Sunday, November 17, 2013

Before I Die

Luke 21:5-19
November 17, 2013

            “Before I die, I want to…”  Last week, thanks to preacher, teacher and blogger David Lose, I discovered a TED talk by Candy Chang.  Chang is an artist, an urban planner and a unique and creative thinker living in New Orleans.  In her TED talk, she describes turning public spaces, especially dilapidated or neglected or forgotten ones, into works of art. 
            A life-changing event in her life prompted her to create art in a public space near her home.  The public art or performance art or however you want to term it was the subject of her talk.  A few years ago Chang lost a dear friend suddenly and without warning.  Chang described this woman as being a mother to her, and her death affected her deeply.  In the wake of this unexpected death, Chang began to think more intently about both death and life.   And out of that reflection and her grief she created art, and laid the groundwork for anyone and everyone to contribute to it.  She, along with the help of friends, turned the side of an abandoned, dilapidated house into an enormous chalkboard.  At the top she stenciled in large letters, like a title, “Before I die…”  Then in rows across the entire length of wall the words “Before I die I want to” followed by a blank line were also stenciled.  Anyone walking by could pick up a piece of chalk and fill in a blank.  Before I die I want to…   Some of the responses given were funny, some were poignant, and some were inspiring.  Chang said that within 24 hours the wall was full and growing.  People were writing their messages in every possible space provided by this huge public chalkboard. 
            Chang’s idea has gone viral.  People began to contact her about creating their own Before I Die walls.  So she and some of her colleagues created at toolkit for making this wall, and walls have gone up in countries around the world.  This past week Front Porch, the campus ministry group, watched this video at our weekly gathering.  Never underestimate the power of motivated students.  We may see this kind of wall, maybe more than one, not only on the campus of Oklahoma Baptist but also around Shawnee in the next months.  I hope we do. 
            At our gathering, along with getting excited about the possibility of creating our own Before I Die wall, we also talked about how we would fill in the blank.  Before I die I want to …  I’d like for all of you to be thinking about that as well.
At the end of her talk, Chang said that “thinking about death clarifies life.”  That is a powerful statement to consider, not only on a general basis, but more specifically as we delve into this passage from Luke’s gospel.  These verses in Chapter 21 are apocalyptic.  They are about the end times.  In two weeks, on the first Sunday of Advent, we’ll again consider the end times in Matthew’s gospel.  But for now we remain with Luke, and in this passage we find Jesus in the temple. 
            Jesus has been teaching in the temple since the beginning of chapter 20.  The temple was the heart and soul of Judaism; not just in worship but in life.  The temple has been predominant throughout Luke’s gospel.  Anna and Simeon both make prophetic declarations about the infant Jesus when he was brought to the temple.  When Jesus was twelve and disappeared from his family, they found him in the temple, astonishing all the learned men around him with a wisdom no twelve-year-old should have possessed.  So it’s not surprising as we move toward the Jesus’ tumultuous last days to find him once more in the temple; teaching and preaching. 
            At the beginning of these verses, people around Jesus are commenting on the beauty of the temple.  They remarked at the beauty of the stones, the foundation of the temple’s architecture, and the gifts to God that had been dedicated there. 
            In response to this, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 
            That must have been disconcerting to say the least.  It would be like us gazing at a beautiful, historical landmark – you can choose which one – and discussing the beauty of it, only to hear, “Yeah, but it’s going to be demolished someday, every single piece.”
            As so often happens when Jesus makes a pronouncement like this, the people with him – disciples and otherwise – want to know specifics.  When?  When is this going to happen?  What are the signs we should be looking for?  Give us the clues, Jesus, so we know what to expect and can make the necessary preparations. 
            Jesus never gives them the answer they’re looking for.  He may mention what seem to be signs:  wars, natural disasters, false prophets.  But he refuses to give them a countdown.  There is no timetable or calendar they can turn to.  Although he doesn’t say this here, in other gospel accounts he tells them that even he doesn’t know the date or the hour.  Only God knows. 
            What I find most interesting about Luke’s account is that he tells those who follow him that they will be persecuted for it.  They will be brought before royalty and heads of state.  When that happens that will be their chance to testify, to witness to God’s creative and redemptive work through the Son.  “So,” he tells them, “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you the words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” 
            Yeah, I would have a hard time with that one.  If I’m warned that I will be brought before some of the biggest bigwigs in the land and persecuted and prosecuted for my faith, I would want to have some well-worded turns of phrase at the ready.  Even now, although I don’t live in fear of being persecuted for my faith, I think about how I can defend my faith.  I have enough friends who are not believers that I keep some arguments and apologetics on hand for when we get into discussions about belief. 
            So it seems that not only is Jesus not giving them clues or specifics about when the end times will come, he’s also saying, “Don’t think about it.” 
            Not exactly the answer we’re looking for, is it?  Or is it?  It is impossible to stand in the pulpit today and not be fully aware of the tragedy that has struck the Philippines.  The enormous scale of devastation and loss is beyond my comprehension.  In the last decade we’ve seen nature’s terrible devastation time and time again – the 2004 tsunami that struck the Indian Ocean, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, Hurricane Sandy, and much closer to home the havoc wreaked by last spring’s tornados – and with each tragedy, I’ve thought, “There’s no way a camera can fully capture the full scope of this devastation.  There’s no way we can fully appreciate how horrible this is unless we are there.”  It’s hard in the face of such tragedy not to wonder.  Is this a sign?
I suspect that may be the question many folks are asking?  Typhoon Haiyan is the largest, most destructive typhoon ever to hit land, so it would not surprise me at all if preachers and others alike are making direct connections to what’s happened in the Philippines to a sign of the end times.  I imagine that there are many who read this passage from Luke and at other apocalyptic passages in Scripture and see the tragedies all around us as confirmation. 
But I don’t think that the challenge for us is to figure out if these are signs or not.  I think the challenge for us is to remember that right now, right here, in the present we are called to live life.  We are called to see life as a gift.  We are reminded by Jesus’ words that we’re not supposed to be about figuring out how the world is going to end, but instead we need to figure out how to live as God calls us to live right now.  The people in the Philippines are our neighbors.  How will we help them right now?  Death can come at any time.  Are we living as though we understand that truth or are we living as though we believe we have forever?  Do we believe that life is a gift that shouldn’t be squandered?  Or do we spend so much time looking for clues and signs and portents that we ignore God’s presence with us now?  God is calling us to live and serve and love and give right now?  Are we doing that?  Are we doing that in our own lives?  Are we living that out as sisters and brothers in Christ?  Are we embodying that as children of God in God’s world?  Before I die I want to …
In your bulletin this morning, you were given an index card.  I’d like for all of us to write down these words, “Before I die I want to …” and then fill in the blank.  You don’t have to show this to anyone.  You don’t have to put them in the offering plate.  They’re not going to be dedicated or consecrated, at least not publicly.  But I want each of us to take what we write seriously.  It doesn’t matter how grand or how simple your hope or dream is.  Take it seriously.  And find a way to do.  God has given us the gift of life.  God has given us the gift of this moment.  We are called to love and serve and be the people we were created to be right now.  How will we receive this gift?  How will we live right now?   Before I die I want to…
Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia!  Amen.”

Watch Candy Chang's TED Talk here.

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