8th May, 2005

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

Blessed Damien
Sermon preached by Fr. Mark D. Stuart

When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, “I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work which thou gavest me to do”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Powerless people do a lot of waiting. One of the ways that powerful people show their power over others is to make them wait. This is a tactic that works to remind the powerless who it is that is on top, that is in-charge, who it is that will set the agenda.

Even those with only minimal power do this; perhaps to empower a system or make themselves feel more important and powerful; governmental agencies and paper-pushing bureaucrats are the most classic examples of this: “take a number because to us you are only a number and then take a seat (if you can find one) with the throngs of the great unwashed until ‘Miz Terribly Busy’ or ‘Mr. Self Important’ will condescend to see you.” Even doctors, dentists, and laboratory offices will make you do this, in spite of the fact you have an appointment; reinforcing the point that “my professional or para-professional time is of course more important than yours, because I am a more important person than you.”

And in fact, it is the poor people who do most of the waiting in the world: They wait for their general assistance check before than can do anything; they wait for basic medical attention; they wait in line at the homeless breakfast; they wait at the USC AIDS Clinic; they wait for the lottery numbers to be announced; they wait for the letter or phone call about their job interview that never comes. They wait for others to decide their fate, because they are objects that others act upon, not the subjects of their own lives. They have been told for years and years, “be patient, say your prayers, stay in your place, stick with the process, don’t make waves, you shall have your ‘pie in the sky, by and by.'”

And yet somehow through the accidents of birth and unfairness of life, the poor can still somehow be a model for the Church… after all, didn’t Jesus say, “blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” ?! The rich and powerful don’t have to be patient, they do not have to learn any prayers, they don’t have to keep their place in line, they do not have to wait to be beckoned. They have all their pie now, before they die, because perhaps they suspect that for them there will be no ‘by and by.’

Now we believers have come to a holy time – a period of nine days in the liturgical year – when the Church quotes Jesus in saying, “Wait.” We as Christians actually ritualize the inaction of waiting. Between Ascension and Pentecost We experience a Novena of Waiting – a sanctifying nine days. But this waiting is different from the pointless postponement of present expectations that has always been the lot of the powerless. This is not the ‘marking of time’, the ‘take a number and be seated ’till we get around to you’, the ‘don’t call us; we’ll call you’ waiting. St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles says that Jesus presented Himself with many infallible signs during forty days of Resurrected Time, and then “while staying with them He charged them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for the promise of the Father.”

Jesus’ presence with the community of the Disciples in that time was His own participation in waiting. Jesus Himself waited upon God, hoped for His vindication, looked for His Gospel to be plain to all. He never asks us to do anything He Himself isn’t prepared to do. For too long, the real message conveyed by the Ascension was blurred and came to instead say that while Jesus was promoted to the head of the class, the rest of us poor slobs were held back in remedial reading.

Of course, the Disciples were impatient and asked, “Lord, what’s the agenda? Will you at this time restore the nation’s sovereignty? Will you at this time institute the revolution and restore our control over our own destiny?” Their questions were asked out of their powerlessness, out of their weakness and Jesus gives an answer which let them know that they themselves are the answer. He will not be the magician that not make their work necessary; He will not wave His hand and arrange for them to get the winning Powerball ticket so they can retire in Solana Beach .

Instead, Jesus’ answer to the powerless Church is to wait a few days, “You shall receive power to be my spirit-filled witnesses.” We are called from degraded waiting to a sanctified waiting, from a demoralized weakness to empowerment, from passive observers of life passing us by to giving testimony to the authenticity of our lives and the lives of others. This is not optional advice from our Lord; this is the very essence of who we are, who dare embrace the name of Christian.

One hundred and thirty-two years ago the steamship Kilauea deposited a young priest on the landing of the island of Moloka’i in the Hawaiian Islands. Normally the Church celebrates and commemorates its saints on the date of their death, their birth into new life. But the Church’s commemoration of Damien is an exception; we celebrate him on the date he first arrived on Moloka’i; because he was told prior by his bishop that ‘if you set foot there you can never leave and you will die a terrible death.’

But Damien went anyway. You see, that island was where the lepers were cruelly isolated out of fear, ignorance, and total lack of compassion; there was no cure for their disease and they were labeled outcast and unclean. In the native language the disease became known as the “separating sickness.” The lepers waited… they waited for help; for someone to care; and they waited for death. On Moloka’i there were few dwellings, little adequate food, no priest or doctor.

Here young Damien opened his soul to human misery: victims whose bodies were ravaged; dead bodies rotting on bare ground unable to be buried; he wandered amongst the smell of rotting flesh, viewing faces scarred by disfiguring disease. These were the true outcasts of the world, the least of the least; the most unempowered of the unempowered. But Damien saw them for who they were: beloved children of God. He vigorously tackled every need he encountered, whether spiritual or physical. He cleaned wounds, bandaged ulcers, amputated gangrenous limbs, and dug their graves and built their coffins before saying their requiem Masses.

As he lived among his people of Moloka’i, he never shrank back from the call to embrace them as brothers and sisters. And then the initial prophetic warning to him came true. After eleven years Damien himself contracted leprosy and yet continued to minister tirelessly to his fellow lepers for another five years. Slowly his body was overcome by the disease as his face became terribly disfigured, his larynx and lungs infected, his hands and feet encrusted with sores until wracked by the disease, his body began to shut down. When those by his bedside grieved that he was leaving them orphaned, Damien reassured them, “Oh, no! If I have any merit with God, I’ll intercede for everyone!” Then he died.

Flash forward a century… the year is 1981. In a Los Angeles’ doctor’s office the men in the white coats were worried: within a few weeks they had diagnosed their fourth case of a condition so incredibly rare they had hardly expected to ever see such a thing in their collective professional lifetimes. They were baffled by the series of strange pneumonias that got worse despite normal antibiotics. All the patients were men. All were young. All were gay. All had died. Three and a half thousand miles to the east, in a hospital in New York, several doctors were facing a similar problem; tumors and lethal pneumonias in gay young men. What was going on? The cases were reported to the infectious disease center… every day new reports of deaths came flooding in from across the country… and people waited…

Five years later in 1986 over15,000 people had already died in the United States, another 12,000 were dying, and a further 30,000 were showing symptoms… and we waited…When the drug AZT was introduced as an treatment we had a glimmer of hope in our darkness, but its effectiveness was limited… and we watched people we loved decimated before our eyes swollen with our tears… and we waited…

By 1993 more people were dying of AIDS in the US each year than died in the entire Vietnam War; more people have died from AIDS in the past twenty-five years than from any other disease in human history, devastating whole societies and economies, especially in Africa.

But as terrifying as this is, it’s really not about statistics: it’s about people created in the image of God: for me it’s about Dennis, and Richard, and Carl, and Don, and Larry, and Michael, and the list goes on… as does yours…Today its about all of them, and about us… and about a little priest named Damien who today sets foot on a shore he knows he can never leave.

It’s about fear and prejudice, and weakness and powerlessness being beaten down by the love of God acting through us, no matter the personal risks… and it’s about compassion and the sanctification of waiting. Because of Damien’s selfless compassion to the isolated, the mistreated, the ignored, the weak, the waiting… those stigmatized by “the separating sickness,” Damien has become the “Blessed”, the patron of those living with HIV-AIDS. Blessed Damien’s witness made the world realize that those afflicted are not “unclean outcasts,” but vulnerable human beings whom God deeply and especially loves.

Every day at every Mass in our church we invoke Damien’s name. We have a chapel in this place dedicated to Blessed Damien and an icon of him as an object to focus our devotion, because his life is an icon of Christ. In these walls of our church and in the Damien Chapel are so many of those whom we have lost and whom we love, who surround us along with Damien like a great cloud of witnesses. Damien’s pure and sincere compassion and love for the outcast and afflicted imitates so perfectly the love of Christ, offered freely without condition or judgment.

The words of Peter from today’s Epistle sum it up: “Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. To him be the dominion for ever and ever. Amen.”



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