Thinking Theologically About LifeMay 3, 2009, 7:00 pm & 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Wills Emphasis Sunday
Shakespeare. Shakespeare once mused that “All of life is a preparation for our last minutes of life!” And it was Samuel Johnson who wrote to Boswell and proclaimed: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
With that opening word I wish to invite you to think with me for a few minutes on the subject: Thinking theologically about life. No culture has done more than the American culture to deny the fact that one day all of us will pass on. It is for that reason that I find Shakespeare so fresh and relevant on the subject of life and on how we should view all of the dimensions of life. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare declares:
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.
Sometimes Shakespeare is strikingly blunt. But so is Jesus!
There was a time in the public ministry of Jesus when no matter where he went, huge crowds gathered about him. Luke’s gospel reading this morning speaks of one of those times. Luke tells us that thousands came to Jesus and so great was the crowd that they trampled on one another. When Jesus spoke, he was almost always interrupted by someone and that happened in the account for today. At one point, Luke tells us: Someone in the crowd said to Jesus... “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” What is it that makes possessions such a fertile field for family disputes?
Jesus refuses to get involved in that person’s family inheritance issues, but instead, Jesus uses the moment to teach that huge crowd a great “theological lesson about life.” He tells them a story...a parable...to drive home his point in such graphic detail that no one, no one, could miss its point. Yes, all of life is a preparation for the last minute of life itself.
For years, the first Sunday in May in Presbyterian churches has been designated as Wills Emphasis Sunday. Most churches, I am sad to announce, never even mention a word about the necessity of preparing for the last minute of life. I am absolutely convinced that nothing, absolutely nothing, clarifies a person’s values more clearly than in what we decide will be our last will and testament...the final determination of what we do with what God has granted us to accumulate during our lifetime. It is voluntary, not mandatory, but incredibly important...that we decide what to do with what we have accumulated.
So Jesus tells them a story...a parable. He prefaces the story with this announcement...Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
The story is consistent with everything Jesus had said before and after, about how to think theologically about life. Jesus knew the Psalms...he had no doubt; he recited them from early childhood...it may be that he had in mind Psalm 24 as he was telling them the story:
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it / the world, and those who live in it; / for he has founded it on the seas, / and established it on the rivers.
Then, no doubt, Jesus was thinking about the next part of that Psalm:
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? / And who shall stand in his holy place? / Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, / who do not lift up their souls to what is false, / and who do not swear deceitfully. / They will receive....vindication from the God of their salvation.
So the story...The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself...”What shall I do for I have no place to store my crops? I will put down the barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” And you may be thinking, not a bad idea...one has time to prepare for the future. But that was not the problem for this rich farmer...his problems arose immediately when his priorities went askew. He was so proud of his accomplishments, taking all the credit for his success, that he missed the point of life itself.
He brags to himself...I have ample goods laid up for many years...so I will relax, eat and drink and enjoy myself. He had forgotten about God and about what life is all about...so Jesus continues with the story...Jesus said that God said to the rich farmer...You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you...that is, you are going to die.
All of life is a preparation for life’s last minute.
The question, then, to the rich farmer was...so you are going to die...And the things you have prepared, accumulated, whose will they be? The man was obviously intelligent, industrious and a model of success in the eyes of his community...but in God’s judgment, he is a fool. His affluence brought with it great responsibility, but his world view was so small that it did not get beyond thinking only of himself.
When a person knows he is going to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. Jesus did not tell us what the rich farmer did...he leaves the conclusion up to us. In other stories, Jesus tells us what happens...the rich, young ruler went away sorrowful for he had many possessions, he loved his possessions more than he could love God; he simply did not have the faith and courage to give it all away and follow Jesus. On the other hand, when Jesus confronted Zacchaeus with the truth about his life and his possessions, Zacchaeus volunteered to make amends to all those he had cheated...and to give half of his possessions to the poor. Something happens when we think theologically about life.
The wonderful marvel of Jesus is that he never coerced anyone to follow him...he simply invited people to follow. The longer and harder we think about life theologically, the more apparent it becomes that the big issue is both what we think about ourselves and what we think about God. But one of the most curious facts about our faith in Christ is that our greatest hurdle is, not so much what we believe or don’t believe about Christ, but rather what we believe about ourselves.
Too many people come to the critical turning points in life and then refuse to turn, to make a decision about what to do with the rest of life. But those who do turn make a marvelous discovery. One such person was Dag Hammarskjold, former Secretary General of the United Nations. He wrote of his turn in life this way:
I don’t know who or what put the question, I don’t know when it was put, I don’t even remember answering. But, at some moment, I did answer yes to someone or something and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful, and, therefore, my life had a purpose, a goal.
One of the last century’s favorite theological writers was Reuel Howe who died in 1986. He tells of an experience in an airport while waiting for an airplane. A young man with long hair and earrings and beads struck up a conversation with Reuel Howe. It began with a blunt question to Howe.
The young man asked, “Who are you?” and Dr. Howe said: “I am a pilgrim.” “But I thought they were dead,” the young man said. And Howe responded, “I’m another kind of pilgrim. I’m trying to find my way from birth to life.” “But,” the young man interrupted, “don’t you mean from birth do death?” To which Howe said, “No, I mean just what I said...I’m trying to find my way from birth to life.”
The best way we do that is to know and believe that life is a gift from God, and to know and believe that we come from God and that one day we shall return to God. Most of us spend far too much of life measuring ourselves in comparison to others, rather than comparing ourselves to the potential of what we could become. Pascal, the seventeenth century French philosopher once said: Do not try to make yourself indispensable, but irreplaceable, so that when you come to die, people will know that you have truly lived.
I chose, intentionally, to introduce for our thinking theologically ...the words from the old Prophet Habakkuk, who lived six hundred years before Jesus was born. This Prophet lived at a time when the Jews had lost confidence in God...enemies surrounded them on all sides. The Jews no longer trusted God or had any joy in their faith. In that context, Habakkuk wrote:
Though the fig tree does not blossom and no fruit is on the vines...and the fields yield no food...yet I will rejoice in the Lord...
There are times when life seems that way even for us today. We are living through some extremely challenging times...in this country and around the world. That is why I am so convinced that we need to think theologically about life. When we do so, we are able to see life from the perspective of God...and what God meant for life to be like. Nothing sustains us more in troubling times than to renew our trust in God. Because our love and trust in God increases our love and trust in others.
Almost thirty years ago, I was called to be the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Ft. Worth. My predecessor had been the pastor there for thirty-five years...he was much loved. For the first three Sundays, a woman in her early nineties greeted me at the door and always said: Good morning, Dr. Jones. He was my predecessor...It did not bother me...but Dr. Jones died twenty days after I arrived, and on the following Sunday this dear old saint tapped me on the knee with her cane and said: “Boy, what do you think they are going to remember about you when you are dead?” I was just forty-two years old...and death was not yet on my radar screen...but I confess to you that question has stayed with me for almost thirty years...the question has taken on a much larger dimension, however...because it is not so much a matter of what people will think of me...but what God will think of me when I am no longer here in the flesh.
It is life that so many are afraid of...it is procrastination that prevents so many from doing what they can and should do.
One poet put it this way:
It’s the heart afraid of breaking,
That never learns to dance.
It’s the dream afraid of waking,
That never stands a chance!
It’s the one who won’t be taken,
Who cannot seem to give!
And the soul afraid of dying,
That never learns to live. (Amanda McBroom)
What will God remember about you when you are no longer here? It helps us to put life into perspective...because it informs us that all of life is a preparation for life’s last minute. Jesus...remember how Jesus introduced the parable of the rich farmer...Take care! Be on guard against all kinds of greed...for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions...the abundance is not the issue...the issue is always what we do with what God grants us to have so long as we have life.
On this Sunday...Wills Emphasis Sunday...imagine what would happen in Presbyterian Churches like this one, if every member made an intentional decision to make a provision in their last will and testament to provide a gift for the future mission and ministry of this church. Imagine what a difference it would make if everyone here who makes an annual pledge or gift would make a provision to endow that pledge.
It is always curious to me when people ask: Why should I make a gift in my will for the church since I have given all my lifetime to the church? Well, that’s the point. How can we give all of our life but refuse to give a gift at the end of life? Does that mean that the church is no longer important? Is my faith in Jesus Christ no longer important?
It is reported that Albert Schweitzer, the medical missionary to Africa, would say to each patient, as he held their hand: I am Albert Schweitzer. Jesus Christ has sent me to help you get well. That, my friends, is what we Christians should say to everyone we meet...Jesus Christ has sent me to help you in life.
Let me conclude with this story about Lizzie Johnson. She was born in Casey, Illinois in 1869. At the age of thirteen, she was stricken with a strange spinal cord disease that baffled the medical profession. For eight years she struggled, until 1890. At that point, the disease forced her family to put her in a bed in a darkened room because the light was an irritant to her nervous system. She lay in that bed for twenty years...never leaving the bed or the room. Of all people, who would ever have expected anything from Lizzie Johnson?
In her pain and despair she asked God to help her to be useful, and grasped the idea of writing letters to our missionaries. She got a list of them from the General Assembly and began to write letters of encouragement. She wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters. Then, one day, she decided to make bookmarks from bolts of ribbons, and church members sold them for her so she could send money to the missionaries for their work. She promised God and her friends that her goal was to send $20,000 for this missionary work...Remember, it was 1890. She kept meticulous records of income and outgo.
On September 14, 1909, when her family brought her evening meal into her darkened room, they saw her body was lifeless, but she had a serene smile on her face. Next to her was the account book opened and under the column marked, “Amount Sent to Missionaries” the column’s total was exactly $20,000, and beside it she had written: Goal Accomplished...Mission Completed, Thanks be to God, Thanks be to God!
That was Lizzie Johnson’s final will and testament.
You see...it was not so much what life had done to her, but what she had done with life that really mattered...and the same is true for each one of us.
It does not really matter what life does to us...what matters is what we do with life.
Don’t worry about what people will think about you after you are no longer here...just keep focused on what you think God will think about you...when you are no longer here.
Thanks be to God.
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