In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I wanted to share this homily I wrote in memory of Marie Hernandez and Maria Lemes da Silva, two brave women who coped and thrived despite being diagnosed with breast cancer. The sermon is based on the three Gospel stories of the woman who was hemorrhaging that touched Jesus’ garment (Matt 9:20; Mark 5:25; Luke 8:43). Her story is one of not allowing a disease define who she was and of taking a leap of faith that is rooted in radical boldness. May “think pink” be more than a catchy gimmick this month but an ongoing testament to our solidarity with all those impacted by breast cancer—a commitment to coping, surviving, and thriving. Towards the end there is space for people to name all those women and men who have bravely fought this disease, who are beginning the fight, and who are in remission—honoring also their loved ones who are also coping, surviving, and thriving.
Fore more information about breast cancer and ways to get involved, please visit Susan G. Komen for the Cure (http://ww5.komen.org) and The National Breast Cancer Foundation (http://www.nationalbreastcancer.org).
Coping Surviving Thriving
I will be honest, preparing this sermon was a challenge. It was and still is daunting and anxiety provoking, inducing of many brain-busts. What can I say about breast cancer? What do I know? I asked myself repeatedly, how will G-d get me through this one? Why me? But than I asked, why not me? Someone has to break the silence. I may not know much but…I do know that…
- Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among American women, accounting for one in three cancer diagnoses in women.
- One in eight women born today will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some time in their lifetime
- Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among women aged forty to fifty-nine
- There are over two million breast cancer survivors in the United States
- A survey of twelve years of reports in two major psychiatric journals showed that spirituality – defined as participation in religious ceremony, social support, prayer, and belief in a higher being – yielded positive mental health benefits in 92% of the cases
I know Maria Lemes da Silva, I know Marie Walker Hernandez, two brave women who fought breast cancer, two women who are presente and here with us. I know that despite the intensity and magnitude of this disease, the pulpit has remained silent. I may not know much about the embodied impact of breast cancer, but I do know about coping, surviving, and thriving. I may not know the struggle of radical mastectomies, the pain of chemotherapy, or the anxiety caused by finding the right wig, but I do know about the warrior spirit of the luchadoras who are in the struggle…la lucha, to not merely cope or survive with breast cancer but to thrive. Luchadoras who are not letting cancer define who they are, but who are finding ways to live life without fear, despite the pain that breast cancer may be inflicting on the body, they are not letting it take over their spirits.
Coping Surviving Thriving
When it came to finding a scripture passage to reflect on sermonically, I was at a loss and I struggled with the bible, realizing that many of the passages on healing in the New Testament intersected with sin and I did not want to equate cancer with sin … I also realized that many of these same stories are sources of hope for many who are living with cancer. What to do? After hours of reflecting, praying, reading, re-reflecting, re-reading, and praying again, G-d sent me 4 radically spiritual women, Sadie, Rebecca, Stephanie, and Rachel. At a point where I was going to lose hope in scripture and in Christianity, these 4 women shared insights and thoughts and questions that helped me see passages in a different light.
With their help, I came across the story of a woman whom I am naming Florence. Her story is captured in 3 of the gospels as the woman who was hemorrhaging that touched the hem or fringes of Jesus’ cloak/robe. Her story is one inspiration, of boundary breaking, of the warrior spirit that was embraced by Marie, Maria, and the countless women and men diagnosed with and affected by breast cancer. She is un-named in the gospel accounts, but the fact that she is included in 3 gospels reflects the importance of her story of fighting with a chutzpah-based faith.
Florence was afflicted with a disease, a disease that made her unpure and marginalized her from society – not unlike the treatment many women received when they were first diagnosed, marginalized by silence by many who were unable to pronounce the “c-word.” Florence was a luchadora, she was not going to let disease stop her from living. She went to doctors, she prayed, she offered sacrifices. But despite all her efforts, 12 years worth, she did not get the results she hoped and yearned for. However she did not let that stop her, she endured the chemos and homeopathic remedies of her day with their body ravaging side affects and side effects to the side effects, she could not be healed, she could not be made whole – but her chispa, her undominable audacity to hope would keep her in la lucha, in the struggle.
Despite social norms on purity and the place of women in society, Florence acted boldly, aggressively … she did not let the cancer within her define her or let society dictate her identity. Florence decided she would fight and do what was needed. She embodied the Deuteronomist’s encouragement…“Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; G-d will not fail you or forsake you.” She trusted G-d and G-d trusted her. Guided by her faith and determination, she did something radical … she touched Jesus.
Despite the crowds, despite the claustrophobia of crawling through a forest of legs, despite the heat, despite the pain within her body, despite the stigma that marked her and that she risked marking on others, she took a leap of faith and was healed … Jesus tells her that it is her faith that healed her. It was her boldness, her determination, her lucha that brought her healing and made her whole. Her lucha of coping surviving and thriving
What can we learn from Florence? What can we learn from her faith that flowed her into voice and wholeness? She lived and embodied what the Psalmist says in Psalm 31 … she was strong and let her heart take courage. She took a risk, she took a chance, she got messy. Knowing at the core of her being, in the depths of her soul, G-d was with her … she coped, she survived, she thrived.
Florence’s story is not a story of giving people false hope, or instill an expectation of healing. Florence’s testimony in the Gospels is about not letting disease or society’s view of disease define how one lives life, however, long or short it will be. We need to remind all those living with breast cancer that they cannot and will not be diagnosed to the margin. They are not alone, for G-d is with them. It is not about fuzzy quips and fluffy colloquialisms, but radically embracing life like Florence, Marie, and Maria … Of fighting with every breath and ounce of chutzpah one can muster. Of transforming limitations into differently abledness.
Maria is my best friend and sister in life’s mother. Marie is my beloved husband’s mother. These two moms, wives, workers, women of faith realized that though they might not be able to climb mountains anymore, they would boldly proclaim…
I will go to church, I will raise my children,
I will lead a household, I will be there for others,
I will participate in treatment,
I will work as long as I can to take care of my loved ones,
I will cry, I will be angry,
I will laugh, I will go to the doctor,
I will live.
Will it be easy, no.
Will we get mad, yes.
Is that okay … it sure is.
It is okay to complain and be angry and ask G-d why. Like Job and Job’s unnamed wife, we can authentically and angrily ask G-d why … knowing that G-d can take it. Maria and Marie, like so many others, coped and thrived. They could not answer many questions about their health or what would happen, but assured everyone through their conviction and faith to live as long as they were able to live, believing and reminding others to believe that G-d’s love was present and filled with anger-enduring care.
As the Psalmist proclaims … G-d is my shelter, covering me in the refuge of G-d’s feather… in G-d is my strength … though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil … with G-D, what shall I fear.
As Isaiah proclaims … “do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your G-d; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”
Coping Surviving Thriving
In this place, may we be reminded that though the world may be falling apart, our bodies are ravished with scars, chemo has caused our hair to fall out, nausea is our constant companion, getting out of bed is an insurmountable quest, fear of the cancer spreading, G-d is suffering with us. G-d is carrying the cross with us and sometimes for us through a nurse, doctor, friend, loved one. G-d is holding us.
“And I will raise you up on eagle’s wings, Bare you up on breath of dawn. Make you to shine like the sun, And hold you in the palm of G-d’s hand, And hold you in the palm of G-d’s hand.” (Hymn On Eagle’s Wings by Rev. Michael Joncas)
To be held is an act of trust and vulnerability, to allow oneself to be gently cradled in the hands of another, to truly believe our partners who still behold us as beautiful, to allow others to help you because walking to the kitchen for a cup of water is exhausting … to share with a stranger that the scars on our bodies are medals of honor and badges of courage… to be held by G-d through the pain and the joy. To be held into coping, surviving, and thriving.
In this space, let us remember Florence, Marie, and Maria. Let us make presente all the women living with breast cancer … For Hispanics and Latinos, those who have died are still with us, presente in our lucha, as companions in our struggles and in our celebrations. Their stories are reminders that we are to focus on today so we can get to tomorrow, their presencia reminds us that we are not alone.
In this space, you are invited to share the names of all those who have been impacted by breast cancer. You are also invited to light a candle…
Let us lift up the names of our mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, wives, cousins, and grandmothers, friends, brothers, co-workers, husbands, and pastors…
May we lift up the names of those who have died, those have been recently diagnosed, those in remission, those going through treatment, and those who are getting tested…
(back to sermon)
Where 2 or 3 are gathered, there I am … This is our calling as people of faith … To be in la lucha with and sometimes for others, to break the silence, to allow G-d to flow through us … starting groups of support, taking people to the doctor, cooking meals, going the extra mile at the cancer walk, not letting pink be just a gimmick but a true sign of our solidarity…sharing the Kleenex when the time to say “ta ta for now” comes…Talking about breast cancer to ensure that women can go from lump to laughter, love, and life.
Though one may be overpowered by the vomiting, scarring, headaches, body aches, puss, hairloss, confusions about treatments, worries about finances, uncertainties … one is not alone, one is in community, en conjunto, we face this disease … we are in this together.
As it is written in Ecclesiastes, “And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Our experiences here are interconnected, the experiences of Marie and Maria and all women before us are interconnected with us. Marie and Maria died of cancer, but did not lose the battle to cancer. They are still fighting…their memory, their children, their spirits, their Florence-like chutzpah, their presence lives, loves, and fights on … With them presente in our lucha, we cope, we survive, and we thrive.