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
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
March 29, 2020
Part 5 of the series “A Journey through the Wilderness”
Ezekiel 37:1–14; John 11:1–45
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:
Mr. Praline : 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 (that’s a new one I recently encountered), 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”?
II. SPEAKING DIRECTLY
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 director who 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.
III. DEATH AND THE WILDERNESS
Of all the wilderness experiences we’ve been looking at, death and loss are perhaps the most difficult to face. Want, fear, despair, and tragedy all place us in wilderness experiences but none seems more profound than the wilderness of death.
Each of the other experiences admits of having a reversal: if we want for something, we might get it; if we fear, we might be encouraged; if we despair, we might find hope, and when we face tragedy, we might find rescue. But death is a particular one. Death is irreversible. The child of a friend of mine asked her after their family dog had died, “When the dog is done dying, will he come back?” What children fail to grasp, we grasp all too well: death is final. When we find ourselves in the wilderness of death and loss, we do not console ourselves with the possibility that the one we mourn might return to life soon.
This may be why we’re so reluctant in our contemporary culture to name death directly. It’s why we—not just disgruntled parrot purchasers—have come up with so many euphemisms for it. Perhaps if we ignore it, it can’t really hurt us. And perhaps, it’s a way of avoiding the term because it has so much power.
There’s a reason why the ancient community of Israel around the time of the Babylonian Exile was portrayed metaphorically as a valley of dry bones. The image of death and utter ruin was how the Israelites were feeling as their nation was conquered, their kings’ line ended, their temple destroyed. Ezekiel speaks to a nation in exile and to capture the feelings of the people of Judah, uses imagery of death, destruction, and loss. Of dry bones—an image of a long-ago lost battle that brought utter devastation.
In the Gospel lesson, too, we encounter death. Jesus has come to Bethany, modern-day Al-Azariah, where his friend Lazarus has died. Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha had entreated Jesus to come earlier to heal the ailing man, but by the time he arrived, Lazarus had been dead for four days.
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”John 11:33–37
This is an extraordinary paragraph. It describes Jesus as “greatly disturbed in spirit” and “deeply moved” and that he began to weep. These are extraordinary statements given that generally throughout John’s gospel Jesus isn’t fazed by much. He’s always in control. In fact, he’s more composed while he’s being crucified than he is here facing the death of a dear friend.
Even for John’s always in control Jesus, death and loss are an overwhelmingly powerful wilderness experience.
But it is not a wilderness that can be faced with anything but honesty and directness.
IV. GRIEF IN THE WILDERNESS
And we need it to assist in our grieving.
We as a community, as a nation, and as a world find ourselves in a wilderness experience that we haven’t been in in nearly a century. We are 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. The projections of deaths caused by this virus range from the tens of thousands—if we’re lucky and do all the right things—to the millions if our healthcare system is overwhelmed.
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. 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 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. 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.
V. THE WILDERNESS OF DEATH AND THE PROMISED LAND OF RESURRECTION
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.
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. The addition of sinews and flesh to the valley of dry bones and even the raising of Lazarus from the dead (since we assume he died again at some point) can only begin to prefigure the stunning nature of the resurrection and the defeat of death itself.
But 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 eternal fate: resurrection is.
We may find ourselves in a wilderness of death and loss. We may find ourselves in a time of grief and sorrow. We presently find ourselves in a time of great anxiety where we worry about those we love and fear the death toll that could come.
But here in this wilderness, God too is found. The God who knows death in God’s very own being. The God who is not removed from our suffering and death, but is in the midst of it. And the God who through his apostle has promised us that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Ezekiel 37:1–14 • The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
John 11:1–45 • Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.