Unity Lutheran Church + Christ the King Campus
14 April 2019 + Palm / Passion Sunday
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
What would you do if you knew when you were going to die? Would you change your perception of time and how you spend it? Or even your perception of your money and possessions? Would you make a “bucket list” and do everything you ever wanted to do?
During a recent staff meeting, Matt shared a devotion about the “Before I Die” project. The concept is simple: An outdoor wall is painted with chalkboard paint and the prompt, “Before I die I want to…” Passers-by are invited to fill in the blank with whatever personal aspirations come to mind, and the responses are as varied as you can imagine:
I want to be an international dancing sensation.
I want to eat a salad with an alien.
I want to eat all the candy and sushi in the world. (My personal favorite!)
I want to teach my grandkids to garden.
I want to see peace in the world.
I want to find out who I am.
Over 5,000 “Before I Die” walls have appeared in 78 countries and 36 languages, including this one at Marquette University in 2011…
Like the season of Lent over these past several weeks, the “Before I Die” project invites participants to reflect on their mortality — the fact that we will all, one day, die. More than that, it also invites us to consider what things are most important to us in the meantime.
Lola Muñoz was 12 years old when she was diagnosed with a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma — an inoperable brain tumor — and learned she would have, at most, twelve months to live. It’s a devastating diagnosis for anyone, let alone a child, but Lola’s journey through her final months is quite remarkable.
Lola had been paired with photographer Moriah Ratner, initially as part of an assignment through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, but Lola, her family, and Moriah agreed to continue documenting the course of her illness in an effort to defy stereotypes about childhood cancer and to raise awareness to fuel cure-seeking research.
“Lola did not fear dying but, rather, being forgotten,” Moriah reflects. And in Lola’s own words: “Do you know what the worst part is about having a tumor? The pretending—pretending like you’re better than you feel for the people that pity you, so you can show them that nothing is wrong.”
The snapshots Moriah documented of Lola don’t pretend. They’re honest — documenting the ups and downs of chemo, clinical trials, and living life to its fullest in between. Lola was less concerned with her own dying as she was with leaving a legacy. She willingly participated in clinical trials, not so much for her own treatment, but for the hope of finding a cure for those who would come after her. And when the trials became too much, Lola stopped treatment and returned to enjoying her favorite activities — swimming, camping, family vacations — for as long she could.
Lola died on April 2, 2018, just over a year after she was diagnosed. Above all else, I think Lola teaches us what it means to live even in the face of death.
Her story is appropriate for today, too. In a few minutes, we’ll hear Luke’s passion narrative — the story of Jesus’s final days and hours on earth, leading up to his crucifixion. All four gospels tell this same story but with different emphases. Matthew and Mark are very similar: They both portray a Jesus who is starkly abandoned by his friends and followers. John, by contrast, is very different: His Jesus is the savior who reigns victoriously from the cross, seemingly in control of everything that unfolds.
Luke comes down somewhere in the middle. Throughout his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, Jesus remains calm and collected, facing death with a “God-given tranquility” and trust, as biblical scholar Raymond Brown observes. Jesus still faces intense anguish, or agony as it is sometimes translated, but not in the ordinary sense of that word. The Greek agonia refers to something more like the tension an athlete, dripping with nervous sweat, might feel at the start of a contest. It’s in that spirit that Jesus prays in the garden, rising to enter the trial and suffering, fully prepared for what lies ahead.
Even throughout everything that follows, Jesus continues to show a vested interest in the welfare of others over himself: healing the slave of the high priest when Peter cuts of his ear, forgiving those who put him to death even as he hangs on the cross, pardoning the repentant thief crucified alongside him.
Like Moriah’s photographs of Lola’s journey with cancer until her death, Luke’s passion offers us honest and poignant snapshots into Jesus’s journey. Lola didn’t deny the reality and gravity of her diagnosis, but she used what precious time she had left to ensure she had an impact, from participating in clinical trials to spending time with her family doing what she loved. So too, in Luke, Jesus never denies the suffering and death he is about to face, but he uses those moments to continue to be about what he has been doing all along — forgiving and healing and showing God’s love to people on the margins and those we would least expect, even those who actively participate in his arrest, trial, and death.
As we hear Luke’s telling of the passion read out loud, we encounter a story in snapshots. Snapshots of a story of forgiveness and healing through and by Jesus. Snapshots of grace and God’s love made known.
Before I Die Project images from:
Images of Lola Muñoz from: https://www.npr.org/sections/pictureshow/2019/03/31/646668373/lessons-in-life-and-death-from-12-year-old-lola