Oncology can be an exhausting field of medicine. If you're an oncologist, nobody wants to work with you, really. “I am an oncologist,” you might say, and many of us will recoil. We certainly don’t want to be referred to you.
My mother saw her share of oncologists in the final two years of her life. She made it through almost half of 1996, and in the final months she underwent various chemotherapy treatments and other procedures to treat her ovarian cancer and its painful symptoms.
At one point she expressed a concern to her oncologist. I don’t know what it was exactly, but it had something to do with the effects of a certain course of treatment. Throughout her illness she had wanted to retain as much strength as possible; maybe she just wanted to know if the side effects would diminish her energy level.
It might have already been a long day for the oncologist. It had been a long year for my mother. I don’t want you to be too hard on him when I tell you what he said. Responding to her concern about how the treatment might affect her, he said, “Well, you’re just going to get weaker anyway.”
Taken one way, this is an awful thing to say. But again, I want to recall his comment with compassion, both for him and for my mother. And you know, I have to say, he was right. She did get weaker. She got wearier. And she died.
“You’re just going to get weaker anyway.”
There’s a certain bracing bluntness in that sentence. It’s almost…refreshing. On a day when I can look death in the face (or at least pretend to), I can even manage to smile at the shocking clarity of it, like a splash of ice-cold water on my face. On days when I find it harder, days when it seems death has the upper hand, I want to return fire. “Oh yeah?!” I want to say. “You think I’m just going to get weaker, do you?” (I love a good competition.)
But it’s no use. I am going to get weaker. And so are you. We are going to get wearier. And one day, we are all going to die. You can’t blame my mother’s oncologist for speaking the truth.
We come here every Sunday and feast day to proclaim our ultimate Truth, the truth of God’s merciful embrace of all mortal life. But at All Souls we join my mother’s oncologist in a form of truth-telling that turns directly into our mortality. At the conclusion of our celebration tonight, we will be in Bolster Garden, our own garden of Resurrection … and also our own graveyard. And there we will hear again the Christian message of hope, the message we hear from our Savior that cuts across the oncologist’s truth: that death is swallowed up in victory. Or to say it another way: that death is real enough, but death does not have the last word.
No, death does not have the last word. But it is one of the words. And so we proclaim Resurrection tonight not in a green field at sunrise in springtime, but in the middle of a graveyard at night in November. We face this truth together.
To make meaning of all this, we turn to the Gospel of John for words of Jesus about death, life, and eternal life, and find him taking on the topic in the fifth chapter, early on, as he is establishing his identity and launching his ministry.
Notice that when Jesus speaks of “eternal life,” he speaks in both the present and future tense. As we just heard, he says, “Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life…and has passed from death to life.” He then speaks of the hour that “is coming,” but then says that hour “is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”
Not just in the bright future, but in the here and now, even on this dark November night. Today, not just in the bright dream of a resurrected tomorrow. Today, we will find “eternal life” in God’s embrace.
But wait. That oncologist is standing in the corner over there, arms folded, shaking his head and saying those terrible words: “You’re just going to get weaker anyway.”
How does this work?
Well, let’s look at what St. Paul has to say about death and life. In Paul we hear an even more strident message of hope. Paul—who is remembered as an athlete, and fond of the metaphor of an athlete running a long race—Paul the long-distance runner might want to challenge my mother’s oncologist to an athletic competition. He portrays the resurrection of the dead as something akin to an athletic victory. In his vision, we find our way to a mighty triumph with God in the sky, reunited with our beloved dead.
But in John, in my hearing, the message seems more complicated. And the oncologist is just doing his job. Our task this evening, our task at this Table, our task outside in the graveyard slash Resurrection garden—our task is to hold death and life together, to proclaim eternal life only in the midst of death, to sing “alleluia,” that most triumphant song of praise, with the ashes of our beloveds at our feet. If you like Paul’s image of eternal life as an athlete’s victory, you may keep it. (I do.) But don’t miss the painful struggle. Don’t miss how hard a runner must work to win a race.
And don’t miss the fact that for many athletes, the race itself is where most of the life and delight can be found.
Death and life, future and present, loss and victory: one is always present in the other. We will win the victory through Jesus Christ, even as we get weaker.
But, you may still be asking, how does this work?
To offer one answer to that eternal question, let me open up my mother’s story a little bit more. My sister Sarah’s oldest son John was one of the grandchildren who met my mother before she died, and Sarah tells of a conversation John—then four years old—had with my mother as she approached her death. Sarah wrote, “When they spoke for the last time, Mother asked John, ‘What do you think I will do first when I get to Heaven?’ John said, ‘I don’t know, Nana, what do you want to do?’ ‘I want to run,’ she said. ‘My mother told me that when I was a little girl I ran everywhere—I ran down the stairs, down the block, to school, to the neighbors, everywhere. And then when I was eleven I got sick [with polio] and couldn’t run anymore. I miss that, and that’s the first thing I’m going to do because I know that in Heaven my body will be fixed and I will be able to run as far and as fast as I want to.’”
Sarah then told me this: “When we [were at Mother’s] burial service, the prairie winds were in full force. We came out a side door of the hotel and the wind nearly knocked John over. John got a wistful smile on his face and said, ‘Well I guess now I know what happens when Nana runs in Heaven!’”
We Christians harbor a great hope that Nana runs in Heaven. You have a Nana, or many of them, and you long to behold them running, running with health and life and freedom.
But we Christians also visit Nana on her journey in the now, chemotherapy and all. We are that four-year-old hospice chaplain, who himself is living a mortal life. And we are that oncologist, proclaiming the truth of death. One day, we are Nana ourselves. And we can recognize the immense strength our dying and our dead reveal in the midst of their weakness. We can see that Nana was running a race even as she lay dying.
And so we gather around this image of death and life, this cross: an image of strength in weakness, a broken body winning the race. We meet our Savior not only in the sky, but in our graveyard, and watch as he resurrects that graveyard into a garden.
We step out into the fierce prairie wind, a wind that almost knocks us over, a wind that will knock us over, and we proclaim not just death, but life.
You’re just going to get weaker anyway. So take my hand. Take the hands of those we love who have died. We will gain strength together, and together we will pass from death to life.