(The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was started in 1987 to celebrate the lives of people who have died of AIDS-related causes. Currently weighing over 54 tons, it is the largest piece of community folk art in the world. Each panel measures 3’x6′ and is made by loved ones of the victim. It currently occupies 1.3 million square feet, and can no longer be displayed in its entirety on the entire National Mall. It consists of more than 48,000 panels honoring more than 94,000 individuals. This is 14% of the total number of people who have died from AIDS in the United States alone.)
1 Kings 19:1-15
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return; and on your way, go by way of the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
Maybe you could think of today’s sermon as a play in four acts, with each act dealing with finding and experiencing God in surprising and unexpected circumstances. The first act was our reading from the First Book of Kings. There, we see the prophet Elijah, who’s on the run. He’s just publicly humiliated the prophets of the god Baal – the god worshiped by the evil queen, Jezebel. As if publicly humiliating these prophets wasn’t enough, Elijah also killed them all, which would seem to be a bit excessive to anyone, and it was certainly seen as excessive to Jezebel, who swore to capture Elijah and give him a taste of his own medicine. So Elijah did what any reasonable person would do if their life was in danger in their own country – he fled across the border. Feeling that the whole world was against him, he trekked all the way to Mt. Horeb – which most of us probably know better as Mt. Sinai, where Elijah knew God had appeared to Moses and gave him the Ten Commandments. Elijah knows the story: God appeared to Moses in a cloud, with thunder and lightning and wind and a loud booming voice – really, you know this; I know you’ve seen the movie. And Elijah has seen the movie, too, and so in the midst of his own crisis of faith, Elijah wanted to have a meeting with the boss now, too, as it were. He wanted to offer God a list of grievances and get some advice, and he figures this is the best place to find God. Well, as we heard, Elijah definitely got the big theatrics – wind, earthquake, fire – but ultimately, Elijah encounters God in a completely unexpected way – in the quiet. In the small, still voice, asking him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” along with the implied “Now quit complaining and get back to work.” Elijah encountered God in the way and place he least expected.
The second act in this play is our reading from Luke. Here, Jesus had gone to Capernaum, a favorite place of his and one that he knew well. On this particular trip, he got a request for help from a centurion in the Roman army. This man is essentially part of the muscle of the Roman Empire, imposing the Roman thumb on top of the local residents, keeping them in line and quiet and, most importantly, paying their taxes. By any measure, a Roman centurion wouldn’t ordinarily be seen as a friend of the townspeople, but apparently, this one was at least a bit different, having helped the people build a synagogue. So when the centurion seeks out Jesus’ help to heal a beloved slave who was near death, the townspeople told Jesus “Well, yes, he’s a Roman, but as Romans go he’s a decent one; you really should help him.” Of course, we heard about the centurion’s faith, the trust he placed in Jesus, telling Jesus he doesn’t even need to bother himself with coming all the way to the house. He trusted in Jesus’ power and authority such that he could just will the slave’s healing from wherever he was. And just as Elijah was shocked and surprised at how he experienced God’s presence, now Jesus was similarly shocked, seeing the presence of God so powerfully, and faith exhibited so strongly, and by a Gentile, a Roman occupier of all people. Incredible!
Scene three of this play takes place in much more recent times. Since today the Presbyterian Church recognizes World AIDS Awareness Sunday, this scene takes place in the mid-1980s, in and around Ward 5B of the San Francisco General Hospital. It was the first hospital ward dedicated to treating AIDS patients, even before it was even called AIDS, at the very beginning of the epidemic when very little was understood about the disease and when people were terrified, panicked. Into this scene, enter Ronnie. Ronnie was a gay man living in the Castro District of San Francisco. He had a slight build, and he dressed flamboyantly, and talked with a lisp and he had a limp wrist and his hips swished when he walked. Ronnie was basically a walking catalogue of all of the stereotypes that the general public had negatively held, assuming all gay people were like. Add to that the fact that Ronnie could be really nasty, catty, cynical, and frankly, even bitter – which was understandable, given the physical and emotional abuse that people had heaped upon him all his life. Unlike many gay men who could blend, who could pass as straight, passing was never an option for Ronnie. He couldn’t hide who he was, and he’d paid a heavy price for it. And Ronnie’s real hot button was religion. Mention God, or Jesus, or the Church to Ronnie and he would unload a barrage of profanity and obscenity on you like you’d never heard before, and he might even physically throw something at you. That was the result of being told his entire life by people inside the church that he was a terrible person, sinful pervert who was going to hell.
And then came AIDS. Ronnie started to see his friends and acquaintances getting sick – first just a couple, and then more, and then even more. It was maybe just a few dark blotches on their skin at first, but then they’d start losing weight, and a lot of weight, fast. They’d become gaunt, and weak, and over time blotches of Kaposi’s Sarcoma would cover their bodies, and still, no one really understood what was happening. At first, “gt was just called the “gay plague,” since it was predominantly, not exclusively but predominantly, appearing in the gay community. No one really knew what to do for them. A lot of people didn’t want to do anything for them, out of fear it was contagious and they’d get “it.” And frankly, a lot of other people didn’t want to help them simply because they were supposedly just a bunch of perverts who deserved to die anyway. It was God’s punishment and condemnation, according to Jerry Falwell and others.
Ronnie started to visit his sick friends and acquaintances in their homes – especially those whose families had long ago disowned them and even whose friends had now abandoned them; the ones who had no one else. Ronnie knew what it was like to be friendless and abandoned. Some of them he didn’t know well, if at all. Still, he helped them take their medications. He helped them eat, and get dressed, and get to the doctor’s. He bathed them, and he cleaned up after them after they’d lost control of their bodily functions. And when things got worse, and they always got worse, and they were admitted to Ward 5B, Ronnie spent hours visiting them there, too. He would bring them their trays when hospital orderlies refused to deliver food into the rooms, and he’d feed them when their skeletal arms were too weak to allow them to feed themselves. He listened to them when they could talk, even when their dementia caused them to speak nonsense, and he talked to them when he wasn’t even sure they could hear him. Ronnie actually had a remarkable singing voice, and sometimes he sang to them – maybe a Top 40 hit, or a disco favorite, or maybe a showtune. On a few occasions, when they’d asked him to, Ronnie even momentarily put aside his own hostility and sang some comforting old religious hymn that they’d both remembered from being in church as kids. Just as importantly as all that, Ronnie gave them the incredible gift of simple human touch. When others wouldn’t even come in the room, he held their hands, and stroked their cheeks, and brushed their hair, and in general let them know that someone cared. That they mattered. That even if everyone else in the world had abandoned them, there was still someone who loved them.
And when they died, and they always died – they always died, thirty or forty of his friends every single year – it was Ronnie who came up with the extra money the orderlies demanded just to their bodies; and it was him who fought and argued with funeral directors who refused to take the bodies, or who wanted to charge three or four or five times their normal fee to do so. And it was often Ronnie who ultimately got their box of ashes, too, because no one else would come to claim them. And it was him who spread their ashes out over someplace that had been special in their memories: out over a mountaintop, or into the sea, deep in a lush forest, and even a few times into the parking lot of their favorite dance club. And then, after that, he went back to Ward 5B and did it all over again.
Sometimes, you see the existence and the power and the holiness of God in the most surprising of people and situations. Even though he would have sworn at you if he’d heard you say it at the time, Ronnie was the very presence of God on Ward 5B.
Both of our Lectionary texts are reminders to us to always try to see the presence of God in the world. To be prepared to see the face of God in others, sometimes even in the people you might least expect it. In the Roman centurions of the world. In the Ronnies of the world
And that brings us to the fourth act. What is the fourth act of this play? Honestly, I don’t know yet. It’s up to you and me to write it, by way of our words and actionsover the course of this coming week, and all the weeks to follow – because you see, God doesn’t want us to just see God in unexpected places; we’re called to *be* God in unexpected places. Out of gratitude for the love that God has surrounded us with, to be the face of God, the face of Christ, to someone you encounter this week. Maybe someone completely different than you are, maybe someone you don’t even know well, or maybe someone you do know and frankly, you don’t even like, and you might think wouldn’t even appreciate the gesture. We live in very trying times, as you know, and we all need to see God’s presence in more of it. So this week, find some way to be the surprising encounter with God that *they* have this week. Elijah, and Jesus, and now even Ronnie, who is now enjoying the eternal reward that God had prepared for him before he was even born, would agree.
Thanks be to God.