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Popping the Lid Off: AIDS, Advent, and Hope

All I want is a cure and my friends back.

The list is long – breast cancer, world hunger, or what Dwight D. Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.” In a deeply patriarchal, violent world of unrelenting corporate profiteering, I want a cure for all those maladies and more.

aids_ribbon_earthOn this 25th anniversary of World AIDS Day, I’m thinking especially about HIV. When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1991, I saw those simple yet poignant words on a t-shirt: All I want is a cure and my friends back.

Perhaps that’s just too much to hope for. Yet, tomorrow also marks the beginning of Advent, a Christian season perfectly suited for wildly peculiar hope. Both wild and peculiar especially on the first Sunday of Advent, when most Christians will hear, not about Christmas, but about fantastical world-ending scenarios in apocalyptic biblical texts.

That’s certainly peculiar, but is it hopeful?

The word “apocalypse” has its origins in a rather ordinary Greek word that referred to a cover, like the lid on a jar. The ancient Greeks may have used the verb apocalypto when they opened something. It just means “to take the lid off”; we usually translate it as “to reveal.”

I like that image for sifting through biblical texts and Christian history in search of vision to feed our hope. Here are just a few things we might find when we pop the lid off:

Hope for the Nations
Readings for the first Sunday of Advent will sometimes include something from the last book of the Bible. There are lots of nasty bits in the Revelation to John, completely unsuitable for young chiltree_of_lifedren. In the last chapter, however, there’s no more Armageddon, no more terrifying horsemen, no horrific tribulation, but instead an amazing vision of the City of God. A river flows from that city, and on the banks of that river, a tree. The leaves of this tree, John writes, are for “the healing of the nations” (22:2).

John did not say that those leaves are for the healing of “Christian nations,” or “nations that we agree with,” or “nations that never committed war crimes,” or “nations never guilty of slavery or colonialism or economic imperialism,” or “nations that we might like to visit as tourists on vacation.” Looking forward to healing rather than vengeance surely qualifies as a counter-cultural hope.

Hope for Gate-Crashing
Not long after John’s revelation, a theologian by the name of Origen took the lid off again and found the irresistible love of God. The love of God, Origen declared, is so compelling that not even the Devil and all his fallen angels will be able to resist that love forever. Eventually, Origen believed, everything and every creature would find a blessed home in God.

That’s a compelling vision indeed – so compelling that just a few centuries later the institutional church condemned it as heresy. They put a lid on it. And that’s not so surprising. If an institution understands itself primarily as a gatekeeper, it won’t look very kindly on those who insist that there’s no longer any gate to keep. Gate-crashing is a deeply hopeful spiritual discipline.

Hope Beyond Hope
Fast forward a few more centuries and we find the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, who lived at a time when bubonic plague was decimating most of Europe in ways difficult to imagine. Anyone who lived through the early years of the AIDS crisis has a sense of what Julian must have witnessed – bodies suddenly and mysteriously falling ill; bodies falling all around her; bodies dying in such numbers that they literally piled up in the streets with no one to bury them.

In the midst of that devastation, Julian had some visions. The lid popped off and this is what she wrote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Was she just delusional? Julian herself wondered the same thing. She was surprised by these “showings,” as she called them, these mini-apocalypses. “This can’t be true,” she wrote. “Holy Church teaches that sinners are condemned to hell.”

But the showings persisted: “All shall be well.”

These irruptions of wild hope and fantastical visions throughout Christian history emerged from a truly impertinent question: Can God be trusted? Will God really keep faith with us even with bodies falling all around us?

That was playwright Tony Kushner’s question in a moving prayer he wrote in 1994 for the National Day of Prayer for AIDS: “Must grace fall so unevenly on the earth? Must goodness precipitate so lightly, so infrequently from sky to parched ground?” Can you be trusted, God, really?

Kushner speaks for so many when hope seems little more than a bread-crumb trail in a messy life, or a glimmering ember in the fireplace teetering on the edge of going out.

It’s the rare individual who can summon a hopeful faith alone. The rest of us need some help. We need those fantastical visions that sprout up quite unexpectedly in the middle of troubling biblical texts, or those moments of stupefying hope punctuating a disturbing Christian history.

aids_ribbon_candlesProbably most of all, we need each other. When my faith is weak, I need people whose faith is strong; when my cup overflows, I can share it with others.

I was reminded of this just last night at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco during a lovely event honoring two colleagues and their remarkably hopeful work to end AIDS and comfort the grieving.

That event was “church,” a reminder of why I keep doing what many Christians do on a Sunday morning. There are many reasons. But on the first Sunday of Advent, I need a community that isn’t afraid to say wildly peculiar things and find it hopeful: All I want is a cure and my friends back.

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How to Vote: Food and Sex Edition, 2012

Tax policy is important but mind-numbingly obtuse. Let’s cut to the chase – come November 6, will we cast our votes for a “you’re-on-your-own-and-good-luck-to-you” country or a “we’re-all-in-this-together” country?

Does Christian faith offer anything at all for how we might answer that question?

Let’s start with a five-pound roasting chicken, stuffed with pats of butter and a quartered onion. While it’s roasting, set the table with a lovely blue-and-yellow Provencal tablecloth, two plates of the “harvest pattern” china, two elegant wine goblets and a couple of candles.

You will also want to boil some red potatoes, assemble some cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes on a plate with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, and open a bottle of wine. Cut some flowers from the garden and place them in a cut-glass vase on the table. Select the light jazz playlist on your iPod and get ready to greet your enchanting guest with a lovely hors d’oeuvre of smoked oysters and assorted cheeses.

You could also plan a tasty dessert. But dessert will probably entail something other than food.

If you don’t think food and sex have anything to do with politics or religion, you haven’t read your Bible lately (you do have one, right?). Food and sex are often deeply connected if not indistinguishable, especially when we throw religion into the mix, not to mention politics.

Two of the most basic human activities – eating food and having sex – have been the most frequently regulated human activities in nearly every society and historical era, and religion has most often been the means to regulate them. Politicians are usually the ones to insist on enforcing those regulations.

While a bit strange, that does make a certain kind of sense. I believe all humans share at least this much in common: the desire to be loved, to be cared for and wanted. The desire, in other words, for “communion.” That’s a potent and powerful desire, and sharing food and sexual intimacy are just two of the obvious ways to meet that desire.

Of course religious traditions and institutions will want to police something that potent. Look no further for evidence of this than the 50-year debate over whether lesbian and gay people can preside or even participate in the ritual meal of Christian communities, a meal called in some circles “Holy Communion.”

All of this came to mind as I prepared to preach this past Sunday on a set of rather peculiar biblical texts. The Hebrew Bible story about Eldad and Medad is one of my favorites (Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29). The story begins with complaints about food but quickly morphs into a power struggle over legitimate membership.

The struggle emerges when the Spirit of God is poured out on all the elders of the people, including two of them (Eldad and Medad) who were not, as it were, on church property at the time. This of course prompts a scandal (they weren’t following the rules!) as well as a great aspiration from Moses, who longs to see the Spirit poured out on everyone.

So if you have ever been excluded, marginalized, left out, made to feel less than human because of your skin color, your body shape, your education, your gender, your sexual orientation, your socio-economic status, or just because you didn’t happen to show up at the right place at the right time – well then, Eldad and Medad are your patron saints! They’re standing right by your side, cheering you on.

The lectionary also included a portion from Mark’s gospel (9:38-50) and echoes the same theme but takes it a step further. Those who are not against us are for us, Jesus declares, and then he adds a warning. In everything you do and say, he insists, make sure that you don’t prevent anyone from believing in me.

Let’s put it this way: If a religious institution or religious leaders have ever blocked your path toward God, prevented your deeper engagement with the sacred, or made you stumble on your way into divine life, Jesus said it would be better for them to tie a big boulder around their necks and jump in the ocean.

He then goes on to say even harder stuff about cutting off body parts if they are offensive, which would be better than missing out on the big heavenly banquet that is yet to come.

I read this admittedly unsavory gospel passage as an urgent reminder: nothing, absolutely nothing is more important than following our desire for divine communion. And God help those who block any person’s path toward that desire!

I read this passage, in other words, as a proclamation of the ridiculously offensive generosity of the Gospel. God invites everyone to the feasting table – no exceptions, no kidding. The ones we like and the ones we avoid; the ones we admire and the ones we despise; the ones who seem to us so clearly deserving and those who seem worthy of nothing but punishment – all of them, all of us, are invited to the Table, no exceptions, no kidding.

Early Christian frescoe of an “agape feast.”

“Ridiculously offensive” generosity of the Gospel? Yes. How could it not be in a world such as ours so deeply marked by unrelenting divisions, violent hostility, and entrenched partisan and sectarian bickering? These divisions are actually so deep that they just seem “natural.”

Make no mistake: regardless of one’s political loyalties, it is deeply offensive to suppose that not a single one of those dividing lines matters. That is the good news of Christian faith. We really are all in this together.

Make no mistake about this, either: there are indeed religious communities today – from Minnesota to New Jersey and San Francisco – that are policing, monitoring, and regulating who may have access to the feast of divine generosity. These communities and their leaders are doing this based on whom people choose to love. This should be a source of deep outrage for all people of faith, just as it was for Jesus.

God sets the Table and invites everyone, without exception.

All of this might not help you make ballot decisions about everything, but I hope it inspires you to proclaim the kind of good news that really could change the world. And our world longs to hear it, that eternal call of the Lover to the Beloved: “Come, my love, the feast is ready; and I have prepared it just for you.”