Matthew 8:1-4

Everyone must have been on a spiritual high as they followed Jesus down the path that day. It was probably a beautiful day. They had spent hours in a lovely place on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee listening to Jesus. They had been learning about a new way of life, the way of faith and of love, a way that was very different from the rigid dogmatism of their religious traditions. Everything must have seemed right. The people must have been feeling good — like we want to feel.
Then something happened that shattered their euphoria. There, in the middle of their path, was something that was both repulsive and frightening to them, a man with leprosy.
Leprosy was a terrible disease. It ate away parts of the body of an afflicted person and made them grotesque before it finally killed them. Leprosy was believed to be very contagious. Primitive laws required that anyone who had leprosy should be regarded as unclean and quarantined from society. Anyone who touched a leper was also regarded as “unclean” until ritual purification was made. Even those who loved the lepers were required to withdraw from them. It was generally believed that there was a moral dimension to the disease, that people with leprosy were being punished by God for something they had done.
No one wanted to be confronted by a leper, especially on such an occasion as the followers of Jesus were enjoying. Why did he have to be there? Why did he have to spoil the day? No doubt, many would have liked to have pretended that they had not seen the leper and gone on with their celebration. Jesus would not have it so. The faith taught on the mountain top had to be practiced along the path.
We are having a similar experience today. We like to put our lives together in pleasant, prosperous ways. We like to build them out of happiness and security. We like for our religious experiences to be a part of that. We like to feel good. But there is a reality intruding into our experience of life that is as repulsive and as frightening to us as the leper was to those early followers of Jesus. In fact, it is remarkably similar to leprosy. It is the world wide epidemic of AIDS. We would prefer that we did not see it. In fact, we are pushing it out of sight so that we hear and think much less about it than we once did. But it is still there, like a leper in our path, and we have to reckon with it.
By now, I am sure that you all know the basic facts about AIDS. The statistics about the world wide epidemic are frightening. To many of us, the statistics must seem exaggerated because we don’t know of many people with the illness. But that may be because many of the people who have been infected don’t yet know it and many who do know it keep their affliction secret to avoid the discrimination and hardship that could come with letting their illness be known. The victims must be all around us. We can’t help being afraid. We know so little about it. What if one of our children should be infected? One young single woman confided in her pastor, “I am worried about the impact of AIDS on society — and I am worried about myself.”
People respond to the epidemic in many ways — some with indignation, some with fear, some with anger. All of these are understandable. But are they the best responses? Are they the Christian responses?
Indignation is a natural response. There is a moral dimension to the problem. Many innocent people have been infected with AIDS through blood transfusions and in other ways. Still, AIDS is being spread, in large part, by practices that most people regard as immoral, practices like both homosexual and heterosexual promiscuity and intravenous drug abuse.
Some Christians sincerely believe that AIDS is something God created to punish the homosexuals. They think it would be wrong to interfere with such a divine judgment. But that can’t be right. If God worked in that way, we would all be in deep trouble for one reason or another. AIDS is simply a terrible illness and we should do all we can to cure it.
Even so, when people and societies find themselves suffering the tragic results of their own actions and life styles, the Bible teaches us to understand that as an experience of the judgment of God. If the AIDS epidemic is, at least in part, the result of a shallow, irresponsible, pleasure seeking life style, then it certainly should call us to some form of repentance. We should be thinking about a return to morality instead of just trying to learn how to have “safe sex.”
Indignation is a natural and understandable response to AIDS. But it is not the way in which Jesus responded to the leper.
Other people respond to AIDS in fear. That too is a natural response. It is easy for us to make idealistic statements about how we should deal with AIDS. But, when it pushes its way into your life through an encounter with someone who is infected, fear is very likely to be a dimension of the response.
I recall the feeling I had when I first went into a hospital room to call on a young man who was dying of AIDS. I did not know the young man. I went because I had been asked to go by a friend. I went because I felt that it was important to make a compassionate response to a person who was dying. I knew the facts about AIDS. I knew that I was in no danger. I knew that the surgical gown and mask I wore were for his protection, not mine. But, when the visit was over and it was time for me to pray, when I reached out to take his hand, I found myself having to overcome some real inner resistance. I was afraid.
I can understand the panic that ensued in a certain community when people learned that a child who had been infected with AIDS by a blood transfusion had been registered in their school. I understand why there are two sides to the confidentiality issue. People who might be at risk have a right to know when a threat is present. Yet, if they know, will fear make them do terrible things to people who are already suffering too much? Whatever response we make to the AIDS epidemic, we will have to own and overcome our fear. Fear is a natural response to AIDS but Jesus did not respond to the leper in fear.
Some will undoubtedly react to the reality of AIDS with anger. We know that many people bring this disease upon themselves — and others — by choosing a life style that most of us think is immoral. It is natural to be angry when someone we love does that to himself or herself, and when anyone does it to others.
One of the tragedies that has happened over and over in the aftermath of the discovery of a case of AIDS in the family is that the parents have been so broken hearted and so angry that they have rejected their son or daughter and cut themselves off from him or her. The results compound the tragedy. The infected person is forced to endure the slow and painful process of dying alone, without financial support, and — worse — without the loving relationships of the family. And the family must suffer terribly during that process too. It is useless to say, “Don’t be angry.” Anger just happens. It will have to be dealt with when it is there.
Anger and rejection are natural reactions to AIDS. But Jesus did not respond to the leper in anger or in rejection.
Christ calls us to move beyond all of these natural reactions and to respond in a very different way to the reality of AIDS and to those who are its victims. When Jesus turned aside on that day to make a compassionate response to the leper who was in His path, He demonstrated another way of responding to human suffering. Those who would be followers of Jesus must learn how to respond in loving compassion.
Love will require us to seek a cure for AIDS and to call for a renewal of morality and to do all sorts of practical things to limit the spread of the epidemic.
Love should make Christian people teach and model a way of life that will not cause the epidemic to spread. A significant story comes out of Southeast Asia, where the AIDS epidemic has reached terrible proportions. Among the mountain villages of Thailand, there is one village where virtually one hundred percent of the population is infected with AIDS. But in the next village, there is not a single case. What made the difference? Many years ago, a Lutheran Missionary came to the second village and the people all accepted the Christian faith. Since that time, the people of that village learned and lived a life style that does not include sexual promiscuity. It seems that the world could learn something from that village.
But love must also make a personal response to those who suffer. We can understand that. A few years ago, a church women’s group undertook to make thousands of warm receiving blankets for little babies who were being born infected with AIDS. It is a natural thing to want to make a loving response to the suffering innocent.
But what about those who are not innocent? Can there be any warm blanket of love for them? Some people will say, “No, we must respond to wrong behavior in a way that will condemn it! A loving response might encourage it!” But we did not learn that response from Christ. No one ever had higher moral expectations than did Jesus. Yet, when people suffered — even because of their moral failures — Jesus was there to love, to help, and if possible to heal. We should know that. We are all beneficiaries of the compassionate response of Christ. Can any of us claim to have deserved God’s love?
Can we respond in that way to others, even others with AIDS? Let me tell you a story. It is a true story. There was a certain church that had a pastor whom everyone loved and admired. For years, he had been there for them. He had loved them and cared for them and preached the Christian Faith to them by word and by example. He had lived among them and raised his children among them and made the whole life of their community better through his ministry.
Then one day one of the pastor’s adult sons came back home to live with his parents. He was ill. His parents were caring for him. Eventually, the word went through the community that the pastor’s son had AIDS.
How would the church react? This was a down to earth, middle American community with old fashioned moral values. They might have been expected to get angry at the pastor and reject him, saying that he must not have practiced what he preached since he had failed as a parent. They might have been expected to get angry at the son for letting the pastor and the church down. They might have been expected to withdraw from the whole family in natural fear. Any of these things might have happened. But none of them did.
Instead the church gathered around the pastor and his family and his afflicted son. They surrounded them with loving compassion. They visited. They helped with nursing duties. They washed the linens. They did all they could to help the family through the time of tragic suffering. And when death came, the whole community mourned. That sort of thing can happen. We know that it can happen — because it did.
In Jesus’ day, religious laws forbade anyone to touch a leper. But Jesus reached out and touched the leper because loving compassion required it. In our day, all sorts of things within us and around us forbid us to get involved with people who have AIDS — or even with the issue itself. But if we are followers of Jesus, we will. We will reach out in love — and touch. That may not make the disease go away. But there are other ways in which a loving touch can heal.

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