Sunday, September 12, 2010

[sermon] the cancer sermon (no snazzy title)

[Sermon for the people of Abiding Peace Lutheran Church, preached 2010-07-25. Colossians 2: 6-19. Parts of this sermon have been (re)written and expanded and differ from the original proclaimed sermon.]

I don't usually use anecdotes about members of the congregation as sermon illustrations, because I was a preacher's kid and it didn't take me long to get royally tired of hearing stories about my bad behavior from the pulpit. But I am going to talk about a member of our congregation today.

Annie's not worshiping with us today, this precious little red dog, because she had this growth on her ear that turned out to be cancerous. She had surgery to remove the growth and the ear flap too, and now she's not doing so well, and her mother keeps freaking out when she sees little fatty growths on her dog's body because, let's face it --

-- growth is scary.

Paul tells the Colossians that the Body of Christ, the Church, "Grows with a growth that is from God," and that's Good News. But how do you distinguish it from the other kind of growth, the scary, creepy, insidious growth that is cancer?

That's the fear, right? If we grow, if we change, if the church shifts, maybe we won't be the Body of Christ anymore. Maybe we'll be a tumor.

Cancer is mutation. The DNA in cells mutates, and the mutated cells reproduce, and the cancer spreads and crowds out the Gospel cells.

The Body of Christ is doing its job (our job) when we're replicating the Gospel DNA at our core, spreading the Good News. There is one Gospel, but many ways to name it -- "God became flesh and dwelt among us," "In Christ we are forgiven," "Love your neighbor as yourself, and everyone is your neighbor," - and there are other articulations in word and song and art and dance and most importantly in these sacraments [touch water, bread] -- so this morning we're going to use Paul's articulation of the Gospel and remember that it points to the rest. Paul says that we died with Christ through baptism and are raised with Christ through faith in God. We are dead to sin and evil, we are not subject to death -- we are part of Christ, part of Christ's very Body. Good News. Good News indeed.

We share one Gospel the way every cell in your body shares DNA, but like DNA the Gospel is an amazing set of instructions. Each part of the Body of Christ serves the Gospel -- but we it in so many diverse ways.

So what is cancer? Cancer is anything that thwarts the Gospel, that holds at its core not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but some other message.

There are parts of the church that do not directly serve the Gospel, of course. The church is a millennia-old institution, and there is plenty of graft. If we were to go through our church we'd find plenty of paper and words and liturgy that aren't essential to the Gospel. They are beautiful and even useful, but they are not the core of our faith. We could lose the hymnal and still be Christians.

But that's fine. Or at least, that's inevitable. There are benign growths in the church, things that have been added on to the core of the Gospel that don't detract from the real work of living that Gospel. A budget, for example, is not essential. It doesn't, in itself, proclaim the Good News of our death and resurrection with Christ. But it is darned useful.

The worry comes when the mutant cells spread, when their importance overpowers the Gospel, replaces the Gospel. Paul gives us examples of cancers that threatened the church in his time --

like secular philosophy. That's something that comes into the church easily, and sometimes it's helpful. Secular feminism provided and continues to provide a powerful critique of the patriarchal institutions that inhabit Christianity -- a patriarchy that is itself cancerous, a patriarchy that seemed to be essential to the church but in fact masked the Gospel, which is a liberating word to all people.

I am a feminist. I am a big fan of secular feminism; it is one of my favorite secular philosophies. Feminism has a place in the church. But if feminism overpowers the Gospel, if the church starts spreading feminism and advocating for women's issues at the expense of being a Gospel church - then feminism has turned cancerous. It has distorted the original message of the Gospel.

Paul also gives the example of angel worship. "Angels", in Greek, are "messengers" - the same root as "evangelist," a Good-News-Bringer. There is certainly a cult of angel worship in our country, a belief in guardian angels and a delight in angel kitsch -- but there's a deeper kind of angel worship that arises when we begin worshiping the messenger instead of living the message. When we start worshiping the Bible instead of the living Word that is Christ, when we devote our energy to preserving the edifice of the church instead of living as Christ's Body -- then we are worshiping angels instead of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the angel worship has become cancerous.

So, how do we tell the difference? When our church grows -- and let me give you a hint; this period of discernment that we're in is about growth -- how do we tell?

It is important that we know what the Gospel is, and judge all things against it. If we know who we are and what we believe, then the growth that comes will be Gospel growth.

But we must be prepared to fight cancer. The treatments for cancer are painful and hurt the whole Body -- chemotherapy is poison -- and it is difficult to eradicate deep-rooted growths. We must be prepared for surgery, prepared to remove parts of the Body -- keeping in mind that these parts may be structures or institutions but never people -- people are creatures, and sinners, and redeemable, and can never be entirely cancerous.

And we must be prepared, as we examine our growths, to be surprised. Those lumps on the back of the Body of Christ? Just may be wings. Amen.

[A week after I preached this, Annie, precious little red dog, went to be with God. I assume she has both ears now, and also wings.]

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