Tuesday, December 06, 2011

"The Ones Who Point the Way," Advent 2B (December 4, 2011), World AIDS Day (observed)

Isaiah 40:1-11
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of our God, make straight in the desert a highway for the Holy One. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of God shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of God has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Human One comes with might, and God’s arm rules; God’s reward is with him, and God’s recompense before him. The Human One will feed God’s flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Child of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of our God,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Will you pray with me? God who is present in all places, open the eyes of our hearts so that we can see you clearly and recognise your love for us; teach us to accept your wisdom, to trust your will and act in ways that reflect your love for us. In all your names we pray, amen.

It’s time to leave on our journey! We’re on a journey this Advent—the season of four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Last week, the first Sunday in Advent, we talked about preparing for this journey, and what we should be packing and how to get ready for the trip.

Today we’re actually setting out—getting in the plane, train, automobile, cruise ship, dogsled, whatever—and going towards our destination. We know where we’re going and how to get there—we’ve packed what we need for the journey and for when we arrive. Now we’re experiencing that journey.

When we travel, we don’t have to blaze a new trail or chart unknown waters. We have maps, paved roads, courses already laid out for us. People have been there before us—the planners and builders of those roads, the airline and rail people who have the routes all figured out. They give us not only signs along the way so we know what road we’re on and how far to the next city, they also let us know what restaurants and gas stations are at the next exit. When our plane lands, they tell us the local time and weather, and what the gates are for connecting flights. There are travellers’ aid stations in many airports and train stations—they are there to help travellers who need some assistance—they missed a connection and aren’t sure how to get another flight, or they are travelling with a baby and they ran out of diapers, or they have a long layover and need a safe place to rest for four or five hours….

Have you ever been to a maze? Temporary ones are very popular in the fall, made of hay bales or cornstalks; European palaces often included mazes formed from hedges as a form of entertainment. Mazes are intended to get people lost—they are deliberately confusing, unlike a labyrinth, which leads a person in and then back out. No, mazes want to get you lost! Corn mazes are grown—the corn is planted in the form of the maze and as it grows, it becomes harder and harder to see the other parts of the maze, because the corn grows so high that a person can’t see over it. Usually when you go through such a maze, they will give you a flag. In the centre of the maze, up in a tower, is a spotter, someone who can guide you out of the maze. When you are completely lost, sure you can’t get out of the maze—or into the centre—you can raise your flag and the spotter will guide you.

We all have people like that in our lives, I hope—people who can show us the way, lead us, guide us, people who have been there before and know the road. We aren’t on this journey alone, after all—other people have been there before us and can help us get there. They can see what lies ahead and tell us we should turn right or ignore that path to the left. They can often see what we cannot, remind us of choices we have forgotten we had, or never knew we had.

Today we are remembering World AIDS Day, on this the Sunday closest to December 1st. We all know someone who is living with HIV/AIDS; perhaps we ourselves are living with HIV/AIDS; many of us have lost someone dear to us to HIV/AIDS.  The struggle to find treatments, effective preventive measures, even a cure, has been led by many people. Some of them were heroic in the fullest sense of the word—working with tears and hope mixed to identify the virus, to isolate it, learn its secrets in order to conquer it. Others have been no less hard working, but as concerned with the profit making end of the struggle—and yet they too have contributed to reduce infections, mitigate the effects, and offer treatments. The truth is that our guides are as human as we are, and while they may be exemplary in one part of their lives, they are far from it in other areas. Does that matter? Personally, if someone offers a reduction in suffering, in infection rates, in deaths, I will not refuse it. Their moral failings are between them and God, and it may be that what they offer to reduce the impact of HIV/AIDS offsets their wrongdoing in God’s eyes.

Guides may not be perfect—but they do offer a path, a way to the place we need and want to be.

John the Baptist was not perfect—he seems to have been rough and antagonistic to people. But he was still like that spotter in the maze, offering people a chance to change their lives, to try a new path. He was a guide to their new journey, offering them repentance. Repentance for or to what, we don’t really know—Mark is not very specific about that. John simply tells the people to repent and change their ways, that they are too complacent and think they are OK, but they need to begin a new life.

John is not clear on what that new life was to be—but then, he was the guide, not the teacher. He was like the airline staff, telling us the temperature in Miami—but not what to wear to stay cool, or to drink lots of water. He warns the people—telling them to turn left or right, but not what to do when they get there.

That is what Jesus does—offers a new way of living, not just a new way to get to old ways of living. But in this Advent journey, we are still on the way to that stable, that manger where Jesus will be born.

So for now, we are still on that journey…we have good maps, travel guides, assistance on the way. Who are some of your guides? Perhaps parents, or friends, or siblings—maybe your partner helps you find your way. Or maybe you find a road map in books—the Bible, of course, but maybe also in the books of Thomas Merton, or the writings of Archbishop Desmond Tutu; perhaps in the lives of people like Harvey Milk, Rev. Troy Perry, Albert Schweitzer, or Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. There are many guides, many road maps, some better than others—we just need to be sure they are pointing to the place we want to go. If we’re heading to London, we don’t need a map of Michigan. But those guides who point us in the right direction—they are the heralds that Isaiah is talking about—they are smoothing out the road, making the heights accessible and the low places safe. They are showing us the path, the road, to take.

Who are your guides? Who are the people or images or books or movies that  help you find your way? Check them often, and always when you are in doubt. That is what they are for. Raise that flag and ask for help from the spotter in the centre of the maze; they will guide you.

Christmas is coming—do you know the way? Follow your guides—they know the safest path to Bethlehem.

In the name of the God who journeys with us, amen.

A Litany for World AIDS Day
One: Gracious God, we celebrate your love for us all, and give thanks that You listen to us when we pray to You. Send your Spirit upon us now and lift us up. Encourage and strengthen us. Instill in us your wisdom, and increase our faith. Hear us, O God, as we pray on this World AIDS Day:
Many: Help us stop AIDS and keep the promise.
One: Hear us, O God, on this World AIDS Day as we pray for all those who are living with HIV and AIDS, and for all those affected: family members, friends and lovers, all of us. We rejoice that many now receive life-saving medication, and give thanks for medical advances, creative advocacy and generosity that have made this possible. But so many have already died, so many continue to suffer, so many are cut off from vital information and medication. Help us to work for universal access to treatment and to support research toward a cure. For the sake of all who suffer:
Many: Help us stop AIDS and keep the promise.
One: Hear us, O God, on this World AIDS Day as we pray for the millions of children who have lost parents, and for the millions of children who are themselves living with HIV or AIDS. Empower us to help change conditions that put them at risk: poverty, war, lack of education, and inadequate heath care. For the sake of the children:
Many: Help us stop AIDS and keep the promise.
One: : Hear us, O God, on this World AIDS Day as we pray for women, celebrating the many gifts they bring to the front lines of response to this pandemic. as caregivers, educators, entrepreneurs and activists. But we know too, many women are vulnerable millions around the world at risk for infection. Show us how to protect, empower and heal all women and girls, in our own communities and throughout the world. For the sake of our sisters:
Many: Help us stop AIDS and keep the promise.
One: Hear us, O God, on this World AIDS Day as we pray for all those affected by or living with HIV or AIDS here, in Canada. Help us increase our capacity for effective response in communities which are disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS.
Many: Help us stop AIDS and keep the promise.
One: Hear us, O God, on this World AIDS Day and help us to eliminate AIDS-related stigma and discrimination. Help us break through silences that block effective response: let us teach all who are vulnerable about the means to prevent infection, let us encourage the frightened to know their HIV status, let us encourage all who are at risk to seek treatment. In the power of your love, which casts out fear:
Many:: Help us stop AIDS and keep the promise.
One: Hear us, O God, on this World AIDS Day and help us to nurture in ourselves and in our community faithful stewardship of your good gift of sexuality. Help us to reclaim this powerful gift, teach us to use and enjoy this blessing so that your sons and daughters may grow in the values of love, self esteem, and sexual health, and your communities may grow in mutual responsibility, justice, and inclusivity.
Many: O God, embolden us with your Spirit, so that we can stop AIDS and keep the promise. Grant that your church may be a healing presence in the face of HIV and AIDS. Show us your vision and guide us to the words and actions that will make a difference. On this World AIDS Day, we raise our prayers to You, placing our trust in You for compassion, healing and courage in the struggle to stop AIDS, to keep the promise. Hear us and answer us according to the richness of your mercies. Amen.

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