An Expectant Hope

Bob Lawrence
December 2, 2008

PSR student Bob Lawrence delivers the sermon commemorating World AIDS Day.

An Expectant Hope

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Luke 1:26-38

We gather here this morning between the 1st and 2nd Sundays of Advent, a time of expectation and hope in the anticipated coming of the Christ-child, Emmanuel, God with us. We are also gathered on the day after World AIDS Day. Twenty years ago, the United Nations set aside the 1st of December as a day of international recognition of the struggle with HIV/AIDS, a disease that had only recently been identified, yet one which was poised to threaten the whole of humanity. On this, the 20th anniversary of World AIDS Day, we are dealing with a pandemic of unparalleled proportions. By the end of this decade, the World Health Organization estimates that AIDS will be the leading cause of disease-related death in all of human history, outstripping the Black Plague of the Middle Ages, and the Spanish Flu epidemic in the early 20th century. According to the World Health Organization, AIDS is one of the leading causes of death on every inhabited continent of Earth; women are now just as likely to be infected with HIV as men; outside of sub-Saharan Africa, HIV disproportionately affects people who inject drugs, men who have sex with men, and sex workers; it has nearly obliterated an entire generation in sub-Saharan Africa. It is estimated that 33 million people are currently living with HIV, and 25 million people have already died, for a total of 58 million people infected with or dead from HIV. This is nearly 20% of the entire population of the USA; it is approximately the same number of people living in the entire Western portion of the USA; roughly equal to every man, woman and child living west of the Rocky Mountains. In light of such mind-numbing figures, how can we, as people of faith, embody a hope that brings Advent into dialogue with one of the gravest threats to human existence? I believe Mary can serve as an ideal starting point for such a dialogue.

Before I go any further, let me admit that, as a confirmed Protestant, the notion of honoring Mary as anything other than the vessel through which God became incarnate is a bit uncomfortable for me. But, if my education here at PSR has taught me anything, it is that these uncomfortable places are frequently the best places for the Spirit of God to reach me.

Reading this morning’s scripture passage with a hermeneutic of World AIDS Day, it does not take an excessive amount of exegesis to uncover the parallels between the story of Mary and the story of HIV/AIDS. The most striking parallel involves the notion of “virgin.” As just about everyone in this room has learned from either Mary Ann Tolbert or Benny Liew, or, simply by reading the commentary in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, the word translated as “virgin” in this account would be more accurately translated as “a young girl of marriageable age who was not yet married.” Regardless of the translation of that word, or the theological issue of whether or not Mary was a virgin in our current understanding, the important thing to notice is Mary’s response to the angel telling her she will “conceive in your womb”. After the angel explains what is to happen, Mary mentions her virginity as the reason this could not be possible. As we learn later on in the account of Joseph’s response to these events, Mary’s virginity was not only an issue of reproductive probability (let us remember that the understanding of a woman’s role in reproduction was significantly different at the time of our story in comparison to today), but it was also an issue of stigma. Mary becoming pregnant before her marriage to Joseph was a crime that bore significant social consequences.

Mary was set to face tremendous stigma from her community by presenting herself as a woman who had obviously been involved in a sexual experience not condoned by her society. Whether she and Joseph had pre-marital relations, or whether she was raped by a Roman soldier, or whether the Spirit of God snuck into her womb in the middle of the night, the fact is that Mary’s pregnancy was a source of extreme stigma.

This is not unlike the issues facing most people living with HIV. Most of the people infected with HIV face overwhelming stigma in their communities. For many, it is a sign that, like Mary, one has been involved in a sexual experience not condoned by society. Even in places where HIV is acknowledged to be transmitted through normative sexual relations, there is tremendous stigma that someone has behaved inappropriately in order to become infected with HIV in the first place. And speaking of “virgin”, what about the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of young men of marriageable age who are not married and yet have been infected with HIV?

What does the angel Gabriel say when Mary offers her “non-conformity” as a reason why this is not possible? After explaining the process rather simply, then offering the example of Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, the angel concludes with “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Mary, stuck in the worldview of “probability” tries to explain to the angel why he is mistaken. The angel, leading Mary into a worldview of “possibility”, explains that all things are possible with God.

At this juncture, I would like to make a leap over to the realm of theology. I guess you might consider this my “interdisciplinary approach to AIDS and Advent.” The notion that “nothing will be impossible with God” has led to what Charles Hartshorne (credited with translating Alfred North Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” into a theology that has become known as “process theology”) called traditional theology’s greatest falsehood and “a piece of unconscious blasphemy”. He was talking about the traditional understanding of omnipotence. As one who has been living with HIV in my own body for over 25 years, and as one who has lived through a period in the life of MCC/SF referred to as “the AIDS years”, a period in which, on average, one man affiliated with that congregation died every week of every year for 10 very long years, I can assure you that the traditional notion of God’s omnipotence falls flat and in sharp dissonance with the realities of my life. An omnipotent God who sat idly by while nearly an entire generation of my gay brothers was wiped off the face of the earth, or while 58 million people became infected with a disease spread, in most cases, by the most intimate of expressions of love, is not, in my mind, a God worthy of my worship. However, process theology offers an understanding of the phrase “For nothing will be impossible with God” that still allows for the realities of AIDS; it is called “The Extensive Continuum”. The Extensive Continuum contains all the possibilities, past and present, of all actions of all aspects of Creation. It is shaped by God’s initial aim; that which lures all of creation towards unlimited possibilities of creativity and diversity. In The Extensive Continuum, truly, all things are possible. It is *this* notion of the unlimited possibilities of God that allows for a recognition of the realities of pain, suffering, hope, Advent and AIDS.

When confronted with the Extensive Continuum, with the unlimited possibilities of God, with a new worldview based upon “possibility” not “probability”, Mary responds “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Or, using a common phrase from our time, “Bring it on!” A little bit later, it is Mary’s cousin Elizabeth who brings Mary’s statement into focus by saying “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

It is an awareness of the possibilities of God, rather than the probability of being ostracized by her community, that led Mary to be a willing participant in God’s incarnation. That same awareness is available to us today as we seek ways to bring the incarnation of God into sharper focus in a world struggling with the realities of HIV/AIDS. Most of us are already living with similar possibilities as we look at what brought us here in the first place. Was it the probability that we would be $50,000 in debt when we embarked on a career with one of the lowest earning potentials of any graduate degree? Or was it the possibility that we could help to live into a new world order? I stand here before you this morning basking in the possibility that I will finish the studies for my MDiv degree in one week, rather than focusing on the probability that I should have died 10 years ago.

We can, with deep integrity, offer our world a glimpse of the expectant hope of Advent as we deal with the realities of HIV/AIDS. As the religious leaders of tomorrow, we are called to do nothing less. Like Mary, we must focus on the possibilities of God rather than the probabilities by which society tries to limit us. Amen, so be it, Lord!

Beloved, we have spent time gathering ourselves in shared remembrance and honoring of those whose lives have been impacted by HIV/AIDS. We have begun to experience a sense of the hope of Advent in our personal struggles with HIV/AIDS. We have witnessed the on-going impact of HIV/AIDS as our candle lighters have highlighted the over 250 who have become newly infected, and the over 200 who have died while we sat here this morning. In response to the various lives we have honored this morning, I invite you to rise as you are able and join me in our call to action.

I invite you to open yourselves to the power and presence of the Holy One, as we respond to the issues of HIV/AIDS. Will you work to empower the people around you, like Mary, to live free of the stigma of society and live fully into the possibility of a life impregnated with the presence of God? If so, say, “We will.” Will you, carrying a vision of God’s possibilities, work to break down the stigmas that leave those living with HIV/AIDS hanging on the fringes of society? If so, say, “We will.” Will you work to create communities of hope in which all people are welcomed into God’s presence, whether they inject drugs, are men who have sex with men, are sex workers, or enjoy creative sexual expressions with people who are? If so, say, “We will.” Will you seek to create a new world order in which issues of self-esteem, societal position, age, gender, and sexual expression do not relegate one to the probability of infection with HIV? If so, say, “We will.” Let me assure you: the lives we have honored this morning are sacred; the stories we have shared are sacred; the commitments we just made are sacred. Therefore, do not be limited by the probabilities of death. Rather, go forth to help those impacted by HIV/AIDS claim the possibilities of a life spent believing that there “will be a fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord.” Go in peace… go in power… go!

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