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.
|About This Sermon|
Rev. Mark Schaefer
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
November 1, 2020
Revelation 7:9–17; Matthew 5:1–12
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 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, gone home, transitioned, or the most common one: passed away.
A friend of mine recently conducted some research and determined that over the past few decades euphemisms for death have replaced the word “died” even in newspaper obituaries.
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. There are passages from Genesis that make 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.Genesis 5
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 directorwho places the loved one into a casket 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.
We as a community, as a nation, and as a world are in a time of grief. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic, in which an entirely new virus is wreaking havoc on our healthcare system and our way of life. We have already lost nearly 230,000 of our fellow countrymen and -women to this virus. Who knows how many thousands more will die in the days to come as the winter comes upon us?
Right now, a lot of people are going through tremendous amount of anxiety about the state of the economy, loss of jobs, access to resources. But behind it all looms the specter of tremendous loss of life. Quite simply, we have seen that the threat of death for so many has motivated us toward extraordinary steps of solidarity and self-sacrifice.
But in order to face this challenge, in order to face our grief, we need to be able to name what it is we grieve.
I submit to you that it is at times like this 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. I get why we do this: we want to cushion the blow for those who are grieving. 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. But I’m not really sure that it works, that any of these statements has made anyone feel better, except for the person saying it who feels like they at least said something.
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—“Well, Mark is dead, I guess.” 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 Congolese 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. Nor can we refer to those thousands of black lives lost through acts of racist violence and lynching. To the lives that continue to be lost as a result of racist violence.
Of those—for reasons of justice—we cannot say “They passed away.” Nor can we simply say “They’re in a better place now.” If hundreds of thousands or millions should die from the coronavirus because we were not willing to take the steps we needed to to protect against such loss of life, trite sentiment will not excuse our inaction or our recklessness. 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.” 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.
REMEMBERING THE DEAD
It is not simply in our language that we have difficulty with acknowledging the reality of death. There is little in our ordinary lives that causes us to confront it on a daily basis.
It’s not just that we don’t have people born and die at home anymore, it’s that there is nothing in our culture that even embraces the reality of death. Even when we have funerals, big public funerals, we want to call them “Going Home” ceremonies or “Celebrations of Life.” It’s entirely possible to go to one of these things and miss the fact that someone has died.
Other cultures have holidays like the El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, which takes place on November 1 and 2, All Saints and All Souls Days. The Mexican holiday is a blend of pre-colonial traditions with Catholic spirituality and at the heart of the holiday is the notion that “the dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily return to Earth.” 1https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/north-america/mexico/top-ten-day-of-dead-mexico/ The celebration itself involves food, costumes, and other revelry:
Day of the Dead is an extremely social holiday that spills into streets and public squares at all hours of the day and night. Dressing up as skeletons is part of the fun. People of all ages have their faces artfully painted to resemble skulls, and, mimicking the calavera Catrina, the “elegant skull”, they don suits and fancy dresses. Many revelers wear shells or other noisemakers to amp up the excitement—and also possibly to rouse the dead and keep them close during the fun.—National Geographic
It is in this last point that we see something important: keeping the dead close. The idea that the dead are still members of the community. See, it’s not just that honesty about death and a willingness to confront death help us to better remember the dead. They help us better to remember our faith.
THE REMEMBRANCE OF FAITH
The great contemporary theologian Jürgen Moltmann observed that modern people no longer perceive the presence of the dead, the way people in former times did. He said that this happened for three reasons.
Suppress the Reality of Death
First, we suppress and deny the reality of death and thus distort the reality of life. I’ve long noted that we as a culture are squeamish about talking about death but are really fond of killing. Because we are not honest about death, we cannot be honest about life.
Failure to Recognize the Injustices of the Dead
Second, he noted that we no longer perceive the presence of the dead—fail to recognize the injustices of the dead. We cultivate an amnesia about past injustices. We sometimes imagine that death somehow makes up for all the suffering that someone went through in life. This is at the heart of the problem with the “they’re in a better place” sentiment. It lets us off the hook. “Poor John, struggled his whole life to find work with dignity, he was rejected by a lot of his family and friends, he was poorly treated by his employer, and died penniless. Oh well, at least he’s in a better place now.”
Do you see how that can deflect from our concern about John’s struggles during his life? How it might tempt us not to fix those problems, but to consider the account settled and John finally rewarded? This is the trick that tyrants have long used to keep people in line: they tacitly acknowledge that there is suffering in this life but that it’s okay; you’ll be rewarded in the next life. This was what the White slaveowner told the enslaved African. This is what the Russian aristocracy told the serfs. This is what oppressors have told countless millions.
But it’s not true. The injustices of the present are not made up for by death. Those injustices remain. Moltmann notes: that to live in forgetfulness of the dead is to suffocate with them—it is to deny our own mortality. Such denial and irresponsibility numb us to past injustices that were fatal to our ancestors. The repression of the dead hastens death and reveals and hastens our preoccupation with death.
Connecting the Hope for Eternal Life with the Present
Thirdly, Moltmann notes, we fail to connect the hope for eternal life to a hope for a better life here and now. We have spiritualized away what eternal life means. It’s now generally seen as some kind of life on a parallel spiritual plane rather than as a restoration of all things in this world.
This is what makes the vision of the Book of Revelation so powerful, because the visions of the book are not about some distant future or about some other world, they’re about this world.
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.”Revelation 7:13–17
The great multitude that “no one could count” that John sees in his vision are those who have come out of the great ordeal. They have not escaped it. They endured it. And at the end of that same book we read:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”Revelation 21:1–5
At the end of all things, comes a renewal of all things. The New Jerusalem comes out of heaven here. God comes to dwell with God’s people here. God defeats death, mourning, crying, and pain here. God makes all things new.
The book of Revelation makes it clear that our vision of life after death has everything to do with the world we live in now. It gives us hope, it comforts us in our mourning, and it holds the present world to account with a vision of what God intends the world to be.
Not too long ago, someone online quipped, “What a decade this year has been.” It certainly feels that way. There has been a lot packed into the ten months of 2020 that we have lived through thus far. And much of what has happened has been a cause for grief and loss.
We mourn the 1.2 million people who have died from the pandemic, including the nearly quarter million Americans who have died.
We mourn the victims of police violence. We mourn those killed by white supremacist terrorists. We mourn those killed in all manner of terror attacks. We mourn those who die because they do not have access to adequate health care. We mourn those who die because they lack adequate food and shelter.
It is not enough to say that their sufferings are over, when the evils and injustices that caused their deaths are still with us. These are those who have gone through the Great Ordeal; it is not our place to ignore that ordeal or to fail to prevent it from happening to others.
It is important to remember those who have died. And to keep them close to us. Not as a way of denying the reality of death, but as a way of reminding ourselves that the sufferings, the injustices, the wrongs suffered by the dead are still with us. As was the case with Abel murdered by Cain, their blood, too, cries out from the earth to God and to us for justice.
Today is a day when we talk about that “great cloud of witnesses” but remember that they are not simply smiling down on us with approval, but are calling us back to the hard work of the gospel. The work that proclaims a coming kingdom in which injustice, evil, oppression, sorrow, sighing, and even death will be vanquished. A kingdom in which the words of Jesus will at last be fulfilled: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
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.”
Matthew 5:1–12 • When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”