Sermon 1/5 Before I Die…

Scripture Lesson: Ecclesiastes 3:1-13
Sermon: Before I Die. . .
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Happy New Year! It’s the season for resolutions, or not, depending on how you
like to approach things. Have any of you made a New Year’s resolution? No need
to go into the details.

In any case, the beginning of a new calendar year, whatever your thoughts on
resolutions, is a time to take stock. To look back. To think about what to leave
behind in the year passed. It is a time to reflect. To observe where you are. Are
you where you thought you would be? Are things as you had anticipated? It is
also a time to look ahead. It’s a useful moment to pause and reflect – whether or
not you are inclined toward resolutions.

I do not personally lean toward a five year plan or a ten year plan or a seven step
plan as I go about my life. I am by nature a planner and highly organized but I
have found that things happen beyond our control, things change, unexpected
circumstances arise, and if locked into a plan, opportunities can be missed. So, I
try to be invested in paying attention, listening, reflecting, and being intentional.
The New Year is a natural opportunity for all of this.

The writer of Ecclesiastes has given us the wonderful wisdom poem that we heard
this morning to help us reflect on life’s journey. As we think about the perspective
of Ecclesiastes, we want to remember that these are teachings that Jesus would
likely have known. Jesus would have been schooled in the teachings of this book
which is an invitation to think about life in its fullness, diversity, and intensity. He
would have been familiar with the verses we heard this morning. They would have
brought him strength and comfort as he made his journey through his life and
death. Ecclesiastes teaches that there is good and bad. There are ups and downs.
Joys and struggles. All depending on the time, the context, and the circumstances.
The living of our days includes a wide spectrum of experiences and that is what
makes life abundant and meaningful and mysterious. The writer of Ecclesiastes is
offering guidance for the living of life and for understanding life’s journey. There
is much encouragement for merriment and fun. And there is much
acknowledgment of the vanity of life – the writer mentions vanity over 30 times in the book. So scholars argue whether the writer was an optimist or a pessimist. I
would say, yes, to both. I think this wisdom book counsels work hard, play hard,
be a morally good person, and accept the utter inscrutability of God. There is a lot
that simply cannot be explained. So do what you can to live fully and abundantly,
and accept that the circumstances and outcomes are beyond our control or
understanding. Life is a mystery.

We see this perspective in the song, “The Dance,” made popular by Garth Brooks.
He talks about how we go through life and we don’t know how things will turn out.
We love and then experience loss. We think we are on top and then we fall. We
just don’t know how things will unfold. The main sentiment of the song is
expressed in the last line, “Our lives are better left to chance, I could have missed
the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.” In the original music video, there are
clips of John F. Kennedy picking up John John and Martin Luther King, Jr. scoop-
ing up one of his small children and the Challenger astronauts entering the space
shuttle. If they’d only known. . . But they didn’t know. And so they carried on.

And this is what we do. We don’t know and we carry on. Like the writer of
Ecclesiastes, we seek to be fully alive, to live abundantly, to embrace each moment
with awe and grace – work hard, play hard, and be morally good accepting the
inscrutability of life and the inevitability of death.

Yes, we are all going to die, that is something we can be 100% sure of. Look
around this sanctuary. Everyone here is going to die. All of us. We don’t know
when. We don’t know how. But we know each and every one of us is going to die.
That is what makes this moment and every single moment so precious and sacred.
That is what makes the experience of being alive, taking a breath, so intense and so
holy. But in the ordinariness of going through the paces of daily life, we can loose
sight of the gift we are being given each and every moment. We can miss the
transcendence in the bug, the leaf, or the touch. Remembering that we are going to
die brings home the mystery and magic of this moment.

This week I read about a phone app called WeCroak. Do any of you have it?
Ironically it is in the health and fitness category. Well, it sort of fits. The WeCroak
app reminds you randomly five times a day that you are going to die. It sends you a message: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” Yes, I know it sounds, well,
morbid, but it is based on a folk saying from Bhutan in the Himalayas: “To be a
truly happy person, one must contemplate death five times a day.” So, this app
helps you do just that. The goal? Happiness.

In case you are interested, the WeCroak app gets a 4 star rating, it’s free,
appropriate for ages 4 and up, and it is available in English and Italian.

Awareness of death reminds us of how precious this moment, this day, this journey
of life is. It reminds us of each opportunity we are given, day in and day out, to
relish the experience of being alive on this planet with billions of other beings and
life forms. So what do we make of this life?

Yes, much is beyond our control and inscrutable. Why did he get killed by the
drunk driver? Why was her cancer cured? Why were they born into abject poverty
in Sudan? Much is unpredictable and beyond our understanding but we still have
responsibility for how we live our lives, in our circumstances. We still have
choices to make about our behavior and our thoughts and attitudes. We have
choices about how we interact with other people, what we give our time and
money and energy to, whether we forgive. We decide whether to live our lives
giving or taking. We decide whether to help or to harm. Most of our choices are
fraught with moral consequences, good or bad, whether we want to see them or
not. So what are we making of our lives? As the poet Mary Oliver puts it, “Tell
me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

In 2011, artist Candy Chang was living in post-Katrina New Orleans. It was a
situation of devastation and shattered hopes. Then a dearly beloved mother figure
in her life died. She reflected on the unfulfilled dreams of her loved one. Chang
got permission from the city to use an abandoned house in her neighborhood for an
interactive art installation. She painted an outside wall of the house with chalk
paint and stenciled the words, Before I die I want to. . . Chalk was provided. And
as it turned out, people, many people, in the neighborhood used the chalk to finish
the sentence: Before I die, I want to. . . The wall and the house became covered
with the hopes and dreams of the people of the neighborhood and beyond. The
response was far greater than expected. There have now been over 5000 installations of a similar nature in 75 countries in 35 languages. I saw the installation this summer in Cincinnati. I understand there was one in St. Petersburg in connection with the Shine Festival in 2016.

The prompt “Before I die I want to” encourages us not only to acknowledge that
we are going to die but it also reminds us of our agency, our ability to take respon-
sibility for our actions and choices. So, what do people want to do before they die?

People put all kinds of things on the chalk boards, and you will have the
opportunity to write on the boards that have been created for our use this morning
as the New Year begins.

Before I die. . . Some people put celebrity status dreams on the boards; things like
Before I die I want to name a mountain, drink from the Stanley Cup, kiss Brad Pitt.

Some finish the sentence with altruistic aims, like save a life, end global warming,
do good things, see the death of evil, shift global consciousness, see equality, live
without money, be a teacher.

There are mundane aspirations expressed on the chalkboards: grow a mustache,
own a boat, eat a taco from Mexico, ride in a golf cart.

There are responses that seem to have a back story: Before I die I want to meet my
daughters-in-law, tell my life story, see Germany, hug my boyfriend, be in the
upper middle class, go to jail.

And there are a lot about relationships: Before I die, I want to love myself, fall in
love, inspire someone, be a friend, find happiness, be a good person, live, live

The challenge, Before I die, invites us to embrace our mortality in all of its
ephemeral glory. We are not to be afraid of death or dying, but of not fully living
So as this New Year begins, we are invited to think about what we are being called
to do with our one precious and holy life. It is a time to reflect on what we are here
to do before we die. What is beckoning to us? What is our unfinished business?
Each of us as unique individuals is here to live and love deeply and fully. What is
the longing in our hearts?

In the book of Habakkuk, chapter 2, we are told that God instructs the prophet:
“Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.” In other
words, make a billboard with your dreams for the future. So, we have our chalk
boards waiting for us to proclaim our desire to relish and reverence the living of
our days. What hopes and dreams and desires are we being given? Let us write
them. Share them. Commit to them. In Chang’s installation, the sentence given
is, “Before I die I want to. . .” As people of faith, we wanted to express more
commitment with our dreams, so our boards say, “Before I die I am going to. . .”
Realizing that none of us fully knows what is ahead, we are still bold and trusting
in sharing the dreams that are being laid upon our hearts. So, in just a moment,
we’ll hear the song, “The Dance,” and you are invited to head to a chalk board and
express your desire, your intent – to embrace the fullness of this precious life.
Before I die I am going to. . .

And in addition to writing on a chalk board, you are also invited to dance – alone,
with someone, in a group, in whatever way you would like.

The poet W.H. Auden invites us,
“I know nothing, except what everyone
knows – if there when Grace dances,
I should dance.”

As this New Year begins, may we fully embrace the dance of life! Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in
this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church
of Christ.

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