A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, 20 July 2014, marking the commencement of AIDS 2014 Melbourne:
This afternoon’s readings set before us a vision of how our world might look like when people deal justly with one another; where people look out for one another and, in particular, where people take care for the most vulnerable. It shows us what our world might look like when we do not overlook those who have little material support—the hungry, the homeless, those who lack proper clothing; shows us what our world might look like when we take care of those living with illness; shows us what our world might be when we speak for those who suffer oppression and from injustice, or are held prisoners because of their convictions; shows us what a world free from disease and acts of terror—like the tragic missile attack on flight MH 17 on Friday morning—looks like. That world, our readings tell us, will be like God himself living among us, will be like the King of all kings welcoming us into his kingdom. That vision, I believe, is one living and working for.
Our first reading from the prophesy of Isaiah (Isaiah 58.6-10) speaks into the context of a people living under oppressive, corrupt leadership: their rulers have ‘all turned to their own way, each to his own gain’, they have ignored the needs of their people who, literally, perish under their rule (Isaiah 56.11). They suffer under a regime where good people disappear, and never return: ‘devout people are taken away while no one understands’ where they are taken (Isaiah 57.1). No wonder, then, that in foretelling the people’s future, the prophet Isaiah strongly condemns the rulers of that nation. Not only do their leaders oppress and mislead their people. They do so under the mantle of religious observance—maintaining an outward expression of piety, pretending that the actions the prophet condemns as evil are, in fact, principled decisions taken for the wellbeing of the nation, and the good of the people. They may keep the religious fast, but only go hungry for food, not for justice: ‘in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers’, the prophet Isaiah decries their behaviour (Isaiah 58.3).
God does not seek outward piety, unprincipled faith, the prophet explains. Instead, our first reading tells us what kind of religious observance, what kind of faith, God does seek: God wants to raise up a people whose faith is underpinned by principles and action; a faith that has as its founding principles the first and greatest commandments: ‘love the Lord your God, and love your neighbour as yourselves’ (Deuteronomy 6.5, Matthew 22.36). Any religious observance that goes contrary to this founding principle is empty, and fails to please God, our first lesson tells. The fast that God chooses, then, is not necessarily an abstinence from food or drink. The fast that pleases God is to put an end to injustice: ‘breaking the bonds of injustice, removing the ties of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free’ (Isaiah 58.6). The fast that pleases God is to put an end to hunger and need: ‘sharing your bread with hungry, housing the homeless poor, clothing those in need of cover’. The fast that pleases God is one that celebrates community: ‘not hiding yourself from your own family’, is how Isaiah concludes his vision of a fast well-pleasing to God (Isaiah 58.7).
The people who look out for one another as for their own family, and do not hide themselves from own their family either, are people who live out their faith well; are people who are shining lights in their communities—‘your light shall shine forth like the dawn’ (Isaiah 58.10). They are people who seek to bring healing to others because they themselves have been healed—‘your healing shall spring up quickly’ (Isaiah 58.8). They are people who have no fear of their oppressive rulers because they trust in God’s power to save—‘your vindicator shall go before you and the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard’ (Isaiah 58.8). They are people who, because of the way in which they live their lives of faith and action, come to experience the presence of God as if he were a familiar friend: ‘you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say: “here I am”,’ Isaiah foretells (Isaiah 58.9). This is the people that God chooses for himself: a people that lives out of the strength of their fundamental beliefs; a people that loves other people and understands and respects their needs; a people that puts their own gain second and invests in others first: a people that ‘satisfies the needs of the afflicted’. For them, ‘light shall rise in the darkness, and even the gloomiest darkness shall be like midday’ (Isaiah 58.10).
This light is one that can plunge with its blaze even the depth of despair, such as the tragic loss of so many people, including delegates of the AIDS 2014 conference, as flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine. God promises those he chooses the light of life—both here on earth as guide in our personal and corporate darknesses, and in eternity as perpetual light.
Just as the prophet Isaiah is clear about the kind of people that God does choose for himself, he also leaves very little doubt about the people that God shuns: they are the people who point their fingers at others, who stigmatise others, as the root and cause of misfortune and hardship. The people God shuns are those who speak evil of others, who ignore or belittle the plight of others. For them, the prophet Isaiah foretells, darkness will remain darkness and despair will only increase: they have, as it were, have received their reward already. Where the our first lesson only obliquely points to the fate of those whose religious motivation is serving only their own cause, and who ignore the needs of others, in our second lesson, from the kingdom vision of St Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 25.31-40), the fate of those not chosen by God because of the way they have is spelled out quite explicitly: those who are blessed are welcomed into God’s kingdom to live there with the God they have served by serving their neighbours, while those who have ignored the needs of their neighbours are thrown into the darkness and gloom with which they have surrounded themselves during their lifetime, by their blindness to the needs of others and their inordinate love of their own gain (Matthew 25.46).
Love of people, our readings tell us, is what life with God is about. And that basic principle has clear implications for how we, as Christians, are called to live ourselves. Those who are invited into the presence of the king in the parable from our second reading are astounded that, in serving their neighbours in need, they had, in fact, served their king. Because their living for and loving of their neighbours had become the underlying rhythm of their lives, they have, in fact, not consciously recognised their deeds and service. Which is why the king needs to remind them: ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25.40). Jesus’ command holds true not just for the people of the first century, or for people from a particular nation or background. The end-time vision that Matthew’s Gospel puts before us speaks into a universal context. For Christians, Jesus’ command to serve him by caring for those who are among least extends to the entire global society, and motivates the work of so many people assembled in Melbourne for AIDS 2014 to step up the pace in a global response to HIV. ‘Just as you did it to the least of these of my family’, for Christians means to ensure that those facing lives with HIV or suffering from the effects of AIDS are given adequate support and care (Matthew 25.40). All of us a granted opportunities to contribute to that vision: we can live out Christ’s command by our advocacy, by our engagement, our educative, development and health work, our contribution to the advancement of research into HIV, by our pastoral care or simply by walking alongside those affected by HIV.
Those who are the least of Jesus’ family are often the poorest and the sick in the poorest countries; it is the poorest people who often have most need for affordable health and social care. As Christians, it is therefore essential that we support—through our giving and our own active service—those who provide care to people living with HIV; both at home in Victoria, and overseas. I am delighted that so many Christians Agencies actively contribute to the work of ensuring that some of the most vulnerable have access to medical treatment and educational resources that will help reduce HIV transmissions and AIDS related deaths; in particular in Papua New Guinea and throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. I am thankful for the commitment and support of so many Christians in bringing about the vision of a world free of HIV.
At the same time, I pray for greater national and international resolve to commit funds for AIDS research and the development of medications that are accessible by the ‘least of Jesus’ family’—those living in poverty in the Global South, who have no other means to access expensive treatment or care. At home, I pray for continued commitment to supporting those loving with HIV, and in particular for those in need of palliative care in the final stages of AIDS. I pray for the resolve to put our money where it is most needed: not to profit from those who are sick, or unable to afford the healthcare they need, but to reach out to them generously. I pray for those researchers who died on board of flight MH17, and for their loved ones, families, friends and colleagues, and believe that their example will inspire many to join in bringing about the vision at the heart of a transformed world, of a transformed humanity. For in pursuing together the vision of people’s lives changed for good, forever, we fulfil God’s will for his world, our readings assure us.
It is my hope that the AIDS 2014 Conference commencing today will be richly blessed: may the research and resolve, the advocacy and action, the setting of strategy and shaping of policy that flows from AIDS 2014 Melbourne bring renewed hope and care to those living with HIV. May we—as people yearning for a world aligned with God’s values and will—be daily equipped by God’s Holy Spirit for the work of renewal and transformation. A work that, when we share in breaking the yokes of oppression and the ‘pointing of the finger’ of stigmatisation, can bring light even in the deepest darkness (Isaiah 58.9).
A work that, when we serve those living with disease as if they were our own family, can shed light even into the darkness of death—whether the unexpected death caused by terrorist acts such as the attack on flight MH17, or the equally terrible—but tragically expected—deaths of those millions living with AIDS and who lack access to proper healthcare and medical resources.
May we—as people of faith—be sustained in our commitment by the visions set before us of a world transformed by those who serve God by serving our neighbours, and the ‘least of these who are members of Christ’s family’ (Matthew 25.40).
‘And now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen’ (Ephesians 3.20-21).