Sunday, October 13, 2013

trumping exile



A sermon for Breast Cancer Awareness Sunday at a local church. 
Text: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

It was about twenty-five years ago that my life was first knowingly touched by breast cancer. Among the Christmas cards I had sent that particular winter, one went to my friend Katie, a colleague with whom I had worked in my first “real,” post-college job. A month or so after Christmas, I received a letter back from her husband, telling me that he and his family had buried Katie two days before Christmas, a victim of the ravages of breast cancer. In the years that have followed I have known, prayed for, ministered to and buried women whose lives were forever altered by the diagnosis of that same disease. Of that number too high to count, some died, and some underwent life-saving procedures and treatments; blessedly, many, many are alive today to bear witness to the battle that helped them triumph over two words no woman ever wants to hear spoken to them.

Today we remember people like Katie, who lost her battle; we honor people like my sister-in-law Barbara, and your own Pat R., who triumphed; and we support people like my friend Kellee, who is confronted each day by concerns about her chances for victory and who longs, with hope, for a future where breast cancer is but a piece of her life-altering past. Today we are also mourners and care-givers, friends and family to all of the above whose lives have felt the cold shadow of breast cancer fall upon them. For each and every one of us, the full awareness of the disease, its prevention, cessation, treatment and recovery are paramount. Today we to pray as a community with a common enemy, and to raise our hearts and voices toward a future that will one day see the eradication of this foe.

In this morning’s reading from Jeremiah the prophet seeks to comfort the exiles in Babylon by commending to them a life of normalcy. “Build houses,” he tells them. Plant gardens, marry, and have children. In spite of being captive in a foreign land, their days may pass as they would have in their homeland. There is grace to be found in ordinary things, and the future of which the exiles dreamed may yet come to pass. But note this, Jeremiah tells them. Tend to the welfare of the community, for in doing so the welfare of all is assured.

Women and men who receive a diagnosis of breast cancer—or any cancer or life-threatening disease—may well feel as though they have been exiled from their life. Even as people and places and routines are the same, each day is experienced through a new lens of separation and isolation. From one day to the next one’s physical health is unpredictable and, one’s future becomes obscured by the necessity of focusing on the here, the now, the immediate. This day is what matters. This moment becomes more precious than the last. The thief that lurks beneath the breastplate may threaten to separate us from the people and life that are loved, but it cannot separate us from the love of God. The tending community, our very own satellite branch of the communion of saints will see to that, and in spite of the loneliness that hovers, it can never completely descend.

For those here who can raise a triumphant fist as a survivor of the disease, we join you in celebrating this victory. Your very beings have reverberated with the feat that strikes anyone who faces the prospect of an illness that can be combated but not controlled. You have known the darkness of uncertainty, the misery and fatigue of treatment, and the depth to which you are able to dig within yourself to persevere in faith with dignity and determination. Your priorities have been adjusted and your dreams refocused. Ordinary moments have become precious opportunities to know and taste life. Nothing is taken for granted.

For those here presently waging war against breast cancer, we lift you with our prayers, our love, our support, and whatever else you require as you face each day. I offer a familiar passage of scripture from the gospel of Matthew to you. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus tells us. “Take my yoke upon and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30). You, and those who have journeyed the road you now travel, know well the desire and value of rest. Cancer takes a toll on more than the body. Emotions are dragged through every quarter of our being. You are surprised by grief as well as joy. Vulnerability and inner strength negotiate a tenuous co-existence. You strive to make hope an unshakeable ally.

The invitation to come to Jesus and find rest is welcome, and one for which you long. He offers his yoke, not as a burden of weight, but as a means of lightening the load. In taking up his yoke we harness the strength and power that is uniquely his, making it possible to face challenges that we could not fathom tackling alone.

The companionship of Christ is one of the greatest comforts and blessings of the Christian life. It is so because the gentleness of his spirit envelops us with compassion, and the humility characteristic of his heart bestows upon us an awareness of our own unique being. In the light of that awareness we find ourselves capable of drawing on our strengths, even as we accept the gift of his help to compensate for our weakness. There are times when the yoke Jesus offers us is the freedom to be carried by his love and his grace. At other times we find that in sharing the load we learn that we, too, have strength to share, and the deepening of our faith becomes a yoke of its own.  It is my prayer for those carrying the burden of illness that you may find the rest Jesus offers your soul.

For those who mourn, I want to share an experience of my own with you. Several years ago one of my dearest friends battled a diagnosis of metastatic lung cancer. She fought against her disease valiantly and boldly, and until two weeks before her death the determination of her own will, and the efforts of the medical team who treated her seemed to be headed for triumph.  At that time she was hospitalized, breathing with difficulty, and the signs seemed to suggest that triumph was not in the offing after all.

It was spring, and I drove from here to St. Louis, where Kathy lived, to see her during her hospitalization, wrestling during those hours on the road with the shifting reality that was taking place for her, and that would have an impact on all of us who loved her. Particularly jarring to me was the contrast between the pain in my heart, and the beauty that was unfolding everywhere as I drove through an awakening landscape of spring blooms and brightening greenery. I adore spring, with all its colors, contrasts and promise, and my appreciation for its glory on that occasion was pierced by enormous sadness. The world was coming to life as my friend’s life was fading, and there seemed no way to reconcile these opposing truths.

It was Holy Week, that time in the Christian calendar when the culminating events in the life of Jesus resulted in his death and resurrection, and through that spiritual lens I poured out my distress to God, seeking comfort from the One best equipped to deliver it. As the miles rolled by I yielded my heart along with my prayers, and I discovered ultimately that the spring of my joy also contained the seeds of my peace. Though Kathy’s earthly life and journey might be coming to an end, a new dimension of her life with God was being birthed. Like the buds and blooms that filled my view, she was about to blossom in God’s eternal presence, radiant and fragrant and perfect.

The image of Kathy’s soul in full and divine bloom flooded my heart not only with peace, but with a joy unlike any I had experienced before. My pain was still deep, but it was mitigated by a deeper truth that buoyed me and kept me from the abyss of grief that I had feared. I found myself smiling, thankful to God for the grace of extending his comfort to me through a means that had always been a source of delight, and for the gentle and loving care with which he was drawing my friend to his heart. That very source of joy turned out to be a yoke offered by Christ to help me find rest. The days ahead would bump and bruise all of us, but the salve of God’s peace would soothe and heal.

In Mitch Albom’s book Tuesdays with Morrie, Morrie is quoted as saying that “death ends a life, not a relationship.”  In the years since Kathy’s death I have come to understand something about the truth of that statement, and daily I discover how much our friendship is integrated and woven into the fabric of my own life. Yet even as I am appreciative of that gift, I am more deeply indebted to God for his peace. It brings home to me in a profound and significant way the promise of Easter, and the hope that is ours in faith.

When, as a community, we tend to the welfare of our members and invest ourselves in their concerns, their struggles and their triumphs, we each hold a share of the experience of exile. Whether we mourn, grieve, battle, or exult in victory, it is Easter hope that serves to permeate our doubts and fears, and infuse us with the confidence of Christ.  Each of us has our own story of loss, struggle and victory. We tend to the welfare of our community through sharing these stories. We honor the experience of exile supported by the love of family and friends, and nurtured by faith in the one who gives us hope.  We live in the houses we have built and reap the fruit of the gardens we have planted. We marry and have children, we dream live into the reality of dreams come true.  Above all, together we find ourselves bathed in the light of God’s triumphant love, and in that light we discover that we are home.

2 comments:

Jayne said...

Beautiful. Wish I had been there to hear you preach it. xo

The Bug said...

Amen! And I agree - I would like to have been there too :)

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