November 10, 2013

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC


II Kings 23:21-30

When my dad died, I was given the task of writing his obituary.  I’ve written a lot of funeral sermons over the years, but this was the first time I had written an obituary.  It was not easy.  I wanted it to be just so.  It had to be accurate in every detail.  Dad, after all, was one who would review the church bulletin while the preacher preached and correct the mistakes.  It also had to be well-written.  And it had to do justice to his life.  Which, in my humble opinion, was quite a life.  So I struggled over his obituary and I would have struggled longer had it not been for the deadline I was given by the newspapers.

It was a difficult task, but at the same time it wasn’t difficult at all.  I did not have to edit the record and carefully choose my words to make him sound better than he really was.  I just had to tell the truth.  My dad once was reminiscing about his early years and told about the day back in grade school when he skipped class.  He said, “That may have been the worst thing I ever did.”  And the thing about my dad is that may literally have been the truth!  He was a good man, a great dad, and he lived an exemplary life.

Not all children are so fortunate when writing an obituary for a parent.  For example, the children of Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick.  Her obituary made national news about a month ago.  Let’s just say, her children didn’t exactly nominate her for mother of the year.

Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick was born January 4, 1935 and died alone on September 30, 2013.  She is survived by 6 of 8 children whom she spent her lifetime torturing in every possible way.  While she neglected and abused her small children, she refused to allow anyone else to care or show compassion towards them.  When they became adults she stalked and tortured anyone they dared to love.  Everyone she met, adult or child was tortured by her cruelty and exposure to violence, criminal activity, vulgarity, and hatred of the gentle or kind human spirit.  On behalf of her children whom she so abrasively exposed to her evil and violent life, we celebrate her passing from this earth and hope she lives in the afterlife reliving each gesture of violence, cruelty, and shame that she delivered on her children.

Why would anyone write an obituary like this, even if it was all true (and apparently it was)?  The children admitted one reason was to “shame her a little bit” (though I would have thought shaming is more effective while the person is still alive).  But the main reason was “to stimulate a national movement against child abuse in the United States of America”.

Someday someone is going to write your obituary.  And mine.  What will it say?  How will you be remembered?

One of Stephen Covey’s 7 habits in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to “begin with the end in mind.”  His chapter on this habit begins with an unusual exercise.  You are to close your eyes and imagine that you are going to a funeral.   It’s your own funeral.  You are listening to the people who stand up to say a few words about you.  There are four speakers.  One is a family member, one is a friend, one is someone you worked with, one is your pastor or someone from your church.  What are they saying about you?  What are you hearing them say about you that you don’t want to hear?  It’s true, but you wish it weren’t.  You wish they would leave it out.  And what would you like to hear them say about you?

What kind of husband, wife, father, or mother would you like their words to reflect?  What kind of son or daughter or cousin?  What kind of friend?  What kind of working associate?  What character would you like them to have seen in you?  What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember?  Look carefully at the people around you.  What difference would you like to have made in their lives?

We read today an obituary recorded in the Bible.  A king has died.  King Josiah.  And he is being remembered.  The one doing the remembering is an honest journalist.  One who calls it as he sees it.  He doesn’t just say nice things.  First and Second Kings include some scathing indictments of the kings who weren’t so great.  Some of these passages read like that woman’s obituary we mentioned earlier.  But not so this passage remembering King Josiah.  It stands out even from the passages about other good kings.  Josiah is praised with the highest praise.

Let’s take a moment to recall Josiah.  He was called “the boy king”.  He came to the throne when he was 8 years old.  He had an interesting pedigree.  His great-grandfather, Hezekiah, was one of the best kings Judah ever had.  His grandfather, Manasseh, was one of the worst.  And his father, Amon, was on the way to becoming just as bad, but was assassinated before he had the opportunity.  After the assassination, the assassins were assassinated.  But Josiah was kept safe.

He was only 8.  We’re told others held the reins of power for him while he was allowed to grow up.  At age16 he resolved that he would seek the God of his father, King David (II Chronicles 34:3).  King David had reigned 400 years earlier.  Those were the glory days.  These were hardly glory days.  Judah was on the verge of falling to the Babylonians.  But under Josiah there was one more brief flash of glory.

He began by restoring the Temple which had been allowed to fall into an embarrassing state of disrepair.  This included removing the altars built to heathen gods.  This housecleaning of the Temple resulted in a surprising discovery.  A scroll was found.  It may have been the book of Deuteronomy.  It had been lost and forgotten.  Josiah read it and knew immediately that God had now given him the purpose for the rest of his life.  Judah had strayed so far from God.  Now God had called “the boy king” to bring his people back to God.

He started his reign as a boy.  He ended his reign as a young man.  He was 39 when he died in battle.  It’s interesting to me how many of the greatest lives ever lived, Jesus included, were not long lives.  Benjamin Franklin said, “A long life may not be good enough, but a good life is long enough.”

It is clear in today’s scripture that Josiah lived a good life.  He is remembered fondly.  He is given the highest praise.  “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him” (II Kings 23:25).

That’s how Josiah was remembered.  How will you be remembered?  The legacies of King Josiah, and Jack Watts, and Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick are set.  Those who have died are powerless to come back and revise the record.  They had that opportunity while they lived.  They have that opportunity no longer.  But it’s different for you and me.  The story of our lives is still being written.  The past is past.  We can’t change that.  But from this moment on, we are the ones who will write the chapters, the most important chapters, that others will read when they remember us.

John Greenleaf Whittier said this:  “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these:  It might have been.”   At the end of a life that fell far short of its potential, those are sad words.  But we are not at the end of our lives!  So the question for us every day God still graciously chooses to give us is not “what might have been?”  but rather “what might yet be?”

This is a Sunday sandwiched between two holidays.  November 1 was All Saints Day.  November 11 is Veterans Day.  Last week we celebrated All Saints Day. We remembered with gratitude the lives of those we have loved and lost.  Today we are really continuing that theme as we realize that there will be an All Saints Day some day when we are the ones being remembered.  And we are asking how we will be remembered.  Veterans Day is a day both for remembering the dead and for honoring the living.  The freedom we have to make those choices that will shape our future and that will allow us to live up to our God-given potential is ours because veterans fought and died to defend and to preserve that freedom for us.  We remember them with gratitude.  And we also honor our veterans who are still with us.  Some of them worshiping with us today.  Their service to our country will be part of their legacy as they are remembered.  But for them, as for all of us, that legacy is not yet set in stone.  Far from it.  The future is open-ended.  We are free to shape it.  And, most of all, we are free to help build a world where wars and fighting and killing will be distant memories.

I just read a great book about John Wooden. There may never be a greater college basketball coach.  I learned that when babies were born to people he loved, he would always send a gift to the baby and also a note.  The words on the note never changed:  “With best wishes and the hope that you will grow up into a world of enduring peace between all nations and true love among all people.”

One of the secrets of athletics is to visualize in your mind the outcome you want.  I did that frequently when I was a competitive distance runner.  If you expect what you want to happen to happen it helps create the conditions for it to actually happen.  It helps you to do what you need to do to make it happen.

You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker, “Visualize World Peace”.  And you also may have seen the bumper sticker, “Forget About World Peace.  Visualize Using Your Turn Signal.”  There is power in visualizing a world at peace.  Especially, there is power in visualizing how you will respond when you get provoked.  Because that’s how things change.  You don’t just unthinkingly react as you’ve always reacted but rather you think it through first, so you can act and not just react.  You visualize the person you want to be and that helps you to actually become that person.

That’s what Stephen Covey’s chapter, “Begin with the End in Mind,” is really about.  Remember, he has you visualizing what people will say about you at your funeral.  He goes on to say that everything is created twice.  You create it first in your mind.  Then you create the actual thing.

He gives some examples.  When you build a home, you don’t just start building.  You create what you want to build first on paper.  And you don’t just sketch out a general idea.  You take the time to create detailed construction documents.

If you are starting a business, you don’t just start.  You think it through first.  You develop a business plan.  You write down a strategy that is realistic and achievable.

If you are going to preach a sermon, it’s usually recommended that you take some time to think in advance about what you are going to say.  Some weeks you probably wonder how much time I took!

Everything is created twice.  Including our lives.  The living of our lives is the second creation, not the first.  The first creation is something that either we do with lots of thought and prayer and intentionality.  Or it’s done for us by other people.  God has a wonderful plan for your life.  And so do a lot of other people!  Good people, but people with agendas.  They are only too happy to live their lives through your life.  And that’s exactly what they will do if you let them.

Remember what happened when Josiah was 16 years old?  He resolved that he was going to follow the God of his father, King David.  That was the first creation of the rest of his life.  That was the blueprint.  That was the master plan.  He would not be tossed to and fro by the whims of others.  He would not be at the mercy of his own selfish needs and desires.  He would follow God.  He would do what that long-forgotten book of the Bible told him to do.  The one they found in the Temple under all those boxes of old hymnals everyone else was afraid to throw away.

Josiah had his marching orders.  That came first.  Then he marched.  He followed God.  And he was remembered with the highest praise.  “Before him there was no king like him . . . nor did any like him arise after him.”

Stephen Covey, who wrote so eloquently on living our lives to the fullest of our potential, is no longer living his life on this earth.  He lived in Idaho Falls.  He was out on his bicycle in April of 2012, as early as the weather would allow him to explore some of his favorite routes.  He lost control going down a steep grade and he crashed.  Three months later, he died from his injuries.  He was 79.

It was interesting to read his obituary.  He had told us to visualize our own funeral.  I’m sure he had visualized his.  He had thought about what people would say about him, and then he had lived in such a way that what he hoped they would say could be what they actually would say.  He didn’t want anyone to be quoting John Greenleaf Whittier:  “For all the sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these:  It might have been.”  He made sure what might have been and what actually was, were one and the same.

You want to be careful about using those words, “Mission Accomplished”, too soon.  Our last president learned that lesson.  But those words are most fitting for Stephen Covey.  May they one day be most fitting for you and for me.


Help us, God, to take seriously this one and only life we have been given to live.  So that we will be remembered in a good way.  Yes, that would be nice.  But most of all so that we will leave this world a better place and so that the lives we have touched will be lives lived more fully, joyfully, and faithfully.  All to your glory, through Christ Jesus our Lord,  Amen.