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January 16, 2005

Popping Cancer: this week's sermon.

If you're into this kind of thing, here's the sermon I delivered today:

Rom 8:36 As it is said in the holy Writings, Because of you we are put to death every day; we are like sheep ready for destruction.
Rom 8:37 But we are able to overcome all these things and more through his love.
Rom 8:38 For I am certain that not death, or life, or angels, or rulers, or things present, or things to come, or powers,
Rom 8:39 Or things on high, or things under the earth, or anything which is made, will be able to come between us and the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

You may not remember this by now, because of the horrible weather we’ve had in the last few days, but one day this week we had Spring. Thursday morning we woke up and the sun was shining. It was 60 degrees!

There were a few wasps around my front porch, just crawling from slumber, I presume, eager to get on with the newness of Spring. I’m sure Friday was an unpleasant surprise for them, but it’s hard to get up too much sympathy for stinging insects.

The point is that Spring came on Thursday, January 13. JANUARY 13.

The calendar couldn’t stop the sunlight from falling on my face that day. My own intellect and intelligence, which told me that it simply doesn’t get to be 60 degrees and sunny in Youngstown in January, couldn’t stop the warmth. The weathermen who called for a harsh January couldn’t stop it.

Sometimes nothing can stop the goodness from coming.

We met the figure of innocent goodness in the person of Jesus. We tortured it. We killed it. But it comes after us on the other side of the grave. There is no place we can run, there is no wilderness we can hide in, there is nothing that we can do to separate us from the love of God in Christ.

If Americans wrote the gospel story, it would sound more like The Wizard of Oz. We love that story.

An innocent girl gets caught up in something arbitrary and unfair, like cancer… or a cyclone, and has to struggle to get home, bravely overcoming obstacle after obstacle. She faces real evil in the form of the Wicked Witch, but in the end, she could have tapped her shoes together and gone home any time. In the end, it’s all a dream.

We know real evil happens. We have participated in it. Indeed, collectively we have perpetrated it.

But, there is some sense in which we still don't really believe that we will actually have to suffer through it. Especially all of us gathered here… We still believe that if something really bad comes our way, we can pay or elect people to make it go away. We have earned a layer of insulation… Most all evil and tragedy we can shake off like a bad dream. Indeed, we can much of the time.

But the gospel message is not that we can shake off evil because it isn't really real.

In the last analysis, Jesus is actually abandoned by God. He is left alone to the mortal fate that we all face. He is filled with the same anxiety and dread that ordinary prisoners who are tortured are too familiar with.

We don't get around suffering. We don't get any exemption because we have faith. The message of hope is that God redeems us in the midst of this suffering, that even here God is at work, even when we least feel it. Even when we least believe it.

I’ve been thinking about suffering on a personal level lately, of course.

I’ve even looked down the list of church members in the last year who have faced death, either their own, or a loved one’s. The list is pretty extensive and I won’t wear you out with it now.

But I also remembered that in death, as in life, nothing can separate us from the love of God we have known in Christ.

We don't know what happens in death, not really. We don’t have any snapshots from the afterlife. The Bible only gives us only poetry and metaphor on the subject. Streets of Gold is a metaphor used for those who lived in poverty, trying to work each day to earn enough food for that day.

In truth, what exactly happens after death remains a mystery as it should. The Bible only assures us that God is fully in control in that realm too and that we can trust that the Almighty will take care of things.

Indeed, we can trust that God will make sense of what was senseless on this side of history, that God will redeem that which was abused, heal those who were unjustly imprisoned, that God will make right that which was so deeply and obviously wrong. That is our hope.

We cannot stop the love of God. Our scientific minds can’t stop it. Our wayward lives can’t stop it. Our own lack of faith can’t stop the love of God. Killing Jesus couldn’t stop it, and so anyone who has felt the love of Christ knows for a fact that not even death can stop the love of God.

There was a river near my home when I was a boy in Westerlo, New York. You could walk out into it a few steps, and swim against it for a little while, but eventually, you were going downstream with everything else.

This is how the experience of God’s love has existed for me, in my life. I’ve been through some real nonsense in my 36 short years, and I’ve given up on God and on love a few times.

Fortunately, God’s goodness doesn’t depend on us. Ultimately, God is consistent and sure, just like that river. THAT’S the Gospel story.

And so I face chemotherapy. I have a particularly nasty brand of cancer that’s not scared to spread. By now, though, I have learned that the pain of chemotherapy can’t stop the love of God. Even death, if it comes to that, can’t stop the love of God.

And so while it is very bad with my body, and while it is sometimes bad with my spirits and bad with my attitude, it is well with my soul. Think about the words you sang earlier with me for a second:

(Ed: You really had to be here for this. I did a sort of dramatic reading of this hymn, not keeping to the musical structure but reading it as though it were a story, complete with hand gestures and voice shifts. If you’re reading this, you’ll have to use your imagination)

When peace like a river attendeth my way.
When sorrow like sea billows roll.
Whatever my lot Thou hast taught me to say,
"It is well, it is well, with my soul".


My sin oh the bliss of this glorious thought.
My sin not in part but the whole
Is nailed to that cross and I'll bear it no more!
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!!


And Lord haste the day
When my faith shall be sight.
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll.
The trump shall resound
And the Lord shall descend!
Even so, it is well with my soul.


It is well (It is well)
With my soul (with my soul).
It is well, it is well with my soul.

For I am certain that not death, or life, or angels, or rulers, or things present, or things to come, or powers, or things on high, or things under the earth, or chemotherapy treatments, or surgeries, or foul-tasting medicines, or hospital bills, or tumors, or my own bad attitudes, or ANYTHING which is made, will be able to come between me and the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen and amen.

Posted by Dan at January 16, 2005 03:34 PM

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Are you going to keep posting these, 'cause I could realy use some extra sleep on Sunday mornings?

Posted by: Rosemary's Baby at January 17, 2005 12:26 AM

Well, I'm about to start a series on the sins of laziness and sloth.

Posted by: Big Dan at January 17, 2005 09:23 AM

Dan, Just how long do your sermons normally last anyways? BTW: "It Is Well" is one of my all-time favorite songs! I found myself singing it one day while in my hospital bed when completely paralyzed from the neck down. The nurse walked into the room and asked me how could I sing such a song. I kept on singing and when I was finised she merely answered, "I get it now!" as tears were streaming down her face... For everything there is a reason!

Posted by: Cam at January 18, 2005 09:38 AM

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