Listen to our service and sermon below:
Today’s sermon is a little bit different in that I am going to start by talking about myself a little bit more than I would prefer. But this is not really a sermon about me, I promise. It’s just where I have to start today.
As many or most of you already know, a little more than two weeks ago, I received a life-altering diagnosis. Feeling totally healthy and completely fine, I was presented with the shocking news that I have an advanced form of a rare cancer called leiomyosarcoma. Apparently, a year ago, I already had this cancer – it was spotted back then in a scan, in my lungs but my doctors at that time determined that it was something benign. And they unfortunately left it to grow for another year. Then earlier this month, when I went for my one-year follow-up chest scan, we discovered that the places in my lungs had grown and there were new ones, and now there are also lesions on my liver. Apparently, it started as a small, painless knot in my thigh, but because it wasn’t caught and removed as soon as it appeared it metastasized to my lungs. And because it wasn’t caught and dealt with when it was only in my lungs, it then metastasized to my liver.
Apparently, the last time I stood up here to preach, right before Christmas, all of this was already true. I just had no idea. It’s amazing how something can be true but if you don’t know it, it doesn’t seem to have any effect on you. And it’s amazing how much knowing something can change your life.
One of the ways I deal with knowledge – especially if it’s particularly distressing knowledge – is by trying to get more knowledge. Once I know something, I have to know more. I have to know everything, if I can. So I read. A lot. Kind of obsessively. Especially on the internet. People tell me not to, but this is how I deal with things – I’m driven to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible from as reputable sources as possible. And I’ve learned a lot.
I have learned more about sarcomas than I had ever known before – which was practically nothing, so that didn’t take a lot. Sarcomas make up only 1% of all cancers that affect adults. And within that 1%, there are roughly 70 different kinds of sarcomas. Regardless of type, sarcoma is a disease of the connective tissues – that means everything that holds us together. Leiomyosarcoma, or LMS as we call it on the internet, always starts in the smooth muscles. It can start in the lining of blood vessels or the lining of other parts of the connective tissues. It doesn’t start in the organs themselves. And one of the interesting things about sarcoma is that it almost never moves into the lymph system. It most commonly moves from the primary site into the lungs and then the liver, and sometimes the bones. But it can go from stage 1 to stage 4 without really going through those intermediate stages of lymph involvement.
This has been the most traumatic and terrifying thing I’ve ever faced in my life, and I realize that though I’m “ground zero” for this particular crisis, it is affecting many more people than just me. My family, obviously, is very much in the midst of this trauma. And you, my church family, are, too. One thing I know about trauma is that, when it happens, the old “normal” life is disrupted, but eventually, ultimately a “new normal” has to be created. The trauma has to be dealt with and integrated into a new kind of living. The thing is, right now, we are all – including you, my church – we are all still kind of in the midst of the trauma. Normal life has been upended, but we don’t yet know what our new life (mine, yours, ours) is going to look like. The question is: do we trust? do we trust that it will be good? do we trust a good and loving God?
When Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Corinth, he was writing to Christians in crisis. They had been accustomed to living a certain way before they became Christ followers, and now that they were all trying to be Jesus people, they were having a hard time adjusting. They were in conflict, over all manner of things, and the conflict was threatening to tear them apart. Paul’s letters to them were meant to help them understand the necessity of surrendering their old ways of living. He was trying to help them understand that going forward, they had to see life differently and they had to live life differently. They had to see through a lens of faith in God. They had to quit putting their faith in all the old ways that had worked for them. They had to live by the radical new values of faith and hope and love.
This was never an individual enterprise. For Paul, the community, not the individual, was the primary concern. The community, not the individual, was the primary ground for decision-making and action. So he spoke of the community of believers as a body – deeply connected to each other in a lively, life-giving, interdependent, interconnected way. Because of this deep connectivity, the primary concern for each believer was not supposed to be individual goodness or rightness or happiness. The primary concern was to be the community, the body – how do my decisions, my attitudes, my actions influence and impact others?
In the little passage we heard earlier today, he is addressing the issue of eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols. For the Christian, there was nothing intrinsically wrong with that. For some weaker or newer Christians, the issue of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols felt like a real wrong, and to see other Christians doing that might lead them to end up violating their own conscience.
And so Paul argues that knowledge isn’t the highest criterion by which to evaluate rightness or wrongness or goodness. Our interconnectedness is the highest criterion. A decision can be technically right but if it hurts another person, it can still be wrong. A decision can be technically wrong, but if it helps another person, if it involves loving another person, can’t it be right? What you know about right and wrong doesn’t really matter if what you do with your knowledge ends up hurting or tearing down or breaking apart. “Knowledge puffs up,” Paul writes, “but love builds up.”
The crisis I’m facing right now, and that you are facing with me, really isn’t anything like that of the Corinthians. We are not facing arguments or conflicts that tear us apart. If anything, we are as united as ever, as drawn towards each other and towards God and towards loving the world together as I have ever known us to be.
But Paul’s counsel still pertains to us. Faith in God is still the lens through which we have to see each other and ourselves and our whole journey, whatever it involves. There are old understandings we may need to let go of. And we have to keep choosing, no matter the circumstance, to live by the radical and difficult values of faith and hope and love.
There is so much I don’t know about what lies ahead, so much our church doesn’t know yet about what lies ahead. But knowledge would only take us so far anyway. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
When I think of what it might mean to be a community that is built by love, I cannot get away from Paul’s imagery of the human body. What happens to one part of the body inevitably affects the rest of the body. When you stub your toe, doesn’t your whole body feel it? When you get a scalp massage, doesn’t your whole body feel it? When one person hurts, or is scared, the whole body is affected. But when one person hopes – can’t that affect the whole body, too?
The soft tissue of the body of Christ – that connective tissue, that stuff that holds everything together – isn’t that faith? And if cancer can metastasize in a human body, even in ways we can’t see or understand, can’t hope also metastasize in the body of Christ, in ways we can’t see or understand? Can’t hope advance from one place to another, from one person to another, by means that we cannot even see?
Maybe another word for “hope” is “prayer.” I have no idea how prayer works. I have prayed impossible prayers and seen God bring life out of absolutely certain death – have seen it with my own eyes. And I’ve also prayed for things that should have been so easy and good, only to see things go a different way. I have no idea how prayer works, or why.
What I do know is that God is good – all the time. What I do know is that God is always in the business of good news, always in the business of bringing life out of death, always in the business only of goodness. What I do know is that our journey in this life is from Love to Love, and that in the meantime our lives will have the most meaning and the most impact if we also live them by the lights of Love. What I do know is that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. And what I do know is that prayer somehow, mysteriously, beyond my knowledge and beyond even my own ability to love, makes a difference.
And so I am praying, as I know you are, for my own healing. But in another sense, I have already been healed. Because I know that I am not alone. Not only because God is with me – which I know God very much is – but because God’s people are with me. I know that when a person is facing what I’m facing, there is an inevitable aloneness. Nobody can go through this on my behalf, and nobody can go every step of the way with me.
At the same time, I have felt less alone than I ever would have imagined I could. Possibly the least alone in my entire life. The love of others has become something tangible for me – in words and in actions, but also quite simply: I feel it. I have felt it almost physically, during the most intense times of this journey so far. As I was wheeled down for my liver biopsy, as I walked towards the doctor’s office for the diagnosis, as I sat here in worship here last Sunday – I have felt in an almost physical way the power of the love of other people. I have felt the absolutely solid reality of love. And that is no little thing.
Thank you for loving me so good. You are loving me into life, and more life, and please don’t stop or give up. But not just for me. Please keep on loving each other into life and more life. And there are a lot of people who need this – so, together, let’s build paths of love towards them, too. Let’s keep seeing by faith and not by sight. Let’s keep giving ourselves to the radical enterprise of hope in the face of fear.
Okay, maybe this sermon does actually seem like it’s a sermon about me. But it’s a sermon about you, too, and it’s a sermon about the church in all times and places, and about how the power of God at work in the world is made most tangible and most visible and most powerful in our interconnectedness. Whenever one of us is hurting, all of us are hurting. And there are lots of hurting people, not just me. There are things we cannot change. There are things we cannot fix, even with our knowledge. There are healings that never come the way we wish they would. But there is also and there is always this: there is faith and hope and love, and the greatest of these is love. Let’s be built by that. It never fails.