Over the years, many of you have heard me say, “there’s a sermon in there somewhere.” Looking at the world through a preachers lens is admittedly a little peculiar. Where normal people go through their days seeing coincidences and routines and ordinary occurrences, I often see the same thing and a sermon idea will pop into my head.
One thing I don’t do in my life, however, is tune in to ESPN expecting to find a sermon illustration. I am a big sports fan and I happen to believe that sports is the best and purest reality television. But when I flip on Sportscenter or an actual game on ESPN, I’m usually at the end of my day trying to shut my brain down. The last thing I’m expecting to do is rev my brain up…no pun intended.
Well for one night that changed this past week when I was watching ESPN and a story came on about a young woman named “Lauren Hill.” Perhaps some of you have heard or watched Lauren’s story. If you haven’t heard of Lauren Hill, I encourage you to look for her story in the news or on the internet sometime this upcoming week.
On October 1, 2013, just over a year ago, Lauren Hill, a high school senior basketball player at Lawrenceburg High School in Indiana, committed to play college basketball at Mount St. Joseph University…a Division 3 school in Cincinnati, Ohio. Less than two months later, Lauren experienced some dizziness and headaches. So she went in for a routine hospital visit assuming she had a concussion.
After running a series of tests though, the doctors came back with grim and unexpected news. Instead of a concussion, Lauren Hill was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, a rare form of brain cancer that typically affects young children.
At the age of eighteen, with the remainder of her basketball season, the end of her senior year in high school, four years of college, and a lifetime ahead, Lauren waited to hear what the doctors planned in terms of a treatment regimen. Instead, the doctors told Lauren that her cancer was inoperable and the best case scenario meant she had two years to live.
In her own words, Lauren recalled the day. “That was really hard to process. It’s something that hits home. It really confuses you; it’s like having the rug pulled out from underneath your feet.”
Despite undergoing intensive chemotherapy and radiation, Lauren continued to play with her high school team through her senior year, setting her sights on playing for Mount St. Joseph this fall. Unfortunately, a follow-up MRI a couple of months ago in September revealed that Lauren’s tumor had grown even larger. And doctors are now predicting that Lauren may not live through the end of 2014.
If Lauren Hill’s story sounds hopeless and desperate, it’s easy to understand why. With Lauren’s brain cancer gaining ground steadily and relentlessly, Lauren has frequent seizures, weakness on the right side of her body, and great difficulty coping with bright lights and loud noises.
Yet Lauren Hill refuses to lose hope. And because Lauren remains hopeful, thousands of people across her home state of Indiana, thousands of people in and beyond her college hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, and more and more people throughout the United States have embraced her story, reaching out to Lauren with tears and prayers and more support and love than she could ever have imagined.
In light of the fact that Lauren’s tumor was progressing, Mount St. Joseph’s College received permission from the NCAA to move the first scheduled game of their women’s basketball season from November 15th back to November 2nd. And Mount St. Joseph also received permission to hold the game in Xavier University’s basketball venue in order to accommodate a larger crowd.
So the stage was set exactly one week ago when Lauren Hill led her teammates out of the dressing room, walking arm in arm with her coach onto the basketball court to play in her first college game. And seventeen seconds into the game, Lauren took a pass near the basket and made a left-handed layup. Whereupon the capacity crowd of ten thousand spectators in the arena, including legendary coach Pat Summit and some of the biggest stars in women’s professional basketball, rose to their feet cheering in a standing ovation. If you have a chance to watch video of the scene I’m describing, you may be hard pressed not to have tears well up in your eyes and roll down your face.
Who knows how many more basketball games Lauren Hill will be able to play in her college career. But if you ask Lauren, she will tell you her opinion. While many who have covered her story labeled Lauren playing in the November 2nd game as her dying wish, Lauren has her own byline in mind. “It was only my first game.”
Meanwhile, the $40,000 dollars raised from ticket sales for last week’s game, coupled with Lauren Hill’s high profile story of hope and courage, has increased awareness of a grave pediatric cancer that needs an abundant investment of research dollars in order to move towards effective treatment…and God willing, someday a cure.
In the midst of heartbreak and tragedy, Lauren Hill has undoubtedly brought out the best in humanity. People coming together in community to support a fellow human being who is suffering. Family and friends and strangers surrounding a young woman with love as she lives out the days of her terminal diagnosis. Thousands generously giving their time and their money and their prayers in support of a person and a dream and a cause bigger than themselves. And all of us holding on to hope with and for Lauren, who will teach us something precious about living each day fully in her life and in her death.
Still when I read about Lauren Hill and watch Lauren Hill I do so through the lens of a preacher. I don’t know anything about Lauren Hill’s faith life…whether she has a particular faith background or no faith background at all. And I don’t know whether her disease has had an impact on Lauren Hill’s faith or lack thereof.
Nevertheless, Lauren Hill’s story speaks to me of faith. In fact, it speaks to me about the very heart of our faith. How many times have you heard it proclaimed in church? When one person suffers, we all suffer. When one person hopes, we all hope.
That’s what I see with Lauren Hill. In her suffering, you and I are able to recognize and endure our own suffering. And in her hope, you and I are able to name and claim our own hope.
And how many times have you heard it proclaimed in church? When I was sick, you visited me. You took care of me. You prayed for me and supported me and put your arms around me. When we take care of the least of our brothers and sisters, we do it in the name of Jesus Christ.
That’s what I see with Lauren Hill. Human beings taking care of someone in need. Reaching out to a young woman who needs compassion and support. Filling a huge arena to capacity in order to watch her play her first and possibly her last basketball game.
And did you hear it proclaimed in church in this morning’s Scripture lesson from Ephesians? There is one body and one Spirit.
That’s what I see with Lauren Hill. We can’t make it through the best and most joyous in life and we can’t make it through the most devastating, most heartbreaking in life without other people beside us. We can’t do what we have to do and bear what we have to bear in this world by ourselves. God calls us into community in Jesus Christ where we share one another’s burdens and lift one another up where we are weak and fill one another in places where we are empty…
Today is Dedication Sunday here at Wapping Community Church. It’s a day when we dedicate our pledges and our time and our talent and our commitment and our prayers and our compassion and our support to the faithful work of Wapping Community Church.
Dedication Sunday is a day designed to bring out the best in the church. So when you come forward to the front of the sanctuary near the end of this worship service, remember the very best of who we are as God’s people here at Wapping Community Church.
Remember that when one of us suffers, we all suffer. Remember that when one of us hopes, we all hope. Remember that we are called as members of Christ’s body to reach out to one another with compassion, ministering to the least among us with particular care. Remember that none of us can make it through this life and this world alone. We need the company and the fellowship of other people who will walk the journey of faith by our side through the best of times and the worst of times.
Finally, on this Dedication Sunday hold onto the story of Lauren Hill. Have Lauren Hill’s story remind you of the story of Jesus Christ, whose death taught human beings to better love one another in our lifetimes. And don’t forget to bear in mind the eternal hope we share in Jesus Christ…all for one and one for all. Amen.