Write Your Own Epitaph

A Midrash Sermon on Luke 21:5-19 (Year C – Proper 28 – RCL)
By Ken Howard

You will be hated…betrayed…imprisoned…put to death…
But don’t worry: not a hair on your head will perish.

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Wow!

This one is a classic: classic disciples questions, classic Jesus answer.

For the disciples it was always “What’s in it for us?” Even the twelve, his closest followers, always seemed to think that following Jesus ought to confer upon them some sort of comparative advantage: certainty as to their status, security about their future, or power to control their lives and the world around them. Not just compared others but even among themselves. And before you get down on them for that, just remember, they’re only being human, only doing what human beings do. It’s called “sin.” And in that they are no different from us.

This is what is at the heart of the questions they are asking Jesus about the temple. There’s an ancient Talmudic saying: “Jerusalem is the navel (the bellybutton, if you will) of the world, and Temple is the umbilical cord that connects us to God.” The Temple was a symbol to the Hebrew people of their unique relationship with the God. Only moments before, the disciples had been admiring the temple: its beauty, its overwhelming size, its seeming permanence. You can’t blame them. The Temple occupied more than 50 acres: four times the size of the land on which our church sits, 4,500 times the size of the building in which we sit. The smallest of its stones weighed as much as 5 tons; the largest was 570 tons and one-fourth the size of this worship area. The Temple seemed epitome of permanence, but Jesus had just told them that the days would come when “not one stone will be left upon another.” The Temple gave their lives meaning. They thought it would last forever, or at the very least outlast them. No wonder they were stunned.
So now they were saying to Jesus, “You are gonna tip us off, right? You’re gonna tell us the signs, right? So we can get outta town before the waste products hit the oscillating machine, right?” And thinking to themselves, “There’s gotta be some advantage in following this guy.”

Wrong… Jesus wasn’t having any of it.

But first things first.

If this exchange doesn’t convince you that Jesus did not expect us to take all of his words literally, I don’t know what will. Just try to take him literally here, I dare you.

You will be hated…betrayed…imprisoned…put to death…
But don’t worry: not a hair on your head will perish.

Jesus cannot merely be saying, “Not to worry, they’re gonna put your head on pike outside the gates of Jerusalem…but your hair will look great!” It’s gotta be deeper than that. Clearly, Jesus is not talking about keeping his followers’ feet out of the fire, but rather some other kind of not-perishing that does not avoid death, but transcends it.

Then it seems like he going to be giving them a straight answer after all. “These things must take place before the end,” he says. But then he lists them and…really? Wars and insurrections, earthquakes, famines and plagues, dreadful portents and signs in the heaven: these will happen first. Really? Just our wars count for all but 268 years of recorded human history. There’s no time when some of these things won’t be happening. Thank you Jesus…big help.

Even his most straight-forward advice runs counter to what we might expect. When they haul you into court because of me, don’t prepare in advance to defend yourselves? I will give you the words? Right… Totally reassuring, Jesus, we feel so much better now.

You see, just like the disciples, just like all human beings, we hunger for certainty, for security, for control over our lives. Sometimes we look for them in things: a bigger home, a safer neighborhood, a job with more respect or greater influence, a larger retirement. Sometimes we look for them in people: people who will tell us we deserve them or who will promise to give them to us. And if we are not careful, we’ll wind up surrounded by them: as friends or lovers, husbands or wives, followers or leaders, may even wind up demanding that God promise us these things in exchange for our worship. And woe to those who don’t deliver.

Which is no doubt why Jesus responded the way they did: with misdirection, non-answers, and paradoxical propositions. He was not about to tell them that their Temple would always be there for them, or that following him would be easy, because they wouldn’t. He was not about to promise them certainty and security and control in return for following him, because he could not keep that kind of promise and wouldn’t even if he could. Because what passing satisfaction they do give is a cheat. Certainty, security, control: they are only illusions – powerful illusions, addictive illusions, illusions we are willing to pay dearly to possess – but illusions all the same. And illusions cannot last. And Jesus only wants us to trust in things that will last.

But what will last?

The answer may surprise you. Because the only things that will last, the only things who’s satisfaction will last forever, are the opposite of what the world promises, of what we expect, and of what we think we want: the opposite of certainty, security, and control.

Faith, hope, and love. These are the what will last. Faith: Trusting that God’s love surrounds us and gives our lives meaning in the present. Hope: Trusting that God’s love will continue to surround us and give our lives meaning in the future. And Love (Agape Love): Living our lives as if Faith and Hope and God’s love are true.

Temples do not last. Cathedrals do not last. Churches do not last. They only hold meaning to the extent that, while they last, they understand why they exist, and live into that Why.

How do you wrap your mind around the Why of this temple of ours?

Let me suggest an exercise: one you can apply to your own existence as well as the existence of this place. Write an epitaph: Assume this place that means so much to us will someday cease to exist, and imagine the words that those who knew us will write on our tombstone.

Years ago I was asked, as a favor, to provide some pro-bono consolation to a church in another diocese during a conference that their leadership – and I – were attending. We met over breakfasts and lunches over the 5 days of the conference. They were a centuries-old church in a blighted part of an inner city. Their numbers were down to 25 and shrinking. They were living off an endowment: also shrinking. They wanted to know what they could do to survive.

At our third breakfast, I asked “How long will your endowment last at the current rate?”

Their answer: “Ten…maybe twelve if we squeeze it.”

Then I asked, “How would you feel your churches tombstone read, ‘They eked out two more years of slow decline and died?’”

“Not good,” they answered.

“What would you like your epitaph to say?” I asked.

And by the end of the conference, they had come up with an ambitious plan to invest everything they had left in a no-holds-barred, 5-year revitalization plan, and would close down early and give the rest of their endowment away if they could see it wasn’t working.
After they describe their plan to me, I asked, “How do you feel about it?”

“Well,” they said, “We don’t know if we will succeed with flying colors or go out in a blaze of glory. But now we can live with the words that would be on our tombstone.

And that is my question for us. What would we want to read on our tombstone? And what does that tell us about why we exist, how God wants us to live, and what God requires of us?

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4 thoughts on “Write Your Own Epitaph

  1. Pingback: Sunday Reading | Earthpages.org

  2. Pingback: Are you sure you’re “busy”? | SoshiTech

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