Cancer and Advent

*This sermon was preached at Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, 6 December 2017, and it was featured on the We Talk. We Listen. Conversations about Diversity.  This is the last post in this series of stand-alone essays. In 2020, I will be posting short excerpts of a work-in-progress on the theology, wonder, and urban nature. Stay tuned!


Grace and peace to brothers and sisters in Christ, siblings in Spirit, children of God.

Advent has begun. Alleluia! The semester is all but ended.  Lord, have mercy!

The ubiquity of both/and dialectics in Lutheran theologies should mean that we know how to move gracefully between Advent’s beginning and the semester’s ending. And, yet, in my experience of time at LSTC, the beginning of the church year in Advent and the end of the semester in December often feels more like whip lash than like a dialectic dance. It’s a beginning and an ending that together feel more like being pulled into Lake Michigan by a strong undertow than a peaceful swim at Promontory Point.

Beginnings and endings are delicate things.

One of the things that ended for me this week is the Advanced Seminar in Religion and Science. This is the Zygon Center class I taught with Dr. Leonard Hummel on evolutionary theologies of cancer.

Biologically, and much to my lament, cancer is a rather elegant disease. It finds its way into human bodies through the very mechanisms that helped us to evolve. Cancer just is part of humanity’s evolutionary inheritance. This is why it is so hard to pin down; this is why treatments are becoming personalized and individualized. Cancer is not one thing; it is a shape-shifter. It transforms itself, and more importantly its key feature is an ironic immortality.

Cancers are cells that have simply forgotten how to die.

And yet, the legacy of humanity’s evolutionary inheritance in cancer has not been divided up equally.

Cancer disparities are everywhere.

The Center for Disease Control reports that breast cancer death rates are 40% higher for black women than for white women.  The National Cancer institute has found that poverty is a carcinogen. It would seem that both God and cancer have a preferential option for the poor.

And, these are simply for the data points that have been deemed worthy of collection – sample sets, for example, for Latinx and LGBTQI persons are still not “statistically significant.” A turn of phrase that captures what you will soon hear Emilie Townes call an “ontological category that serves to keep us from our health” and one of  “the death-dealing, life-denying ways that we structure our existence.”

The story of cancer includes the inelegant – no, the decidedly sinful – chapters of systemic factors that keep some from their health. Cancer disparities are the signposts of the “death-dealing, life-denying ways” that we structure our lives and our categories to keep some from health.

The story of cancer has other chapters as well.  In our lives, there is the chorus of those we know and love who are in, with, and under the biology and the culture of cancer. Some we name out loud in our prayers; many we hold in our hearts.  Often, we ask: God, where are You in this?

After World AIDS day on December 1, we boldly proclaim that the body of Christ has HIV/AIDS.

Today, also, we recognize that the body of Christ  has cancer.

Is there good news in this? Honestly, some days, I don’t feel it.

Reading Luke at the beginning of Advent and the ending of a semester when we have been teaching and living theologies of cancer has forced the question: where is the gospel in our working and in our waiting in a world of cancer?

Let’s talk work first; waiting can wait.

Did you hear the imperatives in our text from Luke 21:34-38?

Be on guard!
Do not get weighed down!
Pray for strength to escape!

It feels like a lesson full of exclamation points.

In my own life, this is always the sign of trouble. If it seems like everything on my to do list is punctuated with an exclamation point – and there isn’t a differentiation between, for instance, folding socks and paying the gas bill, it’s a clear sign that something is off. I can actually hear my therapist gently say: “Lea, this is a red flag.”

As we enter the season of Advent, the lectionary brings us visions of apocalypse. And, preachers have the task of undoing some of the ways apocalyptic imagery has been used as a weapon of violence and theological fear-mongering. There are many ways that our readings of these texts at the start of Advent that can signal that something is off.

The lectionary’s apocalyptic invocations might seem to push an all imperatives kind of living. Run faster! Work harder! Be busy! Keep awake! Stay alert! All exclamation points! All the time!

These texts are easily read as a permission slip for the kinds of soul-crushing busy-ness that many of us know all too well. Clearly something is off. Our text from Luke is not about these imperatives.

Note well, in a Lutheran seminary, this is dangerous territory. This is not a blanket dismissal of work because of the fear of works righteousness. Sure, works righteousness is a thing, but it’s not the thing that should get in the way of doing works of love and justice. It’s a categorical mistake to confuse justice and justification. The warning in Luke about getting distracted or weighed down does not apply in the arena of justice.

On the other extreme it is a misreading of the text if we only read the imperatives and we forget the prepositions. It’s not: “Work! Work! Work!”  It’s the work of; It’s work with, and it’s work for. Loosely paraphrased, our text in Luke implores us to be alert and to pray so that we can be ready to make our stand, when the time comes.

The trick about Advent texts is that they speak of a future that is already present. Beginnings and endings are delicate things – as Advent begins, we already know the end. Christ is coming, and Christ is here. Both/and. When Luke implores us to be alert and to pray so that we can be ready to make our stand, when the time comes, we know that the time is coming, and the time is now. Because the time is also now, we make our stand today.

You can hear it in an excerpt from Emilie Townes’ theological response to  the long, unjust history of health care in African American communities. In her conclusion from Breaking the Fine Rain of Death, she writes:

“Hope is a spirit that is within us and without us
It calls us to itself, to ourselves, to one another
This hope/ is lament / is community / is love / is justice / is healing.
It is the very heart and soul of who we are and how we are and how we can be and how far we have yet to go…”

This hope reminds us that we cannot accept the death-dealing and life-denying ways in which we have often structured our existences or had our worlds ordered for us through the Tuskegee, the HIV/AIDS, through the inadequate clinical trials, through unaffordable health care, through unattainable insurance.

“We must act through a faith that is grounded in what the wise old folks tell
Us about living and hoping and refusing and cussing and praying and doing.
The work of love and justice to bring ourselves home again.”

She doesn’t overlook the imperative: we must act. But it’s the prepositions that get the top billing – It’s the work of love and justice. It’s the work for peace. It’s the work with neighbors. The good news in a world of cancer is in the Spirit of hope that is lament, community, love, justice, and healing.

During Advent, in a world of cancer, we await the coming of Christ who is already here in works of love and justice, in works of peace, and in works with neighbor.

So, what about waiting?

Waiting is a common thread between cancer and Advent.

Much of both Advent and oncology is in the waiting.

Hospitals and parenting have taught me that waiting with grace is a rare and beautiful gift, but I had missed it in my thinking about cancer. It was the final verse of our Advent reading today that re-attuned my ear to it, but it comes out even more clearly in an excerpt from Bonnie Thurston’s poem, entitled “Oncology in Advent:”

She writes:

“Theologians say
The Cosmic Christ
Is operative in all things
I’m waiting to see it.
Where are You?
In the oncology waiting room…?
Where are You
When diseases maim and kill
Not quickly and cleanly
But with messy tendentiousness?”
How am I to see You here
Unless, perhaps, as Emmanuel,
A fellow sufferer,
Bald and trembling.”

Like working, this waiting is in the prepositional mode rather than the imperative. It isn’t “Wait!”

Waiting is in the prepositions: We wait for and we wait with.  In our holy waiting, what we find – or better, whom we find – is Christ there in our midst, waiting with us, and waiting on us.

Together, cancer and Advent teach us a new move in the dialectic dance. We walk the delicate balance of working and waiting – and God is there, already with us in both the working and the waiting. This is not an either/or – it’s not a choice to work or to wait. It’s not in the imperative mode. In a world of cancer, God calls us to work with and to work for those affected by the death-dealing and life-denying ways in which we have often structured our existence to keep some of us from health. In a world of cancer, God calls us also to wait with those in whom we already see the face of the coming Christ, now, perhaps, as Emmanuel, fellow sufferer, bald and trembling.





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