Dancing at the Edge of Life

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

Six years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. My cancer is a rare, yet treatable form, known in medical circles by the acronym “CTCL,” or cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. Regardless of what it's called, I've been fortunate that it has never given me any pain or discomfort. It has responded extremely well to treatment. This week, I'll go in for my six-month check-up, and I have every reason to believe that I'll be told I'm “good to go” for another six months.

But six years ago I was in shock, then in fear, because of what this news might mean. After my diagnosis I made the mistake of going to the internet for information, where “worst case” scenarios and photographs are often the first things we find. Today I know where to go to get good, balanced and helpful information about my disease. But in the beginning I saw more darkness than light. The brightest light came from a book that's now out of print. I was lucky enough to find a library copy just after I got my news, and I sat right down and read most of that light-hearted memoir. It was published twenty-five years ago, just after the worst nuclear disaster in history, at Chernobyl. The book, written by a poet and environmental journalist named Gale Warner, is called Dancing at the Edge of Life.

“When I led workshops for social activists in Moscow and Leningrad,” Gale Warner wrote, “I helped them get in touch with the possibility that they could die of cancer caused by radiation or toxic chemicals. Now,” she continued, “there is a chance that I myself might be a victim of Chernobyl.” Yet her bad news also brought her a gift: wisdom and insight. “We are one ecological self, one connected body. . .all one flesh,” she wrote (p. 30). And “in the process of healing myself, I will help heal the world” (p. 5). Why did Gale Warner call her book Dancing at the Edge of Life? Encouraged by an African dance instructor who taught her that “there is no bad dancing or good dancing – there's just dancing,” she decided, “Because of my illness, I am going to be doing a lot more dancing. . ..” (p. 20).

The kind of joy someone finds in the midst of sorrow; the fact that someone dares to dance despite all their darkness or despair – that joy, that dancing is part of the heart of the Gospel! As Lent comes to a close and we approach the sadness of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, we know how the story ends. We have already read ahead to the end we call Easter, and we know we will sing songs like “Welcome, happy morning!” two weeks from today. But if we are paying attention to God, if we are listening to our own lives, we will discover, deep in a part of our hearts, that “the Gospel is bad news,” as the great Christian writer Frederick Buechner once said, “before it is Good News” (Telling the Truth, p. 7). There is no crown for Jesus without, first, the cross. There is no resurrection unless, first, there is some kind of death. There is no new beginning, no new lease on life, unless and until the old ways of living finally come to an end.

Today, in the twelfth chapter of the Gospel of John, as the earthly ministry of Jesus comes to an end, he speaks some Gospel truth to his disciples: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it. . .” (John 12:24-25a). In another rendering called The Message, Eugene Peterson uses these words to describe Jesus' point: “Anyone who holds on to life, just as it is, destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you'll have it forever, real and eternal.” And in the Gospel text from Mark three Sundays ago: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” As Jesus faces his own death, as we face our own mortality, is this really good news? Is this the kind of news that's worth dancing about?

When I left parish ministry for a time and became a chaplain in a retirement community, it fell to me one day to visit a woman whose son, in his fifties, had suddenly died. “He was my baby,” the elderly mother told me, through tears. She taught me that everyone is someone's baby, no matter what one's age may be. It is this kind of sentiment, I think, that our President expressed this week about the tragic death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin: “If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.” There is nothing else quite like the relationship of a son or daughter to their father or mother. The relationship between a child and a parent is unique, one that mirrors our relationship with God. Like Jesus, we are God's beloved sons and daughters, in one connected body, what Christians call the body of Christ. And while we may know that we are God's beloved daughters and sons forever, and that no matter what happens to us, we will always belong to God – still, there is, for a parent, no loss like the loss of a child.

I want to tell you another story about a parent and a child, a story my wife shared with me last week. Carter, who was born nearly three years ago, has developed a brain tumor. His mother Sarah was, of course, devastated when she was given this news, and her earliest prayers reflected it. Her faith was strong, believing in a God who can work wonders and miracles. And so, at the time of those early days after Carter's diagnosis, her prayer was something like this: “God, help me. God, help Carter. And God, thank you in advance for the healing of my son.”

Today, Sarah and her loved ones know that the tumor has spread throughout Carter's little brain, and the good doctors and other folks at St. Jude Hospital say they can only buy a little more time. In addition to the old fashioned ways in which they have asked people to pray for them, Sarah, Carter and their family are using an internet “care and prayer” support system. Today, Sarah's prayers are surely different. Now, she prays something like this: “God, Carter and I still need your help. And God, thank you for all the help and support you have been giving us through all of our friends and our loved ones.”

At times, her prayer must feel to Sarah like little more than a grain of wheat, falling into the earth and simply dying. But for those who know about the power of prayer to change lives, for those who know that we are all grains of wheat, there is fruit in this prayer. It's just a different kind of fruit than what anyone might hope for or expect. Although there is plenty of weeping for Sarah and her family, there is not much dancing right now. But there is fruit.

I want to tell you one more story about a mother and a son, a more fruitful and complete story, if any story is ever complete. This is a Gospel story, a story about weeping and about dancing. It's about Ann and Eli. They were active members of the church I served in a suburb of Pittsburgh over twenty years ago. I'd been a priest for just a couple of years when Ann came to see me. She and her husband were hoping to get pregnant again, but something happened, and Ann suffered a miscarriage. A professional journalist with a seminary degree, Ann knew just what she needed. “I know I need to ritualize this loss,” she said with clarity, amidst her tears. “I need some kind of funeral.”

She was right, of course, but at the time, we knew of no Christian rite or liturgy for the loss of a child by miscarriage. I had never been asked to help with something so important to someone else and so foreign to my experience. But Ann was sure we could work together and create a meaningful service of worship. So Ann wrote a memorial liturgy, and I gave it some Episcopal flavoring. When they arrived at the church on a Saturday evening, Ann, her husband and their young son Eli were joined by a few close friends. Ann had brought some roses and baby’s breath for the altar, as well as a recording of a religious folk song. She asked if it was alright to play the song in the service. I suggested we listen to it when I set the altar for Communion.

After the Bible readings and a time of reflection, I started setting the table. When the music began, I saw something out of the corner of my eye. Young Eli was beginning to move. Eli, I had learned, was totally free to be himself in church. He was nearly famous for the way in which he said the Lord's Prayer on Sunday mornings – really loud, so loud you wanted him to stop, ending with an even louder “AMEN!” But this time, at the funeral of a sibling he would never know, Eli wasn't saying a word. He was simply dancing, dancing at the edge of life. He danced to the music, with freedom and delight. The song to which he danced is called “Unless a Grain,” and it's based on today's Gospel text.

I told Ann this week that, somehow, as I watched Eli dance to what theologians call the paschal mystery, the dying and rising of Christ, I suddenly believed, without a doubt, that Ann and her family were going to be alright. Ann replied that her life was a lot better than it was back then. Her second son Sam was born not too long after that Saturday night service. She knows now that she would never have met Sam if her other child had lived. And after a divorce, Ann was remarried to a man with five children. Today, her oldest, Eli, is all grown up. He's a doctoral candidate in biology, where he continues to study life in all its forms. I suspect he's learned even more about wheat, fruit and dancing.

The stories of Sarah and Carter or Ann and Eli are not the same as your story or mine. Nor is Gale's, the poet and environmental journalist, who died at the age of 31, just thirteen months after her diagnosis. But I have learned that the stories of those who learn to live with death and somehow discover new life, the stories of those who suffer loss and somehow find something to be gained, the stories of cracked-open wheat and abundant fruit – these stories are God's gospel gifts for us. They are stories filled with wisdom, if we would but stop and listen to what God, through these stories, is saying. These stories are filled with wisdom, like that of Gale Warner, written after her cancer returned: “My current task could not be more straightforward: to eat each grape, each swallow of milk, each bite of meat, each brew of herbal tea with honey, and say, 'This is sacred.' To watch the clouds sail toward the sea and know I am not cut off from the life-surging powers of the earth but am steeped in them. To wake, saying, 'This will be a good day for loving,' and to sleep, saying, 'This day was a gift'” (p. 63).

Two hundred years ago the great genius of German literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, said, “So long as you have not experienced this – to die and so to grow – you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth” (The Holy Longing). Dear friends in Christ, no matter how troubled you or I may be are, no matter how dark life may seem to us, Jesus is calling us. Do you hear him?

Follow me, Jesus is saying. Follow me on my journey to Jerusalem, from Palm Sunday through Good Friday and into Easter. Follow me, from darkness into light. Follow me, from suffering into joy. Follow me, as I journey from weeping into dancing. Perhaps someday, someday, you will even dance on the edge of life!

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
March 25, 2012