(This is the text of the homily I gave at the interfaith World AIDS Day service at Grace United Methodist Church in Billings last night. The scripture readings were from Isaiah 43 and psalm 22)
I remember when World AIDS Day was different than it is now.
I remember when we gathered in the darkness with candles and listened to words and music that were designed to comfort- but we all knew that comfort was a luxury we couldn’t afford. We were terrified.
We remembered the dead. We hugged the living, and the very sick. We held the hands of people who couldn’t tell their own families that they had lost or were going to lose the most important person in their life. We cried.
Our grief and fear were the engines that drove us back then. We were sick of burying our friends. We were tired of trying to defend the ways we struggled to love. We were working hard to be responsible- to make safe sex cool. We fought to get programs and found organizations that would take care of the often very simple needs that the government couldn’t- or wouldn’t. And the fear- some of you can remember can’t you? It was an entity that lived in our midst, a specter of doom that we couldn’t shake.
Because the work seemed to be so overwhelming and the fear, shame and hopelessness we fought was exhausting, we needed our sorrowful mothers, our indignant sisters and our caring brothers, fathers and friends to carry us. And carry us they did- often at great risk to their personal livelihoods and professional credibility.
There are people still doing this work because they remember the pain, remember the fear, and remember the exhaustion echoed in the psalm we heard tonight:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
We remember. Especially tonight, we remember. We remember that we never want to see it again.
That is the purpose of memory. The pain of those memories has become our strength.
This is our Seder, I daresay our Holocaust.
Only, in this we are not bound together by race, by religion, by nation or even by faith. I think we are bound together by our naked humanity, our compassion, our memory and our hope.
Isaiah gives voice to the hope we share- and not in grand or exalted words, in very simple words actually.
“Do not fear. I have called you by name. You are precious in my sight. I love you.”
Much like Isaiah, John Donne’s meditations on life, death and salvation in what have come to be known as the Holy Sonnets, show the majesty and humility in the ordinary. And like Isaiah, he works to remind us of a perspective that relies on the struggle of faith.
His familiar lines echo in our world today, where we can instantly see war and famine and suffering- even from opposite places on the globe- places that we have no context for, places that we can only imagine, spurred by the small glimpse on our television or computer screens. The question he asks more than 400 years ago, is still relevant today- Why do we fear?
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy’or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.
Death has only the power we give it. Now life, that’s the true power here. And the life that lives not only for itself, but also for the greater good. Or, as Donne would say, for the greater God.
This is the movement from the psalmist to Isaiah- despair gives way to the reality of God’s infinite love, protection and mercy.
The psalmist gives voice to the doubts and grief brought on by suffering.
Isaiah gives voice to the promise of love, of life, of joy brought on by seeing life as precious, and seeing our own perception as limited.
In short, these two proclamations give us the breadth of human experience. It would be easy to reflect on the pain, the suffering, the agony and the fear. But I think that what we need right now is to celebrate the spirit of life, of courage, of hope.
I think that’s what brings us here tonight.
We are here because we all believe that coming together lessens our pain, strengthens our resolve and renews our courage. We know that HIV is still infecting Montanans- too many. They are often young, they are Native American, and women. Many are not being tested because of the fear, the stigma and still more fear.
We are here because we need the habit of coming together. We need to be each other’s memory. We need to remember that we are not alone. To remind one another when we forget. To comfort one another when we are sad, to celebrate with one another when there is joy. To gather strength in the face of difficulty. To counter ignorance and fear with the truth and with compassion.
To be here now. To show up.
Woody Allen said “80 percent of success is showing up.” I think he had something there.
As a therapist, sometimes the only thing I can do for someone is to show up. To be there with them. To quietly see them for who they are- a precious person who may be lost in the confusion of pain and fear. And who won’t always be lost. Especially if they have someone to join them on the journey out.
It’s not about solving a problem or fixing anything.
It’s about being present and being awake.
My being present involves something a little different than it used to. HIV lives with me. It is a guest in my house. It is the guest I never openly invited, but nonetheless it sits in my living room, it gets into my refrigerator, hogs the bathroom and often makes me just want to go to bed and stay there.
When I was first told I had this “intruder” in my house, I felt strange. Somewhere between elation and anger. I really can’t be more specific. I do remember thinking I had to slow down. I had to stop and sit down and wrap my head around this.
I had to decide what to do. And for me, this was serious. This was the decision that was going to shape the rest of my life. I had to decide how I was going to treat this uninvited guest.
For me there were only two options: I could either hate it, or I could love it.
If I hated it, I would live my life as an angry man, always disappointed, always suffering, always asking “why me?”, never seeing truth, beauty or kindness. I would be causing most of my own suffering.
If I loved it, I would be free.
It was that simple.
And, really, what was not to love? This is my reality. Truth is love. Hate is suffering. And HIV is my reality. The sooner I make friends with it, the sooner I find out what it has to teach me, the sooner my own salvation becomes obvious. This is simply a virus, doing its job. It is not a moral judgment, or a sign of anything but reality.
It is often simply a microscopic sign of the reality that human beings will do almost anything to be loved.
So, I love my little guest. I accept my reality. To be honest, I’m grateful for him. (I’m not being sexist, it’s just easier to think of the virus as him, somehow) Without this home invader, I think it would have taken me a lot longer to wake up. I would have had a longer, more painful road to deeper awareness. I wouldn’t have so easily seen the love that surrounds me every day. I wouldn’t have been able to put up with all of the harsh judgments that people with HIV have to put up with.
I guess I see my role as very simple: I’m here to teach some people how to love better. If they can overcome their prejudice and love me, the gay, HIV+ former priest- they can love anybody!
And I get to learn how to love better in return.
I think there are three great reasons to gather here tonight: To remember, to be present with one another, and to choose love instead of hate. That’s the lesson.
But you get to decide how to love- that’s the human prerogative in all this. You get to decide how to use your gifts, how to stand up to ignorance, how to offer your heart in the face of anger and hatred.
From the psalmist to Isaiah, to John Donne to you and me here in this place the lesson is being passed down.
“Death, be not proud” because, Death, you are not the greatest thing there is.
The God who loves me is always here, even if, like the psalmist, I have my doubts. God is the one saying “I have called you by name, you are mine. I love you and the world is not big enough to contain that love.”
If we listen closely, we can hear the words of God in our own hearts: “Always choose love, even when it’s hard. I promise you will never regret it.”
Tonight, let’s vow to pay attention to that voice.
Even when it’s hard.