Easter 6, 2016
Easter 6, 2016
I was very captivated by a news story I once read about a Baptist pastor from Virginia named William Lee, who during the height of the AIDS epidemic, made headlines because he refused to wear protective gloves when he visited his congregants who were dying of the disease, even though hospital protocol insisted that he do so. In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, when little was known about the disease, and when the fear of transmission was paralyzing for many people, Lee recalled thinking that people who were dying of AIDS needed to know that they were human, and touching them, holding their hands as they died, was one way he could do that. In an interview, Lee spoke about his motivation to forgo the gloves, saying, “I’m not reading the Harvard Medical Review or some theological magazine. These are people I know.” He went on to say, "I'm just not in the condemning business. My Jesus Christ was too merciful for that. He was touching lepers, so I can hug people."
I am always fascinated by the movement within the human spirit that allows us to overcome fear, despite the overwhelming cultural messaging that might convince us to cling to it. I see this same movement of the human spirit at play in my hometown of Cincinnati, lodged right in the epicenter of the heroin epidemic. A doctor named Judith Feinberg who specializes in infectious disease was horrified at how the rates of HIV and Hepatitis C were rising in correspondence with the increasing rates of I.V. drug use. Feinberg set out on a mission to bring a needle-exchange program to the city, where drug users could get clean needles and non-judgmental healthcare and referrals to treatment centers. Even though research shows that such programs not only curb the spread of infectious diseases, but also help people struggling with addiction to access the resources they need to get clean, Feinberg’s program was met with endless pushback from community members. Many people feared that these programs would enable drug users, and others took a “not in my backyard” position, not wanting to undertake the risk associated with having those people gather in their neighborhoods. Finally, after months of being rejected by neighborhood counsels and potential host sites, Reverend Paula Jackson, the Rector at an Episcopal Church in downtown Cincinnati, emailed Feinberg and offered the church’s parking lot as a site for the needle-exchange RV to do its work. A few months earlier, a parishioner at Jackson’s church had died of a heroin overdose, and she felt compelled to act. “We’re talking about our people. Anybody can be an addict,” said Rev. Jackson in an interview in the Wall Street Journal. Similarly to William Lee’s beloved congregants who were dying of AIDS, those people who others feared were people that Rev. Jackson knew and cared about.
Again, I am fascinated by tracing the movement of the spirit that allows William Lee to take off the glove and touch the person dying of AIDS, and that allows Paula Jackson to open her church’s space to the needle-exchange program despite the risks it might entail. Obviously personal relationships were at the heart of these two encounters, but I have to imagine that to some extent, faith played an important role in each of these stories, as well. Maybe William Lee didn’t have faith that he wouldn’t contract HIV by touching patients, and maybe Paula Jackson didn’t have faith that there would be no problems or pitfalls with the needle exchange. But it seems both were rooted in a sense of stability, and a security, that surpasses the changes and chances of this life, resting in God’s eternal changelessness, as the prayer goes. I think that in their actions, these folks echo Luther’s eloquent message from last week – that eternal life in Christ is not so much about security or certainty in the future, but instead it is about living without fear, in the face of uncertainty, in the here and now.
This pattern of overcoming fear in the face of uncertainty plays out many times in the gospels. When the birth of Jesus was first foretold to Mary by an angel, the words the angel spoke to her were these: “do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” So even before his birth, the narrative of Christ’s life is one of assurance and promise to those who are willing to believe what they cannot see, and further, to take risks based on that belief.
In the reading from John today, we hear part of Jesus’ farewell discourse to his friends, the disciples, on the night before his death. It seems to me that this scene could almost be read as a bookend to the Annunciation. Although we are now at the end of Jesus’ life rather than the beginning, like Mary, the disciples are uncertain of what’s to come. They are riddled with anxiety about the future and their place in it. Earlier in John’s gospel, Simon Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, where are you going?” and Jesus replies, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.” And after that, Thomas asks, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” and Jesus answers, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” The questions that the disciples raise not only point to the vulnerability of what might happen to Jesus’ body, but also the vulnerability of the body made up of Christ’s followers. What will happen to them when he is gone? They are grasping at concrete indications of what the world will be like when Jesus is gone, and they want Jesus to give them straightforward answers and timelines and turn-by-turn navigation, but he doesn’t. He simply assures them that if they love him, they should live without fear in the midst of uncertainty. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says, “and do not let them be afraid.”
In previous passages, Jesus’s words of assurance to the disciples are somewhat vague. They want to know what to expect, but can’t quite imagine it. But in tonight’s reading he offers them something a bit more precise; he tells them that when he leaves, the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, will be there to guide them on their way.
I admit that I don’t often think about the movement of the Holy Spirit in my life. I tend to experience the presence of Christ, and to wonder and pray about God’s will, more so than I contemplate or marvel at what the Holy Spirit is up to. However, in thinking back to William Lee or Paula Jackson I wonder if that moment of taking off the glove, or pressing “send” on the email to offer up the church parking lot, are moments when the Holy Spirit is at work. In a world riddled by fear – fear of physical danger, fear of rejection, fear of the consequences of speaking up or not speaking up – and in an ethically complex world where there rarely seems to be a clear “right answer,” it is helpful for me to think about the Holy Spirit as one of the ways that God’s love is revealed to us in the midst of uncertainty. The Spirit also, I think, serves to remind us that what God is doing in our lives, transforming fear into love all around us all the time, is far more beautiful than we can ever anticipate or even comprehend.
Just like William Lee said “those are my people. I will not leave them alone to die without knowing they are loved,” and just like Paula Jackson said “those are my people and I will not stand by as they are lost to addiction,” Jesus knows us, and loves us, and will never leave us alone. We are his people.
So whatever anxiety might be crowding your mind at this moment, however small or large or passing or permanent that anxiety might be, do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. Be at peace, if even for this moment, knowing that Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to be our guide and our companion, and will lead us to places of wholeness and peace beyond what we can imagine. Amen.