“Life Expectancy”

Mark 13:34-37

“Watch, therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house will come…watch!”

The great Yogi Berra, famous not only for his baseball, but also for his proverbial words of wisdom, once said, “You should always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise, they won’t come to yours.”  Randy Pausch never dreamed that 400 people would pack the auditorium to hear his last lecture, but they did.  In September of last year, after he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, this popular computer science professor at Carnegie Melon University in Pittsburgh, gave his final 70 minute lecture, with power point slides.  Over the past year it has been viewed on the internet by thousands.  It has been turned into a best selling book entitled, The Last Lecture.  With great passion, courage, wonderful humor, insightful observations, and profound authenticity, he openly, honestly, poignantly  teaches about all the lessons of his life:  the importance of living boldly, honestly, facing life head-on, embracing life wholeheartedly, realizing your childhood dreams, persevering through adversity, overcoming obstacles, spending time with loved ones, being alive to what really matters.  He tells parents, “if your kids want to paint their bedrooms, as a favor to me, let ‘em do it.” He tells his children:  “If I could give 3 words of advice they would be, ‘Tell the truth.’ If I got 3 more words, I’d add, ‘all the time.’”

One of Randy’s slides is simply a brick wall:  “Brick walls are there for a reason.”  And then he shows slides of all the rejection letters he every received, “They let us prove how badly we want things.”  At one point, he drops to the floor to do one-handed push-ups, to show how much vitality was left in this young, handsome, vibrant man, who we wished could live forever.  But on July 25, 2008, only 11 months later, he died. He was 47 years old.  What kind of “life expectancy” is that?  No one expects to die at age 47.  But in that last year of his life he crammed more life, more love, more time, than he had perhaps in all the 46 that preceded it:   He told one reporter, “I am an authority on what to do with limited time.”  He said “I am maintaining my clear-eyed sense of the inevitable.  I’m living like I’m dying.  But at the same time, I’m very much living like I am still living.”  I commend to you his Last Lecture.  It is like a wake-up call, a clarion call to life, to come alive, live boldly, live expectantly, for life is more precious, more urgent than we know.  If you were to learn you had less than a year to live, if you had one last lecture to give, what would it be?

I tell you this because in our scripture lesson for today Jesus is giving to his disciples what is essentially, at least according to Mark, his Last Lecture, the climactic speech of his life and ministry.  It comes very near the end of his life, and it is given with a great sense of urgency.  He has no power point slides, but he is using the strongest language available to a 1st century middle eastern man:  apocalyptic language, highly symbolic, strongly stated.  The novelist Flannery O’Connor once said, “To the hard of hearing you must shout, and for the almost blind you must draw large and startling figures.”  That’s what apocalyptic language does: it shouts, it draws large and startling figures. For Jesus was trying to get through to his disciples, trying to wake them from their cluelessness. “Wake up and smell the coffee!” Jesus is saying, for he could see clearly something that none of the rest of them could even begin to fathom:  that life as they knew it was about to come to an abrupt end, that within their own lifetimes, they would witness the destruction of the temple by the Romans.  But more than that, he could see his own impending death.  In fact, in only 2 days, he would hit the brick wall:  at 33 he would be crucified.   What kind of “life expectancy” is that?  And yet in those 33 years of life he crammed more life, more love, the fullest life ever lived.  His final message to his disciples and to us is not unlike Randy Pausch’s last lecture:   wake up, come alive, be alert, live boldly, live expectantly, for life is more precious and more urgent than we know. 

Most of us do not live expectantly.  No, we live complacently.  “We live like drunken sailors,” says Frederick Buechner, “as if we have all the time in world.”  We drift, we doze, we slumber, mentally and spiritually, as if we are going to live forever.   I heard the saddest thing recently, a minister describing a close friend of his by saying,  “He was 30 years on the verge.”  On the verge of what?  For 30 years?!  Is this the verdict you would want to have spoken about your life?  That you lived your life “on the verge,” never taking that critical step over the line that separates possibility and reality, only to reach the end of your life haunted by all woulda, shoulda, couldas?  I would call that a low expectancy for living.   In the book, Four Spirits, by Sara Jeter Naslun, there is this interesting piece of conversation:  The guy asks,  “Do you know the average altitude for the flight of robins?” The girl laughs, “I don’t have the foggiest idea.”  The guy goes on, “About thirty inches.”  And she says, “What a waste!  To have the gift of flight and to fly so low.”  What about you and me?  to have the gift of life and live so low.  Low expectancy.

One writer,  author Virginia Owens, talks about this low expectancy for life in terms of “merely.”  She says that somewhere along the way everything becomes “merely.”  Merely stars, merely a sunset, merely flowers, merely mountains.  Any connection to the miracle of creation and the mystery of life is blunt, dilute.  Seeing life as “merely” life, she says, is what leads to crime.  “It is merely a thing—I’ll take it.  It is merely an object—I’ll destroy it.  It is merely a person—I’ll kill it.”  It is what leads to war.  When we say, “We’ll lose merely 1000 men; its worth it.”  Merely require living life with a low expectancy.   But to live life with high expectancy, as if every moment of every life  is a precious, sacred, unrepeatable miracle, nothing can be merely. Randy Pausch, facing his own impending death, found nothing to be merely.  Jesus, facing his own impending death found nothing to be merely. And thus they show us the way to be not merely, but truly, fully, miraculously alive!

This helps me to understand why in the world the lectionary would offer a lesson like this on the first Sunday of Advent.  We should be on our way to Bethlehem, not Jerusalem.  We are 4 weeks away from the birth of Jesus, why are we thinking about his death?  We want to go to the manger, not to the cross.  What does the end of his life have to do with the beginning?  Ah.  That’s precisely the point.  Can it be that the way we face death has everything to do with how we embrace life?  Will it be with low expectancy, or with high expectancy?

I read something beautiful written by a woman who had been through several rounds of aggressive chemotherapy in which she had lost her hair, first a little at a time, and then suddenly in whole handfuls.  It happened right at the end of winter, at the beginning of Spring.  Her hair was dropping so fast, she had gone outside and run her fingers through her hair, to let it all blow away in the wind.  Standing outside holding her bald head in her hands, she wept.  But then several weeks later when she was out in her yard, she noticed that a bird had built a nest in the crossbeams of a door frame of her house.  Climbing up, looking closer, she saw the eggs that had been laid.  Looking closer still, much to her surprise, she recognized hair, clumps of hair, HER hair woven into the nest!  And she wept again, at what she took to be a symbol of hope.  She said, “My lost hair was part of a nest for nurturing new life.  This was not a cure, but a deeply healing experience.”  Hope is always deeply healing, for it helps us to know that the end is never the end.  Hope is what makes it possible to live life with high expectancy.

This is what the promise of God is all about, the very heart of our faith:  “Nothing is lost that will not be found.  Nothing is closed that will not be opened.  Nothing that ends will be without a new beginning.”  T.S. Eliot begins 1 of his 4 quartets by saying, “In my beginning is my end.”  But he goes on to conclude, “In my end is my beginning.” Sounds so much like the Hymn of Promise: “In our end is our beginning, in our time infinity, in our death a resurrection, at the last a victory.”    Is that not the nature of eternal life?  Beginnings and endings and beginnings again, and life goes on, last things always give way to first things, and all of history is held in the hands of One who is Love—a future we can trust.   

This is whole point of Advent.  It is the beginning of the Christian year. The rest of the world may call December the end of the year, but the Christian calendar calls it the beginning of the year.  The word itself means “coming.”  Something is coming. Do you see it?  What looks like the end is not the end!  “In the deepest dark there shines the purest light.”  Think about it:  what do you grieve now in your life? What are you being asked to let go of?  What is being torn from you even now?  Is it possible, that with this ending there is something coming, something new being born in our midst?  You don’t want to miss it, do you?  It may come at an hour you do not expect!  Maybe today.  Maybe tomorrow.  You may be 47.  You may be 33.  You may be 103.  You don’t know!  “So what I say to you, I say to all:  Watch!”