Preachers are counseled to know their audience, but sometimes we find ourselves realizing that even with our best intentions, we really don't know how to speak or what to speak. I was invited to preach at an AIDS memorial service sponsored by a group of churches in Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, MI. I was invited to preach in part in the hope that my congregation might follow and join in the service. I was invited to do this even though I admitted that I don't have any really experience with persons with AIDS. I can't say that I've even known anyone with AIDS (at least not knowingly), let alone has died of AIDS related illnesses. Although I have committed myself to joining forces with those opening the doors of the church to the LGBT community, this is still rather new territory for me. And so when I went to the pulpit last night, and across the congregation, finding only one familiar face, I found myself at a loss. I'd already written the sermon, and delivered it as best I could, but I truly felt inadequate to the moment. It quickly became apparent that most of the people gathered for this service, and the numbers were small, were people deeply affected by AIDS in one form or another. I tried to balance words of comfort with a call to justice, but perhaps I was speaking more to myself than to anyone in the congregation. I was the one who needed to understand the realities of the moment. It was the door to my own heart that needed to be opened. I thank God that the Spirit is able to speak even when my own words are inadequate.
But maybe these words will speak to others who like me have not paid much attention to persons with AIDS. My audience, really, was a different group, those who have shut the doors to persons with AIDS. My audience, ultimately, is that community of people who believe in justice, but need to be nudged toward recognizing that this is an area of justice that we too often neglect.
So I invite you to consider these words, which are heartfelt.
Open Wide the Gates
Sermon for AIDS Memorial Service
We come here tonight to remember loved ones who have died as a result of AIDS related illnesses. As we do this, we hear this word of hope from the Psalmist: “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of trouble.” (Ps. 46:1). These words are reflected in Martin Luther’s hymn: “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” where we boldly sing: “Our God is a bulwark never failing, our present help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.” It is this declaration that God is a never failing bulwark that gives us confidence to entrust our loved ones to God’s care.
This word of consolation comes to us once again in the reading from Revelation, which declares that God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, pain, anymore for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). In another place Paul speaks of a new creation in Christ that’s made possible because God has reconciled all things to God’s self through Christ. (2 Cor. 5:19).
There are many different kinds of memorial services. Sometimes we gather to remember persons who have died in service to community or country. Not long ago some of us gathered for special services to observe the tenth anniversary of the events of September 11.
Tonight we pay special attention to those who have died of AIDS related illnesses. We do this because some gathered here have lost loved ones to this disease. We also come to support those who face discrimination and exclusion because of the stigma attached to this disease. When word first broke about HIV and AIDS back in the early 1980s, it created great fear in our communities. People were afraid to go to restaurants or use public rest rooms, fearing that they might become infected. But, when we heard that most people contracting HIV and AIDS were gays or drug users, many of us decided that this was a disease that didn’t affect us, and so we shut our hearts and minds to those who were suffering. At the same time, we began to hear leaders from the Christian community declare that the people suffering with AIDS were reaping what they had sown and that this disease was a sign of God’s judgment on sinners. As a result, people with AIDS, both gay and straight, became pariahs, and we shunned them, hoping they would simply go away.
When I was asked to preach this evening I told my colleagues that I couldn’t speak to the congregation from personal experience. I’m not an AIDS activist and I don’t personally know anyone who has AIDS or has died as a result of AIDS. But then again, maybe I have known people with AIDS, but I just never knew because it wasn’t something that could be mentioned or discussed. I agreed to preach tonight because I believe this is an issue of justice that God is deeply concerned about. I believe that as we come tonight to grieve we must also shine the light upon those places in our society that continue to shun and exclude persons with AIDS and their families. It is a matter of justice and it’s a matter of compassion.
Now, it doesn’t matter if a person with HIV or AIDS is gay or straight, male or female, young or old, Christian or not. What matters is that we hear God’s word of grace and inclusion, and that as we remember those who have died, we also speak out on behalf of those who continue to live in our midst with HIV and AIDS and who face discrimination and exclusion, who deal every day with the stigma of this disease. If we fail to do this, then we dishonor the memories of those who have died.
But, even as we make our declaration of justice, we must not lose sight of the grief that is being shared here tonight. We come to hear a word of consolation and a word of invitation, a word of comfort and a word of inclusion.
There is a word in the Ephesian letter that I think speaks to us tonight. The context is different, but this word has implications for our time of remembrance. The author of this letter says that Christ is our peace, and that “with his body he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us” (Eph. 2:14 CEB). Our calling is, it would seem, using words uttered by an American President to his Soviet counterpart while giving a speech in Berlin, is to say to the world: “tear down this wall.” And as the walls that divide are torn down, we can also open wide the gates so that all might find peace and comfort in the presence of God.
There is another word from Scripture that may be appropriate for this evening. I draw your attention to Peter’s vision, which led him to welcome the Gentiles into Christ’s community. In that vision, after God shows Peter a whole host of animals, and invites him to eat from this palate of choices, God says to Peter, who refuses because these animals are to him ritually unclean, God says to Peter: do not call unclean what I call clean. And with this vision, God opens wide the gates of the realm of God.
Do we not hear something similar in our day about persons with HIV and AIDS? Do we not hear God say to us – open wide the gates, remove the stigma and the shame. Allow people the freedom to grieve and remember in peace, without worry about how others might perceive them and their loved ones. Yes, as God opens wide the gates, we hear this word from the prophet Zephaniah:
I will deliver the lame; I will gather the outcast. I will change their shame into praise throughout the earth. (Zeph. 3:19).
May this be our prayer tonight as we remember those who have died, as well as those who continue to live with AIDS. May our gathering tonight be a sign that God has opened wide the gates.