FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT & WORLD AIDS DAY
Sunday, November 28, 2010; World AIDS Day is Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Particularly in the Black Church, observing this day in connection with the ministry of Christ is significant because the darker your skin is, the more likely you are to become infected with HIV/AIDS.
Luke A. Powery, Lectionary Team Commentator
Lection – Matthew 9:18-19, 23-26 (New Revised Standard Version)
(v. 18) While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” (v. 19) And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. (v. 23) When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute-players and the crowd making a commotion, (v. 24) he said, “Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. (v. 25) But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. (v. 26) And the report of this spread throughout that district.
I. Description of the Liturgical Moment
The season of Advent is a season about the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. Christ has come as a babe born in the manger and he will come again at the end of time. This is a season of hope and expectation due to his past and future coming. By combining Advent with World AIDS Day, the focus for this First Sunday of Advent is why Jesus came into the world and what he came to do. “He came not to be served, but to serve” (Matt 20:28). He came into the world on a mercy mission to save, heal, and touch the world, especially its outcasts. On this special Sunday we focus on victims of AIDS who are often treated as outcasts in our society.
World AIDS Day was established on December 1, 1988, by the World Health Organization. It is observed December 1 every year. World AIDS Day is about raising money, increasing awareness, fighting prejudice and improving education as it relates to HIV/AIDS. It is a day that reminds people that HIV/AIDS has not gone away, and that there are many people, even in the Church, whose bodies are decaying because of it. Particularly in the Black Church, observing this day in connection with the ministry of Christ is significant because “the darker your skin is, the more likely you are to become infected with HIV/AIDS.”1 The estimated lifetime risk of becoming infected with HIV is 1 in 16 for black males and 1 in 30 for black females, a far higher risk than for white males (1 in 104) and white females (1 in 588). “To date, over 230,000 African Americans have died of AIDS - nearly 40% of all total deaths - and of the more than 1 million people living with HIV in the United States of America today, around half are black. And yet, as a racial group, African Americans represent just 12% of the US population.”2
This Sunday will raise awareness of AIDS in the black community specifically, but it will also remind us that Jesus came to touch and heal the ostracized of society; just as he comes today to touch and heal those with AIDS. This emphasis on what Jesus came to do and continues to do will be revealed through singing, praying, preaching, and other modes of expression.
II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: Matthew 9:18-19, 23-26
Part One: The Contemporary Contexts of the Interpreter
Two narratives come to mind when I think of AIDS:
(1) I worked with a social outreach agency in East Palo Alto (EPA), California during the summer after my sophomore year in college. This town “across the tracks” from wealthy Palo Alto was comprised predominantly of African Americans and Hispanics. It was the black and brown town, and it was obvious that it was at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder of society. While at this outreach agency, I had the privilege of working with Prince, a former dope dealer, but now the director of outreach for this organization. He was my father on the streets in EPA. Everyone knew Prince, and as long as I walked with him, I was in good (and safe) company in EPA. One day we walked inside of a crack house and what I saw, I will never forget. As we entered this house, there was a black brother on a bed who was both dying of drugs and AIDS, a lethal combination of destruction. This man embodied death. When Prince and I approached him, Prince did not touch him but only talked with him to see how he was doing. He only talked and did not touch for some reason.
(2) There was an elder sister in the church of my youth who became sick with a secret illness in her later years. There were rumors that she had AIDS contracted through her husband who had been cheating on her. These were just rumors, not facts, though it was a mysterious illness that no one talked about. So many questions rose in my mind: How should we interact with her? Can I kiss her? Hug her? Touch her? Might I get contaminated in some way? Will I risk death to bring about some sort of life?
Jesus takes the risk of touching those who are viewed as the untouchable. He reveals that we should touch those deemed dead and “sick” even while they are living and dieing.
Part Two: Biblical Commentary
Before the story of the dead daughter, we learn that the focus of Jesus’ ministry of mercy is the “sick,” because “those who are well have no need of a physician” (Matthew 9:12). Some of the devout religious folk of the day, the Pharisees, didn’t understand this so they asked Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”(v. 9:11). Why are you welcoming them to your table? Why are you hanging out with the marginalized of society? Why are you calling the socially despised to follow you (v. 9:9)? Why are you welcoming those on the fringes of the human community? Why are you serving AIDS victims? Come on, we know he would be.
The story of the dead girl reveals a ministry of touch and that no one is beyond the reach of God’s mercy. Jesus reaches out to the margins, even to those imprisoned by death itself, and he does so through a touch. By the time he meets this girl, Jesus has already called and sat with outcasts, but now he gets more daring and even more intimate by touching the ostracized, despite all of the social mores that tell him to do otherwise. Surprisingly, in the midst of a ministry focused on tax collectors and sinners, Jesus remains open even to those who may have more power and privilege in society, demonstrating again that no one is beyond his mercy. A “leader of the synagogue,” most likely a civil administrator, pleads with Jesus to go and “lay your hand” (i.e. touch, v. 18) upon his dead daughter, and Jesus answers the prayer of this desperate dad. What father would not do everything in his power to help their little girl? What parent would not do everything in their power to find a healing remedy for their child who has AIDS?
Though not our focus, it should be noted that after the civil leader comes to Jesus, a woman interrupts and this scene also points to the significance of human touch in ministry. On his way to touch the hand of the girl, Jesus is touched at the fringe of his cloak by a woman on the fringes of society (v. 20). Not only is she a woman but a hemorrhaging one, she has a continuous menstrual flow which, according to Jewish law, meant that she was unclean and should not be touched (Lev. 15:19-30). Rather than Jesus touching her, she reaches out to touch him knowing that there can be healing simply through a touch (v. 21). Because she touches Jesus, he touches her spiritually and she is made “well” (v. 22), or is literally “rescued.” Jesus rescues her from dying a social and physical death.
He risks contamination by touching the untouchables or allowing them to touch him. Just as his body is touched by a marginalized woman, he touches another female’s body, the dead little girl. The mourning music is already in the air when he arrives, but this does not deter Jesus from touching the untouchable—death itself. To touch this dead girl on her hand as he does meant being contaminated, but Jesus risks marginalization for resurrection. He “took her by the hand, and the girl got up” (v. 26; cf. 8:3, 15). Touching the dead girl’s body brought healing and resurrection to her.
In this climactic instance of relating to an outcast, Jesus overcame death, foreshadowing what he would do in the future, “getting up” just like the little girl. What is most striking is how Jesus risks his reputation by (1) reaching out to women and (2) offering healing to them through a touch. Are we willing to risk our reputation and reach out to touch those dying with AIDS, the untouchables of today? The text does not say what killed this little girl and, because of that, she represents all who are “dead” in some way, even those in our communities and around the world whose “bodies [have been] done in by AIDS.”3
Moreover, the healing touch of Jesus raises questions about what is healing and how healing takes place. What might be helpful to consider regarding this is that though healing may be physical, it is also relational and social, restoring the ostracized and demonized back into the human community where they can be loved and touched again. Nothing can replace a restorative healing touch to those who need to know that they are not alone in death. To touch one deemed untouchable may bring new life to that individual in ways one would never expect. To touch an AIDS victim may actually let them know that they are loved as part of the human community. On this World AIDS Day, Jesus shows us how much power there is in a touch. Hopefully, we will also remember those around the world who suffer with HIV/AIDS and how any willing church can touch them. Through a human touch, those who are outcast (e.g. AIDS victims) can be restored into the community. What kind of God will go all the way to touch death in order to destroy it for us?—a God whose ministry is one of mercy, making all “well” (vv. 21-22).4
Through just one touch, Jesus can bring new life and resurrection to those who are deemed dead in society. Through his touch, we can be brought back into the community of humanity and no longer be an outcast. “He touched me. He touched. And oh the joy, that floods my soul. Something happened and now I know. He touched me and made me whole.”5
The descriptive details in this passage include:
Sounds: Hear the leader of the synagogue’s plea to Jesus; hear the flute players and crowd making noise; hear Jesus’ words to the crowd and the crowd laughing at what he says;
Sights: See the leader of the synagogue kneel before Jesus; see Jesus, with his disciples, getting up and following this leader to his daughter; see the flute players and crowd; see the girl get up after Jesus touches her; and
Textures: Feel the girl’s cold, hard hand after she dies and the texture of Jesus’ hands when he touched her.
III. Further Suggestions
Because of the focus on touch, it may be useful to utilize the song “He Touched Me” as a key musical rendition in the worship service or sermon.
- For a provocative transcribed plenary address from Monifa A. Jumanne dealing with the black church and AIDS, see “Black Church Leadership in the Age of AIDS: What Must We Do to Be Saved?” Blow the Trumpet in Zion: Global Vision and Action for the 21st Century Black Church. Ed. Iva E. Carruthers, Frederick D. Haynes III, and Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005. pp. 146-152. This address may provide food for thought as you develop your sermon as it relates to issues related to AIDS and how the church deals with it.
- If one were to frame the discussion about AIDS and the ministry of the church under the theme of hospitality or approach the biblical text through that lens, then Arthur Sutherland’s work, I Was A Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006), is a must read. As he notes, “Hospitality is the practice by which the church stands or falls.” See p. 83.
- For raising the awareness of the posture of lament in preaching and thinking about how lament may be ministry for those suffering, in this case those with AIDS, see my book, Spirit Speech: Lament and Celebration in Preaching. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2009.
- For thinking about those on the margins of society in the book of Matthew, see Warren Carter’s, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000.
1. Copeland, M. Shawn. Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010. p. 68.
2. For these statistics and further information about the interconnection of AIDS and the African American community, see Avert.org. Online location: http://www.avert.org/hiv-african-americans.htm accessed 8 August 2009
3. Copeland, M. Shawn. Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being. p. 57.
4. Much of this biblical commentary can also be found in Bartlett, David L. and Barbara B. Taylor. “Proper 5 (Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26).” Feasting on the Word: Year A/ Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (propers 3-16). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Pr, 2011.
5. “He Touched Me.” African American Heritage Hymnal. Chicago, IL: GIA Press, 2001. #273