydeia's adopted family immediately got tested for AIDS, but only Hydeia came back positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). With the medical world's limited understanding of HIV at that time, Hydeia's parents were told that there was no treatment for Hydeia and that she would probably not live past the age of 5. By the time Hydeia turned 5 she had full blown AIDS.
Like leprosy, AIDS in the 1980s and early 1990s was a feared disease. It still is. While Hydeia was growing up her parents tried their best to provide Hydeia with a positive image of herself despite how HIV/AIDS was being depicted and despite how schools rejected, isolated and stigmatized her after learning of her diagnosis. One teacher sprayed bleach in Hydeia's face after she sneezed in class.
Eventually Hydeia was homeschooled. Her mother refused to be silent about HIV/AIDS. She chose to speak publicly about it, then stepped aside and let Hydeia to speak for herself about her life with AIDS. "I am the future," said Hydeia at a national party convention, "and I have AIDS."
Like Jesus, Hydeia's parents said, "I do choose." They chose to adopt her, touch and cradle her, to love and nurture her, to inspire and encourage her to live, love and laugh and to speak words of life. They chose to advocate for her and others with AIDS. They chose to listen to her and cultivate her voice. Hydeia was not supposed to live beyond the age of 5. But Hydeia lives. She lives as a 26-year-old woman with AIDS and as an AIDS spokesperson, educator and activist.
On December 1 we commemorate World AIDS Day to remember the more than 33.3 million people living with AIDS around the world, 2.5 million of whom are children. Will you choose to remember?
Balm in Gilead Inc., a U.S. organization providing technical support to faith-based institutions providing health education and disease prevention to African-American and African congregations where rates of HIV/AIDS are disproportionately higher, states, "Every nine and half minutes, someone in the United States becomes infected with HIV. This means, during our weekly two-hour worship service, another 13 people become infected with the virus that causes AIDS, an incurable disease. While we are in worship service, someone's mother or father, son or daughter, friend or neighbor, or congregation member becomes one of the more than 56,000 Americans infected with HIV each year. ... According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 1 in 16 African-American men and 1 in 30 African American women will become infected with HIV in their lifetimes."
Beyond remembering, how will you respond to someone who, like the leper, says, "If you choose, you can make me clean." Will you, like Jesus, stretch out your hand, touch that person and say, "I do choose. Be made clean." Or will you find it difficult to see how whole the person is despite his or her disease?
This is not a request for you to declare someone's disease gone. Our text is inviting us to see what a touch can do, what speaking words of life can do in someone who may be ill, who may have a diagnosed curable or incurable disease, or who may be living with HIV/AIDS.
Will you choose to reach out and touch someone you have been told is untouchable? Will you choose to extend time and attention to someone you have been told does not deserve your time and attention? How will you choose to see him or her? Will you choose to see beyond his or her sickness or disease? What will prevent you from seeing the person as clean?
With excitement about his healing and feeling restored to the larger community, the leper began to spread what he believed was some very good news: he had been made clean. For the leper, Jesus' healing power was more than enough, even though Jesus instructed the leper to go to the priest to be examined, to have the rites of purification or ritual cleansing performed so he could be declared clean, which was the legal custom for someone labeled unclean to go through who wanted to be reintegrated into society.
Jesus wanted the leper to show the priests that the leper had received divine healing, not from him specifically, because he told the leper not to say anything to anyone about what he had done. It was about the priests seeing that God's grace brings healing and closes the gap between what they deemed holy and unclean. The leper, on the other hand, wanted the people in his community to know that the reign of God was not only coming but was closer than they thought.
The blaring headlines prevented Jesus from going into town openly, so he stayed out in the country, where people came from every quarter to see him. They came not to see if Jesus had become contaminated by the leper but to see something different, something new. They wanted their circumstances to change. They wanted a new birth, a new beginning, a new way of seeing themselves, and they wanted others to see them beyond their illness or disease. So I imagine that they stood before Jesus and said, "Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean" as they waited for Jesus' outstretched hand of love to touch and restore them with a response of "I do choose. Be made clean."
"Lord, if you choose, you can," is the beginning of some good news. Amen.
The Rev. Yvette D. Wilson, MA, JD, MDiv is the associate dean for student life and assistant director of recruitment at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.