World Aids Day
The following sermon was preached by Stacey Lyn Jutila, LSTC Senior M. Div. Student, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, December 1, 2005.
Mark 13: 24-37
The announcer on the radio said yesterday morning that on Monday Chicago was in the midst of spring weather and on Tuesday Chicago was all about the weather of a cold November day. What season is it? Are the signs so clear that we can tell without a doubt? Where do we look in the church, the world and nature for evidence of the proper season?
Where I attended college in Vermont, the locals referred to March as Mud Season. People had specific shoes that they reserved just for the month of mud, a month where one day it could be in the sixties and melting all the mountain snow away and on the next day it could be twenty degrees and snowing.
One of the biology professors thought that it might be a good idea for the campus to bring about signs of spring much earlier than would occur naturally. He planted a series of Magnolia trees in a row through the center green of the campus. As the college welcomed students from around the world, from places where warm weather was the norm and mud season was barely a dream, these flowering Magnolia trees could assist winter-weary students so that they could make it through the end of the semester and onto the beautiful late spring days of Vermont where the suns shines brightly down on the mountains.
Yes, for me a mere student from Minnesota, I had never seen the likes of the beautiful magnolia flowers, especially in late March. These trees were a treat, but it was made known that they were not "naturally occurring" trees in Vermont. The only way that these trees could survive, was because they were planted directly above the pipes for the campus-wide heating system. The water that ran through the pipes to keep us warm, actually tricked these trees into budding and flowering earlier. Perhaps we college students may have fared better if we got a little crazy and took a run along the muddy dirt roads in Vermont versus gazing at southern flowers alongside the last few remaining snowbanks of winter..
Two weeks ago, as I searched for a radio station to listen to in the car, I happened upon a station that had abandoned its eighties hits for 24-7 holiday music. Two weeks ago, the busiest shopping day of the year hadn't even occurred yet. The radio station promised that they would delight listeners with holiday songs for the whole holiday season. I had to look at my pastor's desk calendar to make sure I hadn't missed something in this lectionary season. Was the Christmas season coming before thanksgiving this year? Was this a lunar leap year of sorts where the calendar changed so drastically? Somehow powers that be in our contemporary society have gradually over the last few decades ushered in the season of Christmas earlier with each passing year.
As sons and daughters of God, how do we know what season it is and what calendar informs us to the appropriate season? With modern technology, marketing and a desire to be happy and joyful, seasons are mixed up. We can no longer just depend on the trees to reveal the proper season.
There is one thing that hasn't changed in recent years and that is World AIDS Day falling on December 1st. I don't know the history or significance of it being on this day, but I find it a gift that in this season of preparation and expectation, that we remember that we are a world and we are a church who is forever changed by the AIDS epidemic. For those who follow the lectionary season, World AIDS day can point towards the necessity of the Advent season, a season where we wait, expect, prepare and hope. For those of us who long for the season of Advent and want to fully embrace it before Christmas arrives, this season can cause us to stand in prayer on World AIDS Day. On this day we also remember the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks. An advent woman, who was full of expectation for a new season and honest about the pain surrounding the present day.
Today's Gospel reading provides us with hints of the season of Christ's coming. "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates." This reading was not etched into the marble walls on my college campus. The Magnolia trees became tender and put forth leaves because of one person's attempt at human fast-forwarding.
After college, I moved to Seattle and worked within the AIDS community. It was through encounters with many amazing people in this community that I came to see that there are other ways to recognize the seasons, and it doesn't involve the false warmth of underground water pipes or depend on our consumer society dictating when we should prepare for the next season.
A man that I came to know in the AIDS community who I will call Andy, opened my eyes to the signs of the season in a new way one late fall afternoon. I should mention that Andy kept to himself in our AIDS housing program and often was short and terse with people. Rarely did we have much conversation. His pain ran deep. Physical pain, rejection from his family and fear of forming new relationships because all of his friends were dying. All of this pain caused him to shut the world out and build high walls around his heart.
One afternoon he surprised me and asked me if I could help him move a few boxes upstairs. Because of his neuropathy, he was unable to carry anything. He led the way up the stairs to his room and as he opened the door to his room, I was overcome by an amazing sight. On one wall of his room were fifteen watercolor, oil, and pencil drawings of trees. It was an incredible sight to behold. All of the pictures, except one were trees in late fall with bare or nearly bare branches. A slender birch tree, a hearty oak with leaves holding on until the last moment, a madrona tree with peeling bark, a maple tree with a wide trunk. And then there was the one palm tree all green and rooted on some beach in a place like Hawaii. For a person who was so quiet and often angry towards other people, I was taken aback by all of this beauty that surrounded him.
"Andy," I asked, "Tell me about all of this beautiful art. It is quite amazing."
"I don't usually show these to people, it's kind of my sacred space. I painted or drew all of these on the anniversary of my diagnosis. The day I received this death sentence, I could hardly imagine living more than a year. I did make it to the next year and I considered myself lucky, because I had gone to so many friends' funerals. As my family and so many people had abandoned me, I turned to the trees. Wherever I was on the anniversary of my diagnosis, I would paint or draw a picture of the tree. I hoped that I would see another season with leaves. I now have been in fifteen different places, somehow the seasons come around again, but I don't know how much longer that will hold true for me."
From the fig tree learn its lesson....
Andy did not paint pictures of the ideal trees that have fully blossomed. He painted the tree of his experience in its correct season, in all of its bare and painful truth. Where he once knew a powerful-life force running through his veins, now the HIV virus ran like a poisonous sap through his veins. Yet, season after season he continued to live. Andy has taught me that as I hope for a new season of life, I must also be honest about the darkness and remember that at times my branches are bare.
One could look at these pieces of art and see beauty, but you could also see that all but a few of the paintings had just one tree in the picture. For fifteen years Andy had seen countless people die of AIDS and like a withering tree on top of a windy hill, he has stood in the fiercest elements all by himself, with no other trees to block the wind and provide support.
What would it be like if the church, family and friends of Andy had been supportive of him. Would he have then seen a forest in his paintings?
On this World AIDS Day, the message of Christ's redemptive power and presence in the world can instruct us how to be people of Advent, people who are about to receive once more the powerful promise of Emmanuel, God with us.
Many around us will tell us what season we are in. Some say it is the end times, some have been saying that for 2000 years. Some will say that it is time to celebrate Christmas. Others say it is time to prepare our hearts and world for the reign of Christ. Some say that they think this is there last season on this earth. We can turn to false hopes and shallow pipes beneath the ground we walk upon and hope that this can bring satisfaction and happiness in our lives. We can turn to Christ in this season, who offers a foundation for us to plant our roots and grow faithfully in this world.
Many species of trees depend on their roots being connected with the roots of other trees. What a gift this would be for Andy and so many others, to see that amidst pain and disease, that they were not the only tree on the hill, waiting and hoping for the next season. As the body of Christ, may we find our roots connected both in hopeful anticipation and expectation of Christ's reign of peace. Whether it is Andy in Seattle, a child living with AIDS in Bangladesh, a mother in botswana, a family in Kansas who doesn't think that AIDS could happen to them. May we reflect that they are a part of the body of Christ and our roots are forever intertwined.
In this season of expectation, we await Jesus' powerful ability to unite the children of God from all four corners of the world. In this season, may our eyes be open to the presence of Emmanuel, God with us. And in that vision, may we stand with those who hope for one more season of life and a new season where AIDS will be no more.