Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
His name was Jimmy, Jimmy C; maybe you knew him. He was seventeen years old, a junior in high school, with a carefree personality and a smile as big as a house. He lived with his mom, and the economics of their household can only be described as “very humble.” They didn’t have a lot. In a town like Stillwater, that alone would be enough for most of his peers to keep their distance. And add to that, Jimmy walked with a limp and I don’t know why, but it’s another potential barrier to friendship. But Jimmy was a friend-magnet, for some reason, kids flocked around him, or maybe Jimmy flocked to them. Whatever it was, those who got to know him just loved him. Moms adopted Jimmy in. Friends always made it a point to include him. When Jimmy mentioned one year that his family was having to celebrate “an imaginary Christmas” – again! – families shared their Christmas with him. One family started bringing him to their church several years ago, and it was there where Jimmy’s faith was born. To the casual observer, Jimmy was just another kid, living a rather unremarkable life. That was his story.
But his story didn’t end there. It ended, last July 1st, but it didn’t end in obscurity. Last summer, Jimmy was at a church picnic with friends north of town, and one of the girls in the group needed to get home for curfew. Jimmy was speeding; the car crashed. Three people walked away, but Jimmy C. died. When his mother went through his things, she came across an assignment Jimmy had written for English class just weeks before; it was his own obituary. In that column, Jimmy C. wrote that the greatest thing he ever did in his life was to tell other kids about Jesus. “That was my purpose in life” Jimmy quoted himself as saying. “That’s why I was here; to tell people about Jesus.”
It’s a fascinating assignment, isn’t it? To write one’s own obituary. I’ve told you before about the day that Alfred Nobel woke up and read his own obituary in a French newspaper. Nobel’s brother had died, but the paper mistakenly reported Alfred’s death. Under the headline “The Merchant of Death is Dead,” the column reported that Nobel became rich by inventing dynamite – for bombs – and found ways to kill people faster than ever before. On that day, Nobel set the paper down, and set his life on a path to change his legacy, including leaving his massive fortune to a foundation that would establish, of all things, The Nobel Prize for Peace.
What would you write? If you had to create your own obituary, and if you told the truth, what sorts of things would be included there? Let me offer you the honest, naked truth of the things I would have to say about myself if I died tomorrow.
Steven Molin of Stillwater died on Monday at the age of 57 years. Most people thought him to be in his late forties, but that’s because he told people he was in his late forties. Molin had a somewhat unremarkable career as a Lutheran pastor. He feigned humility, but the truth is, he loved adulation and praise and it puffed him up and made him feel important. He is survived by a terrific family; his wife Marsha, two grown children, and a grandson. He regretted spending so little time with them over his life, but, as previously stated, he was out seeking adulation and praise. He will be missed, but perhaps not as much as he wished he would be missed.
You want another example of an honest obituary? Here’s another fictional possibility.
Mortimer Schmedlap of Minneapolis died unexpectedly at his home on Saturday. Mr. Schmedlap was a successful entrepreneur, becoming enormously wealthy in the process. He claimed to care for people, but he succeeded on the backs of his employees, whom he often abused and mistreated. He claimed to be generous, but he gave little away, and most of his wealth was spent upon himself and his lavish lifestyle. Associates say that everything Schmedlap did revolved around money. He never made a decision without considering how it would benefit him financially. He claimed to believe in God, but those closest to him say that money was his god and that he worshipped above all else.
Or if you need one more to consider, how about this?
Janie W. Schwartz passed away on April 12th in Coral Gables, Florida at the age of 74, and her memorial service has been held. Ms. Schwartz had few friends because she was such a negative person. She complained about her health, her house, her clothing, her bank account, her church, and her pastor. She always believed the worst was about to happen tomorrow and therefore never enjoyed today. When asked what her middle initial stood for, she would often say “Janie W. Schwartz. Janie Worrier Schwartz.” Worry consumed her, and she constantly worried about if she was good enough, or pretty enough, or smart enough, or if her house was clean enough, or her children polite enough, or her faith strong enough. She worried about the price of gas, the price of food, the price of health care. One thing she didn’t seem to worry about was the price of worry. While the exact cause of death was thought to be hypertension, anxiety, nervousness, angst, fretfulness, concern and fear, Pastor Don Smith, at her funeral, announced that worry killed her.
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People, in the only sermon that Jesus ever preached, he stood on a high mountain and looked out over the crowds and said “You cannot serve two masters.” We can try. We can confess on Sunday that God is the guide of our lives, and on Monday, live as if this world is most important and then choose to follow its values and priorities. We can spend a lifetime using our words to say that money is not our god, and then use our lives to gather more and more of it. We can say that our families are the most important thing in all the world, and then spend most of our time pleasing all the world. We can turn our anxieties over to God, and then wrestle them away from God because we need to solve all things.
There is an unavoidable tension in our lives when we try to serve two masters and it can drive us crazy. Literally, it can drive us crazy. The word paranoia means “being outside of your mind.” That is, to believe one thing in your mind, but to live a different way on the outside. And people who do that are called crazy…but most of us do it all the time.
In that Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said “Look at the birds; they don’t have investment portfolios. God takes care of them. Look at the lilies of the field; they don’t lie awake at night fretting over which pair of slacks would go best with a red sweater. God takes care of them. You can’t add one hour to your life” Jesus said, “‘by being of two minds.’ And since God cares more about you than he does about birds and flowers, why do you make this so complicated?” That’s a paraphrase, of course, but you get the point. And then Jesus concludes his sermon with this simple biblical truth: “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these other things will be given to you as well.” We cannot have five number one priorities in this life. We cannot say that our purpose is to: Follow God, Become Wealthy, Create Model Children, End World Hunger and Be Crowned Miss America. That sort of list will drive us nuts…and maybe that’s the problem in this world of ours.
Jesus says “I’ve got another way: Seek first to love and serve God, and all that you need will come to you as well.” Not all our wants, probably. Not all our wishes and dreams and heart’s desires. But what we need. That’s the promise Jesus makes.
I know what you’re thinking; you who have listened to my preaching for nine years are thinking that I am now going to ask you to make God number one, let’s close in prayer, have a nice day! But that’s not it. I am going to close with an exercise that will give you a purpose, maybe like the one Jimmy C. had. And I’ll ask you to keep it in your bible, or in your checkbook or in some other prominent place for as long as you…or the paper lasts.
Here it is:
When you entered the worship space, you were handed a small sheet of paper; it was extra ballots from last Sunday’s meeting, but don’t worry about that. On one side of the paper, I’d like you to write the age you think you’ll be when you die. I know…it’s just a guess…but give it your best guess. Then beneath that number, write the age you are now. No peeking at your neighbors! Then subtract the lower number from the upper number…and multiply by 50.
No turn the paper over, and this is what I would like you to write there. Imagine your family standing around your graveside after you have died. The service has ended, the funeral luncheon has been served, and your loved ones are standing around talking about you. What three things do you want them to say about you? Take a moment to think about this, and then jot them down: what do you want your family to say about you as they gather at your grave.
(Jane plays music)
Now you have your list, and on the other side you have the approximate number of weeks before you will die. You have that many weeks to change your legacy. You have that many weeks to live your life in such a way that people will be certain to say these things. And I might add; I’ve done this exercise with several groups, and not once did anyone write down:
• He was very wealthy
• Her kitchen was never dirty
• He had the largest church in town
• She could run an efficient board meeting
May God give you clarity of mind and purity of heart as you seek to seek first the thing worth seeking with all your remaining days. Thanks be to God. Amen.