Don’t Fear The Reaper
Lent Sermon Series on Death
Sermon by Michael Usey
February 21, 2010
Excuse us, but can you spare a moment? We’re taking a survey here and we’d like to ask you a question. It’ll only take a minute and we won’t even ask your name, okay? So here it is:
Do you really think you’re going to die? Really and truly?
Do you really think your life is going to come to an end some day?
Take your time. No hurry to answer. Well, except for the fact that every moment that passes is one less moment in your lifetime.
If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t totally believe that the final curtain will come down one day. We can sort of grasp the fact of death in general, but in particular? No so much. We’re like the writer William Saroyan, who wrote in a letter to his survivors, “Everybody has got to die but I always believed an exception would be made in my case.”
On the other hand, we can’t quite get death completely out of our minds. Hard as we try to repress thoughts of our mortality, they keep popping up like those little furry heads in a Whack-a-Mole. That must be because death is one of the immutable facts of human life.
We are the only creatures who comprehend that we are going to die and we are also the only creatures who can imagine living forever. It’s that combo that drives us crazy. Death scares the hell out of us. And a life that doesn’t clearly have a destination—except over a cliff—seems devoid of meaning. This is undoubtedly why human mortality is intertwined with the fundamental questions of theology. Questions like: What is the meaning of life—especially if it’s all going to end one day? How should our consciousness of death affect the way we live our lives? Would life have a radically different significance if we lived forever? After a millennium or two, would we be overcome by existential boredom and long for an end to it all? Do we have souls—and if so, do they survive our bodies? What are they made of? Is yours better than mine? Is there another dimension of time that cuts through the cycle of birth and death? Is it possible to “live forever” by always living in the present moment? Is heaven a place in time and space? If no, where and when is it? And what are the odds of getting in?
These are the kinds of questions that prompted many of us to sign up for our first philosophy courses in college . But for better or worse, we got sidetracked by professors who told us that before we could tackle the Big Question we had to understand mind-numbing things like: does Bertrand Russell confuse “possible necessity” with “necessary possibility”? Whaat??
Meanwhile, time was passing and we were still going to die. Eventually, we found our way back to those Big Questions in our faith. But immediately another obstacle arose: honestly contemplating our own death scared us to death. We couldn’t look the Reaper straight in the face without, well, fear and trembling. But we couldn’t avert our eyes either. Death: you can’t live with it, you can’t live without it. What’s a person to do? How about telling a joke? Hey, it couldn’t hurt.
Millie accompanied her husband Maurice to the doctor’s office. After he had given Maurice a full checkup, the doctor called Millie into his office alone. He said, “Maurice is suffering from a serious disease brought on by extreme stress. If you don’t do the following, your husband will die. Each morning, wake him up gently with a big kiss, then fix him a healthy breakfast. Be pleasant at all times and make sure he is always in a good mood. Cook him only his favorite meals and allow him to relax after eating. Don’t burden him with any chores, and don’t discuss your problems with him; it will only make his stress worse. Don’t’ argue with him, even if he criticizes you or makes fun of you. Try to relax him in the evening by giving him massages. Encourage him to watch all the sports he can on TV, even if it means missing your favorite programs. And most importantly, every evening after dinner do whatever it takes to satisfy his every whim. If you can do all of this, every day, for the next six months, I think Maurice will regain his health completely.”
On the way home, Maurice asked Millie: “What did the doctor say?” “He said you’re going to die.” Somehow hearing about mortality from Millie makes it more bearable. Jokes are funny that way: they can make a devastating point while defusing anxiety at the same time. That’s why there are so many jokes about sex and death—both of them scare the pants off us.
You are going to die. So is everyone you love—your husband or wife or partner, your children, your parents, your friends. It may happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow or not for several years. It may come quickly and easily or slowly and painfully. But we are all going to die. One day we will be cremated or put in a hole in the ground and covered up with dirt. Or like millions of other people in our time, we may be blown into irretrievable bits and never buried at all. But in one way or another, sooner or later, we are all going to die—you, I, every one of us.
We may try to fool ourselves and other people. We may do everything we can to look young. We may count calories and exercise faithfully. We may prolong life with medical techniques undreamed of a generation ago. We may try to live as if there were no tomorrow. But finally it won’t work. Every day we are one day nearer to death, the end. Today is the youngest you will ever be.
It is considered bad taste in our time to talk about dying. Death has replaced sex as the subject too obscene for polite conversation. (Now we say “passed on” instead of “died,” and “memorial park” instead of “graveyard.”) And it is downright un-American to suggest that we cannot eventually solve all our own and the world’s problems if we work at it long and hard enough, if we only can convince or enable the rest of the world to follow the American way of life. But that is the way it is: We are all going to die. The suspicion will not go away that the American Dream for ourselves and the rest of the world is only a dream.
During Lent we are going to consider what Christians have to say about these brutal facts of life and death. It is the good news of hope for the future even when personal experience and world history seem to say there is no hope. Christian hope for individuals is hope in the God who raised Jesus from the dead: it is therefore hope for our own resurrection—hope for “the resurrection of the body” and “the life everlasting.”
All alternatives to Christian hope for the future have in common the fact that from the Christian point of view they are either too optimistic about human power over sin and death or too pessimistic about the power of God over them. Or to put it another way, they are based either on a false hope in human potential or on hopelessness about God’s potential.
Consider the text for this morning. These words were not written by an atheist. They were written by a “teacher” who could also say, “Fear God, and keep God’s commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.” They are included in the book Christians believe to be the word of God. If you never have, you should read through the whole book of Ecclesiastes.
What can we make of such strangely pessimistic words coming from the Bible itself? Here are some conclusions we may draw from Ecclesiastes. Some of them are debatable, so you had better examine them yourself carefully.
First, if death has the last word and there is no hope for a future beyond death, then my life here and now will be meaningless. All I can do is live like “the teacher,” swinging back and forth between a weary, depressed cynicism and a frantic, joyless attempt to wring what little pleasure I can from this fleeting life. Any empty future means any empty present.
Second, it is not true that only the promise of heaven and the threat of hell can prevent lawless, godless living. Who can fail to admire “the teacher” and others like him who are honorable, morally responsible, courageous, even deeply religious people even though they have no hope for a final reward or fear of final punishment for themselves, and no hope for a final balancing of the books when the wicked of the world who have been successful and the innocent who have suffered unjustly will finally get what they deserve?
Third, compassion and not condemnation is called for when we meet people like “the teacher.” How can we fail to sympathize with people who, having no future, can only swing back and forth between paralyzing despair and the desperate attempt to escape the emptiness of life in simple earthly pleasures and hard work? People who are trapped in meaningless lives need to be loved, not damned. They are already tragically damned.
Finally, no one can talk convincingly about life after death who does not face as honestly as “the teacher” the stark reality of death and the cloud it casts over all of life. No cheap talk about a final happy ending will do. If we are honest with ourselves, who of us does not sometimes suspect that what he tells us is the truth about our own lives and the lives of everyone else?
Time for another joke: Old Sol Bloom lay dying in his bed, when he suddenly smelled the aroma of his favorite strudel wafting up the stairs. He gathered his remaining strength and lifted himself from the bed. Leaning against the wall, he slowly made his way out of the bedroom and forced himself down the stairs, griping the railing with both hands. With labored breath, he leaned against the door frame, gazing into the kitchen. If it weren’t for the pain in his chest, he would have thought he was already in heaven. There, spread out on paper towels on the kitchen table, were literally hundreds of pieces of his favorite pastry. Sol smiled: this was one final act of love from his devoted wife Sophie, seeing to it that he left this world a happy man. With quivering had he reached for a piece of the strudel.
Suddenly he felt the slap of a spatula. “Stay out of those,” Sophie said. “They’re for after.”
Christians who believe what they have heard about the resurrection of Christ and so the resurrection of all the dead know that although death is real and certain, it does not have the last word. For us there can be no ultimate pessimism about the future—and no cynicism about the value of life in the present (the value of other people’s lives as well as of our own). We know that we move not only toward the end of life but toward its fulfillment—toward the genuinely full human life that God willed for all human beings from the beginning which God is at work here and now to restore and renew, and which God will finally give to everyone. There may be some question about how seriously we Christians take our own gospel. (Do Christians in fact find more joy and meaning in life because of their hope for the future?) But the gospel itself declares that all gloomy philosophies of life like that of “the teacher” in Ecclesiastes have been superseded by the promise of another “teacher” in 1 Cor 15: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
So this is the end of the first sermon in our serious but playful Lenten series, The thing about life is that one day you’ll be dead. And the purpose of the sermon is to ask each of you each this question: do you really think you’re going to die?