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Bishop’s Advent Reflection 2020

Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads,
because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21: 28)

The holy season of Advent has begun, and while the secular world around us trivializes the coming birth of our Savior with garish displays of commercialism, we Anglicans/Episcopalians have a time-honored tradition of taking Advent seriously. As we await the birth of hope, Episcopal preaching for Advent focuses on repentance or metanoia, spiritual vigilance and waiting with a purpose, the call to serve, moral propriety, self-emptying or kenosis, spiritual identity with God, and immaculate conception. This season also witnesses the observance of World AIDS Day on December 1. This is the 32nd year since Worlds AIDS Day was established. Have we forgotten where the world community stood with this global pandemic and the fear and uncertainty attached with it?

Many years ago, in one of the dioceses that I served, I was rector of a large inner-city parish of over 700 members where a small percentage of our worshiping community was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS virus. Some of those were victims of drug addiction or recovering drug addicts, others were teenage mothers and victims of abuse of one kind or another. As with the scenario associated with most troubled inner-city parishes the poverty level was very high and the ministry of the missional church invariably responded to what was transpiring in the community.

I got to know Donna very well through frequent pastoral visits. She and her entire family were long time members of the parish. Donna was a single young mother of four young children; one of them was a paraplegic. She was in advanced stages of HIV/AIDS and her condition required frequent hospitalization. One particular hospital visit was mid-morning and the open hospital ward where she was a patient happened to be extremely busy with medical staff doing their morning rounds. The lack of privacy wasn’t conducive for pastoral counseling. However, in this brief moment even with all the distraction, I observed an unusual level of anxiety and restlessness in her demeanor. I had done enough hospital visitations to recognize that something beyond the usual was troubling her and concluded that under the circumstances it may be better to return at a more appropriate time.

Early that evening I drove back to the hospital to spend time with her. Together she and I recalled the day’s activity. I inquired about the doctor’s prognosis, the children, and so on. We prayed together and I offered her words of comfort. I was deeply moved by her tears and as I probed a little further, I discovered her deep concern for the well-being of her children. She and I both knew she was dying, any hope for a rapid cure had all but diminished, we just didn’t know when that fateful day would come. She knew the level of poverty her parents faced and could anticipate the difficult time they would have taking care of the children. Overwhelmed and touched by her words and moved by the pastor’s compassionate and caring heart that compels love and care, I reached over and drew her frail body into my embrace. Together we cried for the pain she was experiencing as a mother and for her children. And I cried for how helpless and powerless I felt to do anything to heal her inner and outer afflictions.

As I proceeded to tuck her back in bed, I said to her, “Donna, I want you to know that my wife and I will help with the children, don’t you worry!” As I reached over and kissed her on the forehead I gently whispered in her ear, “Donna you can go home now, the angels of the Lord are waiting for you. You have borne enough suffering so go home and take your rest! God has forgiven you because God’s love is greater than our weaknesses; go home to God knowing that you are God’s special child.”

When I went to the Church Office the following morning, I was greeted with the news of Donna’s passing. Her parents had called earlier to say that she died some time during the night. Her priest was the last person to hug, kiss and comfort her. I had shed my last tears for Donna. The church family, as we had done so often in that impoverished community, assisted with her burial, and from our limited income my wife and I with children of our own, became surrogate parents of Donna’s children and kept our promise to their dying mother.

The ‘Donna Story’ is a classic reminder of the mission of the Church which pervades all strata of society and interrupts every condition of humanity. Prejudice of any kind is incompatible with the Gospel! As I sat by the bedside of so many of my parishioners who had been outcasted by their illness, like twin brothers Peter and Paul who contracted the HIV/AIDS virus or like Joseph whose excruciating pain and suffering came through the simple mistake of a contaminated blood transfusion, I am always mindful of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words in his book, God Has A Dream, “One of the most blasphemous consequences of injustice and prejudice is that it can make a child of God doubt that he or she is a child of God. But no one is a stepchild of God.”

I strongly believe with so many fellow Christians in every era that the story of Advent is a universal story of HOPE in our God who has come to change the landscape of a broken and often times uncompassionate world. A world that seems determined to exclude or alienate those who may look, smell, dress, pray, speak or even think differently than we do. The world of Christianity is certainly not impervious to this brokenness, many of us Christians are guilty of drawing ourselves up to the exclusion of the “holy other”. Even in a multicultural landscape, a migrant bishop of color may not be precluded from this dysfunctional characterization.

Yes, we have much to lament, but we are a people of hope. Paul reminds the Church at Thessalonica, and us today, (I Thessalonians 3: 9-13) that if we are faithful, we will see the face of Jesus Christ who will restore our fledgling faith and love both in God and in one another.

And yes, we do live in a time where the visible manifestations of the cataclysmic/apocalyptic events of universal damnation are unraveling before us; the warnings in the gospel narratives are already unfolding before us, storms and superstorms, drastic effects of climate change, natural disaster of unimaginable proportions, and an unprecedented global pandemic called COVID-19 with its widespread catastrophic effects on the global community. We grieve the senseless loss of lives associated with its rampant uncertainty and the fact that the world seems besieged by its tentacles. Despite this fear, we fervently pray for an efficacious vaccine to combat its unrelenting march against humanity. As it was with HIV/AIDS, by God’s grace and through scientific research and discovery, we shall overcome this invisible enemy.

My beloved, in the midst of this overwhelming fear comes an interruption – he is Jesus – who says stand up, take hope, raise your heads you are worth redeeming! Jesus came to this world to incarnate you in his life of holiness and to witness to God’s kingdom. What you have waited for has come – that is, assurance of hope and new life – whether it be events of nature or self-inflicted ones, Jesus is our hope. He stands in the “gap” to be our life-giver whether it is in this world or in the world beyond. He makes all things new and is the light that looms over darkness. And, yes, so often enlisting us, collectively and/or individually, to become the ones whom He chooses to be his presence, be his “Good Samaritan” or “Guardian” working with the Holy Spirit, the ultimate healer, for a better and just world.

In the words of Rev. Karpf, “We are people of hope, and we are people of the resurrection– because God is faithful, even when we aren’t — that death is not the final word”. Our eyes are pointed to the collect appointed for the first Sunday of Advent, “this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility,” but anticipates the day, “when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, so we may rise to life immortal.” So even in the midst of death, the dirge-like notes of our laments invariably give way to the triumphant chords of the Christmas refrain as proclaimed in the “Alleluia Anthems”.

And so, my beloved, what is the spiritual discipline required of us in this moment for this season? For starters it is the spiritual gift of “patience”. Professor Karl Jacobson, Assistant Professor of Religion, Augsburg College, Minneapolis, MN, writes, “Patience, it seems, may be exactly what is at issue for the fledgling Christian community as it awaits the day of the Lord… Patience in the face of promises yet to be kept; patience in the meantime of enduring illness, broken relationships, and unrealized expectations or hopes; patience after all our patience has run out.”

Let me end as I began, with an anecdote on the fruit of true patience. In the beginning of 2004, under President George Bush, the United States made an enormous commitment to partnering with South Africa to fight against this devastating disease – HIV/AIDS. The United States leadership and generosity committed more than 25 billion over nine years through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). PEPFAR supported life-saving anti-retroviral treatment for over 1.6 million South Africans, and funded prevention, assistance to mothers and orphans, and community-based health programs that have touched the lives of many millions more.

In the early 90s when South Africa’s Themba Lethu clinic in Johannesburg could only treat HIV/AIDS patients for opportunistic diseases, many would come in on wheelchairs and kept coming to the health center until they died.

Two decades later the clinic became the largest ARV (anti-retroviral) treatment center in the country and saw between 600 to 800 patients a day from all over Southern Africa, that is, South Africa and neighboring countries. Those who were brought in on wheelchairs, sometimes on the brink of death, got the crucial drugs and often became healthy and walked within weeks. “The ARVs were called the ‘Lazarus drug’ because people rise up and walk,” said Sue Roberts who had been a nurse at the clinic, run by Right to Care in Johannesburg’s Helen Joseph Hospital, since it opened its doors in 1992. Nurse Roberts once recalled, “they treated a woman who was pushed in a wheelchair for 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) to avoid a taxi fare and who was so sick it was touch and go. Two weeks later, the woman walked to the clinic.”

Beloved, this is the human face of Advent. For my congregation all those years ago, for Donna’s children, and for millions of others it was a real-time rebirth of hope – which is the fundamental Christian message to the world. This was and remains an example of light overcoming darkness – This is the JESUS STORY!

Beloved, this testimony is what our country – the USA – is known and respected for across the world. It is my hope and prayer that America would continue to wear its humanitarian heart within the global community. Amen!!!

Together in Christ’s service,

XI Bishop of Easton