Something has happened to the preaching moment we share at University Hill Congregation. In truth, it has been happening over a long period of time. Yet something quite extraordinary seems to be happening as a result of the news that the preacher has an incurable cancer. I am trying to make sense of all of this. It is early days. But the last few Sundays have been different. There is more energy. More energy in the preacher. More energy in the congregation. And not just any energy. Kingdom energy. Gospel energy. Ache is here. Truth is here. There is both grief and gratitude. There is a living word that is almost palpable. It is easy for me to receive during the week. It is almost as if the texts are plugged in to a high voltage line. I do not find it difficult to hear what the text is speaking to us directly. It might be difficult to put into words. It might be hard to say. But it is not difficult to know what needs to be said. The Word from God seems strong.
I am wondering what it is about this new situation that has made the preaching feel so electric. I am not alone in this. Many in the congregation notice that we are participating in something we have not known in quite this way before. Some of the ingredients in this mix seem clear to me.
There is the huge spiritual power that the words "incurable cancer" have among us. The word "cancer" has much more spiritual power than, say, "heart disease" or "diabetes" or "kidney disease". Yet, in truth, if I had a severe heart or kidney condition I would be in much greater danger of dying soon than I do. Part of my pastoral work these days is educating the congregation about early stage multiple myeloma. My doctors expect that I have a number - likely many - good years of life ahead. I sometimes imagine people saying in five years: "Hey, I thought that you had incurable cancer". I do. That doesn't mean I am going to die anytime soon.
It is a shock to everyone when a pretty healthy fifty-seven year old is diagnosed with incurable anything. And it is even more a shock when that person has been a congregation's pastor for sixteen years. Along with educating the congregation about multiple myeloma I am also pastoring a congregation that is in varying stages of shock, grief, anxiety and acceptance. Fortunately, I feel well cared for by family, friends and medical team. I feel like I am in a good place to be the pastor that the congregation needs in this moment. And I find it a whole new experience to encounter so many different reactions and emotions as people speak with me about how they are coping with and feeling about my illness and our uncertain future together.
I am still preaching the message that I have been preaching for a long time. I am not saying anything new. We have been speaking of the gospel as a three day journey through Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday for a good ten years here. We are familiar with the news that when Good Friday hits - when it is the end, when you have no capacity to save yourself or fix the mess - then the God we meet in Jesus Christ is waiting to begin with your life. This is where we enter the gospel. The end of what we thought was life turns out to be the beginning of a journey through absence and loss into hope and the promise of newness in Jesus Christ. So when the doctor told me that my end is in view I knew what to preach. It is as if I have been practicing my scales and chords for many years. Now it comes time to play the music and it is in my bones.
That's the first thing I notice about my preaching voice. It is in my bones. I believe it. I am not making it up or pretending. It is honest testimony. I have often preached that the kingdom is near at hand for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. I have often imagined myself to be standing on the border of the kingdom and peeking in and then turning back to preach about what I see. But ever since I heard that I am not likely to live as long as I might have imagined I feel like I have stepped across the border. Now I feel like I am looking at the congregation from the kingdom side. I feel as though I see them, and the world, in a whole new light. I have a confidence in what I am saying that I have never known.
At the same time, I see the congregation looking at me and I see an eagerness, an openness, a receptivity that I have not seen before. And they are turning up in numbers that are unheard of for late June! That is driven, in part, by the knowledge that I will be away on medical leave after July 17 until, at the earliest, Advent. But I wonder if their leaning into my preaching also has something to do with the fact that now I so obviously share in their human condition. Before this it might have been possible to look at me and see only a very lucky, blessed person. I have a family with children and grand-children. I have work. I am able to live comfortably. It is true that I am a very fortunate, blessed person. But I do know more pain and grief than is obvious to others. Behind my face, like every other human, is a soul doing hard work. Now it is evident to everyone that I have hard soul work to do. Now there can be no denying that the minister knows about Good Friday in his life. Now the preaching has more authenticity because now the preacher's testimony is given more credence. It is not just out of a book. It is out of Ed.
Well, that is what I've sorted out so far. I have no idea how this will shift once I have been away for the fall and return to preach. I expect and trust that the anxiety and urgency will shift to a sense of normalcy, though perhaps a new kind of normalcy. I also expect that we will grow into a time of gratitude as we simply receive the gift of whatever time we may have together over the years to come. In an odd way I find myself grateful to God for this turn in my journey. Not that I am glad to have this illness. But if I have to have incurable cancer this is a great kind to have. It is chronic, manageable and allows me to preach and write. If it means that more people want to hear the word, if it means more people show up and find that there is life-giving voltage in the living Word of God ... well, then, can you imagine anything that would make a gospel preacher happier?
The past two Sundays are cases in point. The sermons are not to be found in text form anywhere. I try to preach in the way that I imagine that a jazz-musician plays. I have pretty much memorized the melody lines and chord progressions of the texts in thirty-one years of preaching. I take a chart of the text with me on most Sundays to keep me connected to the gospel narrative. Then I improvise. You can view the improvisational sermon titled "Benediction" (II Corinthians 13:11-13) from June 12 and the improvisational sermon called "The Provisional Gospel" (Genesis 22:1-14) on June 19 by visiting our congregation's video page. You will need to use Internet Explorer as your browser when viewing the videos. As always, I will be glad for your reflections and comments about any or all of this.