Lent V (A), Lazarus Sunday
April 10, 2011
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
Let us pray. God of mercy and love, our prayers this day are for those in this world who are living with HIV Disease and AIDS. We pray that you would grant them tender and loving companions to walk with them in the midst of ignorance and fear. Give them hope so that each day may be lived with courage and faith. Bless them with your love, and pour upon them an abundance of peace and wholeness which only you can give. We ask this in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today in our Gospel we hear the much-loved story of Jesus and his friend Lazarus, whom Jesus raises from the dead. And in hundreds of churches of all denominations across the U.S. and Canada we are remembering this day in a unique and special way. The focus of our attention and prayers this day is for all persons living with HIV Disease and AIDS.
As we have just heard, in John 11, Jesus hears that Lazarus’ is ill and he chooses to go to Judea to save him. This was the friend whom Jesus loved, the brother of Mary and Martha, and some find it strange that he did not travel to Bethany to prevent him from dying. It is not because Jesus did not care. Rather He wanted the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead to glorify God (verse 14), so that all may believe.
Lazarus does, in fact, die from his illness. When Jesus arrives in Bethany he comes along side and weeps with the mourners. He is touched by the sorrow and the love for Lazarus and is filled with compassion, even though Jesus knows Lazarus will be resurrected from dead.
Jesus stands by the tomb where Lazarus has been buried for four days, the stone sealing the entrance is removed and he commands, “Lazarus, come out!”
And miracle of miracles, Lazarus is resurrected from the dead and walks out of the tomb, free.
In sub-Saharan Africa today, a phenomenon known as the Lazarus Effect is taking place on a daily basis. In this context the Lazarus Effect refers to those who are gravely ill due to HIV/AIDS, possibly just days from death and who are brought back to life thanks to the provision of life saving medications.
To many of us in this country, the entire subject of death and dying is far removed from us. Moreso, the concept of being called from the dead is completely beyond our imagination. In a country like the U.S. where life expectancy is close to 80 years, death can often-times become an abstract concept.
Yet in developing countries, parts of Africa like Zambia; where life expectancy has dropped to 37 years, where many children below the age of five still die of preventable disease such as malaria, diarrhea and cholera, the picture of death is one that is fresh and real.
These figures are reflected in the countries where extreme poverty is most prevalent: in places like Zambia, as many as 85% of the people live on the equivalent of less than 2 dollars a day. Compounding the effects of extreme poverty is its deadly ally, HIV and AIDS. Every day, around the world, some 4,900 people die from HIV/AIDS and another 7,100 people are infected with the AIDS virus.
Today it is believed that nearly 34 million people are infected by HIV/AIDS, yet the large majority, 22.4 million of those infected; remain in the world’s poorest places -Sub-Saharan Africa.
The picture and the story we are going to look at today are real. It is the daily reality for millions of people. Our prayer and hope is to make this picture real for us too.
As scripture tells us “Blessed are those who mourn with those who mourn.” When one suffers, we all suffer as well. This is the true spirit of humanity.
The story of the Lazarus Effect is the story of Princess Kasune Zulu, a native of Zambia, HIV/AIDS advocate and educator. In 1997 she was told that she had just six months to live. She says that when her doctor handed her a positive HIV diagnosis in the small town of Luanshya in Zambia, he believed he was handing her a death sentence.
The story of her childhood and adolescence is echoed in millions of homes across Africa with each new day that dawns. She was born to a relatively wealthy Zambian family in 1976. The early years of her childhood were joyful and privileged by Zambian standards. She faced a number of crossroads growing up, the first of which came at age ten when her parents succumbed to what was then an undiagnosed, mystery illness. Her family was forced to move to a traditional rural village where she found herself having to walk for many miles to fetch dirty drinking water before school each morning.
At the time, there was no treatment available for the mystery illness and all she could do was watch her parents waste away. She writes that she was so desperate to save them that she even tried to carry her father on her back to a hospital, his long legs dangling in the dirt.
Her parents both lost their fight within months of each other. By age 18, she was alone, the head of her household, left in charge of 8 dependents. No child should be forced to nurse their parents to their death, but in Zambia, she is far from unique – one in three children has had to watch their parents die as a result of AIDS.
With few choices open to her for survival but to marry someone older who could provide for her family, it was not long before she was the mother of two and diagnosed as HIV positive herself.
Kasune’s story could have a number of endings. The most likely, provided in her doctor’s initial diagnosis, was that she would have died within six months, leaving two children under the age of 5 alone.
However, between the time of my parents’ death and her own diagnosis, a new treatment had become available, but not in countries like Zambia. Its’ $10,000 annual price tag was simply not even a consideration for the majority of that country’s desperate population.
But God had another ending written for her. When she learned her status, she says that she wanted to shout “Praise God” because it became clear that HIV was her mountain to climb. Warning people and fighting this disease has become her calling, her very reason for being.
Her journey has taken her across the world, to the U.S., where a compassionate Bishop of The Episcopal Church agreed to fund anti-retroviral treatment for her, the very treatment that could have saved her parents life, which at the time, cost $10,000 per year per person. In 2002, this made her one of the handful of Zambians that were given access to this life-saving treatment.
God has used her – an ordinary, village girl, in extraordinary ways. Her new calling has taken her all the way to the Oval Office where she helped persuade then President George W. Bush to commit $15 billion to the fight against AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean in the introduction of a bill known as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
Programs such as the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and malaria and PEPFAR have changed the HIV/AIDS struggle for all time. No longer is AIDS a death sentence. A commitment was made to provide treatment to all who require it.
In the developed world, HIV is considered almost as manageable as diabetes – continual medication and healthy lifestyles see those who happen to be infected living long, even healthy lives. Today almost four million Africans have been given access to life saving medication known as Anti-Retroviral Treatment (called ARVs for short).
That is what ARVs are doing. They are bringing back people back from their deathbeds. They are bringing people who should or could have been dead, back to life. For as little as $0.40 a day and usually within 40 days, amazing results are being seen. This is what is known as the Lazarus Effect – it is saving parents, teachers, nurses, doctors on a daily basis.
Most families have to make a choice between buying treatment to prolong their lives or paying school fees for their children. Time and time again children are forced drop out of school, especially girls, creating a vicious self-fulfilling cycle of poverty and vulnerability to HIV and AIDS.
A phenomenon like the Lazarus Effect poses a number of questions for us as Christians. How might the course of history have been changed if Princess Kasune had not been given access to treatment? And what of the over 34 million people living with HIV in the world today? How many more people just like you and me are out there, dying, with no one to hear their cries? How many mothers, fathers, nurses, teachers, doctors are perishing because of lack of access to treatment?
Do we have the right to judge which life is worth saving? Through his compassion and actions Jesus told us ‘that which we do for the least of these, we do for Him.’ In John 11, we saw Jesus come alongside those who mourned. He showed compassion. He brought Lazarus back from the dead.
Today it is our turn. We can make the Lazarus Effect a symbol of our time, the great moral legacy of our generation. We need to use our voice as individuals and as a collective. The Christian Churches alone are a collective of some 2 Billion volunteers. We are the hands and feet Jesus is counting on.
When he resurrected Lazarus from the dead, Jesus gave us a model to imitate. He asks us to explore whether and where there is anything that can be restored; can we help deliver hope, hope for the children and the grandparents; he asks us to restore community. He asks us to be compassionate – to come alongside, to morn and to sympathize, just as he did.
No matter who or what you are, whether a church leader, a teacher, a nurse, a parent, a patient, a humanitarian worker, a friend, every human being on earth has this in common: our time to make a difference is limited.
When our time on this earth is done, our lives should not only be measured by how long we lived or what we managed to accumulate, but by what we achieved in the time we lived, the differences we chose to make, be they great or small, and how we chose to respond to the least of our brothers and sisters.
Whatever passions burn in your heart, whatever promises you have made to yourself and others, whatever call we as individuals hear from God do not delay another day in pursuing them in the hope that time is on your side. Time has a habit of getting away from us. Take it from Princess Kasune Zulu who knows all too well that time is running out: when the years have faded and we have all gone and our grandchildren ask, “What did they do?” what do we want the answer to be? Let us stand together and be counted.
Let our prayer continually be that this disease, which knows no boundaries, has no respect of age, color or geography, which knows no barriers, may bring the best out of us all. Regardless of party affiliation, race, age, gender, that the best may come out of us at all times for the good of all humanity to the Glory of God. Amen.