I Have a Bad Attitude and a Headache
Public Piety and Hyperbolic Sorrow on World AIDS Day
The following sermon was offered to nearly a thousand worshippers who had gathered on the eve of World AIDS Day, 1995 for New York's Citywide Service of Hope and Remembrance, an annual event sponsored by AIDS Interfaith New York. As we approach this year's observance of that day of sadness and hope, it is worthwhile to consider the magnitude of the task that still remains before us: To persuade our public officials to dispense with the tidy pieties aimed at showing the breadth of their compassion to people who are suffering from AIDS, and to undertake instead the harder effort of making it possible for the communities most affected by the epidemic -- gay men and lesbians, injection drug users, poor people and people of color -- to live with dignity and respect in a nation that truly values their lives. Ultimately it is only that deep appreciation of the contribution those communities make to our common life as a nation that can stand as an adequate memorial to those who have been lost to AIDS.
How I dread World AIDS Day!
I confess that the grand gestures, the public piety and the hyperbolic sorrow just leave me with a bad attitude and a headache.
Two years ago on World AIDS Day a friend tried to convince me that because the President of the United States had finally acknowledged the epidemic and given a speech on AIDS for the first time since the epidemic began, that the national response to AIDS was starting to change. I figured the likelihood of that new response materializing was about the same as the chance of world peace materializing because someone lit the national Christmas tree. Two years later, I keep hoping my friend was right despite the bitter landscape we confront every day in this epidemic. Two years later, I still keep hoping someone will permit me to be hopeful, permit me to believe that we can move the governments of our city, our state and our nation to effective action. Two years later I still keep hoping that all of us gathered as communities of faith can manage something more than a merely symbolic response.
But holding on to hope is unimaginably hard. A few weeks ago Governor Whitman of New Jersey told a reporter that she opposed implementing needle exchange and clean needle distribution programs in the state. She said that she understood that the programs would likely save lives, but that she still wouldn't support their establishment because the state might be seen as condoning illegal behavior. New Jersey has a higher proportion of HIV infection as a result of shared injection equipment than any other state in the nation. In a single year, 18,000 people were infected with HIV through contact with contaminated injection equipment, a fact which will eventually cost the State of New Jersey more than $165,000,000 in medical costs alone. And almost every person in this gathering can offer a similar sad tale. I don't know how to be hopeful when the facts aren't persuasive, when the costs aren't persuasive, when the carnage left in the wake of the AIDS epidemic as we have experienced it here in the epicenter of the national epidemic aren't persuasive.
I have a bad attitude and a headache.
Throughout all of the earnest speeches for World AIDS Day, the sincere recitation of statistics, the deeply felt exhortations to hope, all I can think about is the carnage, the friends and colleagues I have lost in the last decade or so: David, Christian, Richard, Iris, Jeffrey, Nick, Dario, Lew, Elizabeth, Greg, Raymond, Yolanda, Travis, Craig and more and more and more - all of the people whose rolodex cards are tucked away at the back of the bottom desk drawer, all the people I am in the process of losing today. Now I begin the list of my remembrance when the speeches start; the speeches usually end before the list does.
I have a bad attitude and a headache.
The friends and family and colleagues who have been lost to us deserve more than that -- more than our sincerity, more than our pious speeches and sermon upon sermon. They deserve redemption. They deserve to be reclaimed -- reclaimed by the society that abandoned them in the first place: by the government that decided they were expendable; by the friends and neighbors who talked about their illness in hushed tones behind closed doors; by the churches and synagogues and mosques and temples that closed their eyes and sighed when it came time to talk about condoms and clean needles, when it came time to talk about living an abundant life rather than dying an abundant death. They deserve to be reclaimed as people of infinite value to God, as people of infinite value to our neighborhoods, our cities, our families and our lives.
Now as we are gathered tonight as faithful people, as indeed the people of God, many of you will be saying to yourself: Yes, yes, redemption. And that is God's job. It is God who reclaims us all in the end. And it is true that redemption is God's job. But it is not solely God's job; God does not act alone.
Fifteen or so years ago when I was a new seminarian, reeking with enthusiasm and naiveté, I attended the funeral of the brother of a close friend. He had died at the age of twenty-four, and like every death of a twenty-four year old, it was sudden, shocking and tragic. After the funeral, I went to visit my friend and her family who were sitting shiva in the tradition of the Jewish community of which they were a part. The house was full of friends and neighbors, of people who were trying without success to console Michael's mother and father. The family's discomfort with all of us, who were well intentioned and deeply concerned, was palpable; it was clear to everyone that they wanted to close the door and cry out their lament to God in private. But we all stayed and made small talk, a small offering to appease unimaginable grief.
Late in the afternoon I turned to the Rabbi, who had come by the house, and said that it was a shame that the family had to be around so many people at a time when they clearly wanted to be alone with their tears. "That's precisely the reason they are required to sit shiva," he said, "so that the community can gather around them, so that they cannot draw away from the love and care of God. After all, how else can God comfort them in their suffering, if not through the community of faith? What other hands does God have?"
What other hands does God have?
Tonight as we listened to the words of the prophet Isaiah calling us to righteousness, calling us into our true vocations as children of the God who created us and gave us our purpose for being, we heard the invitation to be God's hands in the world, to be the stuff of God's presence among us, to offer true worship rather than merely its outward form:
"Isn't this the way I choose to make a fast, to make a day acceptable to the Lord," says the prophet. "Don't I fast by loosing the bonds of injustice, by undoing the yoke that the oppressed may go free? Don't I fast by sharing bread with the hungry, by sharing my home with the homeless, by clothing the naked?"
Now I can never listen to the prophet Isaiah without hearing the echoes of Handel somewhere in the back of my head, but don't let the heady poetry of the language get you misty-eyed. This is a clear call to action and it isn't an easy one. Fasting is the process of giving up food so that the spirit can be nourished and replenished. It is an ancient practice of spiritual discipline, of opening oneself to the transforming power of God, of reminding ourselves that it is only God who fills us. Pour yourself out into the people of God, the prophet is saying to us; that is the way God will be revealed to you. Be God's hands and reclaim the suffering of God's people, and you will know God face to face.
Many of us here have felt as if we have been poured out again and again and again, poured out with every death, poured out with every loss, with every name erased from an address book, with every political defeat and lost opportunity to give succor to the sick.
It is tempting to give in to that emptiness, to let our hope flood away with it, to release ourselves from the suffering of surviving yet another person to whom we wanted to cling for dear life. It is tempting to paint ourselves as heroes for going on, for fighting for those locked in our memories. And tonight of all nights, we need to resist that temptation and instead resolve to fare forward as prophets, to summon up the the righteous anger, the stubborn indignation to call the world to repentance about AIDS, to pour out our lives again and again in solidarity with those we have lost, with those we are losing, and with a generation we want more than anything to protect from the ravages of AIDS.
Reclaiming the lives of the living, reclaiming the memory of the dead, redeeming the suffering of God's children is a joint undertaking with God. It is a prayer of our own making. It is a prayer that is formed by the pouring out of our lives for others, the prayer of our hands put to work to make the love of God tangible in the world, the prayer that puts flesh on the dry bones of life and raises up to God in redemptive anger life at the bottom of the heap in our time and place. The reclamation project is our own, our own hands put to work by God.
A friend of mine who will have no hint of religion in his life and tolerates grudgingly the fact that I am a priest is fond of saying to me with every ounce of sarcasm he can muster, "Well, you'll just commit it all to prayer and everything will be all right, OK?" His hostility toward religion is the thinnest of veneers over a raging terror that God has indeed abandoned us, that our prayers will fall on deaf ears, that God simply refuses to make good on the promises offered us as we have wandered in the wilderness and confusion of the world.
And as I confront yet another World AIDS Day, when I want nothing more than to be hopeful, to see the prayers of my heart for the end of the epidemic be answered, I find my friend's sarcasm rising in my own voice. I've had enough of saying prayers, of saying all the right things, of trading pieties publicly and privately, of wishing and hoping that everything would come out all right in the end. I can't wait for the end. I cannot wait for the list of the remembrances to stretch into infinity, into the place where I can never end the counting. I've had enough of talking to God about AIDS; I need more than that.
And having said that, I have no choice but to say it's time to get serious about prayer in the AIDS epidemic - embodied prayer, the prayer of repentant hearts, the prayer of our hands. The AIDS epidemic will not end, the suffering will not end, and we will not bring justice for people affected by the epidemic into our land unless we learn to pray with our hands, unless we learn to worship with our hands, unless we learn to shape the covenant with the God who created us, who sustains us and who redeems us with our hands.
So to every person who tomorrow will bow a sorrowful head to mourn the passing of people with AIDS: Let us worship the Lord in silence. Show me the prayer of your hands. Do justice. Make mercy. Make the love of God manifest in the world around you.
To the President, the Senate Majority Leader, the Speaker of the House, to Governors Pataki and Whitman, to Mayor Giuliani and the City Council, to the captains of industry and the harvesters of God's bounty, to the spokespersons and pundits and movers and shakers, to the Bishops and Elders, the Priests, the Rabbis, the Imams, to the assembled people of power and means: Don't you dare ask God alone to rescue us. Don't you dare hang your head and tell me how sorry you are. Don't you dare wag your fingers and talk soulfully about stopping sin. Don't you dare talk about tragedy and loss and the awful epidemic that fate has brought down on us. You have no right to speak to those who are suffering, not until the words of your mouth are reflected in the work of your hands.
On this World AIDS Day, pray with your hands. Make a Medicaid plan that will keep people with HIV healthy. Make HIV prevention and care efforts more important than lining our pockets with another tax cut. Make the lives of injection drug users unequivocally valued; make them safe by putting clean needles within reach of everyone who needs one. Make the lives of our young people more important than the judgment that they have sinned and help them learn to use condoms. Make every HIV-infected woman's life and health as important as the life and health of her children. Make a place in the world for gay men and lesbians, for the poor, for people who use drugs, for people who look different, who speak a different language, who put a different face on God. Construct with us the sign of God's unfailing love and care - because on this World AIDS Day, we need to be reminded of God's promise to reclaim us, not somewhere out on a distant spiritual horizon but in the thick of the contradictions of our lives as we live them from day to day. Make it possible for God to act in you and through you. Make it possible for God to relieve our suffering and reclaim us. For God's sake, you make it possible for us to hope.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.