Part 6 of the Sermon Series “The Seven Words You Can’t Say in Church”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
November 2, 2008
Genesis 5:1-11; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Revelation 7:9-17

Genesis 5:1-11 This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them “Humankind” when they were created.
When Adam had lived one hundred thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth. The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred thirty years; and he died.
When Seth had lived one hundred five years, he became the father of Enosh. Seth lived after the birth of Enosh eight hundred seven years, and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Seth were nine hundred twelve years; and he died.
When Enosh had lived ninety years, he became the father of Kenan. Enosh lived after the birth of Kenan eight hundred fifteen years, and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Enosh were nine hundred five years; and he died.

1Thessalonians 4:13-18 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Revelation 7:9-17 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”


When looking for reflections on death, British farce comedy is not normally the first place you would expect to find wisdom. And yet, when I think about our attitudes toward death in this country, I cannot help but think of a famous sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In this sketch, John Cleese comes into a pet shop run by Michael Palin. He has a complaint: his parrot is dead.

The shop owner denies that the parrot is dead, insisting merely that he is resting. He adds that the parrot—a “Norwegian Blue”—is likely just “pining for the fjords.”

The customer objects: “What kind of talk is that? Look, why did he fall flat on his back the moment I got ‘im home?” and the shop owner insists that the Norwegian Blue prefers keeping on its back.   When the customer points out that the only reason that it had been sitting on its perch in the first place was that it had been nailed there, the shop owner insists that this was necessary to prevent the bird from breaking apart the bars and escaping.

The customer responds that the bird is “demised” and when the shop owner insists the bird is once again “pining for the fjords” the customer, Mr. Praline, says:

It’s not pinin,’ it’s passed on! This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker! This is a late parrot! It’s a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch he would be pushing up the daisies! Its metabolical processes are of interest only to historians! It’s hopped the twig! It’s shuffled off this mortal coil! It’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible! This…. is an EX-PARROT!

What I like about this sketch is not only that it’s funny, but that it reveals a real truth about our culture. We don’t like to talk about death directly. John Cleese’s little rant at the end is wonderful because of the number of euphemisms he employs to say “is dead.” He could have added a few more:

Kicked the bucket, gone to his great reward, crossed over, bought the farm, departed, deceased, late, lost, no longer with us, gave up the ghost, expired, in a better place, or the most common one: passed away.

Now, of course, it is not only death which we have euphemisms for. There are all kinds of things that we don’t talk about directly–sex, bodily functions, etc.–but it seems that we have special difficulty speaking about death.

Do we imagine that if we don’t mention it, it won’t happen? Do we pretend that the death will not come to us if we just ignore death? Why is it so hard for us to say, “So and so died “?


Speaking directly wasn’t a problem for the authors of the Hebrew Bible. The passage from Genesis that we read earlier, makes that clear:

Thus all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred thirty years; and he died….
Thus all the days of Seth were nine hundred twelve years; and he died….
Thus all the days of Enosh were nine hundred five years; and he died.

Direct honest language. “…and he died.” No mistaking what happened. Adam, Seth, Enosh, all died.

Part of that directness, of course, comes from what the ancient Israelites believed. The most ancient Israelite understanding did not contain a belief in any kind of life after death. A lifetime was all one was due. You lived your life, and at the end you went down to the grave. You died. Some versions had a shadowy afterlife known as Sheol, but it was nothing like real life. Life was in the here and now. And so, perhaps, it was easier for them to speak directly about death–it was everywhere around them.

Much the way it was around us a couple generations ago. It used to be the case that when people died, they died at home. Their bodies were cleaned and cared for by the family, before the corpse was taken away by the undertaker so that after the funeral, it would be buried in a coffin in a grave at the graveyard. Now, people die in hospitals. When they die, the family is whisked out of the room. Hospital staff prepare the body, and then the body is transported to the funeral director who places the loved one into acasket so that after the memorial service it can be interred into a plot at the memorial garden. Why it’s almost like no one has died.

Our removal from daily contact with death has removed our ability to talk about death honestly. And that is something that we need to do.


First, to assist in our grieving. Today is All Saints Sunday, the Sunday on which we celebrate those who have died in the faith before us. It is a time when we remember the vision of St. John the Divine, who wrote in Revelation of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…” The great “cloud of witnesses” of those who have gone before us in Christian faith and who have died. The Saints.

But it is also a time when we remember those who have died in the past year. And it can be a time when feelings of loss, pain, and sorrow are still very keenly felt. When memories of loved ones who have died can come streaming back and bring with it all the pain that we felt. I submit to you that it is at times like that that talking around the issue does no good at all. Part of any grieving process is in coming to terms with the object of our grief. The first step toward healing and wholeness is in facing the reality of our circumstances head on.

That is why it is so important to avoid all the trite sentimentality that hides the reality of death. In our own desire to avoid causing harm to others, we engage in platitudes like “they’re in a better place” or “they’re smiling down on us” or other things that are seemingly designed to distract us from the pain.

If any of you is at my funeral, please don’t say, or let anyone else say, anything like, “I’m sure he’s in a much better place now” or “I’m sure he’s smiling down at us” or anything like that. Please just say—if you feel the need to say anything—”Mark Schaefer is dead.”   I would consider it a personal favor.

Sometimes, our inability to be honest about death borders on the absurd. I saw an announcement once about a memorial for September 11th and they referred to an opportunity for those who “passed away” on September 11, 2001. Folks, given the number of people who were killed or murdered on that day, it is almost disrespectful to their memory to say that they “passed away”—as if it were a slow fade to black. If we are committed to justice, neither the murdered dead of September 11th, nor the murdered millions of the Holocaust, or the murdered million of the Rwandan genocide or the Congo civil war, can be referred to as having “passed away.”   Nor can we say that about those who die from famine and disease. From the scourge of poverty. Of those–for reasons of justice–we cannot say “They passed away.”   Nor can we simply say “They’re in a better place now.” Our sense of justice won’t allow it. Those multitudes were killed or they died. And the injustices that lead to those deaths are not accounted for by the idea of death as a release.

In the spring of 2000, a friend of mine was murdered. She was stabbed to death by her neighbor who wanted her car to drive to a party. It was a brutal, senseless crime that snuffed out the life of a talented and well-liked individual. On the drive to the funeral, one of the people in the car remarked, “It’s good that they’re calling it a memorial service, not a funeral.   That way we can celebrate, because it’s only the body that is dead–the important part still lives on.” It was not the time to engage in a theological argument, but inside, I was apoplectic. If the ‘important part’ still lived on, why be sad?   More importantly, why be outraged at our friend’s murder?

Not to speak honestly about death would be an injustice, and hardly a fitting remembrance for my poor murdered friend Alison.


But there is another, deeper reason we need to be honest about death.   We need to be honest about death if we are to keep our faith from being nonsensical.   We need to be honest about death if we are truly going to appreciate the power of the resurrection.

As I noted before, in Ancient Israel, there was not a real belief in life after death. By Jesus’ day, many Jews believed that on the last day, with the coming of the Messiah and the inauguration of the Reign of God, that the dead would be raised to new life–they would be resurrected.   But belief in the resurrection did not imply that death was any less real.   Belief that one day God would raise the dead to new life did not lessen their appreciation of death.   Indeed, their faith was defined by the reality of death.   As is ours.

Because we Christians do not believe that Jesus “passed away” on the cross. Jesus died. A real death. In the words of the ancient creed, “He descended into hell”–a way of saying, he descended into the realm of the dead–he was among the dead.   I had heard from a number of others that the Board of Ordained Ministry liked to ask its ordination candidates “Where was Jesus on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday?”   They never asked me that question.   I kind of wish they had, because I was ready with the answer: he was dead.   His life, his being, his existence was cut off.

Jews did not believe in a separation of body and soul. That was a Greek idea. Jews believed that human beings were psychosomatic wholes–body and soul were one.   There was no way to get around death.   You couldn’t euphemize your way out of it. You couldn’t say, “Well, the important part still lives on.”   You couldn’t say, “It’s okay, Peter, I’m sure Jesus is in a better place”. All you could say was “Jesus is dead.”

German theologian Jürgen Moltmann writes that when Jesus died on the cross, it was not the death of the human Jesus only, but a death of the divine Son of God.   That is, Christians believe that the Son of God–one of the persons of the Trinity, one of the community of God’s innermost being–became flesh and dwelled among us as the human being Jesus of Nazareth. Some throughout history have supposed that when Jesus was crucified, only the human being Jesus died. (Kind of like the God character in Dogma ).

Moltmann says that when Christ was crucified, it was not only the human Jesus who died, but the divine Son. There was a death within God’s innermost being.   That God knew death within Godself. That God took death into God’s very being and suffered that death within. And that for God that death was not any less real than any death that we experience.   The absence, the loss, the pain.


But we all know the story does not end there. We know that on the third day, God raised Christ from the dead. Not just the divine Son, but the human Jesus. A restoration to bodily existence. A stunning reversal from the fortunes of death. For, it is only in contemplation of the awesomeness, the mystery of death, that we truly understand the power of resurrection. It is not something that happens naturally. It is not the same thing as our spirits flying off to some other parallel dimension or plane. It is not the same thing as immortality. It is not really even life after death. It is life out of death. That out of the midst of death, life emerges.   New life. Resurrected life.

This is the hope that Paul refers to when he says that we do not “grieve as others do who have no hope…” He is not promising that we will not grieve–only that we will not grieve in the same way that others do, but that we grieve with hope.   As Paul would say to the Corinthians, Jesus is the “first fruits” of those who have died.   His resurrection is not an isolated incident, but that we, too, will all see Resurrection together–and this is our hope.


It is with that hope, then, that we are able to face death. Not as something to be talked around. Not as something to be glossed over. Not as something that has lost its power. But as something real, something true, something powerful, that nevertheless is not the final word.

We all here will die. The death rate will remain the same: one per person. But we can face death without fear. We can face death with hope. Because we know that God has not given death the final word–love has the final word. Death is not in control of this world, God is. Death may be our destiny, but it is not our eternity: resurrection is.

Jesus’ resurrection demonstrated to us a radical reversal. And in that radical reversal is hope, a powerful hope. And a reminder too, that not even death–a reality which we all must face–can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

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