Winning against Cancer: Reflections on Death and Stuart Scott

I remember in college being excited about watching Monday morning’s Sports
Center.  Stewart Scott was usually on as one of the top broadcasters and I loved the catch phrases he would use.  “Boo-yah!” “Cool as the other side of the pillow.”  Rich Eisen does an awesome job summing them up in this highlight reel.

Yet, what caught me was the quote from Scott’s ESPY award speech.  “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer.  You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.”

As a pastor, as a Christian, I never like hearing someone say that they ‘lost their battle with cancer.”  Stuart Scott seemed to be a man of faith and walked, the final days of his life, as one who goes on to live.  Another quote points to this.  This quote comes from ESPN magazine back in 2010 while discussing Tim Tebow’s scriptural eyeblack.  When asked if he would be offended if someone wrote “There is no God” on their eyeblack Scott replied, “Dave, if that [is] what you want to do, I don’t care.  But Tim and I and billions of other believers in the world know you’d be wrong.  I’ve seen the workings of God many times in my life…If you don’t believe in God, watch a child be born.  Then if you still say you don’t believe in God, that’s okay.  The thing is, I think He’ll watch over you anyway!”

I just did a funeral from someone who passed away from Alzheimer’s.  At any funeral when someone has gone through a long battle with illness and disease I remind the family of what Scott echoes.  You never lose when you have faith.

During the committal service at the graveside this is what the United Methodist Book of Worship reads, and something I love, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!  We will not all die, but we will all be changed.  For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  Then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”  “Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting.” But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We will all change, we will all die, but it is through the salvation work of God through his Son Jesus Christ that we can go on to live.

I remember distinctly the pastor of my church as a youth (Bruce Jones) announce, “Mr. ______ just won his battle with cancer.”  It caught me off guard at first but then the reality sunk in.  As people of faith, God’s love wins.  No disease, illness or tragedy ever has the last say.  Scott seemed to understand that, echo that, and live that out in the last part of his earthly journey.

To him I say thank you.  Thank you for reaching a millions with that quote and I pray that they will know the faith and the grace behind it one day for themselves.

Let us pray, “O God, who gave us birth, you are ever more ready to hear than we are to pray.  You know our needs before we ask, and our ignorance in asking.  Give to us now your grace, that as we shrink before the mystery of death, we may see the light of eternity.  Speak to us once more your solemn message of life and of death.  Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.  And when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you, and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us form your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.”  (UM Book of Worship)

John 20:1-18 – Easter Sermon – Living the Resurrection

John 20:1-18

Living the Resurrection

04-04-10

On Saturday, March 20th at 1:32 PM Eastern Standard Time it became official, Spring was here. That was the official time for the Vernal Equinox or Spring Equinox. On this day the Sun rises and sets on the equator and all over the world, for those 24 hours, the day and night are the same amount of time. Skip ahead ten days to March 30th and it is the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. Now we are here on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox, that must mean one thing. It’s Easter! That must mean, HE HAS RISEN!

Here we are. Easter morning. Our bellies are full of the wonderful breakfast. The end of the long 40 days is here. You can eat whatever you gave up now or you can stop what ever you added. Our journey into our souls can now rest for another year and we can bask in the reality that death could not keep our Lord. Sin has now been defeated and we can find assurance that we are going be with God one day because of all this. Because he sent his Son. Because his Son died our death on Good Friday and then rose again today. HE HAS RISEN!

Tomorrow we will stand on the other side of Easter. We will celebrate this for 50 days. The Great 50 days start today. The season of Easter is longer than the season of preparation for it. That is because as we dived into the depth of our souls, confessed our sins and then witnessed what God did for us, we then celebrate because we are Easter people. We get the chance to live on the other side of the resurrection. We have to figure out how to do that though.

Did you hear the one about the preacher, the lawyer and the stand-up comedian? Her name is Rev. Susan Sparks from Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. You heard me a woman Baptist minister who went to school for a lawyer and became a stand-up comedian who then went on to become a minister. Her life is a joke. I was introduced to her through the podcast I listen to from Day 1. As I listened to her sermon for today I was touched by the way she framed her Easter message.

Before we get there though let’s back up. Each Sunday is called a little Easter and each Sunday we should come here to celebrate, proclaim, and worship the one who was resurrected from the dead today. Every Sunday we should shout with joy, HE IS RISEN. But we don’t always. I don’t always preach about the resurrection and I have to confess that the only other time I talk about life after death is a peppering of sermons throughout the year and at funerals. That is where we think most often the message of the resurrection to be true. As we stare death in the eye we thank God that our Lord does not let that be the end for us.

Yet the resurrection is not something that we should wait until our funeral to proclaim. As Rev. Sparks said, “Death can come long before the end of life.” She went on in her sermon to talk about Resurrection Biscuits. Her grandmother lives in South Carolina and apparently is a great cook, like most southern grandparents. Yet there is one thing her grandmother can’t cook and that is biscuits. This is where any good southern person would then chime in, “Bless her heart,” which makes it okay to talk about someone’s grandmother like that. Apparently what would happen with Rev. Spark’s grandmother is that she refused to use baking soda or baking powder in anything. When her biscuits came out of the oven they made hockey pucks look soft and fluffy. Her family said that if you dropped one on the ground that it could wake the dead, thus their nickname for them, “Resurrection Biscuits.”[1]

All her grandmother needed was one more ingredient and her biscuits would come to life instead waking the dead. Rev. Sparks in her sermon goes on to explain how we all need that one ingredient in our lives to make us whole and that ingredient is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without it, “death can come long before the end of life.”

Do you know anyone who is walking around dead in this world? They exist only because they are here and there is no other purpose for their lives. Life has smacked them hard across the face and now they are stunned and lost. They couldn’t believe that they had to bury their own child. They don’t know what to do since they haven’t worked in 2 years. They just can’t fight this disease any longer. They can’t see past the day of the accident. They are stuck, without purpose, without vigor, without life. They are the dead walking in this world.

Mary was like that. After the Sabbath was over she collected the things she needed to prepare Jesus’ body and she made her way down to the tomb. The Gospels name her as one of the women there who actually watched Jesus die on the cross. She heard the hammers hit the nails that pierced his hands and feet. She heard his cries of pain and watched him attempt to push himself up in order that he could breath. She was there when the solider stuck the spear into Jesus’ side and water and blood ran out. She had watched Jesus die, her Lord, the one she followed, the one she loved. Pain brought her to the tomb. Anguish and depression guided her to the place of her Lord’s burial. It was there she was prepared to meet the worst thing that had happened.

We have moments that we cannot stand to relive. We have places of pain and of suffering. In the book “The Shack,” that we read last summer, the main character Mack is called by God back to place of his greatest pain. He was called back to the cabin where they found his daughter’s dress and blood. It is there that the reality of her kidnapping and murder came crashing down upon him. We have those shacks as well. Places we cannot go, issues we don’t want to face, people we don’t ever want to meet again because death takes over in our souls when that happens. Then we transform into the walking dead as we are consumed.

As Mary headed to that tomb early in the morning she carried the weight of solitude, for no one else was with her. She carried the weight of the oils and perfumes to seal death around Jesus. She carried the pain of what she witnessed on Friday. All that weight bore down on her soul and she wept. Then she arrived at the tomb and saw the stone rolled away. She ran to tell the disciples who came running as well. After Peter and John headed back home, she sat there and wept outside the tomb, once again alone. There she feels dead.

Life is hard. There is nothing about life that is easy. Kids just don’t sleep well and they get sick, which means that you don’t sleep and soon you will be sick. The people in our Sunday School classes get smaller and smaller as we bid them farewell and celebrate their lives. Family issues seem to never go away and consume all of our thoughts and time. Loneliness keeps creeping in and devours our passions and hopes for the future. It is there we feel dead.

Then a man asks Mary, “Why are you crying.” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!”

It is in our despair, in our grief, in our pain, in our suffering that the Risen Lord and Savior meets us and calls out our name. It is in life that our Lord transforms us to be an Easter People. Yes, one of the perks of following Christ is eternity in the presence of God after death but before we get there Christ, through his resurrection, saves our life.

Today as came into worship death was still all around us. The cross was still dead and the altar still barren. Now it is full of life. Where death used to be there is now life. Death could not keep our Lord and the small and big deaths in our life do not keep Christ from meeting us there and calling our name. That is the promise of Easter; that is the promise of resurrection.

Resurrection is promised at the end of our life but what is wonderful is that we can proclaim its power now as we live. We can live in the resurrection knowing that no matter what happens to us and no matter where life takes us, the Risen Lord, will be there. As Mack spent the weekend with God in that cabin of his worst nightmare he was transformed. As we see God in our midst when we visit our pain and our issues we too will be transformed, from death to life. Because today, TODAY, we proclaim boldly that he has risen, He Has Risen, HE HAS RISEN!

And all God’s people said…Amen.

A Decade of…

Once again The Big Picture has stirred me with images I can’t get out of my head. Alan Taylor has put together 50 photos that sum up the last decade, the “noughties” is my favorite way of describing them so far. What strikes me that I would probably have picked similar pictures to describe the decade but coming to that realization also saddened me. For this decade has been a hard one.

War. Natural Disasters. War. Political Struggles. These seem to be the focus of these 50 pictures and I realize that it has been a sad decade. Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, war, terror, fear, death, embarrassment, meltdown, recession, and pain could all sum up these past 10 years. Where is the hope? Where is the peace?

Time Magazine called this the “decade of hell.” On some levels it has been. But I guess as we stare at the end of another year, another decade, we know nothing about what the next one will hold. As we finish the last leg of the Advent journey maybe it is even more pertinent to hear the message of Christmas. As we look back on “those days” (Luke 2:1) and see the sadness and hopelessness, may we be transformed by “this day” (Luke 2:11).

In a decade rattled by fear, may we hear once again the angel’s first message after the Christ Child entered the world…

“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 1:10-11)

Bracketology and Theology

On my official bracket I cannot pick anyone else but Duke to win. I know their chances are slim this year but I have hope they can do it. I’m a Blue Devil fan and to admit they cannot make it seems to make me less of a fan. I witnessed two UNC fans place a bet with one another. One bet UNC would go all the way and the other bet they wouldn’t. This proves some things about UNC fans but the point is a ‘fan’ bet against his team. Are you a trully a fan if you do that? I you don’t think your team can make it all the way does that make you less of a fan?

At church we would say that would make you weak in your faith. True, hardcore faith is the believe in God and that with God anything is possible. Yet if I asked God to save me as I jumped off a roof, would God? Can you be faithful and believe that God cannot do everything we ask? Yet God has done many miracles in this world, cured people, saved people, transformed people, is there a limit to God’s ability?

This may seem like a loose connection between college basketball fans and theology but these are questions my, and probably many other, parishioners and pastors for that matter, deal with. Doubt can set in. We struggle with what we see and what is on our hearts. For Christians though we are given something that helps us get through all this…hope.

There is a difference between optimism and hope. Miroslav Volf wrote in a 2004 article in The Christian Century, “Hope is not based on the possibilities of the situation and on correct extrapolartion about the future. Hope is grounded in the faithfulness of God and therefore on the effectiveness of God’s promise…Optimism is based on the possibilities of things as they have come to be; hope is based on the possibilities of God irrespective of how things are.” (Quoted in Bishop Larry Goodpaster‘s book, There’s Power in the Connection, p. 126)

Hope is rooted in something beyond this world. As we fill out brackets and watch 32 games in the next 48 hours, there is hope that my team wins. But deeper hope is found in the knowledge that in the end, no matter how it all plays out, God wins.