May 19, 2019, What If the Whole World Has Cancer? – guest speaker Carroll Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000136
Most of you know that Mother Kathryn is back in St. Louis because her sister, Margaret, was entering the last stages of cancer. Yesterday morning at about 8:20 our time she died, but thanks to many of you, Kathryn was there with her those last few days. It was a gift to her that means more than she can express, even though she is amazingly good at expressing things. I am expecting her and Roseanna to be back here by Tuesday evening. It seems that death has been much in my company recently. My friend from the SUNY math department – whom you might remember from his visit to a service a few months ago – is in the last stages of liver disease. An old friend from our church in St. Louis lost his wife of 40 years just 2 month ago. I just notice that one of my favorite students who graduated 3 years ago hadn’t been on FB in a long time so I went to his home page; it turns out he committed suicide a few months ago and I didn’t know it. The brother of our pastor in St. Louis died suddenly of cancer a few weeks ago. It comes of being older, I suppose and perhaps it isn’t surprising that this sermon is about death.
It is an unpleasant subject, and in our culture we hide it away as much as possible. Funeral homes are designed to muffle emotion and we have become experts at living in denial. There is a lot of talk these days about “the circle of life” and how death is natural and necessary to make life possible for the next generation, and how, when you think about it, death is sort of a good thing. This is wishful thinking, at its best, a way to help people who have little hope for the next life cope more easily with the loss of this one. It is not the way the Bible talks about death. In the New Testament, death is specifically referred to as an enemy. Not just an enemy, but the number 1 enemy, a more ruthless and formidable enemy than the devil himself. Death is the very last enemy to be conquered.
And the Bible is pretty belligerent about it. In I Corinthians 15:54,55 Paul says, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”. These aren’t rhetorical questions. They were challenges. Paul dares death to show up and do its worst. And when it does he goes on to say, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Isaiah said something like it in 50:6-10, a prophecy at least in part referring to Jesus’ death: “I gave my back to those who strike and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard. I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.” But he wasn’t surrendering; it was a dare. He goes on to say “He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me.” It was like the guy in a crowded place who challenges the other guy to go outside where they can settle things. Jesus went to the cross not to give up and submit to death, but to do a kind of spiritual judo and leave it broken and lying in a heap on the sidewalk. He suffered to death to kill death.
About a dozen years ago while Kathryn was in seminary and we were at Trinity church, my best friend was a man named Jim Wagner. We met at a confirmation class Father Christopher was giving. Jim was a lapsed Lutheran and I was a lapsed Baptist and both of us were from the South, and we both wanted to be received into the Episcopal church. We had a lot in common but we disagreed on nearly everything. It became our custom to get together every week or so and argue about anything and everything. It was great fun.
One spring he returned from visiting his son in San Diego and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Six months later he was gone and during that six months I just watched him gradually disappear. But occasionally, when it was obvious he couldn’t last much longer, he would have a good day where he felt energetic and argumentative and happy. I remember going out to breakfast with him one day and enjoying his enthusiasm for just everything, but all the while, at the back of both our minds was the sure knowledge that this might be the last good day he would have. And it turned out it was.
Now I tell you that story to get to another story that ties everything together and gets me to what I really want to talk about. I like to take the dogs on a walk down past the old school house on our street and out behind it along the dirt road. Especially in the evening you can look out across the fields of the little farm back there and across the river to another little farm on the next hill and watch the sun go down in the typical beautiful sunsets we have up here. I think a well tended small farm is one of the prettiest sights that people create. Almost always there are deer out there that run into the bordering woods if you get too close, and this year there was a family of foxes living in a brush pile. One day I was out there and it came to me suddenly from nowhere: “this is just the same as that breakfast you had with Jim the month before he died”.
There is never any good that comes from being in denial about death. The truth is that the world is dying. Up here in the North Country we are pretty sheltered. Civilization and its devastation are far away and we can still see nature seemingly in full health all around us. Everything looks OK and like it will just go on forever like it always has. The air is fresh and perfect. But the grim truth is that it won’t go on. Up here the world is having a pretty good day but it has terminal cancer. It’s as if the world were a person that has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but we are here on the big toe and we can easily pretend there are no tumors that have spread all over.
Now some of you believe in global warming and some of you don’t, and it isn’t important if you do or not. Up here in January it is easy to make jokes about how it would be a relief if we had a little global warming around here. But you don’t have to believe in global warming to see what is happening to the earth. All you have to do is not close your eyes. The dead whale on the beach in Italy, dead because it poisoned himself on our plastic garbage which fills the oceans now. Every day you hear something new, the coral reefs, the rain forests, the gradual drowning of coastal cities, or icebergs the size of Rhode Island falling off Greenland, polar bears who drown because they have no ice left to walk on, storms that are bigger and more destructive and more common than ever before. Yesterday there was an earthquakes in Oklahoma, not California. But we can just turn off the television and go back to our gardens and pretend that there is no cancer killing the world. We can keep living in denial.
But it is wiser to prepare for death than pretend it isn’t coming. Jesus knew exactly what awaited him in Jerusalem and he set his face toward it with resolution. “Who will contend with me?” He was thinking. “Let him come out and fight.”
Death is only devastating if you have no hope of resurrection. But it is the hope of resurrection that sets us apart, isn’t it? Of course, I am not talking about my own death in this sermon, though that is coming as sure as can be at a time I don’t know. I am talking about the death of the whole world and that is a bit scarier, on a whole higher level. The only other hope is resurrection. But resurrection of the whole world? Yes
This is how the prophet Habakkuk ended his vision: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.”
We can face the death of the world because we trust God not to abandon us. Even more than that. Jesus died to save sinners, but he also died to heal the world, to bring the whole world back from the dead. That passage we just read from Revelation 21, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” and “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away (a.k.a. died)” and then it says, “Behold, I am making all things new.” We are now living in that time when all things are passing away, and the end of it will be a lot of death, but then we trust Him to make all things new.
In Romans 8 Paul says “For the creation itself was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” Sometimes when I see the beauty and glory of the creation all around, I feel like I can hear it groaning. This is what Isaiah 55:12 meant: “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” The sorrow may last for the night but joy comes in the morning. We await the morning, but right now the night is falling.
There are people who talk about how we have to organize and quit polluting and use clean energy and recycle stuff instead of dumping garbage everywhere, and they are perfectly right. But it is like a person dying of lung cancer who finally quits smoking and start chemo. It may not stop the cancer, but it will help them live better longer. It is all worth doing, but the truth is it is too late to avoid a disaster now. Many people put all their hope in some new and unexpected scientific break-through saving us, and who knows? It happened before in the 60’s in the green revolution. That bought us 60 years. Will it happen again? Maybe, but let’s be clear: it was the mis-use of science that got us into this mess in the first place. They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But isn’t it true that our knowledge is always less than we need, less than it should be? I fully respect how smart those scientists are but they are not big enough and smart enough to put faith in. If they don’t come through, I still believe God will be faithful to us and to the whole world.
Living in denial of the end of the world may make us feel better for the moment, but it means we must walk into the future blind and unprepared for what we will have to do. It robs us of the opportunity to trust God to save us. And it might make us miss our calling. We are like hospice nurses sent into the world.
It is in this understanding that we should read psalm 148 as a prophecy, as a promise, so I will read it again as the conclusion. “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens. Praise him in the heights. Praise him, all his angels. Praise him, all his hosts. Praise him sun and moon. Praise him, all you shining stars. Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created. And he established them forever and ever. He gave a decree and it shall not pass away. Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all the deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word. Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds. Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth, young men and maidens together, old men and children, let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted, his majesty is above earth and heaven. He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his saints, for the people of Israel who are near to him. Praise the Lord!”
All the creation groan, longing for healing. All creation praises God for the deliverance only He can bring, but it has no voice to speak out loud. Be kind to all these creatures who have no voice, your dogs and cats, of course, but also the cattle and horses and chickens and wild things. Treat them so that if they get a voice – and He just might give them one – they will praise God because of you.