Listen to our service and sermon below:
The day I learned I probably had cancer was also the day I learned that it probably had already spread.
It was early this past January, the same day our house renovation was scheduled to begin. The construction workers showed up first thing that morning to demolish the back of our house. Our designer sent us a happy email announcing, “Demolition Day!”
And then I went to get a follow-up chest scan to make sure the tiny nodules that had been incidentally discovered in a scan a year earlier had remained unchanged, as expected. I got the scans done and headed to work. That afternoon, I began to feel an unusual, persistent, dull ache under my ribcage, and it was driving me to distraction. I thought I might be having gallbladder issues, so I went to Urgent Care to get it checked out. Before sending me for a scan, the Urgent Care doctor checked my online portal to see if the results of my morning chest CT were ready yet. Several minutes later, he came back with the report in his hand and asked, “What do you already know about your situation?”
I knew enough to know that when a doctor asks that question, it’s pretty bad.
He told me the results of the scan. The tiny lung nodules had grown. There were new ones. I looked at the words on the report he gave me: “suspicious for metastatic disease.” Though neither the doctor nor I had any clue at that point about the origin of this disease, he and I both knew that the pain under my ribs was probably my liver and the disease had probably spread there. It would be another two days before I got scans that proved that was right. And it would be almost a week after that when we would finally learn that I have a kind of cancer I’d never heard of before, a rare, aggressive, soft-tissue sarcoma.
On January 10, I didn’t know any of that yet. I just knew that I probably had cancer in my lungs and in my liver. And as I sat in that little Urgent Care exam room, I felt my future snap shut. Actually, it was almost like I sawit snap shut. There were future events I had had my eyes on for awhile, things that were just a little bit up the road, and as I sat there, I watched them begin to fall away. There was the mission trip I was going to lead to Nicaragua seven weeks from then – gone. The sabbatical trip our family was to take to Europe over the summer – also gone. I watched those immediate future plans crumble. There were other plans just beyond the immediate future – the completion of our house renovation, our sons starting high school in the fall, the hosting of our family for Thanksgiving. I couldn’t see what was happening to those plans. They were way out there in some kind of nothingness. I live to see them? If I did, would I be well enough to enjoy them? I had no idea. All I knew was that all the plans I had been making, everything I’d been working on – it all went dark in the time it took for the doctor to ask a single question. The road I had thought was before me collapsed, and I had no idea what would take its place. I sat there, not moving, barely breathing, waiting for it to reappear, waiting for my future to pop back open, but it didn’t.
If you’ve ever been undone by a diagnosis or a death, a divorce or a disaster, a disillusionment or a disappointment, a depression or deep anxiety, then you know how quickly life can change. You know how quickly fear can become your new reality. Or sadness. Or anger. Or bitterness. Maybe you are living in such a reality right now. What do you do when life as you has known it has been demolished and there is nothing you can do to fix, or change, or control your present reality, let alone the future you thought you had?
On the night before Jesus’ own life was demolished, he was betrayed and arrested and put on trial. He seemed powerless to stop all this, the victim of circumstances beyond his control. Yet the issue at his trial would be just how much power he was trying to claim. He stands alone before Pontius Pilate in the inner sanctuary of political power, as the politician asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” The Romans knew that Jewish messianic hopes posed a threat to their governance of the Jews; if Jesus is claiming a throne among Jews, then he could be planning a rebellion against Roman rule. His future – his life – hangs on how he answers the question.
But Jesus takes control of the interrogation, turns the question on the questioner. You can almost hear him asking, “What do you already know about your situation? He asks Pilate, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Does Pilate act out of some kind of inner authority, some kind of real power, or is he acting only as a politician, responding to the power of public pressure?
“I am not a Jew, am I?” Pilate responds. Contempt for the people he rules. But what is he says is true. In fact, he represents the Empire that oppresses the Jews. Then Pilate pushes further, asking Jesus, “What have you done?”
This is often our question, too, when life goes disastrously, for us or for someone else. We want to know: What did you do to bring this on yourself? Or we wonder: what did I do to deserve this? This isn’t how life actually works, but it’s how we think it should work. We think things would be better somehow, if everyone only got what they deserved. We think that would be better, because we think we’re the ones who deserve only the good things.
“What have you done?” Pilate asks. And Jesus doesn’t explain that he did nothing wrong. He doesn’t defend himself or try to bargain a better outcome from himself. He simply responds, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over… But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Jesus declares the truth of an invisible reality, a realm grounded not in fear but in love, not in the grasp of power but in the claim of hope. He gets his power not from seizing a throne or staging a rebellion. His power is already there. His power is already within him. It comes from God and he uses it by emptying himself for our sakes.
But Pilate cannot think beyond traditional power structures or conventional understanding. Like so many of us, he wants a simple answer that fits what he already knows. “So you area king?”
“Yousay that I am a king,” Jesus replies. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
He didn’t come to seize a throne or stage a rebellion. He came for this: to testify to the truth – which is a kind of rebellion. A revolt – against the way the world works and the way the world understands power. This is what he came for: to make visible the invisible reality of God’s love for us, God’s longing for us, God’s unfailing grace and goodness for us. God’s future and hope for us. These things have always been true, and so much more is true, too – mysteries of life and death and love and power that we cannot begin to comprehend. These things have always been true but our words and our understandings are not big enough or deep enough or high enough to hold all that good truth. It had to be poured into a life. Jesus once said, “I am the truth.”. It isn’t our doctrines about him that are the truth. Not our dogma our claims our words about him. Heis the truth.
In the midst of terror, he is the truth of deep peace. In the midst of grief, he is the truth of real joy. In the midst of demolition, he is the truth of new life. In Him, we see what mercy looks like, we see what it means to welcome anyone and everyone, we see what it means to lift up the lowest and the least, to recognize that we ourselves are often the lowest and the least, in him we see that true greatness lies in serving and that true power lies in giving oneself for love’s sake, in him we see that the full and final reality of the kingdom of God, the realm of peace and forgiveness and goodness and beauty and love, that reality has already opened among us and for us and even within us and even through us, if and when we accept that it isthe reality.
And the truth in his life bore its highest witness by laying itself down for us all. The truth was lifted up on a cross. Power made manifest not by domination but by self-giving. Truth, power, life, love, goodness – crucified, snuffed out, sealed in a tomb. Where even death could not swallow it up. The truth burst forth, breaking the power of death, defying the powers of this world, working to redeem and reconcile and hold all things together, including us. The truth burst from the tomb to come alive again in our own lives, in the community of God’s beloved.
Standing before Pilate on the eve of his execution, Jesus didn’t explain all that. He simply stood there, the Truth on trial, and declared, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Everyone who belongs to the truth. This, too, is part of what he testified to: we have been claimed by God, we are being drawn even now towards the very heart of God, that we belong to what is true. Our lives, our futures, are held by truth. The truth of God, which we have been shown to us in Jesus to be only grace and more grace, only goodness and more goodness, only love and more love. Jesus made visible this invisible reality. Our work as his community is to keep claiming that reality and being claimed by that reality, to choose to embody that reality, every day, together. We live as if the invisible reality of God’s kingdom were already visible among us. And then our living makes it so.
The only thing that can hold ultimate truth is another life – yours, mine, ours. God’s truth came to us not as a proposition, but as a person. Not as a dogma or a doctrine, but as a human life. And so we reach for that truth not with intellectual understanding, but by our living, by how we chooseto live, by trying to put our trust in the truth, by belonging to the truth. By belonging to Him. We let him in. We let the reality he showed us take hold of us.
Which doesn’t mean we don’t ever feel sad or scared or angry or heartbroken or any other difficult thing. It just means that no feeling ever gets to be our full and final reality. And no circumstance ever gets to be our full and final reality. It means that whatever the circumstance, we still know what real power is and where it comes from. To say that Jesus is the Truth is to say that, in the end, God’s way of love and grace and goodness will prevail. Which means that, whatever happens in the meantime of our lives, we are only headed towards what is good, towards peace, towards mercy, towards wholeness, towards harmony, towards healing, towards home, towards liberation, towards love.
Ten months ago, what I thought was my foreseeable future collapsed in front of my eyes. What I thought could be foreseen could not, in fact, be foreseen, not for any of us. I had to let go of so much of what I thought I knew to be true about my life. I had to start trying every day in new ways to live in trust of the ultimate reality I get up here and proclaim every week. I’ve had to quit trying to hold on so hard to my plans and expectations and start trying again and again to let myself be held by the truth of God’s unfailing love and all the ways that love gets made visible through God’s people. And I havebeen held by that truth and I have been carried by that truth in more ways than I can count.
I know there will be more times in my life, and there will be times in yours, when all I can see is the darkness and all I can feel is fear. But every day, I have a choice, and so do you. Will we live as if we belong to the kingdom of God, the truth among us and within us? Will we live in the trust that our future and our hope, even if it doesn’t look like what we’d planned? Will we live as if God’s unending goodness and unfathomable love is what is truly real? Will we let that reality hold us and govern us and become more and more visible in how we choose to live?
Ten months ago, a doctor came back into the exam room and asked me, “What do you already know about your situation?” Here is what I know about my situation and about yours, too. God is good, all the time. God is love, all the time. I am held by the truth of God’s love, and so are you. That love is our good future, but it is not just our good future. It is our good now, and we can choose to live like it.