Predigt MCC Köln, Preben Bakbo Sloth (Social Worker and HIV Activist)
3. Dezember 2023
Genesis 16,7-13 & Matthäus 5,3-10
Today is 1st Sunday in the Advent season. Friday was World AIDS Day.
I’ll try and bring those two together. It is difficult but anyway I’ll give it a try… So help me, God!
Worldwide 39 mio. people are people are living with HIV.
Last year 1,3 mio. people were diagnosed with HIV.
Less than 30 mio. PLH (People living with HIV) are getting proper treatment.
Almost 91.000 Germans are living with HIV.
I will focus on the stigma, related to HIV and to PLH. Some years ago when I was much involved with ecumenical HIV-projects in Denmark, I suggested that we made prepared ideas for liturgy, prayers etc. for this Sunday. However engaged and dedicated my sisters and brothers in this working group were, they answered that the idea was good, but there are so many traditions connected to 1st Sunday in Advent, so maybe people don’t want to hear and learn about HIV this day…. Stigma in itself!?
Talking about HIV today, 2023, in our part of the world – and the rest of the world too – we have to look into this “stigma”: Stigma is a greek word, meaning “wound”. In church and theology it also refers to the wounds Jesus got in his hands, feet and in his side when he was crucified. Marks of condemnation! Stigma also refers to the scars that these wounds leave.
Today stigma is felt and experienced as being excluded, avoided, isolated, ignored, disrespected, blamed, silenced out, shamed out, shunned and in many more direct and subtle ways.
Erving Goffmann, an American sociologist, explains that the result of stigma is a ruined/destroyed identity: You are not allowed to be who you are. You are not OK. Not in our group, in our community, in our congregation!
Mary Douglas, another American sociologist, explain that on a communal level, the one who is stigmatized pollutes the group, the community, and therefore must be excluded as to save the identity, the cleanliness of the group. (she makes lots of parallels to the laws in The Old Testament about what was clean, what was holy etc. Seeing this prohibitions as stigmatizing.)
There are many “reasons” for stigmatizing: gender identity, sexuality, body size, ethnicity, religion etc.
We have all experienced stigma. And we all do stigmatize.
(Why does stigma not come with a “vaccine” so that once being stigmatized, we do not stigmatize others for whatever other reason we stigmatize….? Wouldn’t that be fair? Wouldn’t that make the world easier?)
But we do not hear much about HIV today…
And we know that those of us living with HIV and who are well treated, i.e. the viral load is undetectable, we cannot pass on the virus to others. We cannot infect others. That is a fact.
Still, the stigma is there. Still PLH are afraid of the reactions of others if they tell… Still, PLH are left behind on the dating and partner market – just because of this virus, that we cannot even pass on… Still people are afraid of getting tested, though they know there is treatment available.
And then it is Advent :)
Usually we are talking about expectations and longings in this Advent season. We expect the birth of Jesus, we long for that, we long for Christmas. And a great, big smile lights up our eyes and our faces…
Expectations and longing is also a huge theme in the Bible, both in the Old and in the New Testament. In the Old Testament they longed to get back to Eden, to get out of the slavery in Egypt, to get back from the exile in Babylon, to get to the promised land during the 40 years in the dessert, after something else to eat in the dessert but manna seeds and quails…. In the New Testament the longed for liberation from the Roman occupation, for the promised Messiah, the disciples longed for being rewarded for following Jesus…. And all through the whole Bible individually people longed for healing, inclusion, community, acceptance, longed to understand life itself….
We, what do we long for? Today? What are our expectations and longings personally? In MCC Köln? For the society? For the world?
Jesus also longed for something. In Matt, 5 he shares about his longings: his mission and his vision: Among others he is longing for justice and peace. Nothing less!!!
On a WAD – and other days – PLH long for a life without stigma. ART has helped to reduce the stigma – but it is still here.
The “social medicine” that removes stigma around living with HIV is my longing. That miracle, that healing of society and healing of individuals is my longing. (Knowledge is unfortunately not enough to stop stigmatizing. It takes open hearts.)
Alowe me a small side step… About communion!
Communion has become a strong experience of this to me.
We share a meal. The bread is broken, and as the bread is consecrated the small “knack” – sound from the bread being broken, reminds me of how broken I am, we are. But in community, in the good, open caring, loving, inclusive and welcoming sommunity with God and my sisters and brothers I can heal, we can heal.
And then Hagar from the first reading. What about her? What is she doing here today?
Traditionally she is more important to our muslim sisters and brothers…. She is Egyptian, a slave of Sarah and Abraham. She is not a jew… But she was seen and heard by God. Her sufferings were seen and heard by God. After that experience she could return to her “normal” everyday life. And here flight, her escape into the dessert was suicidal. (Well, the atrocities of slavery is another matter, another day…) Her son is described and compared to “a wild donkey” = the ultimate freedom in opposition to her own life as a slave. But when she realized in being met by God, that she was chosen, special, OK, she accepted her situation. (Although still an object of stigma!)
“Du bist der Gott, der mich anschaut”, it says in my German Bible. It gave her some confidence. She went from being something – a slave – to being someone. A women with a mission.
To be seen by God is to be included. To be blessed. To be healed. Like in the blessing at the end of our services with the words about God who see us and in that seeing bless us :)
(We also know that Babies who do not experience eye contact – and lots of it – with their parents or caregivers do not develop mentally normal,. That’s how important it is to be seen, recognized and loved.)
Hagar is not the typical “icon” for us in church today. She was not of the right and chosen people. But God seems to have a pattern of breaking all these laws and regulations – some of which are still upheld in some churches…. The Bible is full of these wonderfull examples of God choosing the excluded: the table of genealogy of Jesus for example: David’s great grand mother was a Moabite, i.e. belonging to a despicable, hated enemies, the worst, a non-jew. Still David was chosen, and generations after Jesus, a descendant of David, becomes the son of God….. The women at the well, with all her men (lucky one… ;-) ) was not a decent women, but still she is chosen by Jesus…. The good Samaritan wasn’t a jew and yet he is an example to follow ever after… Peter, who rejected Jesus, was still chosen as the leader of “the church”… The Bible is packed with all these stories about the Wrong ones, the unclean, the stigmatized, who are seen by God, who are God’s chosen.
That is the justice and peace Jesus is longing for and working for. And Jesus passes that longing on to us. That must be our vision and mission too:
- To create justice!
- To create peace!
- To end stigma!
Stigma is a wall, that keeps others out. A stigmatizing community is a divided society. A society that needs healing.
Where there is stigma, there is pain. Where there is pain, there is a story. Some have misunderstood something. Not listened. There is a need of listening and understanding this story in order to heal, to create justice, to restore peace, to end stigma.
Where there is separation, stigma, we become strangers to each others; we need to turn to our stories, stigmatized and stigmatizers, turn to our stories and experiences, turn to each other, listening with understanding. With a will to understand, to reconcile. In that meeting. There is God. Like a small, newborn, vulnerable baby.
And finally… to my favourite Danish theologian AND philosopher. And NO, it is not Søren Kirkegaard! His name is K. E. Løgstrup.
He says in a much more poetic way than my humble translation reveals:
“Every time you meet a fellow human being you hold a part of his or her life in your hands. It may be a very big part. Or it may be a very small part – maybe just a small sentiment, a longing. You can crush this with your hands or make it wither away. Or you can nourish it, feed id, make it grow and bloom. It is up to you whether my life will succeed or not.”
That is the power you have!
I usually do not like to talk about power, because often power is in opposition to love. And then power becomes reckless and abusive. But love without power is sentimental and anemic. We need both: Love with power and strength.
So use your love powerfully so that my life and the lives of all other PLH sill succeed. That is what I am longing for this Advent. That is what Jesus calls the church to do.