Vinnie and Denise - not their real names - were part of my family. They loved each other. They loved their kids. They also struggled with addiction.
One day, Denise found out she had tested positive for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Separately, Vinnie found out he, too, was HIV positive
Vinnie seemed to give up hope pretty quickly. This is not to judge Vinnie: it's hard to say why he felt the way he did - maybe it had to do with other stresses he had in his life, maybe it was the feeling of responsibility for his wife and kids, maybe the medications didn't work as well in him, maybe the side effects were too difficult to tolerate, maybe the disease had progressed farther in Vinnie than in Denise. Whatever the case, he lived less than two years after his diagnosis.
Denise, on the other hand, held on longer. Again, it's hard to say what kept her spirits up. There has been some research which seems to indicate that the amount of hope someone has can have an effect on health. That may have been the case here. I don't know for certain.
But the connection between hope and healing is not the main point of my message today.
In today's Bible reading, Jesus is getting a kind of diagnosis too. The Pharisees are telling him he has a terminal case of upsetting the government. I suspect that Jesus already recognized the symptoms. The Romans had been crucifying enemies of the state for some time, and John the Baptist had recently been killed. You don't have to be God incarnate, the Son of God on Earth, or even a prophet with a direct line to God to figure out that upsetting the rulers is going to cost you in the long run.
At this point, Jesus could have decided to lie low for a while, until things cooled off. He could have run away. He could have quit his ministry altogether.
Instead, Jesus kept doing what he was called to do in the face of certain death. Though he knew he had only so much time left, he spent it casting out demons and performing cures.
Not only does Jesus continue to do his work, he openly defies Herod. He is not going to let Herod tempt him into giving up.
Lent is a time of fasting, but it is also a time of prayer. It is a time of meditation and reflection in anticipation and preparation for the crucifixion and the resurrection.
It's a good time to meditate and reflect on temptation.
Last week, our Illinois Conference Minister - The Reverend Doctor Jorge Morales - preached a sermon on strength and courage in the face of temptation. In addition to the temptations to do things we shouldn't, there's another temptation: to not do the things to which we are called. Fear, doubt, and despair can lead us away from our callings in life. They can tempt us to give up.
But we don't have to give in to temptation.
In those last years, Denise became an HIV/AIDS educator. She taught in schools, in churches, and in other settings. She showed people that the face of AIDS was not just gay white men. She taught people that anyone could get this disease. She gave people with AIDS hope to carry on. And she taught that people with AIDS need love too.
Denise raised her four kids, and also adopted a child whose mother had died of AIDS. In those last years, Denise did not give up, instead, she found her calling: a ministry with the sick and with those who are well.
I don't know whether it has been done here, and I have never seen Kirk do it, but in some churches, the preacher will pick out someone in the congregation and single them out as someone who needs to hear the message. I haven't been here very long, but this internship is supposed to be an opportunity to take chances and learn.
There is someone in this church right now who really needs to hear this message: someone who is being tempted by fear, doubt, and despair; someone who has considered giving up.
And that person is me.
There have been times along the way that I have felt like giving up. I have let fear, doubt, and despair get the better of me.
I don't know how many years I have left. I'm actually fairly healthy. There's a good chance I have several decades left. My fear, doubt, and despair are less about the time I have left than whether I am able to do what I'm called to do.
I'm sure there are others here who've felt it, too: that fear that something will go wrong, that doubt that we will succeed, that despair that comes when yet another obstacle appears in our path.
We're often told to look to Jesus as our example, and I don't know about you, but for me, looking at Jesus as an example doesn't always work. I can give myself an excuse for giving up. After all, he is Jesus and I am not Jesus.
But then I think of Denise.
I'm sure Denise had her down times. But she did not let fear, doubt, and despair stop her from being who she was called to be and doing what she was called to do. She was too busy teaching, and loving, and caring to be dying.
More than eight years after Denise's diagnosis, I was with her children and other family members at the hospital, waiting for the doctor to arrive. Her eldest child was dreading the decision on whether to continue life support. Before he had to make that decision, a nurse let us know that Denise had passed away. Her son said "Thanks, Mom."
The work Denise did, and the hope she carried with her, may have helped her survive longer. Maybe not. I have no way to be certain.
But what Denise did was to live out those years she had left, instead of merely surviving. What Denise did with those last years directly changed the lives of hundreds of people, and who knows how many thousands were touched indirectly?
We have a choice: to give into the temptation to give up, or to boldly live out what we've been called to do and to boldly be who God dreamed us to be.
Giving up is deciding to just survive. Giving up may not add any years to our lives. It might just seem longer while we think of what we might have done.
In Lent, we're not only moving toward the crucifixion of Good Friday, but to the resurrection of Easter. And if we're going to prepare, we ought to be preparing to be an Easter people, a resurrection people, a living people.
The only way to really live is to be who we are and do what we do. And that leads me to my challenge to all of us this week:
I challenge all of us, including myself, including Kirk, to be aware of the temptations of fear, doubt and despair. And, when we see them, when we have the strength, to tell fear, doubt, and despair we're too busy casting out demons, performing cures, teaching, loving, caring, working, laughing, listening...
to pay attention to their threats.